Monday, April 13, 2009

"Extremely Significant"

James B. Weaver as portrayed in A Call to Action.

On April 5, 1880, after months of mockery and muzzling, Rep. James B. Weaver of Iowa finally got the chance to make the case for the Greenback Party's monetary program on the House floor.

The “Greenback resolution” came up for debate and vote after a backroom bargain between Weaver and the Republican leader, Rep. James A. Garfield of Ohio. Weaver enticed Garfield to support debate on the measure by pointing out that it would give conservative Republicans a chance to go on record against the concept that the government should be in charge of issuing money.

At the same time, Weaver argued, a vote would pin down Democrats, who talked in favor of paper money at home but voted to support hard money in Washington.

The debate itself was relatively brief. Garfield exercised his considerable oratorical powers to dismiss the Greenback concept of a government role in the monetary system as incipient dictatorship. “This scheme surpasses all the centralism and all the Caesarism that were charged upon the republican party in the wildest days of the war or the events growing out of the war,” he asserted.

The Ohio Republican closed with a subtle allusion to the political rationale behind the debate. Challenging Democrats, Garfield urged “both parties to show their courage by meeting boldly and putting an end” to the Greenback Party’s “power for mischief.”

On this day, Garfield’s oratorical skills met their match when Weaver took the floor.

“Who shall issue the currency and control its volume?” Weaver asked. “Shall the bankers control it for their own selfish ends, or shall its issue and volume be controlled by the whole people for the benefit of all?”

Regarding Garfield’s claim that the Greenbacks favored “centralism,” Weaver was ready with a rejoinder. The Greenbacks favored putting the government in charge of currency as opposed to those who wanted it left in the hands of “bankers … who are not chosen by the people.”

Weaver urged lawmakers to remember “the humble poor, who struggle not for office but simply want a fair chance in the race of life.” Weaver warned: “This is a supreme moment in the history of the men and of parties in this House. Reflect well before you vote.”

To no one’s surprise, the Greenback resolution met with defeat. With many members abstaining or absent, the measure lost 117-84. But Weaver had achieved victory for his small party by simply managing to get a debate and recorded vote for the measure. Moreover, the prolonged struggle to win recognition generated headlines and publicity for the Greenbacks that they would not have otherwise received.

The vote accomplished something else, too – it highlighted the schism on monetary issues among Democrats. Most of the support for the measure came from Greenbacks and Democrats from the South and Midwest.

An analysis by the New York Times concluded that the measure attracted the support of half of the Democrats in the House, and of that group, sixty percent came from the South or the rural Midwest.

The vote on the Weaver resolution foreshadowed the great divide between free-silver and gold that split the Democratic Party in the 1890s. “Politically, and with reference to its sectional distribution,” the Times concluced, “the vote was extremely significant.”

Source: Mitchell, Robert B. Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver. Roseville, MN: Edinborough Press, 2008.

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