Rum, Romanism, & Rebellion : The Making of a President 1884 by Mark Wahlgre Summers

rum-romanism-rebellion-making-president-1884-mark-wahlgren-summers-paperback-cover-artThe election of 1884 might not seem too different from an election of the late 20th Century or early 21st Century, but it may be the first one that may have its outcome determined by a gaffe. And not even a gaffe spoken by a candidate, but rather by a well-meaning supporter of one of the principals. But, there was a lot more to the 1884 election according to Mark Wahlgren Summers, a University of Kentucky history professor.

In a freewheeling, at times even irreverent, look back at the events shaping the first election of Grover Cleveland, Summers focuses more on the loser, James Blaine. Summers describes a political party system coming apart at the seams.

Republicans could not hold together their disparate parts, with factions favoring Prohibition or political reform often butting heads. The Democrats benefitted from the end of Reconstruction, which let former Confederates retake control of state governments and effectively end voting rights for blacks.

Blaine thought the nomination was his in 1880, but a deadlocked convention turned to dark horse Ohio Representative James Garfield. Garfield was assassinated early in his term and replaced by Chester Arthur, regarded as a political hack by most people, but was surprisingly effective. Arthur wanted to be nominated in his own right in 1884, even though he knew he was dying of kidney disease. The Republicans ended up nominating Blaine in 1884 accompanied by John Logan of Illinois as his running mate.

Blaine, nicknamed “the Plumed Knight”, was considered to be an attractive man who looked like the quintessential statesman. However, Blaine had numerous enemies among the Republicans, including President Arthur, so he was hard-pressed to get all the support and financial backing he needed.

The Democrats nominated New York Governor Grover Cleveland, who had developed a reputation as an honest politician, or as honest as you could expect from a politician in the Gilded Age. The Democrats nominated Thomas Hendricks for Vice President, who was trying to gain the office he nearly won in the controversial election of 1876. (Samuel Tilden, the loser in 1876 was considered the front runner for the nomination despite being extremely ill.)

Early in the campaign, Cleveland was hit hard by accusations that he had fathered an illegitimate child (which most people think he really did), although he took the line that he was taking care of a child that may have been fathered by a friend of his who was conveniently dead. The Democrats had turned up reports of marital infidelity by Blaine, but they opted not to retaliate with more sex scandals. The 1884 campaign was the last time until the time of Bill Clinton, where marital fidelity became a big issue in a presidential election. Summers believes that the two parties realized that making every campaign about morals issues was bound to be a disaster for both sides.

What were the issues of the day? There was the tariff (high tariffs were sought by the Republicans, while the Democrats mostly wanted them lowered), Prohibition (an issue that served mostly as a wedge issue between evangelical Protestants and Catholics), and the Civil War, which was still being fought in the political arena.

The Democrats had a solid base of 153 electoral votes in the South, so Blaine needed to sweep the three swing states in the North: New York, Indiana, and Ohio. Blaine didn’t do it as Cleveland’s narrow win in New York (by a little over 1,000 votes) was enough to tip the election to the Democrats.

One of the crucial moments in the election campaign happened on October 28, 1884 in New York City. In the last days of the campaign, Blaine made an appearance at a meeting of evangelical ministers. The chairman of this meeting was a well-respected minister in his seventies named Dr. Samuel Burchard. Burchard introduced Blaine to the crowd with this address:

We are Republican, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion. We are loyal to our flag. We are loyal to you.

The reaction to “rum, Romanism, and rebellion” was not positive. Some in the crowd hissed. Reporters present at the meeting recognized it as a huge problem for Blaine because he was now identified with religious bigots. (Burchard claimed not to be anti-Catholic and said he just got caught up in alliteration.)

The news cycle of 1884 moved more slowly than today, and it took three days before Burchard’s words and Blaine’s seemingly tacit approval of them became a national story (the Democrats did have stenographers follow Blaine around waiting for a gaffe). In an election as close as 1884, it didn’t take much to keep just enough Republicans (some of whom were Catholic) away from the polls on Election Day.

Grover Cleveland would end up winning the popular vote in three straight elections, but only the electoral vote twice. He started as President because the country was tired of Republican rule. He left office in 1896 despised by his own party.

Blaine would go on to serve as Secretary of State under Benjamin Harrison before succumbing to the same kidney disease (Bright’s disease) that killed his political rival, Chester Arthur. This book definitely makes you feel like 1884 was a very unusual election year. It was. Politics was heading out into an increasingly weirder form in America. And it was never going to get less weird again. blaine_harper

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Minority Victory: Gilded Age Politics and the Front Porch Campaign of 1888 by Charles W. Calhoun

1888

Even the losers get lucky sometime

If you are an avid follower of this blog, and I mean you live and breathe it, you might remember that Charles W. Calhoun has already made an appearance on this blog in the biography of Benjamin Harrison. This time, Calhoun reprises his expertise on all things B Harrisonian, focusing on the often forgotten election of 1888, an election in which the candidate with the most popular votes didn’t win the election.

Calhoun starts off the describing how the Democrats and Republicans were so closely matched in strength in the House, Senate, and Electoral College, that choosing a President in the Gilded Age (as Mark Twain dubbed the era which roughly covers the last 25 years of the 19th Century) was a pretty dicey proposition for either party.

Each side had just a little under a half of the Electoral College sewn up. The Democrats controlled the South. The Republicans controlled most of the North. The only states that were usually up for grabs were: New York (home state of Democratic incumbent Grover Cleveland), New Jersey (which voted Democratic in 1864 against Abraham Lincoln), Indiana (home state of Benjamin Harrison), and Connecticut.

Cleveland had prevailed in 1884, ending a 24 years Republican hold on the White House, mostly because he was able to win New York with his reform-minded campaign. However, Cleveland’s first term in office proved to be pretty bad. The President often looked out of his element. He failed to satisfy Democratic patronage needs. He thought that vetoing Civil War pension bills would make him look like he was preventing malingering in the country.

The biggest miscalculation Cleveland had was that he thought that the best way for the United States to shrink its enormous budget surplus. At the time, the Federal Government was taking in nearly 30% more in revenue than it was spending. While this may seem to be fiscally sound, what it means was that the Federal Government was taking a sizable chunk out of the economy and basically doing nothing with it.

Cleveland thought the best way to shrink the deficit would to lower tariffs. This would also have the added benefit of increasing trade.

This issue turned out to be just what the Republicans wanted. They hated free trade at the time. They wanted protective tariffs. The Republicans would have preferred to see the surplus spent on large Federal projects. (Yes, times were different).

By 1888, the Republicans were ready to take on Cleveland and use the tariff issue. The Democrats were not even fully behind Cleveland on the issue, although they renominated him because there was really no one else who was a viable candidate.

The Republicans had no shortage of candidates, but they were all waiting to see if the 1884 loser, former Speaker of the House and Secretary of State James Blaine, would run. Blaine was on an extended speaking tour of Europe and kept hinting that he would not run, but he would be open to nomination if EVERYBODY wanted him. And Blaine really wanted EVERYBODY to want him.

However, not all Republicans wanted to go down the aisle with Blaine again. The two leading candidates were Ohio Senator John Sherman (brother of General William Sherman), who was considered the Republicans leading expert on economics, and former Indiana senator Benjamin Harrison, who had similar credentials to Sherman, but with far more charisma.

The Republicans needed eight ballots to nominate Harrison. Levi Morton of New York was chosen as his running mate. Morton was a wealthy New York banker and he brought little to the ticket other than the ability to write large checks. That was a valuable skill.

Cleveland’s vice president, Thomas Hendricks, had died in office, so he had to find a new running mate, and he wanted 74-year old Ohio Senator Allan Thurman, who was a free trade supporter. Thurman showed nearly every day he gave a campaign speech that he was a man whose days were numbered, frequently bowing out of events with cholera, dyspepsia, neuralgia, and other age-related maladies. (However, Thurman would show them, living to age 82.)

Grover Cleveland felt it was beneath the dignity of the office to campaign for reelection. In fact, Cleveland would not even say he was “running.” He said he was “standing” for the office. He sent a letter to the Democratic Convention accepting the nomination and that was the end of his campaigning.

Harrison took a different approach, using a “front porch” campaign, where groups would come to visit him in Indiana by train and he would give speeches. The method proved to be quite effective.

The election would end up being decided in the largest state, New York. The Empire State had 36 electoral votes, nearly 18% of the necessary 202 for victory. Although Cleveland was succeeded in office by another Democrat as governor, that man, David Hill, hated Cleveland. Hill offered no public support of Cleveland and even worked somewhat secretly to raise money to allow voters to vote for Harrison while still voting for all the other Democrats on the ballot. (At the time, voters just turned in a ballot for one party, but you could choose to put a sticker [paster] over the name of a different candidate, if you were so inclined.) Hill was able to turn the tide in New York over to Harrison, who won the state by 15,000 votes.

Overall though, Cleveland won the popular vote by nearly 1%. What was the reason for this? Calhoun points to an obvious one. In the heavily Democratic South, the black vote was suppressed to the point to where it was essentially negligible. This eliminated several hundred thousand Republican votes. The Republicans would have still lost the states, but they would have likely prevailed in the popular vote. Also, even though black voters were turned away from the polls, they were not turned away by census takers, and Southern Democrats made sure to get their fair share of seats in Congress with the resulting number of Electoral Votes.

Harrison’s four years in office would not go smoothly. The Democrats railed against the Republicans profligate spending. The Republicans tried to pass a Civil Rights bill that would make it easier for blacks to vote in Congressional elections, but the measure died due to vehement Southern opposition.

The election of 1888 ended up not as a major turning point in American history, but more of a curiosity for people. But, there was a lot going on in the country at the time. It was a preview of what the country was going to be like in the 20th Century. And, at the time, the 1888 election had the highest percentage turnout of any election in U.S. history. It was the Centennial Presidential election. And it may not be remembered any better than the Bicentennial Election of 1988 between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.

Realigning America: McKinley, Bryan, and the Remarkable Election of 1896 (with bonus 1900 coverage!)

Image

Just because you’re a Populist, that doesn’t make you popular

Picture a time in American history when Presidential elections produced enormous turnouts, people debated the issues intently, and felt that their identity was closely tied to their party affiliation. A time when one of the major party candidates went from being virtually unknown a few months before the party convention to becoming the party nominee. When one of the nominees was so popular that hundreds of thousands of people came to his home to visit him. This time was 1896. And, today, most history students get shuffled through it as quickly as possible because the issues involved are often too esoteric or too removed from today’s problems, that people cannot identify with them.

In this book by Southern Methodist University professor R. Hal Williams, as part of the University Press of Kansas series on American Presidential Elections, the 1896 election is presented as the one that marked a major change in the way Americans treated Presidential elections. Although the calendar did not say it was the 20th Century, the 1896 election is, in many respects, the first “modern” Presidential election.

The lead up to the 1896 election was extraordinarily turbulent, and, for the most part, mostly ignored today. Starting in 1876, elections became close affairs in the United States. Republicans eked out wins in 1876 and 1880. The Democrats won the White House in 1884 under Grover Cleveland, but lost it in 1888 back to the Republicans and Benjamin Harrison despite Cleveland winning more popular votes.

The Republicans of this era liked to spend money. They liked to raise revenue and in 1890, President Harrison signed into law a major increase in tariff duties called the McKinley Tariff, named for the Ohio Congressman who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee. The Democrats complained about the enormous spending done by the Republicans. They derisively referred to the “Billion Dollar Congress” because they Federal budget had finally topped that mark.

In the 1890 midterm elections, the House Republicans were nearly wiped out at the polls. They lost 93 seats, the most ever. The Democrats picked up 86 of them, with a third party, the Populists, a Western-based movement that opposed the concentration of capital in Eastern banks, picking up the balance. McKinley lost his seat. The voters of Nebraska’s first district chose a 30-year old named Williams Jennings Bryan.

In 1892, Cleveland returned to the White House (while McKinley was elected governor of Ohio), avenging his defeat to Harrison. However, events went bad for Cleveland almost immediately. The nation’s gold reserves were dwindling, creating turmoil in the financial markets. Where was the gold going? It was going overseas.

At the time of Cleveland’s second inauguration, you could take a certificate for a certain amount of silver and have it exchanged for a fixed rate of gold. (About 16 oz of silver for 1 oz of gold). The problem was that gold was worth much more than silver than the exchange rate the Treasury offered. And nearly every other country in the world would not accept deposits in silver because there was too much of it.

Almost immediately after the March 4 inauguration, Cleveland was facing a full-fledged financial panic as credit was squeezed. Cleveland asked Congress to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890. When this happened, Western Democrats, like Bryan, felt betrayed by Cleveland. While the U.S. economy did not collapse, it certainly did not get better. Unemployment went up.

In the 1894 elections, the Republicans broke the four-year old record for biggest turnaround in an election. They picked up 130 seats in the House, putting Thomas Reed of Maine into the Speakership.

By the time of the 1896 election, the Republicans were fairly sure that they would win back the White House. But whom would they choose? McKinley was considered one of the leading contenders. He was the governor of a swing state (Ohio), he was a Civil War vet (he was called Major McKinley in the press), and he had the substantial financial backing of Mark Hanna, one of the wealthiest men in Ohio.

Reed tried to present himself as a candidate, but he came from a small state (Maine), and he was considered too abrasive to appeal to a national electorate. Pennsylvania senator Matthew Quay also made a play for the nomination.

When the Republicans convened in St. Louis, it didn’t take them long, just one ballot, to nominate McKinley, whom most tabbed as an easy winner in November. Garret Hobart, a New Jersey business magnate, was nominated for Vice President.

The Democrats were not in a great position. All of the leading contenders for the nomination were running against the policies of the incumbent President, who happened to be in their party.

The front-runner was Missouri Senator Richard Bland, who was such a big advocate of restoring the silver standard, that he was commonly referred to as “Silver Dick.” That name wasn’t as funny in 1896 as it is now, but it was likely funny enough that Bland didn’t get the nomination.

Instead, William Jennings Bryan, a 36-year old Representative from Nebraska, got the nomination? How did this happen? There were two reasons: 1) Bryan gave one of the most convincing speeches in American political history: the Cross of Gold Speech. The delegates may have nominated Bryan right after he gave the speech if not for a hasty adjournment and 2) the Democrats didn’t have many other good choices. The Democrats nominated Arthur Sewall, a wealthy lumberman from Maine, as Vice President.

So, the 1896 election matched up a Republican governor who looked like Presidential, fought for the Union, and stood for a sound economy. The Democrats nominated someone who was too young to remember the Civil War and backed a potentially inflationary economic scheme. As it turned out, Americans loved the debate.

Bryan was on the campaign trail constantly. He traveled by train all over the nation, but he targeted states that he felt were crucial to his chances for victory. It was not common to do that at this time, but it was not unheard of.

McKinley knew that if he tried to match Bryan speech for speech across the country that he would lose. He knew he held the upper hand in the election and he had no need to make himself look like he had to work as hard as Bryan to get elected. So, Hanna, McKinley’s money man, had trains full of eager Republican voters brought to Ohio, where McKinley would address them from his front porch. It was estimated that nearly 750,000 came to hear McKinley speak over the course of the campaign. The heads of the visiting delegations were given questions by McKinley to ask ahead of time.

The Republicans also had a sophisticated direct mail campaign, flooding the mail boxes of likely Republican voters with materials printed in a variety of languages. McKinley and the Republicans may not have been able to out talk Bryan, but they could definitely outspend him and out organize him.

Complicating matters for Bryan was the presence of a third party, the Populists. They had made a difference in the 1892 election. However, in 1896, they found that their platform, with its reliance on silver, had been co-opted by Bryan and the Democrats. The Populists held a convention of their own and nominated Bryan as their candidate, but refused to nominate Sewell. Instead, they substituted Thomas Watson of Georgia. This left Bryan in the uncomfortable position of having the support of a third party, but not the support of his running mate, which could prove to complicate Electoral College matters. In some states, the Byran-Sewell tickets and Bryan-Watson tickets would run separately, making it harder for Bryan to win. (A group of conservative Democrats favoring the gold standard also nominated a ticket, but it received little support.)

Election Day 1896 was a big day. The turnout was massive. In Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, and Ohio, the turnout was nearly 95% of the electorate (which was almost all white males at the time.) In New York City, newspapers used “magic lanterns” (early versions of slide projectors) to show a map of the United States with each state colored in to show which candidate had won there. (The book does not have examples of what colors were used.)

McKinley won with 51% of the vote and 271 electoral votes to Bryan’s 47% and 176 electoral votes. Bryan failed to win any state out of the Democratic South and the Populist West. McKinley managed to pull in Oregon and California and also the border states of West Virginia and Kentucky.

Why was the turnout so big? Williams makes the point that at this time, Americans tended to identify themselves very closely with political parties. Being a Republican or Democrat made you who you were. Politics was a unifying force in communities. People enjoyed elections, some states holding several per year.

Most people would vote a straight ticket and show up at the polls with a ballot that would distinctly indicate whom they were voting for, although by 1896, the Australian ballot (which actually started in Australia), changed matters. This style of ballot listed all the candidates on the ballot from all the parties. Voters would then indicate whom they wanted. And they would do this secretly.

McKinley’s victory in 1896 was not hard to predict. The Republicans of this era were the only party that was actually trying to do things. The Democrats of this era were best known for only wanting to oppose what the Republicans did, such as expanding civil rights. Bryan attempted to change the Democrats from being a conservative party that mainly said no into a party that appealed to the Populist movement of the West. The book cover shows a cartoon of Bryan as a snake swallowing the Democratic Party whole, which would ultimately be their undoing.

The economy greatly improved during McKinley’s first term, partly because of natural economic cycles and also because gold became more plentiful in the world, making the return to the gold standard far less risky. In 1899, Vice President Garret Hobart died.

In 1900, the Republicans renominated McKinley. The young governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt, a hero of the Spanish-American War, was nominated as Vice President. The Democrats, lacking anyone better to run, nominated Bryan again, this time with former Vice President Adlai Stevenson as his running mate. McKinley won again, by a slightly larger margin.

American political involvement would never be as great as it was during this time. The Australian ballot allowed people more freedom to choose the candidate they liked instead of the party they liked. People began to identify less with their political party as they realized that their parties didn’t do much for them.

We no longer live in a world where the hottest political issue is bimetallism. Candidates do not espouse the quantity of money theory (as Bryan did) to stimulate the economy. But these were the issues of 1896. Ultimately, the issues were still ones that people argue about today: employment, debt, and the standard of living. The framework of the debate was different than it was today. But, people cared. Or at least they were told to care. Do we care as much today?

1896 result

Benjamin Harrison by Charles W. Calhoun

President #23, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #30

Benjamin in the middle

Benjamin Harrison ran for President twice and never got the most popular votes. Republicans chose him to run because he both a famous name (his grandfather was William Henry Harrison) and he came from an important swing state at the time (Indiana). Few of us would likely be able to name any of his accomplishments.

Charles W. Calhoun, a professor at East Carolina University (which is in North Carolina, unlike Coastal Carolina University which is in South Carolina) who is one of the most prominent historians who study the Gilded Age, manages to both humanize Harrison while also elevating his place in history.

Benjamin Harrison was President in a time when power shifted between Republicans and Democrats often. Populist political movements threatened to take down the establishments of both parties. There were violent strikes affecting crucial industries and widespread dissatisfaction with the nature of the economy. Harrison’s four years in office were far from tranquil.

The man in charge of the country during this time was a Born Again Christian Republican who favored a big government, a high tariff, and increased civil rights for African-Americans. He had majorities to work with in Congress for his first two years, but could only pass a portion of what he wanted. Harrison’s boldest ideas (in the area of civil rights) fell victim to Senate filibusters and political horse trading.

Benjamin Harrison was born on August 20, 1833 in North Bend, Ohio, the same city where his grandfather would be buried after a just a month as President in 1841. Harrison’s father, John Scott Harrison, was a member of the House of Representatives. After two years at Farmers College in Cincinnati (which is no longer in existence), Harrison enrolled at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. (Graduates of this university do not like you to call it “Miami of Ohio” as they feel, quite rightly, that their school is far more distinguished than the University of Miami in Florida. It would help the case of the Ohioans if they had bothered to get the correct URL.)

After graduating in 1852, Harrison apprenticed with an another attorney to learn the law. He married Caroline Scott in 1853, passed the bar in 1854, and moved to Indianapolis to seek his fortune. Harrison wanted to move out of Ohio because he did not want to trade on his family name to get ahead.

Harrison quickly built a reputation as an excellent attorney, especially in criminal trials. In 1857, the people of Indianapolis chose him as the city attorney. In 1860, Harrison won the office of reporter of the Indiana Supreme Court. This job, which paid well, required Harrison to print, publish, and sell all the opinions of the state courts.

When the Civil War began, Harrison first declined to join the Union Army because of family obligations. But, in 1862, Harrison decided to enlist and he became a colonel in command of a regiment of Indiana volunteers. Harrison did not see much action until 1864 when his regiment joined in General William Sherman’s Georgia campaign. Calhoun believed that Harrison saw more battles during that Georgia campaign than his grandfather did in his nearly 30 years in the Army. Harrison was a Brigadier General when the war ended.

Harrison won another term as Supreme Court reporter for Indiana in 1864, despite his military obligations. While he received offers to run for higher office, Harrison declined them until 1872, when he tried to win the Republican nomination for governor of Indiana. However, Harrison did not prevail at the state convention.

In 1876, Harrison did get the nomination after the first nominee dropped out of the race. Harrison lost to the Democratic candidate, James Williams, by about 5,000 votes.

Harrison’s strong showing in the governor’s race started to get people talking about him as a Presidential candidate in 1880. Harrison’s time had not come though. James Garfield won the Republican nomination as a dark horse choice and, ultimately, the Presidency.

In 1881, Harrison finally got a chance to shine when he won a Senate seat. Harrison did not compile a distinguished legislative record, but he was still regarded as a possible contender in the 1884 Presidential race.

But, in 1884, perennial contender James G. Blaine of Maine won the nomination. Harrison and fellow Hoosier, Postmaster General Walter Q. Gresham, ended up in a bitter feud over whom the Indiana delegation should support. This ultimately took away any chance either man had of winning nomination as President or Vice President. Blaine lost to Democrat Grover Cleveland, the first Republican to lose a Presidential election since John C. Fremont in 1856.

Back in Indiana, the Democrats had managed to gain control of the Legislature through a redistricting measure. The Indiana legislature did not reelect Harrison in 1887, choosing Democrat David Turpie by one vote.

In 1888, President Cleveland appeared to be a vulnerable incumbent. Cleveland had shepherded a tariff reduction act that was extremely unpopular in the Northern states, which were dependent upon protective tariffs for their industries.

The Republican race for the nomination in 1888 was wide open after Blaine announced he would not run.  Harrison and Ohio Senator John Sherman were the front-runners, but no one had a wide base of support.

Although Blaine was not running, it did not mean he was not working behind the scenes to pick a nominee he liked. Blaine decided that Harrison’s policies were the most in line with his, and after several ballots, Harrison won the nomination. New York banker Levi Morton was chosen as his running mate. Cleveland was renominated with a new running mate, Allen Thurman. (Vice President Thomas Hendricks had passed away after eight months on the job.)

Interest in the election was huge. The tariff was the main issue and that was causing the North and South to dig in deeply along partisan lines. It was likely that a few key swing states, such as Indiana, would be crucial.

The election had its seamy sides to it. A Republican partisan in California wrote a letter to the British minister to the United States, Sir Lionel Sackville-West, pretending to be a British subject with the name of Murchison. “Murchison” asked Sackville-West which candidate would be better for England. Sackville-West wrote back that Cleveland would be preferable. The letter was made public, stirring up a fury among Irish-Americans.

The Republicans would also be caught in a scandal known as the “Blocks of Five.” A Republican Party official instructed Indiana precinct captains to divide all undeclared voters into “blocks of five” and use an appropriate amount of money to buy their votes. It is generally believed that Harrison was ignorant of this scheme.

When the votes were all counted, Cleveland had won the most popular votes by a margin of 90,000 (48.6% to 47.8%). But, Harrison prevailed in the electoral vote by a margin of 233-168. Harrison won the crucial states of New York (36 electoral votes) and Indiana (15) by less than 1%. The vote broke along almost completely along sectional lines.

When Harrison formed his Cabinet, he made Blaine his Secretary of State and William Windom his Secretary of Treasury. Both men had held these positions while James Garfield was President, but had stepped down after Garfield’s assassination.

The Republicans in the new 51st Congress did not waste much time in trying to enact much of Harrison’s agenda. The government was running a large surplus at the time (about $100 million) and there was plenty of spending to go around. Civil War veterans pensions were extended. Tariffs were raised. In 1890, the Sherman Antitrust Law went into effect, the first Federal law enacted that to prohibit unfair business cartels and monopolies. Although Harrison’s Administration would not do much to enforce the act during his time in office, the Sherman Antitrust Law is the cornerstone of all antitrust law in the United States today.

John Sherman, besides the antitrust law, also gave his name to another important law dealing with the economy, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Western farmers wanted to increase the amount of silver used as legal tender because: 1) they were in debt and needed more money and 2) there was a lot of silver around in the West. Eastern financiers did not want silver in circulation for fear of it hurting the price of gold and creating inflation. Farmers did not mind inflation because their debts were not going to going up because of them.

The Silver Purchase Act required the government to buy some silver every year and issue bank certificates that could be exchanged for either gold or silver. This compromise was supposed to give Harrison and the Republicans some breathing room from a growing populist movement in the West. Ultimately, the plan would not work in any way.

Another law Harrison tried to get through Congress in 1890 was a Civil Rights Bill. Sponsored by Representative Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, the bill would have allowed the Federal government to supervise any Congressional election after receiving a petition from a specified number of citizens. Southern Democrats filibustered this bill and threatened to do the same to the Silver Purchase Act. The Republicans decided that silver trumped civil rights and backed off on the legislation.

The 51st Congress became known as the Billion Dollar Congress for the amount of spending it authorized. In the 1890 off-year elections, Democrats hammered the Republicans for the excessive spending. The Republicans, who had controlled the House by a 172-159 margin, found themselves in a 236-88 hole after the 1890 election. Because of new states joining the union (North and South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming), the Republicans did maintain a majority in the Senate.

With a hostile Congress making it impossible to accomplish anything on his domestic agenda, Harrison spent much of his final two years concentrating on foreign affairs. The United States ran into problems with Canada (and, by extension, Great Britain), Italy, and Chile.

The problem with Canada was the hot button issue of pelagic sealing. The United States had granted a company a limited license to hunt seals on the Pribilof Islands of Alaska. The company was not allowed to hunt the seals in the open ocean (pelagic sealing.) Canadian sealers believed that once the seals reached international waters, they were fair game, and part of the unique Canadian right to beat up baby seals.

In the 1890s, Canada’s foreign affairs were handled by Great Britain. Harrison used the pelagic sealing dispute to show the British that the United States was not going to back down to a European power. Harrison threatened military action to protect the seals. Eventually, the Canadians backed down and agreed to arbitration. And, in 1893, the Canadians prevailed and won the right to hunt seals to their hearts’ content. (Well, almost.)

The dispute with Italy involved a lynch mob in New Orleans. In 1891, some Mafia-connected men were acquitted of the murder of a New Orleans police lieutenant. A mob, led by the mayor of New Orleans himself, killed 11 Italian-Americans, three of  them Italian nationals. (In New Orleans, there’s no better justice than mob justice.)  Italy recalled its minister from the U.S., prohibited beef imports from the U.S., and demanded an indemnity. Harrison held the line and only gave the Italians a profound apology. (Harrison believed that the Federal government had no role to play in eliminating lynchings.)

The dispute with Chile was also in 1891 when some sailors from the U.S.S. Baltimore were attacked by a mob in Valparaiso while on shore leaves. Two sailors were killed. Harrison did get Chile to apologize and pay a small indemnity ($75,000).

Harrison ended up doing much of the work of Secretary of State James Blaine. The former Maine Senator was not a hard-worker, which rankled the industrious Harrison. Further complicating matters, Blaine was suffering from kidney disease. Blaine was openly contemptuous of Harrison’s performance as President, while Harrison found Blaine to be a lazy slugabed.

In June of 1892, Blaine resigned as Secretary of State to make one final run for President. However, there was little or no support for Blaine among Republican regulars. No one wanted to dump the incumbent Harrison from the ticket. (Blaine passed away in January of 1893.)

Harrison did want to dump his Vice President, Levi Morton. Morton had done little to advance Harrison’s legislative agenda in the Senate, especially the Civil Rights Bill. So, Morton was sent packing and New York newspaper publisher Whitelaw Reid was put on the ticket.

The Democrats decided to go with former President Grover Cleveland. He had won the popular vote in both of his earlier runs, so why mess with success? Adlai Stevenson was nominated for Vice President.

1892 was a turbulent year in the United States. A strike at an Andrew Carnegie-owned steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, turned deadly when striking workers fired on Pinkerston agents hired as strikebreakers. Four people died in an exchange of gunfire. The Pennsylvania National Guard had to come to Homestead to restore order.

The growing populist movement among Western farmers had finally coalesced into an actual third party. The group named itself the People’s Party, but was more commonly called the Populist Party. James B. Weaver of Iowa would be its standard bearer in the Presidential Election of 1892.

The Silver Purchase Act was not having its desired effect. Nearly everyone given a greenback that they could exchange for either silver or gold, opted to take gold. This created a serious drain on gold reserves, as well as concentrating more wealth in the East.

Amidst the Presidential campaign and economic crises, Harrison’s wife, Caroline, was dying. At first doctors did not know what was causing her general weakness. Tuberculosis turned out to be the culprit. On October 25, 1892, two weeks before Election Day, Caroline Harrison passed away.

Out of respect, Cleveland ceased campaigning, so as not to take advantage of Harrison’s grief. The final days before the election were grim as Harrison faced a likely defeat to go along with his wife’s passing.

Cleveland won his rematch with Harrison. He edged him in the popular vote by about 400,000 votes nationwide. Cleveland won 277 electoral votes. Harrison won 145. Weaver won four Western states worth 22 electoral votes.

Soon after Cleveland took office, the economy collapsed. Cleveland’s economic policies were not much different from Harrison’s however. It would take the better part of four years for the economy to regain its strength.

In retirement, Harrison worked as a trustee for Purdue University. He also resumed his law practice on a limited basis. In 1896, Harrison remarried. His late wife’s niece, Mame Dinnick, was a 38-year old widow, who had long been a close family friend of both Benjamin and Caroline Harrison. Harrison’s daughter and son refused to attend the wedding of their father, accusing Mame Dinnick of carrying on an affair with their father while their mother was dying. (Calhoun does not put much stock in that accusation.) In 1897, Harrison fathered a child at the age of 63.

In 1900, Harrison traveled to The Hague to argue a border dispute for Venezuela against Great Britain. Harrison brought his new family along with him. The job was taxing. Harrison wrote nearly all of an 800-page brief for the arbitrators. Harrison and the Venezuelans lost the case.

In February of 1901, Harrison developed a cold. This turned into pneumonia, which proved fatal to him on March 13, 1901.

Benjamin Harrison’s story is one not often mentioned in history books. He is remembered more for being the last President to wear a beard. Harrison, like many politicians of the Gilded Age, owed much of his success to friends in high places. Politicans from this era are rarely judged on their ideas, but mostly on the company they kept.

Harrison was an honest man (especially by Gilded Age standards) who never had broad appeal to the rest of the United States. The nation was still not completely over the effects of the Civil War. Harrison made some effort to edge the United States into a more modern era of politics. But, it would take the next two Republican Presidents, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, to revamp the American political system.

Other stuff: Benjamin Harrison’s birthplace was also the home of William Henry Harrison at the time. The home is not there anymore, but there is a marker. Harrison’s home in Indianapolis is now a museum run by the President Benjamin Harrison Foundation. Harrison is buried next to both of his wives at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Harrison’s White House was the first to have electric lighting. In general, the Harrisons were afraid to touch any switches as they thought they would be electrocuted. They tended to leave the lights on.

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Chester Alan Arthur by Zachary Karabell

President #21, C-SPAN Historians ranking #32

Muttonchops to the Rescue!

chesterarthurChester Alan Arthur, perhaps more than any other person to hold the job, never wanted to be President. He seemed stunned that he was put in that position. Then again, he accepted the job as Vice President, which does make you likely to become President. Ultimately, Arthur did about as well as you could expect for someone who had no previous experience in elected office and was suffering from a terminal disease.

Zachary Karabell, who has written about the 1948 Truman campaign, along with many other essays, drew the task of trying to make one of the lesser-known Presidents in one of the lesser-known periods of American history (the Gilded Age), and tries to show how Arthur was able to stumble his way to the Presidency, and, fortunately, stumble his way out without causing too much trouble, and even doing some good.

The backstory for Chester Arthur is one that is far from exciting. He was born on October 5, 1829 in North Fairfield, Vermont. At some point in his life, he started telling people he was born in 1830 (perhaps he was bad at math) and that was the year that the New York Times reported in his obituary and what was put on his gravestone.

Arthur’s father was a minister, and he eventually moved the family to New York. Chester Arthur ended up attending Union College in Schenectady. Like many educated men of his time, he gravitated toward a law practice. He learned the law through an apprenticeship with a law firm headed by abolitionists. Arthur became a strident opponent of slavery and  gravitated to the newly formed Republican Party in 1856.

In 1859, Arthur married his wife Nell and started a lucrative law practice in New York City. When the Civil War started, Arthur stayed out of the military in defence to Nell, who had family in Virginia. However, Arthur did get a job as a quartermaster, where he brough his considerable organizational skills to bear. Arthur became friends with the elite Republicans of New York.

After the Civil War, the American political system was not a pretty sight. Political machines dominated the landscape. The principal method of control was patronage. One group would get in a position to dole out jobs to friends, those friends would appoint more friends, and all of the people who got these jobs were expected to kick back a contribution (called “assessment”) to the party boss.

Very little in the way of issues was ever discussed in any election at this time. All that mattered were personalities and the sheer raw number of voters needed to get someone elected. Chester Arthur found himself to be an important of one machine, the Roscoe Conkling machine of New York.

Conkling was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1868. He quickly established himself as formidable party boss for New York. Federal jobs throughout the state were given to Conkling’s friends. Nominally, the President (in this case Ulysses Grant) would nominate the person, but it was almost always Conkling pulling the strings.

Arthur had been a loyal fundraiser for Conkling and the Republicans. In 1871, Arthur was appointed to one of the most lucrative Federal jobs at the time: Customs Collector of the Port of New York.

While this may have seemed like a dreary job, it was actually quite powerful. New York had, by far, the busiest port in the nation. Arthur was in a position to hand out hundreds of jobs (there were over 1300 people at the facility.) Also, under Federal moiety laws, if a Collector discovered that someone  had failed to pay a sufficient duty on goods that were being brought into the Port of New York, the Collector was entitled to a portion of the discrepancy. Through the moiety law, Arthur’s annual income went up from its stated $12,000 a year to close to $50,000 per year. (Adjusted for inflation, Arthur was pulling in a little under $900,000 in today’s dollars.)

The extraordinarily contentious election of Rutherford Hayes in 1876 (the election wasn’t decided until shortly before the inauguration) brought the idea of political reform to the forefront.  Although as Karabell points out, the concept of reform wasn’t much at the time. Only the worst excesses were talked about. But one of those places talked about was the Port of New York.

Treasury Secretary John Sherman appointed John Jay (grandson of the first Chief Justice) to investigate possible wrongdoing in the New York Customhouse. Jay’s report gave evidence of people having no-show jobs, or ones involving little or no work for rather high pay. The hiring process was pretty much just “So who do you know?” Arthur was singled out for rarely showing up for work before noon. This was because Arthur rarely showed up before  noon.

Hayes decided that he should remove Arthur from office. This wasn’t easy. Conkling, who wanted to keep the reliable Arthur in a position of power, fought the dismissal at every turn.

The first nominee to replace Arthur was a man named Theodore Roosevelt. (You might know his son of the same name.) His nomination was rejected by the Senate in 1877.  In 1878, Hayes suspended Arthur from his job during a Congressional recess and put in a replacement.

Arthur’s suspension (which turned into a dismissal) made him one of the most talked about men in America for period. Conkling’s supporters (known as the Stalwarts for their strong belief that Ulysses Grant should be elected a third time no matter what the cost) portrayed Arthur as a martyr. Conkling wanted to show how misguided reformers were for wanting to remove from office a dedicated public servant like Chester Arthur.

During this time, Arthur was raising money for Conkling. Arthur also became an important society figure, hosting numerous lavish dinners at New York’s famous Delmonico’s restaurant.

Early in 1880, Arthur’s wife Nell passed away at the age of 42 from pneumonia. Arthur was depressed for months over the loss of his beloved wife. But, he seemed to rebound in time to help out at the 1880 Republican Convention in Chicago.

The convention was deadlocked between Grant and James Blaine of Maine. Blaine’s supporters were called “Half-Breeds.” Originally this was supposed to be derisive because Blaine’s supporters were considered Half-Republican and Half-Democrat, but the term became a badge of honor.

On the 36th ballot, the Convention decided on a compromise choice, Ohio Representative James Garfield. Garfield was not identified with either the Stalwarts of the Half-Breeds. Garfield would be in favor of reform, but wouldn’t do anything too rash.

Garfield needed to choose a running mate. He felt he needed a Stalwart and a New Yorker. It was nearly impossible to win the election in 1880 without carrying New York. So, Garfield asked Arthur, who met the minimum qualifications.

History does not know for sure if Garfield actually thought that Arthur, who had never run for any office in his life, would take the job. Perhaps Garfield was just asking Arthur to be polite and to placate Conkling. However, Arthur accepted the offer.

Conkling was livid that his friend would betray him. But, Arthur pointed out that for someone like him, being Vice President was about the best he could hope for in life. It wasn’t like Arthur ever thought he would become President.

Garfield squeaked out a win over Winfield Scott Hancock in 1880 in an election decided on a variety of issues, none of them important then or even now. Arthur was sworn in to office on March 4, 1881, and became President of a Senate that was divided equally between Republicans and Democrats.

Early on in Garfield’s administration, there was high drama. Garfield, upon the advice of Secretary of State James Blaine, decided to not appoint any of Conkling’s suggested candidates for office in New York. Garfield appointed people who were opposed to Conkling. Conkling resigned his office to show his displeasure. New York’s other senator, Thomas Platt, resigned as well. Arthur, who was never close to Garfield, became even more isolated as his political patron was now out of power. (Conkling and Platt hoped to be reelected to their seats by the New York state legislature, but they weren’t.)

Arthur’s world changed on July 2, 1881. A crazed man named Charles Guiteau fired a shot into Garfield’s back at a train station in Washington. Garfield lingered near death for the entire summer and passed away (almost entirely the result of horrendous medical care discussed here) on September 19, 1881. Chester Arthur, the amiable party loyalist, was now President.

DSCF0857

Arthur being sworn in

The country didn’t know what to make of the new President. Most thought he was just a party hack. Arthur likely didn’t think that he was the sort of man who would become President. But, we don’t know. Arthur had most of his papers destroyed shortly before his death. Even if he hadn’t, he wasn’t the type to keep a detailed diary of his thoughts or works.

Arthur didn’t move in to the White House for three months. He allowed Garfield’s widow time to move out. He also had the White House redecorated, hiring a young designer named Louis Tiffany. Arthur may not have known exactly what he was going to do as President, but he knew that he was going to make his home look stylish. In doing so, Arthur tossed out over 80 years worth of furnishings dating back to John Adams’ time.

Garfield’s Cabinet appointees resigned to allow Arthur could choose his own. Only the Secretary of War, Robert Lincoln, stayed on. Blaine was replaced by Frederick Frelinghuysen, much to the dismay of copy editors throughout the United States.

Arthur did not enjoy having his home and office being in the same place. He realized that his job was not one he could ever take time off from. He was now no longer everybody’s friend. He was everybody’s boss.

Complicating matters was Arthur developing Bright’s Disease. For many years, a variety of kidney ailments were grouped under this name. Arthur had what would be called today glomerulonephritis. Today, Arthur would have received blood pressure medication, kidney dialysis, or even a transplant. But, in the 1880s, all Arthur could do was watch his diet and hope for the best. However, he was living on borrowed time. He was often sluggish and lost his appetite. For Arthur, one of America’s most notable gourmands, not being able to eat was a crushing blow.

Despite Arthur’s illness (which he did not reveal until he left office) and his lack of experience, the new President did a respectable job in office. Arthur does not have a lot of accomplishments attached to his name because Congress was too closely divided, with even both parties being split over a variety of issues.

One of the first major pieces of legislation that Arthur had to deal with was the Chinese Exclusion Act. California politicians decided that the growing Chinese population in the state was a dangerous thing and something had to be done about it. The danger was that the Chinese were arriving in large numbers. And they were becoming economically successful.

If there’s one thing Americans don’t like, it’s immigrants arriving and doing well. It’s been an undercurrent in American politics from the establishment of the Jamestown colony to today. In 1882, the Chinese became the immigrant group that Americans chose to distrust.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, in its first form, prohibited the entry of any more Chinese into the United States, unless they could prove special circumstances. (These circumstances usually involved not wanting to get a job in California.) This prohibition was supposed to last 20 years.

Arthur, much to the surprise of everyone, vetoed the bill. Arthur felt that: 1) the law was fundamentally unjust because it singled out a group of people to prevent them from entering the United States. Arthur found this to be contrary to the spirit of what the Civil War was fought for. 2) Arthur believed that the law would violate a commercial treaty that the U.S. had with China. Arthur knew it was in the U.S. interest to maintain good relations with the lucrative Chinese market.

Stalwart Republicans couldn’t believe that Arthur didn’t rubber stamp their bill. The bill was reworked to lower the exclusion period to just ten years. Arthur, realizing that he had to approve some bill of this type or else completely lose any Republican support, signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law. Restrictions on Chinese immigration would not be lifted until 1943.

In 1883, Arthur was handed a setback from the Supreme Court. Five civil rights cases were decided at the same time by the Court and were called The Civil Rights Cases. The net effect of them was to invalidate the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The Court ruled that Congress did not have the right to legislate private acts, even if those acts were in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

..it would be running the slavery argument into the ground to make it apply to every act of discrimination which a person may see fit to make as to guests he will entertain, or as to the people he will take into his coach or cab or car; or admit to his concert or theatre, or deal with in other matters of intercourse or business….

Arthur spoke out against the Court, but he was powerless to change the decision. Nor did he ask for Congress to pass a different law.

In the mid-term elections in 1882, the Republicans suffered severe losses at the polls, losing control of the House. The biggest issue of the campaign was government reform. This happened, in part, because Garfield’s assassin, Guiteau, was described as a disgruntled job seeker. Guiteau became an emblem for excesses in the patronage system. (The fact that Guiteau was never seriously considered for a job by anyone was unimportant.)

During Congress’s lame duck session at the end of 1882, the Republicans decided that they had to push through a civil service bill of some kind, so they could recover in time for 1884. And so, the Pendleton Act (proposed by a Democrat) was rushed through Congress. It established the first set of Federal jobs that would be decided through competitive examinations instead of “just knowing the right guy.” Also, once people moved into these positions, they were much harder to remove. It was the first baby step to creating a Federal civil service. Whether that is good or bad depends upon where you get your paycheck I suppose.

In his final two years in the White House, Arthur spent most of his time on foreign affairs. A Pan American Congress tried to foster cooperation among Western Hemisphere nations. Also, the United States established diplomatic relations with Korea. Arthur got to see the dedication of the Brooklyn Bridge, considered the greatest engineering feat of its time.

However, Arthur was a man almost without a party. The man who had spent his time helping out his friends, found out he didn’t have as many once he was in charge. His wife was dead. He was dying of kidney disease. Chester Arthur might have been the most powerful man in America, and perhaps the least happy. (Karabell suggests that Arthur would have been considered to have been clinically depressed.)

Arthur, even though he knew he wouldn’t live long, let his name be put into nomination for President by the Republicans in 1884. Arthur, mostly as a courtesy to an incumbent President, but also a way to make Blaine suffer, got enough votes to force the nomination to a fourth ballot. Blaine won the nomination, but would lose the election to Democrat Grover Cleveland.

After leaving the White House, Arthur moved back to New York and tried to resume his law practice. But, his health went downhill quickly. On November 16, 1886, Arthur passed away from a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He was just 57 (although news reports of the time said he was 56 using the erroneous birthday.)

It’s not an easy job to make Chester Arthur interesting. Karabell gives it a good shot, but he even recognizes that he has an uphill battle. As Henry Wiggen says about Bruce Pearson at the end of Bang the Drum Slowly, “He wasn’t a bad fellow. No worse than most and better than some.”

Chester Arthur didn’t want to be President. But, he had to do it. Under the circumstances, with almost no preparation, he did a far better job than anyone could have hoped for.

Other stuff: During the election of 1880, opponents of Garfield and Arthur claimed that Arthur was born in either Ireland or Canada and was ineligible for office. The charges were proven to be unfounded. However, the cottage where Arthur’s Irish ancestors lived in Cullybackey in County Antrim is an historic site run by the British Government.

Arthur’s birthplace in Vermont is a state historic site. He is buried alongside his wife in the Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands, New York.

William McKinley by Kevin Phillips

President #25, C-SPAN Historians’ Ranking #16

The War With Spain Starts Mainly With the Maine

mckinleyWhile many kids grew up with toy soldiers, my childhood featured a set of plastic toy Presidents. (And much to my glee, a complete set is on display at the Smithsonian now. It includes an intact Lyndon Johnson. Our LBJ was missing part of his right arm. The family set remains, as it has since 1970, in a Pangburn’s Frappe Creams box. It is presently at my brother’s home in Clayton, Missouri. You can make an appointment to see them.) While these should have been educational toys for my brothers and I, we tended to use them to set up football plays. When forming teams, Taft and Cleveland were almost always used as linemen, but so was William McKinley. He just looked so big.

As it turned out, McKinley wasn’t a big guy. He was actually just 5’7″ and probably didn’t weigh all that much. I really should have been using McKinley as a wide receiver or a running back.

So, what is the point of this introductory story? After reading Kevin Phillips’ biography of McKinley, it seems that there was a lot I didn’t know about our 25th President. Have I spent my whole life completely misunderstanding the life of William McKinley? And if I have, does anyone care? If you don’t care, presumably you’ll stop reading.

OK. Now, I’ll continue for those who might care or just aren’t reading carefully.

I had been taught that McKinley was little more than a tool of Big Business, who used him as a puppet to line their pockets. I was also led to believe that McKinley also started the United States on an imperialist path because he was cowed into it by a sensationalist press. Finally, I knew McKinley had been assassinated in 1901, and a young Theodore Roosevelt took over and brought America to true greatness.

However, Phillips thinks that McKinley has been greatly underestimated by historians. He argues that McKinley was much more independent minded than people gave him credit for. McKinley was not the last President before the Progressive movement swept the country; rather, he was the first Progressive President, according to Phillips. Only an untimely assassination early in his second term prevented McKinley from taking his place alongside the likes of Jefferson, Jackson, and the two Roosevelts.

William McKinley was born on January 29, 1843 in Niles, Ohio. He attended both Mount Union and Allegheny Colleges, but did not receive a degree from either institution. When the Civil War began, McKinley enlisted. One of the officers McKinley served under was future president Rutherford Hayes. By the time war ended, McKinley had been promoted from private all the way to brevet major. McKinley’s Civil War experiences would help to shape his future.

During the war, McKinley became well-known among Ohio Republicans. McKinley attended law school in Albany, New York and started up a practice back home in Canton, Ohio.

While in Canton, McKinley met and married a wealthy woman, Ida Saxton. The couple had two children who died young. These deaths, combined with the death of Ida’s mother, turned out to be both a physical and mental strain on Ida. She developed a form of epilepsy and was bed-ridden for most of the rest of her life. When she would venture out in public, she would frequently have a seizure. William would cover her face with a napkin and carry her out of the room. William would be intensely, yet quietly devoted to Ida for the rest of his life.

By 1877, McKinley had won a seat in the House of Representatives. He served until 1891; although, he was out of office for one term starting in 1883.

In his final term in the House, McKinley was chairman of the House Ways and Mean Committee. He authored a protective tariff bill that bore his name in 1890. McKinley actually didn’t like the finished product all that much. But, McKinley supported the bill anyway. However, the high tariffs in the bill proved unpopular at the ballot box. In the 1891 election, McKinley was voted out of office.

However, McKinley wasn’t out of politics for long as he was quickly elected Governor of Ohio later in the year. He was sworn into office in 1892.

McKinley surprised some in office with his support for the plight of a group of starving coal miners. They had sent a telegram to him describing their plight. McKinley was moved and marshaled State resources to help the miners and their families. McKinley also started a statewide charity drive to help others in need.

Around the same time, McKinley was also in dire financial straits personally. A loan he had given a friend had gone bad, and McKinley was now facing a debt of over $100,000. However, thanks to the financial resources of Ida (whose money was tied up in a trust) and the help of many of Ohio’s major businessmen, including Marcus Hanna, McKinley was able to avoid bankruptcy.

Some had already thought of McKinley as a Presidential candidate back in 1892; but, McKinley knew that 1896 would be a better time to run. Also, McKinley did not want to look disloyal to Republican party faithfuls by unseating a Republican incumbent, Benjamin Harrison.

1896 would be a good year for Republicans. The main reason for this was that the country had entered into a deep recession starting in 1893 (the Panic of 1893 as it was called.) The Democratic party was being taken over by candidates who wanted to increase the use of silver over gold as currency. However, at the time, silver was far more plentiful than gold and the Democratic plan would have led to a high rate of inflation.

The Democrats nominated a previously little known Nebraska Representative named William Jennings Bryan as their candidate for President. Bryan had delivered a stirring address where he said, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

Bryan was the first nominee of either major party in the United States to run a campaign that was targeted almost exclusively at the lower classes. He viewed the election as a battle between the forces of good in rural areas against those of evil in the cities. “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

McKinley won the Republican nomination easily. He and his advisors decided not to try to match Bryan’s oratorical feats on the campaign trail. Instead, McKinley ran a “front porch” campaign. Crowds of supporters trained into Canton to listen to the Republican nominee.

The Election of 1896 would be a pivotal one in American history. McKinley triumphed with 51.1% of the popular vote, and winning in the Electoral College by a margin of 271-176. McKinley was able to hold on to a few key states in the Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and North Dakota) and the West (California and Oregon) to win the election. The United States was not going down a populist path.

Soon after taking office, McKinley began to firm up American support for the gold standard. The economy began to improve. The growing economy needed markets to sell its goods. The United States was going to need foreign markets to take more exports.

The popular way of achieving this at the time was to take over some distant point on the globe. European powers were carving up Africa and parts of Asia. The United States needed to get into the act.

The first place the United States aimed to add was Hawai’i. The island group had overthrown its monarchy during the second Grover Cleveland administration and wanted to be annexed by the U.S. Cleveland did not feel this was right; but, McKinley had no reservations. By 1898, Hawai’i had become a U.S. territory.

Closer to home, there were rumblings in Cuba. An insurgency by Cubans against the ruling Spanish authority had gathered sympathy in the United States. The Spanish began to gather Cubans from the countryside and put them into what were called “concentration camps.” (At the time, this phrase did not have the same implication as it would during World War II. It just meant that there were a lot of people in one place.)

McKinley had ordered the Navy to protect U.S. interests in Cuba. The battleship Maine was in the harbor in Havana on February 15, 1898, when it exploded. The ship was destroyed and 267 men were killed.

American public opinion blamed Spain for the loss of life. Whether or not this was true is still hotly debated. However, McKinley was put into a position where he could no longer ignore Spanish atrocities in Cuba once they were combined with the deaths of American sailors.

Some wanted McKinley to ask for a declaration of war immediately. But, McKinley waited until April before asking Congress to declare war. This allowed American forces to gather themselves and prepare for war. McKinley feared that other European powers, namely Germany, would come to Spain’s aid.

However, that was not the case. The Navy was already in position in Manila to wipe out the Spanish fleet there when war was finally declared. Spanish troops in Cuba were easily beaten by a small American force. The war began on April 25, 1898 and was over on August 12. The United States ended up with control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.

More importantly, the United States Navy had grown from being the 12th largest in the world to the second largest, behind only Great Britain. The United States had served notice that it was a world power.

The popular view of the Spanish-American War was that McKinley vacillated before declaring war, and only overwhelming public opinion, and the influence of pro-war Cabinet members, such as Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, pushed McKinley into going to war. Phillips argues that McKinley was well aware of the situation, but only wanted war as a last resort. His Civil War experience had stayed with him. McKinley was greatly relieved that there were few casualties in this war.

In the 1898 midterm elections, McKinley and the Republicans lost just 19 seats, a good mark for that era. The Republicans still enjoyed a healthy 187-161 majority in the House. (There were nine Representatives from other parties.)

McKinley was personally popular. He pushed for higher tariffs, but on a more scientific basis. He wanted high tariffs only in areas that would help promote American business. In some areas, he wanted lower tariffs in order to help Americans buy cheaper goods. He also pushed to set up a series of reciprocal trade agreements with other countries. The last goal would not be achieved during his time in office, however.

After the war, McKinley made two key changes to his Cabinet.  John Hay took over as Secretary of State and Elihu Root became Secretary of War. Both men were capable diplomats and administrators. McKinley had originally staffed the job with political appointees, John Sherman and Russell Alger. When McKinley saw that neither man was up to the job, he eased them out. Hay and Root’s influences on American foreign policy would persist into the 1950s.

By the time the 1900 Election rolled around, it was evident that it was going to be a rematch of 1896. Bryan was still the Democratic nominee. McKinley had to find a new running mate. Garret Hobart, his Vice President, had passed away in 1899.

The Republican leaders wanted McKinley to choose Secretary of the Navy John Long. But, McKinley had his eye on New York Governor Thedore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, after famously serving in the Spanish-American War, had made enemies in New York with a property tax plan that many thought was just a scheme to redistribute wealth. However, the plan was popular among most New Yorkers. McKinley told the Republican Convention that he didn’t want Long as his running mate. Instead, he hinted that it should be Roosevelt. And so it was.

McKinley won about the same percentage of the popular vote in 1900, but his electoral lead was slightly larger (292-155). The Republican House contingent moved back up to 200 seats, a gain of 13.

With a healthy amount of political capital gained from a successful war, a booming economy, and a friendly Congress, McKinley likely had big plans for his second term, according to Phillips. McKinley was preparing a plan to go after business trusts, which he felt were undemocratic and anti-competitive. McKinley also was hoping to ease tensions between management and labor.

At the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, McKinley made a speech pushing for reciprocal trade agreements, one of his favorite issues. The day after the speech, September 6, 1901, McKinley went to shake hands with the crowd. One of the people in the crowd was a man named Leon Czolgosz, a Michigan native with anarchist sympathies. Czolgosz had concealed a revolver under a handkerchief. He fired twice at McKinley. The second bullet lodged deeply in McKinley, hitting several vital organs.

Although there was an X-ray machine available at the site, the device was in its infancy and no one knew if using it to find the bullet would cause more harm than good. McKinley lingered for eight days, passing away on September 14, 1901. Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as the 26th President, the youngest man (42 years old) to ever hold the office.

Phillips argues that if McKinley had not been assassinated, he would have accomplished just as much as Roosevelt did during his administration. McKinley’s problem was that he left a very short paper trail of his plans. McKinley’s thoughts about what he planned to do in his second term are very sketchy. Theodore Roosevelt followed most of McKinley’s policies, except that he was a far more charismatic figure. Phillips also asserts that Roosevelt did not push for any reciprocal trade agreements because he didn’t understand the issue as well as McKinley did.

The issue of America becoming a colonial power is one that is even more problematic. Phillips believes that it was a necessity for the U.S. to become one, both for strategic and economic reasons. Phillips asserts that McKinley tried his best to make the move as peacefully as possible. However, a bloody insurrection in the Philippines that would last for years past McKinley’s death may be evidence against that. Nevertheless, both Democratic (Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman) and Republican (Theodore Roosevelt) made the U.S. a world power. McKinley was the President who started the country on that path.

The best evidence for McKinley’s influence on American history is the legacy of his appointees. In an appendix, Phillips lists people appointed by or associated with McKinley who went on to greater fame. Besides Roosevelt, Hay, and Root, there was also McKinley’s secretary, George Corteylou, who would serve as the first Secretary of Commerce and Labor. Charles Dawes was Comptroller of the Currency under McKinley and would later win a Nobel Peace Prize for his plan to restructure Europe’s World War I debts and serve as Vice President under Calvin Coolidge. (There are 12 total listed by Phillips.)

However, McKinley has never been ascribed the fame in history that Phillips wish he had earned. The bright light of Theodore Roosevelt makes it difficult to appreciate William McKinley. This was even true during McKinley’s time as the linked cartoon seems to indicate. Also, the biggest political issue of McKinley’s era, the primacy of the gold standard, was made a nonissue after the Great Depression.

Phillips tries to make McKinley’s accomplishments out to be earth shattering, but not everyone might believe it. It’s hard to look back at McKinley and see if he had, in the words of George H.W. Bush, “the vision thing.” Theodore Roosevelt definitely did. McKinley worked quietly and often behind the scenes. And no matter what Phillips writes, McKinley will likely remain behind the scenes for most of us.

Theodore Roosevelt ended up on Mount Rushmore. William McKinley perhaps should have had a better fate than ending up as an offensive lineman in a game of toy presidents played by nerdy kids growing up in the San Fernando Valley.

Other stuff: The William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum is in Canton, Ohio. It is operated by the Stark County Historical Association. It is also McKinley’s burial spot.

The highest point in the United States is often referred to as Mount McKinley, although the native Athabaskan name of Denali is now also used to describe the 20,320 feet high peak in Alaska.

William McKinley was the first incumbent U.S. president to visit California. He was making plans to become the first president to visit outside the country before he died. Thedore Roosevelt would be the first U.S. President to visit a foreign country, Panama.

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Grover Cleveland by Henry F. Graff

President #22 and #24, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #21

I’m only telling you this once!

clevelandOften just regarded as a numerical oddity, Grover Cleveland served eight years as President during one of the most turbulent times in American history. America was still recovering from the Civil War. The nation was beset with violent labor strife. The economy  teetered on the brink of collapse. European powers were stretching out their empires and there was pressure for the U.S. to join in the fun.

And the man in the middle of much of this change was Grover Cleveland, a man who had vaulted from being mayor of Buffalo in 1881 to the White House in 1885. And is the story of this man an inspirational one for all of us?

From reading Henry F. Graff’s slim (only 138 pages if you don’t count the notes or index) book about Cleveland, the answer is no. Graff, a former professor at Columbia, tries his best to make us believe that Grover Cleveland had some special attributes that made him an especially great president. But, for the most part, Graff writes about a man who moved up the political ladder, mostly because he appeared to be more honest than most politicians of the era. This is a very low standard considering the state of American politics at the time.

Stephen Grover Cleveland (he dropped Stephen when he was young) was born in Caldwell, New Jersey in 1837, but spent most of his formative years in upstate New York. In 1854, after his father’s death, Cleveland decided it was time to go off and start a career. He was going to go to Cleveland, Ohio (my law career has been stymied by having no city named Timmermann) to study law as an apprentice to another lawyer. However, Cleveland ended up going to Buffalo to study after an uncle there gave him some financial help.

Cleveland was set up with a position in Buffalo’s most prestigious firm: Rogers, Bowen, and Rogers. The firm was famous because former president Millard Fillmore used to be a partner in it. And to this day, it is the only law firm to produce two presidents.

After passing the bar, Cleveland worked as an assistant district attorney for Erie County, but lost an election for the D.A. job. During the Civil War, Cleveland hired a substitute to take his place in the Union Army (which was perfectly legal and above board at the time).

In 1870, Cleveland won his first race when he was elected sheriff of Erie County. Cleveland presided over two executions, throwing open the trap door for two different men who were hanged. At the end of his term, Cleveland started a successful private law practice.

In 1881, Cleveland was elected mayor of Buffalo. And one year later, New York Democrats, soured by scandals among Tammany Hall Democrats in New York City, nominated Cleveland to run for governor. And Cleveland won that race.

Suddenly, Cleveland was placed in one of the most high profile state government jobs in the nation. It made him a contender for the White House in 1884.

However, it didn’t take much to be a Presidential contender in 1884. American politics was not producing its finer candidates at the time. Cleveland’s opponents at the Democratic convention were Thomas Bayard, Allen Thurman, and Benjamin Butler. Cleveland won on the second ballot.

The 1884 election would be fought on many topics. None of them were particularly germane to the problems of the country, however.

The Republican nominee was former Speaker of the House and Secretary of State James Blaine. The Republicans still liked to use the Civil War as a campaign issue (it was known as “waving the bloody shirt”). This time out, they were thwarted in an attempt to capitalize on that issue. First, Blaine, like Cleveland, had not served in the Civil War. Second, Civil War veterans were starting to age and die off and no longer as powerful as a voting bloc for the Republicans. A spike in immigration added new voters with no memory of the Civil War.

The Republicans did turn up a potential problem for Cleveland. Namely, Cleveland was suspected of fathering an illegitimate child, and then taking that child from his mother. Cleveland was prepared for this issue, and had told Democratic party officials about it. When asked for advice about what to do, Cleveland famously replied, “Tell the truth.”

And in this case, honesty was the best policy. The child was likely not Cleveland’s, but the offspring of a married friend of his, Oscar Folsom. Cleveland, as a bachelor, let his name be used as the father to avoid scandal. Cleveland also had provided for the child’s upbringing, and also made sure that the child was adopted into a good home. (The mother likely suffered from mental illness or an addiciton.)

The Democrats countered the Republicans bastard charges by accusing Blaine of corruption for receiving kickbacks from an Arkansas railroad in 1876 in exchange for political favors. There were incriminating letters to back this up, one of which was marked “Burn this letter.” The Democrats would derisively chant that phrase during any Republican rally.

Finally, a few days before the election, Blaine was being introduced at a rally in New York by a Presbyterian minister who described the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” Blaine quickly tried to dissociate himself from the comments, but it was too late. The large number of Irish voters in New York were incensed, and they swung in favor of Cleveland.

Cleveland carried New York by a little over 1,000 votes. He won nationwide by 32,000 votes, with a healthy lead in the Electoral College, 219 to 182.

Cleveland was the first Democrat to assume the Presidency since the Civil War (if you count Andrew Johnson as a Republican, which he sort of was.) There were going to be changes.

However, the Democrats expected Cleveland to engage in wide scale firings of Republicans in government jobs. But Cleveland eased up a bit, angering many supporters who were hoping to have favors cashed in. Cleveland, following the lead of Presidents Hayes and Arthur, tried to continue to reform the Federal Civil Service, although such reforms were hard to get through a Congress used to dealing in political patronage mixed with a dash of corruption and a pinch of graft.

Cleveland angered veterans groups by vetoing numerous pension bills, many of which were pushed through Congress as political favors for men who did little or no fighting during the Civil War. Cleveland also ordered the Army to return all captured Confederate battle flags (to whom is unclear to me.)

In May of 1886, a bomb thrown into the crowd at a labor rally in the Haymarket section of Chicago killed seven police officers. This event would presage other violence surrounding attempts by workers to organize for the next 50 years.

Although he was a bachelor when he entered the White House, Cleveland wouldn’t remain one for long. He had developed a fondness for the daughter of his friend Oscar Folsom. This young woman was born with the name Frank, which she changed to Frances, because life is hard for a girl named Frank. Cleveland had known this woman since birth. He bought Frank  her first crib.  When she was 21, Cleveland married Frank. And in the White House no less.

Perhaps today if there were a 49-year old bachelor president marrying a 21-year old woman that he had known since she was an infant, people might be a bit put off. But in 1886, this wasn’t considered that unusual. And the Clevelands went on to have a long and happy marriage that produced five children. Cleveland would always call his wife Frank also.

Toward the end of his first term, Cleveland pushed for a lower tariff. He felt that the system in place was hampering trade (tariffs tend to do that.) And the current tariff was making more than enough money for the country as the Treasury actually had a surplus.

Although Cleveland didn’t exactly negotiate anything remotely like today’s NAFTA, the tariff dropped enough to anger the American business establishment. And that, in turn, caused a flood of money to pour into Republican campaign coffers.

In 1888, Cleveland would win the popular vote over Republican Benjamin Harrison by 90,000 votes. But, he lost the electoral vote by a 233-168 margin. New York proved to be the key state, as Harrison won it by 15,000 votes.

The election of 1888 was also marred by some political chicanery. A California Republican wrote a letter, using the pseudonym “Murchison”, to the British minister to the U.S., Lord Lionel Sackville-West, asking him who he thought would be the best candidate for British interests in the upcoming election. Sackville-West wrote back saying that he thought Cleveland would better serve England.

When this news (The Murchison Letter) hit the papers, Cleveland, who had prided himself on his independence, looked like a tool of the British. And his Irish supporters in New York moved over to the Republican side.

Historical legend says that Frances Cleveland told the White House staff  in 1889 not to move around the furniture. Frances Cleveland said that she and her husband would be back in four years. Whether this was true is unclear, but the Clevelands did indeed return in 1893.

Harrison’s presidency was marred by a Populist uprising from rural interests, who demanded that the Federal Government start issuing more currency backed by silver* (which was being produced in mass quantities compared to gold.) This was combined with the Republicans imposing a very high tariff. So, there were fewer cheap goods coming into the country, and there was a lot of inflated currency around to spend (silver certificates). Hilarity did not ensue.

* To give you an idea of the problem, silver advocates wanted to maintain the arbitrary ratio of the price of gold being 16 times the price of silver. In 2009, the price of gold is about 65 times the price of silver. The disparity wasn’t as great in the 1890s, but it was still substantial. I’d explain this better, but I’m not paid to be an economist.

Another major labor action marred by violence, the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892, occurred a few months before the election. The Carnegie Steel Corporation hired Pinkerton detectives (Graff calls them “detectives”) as strikebreakers. Striking workers fired on the Pinkertons, killing ten of them.

The Democrats, with few other prospects on the horizon, trotted out Cleveland again in 1892. He was still popular, and he had still won the most popular votes the last time out. In the rematch, Cleveland bested Harrison by over 400,ooo votes, and won 277 electoral votes to 145 for Harrison and 22 for Populist Party candidate James Weaver. Cleveland became just the second president to win the popular vote three straight times, joining Andrew Jackson.

Cleveland’s second term began inauspiciously. The weather was bitterly cold on Inauguration Day and a small crowd came out to watch the ceremonies and parade.

Soon after taking office, a major financial crisis, the Panic of 1893, set in. All of the silver currency that was floating around was wreaking havoc with the financial system. Foreign creditors were demanding payment in gold. But, Western interests didn’t want to give up their silver. There wasn’t enough gold to pay foreign creditors.

To further complicate matters, Cleveland was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on his soft palate. Since Cleveland’s vice president, Adlai Stevenson (grandfather of this guy), was a silver money supporter (unlike Cleveland who backed the gold standard), there were grave concerns that the financial markets would collapse further upon the news of Cleveland’s illness.

Cleveland had his surgery done in secret, on a yacht that was floating up and down the Hudson River. First, surgeons removed the tumor, and then later a dental appliance was formed so that Cleveland’s mouth looked normal. His speech would be unaffected. News of Cleveland’s illness would not be made public until 1917.

The economy did recover. However, Cleveland used a method that would not be associated with the Democratic Party of today. Cleveland asked New York bankers, principally J.P. Morgan, to supply the government with enough gold (3.5 million ounces) to build up its reserves and help ease the credit markets. Morgan likely made millions of dollars from deals he negotiated with foreign suppliers. Morgan would later be asked by Congress to reveal how much he made on the deal. Morgan wouldn’t say.

Cleveland faced two major foreign policy crises in his second term:

The first was a border dispute between Britain and Venezuela. The British argued that the border of their colony, British Guyana, stretched much further west than what Venezuela thought. This would have given Britain a considerable chunk of the Orinoco Valley.  Ships and soldiers prepared to fight before the two sides apparently realized that no one really cared about this border (and Britain was caught up in the Boer War).

The second problem was with Hawai’i. In 1893, a group of American plantation owners dethroned Queen Liliuokalani and established a provisional government, hoping for annexation by the United States. However, Cleveland refused to annex the islands. He rejected the idea that the U.S. Government would sponsor the overthrow of a legitimate government. Cleveland’s objections only served to postpone annexation until 1898, when he was out of office.

Cleveland faced another labor problem in 1894 when Pullman workers went on strike. This led to a strike by nearly all railroad workers in the country, crippling the transportation system.

The center of the crisis was in Chicago, where union leader Eugene Debs promised that the strike would prevent all trains, even those carrying the mail, from travelling through Chicago. Cleveland reacted by sending in soldiers to operate the train. His Attorney General, Richard Olney, received an injunction against the strikers. Once Debs violated the injunction, he was arrested and the strike was crushed.

The kindly mayor from Buffalo now appeared to be nothing more than a tool of Eastern capitalists. He was no longer the honest reformer of government.

In 1896, Cleveland toyed with the idea of another term. This time, the Democrats tried to tap into the Populist movement, nominating William Jennings Bryan, who made “free silver” (aka inflated currency), his platform. Cleveland watched his party go down to defeat, although he wasn’t broken up by it, as he thought Bryan would have ruined the country.

Cleveland retired to Princeton, New Jersey and did typical ex-president jobs, such as writing his memoirs, giving speeches, and picking up a lot of cash. He passed away in 1908.

Grover Cleveland’s time is a fascinating era in American history, with many different sociological and political changes. But from reading Graff’s book, it doesn’t seem that Grover Cleveland was nearly as interesting as the time he lived in. He was a man who was along for the ride. Graff describes Cleveland as man without charisma and without any knowledge of handling public relations (Cleveland made White House reporters wait outside for stories.). Grover Cleveland was not a person who defined his era. He just tried his best to get through it.

Other stuff: The Grover Cleveland Birthplace is located in Caldwell, Jersey. It is operated by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

Cleveland’s unique status as the 22nd and 24th Presidents wasn’t decided officially until the 1950s. According to a New York Times article from January 10, 1950, the Congressional Directory identified Cleveland as both the 22nd and 24th President for the first time, changing Harry Truman from being the 32nd President to the 33rd. Truman believed he was the 32nd President, however. But, when Dwight Eisenhower was inaugurated in 1953, he identified himself as the 34th President. The 1950 article cites an opinion by an anonymous “State Department legal adviser” in 1945 that said that Cleveland had to be the 24th President as well as the 22nd because, logically, you couldn’t have the 22nd President serving in office after the 23rd.

Cleveland had a different running mate in each of his three presidential campaigns. Thomas Hendricks was his first Vice President (he also ran as Samuel Tilden’s running mate in 1876), but he passed away in 1885. Thurman was Cleveland’s running mate in 1888. Stevenson was his running mate in 1892. Stevenson would run for Vice President again in 1900 alongside Bryan.

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