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10: Law and Order Upheld

<< 9: The Free Silver Revolt || Bibliographical Note

While President Cleveland was struggling with the difficult situation in the Treasury, popular unrest was increasing in violence. Certain startling political developments now gave fresh incitement to the insurgent temper which was spreading among the masses. The relief measure at the forefront of President Cleveland's policy was tariff reform, and upon this the legislative influence of the Administration was concentrated as soon as the repeal of the Silver Purchase Act had been accomplished.

The House leader in tariff legislation at that time was a man of exceptionally high character and ability. William L. Wilson was President of the University of West Virginia when he was elected to Congress in 1882, and he had subsequently retained his seat more by the personal respect he inspired than through the normal strength of his party in his district. The ordinary rule of seniority was by consent set aside to make him chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He aimed to produce a measure which would treat existing interests with some consideration for their needs. In the opinion of F. W. Taussig, an expert economist, the bill as passed by the House on February 1, 1894, "was simply a moderation of the protective duties" with the one exception of the removal of the duty on wool. Ever since 1887, it had been a settled Democratic policy to put wool on the free list, in order to give American manufacturers the same advantage in the way of raw material which those of every other country enjoyed, even in quarters where a protective tariff was stiffly applied.

The scenes that now ensued in the Senate showed that arbitrary rule may be readily exercised under the forms of popular government. Senator Matthew S. Quay of Pennsylvania, a genial, scholarly cynic who sought his ends by any available means and who disdained hypocritical pretenses, made it known that he was in a position to block all legislation unless his demands were conceded. He prepared an everlasting speech, which he proceeded to deliver by installments in an effort to consume the time of the Senate until it would become necessary to yield to him in order to proceed with the consideration of the bill. His method was to read matter to the Senate until he was tired and then to have some friend act for him while he rested. According to the "Washington Star," Senator Gallinger was "his favorite helper in this, for he has a good round voice that never tires, and he likes to read aloud." The thousands of pages of material which Senator Quay had collected for use, and the apparently inexhaustible stores upon which he was drawing, were the subject of numerous descriptive articles in the newspapers of the day. Senator Quay's tactics were so successful, indeed, that he received numerous congratulatory telegrams from those whose interests he was championing. They had been defeated at the polls in their attempt to control legislation, and defeated in the House of Representatives, but now they were victorious in the Senate.

The methods of Senator Quay were tried by other Senators on both sides, though they were less frank in their avowal. After the struggle was over, Senator Vest of Missouri, who had been in charge of the bill, declared:

"I have not an enemy in the world whom I would place in the position that I have occupied as a member of the Finance Committee under the rules of the Senate. I would put no man where I have been, to be blackmailed and driven in order to pass a bill that I believe is necessary to the welfare of the country, by Senators who desired to force amendments upon me against my better judgment and compel me to decide the question whether I will take any bill at all or a bill which had been distorted by their views and objects. Sir, the Senate 'lags superfluous on the stage' today with the American people, because in an age of progress, advance, and aggressive reform, we sit here day after day and week after week, while copies of the census reports, almanacs, and even novels are read to us, and under our rules there is no help for the majority except to listen or leave the chamber."

The passage of the bill in anything like the form in which it reached the Senate was plainly impossible without a radical change in the rules, and on neither side of the chamber was there any real desire for an amendment of procedure. A number of the Democratic Senators who believed that it was desirable to keep on good terms with business interests were, in reality, opposed to the House bill. Their efforts to control the situation were favored by the habitual disposition of the Senate, when dealing with business interests, to decide questions by private conference and personal agreements, while maintaining a surface show of party controversy. Hence, Senator Gorman of Maryland was able to make arrangements for the passage of what became known as the Gorman Compromise Bill, which radically altered the character of the original measure by the adoption of 634 amendments. It passed the Senate on the 3rd of July by a vote of thirty-nine to thirty-four.

The next step was the appointment of a committee of conference between the two Houses, but the members for the House showed an unusual determination to resist the will of the Senate, and on the 19th of July, the conferees reported that they had failed to reach an agreement. When President Cleveland permitted the publication of a letter which he had written to Chairman Wilson condemning the Senate bill, the fact was disclosed that the influence of the Administration had been used to stiffen the opposition of the House. Senator Gorman and other Democratic Senators made sharp replies, and the party quarrel became so bitter that it was soon evident that no sort of tariff bill could pass the Senate.

The House leaders now reaped a great advantage from the Reed rules to the adoption of which they had been so bitterly opposed. Availing themselves of the effective means of crushing obstruction provided by the powers of the Rules Committee, in one day they passed the Tariff Bill as amended by the Senate, which eventually became law, and then passed separate bills putting on the free list coal, barbed wire, and sugar. These bills had no effect other than to put on record the opinion of the House, as they were of course subsequently held up in the Senate. This unwonted insubordination on the part of the House excited much angry comment from dissatisfied Senators. President Cleveland was accused of unconstitutional interference in the proceedings of Congress; and the House was blamed for submitting to the Senate and passing the amended bill without going through the usual form of conference and adjustment of differences. Senator Sherman of Ohio remarked that "there are many cases in the bill where enactment was not intended by the Senate. For instance, innumerable amendments were put on by Senators on both sides of the chamber... to give the Committee of Conference a chance to think of the matter, and they are all adopted, whatever may be their language or the incongruity with other parts of the bill."

The bitter feeling, excited by the summary mode of enactment on the part of the House, was intensified by President Cleveland's treatment of the measure. While he did not veto it, he would not sign it but allowed it to become law by expiration of the ten days in which he could reject it. He set forth his reasons in a letter on August 27, 1894, to Representative Catchings of Missouri, in which he sharply commented upon the incidents accompanying the passage of the bill and in which he declared:

"I take my place with the rank and file of the Democratic party who believe in tariff reform, and who know what it is; who refuse to accept the result embodied in this bill as the close of the war; who are not blinded to the fact that the livery of Democratic tariff reform has been stolen and used in the service of Republican protection; and who have marked the places where the deadly blight of treason has blasted the counsels of the brave in their hour of might."

The letter was written throughout with a fervor rare in President Cleveland's papers, and it had a scorching effect. Senator Gorman and some other Democratic Senators lost their seats as soon as the people had a chance to express their will.

The circumstances of the tariff struggle greatly increased popular discontent with the way in which the government of the country was being conducted at Washington. It became a common belief that the actual system of government was that the trusts paid the campaign expenses of the politicians and in return the politicians allowed the trusts to frame the tariff schedules. Evidence in support of this view was furnished by testimony taken in the investigation of the sugar scandal in the summer of 1894. Charges had been made in the newspapers that some Senators had speculated in sugar stocks during the time when they were engaged in legislation affecting the value of those stocks. Some of them admitted the fact of stock purchases, but denied that their legislative action had been guided by their investments. In the course of the investigation, H. O. Havemeyer, the head of the Sugar Trust, admitted that it was the practice to subsidize party management. "It is my impression," he said, "that whenever there is a dominant party, wherever the majority is large, that is the party that gets the contribution because that is the party which controls the local matters." He explained that this system was carried on because the company had large interests which needed protection, and he declared "every individual and corporation and firm, trust, or whatever you call it, does these things and we do them."

During the tariff struggle, a movement took place which was an evidence of popular discontent of another sort. At first it caused great uneasiness, but eventually the manifestation became more grotesque than alarming. Jacob S. Coxey of Massillon, Ohio, a smart specimen of the American type of handy business man, announced that he intended to send a petition to Washington wearing boots so that it could not be conveniently shelved by being stuck away in a pigeonhole. He thereupon proceeded to lead a march of the unemployed, which started from Massillon on March 25, 1894, with about one hundred men in the ranks. These crusaders Coxey described as the "Army of the Commonweal of Christ," and their purpose was to proclaim the wants of the people on the steps of the Capitol on the 1st of May. The leader of this band called upon the honest working classes to join him, and he gained recruits as he advanced. Similar movements started in the Western States. "The United States Industrial Army," headed by one Frye, started from Los Angeles and at one time numbered from six to eight hundred men; they reached St. Louis by swarming on the freight trains of the Southern Pacific road and thereafter continued on foot. A band under a leader named Kelly started from San Francisco on the 4th of April and by commandeering freight trains reached Council Bluffs, Iowa, whence they marched to Des Moines. There, they went into camp with at one time as many as twelve hundred men. They eventually obtained flatboats, on which they floated down the Mississippi and then pushed up the Ohio to a point in Kentucky whence they proceeded on foot. Attempts on the part of such bands to seize trains brought them into conflict with the authorities at some points. For instance, a detachment of regular troops in Montana captured a band coming East on a stolen Northern Pacific train, and militia had to be called out to rescue a train from a band at Mount Sterling, Ohio.

Coxey's own army never amounted to more than a few hundred, but it was more in the public eye. It had a large escort of newspaper correspondents who gave picturesque accounts of the march to Washington; and Coxey himself took advantage of this gratuitous publicity to express his views. Among other measures, he urged that since good roads and money were both greatly needed by the country at large, the Government should issue $500,000,000 in "non-interest bearing bonds" to be used in employing workers in the improvement of the roads. After an orderly march through parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, in the course of which his men received many donations of supplies from places through which they passed, Coxey and his army arrived at Washington on the 1st of May and were allowed to parade to the Capitol under police escort along a designated route. When Coxey left the ranks, however, to cut across the grass to the Capitol, he was arrested on the technical charge of trespassing. The army went into camp, but on the 12th of May the authorities forced the men to move out of the District. They thereupon took up quarters in Maryland and shifted about from time to time. Detachments from the Western bands arrived during June and July, but the total number encamped about Washington probably never exceeded a thousand. Difficulties in obtaining supplies and inevitable collisions with the authorities caused the band gradually to disperse. Coxey, after his short term in jail, traveled about the country trying to stir up interest in his aims and to obtain supplies. The novelty of his movement, however, had worn off, and results were so poor that on the 26th of July he issued a statement saying he could do no more and that what was left of the army would have to shift for itself. In Maryland, the authorities arrested a number of Coxey's "soldiers" as vagrants. On the 11th of August, a detachment of Virginia militia drove across the Potomac the remnants of the Kelly and Frye armies, which were then taken in charge by the district authorities. They were eventually supplied by the Government with free transportation to their homes.

Of more serious import than these marchings and campings, as evidence of popular unrest, were the activities of organized labor which now began to attract public attention. The Knights of Labor were declining in numbers and influence. The attempt, which their national officers made in January, 1894, to get out an injunction to restrain the Secretary of the Treasury from making bond sales really facilitated Carlisle's effort by obtaining judicial sanction for the issue. Labor disturbances now followed in quick succession. In April, there was a strike on the Great Northern Railroad, which for a long time almost stopped traffic between St. Paul and Seattle. Local strikes in the mining regions of West Virginia and Colorado, and in the coke fields of Western Pennsylvania, were attended by conflicts with the authorities and some loss of life. A general strike of the bituminous coal miners of the whole country was ordered by the United Mine Workers on the 21st of April, and called out numbers variously estimated at from one hundred and twenty-five thousand to two hundred thousand; but by the end of July the strike had ended in a total failure.

All the disturbances that abounded throughout the country were overshadowed, however, by a tremendous struggle which centered in Chicago and which brought about new and most impressive developments of national authority. In June, 1893, Eugene V. Debs, the secretary-treasurer of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, resigned his office and set about organizing a new general union of railroad employees in antagonism to the Brotherhoods, which were separate unions of particular classes of workers. He formed the American Railway Union and succeeded in instituting 465 local lodges which claimed a membership of one hundred and fifty thousand. In March, 1894, Pullman Company employees joined the new union. On the 11th of May, a class of workers in this company's shops at Pullman, Illinois, struck for an increase of wages, and on the 21st of June the officers of the American Railway Union ordered its members to refuse to handle trains containing Pullman cars unless the demands of the strikers were granted. Although neither the American Federation of Labor nor the Brotherhoods endorsed this sympathetic strike, it soon spread over a vast territory and was accompanied by savage rioting and bloody conflicts. In the suburbs of Chicago the mobs burned numerous cars and did much damage to other property. The losses inflicted on property throughout the country by this strike have been estimated at $80,000,000.

The strikers were undoubtedly encouraged in resorting to force by the sympathetic attitude which Governor Altgeld of Illinois showed towards the cause of labor. The Knights of Labor and other organizations of workingmen had passed resolutions complimenting the Governor on his pardon of the Chicago anarchists, and the American Railway Union counted unduly upon his support in obtaining their ends. The situation was such as to cause the greatest consternation throughout the country, as there was a widespread though erroneous belief that there was no way in which national Government could take action to suppress disorder unless it was called upon by the Legislature, if it happened to be in session, or by the Governor. But at this critical moment, the Illinois Legislature was not in session, and Governor Altgeld refused to call for aid. For a time, it therefore seemed that the strikers were masters of the situation and that law and order were powerless before the mob.

There was an unusual feeling of relief throughout the country when word came from Washington on the 1st of July that President Cleveland had called out the regular troops. Governor Altgeld sent a long telegram protesting against sending federal troops into Illinois without any request from the authority of the State. But President Cleveland replied briefly that the troops were not sent to interfere with state authority but to enforce the laws of the United States, upon the demand of the Post Office Department that obstruction to the mails be removed, and upon the representations of judicial officers of the United States that processes of federal courts could not be executed through the ordinary means. In the face of what was regarded as federal interference, riot for the moment blazed out more fiercely than ever, but the firm stand taken by the President soon had its effect. On the 6th of July, Governor Altgeld ordered out the state militia which soon engaged in some sharp encounters with the strikers. On the next day, a force of regular troops dispersed a mob at Hammond, Indiana, with some loss of life. On the 8th of July, President Cleveland issued a proclamation to the people of Illinois and of Chicago in particular, notifying them that those "taking part with a riotous mob in forcibly resisting and obstructing the execution of the laws of the United States... cannot be regarded otherwise than as public enemies," and that "while there will be no hesitation or vacillation in the decisive treatment of the guilty, this warning is especially intended to protect and save the innocent." The next day, he issued as energetic a proclamation against "unlawful obstructions, combinations and assemblages of persons" in North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Wyoming, Colorado, California, Utah, and New Mexico.

At the request of the American Railway Union, delegates from twenty-five unions connected with the American Federation of Labor met in Chicago on the 12th of July, and Debs made an ardent appeal to them to call a general strike of all labor organizations. But the conference decided that "it would be unwise and disastrous to the interests of labor to extend the strike any further than it had already gone" and advised the strikers to return to work. Thereafter, the strike rapidly collapsed, although martial law had to be proclaimed and, before quiet was restored, some sharp conflicts still took place between federal troops and mobs at Sacramento and other points in California. On the 3rd of August, the American Railway Union acknowledged its defeat and called off the strike. Meanwhile, Debs and other leaders had been under arrest for disobedience to injunctions issued by the federal courts. Eventually, Debs was sentenced to jail for six months,(1) and the others for three months. The cases were the occasion of much litigation in which the authority of the courts to intervene in labor disputes by issuing injunctions was on the whole sustained. The failure and collapse of the American Railway Union appears to have ended the career of Debs as a labor organizer, but he has since been active and prominent as a Socialist party leader.

Public approval of the energy and decision which President Cleveland displayed in handling the situation was so strong and general that it momentarily quelled the factional spirit in Congress. Judge Thomas M. Cooley, then, probably the most eminent authority on constitutional law, wrote a letter expressing "unqualified satisfaction with every step" taken by the President "in vindication of the national authority." Both the Senate end the House adopted resolutions endorsing the prompt and vigorous measures of the Administration. The newspapers, too, joined in the chorus of approval. A newspaper ditty which was widely circulated and was read by the President with pleasure and amusement ended a string of verses with the lines:

The railroad strike played merry hob,
The land was set aflame;
Could Grover order out the troops
To block the striker's game?
One Altgeld yelled excitedly,
"Such tactics I forbid;
You can't trot out those soldiers," yet
That's just what Grover did.

In after years when people talk
Of present stirring times,
And of the action needful to
Sit down on public crimes,
They'll all of them acknowledge then
(The fact cannot be hid)
That whatever was the best to do
Is just what Grover did.

This brief period of acclamation was, however, only a gleam of sunshine through the clouds before the night set in with utter darkness. Relations between President Cleveland and his party in the Senate had long been disturbed by his refusal to submit to the Senate rule that nominations to office should be subject to the approval of the Senators from the State to which the nominees belonged. On January 15, 1894, eleven Democrats voted with Senator David B. Hill to defeat a New York nominee for justice of the Supreme Court. President Cleveland then nominated another New York jurist against whom no objection could be urged regarding reputation or experience; but as this candidate was not Senator Hill's choice, the nomination was rejected, fourteen Democrats voting with him against it. President Cleveland now availed himself of a common Senate practice to discomfit Senator Hill. He nominated Senator White of Louisiana, who was immediately confirmed as is the custom of the Senate when one of its own members is nominated to office. Senator Hill was thus left with the doubtful credit of having prevented the appointment of a New Yorker to fill the vacancy in the Supreme Court. But this incident did not seriously affect his control of the Democratic party organization in New York. His adherents extolled him as a New York candidate for the Presidency who would restore and maintain the regular party system without which, it was contended, no administration could be successful in framing and carrying out a definite policy. Hill's action, in again presenting himself as a candidate for Governor in the fall of 1894, is intelligible only in the light of this ambition. He had already served two terms as Governor and was now only midway in his senatorial term; but if he again showed that he could carry New York he would have demonstrated, so it was thought, that he was the most eligible Democratic candidate for the Presidency. But he was defeated by a plurality of about 156,000.

The fall elections of 1894, indeed, made havoc in the Democratic party. In twenty-four States, the Democrats failed to return a single member, and in each of six others, only a single district failed to elect a Republican. The Republican majority in the House was 140, and the Republican party also gained control of the Senate. The Democrats who had swept the country two years before were now completely routed.

Under the peculiar American system which allows a defeated party to carry on its work for another session of Congress as if nothing had happened, the Democratic party remained in actual possession of Congress for some months but could do nothing to better its record. The leading occupation of its members now seemed to be the advocacy of free silver and the denunciation of President Cleveland. William J. Bryan of Nebraska was then displaying in the House the oratorical accomplishments and dauntless energy of character which soon thereafter gained him the party leadership. With prolific rhetoric, he likened President Cleveland to a guardian who had squandered the estate of a confiding ward and to a trainman who opened a switch and caused a wreck, and he declared that the President in trying to inoculate the Democratic party with Republican virus had poisoned its blood.

Shortly after the last Democratic Congress—the last for many years—the Supreme Court undid one of the few successful achievements of this party when it was in power. The Tariff Bill contained a section imposing a tax of two per cent on incomes in excess of $4000. A case was framed attacking the constitutionality of the tax,(2) the parties on both sides aiming to defeat the law and framing the issues with that purpose in view. On April 8, 1895, the Supreme Court rendered a judgment which showed that the Court was evenly divided on some points. A rehearing was ordered and a final decision was rendered on the 20th of May. By a vote of five to four it was held that the income tax was a direct tax, that as such it could be imposed only by apportionment among the States according to population, and that as the law made no such provision the tax was therefore invalid. This reversed the previous position of the Court(3) that an income tax was not a direct tax within the meaning of the Constitution, but that it was an excise. This decision was the subject of much bitter comment which, however, scarcely exceeded in severity the expressions used by members of the Supreme Court who filed dissenting opinions. Justice White was of the opinion that the effect of this judgment was "to overthrow a long and consistent line of decisions and to deny to the legislative department of the Government the possession of a power conceded to it by universal consensus for one hundred years." Justice Harlan declared that it struck "at the very foundation of national authority" and that it gave "to certain kinds of property a position of favoritism and advantage inconsistent with the fundamental principles of our social organization." Justice Brown hoped that "it may not prove the first step towards the submergence of the liberties of the people in a sordid despotism of wealth." Justice Jackson said it was "such as no free and enlightened people can ever possibly sanction or approve." The comments of law journals were also severe, and on the whole, the criticism of legal experts was more outspoken than that of the politicians.

Public distrust of legislative procedure in the United States is so great that powers of judicial interference are valued to a degree not usual in any other country. The Democratic platform of 1896 did not venture to go farther in the way of censure than to declare that "it is the duty of Congress to use all the constitutional power which remains after that decision, or which may come from its reversal by the court as it may hereafter be constituted, so that the burdens of taxation may be equally and impartially laid, to the end that wealth may bear its due proportion of the expenses of the government." Even this suggestion of possible future interference with the court turned out to be a heavy party load in the campaign.

With the elimination of the income tax, the revenues of the country became insufficient to meet the demands upon the Treasury, and Carlisle was obliged to report a deficit of $42,805,223 for 1895. The change of party control in Congress brought no relief. The House, under the able direction of Speaker Reed, passed a bill to augment the revenue by increasing customs duties and also a bill authorizing the Secretary of the Treasury to sell bonds or issue certificates of indebtedness bearing interest at three per cent. Both measures, however, were held up in the Senate, in which the silver faction held the balance of power.(4) On February 1, 1896, a free silver substitute for the House bond bill passed the Senate by a vote of forty-two to thirty-five, but the minority represented over eight million more people than the majority. The House refused, by 215 to 90, to concur in the Senate's amendment, and the whole subject was then dropped.

President Cleveland had to carry on the battle to maintain the gold standard and to sustain the public credit without any aid from Congress. The one thing he did accomplish by his efforts, and it was at that moment the thing of chief importance, was to put an end to party duplicity on the silver question. On that point, at least, national party platforms abandoned their customary practice of trickery and deceit. Compelled to choose between the support of the commercial centers and that of the mining camps, the Republican convention came out squarely for the gold standard and nominated William McKinley for President. Thirty-four members of the convention, including four United States Senators and two Representatives, bolted. It was a year of bolts, the only party convention that escaped being that of the Socialist Labor party, which ignored the monetary issue save for a vague declaration that "the United States have the exclusive right to issue money." The silver men swept the Democratic convention, which then nominated William Jennings Bryan for President. Later on, the Gold Democrats held a convention and nominated John M. Palmer of Illinois. The Populists and the National Silver party also nominated Bryan for President, but each made its own separate nomination for Vice-President. Even the Prohibitionists split on the issue, and a seceding faction organized the National party and inserted a free silver plank in their platform.

In the canvass which followed, calumny and misrepresentation were for once discarded in favor of genuine discussion. This new attitude was largely due to organizations for spreading information quite apart from regular party management. In this way, many able pamphlets were issued and widely circulated. The Republicans had ample campaign funds; but though the Democrats were poorly supplied, this deficiency did not abate the energy of Bryan's campaign. He traveled over eighteen thousand miles, speaking at nearly every stopping place to great assemblages. McKinley, on the contrary, stayed at home, although he delivered an effective series of speeches to visiting delegations. The outcome seemed doubtful, but the intense anxiety which was prevalent was promptly dispelled when the election returns began to arrive. By going over to free silver, the Democrats wrested from the Republicans all the mining States, except California, together with Kansas and Nebraska, but the electoral votes which they thus secured were a poor compensation for losses elsewhere. Such old Democratic strongholds as Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia gave McKinley substantial majorities, and Kentucky gave him twelve of her thirteen electoral votes. McKinley's popular plurality was over six hundred thousand, and he had a majority of ninety-five in the electoral college.

The nation approved the position which Cleveland had maintained, but the Republican party reaped the benefit by going over to that position while the Democratic party was ruined by forsaking it. Party experience during the Cleveland era contained many lessons, but none clearer than that presidential leadership is essential both to legislative achievement and to party success.


(1) Under Section IV of the Anti-Trust Law of 1890.

(2) Pollock vs. Farmers' Loan and Trust Company, 157 U.S. 429.

(3) Springer vs. United States, 102 U.S. 586.

(4) The distribution of party strength in the Senate was: Republicans, 43; Democrats, 39; Populists, 6. Republicans made concessions to the Populists which caused them to refrain from voting when the question of organisation was pending, and the Republicans were thus able to elect the officers and rearrange the committees, which they did in such a way as to put the free silver men in control of the committee on finance. The bills passed by the house were referred to this committee, which thereupon substituted bills providing for free coinage of silver.

<< 9: The Free Silver Revolt || Bibliographical Note