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USHISTORY.RU



Current R., Williams T. H., Freidel F., Brinkley A. American History: a survey. 7th edition; New York, 1987.


 

Chapter 19. From Stalemate to Crisis

The enormous social, economic, and cultural changes America was experiencing in the late nineteenth century strained not only the nation's traditional social arrangements but its political institutions as well. Growth and change brought both progress and disorder. And it was to government, gradually, that Americans would begin to look for leadership in their search for stability.

Yet American government during much of this period was ill equipped to deal with the new challenges confronting it. In the face of unprecedented dilemmas, it responded with apparent passivity and confusion. Its leaders, for the most part, seemed political mediocrities. The issues with which it was concerned were generally of minor relevance to the problems at hand. Rather than taking active leadership of the nation's dramatic transformation, the American political system for nearly two decades after the end of Reconstruction was locked in a rigid stalematewatching the remarkable changes that were occurring in the nation and doing little to affect them.

Many observers pointed to the doldrums of the American party system as the major cause of this inaction. For in many respects the two parties had by the 1880s come to seem almost identical. "Tenets and policies, points of political doctrine and points of political practice have all but vanished," wrote the English historian James Bryce in 1888. "All has been lost, except office or the hope of it." And indeed there was much in the behavior of both the Democrats and the Republicans to support that view. Both parties strove to avoid taking positions on the great issues of the day: the rise of monopoly, the conflict between labor and management, the decline of the agrarian economy, and the defects of a financial system that produced a major collapse every twenty years or so. They tried, rather, to obscure such issues. And politicians often did appear more concerned, as Bryce had lamented, with government jobs than governmental principles.

But the torpor of the party system was more a symptom than the cause of the political stalemate of the late nineteenth century. The retreat from ideology may have been more pronounced during this period than usual, but seldom do American parties take sharply defined stands on major issues. The real problem in American politics in the 1880s and 1890s was that social and economic conditions were changing more rapidly than were ideas about public policy. Most people recognized that there were problems; few people had any idea what to do about them. Consequently, there was little in American political life to counteract the influence of conservative assumptions and powerful private interests.

The result was a political system in which problems and grievances could fester and grow without any natural outlet. And it was not surprising, under the circumstances, that by the 1890s the United States was heading into a grave national crisis. Difficulties emerged on all sides. An economic depression, the worst in American history to that point, produced widespread suffering and instability. American labor grew militant and at times violent. Above all, American farmersbuilding on years of slow, determined political effortraised a powerful challenge to the established order through what became known as the Populist revolt. By the mid-1890s, many people were beginning to fear that the nation faced revolution or collapse. Virtually everyone was forced to recognize that American society, for all its progress, faced serious maladjustments.

The Politics of Equilibrium

To modern eyes, the nature of the American political system in the late nineteenth century appears in many ways paradoxical. The two political parties enjoyed during those years a strength and stability that neither was ever to know again. And yet the federal government, which the two parties were struggling to control, was doing little of any importance. The enormous popular enthusiasm for party politics seemed to have had little to do with the very modest substantive actions of government.

What explains this apparent paradox is the nature of popular politics in the late nineteenth century. Americans in those years generally engaged in political activity not because of an interest in particular issues but because of broad regional, ethnic, or religious sentiments. Party loyalty had less to do with positions on public policy than with the way Americans defined themselves culturally.

The Party System

The most striking feature of the late-nineteenth-century party system was its remarkable stability. From the end of Reconstruction until the late 1890s, the electorate was divided almost precisely evenly between the Republicans and the Democrats; and loyalties fluctuated almost not at all. Sixteen states were solidly and consistently Republican, and fourteen states (most of them in the South) were solidly and consistently Democratic. Only five states were usually in doubt, and it was in them that national elections were commonly decided. The Republican party captured the presidency in all but two of the elections of the era, but those victories are misleading as an indication of Republican strength. In the five presidential elections beginning in 1876, the average popular vote margin separating the Democratic and Republican candidates was 1.5 percent. In three of those elections, the margin was .5 percent or less; and in two of those three (1876 and 1888) the victorious candidate actually polled fewer popular votes than his opponent but won in the electoral college. The congressional balance was similarly stable. Between 1875 and 1895, the Republicans generally controlled the Senate and the Democrats generally controlled the House; in any given election, the number of seats that shifted from one party to the other was extraordinarily small.

As striking as the balance between the parties was the intensity of public loyalty to them. In most of the country, Americans viewed their party affiliations with a passion and enthusiasm that is difficult for later generations to understand. Voter turnout in presidential elections between 1860 and 1900 averaged over 78 percent of all eligible voters. Even in nonpresidential years, from 60 to 80 percent of the voters turned out to cast ballots for congressional candidates. Large groups of potential voters were disfranchised in these years: women in most states; most blacks and many poor whites in the South. But for adult white males outside the South, there were virtually no franchise restrictions. The remarkable turnout represented a genuinely mass-based politics.

In fact, party politics in the late nineteenth century occupied a central position in American culture, comparable in some ways to the role that spectator sports and mass popular entertainment play today. Political campaigns were often the most important public events in the lives of communities. Political organizations served important social and cultural functions. Political identification was almost as important to most individuals as identification with a church or an ethnic group. Partisanship was an intense, emotional force, widely admired and often identified with patriotism.

What explains this remarkable loyalty to the two political parties? It was not, certainly, that the parties took distinct positions on important public issues; in most respects they were virtually indistinguishable. Both parties were solidly probusiness; and while the Republicans were somewhat more prominently identified with the protective tariff and other policies favored by the corporations, the Democrats often supported such measures as well. Both parties were firmly opposed to economic radicalism. Both were committed to a "sound currency" and to the existing financial system. Neither supported any positive programs to aid such troubled economic groups as farmers and workers.

What determined party loyalties was less concrete issues than cultural factors. Region was perhaps the most important of these factors. To white Southerners, loyalty to the Democratic party was a matter of unquestioned faith. The party had been the vehicle for their victory over the hated Reconstruction policies of the Republicans, and it remained the vehicle for the preservation of white supremacy. To many old-stock Northerners, white and black, Republican loyalties were equally intense for the opposite reason. The Grand Old Party had been the party of Lincoln; it had freed the slaves and preserved the Union; it was a bulwark against the forces of slavery and treason.

Religious and ethnic differences also helped determine party loyalties. The Democratic party attracted most Catholic voters, most recent immigrants, and most of the poorer workers; those three groups were, of course, often the same. The Republican party appealed to Northern Protestants and citizens of old stock. Among the few substantive issues on which the parties took clearly different stands were matters concerning immigrants. The Republicans tended to be more nativist and to support measures restricting immigration. (The American Protective Association was commonly associated with the GOP, a fact the Democrats lost no opportunity to point outand exaggerate.) Republicans tended as well to favor temperance legislationlaws to restrict the sale of alcoholic beverages. Catholics and immigrants viewed such proposals as an assault on their urban life style and opposed them, and the Democratic party followed their lead.

In the end, then, party identification was usually a reflection of a wide range of vague cultural symbols and prejudices, not of the rational calculation of economic interests. Individuals might choose to affiliate with a particular party because their parents had done so; or because it was the party of their region, their church, or their ethnic group. And they would typically cling to their party loyalties with great persistence and passion.

Presidents and Patronage

One reason the two parties managed to avoid substantive issues was that the federal government (and for the most part state and local governments as well) did very little, and was expected to do very little. Thus, there were very few concrete issues over which people could have disagreed. The leaders of both parties, therefore, were generally less concerned with policy than with officewith winning elections and controlling patronage.

Both parties were dominated by powerful bosses and machines chiefly concerned with controlling and dispensing jobs. The Democrats relied on the important city organizations (such as New York's Tammany Hall), which enabled them to mobilize the voting power of immigrants. The Republicans tended to depend on strong statewide organizations. Roscoe Conkling of New Yorktall, handsome, and flamboyantruled New York Republicans and exercised considerable power in the United States Senate. To him, politics was a game for professionals, not for amateur "carpet knights." And it was a rough game: "Parties are not built by deportment, or by ladies' magazines, or gush.'1 Matt Quay of Pennsylvania at times all but dominated not only his own state's Republicans but the national party as well. When Benjamin Harrison won the presidency in 1888, the candidate ascribed his victory to providence. Quay knew better. "Providence hadn't a damn thing to do with it," he announced. He wondered if the candidate knew how many men had violated laws to make him president.

The power of party bosses had an important effect on the power of the presidency, which remained an office of great symbolic importance but one whose occupants in these years found themselves without power to do very much of anything except distribute government appointments. Indeed, filling jobs was almost all a president had time to do. He had to make almost 100,000 appointments (most of them in the post office, the only really large government agency); and to do that, he had to rely on a tiny staff working in a few rooms in the White House. James Garfield, who became president in 1881, once complained, "I have heretofore been treating of the fundamental principles of government, and here I am considering all day whether A or should be appointed to this or that office."

Even in making appointments, however, presidents enjoyed only limited latitude. They generally had to tread carefully to avoid offending the various factions within their own parties. Rutherford B. Hayes, the victor in the disputed election of 1876 and a man who spent his entire four years in office under a cloud, discovered this unhappy state of affairs early in his presidency. While Democrats ridiculed him unmercifully as "His Fraudulency," he encountered formidable difficulties within his own party. By the end of his administration, two groupsthe Stalwarts, led by Roscoe Conkling of New York, and the Half-Breeds, captained by James G. Blaine of Maine were competing for control of the Republican party and threatening to split it.

The dispute between the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds, which consumed so much political energy and attention, was one of those political battles characteristic of the erathat had virtually no substantive foundation. Rhetorically, the Stalwarts favored traditional, professional machine politics while the Half-Breeds favored reform. In fact, neither group was much interested in real political change; each simply wanted a larger share of the patronage pie. Hayes tried ineffectually to satisfy both groups and also to award offices on the basis of merit; he succeeded only in antagonizing virtually everyone.

Hayes's fondest dream was the institution of a civil-service system, which would insulate many government jobs from the quadrennial patronage scramble. But he had little luck with Congress, or even within the executive branch, in promoting his ideas. He was unable even to win support for a renewal of the weak civil service commission created under Grant.

The battle over patronage overshadowed all else during Hayes's unhappy presidency. And his early announcement that he would not seek reelection only weakened him further. He had virtually no power in Congress. The Democrats controlled the House throughout his presidency, and the Senate during the last two years of his term. And the Senate Republicans, led by Roscoe Conkling, fervently opposed his efforts to defy the machines in making appointments. Hayes's presidency was a study in frustration.

The Republicans managed to retain the presidency in 1880 despite Hayes's unhappy experiencein part because of rising prosperity and in part because they managed to agree on a ticket that made it possible for the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds briefly to paper over their differences. After a long convention deadlock between the Stalwart candidate, former president Grant, and the Half-Breed hopes, James G. Blaine and John Sherman, the Republicans finally nominated a "dark horse," James A. Garfield, a veteran congressman from Ohio. Garfield was known as a Half-Breed; to conciliate the Stalwarts, the convention thus gave the vice-presidential nomination to Chester A. Arthur, a Conkling henchman who had become the focus of considerable controversy when he was dismissed from a post in the New York customs house by Hayes. To oppose Garfield, the Democrats nominated General Winfield Scott Hancock, a minor Civil War commander with no national following. Hancock's relative anonymity, combined with a number of serious Democratic blunders during the campaign, produced a decisive victory for Garfield, whose electoral majority was 214 to 155. (His popular vote margin, however, was very thin. He polled only about 10,000 more votes than his rival.) The Republicans also captured both houses of Congress.

Garfield entered the White House as a seemingly perfect example of the American success legend. Born in a log cabin in Ohio, he had spent his youth and early manhood as a manual laborer, once working as a mule driver on the Ohio Canalgiving rise to a popular Republican campaign slogan, "from the towpath to the White House." He had worked his way through college, become a teacher, studied law, and been admitted to the bar. In 1863, he was elected to the House of Representatives, where he served with increasing (although never enormous) distinction until he became the Republican standard-bearer.

Garfield began his term in office by provoking some of the same fights that had plagued Hayes attempting to defy Conkling and the Stalwarts in his appointments and showing support for civil-service reform. He soon found himself embroiled in an ugly public quarrel with both Conkling and Thomas Platt, the other senator from New York and another important Stalwart leader. But before it could be resolved, Garfield found himself victimized by the spoils system in a more terrible sense. On July 2, 1881, only four months after his inauguration, Garfield was shot twice while standing in the Washington railroad station by a gunman who shouted, "I am a Stalwart and Arthur is president now!" The assassin, Charles J. Guiteau, held a grudge because Garfield had refused to give him a government job. (Despite his apparent insanity, Guiteau was ultimately hanged.) Garfield lingered for nearly three months receiving medical treatment that actually worsened what was originally an only moderately serious condition. At his death, people concerned about the menace of machine politics were doubly grieved. Even some Republicans echoed the sentiment of the man who groaned: "Chet Arthur president of the United States! Good God!"

Chester A. Arthur had spent a political lifetime as a devoted, skilled, and open spoilsman and a close ally of Roscoe Conkling. But on becoming president, he triedlike Hayes and Garfield before him to follow an independent course and even to promote reform. He was undoubtedly influenced by the horrible circumstances that had brought him to the presidency and by his realization that the Garfield assassination had to some degree discredited the traditional spoils system.

The revelation of the "new" Arthur dismayed most of the party bosses. He kept most of Garfield's appointees in office. He also prodded Congress to pass a civil-service law. An astute politician, he realized that sentiment for reform was running high and that civil-service legislation was likely to pass whether he supported it or not. In 1883, finally, Congress passed the first national civil-service measure, the Pendleton Act. Under its terms, a limited number of federal jobs would be "classified"; applicants for them would be chosen on the basis of competitive written examinations. The law also barred the common practice of forcing officeholders to contribute to political campaigns. A bipartisan Civil Service Commission would administer the act.

At first only about 14,000 of some 100,000 offices were placed on the classified list. But the act gave future presidents the authority to increase the number of civil-service positions by executive order. Every chief executive thereafter extended the list, even if usually to prevent his own appointees from being removed by his successor. By this piecemeal and partisan process, the government finally achieved by the 1940s a system in which the majority of the people working for it were under the merit system.

The Return of the Democrats

The unsavory election of 1884 in many ways epitomized the way in which national political contests in the late nineteenth century focused on personality and factionalism rather than issues. The Republicans refused to nominate Arthur (who was in any case already suffering from an illness that would kill him two years later) and chose instead their most popular and controversial figure, Senator James G. Blaine of Maineknown to his adoring admirers as "the plumed knight" but to thousands of other Americans as a symbol of seamy party politics. To Republican Stalwarts, Blaine was anathema; Conkling, asked if he intended to campaign for Blaine, snapped that he did not engage in criminal activities. An independent reform faction, known derisively by their critics as the "mugwumps," announced they were prepared to bolt the party and support an honest Democrat. Rising to the bait, the Democrats nominated Grover Cleveland, the reform governor of New York. In fact, however, there was virtually no difference between Blaine and Cleveland on any substantive issue. The campaign became an exercise in personal invective. At torchlit rallies, Democrats chanted: Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! Continental liar from the state of Maine! The Republicans, unable to find any evidence of corruption in Cleveland's brief political career as mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York, seized instead on a personal scandal. Cleveland had been accused of fathering an illegitimate child as a young man; and although his paternity had never been proved, he had agreed to support the infant. Republicans roared out at their rallies: Ma! Ma! Where's my pa? Going to the White House. Ha! Ha! Ha!

What may have decided the election, however, was the last-minute introduction of a religious controversy. In the closing days of the campaign, a delegation of Protestant ministers called on Blaine in New York City; and their spokesman, Dr. Samuel Burchard, referred to the Democrats as the party of "rum, Romanism, and rebellion." Blaine (whose mother was a Catholic) seemed not to notice Burchard's indiscretion; and soon the Democrats were spreading the news through New York and other Eastern cities that Blaine had tolerated a slander on the Catholic church. His denial came too late to counteract the charge. New York (with its large numbers of Catholic voters) was the pivotal state in what turned out to be an extremely close election. Cleveland won 219 electoral votes to Blaine's 182; the popular vote showed 4,875,000 for Cleveland and 4,852,000 for Blainea Democratic plurality of only 23,000.

Grover Clevelandshort, corpulent, brusque was not a particularly appealing figure. He was rigid, self-righteous, and haughty. He did not evoke either public or private affection. He did, however, inspire respect. In his brief public career, he had fought politicians, grafters, pressure groups, and Tammany Hall. He had become famous as the "veto mayor" and the "veto governor," as an official who was not afraid to say no. He was the perfect embodiment of an era in which few Americans believed the federal government could, or should, do very much; in which most believed that the main function of politics was to stay out of the way of the expansion of business.

Cleveland hoped to use his presidency to streamline the federal government, to make it more businesslike. He was essentially uninterested in such issues as the currency and the tariff or the problems of farmers and workers. There was no proper role for government, he believed, in dealing with such problems. And he gave voice to that conviction when he explained his veto of an appropriation of $10,000 for drought-stricken farmers. The lesson must never be forgotten, he explained, that "though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people." His administration was characterized from beginning to end by an unwavering commitment to economy in government.

Like his predecessors, Cleveland had to spend a large proportion of his time dealing with patronage. After years in the wilderness Democrats were hungry for office, and they expected the president to throw the Republican "rascals" outimmediately and in wholesale lots. Instead, the president compromised in a manner that did not completely satisfy either his own party or his mugwump followers. He placed an additional 12,000 offices on the classified list; but of the jobs not under civil service, he removed two-thirds of the incumbents and replaced them with deserving Democrats.

Cleveland did introduce one major economic issue into the political arena. He had always been mildly dubious about the wisdom of high tariffs. And he concluded finally that the existing high rates were responsible for the annual surplus in federal revenues, which was tempting Congress to pass the "reckless" and "extravagant" legislation he so frequently vetoed. In December 1887, therefore, he asked Congress to reduce the tariff rates. Southern and Western Democrats, who already supported tariff reductions, responded enthusiastically to the president's request and pushed through the House a bill incorporating Cleveland's recommendations and providing for moderate reductions. In the Senate, however, the Republican leaders were defiant. Instead of enacting the House measure, they passed a bill of their own actually raising rates. A deadlock ensued, and the tariff became an issue in the election of 1888.

The Democrats renominated Cleveland and supported tariff reductions in their platform. The Republicans settled on former senator Benjamin Harrison of Indiana, who was relatively obscure but formidably respectable (the grandson of President William Henry Harrison); and in their platform they endorsed protection for American producers and generous pensions for Union veterans. The campaign was the first since the Civil War in which an issue of substance was an important factor, the first to involve a clear question of economic difference between the parties. It was also one of the most viciously corrupt (and one of the closest) elections in American history. Harrison won an electoral majority of 233 to 168, but Cleveland's popular vote exceeded Harrison's by 100,000.

Emerging Issues

Unlike William Henry Harrison, who had died only a month after assuming the presidency forty-eight years earlier, Benjamin Harrison lived out his full term of office. Yet his record as president was little more substantial than his grandfather's.

One reason for Harrison's failure was the intellectual drabness of the members of his administrationbeginning with the president himself and extending through his cabinet. Another was Harrison's unwillingness to make any effort to influence the Congress. And yet during Harrison's dreary administration, public opinion was finally beginning to force the government to confront some of the pressing economic issues of the day. Most notably, perhaps, sentiment was rising in favor of legislation to curb the power of trusts.

By the mid-1880s, some fifteen Western and Southern states had adopted laws prohibiting combinations that restrained competition. But corporations found it easy to escape limitations by incorporating in states that offered special privileges. (New Jersey and Delaware were particularly notorious examples.) Any form of state regulation, moreover, was liable to be rejected by the Supreme Court. If antitrust legislation was to be effective, it would have to come from the national government. In 1888, both parties had made vague promises in their platforms to curb monopolies.

With little debate and by almost unanimous votes in both houses of Congress, the Sherman Antitrust Act became law in July 1890. Congress's only basis for national action against the trusts lay in its constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce; and that power determined the provisions of the new law, which declared illegal any "contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy in restraint of trade or commerce." The Sherman Act has been the basis for nearly a century of federal antitrust activity. At the time, however, relatively few members of Congress expected (or wanted) the new law to have any real effect on the structure of the economy. As one senator explained, his colleagues merely wanted to get up "some bill headed 'A bill to Punish Trusts' with which to go to the country" and get themselves reelected.

For over a decade after its passage, the Sherman Act had virtually no impact. Before 1901, the Justice Department instituted only fourteen suits under the law against business combinations, and it obtained almost no convictions. The courts were uniformly hostile to the law and proceeded to emasculate it. In United States v. E. C. Knight Co. (1895), a case in which the government charged that a single trust controlled 98 percent of the manufacture of refined sugar in the country, the Supreme Court rejected the government's case by drawing a curious distinction between manufacturing and commerce. The sugar trust was engaged in manufacturing, not in interstate commerce, the Court declared; and so, despite its obviously monopolistic characteristics, it was not illegal.

The Republicans were more interested, however, in the issue they believed had won them the 1888 election: the tariff. William McKinley of Ohio, a rising party luminary and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Senator Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island framed the highest protective measure yet offered to a Congress. It became law in October 1890 as the McKinley Tariff Act. But Republican leaders apparently misinterpreted public sentiment, as the 1890 congressional elections seemed to prove.

Seldom has a party in power suffered such a stunning reverse as befell the Republicans in 1890. Their once substantial majority in the Senate was slashed to 8, and in the House they retained only 88 seats to 235 for the Democrats. Popular revulsion against the McKinley duties, pictured by the Democrats as raising the living costs of the masses, was an undoubted factor in the Republican debacle; McKinley himself was among those who went down to defeat. Nor were the Republicans able to recover in the course of the next two years. In the presidential election of 1892, Benjamin Harrison was again the Republican nominee and Grover Cleveland the Democratic. Once more the platforms of the two parties were almost identical except for the tariff, with the Republicans upholding protection and the Democrats pledging reduction. Only a new third party, the People's party, with James B. Weaver as its candidate, advocated economic reform. (See below, pp. 558-561.) Cleveland amassed 277 electoral and 5,557,000 popular votes as compared to Harrison's 145 and 5,176,000 votes. Weaver ran far behind. For the first time since 1878, the Democrats won a majority of both houses of Congress.

Despite Cleveland's negative record, a large proportion of the people who had voted for him expected him to devise some original approach to the new problems troubling America. His inaugural address rudely disillusioned them, as he reaffirmed his devotion to laissez faire in words that had become tiresomely familiar: "The lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned." The policies of Cleveland's second term, therefore, were much like those of his firstdevoted to minimal government and hostile to active state measures to deal with social or economic problems. As in his first term, he called on Congress to lower the existing tariff rates. And again, he won passage of a moderate downward revision in the House in 1894, only to see the bill gutted in the Senate. Cleveland denounced the result but allowed it to become law without his signature. The Wilson-Gorman Tariff, as the new law was known, provided a moderate (10 percent) reduction in the general tariff rate. But it offered special protection to sugar refiners and virtually every other important trust.

The bill threw one small crust to reformers: a minuscule tax on incomes (a 2 percent levy on incomes over $4,000), a concession to agrarian interests. But the Supreme Court, in Pollock v. The Farmer's Loan and Trust Co. (1895), declared the income tax unconstitutional. Only a constitutional amendment would permit the government to levy such a tax. (The nation approved such an amendmentthe Sixteenthin 1913.)

In addition to the questions of trusts and tariffs, the federal government began in the 1880s to encounter public pressure for action on another major issue: railroad regulation. For years, Congress had so studiously ignored all public clamor for regulation that proponents of reform had looked instead to the states. Farm organizations in the Midwest (most notably the Grangerssee below, pp. 556-557) succeeded in persuading several state legislatures to pass regulatory legislation in the early 1870s. The so-called Granger Laws in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin authorized maximum rates for passenger and freight traffic, provided rules and rates for the storing of grain, and prohibited a number of alleged discriminatory practices.

The railroad corporations contested the Granger Laws in court, arguing that the statutes preempted Congress's exclusive power to regulate interstate commerce and that they acted to deprive corporations of their property without the "due process" guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment. At first, however, the challenges had no effect. The Supreme Court, in Munn v. Illinois (1877), rejected such arguments, ruling that a state could under some circumstances regulate interstate commerce affecting it, in the absence of national regulation, and that a corporation was not a "person" within the meaning of the Constitution.

These initial Granger victories, however, proved short-lived once new justices friendly to an expanded notion of property rights were appointed to the Supreme Court. The so-called Wabash case of 1886 {Wabash, St. Louis, and Pacific Railway Co. v. Illinois) was the first indication of the new judicial view of state regulation. The Court held that an Illinois statute regulating freight rates was an unconstitutional attempt to control interstate commerce and infringed on the exclusive power of Congress. Later, the Courts limited the powers of the states to regulate commerce even within their own boundaries (in Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad v. Minnesota, 1890, and later rulings).

If there was to be any meaningful regulation of the railroads, it was now clear, it could come only from the federal government. And Congress, subjected to increasing pressure, soon grudgingly and inadequately responded. There had been demands both in and out of the government since the 1870s for some kind of supervisory legislation to prevent the unsavory techniques by which the railroads gave preferential rates to favored customers and discriminated against others. Even some railway operators, alarmed by the fierce competition in their industry, were eager for regulation. As a result, Congress responded in 1887 with the Interstate Commerce Act, aptly described by its chief sponsor, Senator Shelby M. Cullom of Illinois, as "conservative legislation."

The Interstate Commerce Act prohibited discrimination in rates between long and short hauls and other unpopular railroad practices. It required railroads to publish their rate schedules and file them with the government. It provided that all fees for interstate rail transportation should be "reasonable and just"but failed to furnish a standard or method to determine the justness of a rate. A five-person agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission, was to administer the act, although the commissioners did not have clear authority to fix rates. The ICC could demand a rate reduction, but it could enforce its demands only by turning to the courtsa cumbersome procedure that militated against effective regulation.

For almost twenty years after its passage, the Interstate Commerce Acthaphazardly enforced and exceedingly narrowly interpreted by the courtswas without practical effect; it did not accomplish widespread rate reduction or eliminate discrimination. No wonder an attorney general of the United States advised a railroad president not to ask for repeal of the act: "It satisfies the popular clamor for government supervision of the railroads at the same time that that supervision is almost entirely nominal."

The agitation over the tariff, the trusts, and the railroads was a sign that the dramatic growth of the American economyand the emergence of powerful new institutions as a resultwas creating problems that much of the public considered too important and dangerous to ignore. But the federal government's response to that agitation reflected the continuing weakness of the American state. The government still lacked institutions adequate to perform any significant role in American economic life. And American politics still lacked an ideology sufficient to justify any major expansion of government responsibilities. The effort to create such institutions and to produce such an ideology would occupy much of American public life in the coming decades. And it became visible first in a dramatic dissident movement that shattered the twenty years of political equilibrium the nation had experienced.

The Agrarian Revolt

No group watched the dismal performance of the federal government in the 1880s with more dismay than American farmers. Isolated from the urban-industrial society that was beginning to dominate national life, suffering from a long, painful economic decline, afflicted with a sense of obsolescence, rural Americans were keenly aware of the problems of the modern economy and particularly eager for government assistance in dealing with them. The result was the emergence of one of the most powerful movements of political protest in American history: what became known as Populism.

The Grangers

American farmers were, according to popular myth, the most individualistic of citizens, the least likely to join together in a cooperative economic or political movement. In reality, however, farmers had been making efforts to organize for many decades. There had been occasional cooperative movements in the first decades of the nineteenth century; but the first major farm organization appeared in the 1860s, less as a movement of protest than as a social and self-help association. The depression of 1873 turned it into an agency of political change.

The Grange had its origins shortly after the Civil War in a tour through the South by a minor Agriculture Department official, Oliver H. Kelley, Kelley was appalled by what he considered the isolation and drabness of rural life, and in 1867 he left the government and, with other department employees, founded the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry, to which Kelley devoted years of labor as secretary and from which emerged a network of local organizations. At first, the Granges defined their purposes modestly. They attempted to bring farmers together to learn new scientific agricultural techniquesto keep farming "in step with the music of the age." The Granges also hoped to create a feeling of community, to relieve the loneliness of rural life. An elaborate system of initiation and ritual and a strict code of secrecy lent to the organization many of the trappings of urban fraternal organizations.

At first the Grange grew slowly. But when the depression of 1873 caused a major decline in farm prices, membership rapidly increased. By 1875, the Grange claimed over 800,000 members and 20,000 local lodges; it had chapters in almost every state but was strongest, naturally, in the great staple-producing regions of the South and the Midwest.

As membership grew, the lodges in the Midwest began to focus less on the social benefits of organization and more on the economic possibilities. They attempted to organize marketing cooperatives to allow farmers to circumvent the hated middlemen. And they urged cooperative political action to curb the monopolistic practices of the railroads and warehouses. Throughout the midlands on Independence Day 1873, embittered farmers assembled to hear Granger orators read "The Farmers' Declaration of Independence," which proclaimed that the time had come for farmers, "suffering from long continued systems of oppression and abuse, to rouse themselves from an apathetic indifference to their own interests." The declaration also vowed that farmers would use "all lawful and peaceful means to free [themselves] from the tyranny of monopoly."

The Grangers launched the first major cooperative movement in the United States, although successful collective societies had existed earlier in England and other countries. They set up cooperative stores, creameries, elevators, warehouses, in surance companies, and factories that produced machines, stoves, and other items. Some 400 enterprises were in operation at the height of the movement, and some of them forged lucrative relationships with existing businesses. One corporation emerged specifically to meet the needs of the Grangers: Montgomery Ward and Company, founded in 1872, the first mailorder business. Eventually, however, most of the Grange enterprises failed, both because of the inexperience of their operators and because of the opposition of the middlemen whose businesses they were challenging.

The Grangers worked as well to elect state legislators pledged to their program. Usually they operated through the existing parties, although occasionally they ran candidates under such independent party labels as "Antimonopoly" and "Reform." At their peak, they managed to gain control of the legislatures in most of the Midwestern states. Their purpose, openly and angrily announced, was to subject the railroads to government controls.

The Granger Laws of the early 1870s, by which many states imposed strict regulations on railroad rates and practices (see above, p. 555), seemed for a time to vindicate the predictions of those farmers who claimed that their new organization foretold a permanent change in the political status of agriculture. But the new regulations were soon destroyed by the courts. That defeat, combined with the political inexperience of many Grange leaders and above all the return of prosperity in the late 1870s, produced a dramatic decline in the power of the association. Some of the Granger cooperatives survived as effective economic vehicles for many years; but the movement as a whole dwindled rapidly. By 1880, its membership had shrunk to 100,000.

The Alliances

The successor to the Granges as the leading vehicle of agrarian protest began to emerge even before the Granger movement had faded. As early as 1875, farmers in parts of the South (most notably in Texas) were banding together in so-called Farmers' Alliances. Under the leadership of the Texan C. W. Macune and others, the Southern Alliance grew rapidly in the 1880s and by the end of the decade could boast more than 4 million members. In the meantime, a comparable movement was under way in the plains states and in the Midwest. This Northwestern Alliance never achieved the size or militancy of its Southern counterpart, but it too became a significant force. As the movement grew, the two Alliances developed an ever closer association with each other. Like the Granges, the Alliances were in large part a response to local conditions and began by working for primarily local objectives; but they defined those objectives far more broadly. In addition to forming cooperatives and other marketing mechanisms, the Alliances also established stores, banks, processing plants, and other facilities for their membersto free them from dependence on the hated "furnishing merchants" who bound so many farmers into a miserable system of indebtedness. Alliance leaders were concerned, first and foremost, with immediate economic problems and particular local political struggles. Many, however, embraced as well a larger vision of a restored community, in which individuals could once again control their own economic future. Essential to such communities, they argued, was cooperationnot a rigid collectivism that would suppress individuality, but a sense of mutual, neighborly responsibility that would enable farmers to resist the oppressive outside forces that threatened to enslave them. Alliance lecturers traveled throughout rural areas exhorting farmers to a new awareness of their political and economic plight. They lambasted the tendency in modern society for more and more power to be concentrated in the hands of a few great corporations and financial institutions.

Although the Alliances quickly became far more widespread than the Granges had ever been, they suffered from similar problems. Their cooperatives did not always work well, partly because the market forces operating against them were sometimes too strong to be overcome, partly because the cooperatives themselves were occasionally mismanaged. Some came under the control of unscrupulous local entrepreneurs, who made them as exploitive as the old system of reliance on railroads and local stores. The enormous numerical strength and ideological fervor of the Alliance movement, combined with its economic failure, helped push it into a new phase at the end of the 1880s: the creation of a national political organization.

The first step came in 1889, when the Southern and Northwestern Alliances, despite continuing differences between them, agreed to a loose merger. But the decisive moment came in 1890, when the Alliances staged a national convention at Ocala, Florida, and issued the so-called Ocala Demands. Although Alliance members were not yet formally proclaiming the existence of a new party, the demands were nothing less than a party platform.

The Alliances played an active role in the 1890 off-year elections and surprised both conservatives and themselves with their success. The farm forces won partial or complete control of the legislatures in twelve states, eight in the South and four in the West. They elected six governors, three senators, and approximately fifty congressmen. The magnitude of the triumph was not perhaps as great as it seemed at first glance. Over forty of the successful Alliance candidates for Congress were loyal members of the Democratic party, who benefitedoften passivelyfrom the Alliance endorsements. Nevertheless, the dissident farmers drew enough encouragement from the results to contemplate further political action andas it gradually became clear that neither of the two major parties was likely to respond to their demands to form a party of their own.

Sentiment for a third party was strongest among the members of the Northwestern Alliance. But several Southern leadersamong them Tom Watson of Georgia, the only Southern congressman elected in 1890 openly to identify with the Alliance, and Leonidas L. Polk of North Carolina, perhaps the ablest mind in the movementwere similarly becoming convinced of the need for a new political organization. Plans for a third party were discussed at meetings in Cincinnati in May 1891 and St. Louis in February 1892meetings attended by many Northern Alliance members, a smaller but still significant number of Southern Alliance leaders, and representatives of the fading Knights of Labor (see above, p. 515), whom some farm leaders hoped to bring into the coalition. Then, in July 1892, 1,300 excited and exultant delegates poured into Omaha, Nebraska, to proclaim formally the creation of the new party, approve an official set of principles, and nominate candidates for the presidency and vice presidency. By common consent, the party already had a name, one first used by the Kansas agrarians: the People's party. The movement was more commonly referred to, however, by the Latin version of that name: Populism.

The election of 1892 dispelled whatever doubts may have remained as to the potential power of the new movement. The Populist presidential candidateJames B. Weaver of Iowa, a former Green-backer who received the nomination after the sudden death of the early favorite, Leonidas Polkpolled more than 1 million votes, 8.5 percent of the total, and carried six mountain and plains states for 22 electoral votes. Nearly 1,500 Populist candidates won election to seats in state legislatures. The party elected three governors, five senators, and ten congressmen. It could also claim the support of the numerous Republicans and Democrats in Congress who had been elected by appealing to Populist sentiment.

The Populist Constituency

There is no decisive evidence of precisely how many Populists there were, where they came from, or what characteristics they shared. Some generalizations, however, are possible. First, Populism was stronger in some regions than others. Its greatest influence was in an arc of states extending from the Dakotas southward through Nebraska and Kansas; in a string of Southern states stretching from Texas through northern Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, and into Georgia and the Carolinas; and in the Rocky Mountain states. It was weakest in those areas where the Granges had been most successful, because that was where agriculture had managed to achieve its greatest security and stability.

Populism was also more appealing to certain kinds of farmers than to others. Unsurprisingly, it was most often small farmers with little long-range economic security who flocked to the movementpeople whose operations were only minimally mechanized, if at all, who relied on one crop, and who had access only to limited and unsatisfactory mechanisms of credit. Large, diversified, efficient producers were not likely to flock to the Populist banner; smaller, imperiled farmers were. The status of such farmers differed, of course, from region to region. In the Midwest, the Populists were usually family farmers struggling to hold onto their land (or to get it back if they had lost it). In the South, there were many modest landowners too, but in addition there were significant numbers of sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Whatever their differences, however, most Populists had at least one thing in common: They were engaged in a type of farming that was becoming less viable in the face of new, mechanized, diversified, and consolidated commercial agriculture.

There is evidence, too, that Populists tended to be not only economically but culturally marginal, that the movement appealed above all to geographically isolated farmers who felt cut off from the mainstream of national life and resented their isolation. Populism gave such people an outlet for their grievances; it also provided them with a social experience, a sense of belonging to a community, that they had previously lacked.

The Populist constituency was as notable for the groups it failed to attract as for those it attracted. There were energetic and continuing efforts to include labor within the coalition. Representatives of the Knights of Labor attended early organizational meetings; the new party added a labor plank to its platformcalling for shorter hours for workers and restrictions on immigration, and denouncing the use of private detective agencies as strikebreakers in labor disputes. Populist spokesmen attempted to generate enthusiasm for the movement within the working class; and Populist publications spoke of the natural connection between oppressed farmers and oppressed industrial workers. But it was all to little avail. One problem was that the labor organizations themselves were too weak to be able to deliver any substantial support. Another problem was a consistent failure to define clearly enough the areas of common interest between the two groups.

In the South in particular, the movement also considered the desirability of attracting blacks, whose numbers and poverty made them possibly valuable allies. And indeed there was an important black component to the movementa network of "Colored Alliances" that by 1890 numbered over one and a quarter million members. Many Midwestern Al-liancemen advocated a full merger of the Colored Alliances with the national movement. Even some white Southern leaders displayed a notable willingness to foster interracial cooperation. But in the end, the influence of white racism proved stronger than the influence of common economic interests. Most white Populists were willing to accept the assistance of blacks only as long as it was clear that whites would remain indisputably in control. When conservatives began to attack the Populists for undermining white supremacy, the interracial character of the movement quickly faded.

Populist leaders, although easier to identify than their constituencies, are nevertheless also difficult to typify. Most were members of the rural middle class: professional people, editors and lawyers, or longtime politicians and agitators. Few were themselves marginal farmers. Almost all leaders were, like their constituents, Protestants. But beyond these basic characteristics, there were wide variations. Some Populist leaders were somber, serious theoreticians; others were semihysterical rabble-rousers. In the South, in particular, Populism produced the first generation of what was to become a distinctive and enduring political breedthe "Southern demagogue." Tom Watson in Georgia, Jeff Davis in Arkansas, and others attracted widespread popular support by arousing the resentment of poor Southerners against the entrenched Bourbon aristocracy. They were the beginning of a line of such figures that stretched well into the twentieth century. There were similarly flamboyant leaders in the Midwest: "Sockless" Jerry Simpson of Kansas, for example, or Ignatius Donnelly of Minnesota. Donnelly, in particular, seemed to exemplify the divided character of the movement: sincere idealism combined with crassness and opportunism. A committed, principled man who spoke eloquently on behalf of Populist ideals and appeared sincerely to believe in them, Donnelly was also at times something of a charlatan. As a member of Congress, he compiled a shabby legislative record marked, among other things, by a series of seamy, secret deals with railroad companies.

The Populist Ideology

The ideology of Populism, like the character of its leadership, was a complex combination of progressive idealism and bewildering rhetorical excess. There were three basic elements of that ideology: a concrete program of reform, a strident and at times almost hysterical denunciation of enemies, and a millennial vision of a just and stable society.

The reform program of the Populists was spelled out first in the Ocala Demands of 1890 and then, even more clearly, in the Omaha platform of 1892. Among the most prominent of the many issues included in these documents was a proposal for a system of "subtreasuries," which would replace and strengthen the cooperatives with which the Grangers and Alliances had been experimenting for years. The government would establish a network of warehouses, where farmers could deposit their crops. Using those crops as collateral, growers could then borrow money from the government at low rates of interest and wait for the price of their goods to go up before selling them. In addition, the Populists called for the abolition of national banks, which they believed were dangerous institutions of concentrated power; the end of absentee ownership of land; the direct election of United States senators (which would weaken the power of conservative state legislatures); and other devices to improve the ability of the people to influence the political process. They called as well for regulation and (after 1892) government ownership of railroads, telephones, and telegraphs. And they demanded a system of government-operated postal savings banks, a graduated income tax, the inflation of the currency, and later, the remonetization of silver. Some of the Populist proposals were clearly unrealistic, but much of the platform was a serious and responsible effort to find solutions to difficult problems.

Less serious and responsible were the Populist denunciations of enemies, which often became so strident and hysterical as to border on the irrational. A few Populists were openly anti-Semitic, pointing to the Jews as leaders of the obscure financial forces attempting to enslave them. Others were anti-intellectual, anti-Eastern, and antiurban. Some of the leading Populists gave an impression of personal failure, brilliant instability, and brooding communion with mystic forces. Ignatius Donnelly, for example, wrote one book locating the lost isle of Atlantis, another claiming that Bacon had written Shakespeare's plays, and still anotherCaesar's Column (1891) embodying an almost lunatic vision of bloody revolution and the creation of a Populist Utopia. Tom Watson, once a champion of interracial harmony, ended his career baiting blacks and Jews.

Yet the occasional bigotry of the movement should not be allowed to dominate the image of Populism. The hysterical quality of some Populist "scape-goating" can be explained in part by the condition of many of the members of the movementpeople whose personal distress was so great that some excesses were all but inevitable. Some of this denunciation of enemies, moreover, was not as irrational as critics often charged. The rhetoric may have been excessive, but the most frequent targetsbanks, railroads, monopolieswere far from guiltless in creating the problems of the farmer.

The resentment against supposed villains existed alongside a well-developed view of a just and stable society. The Populists argued not only for the destruction of monopolistic power but for a new social morality. Society, they claimed, had an obligation to protect the well-being of its individual citizens. The rights of property ownership were, therefore, secondary to the needs of the community. Populists did not reject the idea of private property; most were themselves landowners or aspirants to land ownership. They did, however, emphatically reject the laissez-faire orthodoxies of their time, the idea that the rights of ownership are absolute. They raised, in short, one of the most overt and powerful challenges of the era to the direction in which American industrial capitalism was moving. Populism was not a challenge to industrialization or to capitalism itself, but to what the Populists considered the brutal and chaotic way in which the economy was developing. Progress and growth should continue, they urged, but it should be strictly defined by the needs of individuals and communities.

The Crisis of the 1890s

The emergence of a powerful movement of agrarian protest was only one of many factors that were combining by the early 1890s to create a national political crisis. There was a severe depression, which began in 1893 and which exacerbated the unhappiness of not only farmers but other groups as well. There was widespread labor unrest and violence, culminating in the tumultuous strikes of 1894, of which the Pullman strike was only the most prominent example. There was the continuing failure of either major party to respond to the growing distress. And there was the rigid conservatism of Grover Cleveland, who took office (for the second time) just at the moment that the economy collapsed. Out of this growing sense of crisis came some of the most heated political battles in American history, culminating in the dramatic campaign of 1896, which seemedin the eyes of many Americansto threaten the future of the nation.

The Panic of 1893

Benjamin Harrison sent a message to Congress early in 1893, shortly before he left the White House, stating, "There has never been a time in our history when work was so abundant or when wages were so high." Only months later, with the second Cleveland administration hardly settled in office, the Panic of 1893 precipated the most severe depression the nation had yet experienced.

The panic began in March 1893, when the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad declared bankruptcy. Two months later, the National Cordage Company (a new national corporation that was trying, but failing, to establish itself as the dominant force in the industry) collapsed as well. Together, the two corporate failures precipitated a collapse of the stock market. And since many of the major New York banks were heavy investors in the market, a wave of bank failures soon began. The problems of the banking system caused a contraction of credit, which meant that many of the new, aggressive businesses that had recently begun operations soon went bankrupt because they were unable to secure the loans they needed. There were other, longer-range causes of the financial collapse. Depressed prices in agriculture since 1887 had weakened the purchasing power of farmers, the largest group in the population. Depression conditions that had begun earlier in Europe were resulting in a loss of American markets abroad, a decline in the export trade, and a withdrawal by foreign investors of gold invested in the United States.

Above all, perhaps, the depression was a result of several structural flaws in the American economy. In the frenzied atmosphere of competition and growth of the 1880s, businessmen had made enormous capital investments in enterprises that could not possibly pay for themselves. Railroads, in particular, were expanding far too rapidly, well beyond market demand. The depression reflected, too, the degree to which the American economy was now interconnected, the degree to which failures in one area affected all other areas. And the depression showed how excessively dependent the economy remained on the health of the railroads, which remained the nation's most powerful corporate and financial institutions. When the railroads suffered, as they did beginning in 1893, everything suffered.

Once the panic began, its effects spread with startling speed. In a period of six months, more than 8,000 business concerns failed, 156 railroads went into receivership, and 400 banks suspended operations. Agricultural prices tumbled to new lows. Perhaps as many as 1 million workers, 20 percent of the labor force, lost their jobsthe highest level of unemployment in American history to that point, a level comparable to that of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The leading financial newspaper of the time declared in the summer of 1893: "The month of August will long remain memorable in our industrial history. Never before has there been such a sudden and striking cessation of industrial activity. Nor is any section of the country exempt from the paralysis/' There had been serious financial crises before, but the depression of the 1890s was unprecedented both in its severity and its persistence. Although there was slight improvement beginning in 1895, real prosperity did not return until 1901.

The suffering caused by the depression naturally produced widespread economic and political unrest, not least among the enormous numbers of unemployed workers. In 1894, Jacob S. Coxey, an Ohio businessman and Populist, began advocating a massive public works program, through which the government would spend $500 million and hire the unemployed to do the work. He proposed, too, that local governments wishing to undertake public improvements should be authorized to issue non-interest-bearing bonds that could be exchanged at the federal Treasury for legal-tender notes. He was proposing not only the creation of jobs, but the inflation of the currency. But his ideas were derided and dismissed in conservative circles.

When it became clear that his proposals were making no progress in Congress, Coxey announced that he would "send a petition to Washington with boots on"a march of the unemployed to the capital to present their demands to the government. "Coxey's Army," as it was known, numbered only about 500 when it reached Washington, after having marched on foot from Masillon, Ohio. The marchers were barred from the Capitol by armed police. Coxey was arrested and later convicted of walking on the grass. He and his followers were herded into camps because their presence supposedly endangered public health. Congress took no action on their demands.

Coxey's Army was only one of several industrial protest movementssome of them much larger than Coxey'sto stage conspicuous marches and rallies in the 1890s. And there were many signs of union unrest as well during the decadethe Homestead and Pullman strikes for example. (See above, pp. 517-518.) To many Americans, the worker unrest seemed to augur a dangerous instability, even perhaps a revolution. Labor radicalismsome of it real, much of it imagined by the frightened middle class was seldom far from the public mind, heightening the general sense of crisis.

The Silver Question

The financial panic weakened the government's monetary system, and in the minds of such people as Cleveland, the instability of the currency was the primary cause of the depression. The "money question," therefore, became the basis for some of the most dramatic political conflicts of the era. It had a long history.

The currency issue is a complicated and confusing one, and it has often been difficult for later generations to understand the enormous passions the controversy aroused. The heart of the debate was over what would form the basis of the dollar, what would lie behind it and give it value. Today, the value of the dollar rests on little more than public confidence in the government. But in the nineteenth century, currency was assumed to be worthless if there was not something concrete behind itprecious metal (specie), which holders of paper money could collect if they presented their currency to the Treasury.

The United States during most of its existence as a nation had recognized two metalsgold and silveras a basis for the dollar, a situation known as "bimetallism." By the 1870s, however, the system had begun to produce various problems. The official ratio of the value of silver to the value of gold for purposes of creating currency (the "mint ratio") was established at 16 to 1: Sixteen ounces of silver equaled one ounce of gold. But the actual commercial value of silver (the "market ratio") was, in fact, much higher than that. Owners of silver could get more by selling it for manufacture into jewelry and other objects than they could by taking it to the mint for conversion to coins. So they stopped taking it to the mint, and the mint stopped coining silver.

In 1873, Congress passed a law that seemed simply to recognize the long-existing situation by officially discontinuing silver coinage. Few objected at the time; but within a few years the measure began to create controversy. Silver prices in 1873 had already begun to fall, and it soon became clear that Congress had foreclosed a very real potential method of expanding the currency. Before long, many Americans concluded that a conspiracy of big bankers had been responsible for the "demonetization" of silver. Critics of the law referred to it as the "Crime of '73."

That very year, 1873, the silver price fell to a point at which the market ratio between silver and gold was the same as the mint ratio. In subsequent years, the market value of silver continued to fallto well below the old mint ratio of 16 to 1. The drop was due simply to changes in demand and supply. The world demand for silver decreased as several European countries abandoned bimetallism and adopted tike "gold standard"defining their currencies only irk terms of gold and issuing only gold coins. And at tfie same time that the world supply of silver increased through European governments disposing of their holdings, huge new deposits of ore were being discovered and exploited in Nevada, Colorado, and other Western states.

Two groups of Americans were especially determined to undo the "Crime of '73." One consisted of the silver-mine owners, now understandably eager to have the government take their surplus silver and pay them much more than the market price. The other group consisted of discontented farmers, who wanted an increase in the quantity of moneyan inflation of the currencyas a means of raising the prices of farm products and easing payment of the farmers' debts. The inflationists demanded that the government return at once to "free silver"that is, to the "free and unlimited coinage of silver" at the old ratio of 16 to 1. In 1878, a coalition of Democrats and Republicans from the South, Midwest, and Far West attempted to push a free-silver bill through Congress. They had to settle for a compromise, the Bland-Allison Act, which directed the government to purchase and coin at the old ratio only a limited amount of silver (from $2 million to $4 million worth per month).

Later, in 1890, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act directed the Treasury to buy 4.5 million ounces of silver each monthan amount estimated to be the maximum domestic productionand to pay for the purchased bullion in Treasury notes. But the bill did little to appease the inflationists. Since the purchased silver was not to be coined, the amount of money in circulation did not increase materially, and the price of silver kept on falling.

Ever since the Resumption Act of 1875 (which had retired the Civil War greenbacks), the Treasury had tried to maintain a minimum gold reserve of $100 million to redeem its paper and silver dollars. During the prosperous 1880s, the reserve increased, and it reached the figure of $190 million by 1890. But in the last two years of the Harrison administration it declined sharplyas revenues declined because of the McKinley Tariff (whose prohibitively high duties kept foreign companies from sending their goods to America and hence from paying duties on them) and as government expenses increased to pay for pensions, internal improvements, and the purchase of silver required by the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Those who continued to hold greenbacks and silver certificates grew nervous at rumors that the government might abandon the gold standard, which would, they feared, devalue the notes they held; thus they turned their currency in for gold at an increasing rate. When Cleveland returned to office in 1893, the reserve had shrunk to a little over $100 million.

The panic of that year intensified the rush for gold, and soon the reserve had sunk below the minimum deemed necessary to sustain the gold standard. Cleveland had always disliked the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, and now he was convinced that it was the chief factor draining gold from the Treasury, that it would, if allowed to stand, force the country off the gold standard and impair the government's financial honor. Early in his second administration, therefore, he summoned Congress into special session and demanded the repeal of the Sherman Act. He got his way, but only after a bitter and divisive battle that helped create a permanent split in the Democratic party. The president's gold policy had aligned the Southern and Western Democrats in a solid phalanx against him and his Eastern followers.

The division over the money question reflected more than a disagreement over currency. It revealed opposing views of the proper nature of society and government. To its supporters, the gold standard was essential to America's ability to engage in world trade. It was also an important emotional symbol. It stood for stability, fiscal soundness, and public morality. An assualt on the gold standard, they believed, would be the same as an assault on the sanctity of contracts or the rights of property. It would be a threat to civilization itself.

Opponents of the gold standard, however, took a different view. To them, gold placed artificial restrictions on the currency, allowing far too little money to circulate for the needs of a growing economy, n particular, the gold standard made it difficult for debtors to repay their loans and for investors to find credit for new ventures. More than that, however, "free silver" became a symbol of liberation. Silver would be a "people's money," as opposed to gold, the money of oppression and exploitation. It would be a panacea that would eliminate the indebtedness of farmers and of whole regions of the country. A graphic illustration of the popularity of the silver issue was the enormous success of William H.Harvey's Coin's Financial School, published in 1894, which became one of the great best sellers of its age. The fictional Professor Coin ran a school, an imaginary institution specializing in finance, and the book reproduced his lectures and his dialogues with his students. The professor's brilliant discourses left even his most vehement opponents dazzled as he persuaded his listeners, with simple logic, of the almost miraculous restorative qualities of free silver: "It means the reopening of closed factories, the relighting of fires in darkened furnaces; it means hope instead of despair; comfort in place of suffering; life instead of death."

for services rendered. Hanna had picked out his manWilliam McKinley, governor of Ohio, who as a congressman had been the author of the tariff act of 1890and had been grooming him carefully for years. By calling him "Bill McKinley, the agent of prosperity," and the "champion of protection" for American producers, Hanna secured McKinley the Republican nomination. The party platform opposed the free coinage of silver except by international agreement with the leading commercial nations (which everyone realized was highly unlikely). Thirty-four delegates from the mountain and plains states walked out in protest. Their destination was the Democratic party.

The Democrats met amid scenes of drama seldom equaled in American politics. Southern and Western delegates came to the convention determined to seize control of the party from conservative Easterners. Eager to stem challenges from the Populists in their sections, they hoped to incorporate some important Populist demandsamong them free silverinto the Democratic platform. And they wanted as well to nominate a prosilver candidate.

The divided platform committee presented two reports to the conventionone expressing the majority opinion, the other a minority dissent. The majority report demanded tariff reduction, endorsed the principle of the income tax, denounced the issuing of currency notes by the national banks, condemned the use of injunctions in industrial disputes, pledged a "stricter control" of trusts and railroads, andmost prominentlysupported free silver: "We demand the free and unlimited coinage of both silver and gold at the present legal ratio of 16 to 1, without waiting for the aid or consent of any other nation." The minority report echoed the Republican platform by opposing the free coinage of silver except by international agreement. The debate over the two competing platforms dominated the convention.

A series of speakers on both sides debated the resolutions, and the defenders of the gold standard had the better of the argumentuntil the final address. Then a handsome young man from the Nebraska delegation walked to the platform to close the debate. He was William Jennings Bryan, thirty-six years old, whose political experience was limited to two terms in the House of Representatives. But Bryan was widely known in the plains country as a magnetic orator, and he eagerly (and not entirely secretly) hoped that his rhetorical talents might win him the presidential nomination. His magnificent, organlike voice echoed through the farthest reaches of the hall,

"A Cross of Gold"

The Populists at first did not pay a great deal of at-tention to the silver issue. But as the party developed strength, the money question developed an increas-ing importance, if only for tactical reasons. The Pop-ulists desperately needed money to finance their campaigns. Silver-mine owners were willing to provide it but insisted on an elevation of the money plank and the subordination of other proposals. And the Populists needed to form alliances with other po-litical groups. The "money question" seemed a way t win the support of many people not engaged in farming but nevertheless starved for currency. The election of 1896 appeared to the Populists to provide an unmatched opportunity to expand their influence and reach for real national power.

As the election approached, Republicansgloat-ing over the failure of the Democrats to deal effec-tively with either the economic crisis or the social chaos that seemed to have emerged from itwere confident of success. The only question of impor-tance that appeared to confront them was the identity of the man they would anoint as the next president. Marcus A. Hanna, boss of the Ohio machine and soon to be national boss of the party, was a wealthy industrialist who aspired to be a president maker. He represented a new type in politics, the businessman who held office (he later served in the United States Senate) and actively manipulated parties instead of remaining in the background and paying out money as he delivered what became one of the most famous political speeches in American history. He ended with a peroration that sent his audience into an impassioned frenzy and that was repeated by later generations of schoolboys all over rural America: "If they dare to come out in the open and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: 'You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.'

The convention voted to adopt the prosilver platform. The agrarians had found their leader. And the following day, Bryan was nominated for president on the fifth ballot. One Republican, Joseph Foraker, when asked if he thought the epithet Boy Orator of the Platte was an apt one for Bryan, replied that it was, because the Platte River was six inches deep and six miles wide at the mouth. But many of Bryan's admirers applied a more accurate label to their hero: the Great Commoner. Born in Illinois of typical middle-class stock, he had attended a small sectarian college, had practiced law with only average success, and then, repeating a normal American pattern, had moved to Nebraska, a frontier area, to try his fortune. He served as a potent symbol of rural, Protestant, middle-class America.

The choice of Bryan and the nature of the Democratic platform placed the Populists in a cruel quandary. They had expected both the major parties to adopt conservative programs and nominate conser-vative candidates, leaving the Populists to represent the growing forces of protest. But now the Demo-crats had stolen much of their thunder. The Populists faced the choice of naming their own candidate and splitting the protest vote or endorsing Bryan and los-ing their identity as a party. When the party assem-bled, the convention (amid considerable acrimony) voted to approve Bryan but nominated its own vice-presidential candidate, Tom Watson, whom they ex-pected the Democrats to embrace but whom the Democrats ignored. Many Populists argued fervently that "fusion" with the Democratswho had en-dorsed free silver, but ignored other and more im-portant Populist demandswould destroy their party. But the majority concluded that there was no viable alternative.

The Conservative Victory

The campaign of 1896 produced unequaled drama, intense excitement, a clear-cut issue, and a David-and-Goliath theme: the boy orator Bryan contending against the powerful boss Hanna and his hand-picked candidate, McKinley. Hanna had the great advantage of ample funds to spend on organization. The business and financial community, frightened beyond reason at the prospect of Bryan's sitting in the White House and taking advice from John P. Altgeld and Ignatius Donnelly, pressed lavish contributions on the Republicansperhaps as much as $7 million. The Democrats, in contrast, reported expenditures of only $300,000, a sum only slightly larger than the contribution of a single firm, Standard Oil, to the Republican war chest.

Shrewdly, Hanna kept McKinley largely out of sight, knowing better than to pit his dull and solemn candidate against the matchless Bryan. From his home at Canton, Ohio, McKinley conducted a dignified "front-porch" campaign before pilgrimages of the Republican faithful, organized and paid for by Hanna. They came every day, and McKinley always had a speech ready for them. He stressed one theme: The Republican party was the only agency that could bring prosperity to the country.

No such decorous restraint marked the campaigning of the young and vital Bryan. Previous candidates had addressed audiences in campaigns and had even toured the country to speak at a few selected points. But Bryan was the first to stump every section systematically, to appear in villages and hamlets, indeed the first to say frankly to the voters that he wanted to be president. He traveled 18,000 miles, speaking several times a day, and addressed an estimated 5 million people.

Some businessmen grew almost hysterical at the thought of a possible Bryan victory. Many a company told its employees that if Bryan should win, the company would have to go out of business. Employers threatened to fire workers who voted for him. Bankers said they could not renew the mortgages of farmers who did so. Such threats, however, were less important than Bryan's own character in turning Democratic voters away from him. His revivalistic, camp-meeting style was pleasing enough to most Protestant sectarians of old native stock, but it antagonized many of the immigrant Catholics, who normally voted Democratic. Many of them decided to stay home on election day, if not to go out and vote Republican. Meanwhile, Bryan attracted fewer Republican farmers than he had hoped forin part because shortly before the election the price of wheat suddenly rose, and Western farm discontent just as suddenly fell.

On election day, McKinley polled 271 electoral votes to Bryan's 176 and received 51.1 percent of the popular vote to Bryan's 47.7. Bryan won the Confederate South plus Missouri, swept the plains and mountain states except North Dakota, but lost California and Oregon on the Pacific coast. In short, he carried only the mining regions and the areas where staple farming was predominant and agricultural prices were lowest. He went down to defeat in all the Granger states in the Midwest. The Democratic program, like that of the Populists, had been designed to serve the needs of only one segment of one classthe most depressed fraction of agricultureand this appeal was too narrow to win a national election.

Conservative Americans breathed a collective sigh of relief at the results of the 1896 election. What they had perceived as a radical threat to the nation's future had been avertedbut only barely. It would be many years before they would forget that the "spirit of revolution" had seized control of one of the two major parties.

For the Populists and their allies, the election results were nothing short of a disaster. They had gambled everything on their "fusion" with the Democratic party, and they had lost. The Populist movement stood exposed, it seemed, as a phenomenon too weak to influence national politics. And within months of the election, the People's party began to dissolve. Never again would American farmers unite so militantly to demand economic reform. And never again would so large a group of Americans raise so forceful a protest against the nature of the industrial economy.

McKinley and Prosperity

The administration of William McKinley, which be gan in the aftermath of turmoil, saw the nation return to a relative calm. One reason was simple exhaus-tion. By 1897, the labor unrest that had so frightened many middle-class Americans and so excited work-ing-class people had subsided, victim of the internal weaknesses of the labor movement and of the strength of the corporate forces opposing it. And with the simultaneous decline of agrarian protest, the greatest destabilizing forces in the nation's politics were-temporarily at leastremoved. Another reason was the character of the McKinley administration itself, which was politically shrewd and nothing if not committed to a reassuring stability. Most important, however, was the gradual easing of the economic crisis, a change that undercut many of those who were agitating for change.

William McKinley was the last of the long list of veteran officers of the Union army (beginning with Grant) to sit in the White House. Friendly and generous in nature, he was inclined to defer to stronger characters such as Hanna and to act in harmony with his is party's leaders. His administration was passive, cautious, and conservative.

McKinley and his allies were eager to avoid in-faming the divisions they knew lurked beneath the surface of their party. They committed themselves fully to only one issue, one on which they knew virtually all Republicans were agreed: the need for higher tariff rates. Immediately after assuming office, McKinley summoned Congress into special session to consider tariff revision. With record brevity, the Republican majority whipped into shape and passed the Dingley Tariff, raising the duties to an average of 57 percentthe highest in history.

The administration dealt more gingerly with the explosive silver question (an issue that McKinley himself had never considered very important in any case). In accordance with the party's platform pronouncement that bimetallism could not be established except by international action, McKinley sent a commission to Europe to explore the possibility of a silver agreement with Great Britain and France. As he and everyone else anticipated, Britain refused to abandon its gold standard, thus effectively ending any hopes for international bimetallism. The administration could now argue that if the United States embarked on a silver program alone, it would be economically isolated from the rest of the world. Believing that their position was unassailable, the Republicans finally moved to enact currency legislation. The Currency, or Gold Standard, Act of 1900 confirmed the nation's commitment to the gold standard.

And so the "battle of the standards" ended in victory for the forces of conservatism. Economic developments at the time seemed to prove that the conservatives had been right in the struggle. In 1898 prosperity began to return to America. Foreign crop failures enlarged the farmers' market and sent farm prices surging upward. At the same time, business entered another cycle of booming expansion. Prosperity and gold had come hand in handthe lesson seemed obvious.

But it was not quite that simple. Bryan and the silverites were essentially right in demanding currency inflation. In the quarter century before 1900, the countries of the Western world had experienced a spectacular growth in productive facilities and population. Yet the supply of money had not kept pace with economic progress, because the supply was tied to gold and the amount of gold had remained practically constant. Populist predictions of continuing financial distress might have proved correct had it not been for the fortuitous increase in the gold supply soon after the Republicans took over the government in 1897. A new technique for extracting gold from low-content ores, the cyanide process, made it possible to work mines previously considered marginal or unprofitable. At the same time, huge new gold deposits were discovered in Alaska, South Africa, and Australia. In 1898, two and a half times as much gold was produced as in 1890, and the currency supply was soon inflated far beyond anything proposed by Bryan.

The McKinley administration brought a tariff increase, the gold standard, and prosperity. It also brought a new departure in foreign policy, as the nation entered upon the path of overseas imperialism and took its place among the "great powers" of the world.

WHERE HISTORIANS DISAGREE

Populism

American history does not offer many examples of successful popular movements operating outside the two major parties. For that reason Populism, which in its brief, meteoric life became one of the few such phenomena to gain real national influence, has attracted particular attention from historiansand has produced deep disagreements among them. Scholars have differed on many grounds in their interpretations of Populism, but at the heart of many such disagreements have been disparate views of popular, insurgent politics. Some historians have harbored a basic mistrust of such popular uprisings and have, therefore, viewed the Populists with suspicion and hostility. Others have viewed such insurgency approvingly, as evidence of a healthy resistance to oppression and exploitation; and to them, the Populists have appeared as essentially admirable, democratic activists.

This latter view underlay the first, and for many years the only, general history of Populism: John D. Hicks's The Populist Revolt (1931). Rejecting the popular view of the Populists as misguided and unruly radicals, Hicks described them as people reacting rationally and progressively to economic misfortune. Hicks was writing in an era in which the ideas of Frederick Jackson Turner were dominating historical studies, and he brought to his analysis of Populism a strong emphasis on regionalism. Populists, he argued, were part of the democratic West, resisting the pressures from the more aristocratic east. (He explained Southern Populism somewhat awkwardly, describing the South as an "economic frontier" regionnot newly settled like the West but prey to many of the same pressures and misfortunes.) The Populists, Hicks suggested, were aware of the harsh, even brutal impact of Eastern industrial growth on rural society; and they were proposing reforms that would limit the oppressive power of the new financial titans and restore a measure of control to the farmers themselves. Populism was, he wrote, "the last phase of a long and perhaps a losing strugglethe struggle to save agricultural America from the devouring jaws of industrial America." A losing struggle, perhaps, but not a vain one; for many of the reforms the Populists advocated, Hicks implied, became the basis of later progressive legislation.

This generally approving view of Populism prevailed among historians for more than two decades. But in the early 1950swhen the memory of European fascism and the uneasiness about contemporary communism combined to create a general hostility among scholars toward mass popular politicsa harsh new attack on the Populist movement appeared in a work by one of the nation's leading historians. Richard Hofstadter, in The Age of Reform (1955), admitted in passing that Populism contained some progressive themes. But the bulk of his effort was devoted to exposing both the "soft" and the "dark" sides of the movement. Populism was "soft," he claimed, because it rested on a nostalgic and unrealistic myth, because it romanticized the nation's agrarian past and refused to confront the hard realities of modern life. And it was "dark," he argued, because it was permeated with bigotry and ignorance. Populists, he claimed, revealed anti-Semitic tendencies; and they displayed animosity as well toward intellectuals, Easterners, and urbanites. He stopped short of linking Populism directly with fascism, but other scholarsadopting his approachmade such connections explicitly.

Almost immediately, historians more favorably disposed toward mass politics in general, and Populism in particular, began to challenge what soon became known as the "Hofstadter thesis." Norman Pollack argued in a 1962 study, The Populist Response to Industrial America, and in a number of articles, that the agrarian revolt had rested not on nostalgic, romantic concepts but on a sophisticated, farsighted, and possibly radical vision of reformone which recognized, and even welcomed, the realities of an industrial economy, but one which sought to make that economy more equitable and democratic by challenging many of the premises of capitalism. Walter . . Nugent, in The Tolerant Populists (1963), arguedas his title impliesthat the Populists in Kansas were far from bigoted, that they not only tolerated but welcomed Jews and other minorities into their party, and that they offered a practical, sensible program.

It was not until 1976, however, that a comprehensive study of Populism emerged that could rival Hicks and Hofstadter in its influence. Lawrence Goodwyn, in Democratic Promise (1976, and in a briefer version of the same work, The Populist Moment, published in 1978), described the Populists as members of a "cooperative crusade," battling against the "coercive potential of the emerging corporate state." Populists were more than the nostalgic bigots Hofstadter described, more even than the progressive reformers portrayed by Hicks. They offered a vision of truly radical change, widely disseminated through what Goodwyn called a "movement culture," and offering an intelligent and, above all, a democratic alternative to the inequities of modern capitalism.

At the same time that historians were debating the question of what Populism meant, they were arguing as well over who the Populists were. Hicks, Hofstadter, and Goodwyn disagreed on many things, but they shared a general view of the Populists as victims of economic distress: usually one-crop farmers in economically marginal agricultural regions victimized by drought and debt. Other scholars, however, have suggested that the problem of identifying the Populists is more complex. Sheldon Hackney, in Populism to Progressive ism in Alabama (1969), has argued that the Populists were not only economically troubled but socially rootless, "only tenuously connected to society by economic function, by personal relationships, by stable community membership, by political participation, or by psychological identification with the South's distinctive myths." Peter Argersinger, Stanley Parsons, James Turner, and others have similarly suggested that Populists were characterized by a form of social and even geographical isolation. Steven Hahn's1983 study, The Roots of Southern Populism, identifies poor white farmers in the "upcountry" as the core of Populist activity in Georgia; and he argues that they were reacting not simply to the psychic distress of being "left behind" but also to a real economic threat to their way of lifeto the pressures of a new commercial order in which they had never been and could never be a part.

There has been continuing debate over the legacy of Populism. Historians and politicians alike have argued repeatedly that a Populist tradition has survived throughout the twentieth century, influencing movements as disparate as those led by Huey Long in the 1930s, George Wallace in the 1960s, and even Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Others have maintained that the term "Populism" has been used (and misused) so widely as to have become virtually meaningless, that its only real value is in reference to the agrarian insurgents of the 1890s, who first gave meaning to the word.


 

 



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