Sedition·com (mature content)
History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard
» PART VI. NATIONAL GROWTH AND WORLD POLITICS
» CHAPTER XIX

«·The Railways and Trusts · The Sound Money Battle of 1896·»


The Minor Parties and Unrest

The Demands of Dissenting Parties.—From the election of 1872, when Horace Greeley made his ill-fated excursion into politics, onward, there appeared in each presidential campaign one, and sometimes two or more parties, stressing issues that appealed mainly to wage-earners and farmers. Whether they chose to call themselves Labor Reformers, Greenbackers, or Anti-monopolists, their slogans and their platforms all pointed in one direction. Even the Prohibitionists, who in 1872 started on their career with a single issue, the abolition of the liquor traffic, found themselves making declarations of faith on other matters and hopelessly split over the money question in 1896.

A composite view of the platforms put forth by the dissenting parties from the administration of Grant to the close of Cleveland’s second term reveals certain notions common to them all. These included among many others: the earliest possible payment of the national debt; regulation of the rates of railways and telegraph companies; repeal of the specie resumption act of 1875; the issue of legal tender notes by the government convertible into interest-bearing obligations on demand; unlimited coinage of silver as well as gold; a graduated inheritance tax; legislation to take from “land, railroad, money, and other gigantic corporate monopolies … the powers they have so corruptly and unjustly usurped”; popular or direct election of United States Senators; woman suffrage; and a graduated income tax, “placing the burden of government on those who can best afford to pay instead of laying it on the farmers and producers.”

Criticism of the Old Parties.—To this long program of measures the reformers added harsh and acrid criticism of the old parties and sometimes, it must be said, of established institutions of government. “We denounce,” exclaimed the Labor party in 1888, “the Democratic and Republican parties as hopelessly and shamelessly corrupt and by reason of their affiliation with monopolies equally unworthy of the suffrages of those who do not live upon public plunder.” “The United States Senate,” insisted the Greenbackers, “is a body composed largely of aristocratic millionaires who according to their own party papers generally purchased their elections in order to protect the great monopolies which they represent.” Indeed, if their platforms are to be accepted at face value, the Greenbackers believed that the entire government had passed out of the hands of the people.

The Grangers.—This unsparing, not to say revolutionary, criticism of American political life, appealed, it seems, mainly to farmers in the Middle West. Always active in politics, they had, before the Civil War, cast their lot as a rule with one or the other of the leading parties. In 1867, however, there grew up among them an association known as the “Patrons of Husbandry,” which was destined to play a large rôle in the partisan contests of the succeeding decades. This society, which organized local lodges or “granges” on principles of secrecy and fraternity, was originally designed to promote in a general way the interests of the farmers. Its political bearings were apparently not grasped at first by its promoters. Yet, appealing as it did to the most active and independent spirits among the farmers and gathering to itself the strength that always comes from organization, it soon found itself in the hands of leaders more or less involved in politics. Where a few votes are marshaled together in a democracy, there is power.

The Greenback Party.—The first extensive activity of the Grangers was connected with the attack on the railways in the Middle West which forced several state legislatures to reduce freight and passenger rates by law. At the same time, some leaders in the movement, no doubt emboldened by this success, launched in 1876 a new political party, popularly known as the Greenbackers, favoring a continued re-issue of the legal tenders. The beginnings were disappointing; but two years later, in the congressional elections, the Greenbackers swept whole sections of the country. Their candidates polled more than a million votes and fourteen of them were returned to the House of Representatives. To all outward signs a new and formidable party had entered the lists.

The sanguine hopes of the leaders proved to be illusory. The quiet operations of the resumption act the following year, a revival of industry from a severe panic which had set in during 1873, the Silver Purchase Act, and the re-issue of Greenbacks cut away some of the grounds of agitation. There was also a diversion of forces to the silver faction which had a substantial support in the silver mine owners of the West. At all events the Greenback vote fell to about 300,000 in the election of 1880. A still greater drop came four years later and the party gave up the ghost, its sponsors returning to their former allegiance or sulking in their tents.

The Rise of the Populist Party.—Those leaders of the old parties who now looked for a happy future unvexed by new factions were doomed to disappointment. The funeral of the Greenback party was hardly over before there arose two other political specters in the agrarian sections: the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union, particularly strong in the South and West; and the Farmers’ Alliance, operating in the North. By 1890 the two orders claimed over three million members. As in the case of the Grangers many years before, the leaders among them found an easy way into politics. In 1892 they held a convention, nominated a candidate for President, and adopted the name of “People’s Party,” from which they were known as Populists. Their platform, in every line, breathed a spirit of radicalism. They declared that “the newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced; business prostrate; our homes covered with mortgages; and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists.... The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few.” Having delivered this sweeping indictment, the Populists put forward their remedies: the free coinage of silver, a graduated income tax, postal savings banks, and government ownership of railways and telegraphs. At the same time they approved the initiative, referendum, and popular election of Senators, and condemned the use of federal troops in labor disputes. On this platform, the Populists polled over a million votes, captured twenty-two presidential electors, and sent a powerful delegation to Congress.

Industrial Distress Augments Unrest.—The four years intervening between the campaign of 1892 and the next presidential election brought forth many events which aggravated the ill-feeling expressed in the portentous platform of Populism. Cleveland, a consistent enemy of free silver, gave his powerful support to the gold standard and insisted on the repeal of the Silver Purchase Act, thus alienating an increasing number of his own party. In 1893 a grave industrial crisis fell upon the land: banks and business houses went into bankruptcy with startling rapidity; factories were closed; idle men thronged the streets hunting for work; and the prices of wheat and corn dropped to a ruinous level. Labor disputes also filled the crowded record. A strike at the Pullman car works in Chicago spread to the railways. Disorders ensued. President Cleveland, against the protests of the governor of Illinois, John P. Altgeld, dispatched troops to the scene of action. The United States district court at Chicago issued an injunction forbidding the president of the Railway Union, Eugene V. Debs, or his assistants to interfere with the transmission of the mails or interstate commerce in any form. For refusing to obey the order, Debs was arrested and imprisoned. With federal troops in possession of the field, with their leader in jail, the strikers gave up the battle, defeated but not subdued. To cap the climax the Supreme Court of the United States, the following year (1895) declared null and void the income tax law just enacted by Congress, thus fanning the flames of Populist discontent all over the West and South.


«·The Railways and Trusts · The Sound Money Battle of 1896·»