This is the fourth installment of a critical history of the Democratic Party and its role in American politics. Part I looked at the alleged Jeffersonian roots of the party; Part II looked at its rise in the pre-Civil War era; Part III its role in the events leading to the Civil War. Now Part IV will look at the party from the post-Civil War era to the presidential election of 1896.
During the Civil War era, the Democratic Party survived in the North because of its strength in the cities, especially among immigrant groups like the Irish, who often felt they had no real stake in supporting the Republicans’ war against the South and others who saw them as a threat to constitutional government and civil liberties. Though Lincoln won New York State’s 35 electoral votes in 1860, he failed to carry a single precinct in either New York City or the territory that now comprises Nassau County. In January of 1861, while Lincoln was still waiting to be inaugurated, New York’s Democratic Mayor, Fernando Wood proposed that the city secede from the Union. The suggestion was more than a little self-serving because Wood had made his fortune as a shipping merchant and depended on the cotton trade with the South to maintain a personal political machine that rivaled Tammany Hall (see part 2 of this series for background on Tammany Hall).
Democrats opposing the war calling for an immediate peace settlement with the Confederacy were branded “Copperheads” by Republicans for the poisonous snake of the same name. Peace Democrats gladly accepted the label, cutting out the likeness of lady liberty from copper pennies to wear as badges of pride. The acknowledged leader of the Copperheads was a one-time congressman from Ohio, Clement Vallandigham. On May 1st 1863, Vallandigham delivered an address charging that the war was being fought not to save the Union but rather to free the slaves by sacrificing the liberties of all Americans to “King Lincoln.” He called for the president’s removal from office. Vallandigham was arrested for violating an order promulgated by General Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Military Department of Ohio, prohibiting “declaring sympathies for the enemy,” denied a writ of habeas corpus, convicted by a military tribunal and sentenced to two years confinement in a military prison. However, not wishing to make Vallandigham a martyr, Lincoln ordered his sentence set aside and had the Ohioan banished to the Confederacy.
By no means were all northern Democrats Copperheads; among the staunchest supporters of both the Union and the war were Democrats Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War and former Tennessee governor and U.S. senator Andrew Johnson, was picked to be Lincoln’s running mate in the 1864 presidential election. This was also the period that saw the Oyster Bay, Long Island branch of New York’s prominent Roosevelt Family join the Republicans while the more conservative Hyde Park Roosevelts remained pro-Union Democrats.
The remaining northern Democrats were on the whole predominantly of a conservative stripe – Vallandigham coined the motto: “To maintain the Constitution as it is and to restore the Union as it was” – but Civil War era Republicans soon became the most radical governing party in American history. In May 1862 the Republican dominated Congress passed the Homestead Act, giving any applicant, black or white, who had not taken up arms against the U.S. government, freehold title to up to 160 acres of undeveloped federal land in the West for a nominal fee. Leaving aside for another day the question of how and from whom much of this land was acquired, the Homestead Act enabled millions of Americans to become farm and ranch proprietors. Later that year the Morrill Land-Grant Act created state agricultural colleges and universities across the nation, making higher education available to many (predominantly male) Americans for the first time as well. As 1862 drew to a close, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which proclaimed the freedom of some three million slaves within the territory of the Confederacy and by early 1863 states like Massachusetts authorized raising of “colored” infantry regiments, though commissioned officers (i.e. second lieutenant and above) were required to be white.
A faction of the Republican Party in Congress actually referred to itself as “Radical.” Their leader in the House of Representatives was Pennsylvanian Thaddeus Stevens, the powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Stevens dreamed of a world where unearned privilege did not exist and he was years ahead of his time in believing in complete equality between black and white Americans. He also believed in using the power of the federal government, specifically the military, to destroy all vestiges of the wealthy southern planter class and to “reconstruct” the society of the South along more egalitarian lines for both races.
Though ostensibly defeated, the White South responded to the North’s
victory and attempts to radically reconstruct the South with terror and violence. The Ku Klux Klan (derived from combining the Greek work kyklos or “circle” with a corruption of the word “clan”) was founded in 1866 by Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee and rapidly spread into nearly every Southern state. Klansmen wore masks, robes and other forms of costume to both disguise their identity and terrorize their targets, Republican leaders black and white, “uppity” black freedmen and any whites cooperating with either.
In response to the Klan’s reign of terror, the Republican-controlled Congress passed the Force Acts of 1870-71, banned the use of bribery, force or terror to prevent people from voting and engaging in political activity because of their race. Other laws banned the Klan outright. Hundreds of KKK members were arrested and tried under the Force Acts.
But the days of strong Republican efforts to enforce civil rights for the recently freed black population of the South were numbered. In the presidential election of 1876, the Democratic candidate, New York governor Samuel J. Tilden, won the popular vote and ahead in the Electoral College over Republican Rutherford B. Hayes but 20 electoral votes were disputed in three former Confederate states: Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, while in Oregon one elector was declared illegal by the state’s Democratic governor and was replaced. Republican-dominated state electoral commissions promptly disqualified enough Democratic popular votes to award their states’ electoral votes to Hayes. Oregon, which still had two Republican electors, ended up awarding its votes to Hayes as well.
The Democrats were infuriated by what they saw as a blatant theft of the election. In Columbus, Ohio somebody fired a shot at the Hayes residence as he sat down to dinner. President Grant quietly reinforced the military presence around Washington. There was talk that the crisis might precipitate another Civil War. In January 1877, faced with an unprecedented situation, Congress created a bi-partisan Commission that ended up awarding the disputed electoral votes to Hayes. Some historians, notably C. Vann Woodward, have argued that Democrats and Republicans reached a secret, unrecorded agreement subsequently known as “The Compromise of 1877,” that promised to remove the last Federal troops from the South in return for the Democrats’ acquiescence in the award of the presidency to Hayes. Whatever the truth is behind this allegation, Federal occupation of the South did end in 1877 along with any further attempts at reconstruction.
Into this power vacuum stepped the Democrats, who rapidly took over Southern state legislatures and worked to change voter registration rules to strip most Blacks and many poor Whites of their ability to vote, although Blacks voted in significant numbers and won in local elections well into the 1880s. But despite this, under the increasing domination of the South by the Democrats, Blacks were often forced by economic necessity into the sharecropping system of farming, where they became tenants, often of their formers masters, utterly dependent on the extension of credit in order to finance the purchase of seed and tools each year. A new convict labor system was also instituted in the post-war South, where Blacks were often given far longer sentences than Whites for the same crimes, shackled together on “chain gangs” and subjected to brutality as bad as anything experienced under slavery. And perhaps most shocking of all was lynching, the practice of murdering people ( primarily African-Americans but a significant number of Whites as well) , by extra-legal mob action with a level of ferocity so shocking as to defy description in many cases. An 1876 ruling by the Supreme Court, which held that the federal government was empowered only to prosecute civil rights violations by states and not by individuals, encouraged Southern state and local law enforcement officials to turn a blind eye to these rampages – numbering into the thousands by the 1930s.
While this new regime of virtual slavery for African-Americans was being established in the South, both Black and White farmers and workers came under increasing pressure from banks, railroads and manufacturing companies that had organized themselves into a new legal form. Before the Civil War, corporations were created by state charters for strictly municipal purposes such as bridge and road building that were beyond the scope and resources of either private businesses or the federal or local governments of the time. But massive federal spending in order to provide for the U.S. military proved to be a bonanza for the growth of corporate size, wealth and, most significantly, political power.
Prior to 1886, corporations did not have the same constitutional rights as individual citizens. Instead the state in which they were chartered or “incorporated” determined both a corporation’s privileges and responsibilities to the communities they served. But that all changed with the 1886 Supreme Court decision in the case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. Although it had nothing to do with the issues at hand, the court reporter, a former railroad executive named J.C. Bancroft Davis, opened the cases’ headnote with the sentence: “The defendant Corporations are persons within the intent of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.” Though the court had said no such thing, corporate attorneys quickly picked up on the idea and began to quote it like a mantra. Soon the Supreme Court, in a stunning display of either laziness or perhaps purposeful intention to quietly rewrite the Constitution for the benefit of corporations, began to treat them as legal persons as well (see Thom Hartmann, Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class pp.100-101).
The only elected Democrat to serve as president between 1861 and 1913 was New York’s Grover Cleveland (Democrat Andrew Johnson served out the remainder of Lincoln’s term but was denied a chance to run for reelection). Cleveland was the only president to be elected to two non-consecutive terms (1885-1889 and 1893-1897) and was also one of most conservative men ever to hold the office, especially with regard to the growing power of corporations and in attitudes towards the poor and others who might need government assistance. During his second term, railroad overbuilding and shaky financing ignited the “Panic of 1893,” leading to the worst economic depression the Unites States had seen up to that time; the following year unemployed men from across the nation marched on Washington D.C. to petition the federal government to create public works jobs. They were led by a personally successful small businessman named Jacob Coxey and soon became known as “Coxey’s Army.” By April 1894, some 6,000 jobless men were encamped just a few miles from the city but both Cleveland and Congress turned a deaf ear to them. When Coxey and other leaders were arrested for trespassing on the grounds of the Capitol building, the movement rapidly disintegrated. Cleveland’s view of government responsibility to those affected by natural and man-made disasters is perfectly expressed in a statement he made in relation to his veto of an 1887 bill to provide aid to Texas farmers during a drought: “[T]hough the people support the government, the government should not support the people.”
In the absence of much government concern for anybody other than the new
corporate “citizens” and their increasingly wealthy owners, some of the people at least began to look for ways to support each other politically, outside the confines of the two-party system. In September of 1877, a small group of farmers met in Lampasas County, Texas to form the Knights of Reliance. By 1890 the movement had ballooned into the National Farmers Alliance, with some 500,000 members in the South and another 100,000 in Kansas alone. But as the 1892 presidential election approached there began a drive to transform the Farmer’s Alliance from a pressure group into a political party challenging the Democrats and Republicans’ dominance over government at all levels. The resulting “People’s Party” or “Populists” demanded the abolition of national banks, public ownership of the railroads, telephone and telegraph systems, a progressive income tax, direct election of U.S. Senators (Senators were elected by state legislatures until the passage of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913), provisions to recall elected officials, a secret ballot, and laws in support of labor unions. The Populists also had a vocal wing that demanded an expansion of the nation’s money supply through the inclusion of silver as well as gold in its calculation. This would encourage a mild inflation that would in turn lessen the burden of the debts farmer’s owed to the banks and other suppliers of credit because they could be paid back in cheaper inflated dollars. Although the movement’s leaders were overwhelmingly White, many Populists also directly challenged the system of White supremacy in the South and aimed to win poor whites to a program based on common class interests with African Americans (see Sharon Smith Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States p.38)
In the 1892 election, the People’s Party candidate, former Civil War Hero James B. Weaver, garnered over a million popular votes and carried four states (Colorado, Kansas, Idaho and Nevada) in the Electoral College and received a portion of the electoral count in North Dakota and Oregon as well. With their Party facing extinction in many part of the country, some Democratic politicians concluded that they had to come up with a way to appeal to the Populists and found it in the most innocuous part of their program: the free coinage of silver. And they also found a standard barer to whom both Populists and “Silver” Democrats could rally in the form of Nebraska’s William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was young (36), charismatic and a stunning orator. He had forged a winning coalition of Democrats and Populists and managed to hold onto his position in Congress during the post-Panic of 1893 midterm elections that had resulted in the loss of 113 seats for the Democrats.
On the surface it appeared that Bryan had managed to steal the 1896 presidential nomination from the wildly unpopular incumbent, “Gold Democrat” Grover Cleveland. But closer analysis reveals that the silver mining lobby and other corporate interests that supported the free coinage of silver had all helped to engineer Cleveland’s overthrow. At the same time, the silver interests were also funneling money to “fusionists” in the Populist Party who used it to organize pro-fusion delegations to the national convention, which eventually gave the nomination to Bryan as well, while also maintaining a fig leaf of independence by nominating a Populist, Tom Watson, for vice-president.
In the end, Populist old-timers whose vision was a true independent alternative to the Democratic-Republican duopoly knew the 1896 convention sounded the death knell for their party. One of them summed up the dilemma: “If we fuse [i.e. endorse Bryan] we are sunk. If we don’t fuse, all the silver men will leave us for the more powerful Democrats.” This proved to be a prescient observation because after 1896 the Populists never recovered as an independent party. Meanwhile, Bryan was lambasted as a dangerous radical by Republican opponent William McKinley. Employing a $3.5 million war chest (about $89 million in today’s money), and pioneering many modern campaign techniques under the orchestration of McKinley’s campaign manager, Marcus A. Hanna, the Republicans shrieked that Bryan would destroy America’s recovering economic and financial stability. Though the popular vote was close (roughly 7 to 6.5 million) McKinley won an electoral landslide of 271 to 176. The Democrats were consigned to minority status for the next 14 years.
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