Monday, April 6, 2009

American Talleyrand

Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois voted with the Greenbacks in the Forty-sixth Congress but later served as Grover Cleveland's vice president. Library of Congress.

The members of Congress who voted on Rep. James B. Weaver’s financial resolution when it was debated on April 5, 1880 included some of the most prominent political names of the era: Richard “Silver Dick” Bland of Missouri, Thomas Reed of Maine, Joseph Blackburn and John Carlisle of Kentucky, and James A. Garfield of Ohio.

But one name stands out, not because of any prominent role he played in floor debate, but because of his subsequent career.

Adlai Ewing Stevenson, patriarch of the prominent family of Illinois Democrats that has produced a presidential candidate and U.S. senator, supported and voted with the small Greenback-Labor Party caucus during the Forty-sixth Congress.

When the House finally debated on the financial resolution introduced by Weaver, Stevenson voted for the measure endorsing the proposition that the government, rather than national banks, should exercise control over the currency.

So did a number of Democrats – including Bland and, ironically, given his previous whispered contempt for the Greenbacks, Blackburn.

Perhaps more tellingly, one year earlier when lawmakers chose the speaker of the House, Stevenson voted with the Greenbacks for their candidate, Hendrick Wright of Pennsylvania, instead of Democrat Samuel Randall.

Stevenson played no part in the floor debate regarding Weaver’s Greenback resolution, nor did he regularly participate when the House found itself debating monetary questions. He kept a low profile and maintained his ties to the Democratic establishment.

Stevenson’s capacity for keeping his own counsel is on display, ironically, in his memoir, Something of Men I Have Known. Published in 1909, at the end of a distinguished political career, it could have been a revealing look back at the political battles of the Gilded Age and his role in them.

Instead, Stevenson carefully confines himself to reminiscences about the figures large and small he encountered during his career. There are discussions of Randall and Garfield, the Republican leader of the Forty-sixth Congress (both subjects of earlier posts). Stevenson recalls figures from antebellum Illinois politics, including Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas.

There is a chapter devoted to Grover Cleveland – “Cleveland as I Knew Him” – and brief references to some of the political controversies of the Cleveland years. But Stevenson refrains from any detailed discussion of those events.

That is a pity, because the Illinoisan was in the middle of many of them.

When he returned to the Democratic fold in the 1880s, Stevenson served the party as a partisan patronage enforcer. In the role of assistant postmaster general during Cleveland's first term, Stevenson purged almost 40,000 Republican postmasters in small towns across the United States and replaced them with Democrats.

In 1892, he rallied to the Democratic standard once again, joining Cleveland on the Democratic ticket as the vice-presidential nominee. Stevenson traveled throughout the South warning voters that support for the Populist ticket headed by Weaver increased the likelihood of a Republican victory – and with it, passage of legislation to protect the voting rights of blacks.

Stevenson's political career took one final twist eight years later when he was picked as the party’s vice-presidential candidate again – this time running with William Jennings Bryan.

“Possessing both strengths and weaknesses, Stevenson must be analyzed within the complicated political context in which he lived and the ambiguities of his beliefs and policies," Leonard Shiup has written about Stevenson in an article on the Illinois Periodicals Online Web site. Stevenson, Shiup concludes, "embodied the contradictions of an age that was simultaneously resisting and welcoming the ongoing change of society.”

Back in his Illinois hometown, Stevenson was known as the “Sage of Bloomington.” But his capacity for aligning himself with progressives such as the Greenbacks and more conservative figures such as Cleveland earned him another nickname that referred to the prominent French diplomat who served both his king and the revolutionaries who overthrew him: “American Talleyrand.”


Government Printing Office. Congressional Record. Washington D.C.: 46th Congress.

Shiup, Leonard. "The Political Triumphs and Tragedies of the First Adlai E.
Stevenson." Illinois Periodicals Online.

Stevenson, Adlai E. Something of Men I Have Known. Chicago: McClurg & Co., 1909.

No comments: