Gilded Age

Bandit Roost by Jacob Riis

Bandit Roost (59 Mulberry Street in New York City), Photo by Jacob Riis, 1888

Mark Twain called the late 19th century the Gilded Age as a play on Golden Age, referring to the way people gilded things with a thin layer to make them appear as solid gold.  His novel by that same name satirizes the greed and corruption of the times.  Those traits defined the age in some ways — maybe they do all ages — but it was also an era of tremendous economic growth as we saw in the last chapter.  With the economy expanding and changing so quickly, political parties were less defined in their platforms and constituents than they are today.  The Republicans — or GOP, for Grand Old Party — spurred industry but didn’t appeal to the masses of workers who made the engine run.  Yet the Democrats didn’t take full advantage of the opening that presented them.  That left a void filled by more active third parties than at any time in American history.  In this chapter, we’ll look at how the political system responded to the growing economy of the industrial age and large-scale immigration.

Political Machines
The Democratic Party struggled to reinvent itself after the Civil War.  They were, in effect, the losers of the war, but remained solidly in control of the Southern states after the return of Redeemer (former Confederate) politicians in the 1870s.  Democrats supported the Ku Klux Klan in the South while, in the North, they catered to the very Catholic, Jewish and Eastern European immigrants the post-Reconstruction incarnations of the Klan hated and hoped to keep out of the country.  They were a mess because they cast such a wide regional and ethnic net to appeal to workers.  In the North, they appealed to immigrants by offering an informal safety net in an era before institutionalized welfare.

When immigrants arrived in New York, they were processed in centers like Castle Gardens or, later, Ellis Island.  Onshore, a local precinct captain, alderman or ward boss greeted them — a foot soldier for the Democratic Party.  They offered to set the family up in a tenement apartment, find them a job, or take care of other little concerns to ease their transition.  They might find a school for the kids, keep utilities functioning or even turn on the fire hydrant in Summer heat.  In exchange, it was understood they would vote Democrat.  In fact, they had to vote Democrat, or else.  By maintaining single-party rule over big cities, Democrats created rings, or political machines.  Both parties ran machines and still do depending on how you define them, but they’re most famously associated with big-city Democrats in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Boss Tweed Caricature Cartoon

Boss Tweed Caricature by Thomas Nast Harper’s Weekly, 1871

Democrats headquartered at Tammany Hall in New York City were infamous, as were their leaders Boss Tweed and George Washington Plunkitt.  The mostly Irish-American machines were ideal for politicians looking to line their own pockets through graft: skimmed profit made possible by controlling the municipal government, including city hall, police, and utilities.  Politicians in charge of dispensing contracts to construction companies expected kickbacks from winning bidders — enough to pay other staff to look the other way and keep the rest for themselves.  There was a lot of money to be made, as cities were growing rapidly and putting in streetcars, water lines and gas and electric infrastructure.  Mayor Plunkitt later conceded that the rate of kickbacks rose “accordin’ to the opportunities.”  In Pittsburgh, the Democratic Party gave up any pretense of public bidding and just started their own private road-paving company.

The system wasn’t entirely without merit, even as the machines left upper-middle-class reformers and taxpayers outraged.  Chicago rebuilt quickly after a disastrous fire in 1871, as did San Francisco after its famous earthquake and fire in 1906.  American cities were the best in the world by 1900 if measured by the quality of running water, access to electricity, or number of bridges, parks, and paved streets.  In other words, stuff got done despite — or maybe because of — what Mayor Plunkitt called “honest graft.”  Another upside was that the ward bosses provided some handouts to the working classes in an age before there were any formal social services.  But their goal was not to lessen crime and disease by eradicating poverty so much as it was to capitalize on poor people by cashing in their votes.  It was a parasitical, if functional, system.  Tammany Hall, for instance, supplemented their income by shaking down gamblers and prostitutes (leaving them in place to pay an informal tax) and even extorting protection money from small businesses in tandem with gangsters.  Politicians on the take obviously aren’t focused on lessening gambling and prostitution.

One modern example of graft involving city contracts that didn’t have a functional upside was Detroit in the early 21st century.  Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (D) and his family and friends were nothing more than racketeers that pilfered everything they could before heading to prison, even winning one re-election in the process.  While the $9.6 million they pocketed in kickbacks wasn’t the main cause of the Motor City’s $20 billion-dollar bankruptcy in 2013 — the largest in American municipal history — their corruption scared off potential business and bond investors, and their rampant bribery, fraud and extortion schemes displaced effort they might otherwise have put into helping the struggling city.  New York Republicans Dean Skelos and Michael Grimm have also been indicted for felonies in recent years.  While there are plenty of local and state politicians today from both parties that end up in prison (see list), the term corruption is a somewhat misleading way to describe the rest because campaign donations offer interest groups and individuals a legal form of bribery.  Wealthy donors usually don’t need to break the law when they can just pay politicians to change the law.  Thus, people today are more likely to peddle influence with cash than to threaten violence.

Cornelius Shea, ca. 1905

Cornelius Shea, ca. 1905

Conversely, any traditional “machine” truly deserving of the term worked with and reinforced organized crime.  Gangsters “delivered” elections to Democrats by intimidating voters or tapping union connections, most famously the Teamsters.  Criminal control over the Teamsters Union, such as what occurred under the leadership of Cornelius Shea, meant gangsters could demand bribes in exchange for not disrupting the flow of goods in and out of a city.  Politicians, in turn, couldn’t interfere with the criminals’ rackets and, in the Teamsters’ case, the Mob skimmed off their union pension.  Syndicates like the Mafia worked both sides of the organized labor equation: with companies to break strikes and with unions to intimidate strikebreakers, provide security, recruit new members, or jostle with other unions.  Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters drove off a rival CIO union in 1930s Detroit with Mafia backing.  Then the Mafia lent to Las Vegas casinos from the Teamsters’ pension and paid it back with cash skimmed from casino counting rooms while keeping plenty for themselves.  Combined with torturing and murdering anyone who interfered, this provided a sustainable business model and built the Vegas Strip without reducing truckers’ retirement checks.

Gangsters beholden to politicians for keeping police off their backs could coerce unions to vote in one direction or the other.  Some criminal intimidation goes on today to prevent unionization in packing plants and service industries (see Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation), but it’s not nearly as widespread as in the early 20th century.  Then, gangs vied openly to control labor racketeering, as in New York’s Labor Slugger Wars of the 1910s and 20’s.  In big cities, a lot of people owed a lot of other people a lot of favors.

Once unions or governments owed organized criminals favors, gangsters could turn off people’s power, make sure their garbage wasn’t picked up, or ensure they couldn’t get necessary building permits.  These “shakedowns” were friendly reminders that businessmen had to pay them for the privilege of doing business in that neighborhood.  If the business owner resisted or didn’t understand the reminder, their shop would be destroyed or they’d be injured or killed to send a message to others.  The Mafia offered “protection” to those that paid their tax, insofar as they didn’t kill them and kept rival gangs away.  Extortion rackets represented an underbelly of political machines.  In some ways, protection rackets are miniature versions of politics in its most rudimentary form.  Medieval kings collected taxes in exchange for protecting their subjects and that was pretty much all governments then did.

Americans can console themselves that compared to many countries, their political system hasn’t been as thoroughly rotted out.  As mentioned, a form of pseudo-bribery called lobbying “corrupts” most tiers of the American system, depending on how one defines the term.  Courts have defined campaign donations as lobbying which is, in turn, protected by the First Amendment right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.”  Lobbyists write the laws that politicians sign, in exchange for funding expensive campaigns and personal gifts.  But, at the local level, most of us would be surprised if we went to the Department of Motor Vehicles and the clerk asked for an extra $50 to make sure our driver’s license got processed correctly.  Our first reaction would be to seek out the employee’s boss and file a complaint.  Such a reaction would be considered naïve in much of the world, where petty corruption and bribes are a way of life. Corruption Map

And, while paperwork and bureaucracy in America can be onerous, it’s not as bad as elsewhere.  If you wanted to start something as simple as a lemonade stand in New York City in 2016, you’d be looking at around 65 days of red tape before opening day.  In many countries, you’d spend a few years navigating bureaucracy, at which point you would’ve paid so many bribes you’d struggle to get out of debt; better to become a bureaucrat and stay on the receiving end.  In poorer countries, graft is the very reason many people seek work in local government, whereas in the U.S. some politicians seek higher office for unscrupulous gain, but not a job in the DMV or post office.  Corruption in developed countries, while widespread, is more functional and less debilitating than poor countries even though the corruption that does exist is still an ongoing waste of taxpayer money and warps public policy.

Gilded Age politicians operated in a thriving economy, but it was uneven in terms of both wealth distribution and growth rates.  Capitalist economies are cyclical, moving through cycles of booms and busts, and the busts hit the working classes hardest.  Management and labor didn’t get along well in the late 19th century, especially during downturns like the Panic of 1873, caused by the collapse of a railroad bubble, and Panic of 1893 caused by general market saturation, or over-production.  Miners and factory workers could unionize but management could fire the workers or break up strikes with force.  Unions lacked the legal right to collective bargaining, meaning management wasn’t compelled to negotiate with unions the way they were in many industries after the 1930s.

Lowell & Lawrence Textile Strikers

Lowell & Lawrence Textile Strikers Confronting Strikebreakers and Militia Bayonets, Massachusetts, 1912, George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

While government maintained a mostly laissez-faire (or free market) hands-off policy toward business, they were willing to intervene in strikes on behalf of management.  Business owners could call out state militias, federal troops, or Pinkerton or Baldwin-Felts detectives to dispel strikers or even attack them.  If troops weren’t available, they could find some “muscle” (thugs) looking to cash in.

Railroad Strike of 1877

“A Steeple-View of the Pittsburgh Conflagration,” Engraving Showing the Burning of Union Depot and Pennsylvania Railroad Yards, Pittsburgh, PA During Great Railroad Strike of 1877, Harper’s Weekly

Homestead Riot Harper's Weekly CoverThis happened several times in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Homestead Strike at Andrew Carnegie’s steel mill in 1892, the Pullman Strike in Chicago in 1894, and Rockefeller’s Ludlow, Colorado mine.  Carnegie fancied himself as running a progressive company and didn’t have the nerve to crack down hard on workers who were protesting their 72-hour weeks.  He hired Henry Frick as his right-hand man to deal with strikers, renegotiate contracts with suppliers, and cut labor costs, then left for Scotland.  Workers took over Homestead and Frick hired the Pinkerton Detectives to break their strike.  Pinkertons were America’s mercenary force, hired mostly to apprehend train robbers and, during the Civil War, to protect Lincoln from assassination.  By the 1870s, they had more firepower than the slimmed down U.S. Army.  Pinkertons killed nine workers and the governor called in two brigades of state militia to restore order.  They ended the strike and production resumed with no gains for workers.  Carnegie was wise (if cowardly) to hide out in Scotland; the public blamed Frick and an anarchist shot and stabbed him.  He survived.

At Pullman’s plant, the disruption of train car manufacturing slowed down the region’s economy to the point that federal troops came in to break the strike, killing 30 and injuring 57 workers.  George Pullman was a generous boss, building an upscale company town on Chicago’s south side with schools and churches for his employees, but the Panic of 1893 caused him to lower pay and lay off workers without lowering rents in the town’s homes they weren’t allowed to own.  This triggered a violent “wildcat strike” (strike initiated without union authorization) and boycott of all trains using Pullman cars (most).  Although he’d sent in troops, President Grover Cleveland tried to appease the workers, declaring the Labor Day holiday as compensation for their losses.

Colorado National Guard Troops Arrive @ Ludlow Strike, 1914

Colorado National Guard Troops Arrive @ Ludlow Strike, 1914

Even more dramatic, one of John D. Rockefeller’s subsidiaries ordered a military attack on its mining town in Ludlow in 1913, where the Colorado National Guard killed twenty people, including eleven kids, some asphyxiated in their tents.  In this company town, like many others, workers were paid in coupons only redeemable at the company store.  In response to the National Guard’s massacre, coal miners retaliated throughout the state, killing dozens of troops and Baldwin-Felts agents.  The Colorado Coalfield War, overall, was the worst strike-related violence in American history, prompting Congress to push legislation on child labor and the 8-hour day.  Rockefeller himself ordered an investigation into the incident.

Aftermath of Ludlow Massacre, 1913

Aftermath of Ludlow Massacre, 1913

While you could look at broken strikes as victories for management, Ludlow indicated that America was teetering on the edge of class warfare in the early 20th century.  That prospect was potentially disruptive enough to business that management wanted to diffuse the threat.  This wasn’t the watered-down version of “class warfare” we use today to spin arguments over whether the rich should be taxed at 36% or 39+%.  In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia demonstrated there were more radical options out there if enough workers got pushed to the brink.  The fact that American workers struck at all under their unfavorable conditions shows how desperate they really were.  Who would strike today if it meant they were going to get shot?  Often they worked 60-72 hours a week with no injury compensation or vacation and were forced to buy from company stores that overcharged them enough to keep them in debt, making it impossible to leave and find other work.  As country singer Tennessee Ernie Ford sang: “You load sixteen tons and what’ya get? Another day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter don’t ya call me ’cause I can’t go…I owe my soul to the company store.”  

June, 1914 Issue of The Masses

Cover of the June, 1914 Issue of The Masses by John French Sloan, Depicting the Ludlow Massacre, Michigan State University Digital Collections

Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, 1902, Library of Congress. Jones was denounced on the U.S. Senate floor as the “grandmother of all agitators.”

That form of virtual enslavement is called peonage and its victims are known as debt peons.  For an excellent cinematic treatment of their plight see John Sayles Matewan (1987), set in a West Virginia coal-mining town in 1920.  Like Ludlow, federal troops attacked Matewan’s workers, in this case bombing them from Martin MB-1’s.  Matewan climaxed eight years of labor tension and violence in West Virginia known collectively as the Mine Wars.  While mining companies supplemented troops with hired muscle in the form of Baldwin-Felts agents, coal miners led by Mother Jones — now famous for a namesake leftist magazine — armed themselves more heavily than most labor disputes.  Near the town of Matewan in 1920, around a hundred miners and strikebreakers died in the Battle of Blair Mountain, leading to nearly a thousand arrests after the biggest single armed shootout in the U.S. since the Civil War.  West Virginia’s state government declared martial law, seizing thousands of high-powered rifles and rounds of ammunition along with a few machine guns and assorted blackjacks, daggers, bayonets, and brass knuckles.  The short-term result was a victory for management and membership in the United Mine Workers plummeted in the 1920s.  However, widespread anger over Ludlow and Matewan rallied workers nationwide and helped lead to the right to collective bargaining during the New Deal of the 1930s and the strengthening of a larger umbrella labor group, the AFL-CIO 

Prior to the 1930s, American workers had less leverage than those in other countries because there were ongoing waves of immigrants willing to work for lower wages than the preceding group.  When Chinese workers arrived in Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1885, willing to work for lower wages than Irish and Italian miners, the Union Pacific’s coal department naturally hired them and fired the Europeans.  Whites took matters into their own hands, killing 28 Asians and burning 75 homes.  You might think the government would’ve supported them in that case due to racism, but they backed the Chinese because they provided cheaper labor.  Troops escorted the survivors back to town.

Rock Springs triggered smaller, sporadic violence against Asians across the West, such as attacks on hop-pickers in Issaquah, Washington, outside Seattle.  The Chinese had served their purpose by building the railroads, so “Native Americans” (Whites) of the Northwest chased most of them away.  The U.S. passed anti-immigration legislation aimed at Chinese in the 1880s while some of those already in the country were literally forced underground in Seattle and Portland.

Purported Haymarket Bomb Facsimile

Exhibit 129a from the Haymarket trial, an unexploded bomb found in the home of Louis Lingg. Chemists testified the bombs found in Lingg’s home matched the shrapnel recovered from the Haymarket bomb. Chicago Historical Society

Political Spectrum & Third Parties
How would the political system respond to class tension?  Working classes had won the right to vote in America, but neither major political party seemed eager to court their vote.  Republicans represented management and Democrats were hesitant to be associated with any labor groups that middle classes viewed as anarchistic or revolutionary.  Democratic President Grover Cleveland made sure that American Labor Day would be September 1st, not the May 1st celebrated in many countries as International Workers’ Day.  America also had a handful of anarchists, who believed that all government was oppressive and all capitalism was theft.  In 1886, someone threw a bomb into the crowd at the Haymarket Riot in Chicago, killing seven policemen.  The gathering had begun as a peaceful demonstration in favor of 8-hour workdays.  No one ever knew who actually tossed the bomb, but newspapers were quick to depict all the strikers as violent revolutionaries and a chemist testified that shrapnel found at the scene matched a bomb found in one anarchist’s apartment.  President Cleveland came down on management’s side.  With neither of the political parties catering to laborers, third parties emerged for farmers, miners and factory workers.

Leftists groups like the Industrial Workers of the World (aka Wobblies) fought fire with fire, willing to fight back against repression with baseball bats of their own.  However, that made them susceptible to being arrested or deported, and the Marxist (communist) solution of workers seizing the means of production (factories and mines in this case) never gained traction in America.  The U.S. was a country defined by opportunity and the right of enterprising people to rise up and get ahead, not a place that punished those that got ahead by stealing their businesses from them.

Coxey's Commonwealth Army

Coxey’s Commonwealth Army, From Frank Leslie’s Magazine, 1894, Library of Congress

In 1894, Coxey’s Army, officially the Army of the Commonweal in Christ, tried a different tack.  Hundreds of unemployed marched on Washington — the first of many such marches in U.S. history — to demand that the government create public works jobs for them, paid in newly printed currency to put more cash in circulation.  Instead, they were arrested for stepping on Capital grass and the movement dwindled.

Eugene V. Debs, Canton, Ohio, 1918

Eugene V. Debs, Canton, Ohio, 1918

Democratic socialism, roughly similar to what’s practiced today in Canada, Europe, and Japan, was a more popular option than Marxism or walking a thousand miles only to be yelled at by cops for trampling grass.  America’s democratic socialists proposed using the vote to create a regulated capitalist economy that benefited all, rather than just a few.  Their leader Eugene V. Debs garnered 6% of the presidential vote in the 1912 election, an impressive showing considering it was a four-horse race and that the Left had no real history to build on in America.  The government had jailed Debs for being a socialist following the Pullman Strike in 1894, but he wasn’t familiar with the term.  In jail, he read up on it, liked the sound of it and converted.

1904 Democratic Socialist Poster

1904 Democratic Socialist Poster

By the time Debs left prison, he was guilty of what he’d originally been arrested for.  He started the Democratic Socialist Party of America in 1901 and gained a significant following in Southern Plains states like Texas and Oklahoma.  But the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 made American leaders paranoid that outright communism would spread to America and the government outlawed even the more moderate democratic version of socialism, where people still vote and respect each others’ private property (except for taxes).  The U.S. had a free political system as long as you weren’t too liberal.  Debs garnered 3.4% of the presidential vote from prison in 1920, setting the record for inmates.

Texas Farmers' Flag, 1878More popular among farmers and rural workers was the People’s Party, or Populists — “Pops” for short — an initially loose conglomeration of granges, co-ops, and alliances that emerged in response to exploitive railroads and banks.  Populists included grain and cotton farmers, coal miners, and railroad workers, among others.  Friction with railroads stemmed from all the free land the government had doled out to freight companies.  They didn’t grant just narrow strips, but rather wide swaths to resell cheaply or give away as farmland (in yellow below).  West of the Mississippi, the government gave more land to railroads than the total size of New England.  When railroads re-sold the land, it was a seemingly great deal for European immigrants and eastern farmers looking for a fresh start, but there was a catch.  Similar to how printers are cheap today but ink is expensive, farmers got cheap land but then had only one option to ship produce and livestock back east.  The freight companies could charge what they pleased, including different rates to different customers depending on how vulnerable they were.

Desperate farmers joined forces, similar to the way factory workers formed unions.  Instead, they formed cartels called granges to set price basements, below which no one would sell commodities to the railroads.  The biggest such organization struggled to come up with a snappy name, eventually settling on the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry.  The first Farmer’s Alliance formed in Lampasas County, Texas to protest the power of commodities brokers to dictate which crops farmers grew.  While the original purpose of these granges was economic, they expanded into dances, barbecues, and sewing bees, forming the social fabric of the rural South and Plains in the late 19th century.  No one wants to pay unfair shipping rates, but it’s also important to gossip, have a good time and marry off your kids.

Gift for the Grangers

Gift for the Grangers, Strobridge & Co. Lithograph, Cincinnati, Ohio, Library of Congress

The Populists were the first grass-roots political party in U.S. history and illustrate well both the potential of participatory democracy and its limitations.  Without big financial backing, they never actually won control of the Presidency or Congress, but they appealed to enough voters that the two-party system had to take notice of their platform.  Populists influenced Democrats and progressive Republicans even though, at first, nothing came of their 1892 Omaha Platform.  Starting in 1894 the Democrats endorsed the Populists’ idea of a national income tax to redistribute wealth.  Other Populist ideas gradually came to fruition, including railroad and bank regulation, and the first major regulatory agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission.  Most significantly, they influenced two constitutional amendments: the 17th mandating direct election of senators (citizens originally only voted for the Lower House of Representatives, while state legislatures elected Senators), and the 16th of 1913 that created the Federal Income Tax.

The 16th Amendment originally redistributed wealth since the tax code was graduated, or progressive, with rates (not just totals) escalating with higher incomes.  Redistribution wasn’t dramatic at first but was significant for portions of the mid-20th century before the top brackets came back down in the 1980s, and even today top rates are moderately higher (more in Chapter 5).  There was a national income tax once before, during the Civil War, but the Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional prior to the 16th Amendment.

Populists also brought about private polling so that voters could no longer be intimidated, bribed or charmed at the voting booth, and public ownership of the telephone-telegraph companies. Ma Bell, named for telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, broke up in 1984, leading to the private “Baby Bells” of AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, etc.  Today both parties complain from time to time of voter intimidation at the polls, but whoever is doing the “intimidating” can’t see who the voters are voting for, unlike the 19th century.  They can only intimidate by profiling people and keeping them away from the polls.  Charges that Black Panthers influenced voters to favor Obama in 2012 were spurious.  Today’s cheaters’ best bet is to try to influence vote-counting instead, which works best if voting is divided up into municipal districts so that people from one part of town can better influence the system.

While the Populist Party isn’t around anymore and economic populism is mostly dead — or at least on life support in the form of Occupy Wall Street, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) or Bernie Sanders‘ 2016 campaign — the granger spirit lives on in member-owned companies called cooperatives, the likes of which include W.W. Norton & Co. (publishers), Land O’Lakes, Ocean Spray, Sunkist, Welch’s, Organic Valley, and New Belgian Brewing (Fat Tire).  The first co-op predated the Populists and was also the nation’s first department store: Brigham Young’s Zionist Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI), opened in Salt Lake City in 1868.  Cooperatives aren’t cartels like the granges, but their businesses keep control in the hands of members and employees instead of upper management or corporate boards.  Independent retailers, for instance, “chain” together to form Ace Hardware and True Value.  Credit unions are member-owned banks.  Texas has rural electrical, food, housing, and radio co-ops and even an incubator called Cooperation Texas.  Here in Austin, we have Wheatsville Food (1976- ) and Black Star Pub & Brewery (2010- ) that, in turn, inspired more brewpub co-ops in Austin (4th Tap), Los Alamos, NM (Bathtub Row), Seattle (Flying Bike), Minneapolis (Fair State), and Dayton, OH (Fifth Street).  Not all co-ops are small.  There’s the national REI retail chain and farmers/ranchers own St. Paul-based Fortune 100 company Cenex Harvest States, or CHS.  Nearly a billion people worldwide belong to cooperatives and they employ more people (100 million) overall than multinational corporations.

The Populists were waning by the late 1890s, but still had too much power to be ignored.  Democrats reached out to co-opt them, just as Republicans have soaked up Tea Partiers more recently.  In this case, Democrats got crushed outside the South in the 1894 midterms and needed to expand their geographic footprint.  One historian noted that third parties are like honey bees: “Once they’ve stung, they die.”  But co-opting cuts both ways, as this cartoon with a Populist snake devouring the Democrats indicated and as the modern GOP has discovered with the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus and Donald Trump.

Populist Snake Devouring Democrats

William Jennings Bryan/Populism as a Snake Swallowing Up the Mule Representing the Democratic Party, Judge Magazine, 1896

The term populist — like reconstruction, progressive, democrat, republican — has a different meaning depending on whether or not it is capitalized.  The Populists were the conglomeration described above, but populist with a small p is used to describe any politician, group or policy more popular among the “people” than “elites.”  Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, for instance, are arguably populists.  Historian Francis Fukuyama describes populist broadly as “a label political elites attach to policies supported by ordinary citizens they don’t like.”

Silverites vs. Goldbugs
Democrats also tapped into farmers’ frustration at the lack of currency in circulation.  They pushed for printing more money by converting the U.S. from a gold standard, whereby paper money corresponded to bullion in treasury vaults, to a bimetallic standard of gold and silver.  They lobbied for unlimited silver coinage.  Printing more money is inflationary, but farmers were more likely to be debtors, borrowing in the spring to plant, and paying back in the fall after harvesting.  Business leaders and creditors (lenders) supported the traditional gold standard and disliked inflation.  Unlike debtors who profit from inflation (e.g. students, homebuyers, farmers, governments), creditors lose money when people repay later after the original amount borrowed in nominal dollars is worth less than the real amount in adjusted dollars.  Earlier, the reverse process sparked the Greenback movement among farmers because the real value of their loans was going up with deflation (Greenbacks ran James Weaver as a third-party presidential candidate in 1880).  In the growing economy of the late 19th century, paper money was tied to the finite gold supply.  Even now, all the gold ever mined would only fill up three Olympic swimming pools, or a third of the Washington Monument.

William Jennings Bryan, Library of Congress

William Jennings Bryan, Library of Congress

Workers and consumers were also agitating to break up the big trusts run by Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan mentioned in the previous chapter and wanted an income tax on the wealthy to replace tariffs as a source of federal revenue.  Populists and Democrats (and Silver Republicans) all nominated the same man to lead the bimetallic charge as their presidential candidate in 1896 and 1900: fiery Nebraska politician William Jennings Bryan.  Bryan appealed to his constituency by arguing that cities needed farms more than farms needed cities.  “Burn down your cities and leave your 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.”  Channeling a Christ-like martyrdom in support of the bimetallic standard, Bryan declared, “You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of Gold!”

William Jennings Bryan, 1908, Library of Congress

William Jennings Bryan, 1908, Library of Congress

1896 Election
1896 was a key election in American history because it signaled entrenchment of the two-party system, with the Democrats having soaked up the Populists (even though, according to our cartoon, they were being digested by the Populist snake).  It was also the first election when Republicans openly collected corporate campaign donations.  Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan resolved to put their differences aside temporarily and buy themselves a president, each pitching in around $20 million adjusted for inflation.  That bought them, among other things, editorial rights over their candidate William McKinley’s speeches.  In 1881, a campaign supporter killed President James Garfield because he was denied a government post.  Congress reacted by creating the Civil Service to provide such jobs based on actual merit, cutting off patronage as a source of campaign influence.  However, in a classic case of regulation solving one problem by creating another, that had the unintended effect of sending politicians elsewhere for funds.  GOP campaign manager Mark Hanna demanded campaign donations from the country’s biggest corporations, impressing upon them that the alternative of having a worker-friendly president and “revolutionary, anarchistic” Democrats would be far worse (he missed the memo about Grover Cleveland’s use of troops against Pullman strikers).

The GOP represented business owners, the rich, and upper-middle-class Northern WASPs.  In 1896, though, they dropped prohibition from their platform to attract some immigrants.  More importantly, they offered a way out of a bad ongoing recession for farmers and factory workers, making their own policies more worker-friendly.  The overriding problem plaguing the American economy was over-production.  Farmers were growing more food than Americans could eat and factories were making more goods than Americans could consume.  Simply put, production was outrunning consumption.

McKinley-Roosevelt Campaign Poster, 1900

McKinley-Roosevelt Campaign Poster, 1900

The solution Republican candidate William McKinley offered was to expand militarily and tap overseas markets.  That would not only be good for business, it would fill the plates of workers.  McKinley was an early promoter of what we now call the trickle-down theory: money would trickle from spenders and job-creators down to workers — or, as he put it in his 1900 campaign slogan, a “full lunch pail.” For good measure, Republican managers told factory workers they’d be locked out if they voted for William Jennings Bryan (D, P) and monitored polling stations.  The 1896 election thus led directly to the private polling that Populists supported and later got enacted.

McKinley, a Civil War veteran, won the election.  Moreover, discovery of gold in Alaska and the Yukon Territory in 1896 allowed the government to print off more money while staying on the gold standard, ending the bimetallic controversy.  Monetary stimulus helped the economy get out of the recession.  After the election, the two main parties colluded to make it more difficult for third parties like the Populists to get on ballots.  Like their southern counterparts, northern states instituted literacy tests, in their case to disenfranchise immigrants rather than Blacks and Hispanics.  Having excluded much of the “riff-raff” they didn’t want in the democracy, the parties felt comfortable turning to primaries to decide their candidates.  Unlike primaries conducted since the 1970s, those of the early 20th century were just elaborate opinion polls rather than being binding.  Since today’s primaries actually help determine candidates (superdelegates notwithstanding) and changes in the 1960s banned voting restrictions like literacy tests, Gilded Age laws enacted to make the country less democratic ironically made it more democratic in the long run.

McKinley Assassination, 1901

Wash Drawing by T. Dart Walker Depicting the Assassination of President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz at Pan-American Exposition Reception on September 6, 1901

President McKinley defeated W.J. Bryan again in 1900, but a lonely anarchist named Leon Czolgosz (shul-gosh) shot and killed him at Buffalo’s Pan-American Expo in 1901, catapulting his new VP Teddy Roosevelt to office.  Czolgosz, a Polish immigrant, was laid off at one of the steel mills taken over by J.P. Morgan’s U.S. Steel conglomerate and felt McKinley was to blame.  After his bosses blacklisted him for striking he took on the alias Niman, German for nobody.  Anarchist clubs rejected him because they thought he was nuts and seemed too eager to kill leaders.  The anarchist clubs rejected him, in other words, because they feared he was a true anarchist.  He seems to have gone after McKinley to win them over and purchased the same model .32-caliber Iver Johnson revolver another anarchist used to assassinate King Humbert of Italy in 1890.  Some Thomas Edison footage captures the crowd outside the building as news of the shooting spread.  The wounded McKinley told the crowd to go easy on Czolgosz and to break the news gently to his wife, Ida, as they took him off to a makeshift operating room to repair his torn stomach.  He died a few days later, saying, “It is God’s way…His will be done.”  Edison capitalized by filming a re-enactment of Czolgosz’ electrocution.

In the next chapter, we’ll examine how McKinley and Roosevelt had already expanded America’s fledgling overseas empire, even before McKinley’s assassination.  In the chapters after that, we’ll see how the ornery Roosevelt took on the very corporations that put his fallen boss in office.  He made a prophet out of McKinley’s aid Mark Hanna, who’d opposed putting Roosevelt on the ticket and asked, “Don’t any of you fools realize that there’s just one life between that damned cowboy and the White House?”