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7: The Public Discontents

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While President and Congress were passing the time in mutual obstruction, the public discontents were becoming hot and bitter to a degree unknown before. A marked feature of the situation was the disturbance of public convenience involving loss, trouble, and distress which were vast in extent but not easily expressed in statistical form. The first three months of 1886 saw an outbreak of labor troubles far beyond any previous record in their variety and extent. In 1885, the number of strikes reported was 645 affecting 2284 establishments, a marked increase over preceding years. In 1886, the number of strikes rose to 1411, affecting 9861 establishments and directly involving 499,489 persons. The most numerous strikes were in the building trades, but there were severe struggles in many other industries. There was, for example, an interruption of business on the New York elevated railway and on the street railways of New York, Brooklyn, and other cities.

But the greatest public anxiety was caused by the behavior of the Knights of Labor, an organization then growing so rapidly that it gave promise of uniting under one control the active and energetic elements of the working classes of the country. It started in a humble way, in December, 1869, among certain garment cutters in Philadelphia, and for some years spread slowly from that center. The organization remained strictly secret until 1878, in which year it held a national convention of its fifteen district assemblies at Reading, Pennsylvania. The object and principles of the order were now made public and, thereafter, it spread with startling rapidity, so that in 1886 it pitted its strength against public authority with a membership estimated at from, 500,000 to 800,000. Had this body been an army obedient to its leaders, it would have wielded great power; but it turned out to be only a mob. Its members took part in demonstrations which were as much mutinies against the authority of their own executive board as they were strikes against their employers. The result of lack of organization soon began to be evident. In March 1886, the receiver of the Texas Pacific Railroad discharged an employee prominent in the Knights of Labor and thus precipitated a strike which was promptly extended to the Missouri Pacific. There were riots at various points in Missouri and Kansas, and railroad traffic at St. Louis was completely suspended for some days, but the strike was eventually broken. The Knights of Labor, however, had received a blow from which it never recovered, and as a result its membership declined. The order has since been almost wholly superseded by the American Federation of Labor, established in 1886 through shrewd management by an association of labor unions which had been maintained since 1881. The Knights had been organized by localities with the aim of merging all classes of working men into one body. The Federation, on the other hand, is composed of trades unions retaining their autonomy—a principle of organization which has proved to be more solid and durable.

To these signs of popular discontent the Government could not be blind. A congressional committee investigated the railroad strikes, and both parties in Congress busied themselves with labor legislation. But in spite of this apparent willingness to cope with the situation, there now followed another display of those cross purposes which occurred so often during the Cleveland administration. The House had already passed a bill providing means of submitting to arbitration controversies between railroads engaged in interstate commerce and their employees. President Cleveland now sent a special message recommending that "instead of arbitrators chosen in the heat of conflicting claims and after each dispute shall arise, there be created a Commission of Labor, consisting of three members, who shall be regular officers of the government, charged among other duties with the consideration and settlement when possible, of all controversies between labor and capital." In spite of the urgency of the situation, the Senate seized this occasion for a new display of party tactics, and it Allowed the bill already passed by the House to lie without action while it proceeded to consider various labor measures of its own. For example, by June 1, 1886, the Senate had passed a bill providing that eight hours should be a day's work for letter-carriers; soon afterwards, it passed a bill legalizing the incorporation of national trades unions, to which the House promptly assented without a division; and the House then continued its labor record by passing on the 15th of July a bill against the importation of contract labor. This last bill was not passed by the Senate until after the fall elections. It was approved by the President on February 23, 1887.

The Senate also delayed action on the House bill, which proposed arbitration in labor disputes, until the close of the session; and then the President, in view of his disregarded suggestion, withheld his assent. It was not until the following year that the legislation recommended by the President was enacted. By the Act of June 13, 1888, the Department of Labor was established, and by the Act of October 1, 1888, in addition to provision for voluntary arbitration between railroad corporations and their employees, the President was authorized to appoint a commission to investigate labor conflicts, with power to act as a board of conciliation. During the ten years in which the act remained on the statute books, it was actually put to use only in 1894, when a commission was appointed to investigate the Pullman strike at Chicago, but this body took no action towards settling the dispute.

Thus far, then, the efforts of the Government to deal with the labor problem had not been entirely successful. It is true that the labor conflicts arose over differences which only indirectly involved constitutional questions. The aims of both the Knights of Labor and of the American Federation were primarily economic and both organizations were opposed to agitation of a distinctively political character. But parallel with the labor agitation, and in communication with it, there were radical reform movements of a type unknown before. There was now to arise a socialistic movement opposed to traditional constitutionalism, and therefore viewed with alarm in many parts of the country. Veneration of the Constitution of 1787 was practically a national sentiment which had lasted from the time the Union was successfully established until the Cleveland era. However violent political differences in regard to public policy might be, it was the invariable rule that proposals must claim a constitutional sanction. In the Civil War, both sides felt themselves to be fighting in defense of the traditional Constitution.

The appeal to antiquity—even such a moderate degree of antiquity as may be claimed for American institutions—has always been the staple argument in American political controversy. The views and intentions of the Fathers of the Constitution are exhibited not so much for instruction as for imitation, and by means of glosses and interpretations conclusions may be reached which would have surprised the Fathers to whom they are imputed. Those who examine the records of the formative period of American institutions, not to obtain material for a case but simply to ascertain the facts, will readily observe that what is known as the principle of strict construction dates only from the organization of national parties under the Constitution. It was an invention of the opposition to Federalist rule and was not held by the makers of the Constitution themselves. The main concern of the framers was to get power for the National Government, and they went as far as they could with such success that striking instances may be culled from the writings of the Fathers showing that the scope they contemplated has yet to be attained. Strict construction affords a short and easy way of avoiding troublesome issues—always involved in unforeseen national developments—by substituting the question of constitutional power for a question of public propriety. But this method has the disadvantage, that it belittles the Constitution by making it an obstacle to progress. Running through much political controversy in the United States is the argument that, even granting that a proposal has all the merit claimed for it, nevertheless it cannot be adopted because the Constitution is against it. By strict logical inference the rejoinder then comes that, if so, the Constitution is no longer an instrument of national advantage. The traditional attachment of the American people to the Constitution has indeed been so strong that they have been loath to accept the inference that the Constitution is out of date, although the quality of legislation at Washington kept persistently suggesting that view of the case.

The failures and disappointments resulting from the series of national elections from 1874 to 1884, at last, made an opening for party movements voicing the popular discontent and openly antagonistic to the traditional Constitution. The Socialist Labor party held its first national convention in 1877. Its membership was mostly foreign; of twenty-four periodical publications then carried on in the party interest, only eight were in the English language; and this polyglot press gave justification to the remark that the movement was in the hands of people who proposed to remodel the institutions of the country before they had acquired its language. The alien origin of the movement was emphasized by the appearance of two Socialist members of the German Reichstag, who made a tour of this country in 1881 to stir up interest in the cause. It was soon apparent that the growth of the Socialist party organization was hindered by the fact that its methods were too studious and its discussions too abstract to suit the energetic temper of the times. Many Socialists broke away to join revolutionary clubs which were now organized in a number of cities without any clearly defined principle save to fight the existing system of government.

At this critical moment in the process of social disorganization, the influence of foreign destructive thought made itself felt. The arrival of Johann Most from Europe, in the fall of 1882, supplied this revolutionary movement with a leader who made anarchy its principle. Originally a German Socialist aiming to make the State the sole landlord and capitalist, he had gone over to anarchism and proposed to dissolve the State altogether, trusting to voluntary association to supply all genuine social needs. Driven from Germany, he had taken refuge in England, but even the habitual British tolerance had given way under his praise of the assassination of the Czar Alexander in 1881 and his proposal to treat other rulers in the same way. He had just completed a term of imprisonment before coming to the United States. Here, he was received as a hero; a great mass meeting in his honor was held in Cooper Union, New York, in December, 1882; and when he toured the country he everywhere addressed large meetings.

In October 1883, a convention of social revolutionists and anarchists was held in Chicago, at which a national organization was formed called the International Working People's Association. The new organization grew much faster than the Socialist party itself, which now almost disappeared. Two years later, the International had a party press consisting of seven German, two Bohemian, and only two English papers. Like the Socialist party, it was, therefore, mainly foreign in its membership. It was strongest in and about Chicago, where it included twenty groups with three thousand enrolled members. The anarchist papers exhorted their adherents to provide themselves with arms and even published instructions for the use of dynamite.

Political and industrial conditions thus supplied material for an explosion which came with shocking violence. On May 4, 1885, towards the close of an anarchist meeting held in Chicago, a dynamite bomb thrown among a force of policemen killed one and wounded many. Fire was at once opened on both sides, and, although the battle lasted only a few minutes, seven policemen were killed and about sixty wounded; while on the side of the anarchists, four were killed and about fifty were wounded. Ten of the anarchist leaders were promptly indicted, of whom one made his escape and another turned State's evidence. The trial of the remaining eight began on June 21, 1886, and two months later the death sentence was imposed upon seven and a penitentiary term of fifteen years upon one. The sentences of two of the seven were commuted to life imprisonment; one committed suicide in his cell by exploding a cartridge in his mouth; and four met death on the scaffold. While awaiting their fate they were to a startling extent regarded as heroes and bore themselves as martyrs to a noble cause. Six years later, Illinois elected as governor John P. Altgeld, one of whose first steps was to issue a pardon to the three who were serving terms of imprisonment and to criticize sharply the conduct of the trial which had resulted in the conviction of the anarchists.

The Chicago outbreak and its result stopped the open spread of anarchism. Organized labor now withdrew from any sort of association with it. This cleared the field for a revival of the Socialist movement as the agency of social and political reconstruction. So rapidly did it gain in membership and influence that by 1892 it was able to present itself as an organized national party appealing to public opinion for confidence and support, submitting its claims to public discussion, and stating its case upon reasonable grounds. Although its membership was small in comparison with that of the old parties, the disparity was not so great as it seemed, since the Socialists represented active intelligence while the other parties represented political inertia. From this time on, Socialist views spread among college students, artists, and men of letters, and the academic Socialist became a familiar figure in American society.

Probably more significant than the Socialist movement, as an indication of the popular demand for radical reform in the government of the country, was the New York campaign of Henry George in 1886. He was a San Francisco printer and journalist when he published the work on "Progress and Poverty" which made him famous. Upon the petition of over thirty thousand citizens, he became the Labor candidate for mayor of New York City. The movement in support of George developed so much strength that the regular parties felt compelled to put forward exceptionally strong candidates. The Democrats nominated Abram S. Hewitt, a man of the highest type of character, a fact which was not perhaps so influential in getting him the nomination as that he was the son-in-law of Peter Cooper, a philanthropist justly beloved by the working classes. The Republicans nominated Theodore Roosevelt, who had already distinguished himself by his energy of character and zeal for reform. Hewitt was elected, but George received 68,110 votes out of a total of 219,679, and stood second in the poll. His supporters contended that he had really been elected but had been counted out, and this belief turned their attention to the subject of ballot reform. To the agitation which Henry George began, may be fairly ascribed the general adoption of the Australian ballot in the United States.

The Socialist propaganda carried on in large cities and in factory towns hardly touched the great mass of the people of the United States, who belonged to the farm rather than to the workshop. The great agricultural class, which had more weight at the polls than any other class of citizens, was much interested in the redress of particular grievances and very little in any general reform of the governmental system. It is a class that is conservative in disposition but distrustful of authority, impatient of what is theoretical and abstract, and bent upon the quick practical solution of problems by the nearest and simplest means. While the Socialists in the towns were interested in labor questions, the farmers more than any other class were affected by the defective system of currency supply. The national banking system had not been devised to meet industrial needs but as a war measure to provide a market for government bonds, deposits of which had to be made as the basis of note issues. As holdings of government bonds were amassed in the East, financial operations tended to confine themselves to that part of the country, and banking facilities seemed to be in danger of becoming a sectional monopoly, and such, indeed, was the case to a marked extent. This situation inspired among the farmers, especially in the agricultural West, a hatred of Wall Street and a belief in the existence of a malign money power which provided an inexhaustible fund of sectional feeling for demagogic exploitation.

For lack of proper machinery of credit for carrying on the process of exchange, there seemed to be an absolute shortage in the amount of money in circulation, and it was this circumstance that had given such force to the Greenback Movement. Although that movement was defeated, its supporters urged that, if the Government could not supply additional note issues, it should at least permit an increase in the stock of coined money. This feeling was so strong that as early as 1877 the House had passed a bill for the free coinage of silver. For this, the Senate substituted a measure requiring the purchase and coinage by the Government of from two to four million dollars' worth of silver monthly, and this compromise was accepted by the House. As a result, in February, 1878, it was passed over President Hayes's veto.

The operation of this act naturally tended to cause the hoarding of gold as the cheaper silver was equally a legal tender, and meanwhile the silver dollars did not tend to pass into circulation. In 1885, in his first annual message to Congress, President Cleveland mentioned the fact that, although 215,759,431 silver dollars had been coined, only about fifty million had found their way into circulation, and that "every month two millions of gold in the public Treasury are paid out for two millions or more of silver dollars to be added to the idle mass already accumulated." The process was draining the stock of gold in the Treasury and forcing the country to a silver basis without really increasing the amount of money in actual circulation or removing any of the difficulties in the way of obtaining supplies of currency for business transactions. President Cleveland recommended the repeal of the Silver Coinage Act, but he had no plan to offer by which the genuine complaints of the people against the existing monetary system could be removed. Free silver thus was allowed to stand before the people as the only practical proposal for their relief, and upon this issue a conflict soon began between Congress and the Administration.

At a convention of the American Bankers' Association in September, 1885, a New York bank president described the methods by which the Treasury Department was restricting the operation of the Silver Coinage Act so as to avoid a displacement of the gold standard. On February 3, 1886, Chairman Bland of the House committee on coinage reported a resolution reciting statements made in that address, and calling upon the Secretary of the Treasury for a detailed account of his administration of the Silver Coinage Act. Secretary Manning's reply was a long and weighty argument against continuing the coinage of silver. He contended that there was no hope of maintaining a fixed ratio between gold and silver except by international concert of action, but "the step is one which no European nation... will consent to take while the direct or indirect substitution of European silver for United States gold seems a possibility." While strong as to what not to do, his reply, like most of the state papers of this period, was weak as to what to do and how to do it. The outlook of the Secretary of the Treasury was so narrow that he was led to remark that "a delusion has spread that the Government has authority to fix the amount of the people's currency, and the power, and the duty." The Government certainly has the power and the duty of providing adequate currency supply through a sound banking system. The instinct of the people on that point was sounder than the view of their rulers.

Secretary Manning's plea had so little effect that the House promptly voted to suspend the rules in order to make a free coinage bill the special order of business until it was disposed of. But the influence of the Administration was strong enough to defeat the bill when it came to a vote. Though for a time, the legislative advance of the silver movement was successfully resisted, the Treasury Department was left in a difficult situation, and the expedients to which it resorted to guard the gold supply added to the troubles of the people in the matter of obtaining currency. The quick way of getting gold from the Treasury was to present legal tender notes for redemption. To keep this process in check, legal tender notes were impounded as they came in, and silver certificates were substituted in disbursements. But under the law of 1878, silver certificates could not be issued in denominations of less than ten dollars. A scarcity of small notes resulted, which oppressed retail trade until, in August, 1886, Congress authorized the issue of silver certificates in one and two and five dollar bills.

A more difficult problem was presented by the Treasury surplus which, by old regulations savoring more of barbarism than of civilized polity, had to be kept idle in the Treasury vaults. The only apparent means by which the Secretary of the Treasury could return his surplus funds to the channels of trade was by redeeming government bonds; but as these were the basis of bank note issues, the effect of any such action was to produce a sharp contraction in this class of currency. Between 1882 and 1889, national bank notes declined in amount from $356,060,348 to $199,779,011. In the same period, the issue of silver certificates increased from $63,204,780 to $276,619,715, and the total amount of currency of all sorts nominally increased from $1,188,752,363 to $1,405,018,000; but of this, $375,947,715 was in gold coin which was being hoarded, and national bank notes were almost equally scarce since they were virtually government bonds in a liquid form.

As the inefficiency of the monetary system came home to the people in practical experience, it seemed as if they were being plagued and inconvenienced in every possible way. The conditions were just such as would spread disaffection among the farmers, and their discontent sought an outlet. The growth of political agitation in the agricultural class, accompanied by a thorough- going disapproval of existing party leadership, gave rise to numerous new party movements. Delegates from the Agricultural Wheel, the Corn-Planters, the Anti-Monopolists, Farmers' Alliance, and Grangers, attended a convention in February, 1887, and joined the Knights of Labor and the Greenbackers to form the United Labor party. In the country, at this time, there were numerous other labor parties of local origin and composition, with trade unionists predominating in some places and Socialists in others. Very early, however, these parties showed a tendency to division that indicated a clash of incompatible elements. Single taxers, greenbackers, labor leaders, grangers, and socialists were agreed only in condemning existing public policy. When they came to consider the question of what new policy should be adopted, they immediately manifested irreconcilable differences. In 1888, rival national conventions were held in Cincinnati, one designating itself as the Union Labor party, the other as the United Labor party. One made a schedule of particular demands; the other insisted on the single tax as the consummation of their purpose in seeking reform. Both put presidential tickets in the field, but of the two, the Union Labor party made by far the better showing at the polls though, even so, it polled fewer votes than did the National Prohibition party. Although making no very considerable showing at the polls, these new movements were very significant as evidences of popular unrest. The fact that the heaviest vote of the Union Labor party was polled in the agricultural States of Kansas, Missouri, and Texas, was a portent of the sweep of the populist movement which virtually captured the Democratic party organization during President Cleveland's second term.

The withdrawal of Blaine from the list of presidential candidates in 1888 left the Republican Convention at Chicago to choose from a score of "favorite sons." Even his repeated statement that he would not accept the nomination did not prevent his enthusiastic followers from hoping that the convention might be "stampeded." But on the first ballot, Blaine received only thirty-five votes while John Sherman led with 229. It was anybody's race until the eighth ballot, when General Benjamin Harrison, grandson of "Tippecanoe," suddenly forged ahead and received the nomination.

The defeat of the Democratic party at the polls in the presidential election of 1888 was less emphatic than might have been expected from its sorry record. Indeed, it is quite possible that an indiscretion in which Lord Sackville-West, the British Ambassador, was caught may have turned the scale. An adroitly worded letter was sent to him, purporting to come from Charles Murchison, a California voter of English birth, asking confidential advice which might enable the writer "to assure many of our countrymen that they would do England a service by voting for Cleveland and against the Republican system of tariff." With an astonishing lack of astuteness, the British minister fell into the trap and sent a reply which, while noncommittal on particulars, exhibited friendly interest in the reelection of President Cleveland. This correspondence, when published late in the campaign, caused the Administration to demand his recall. A spirited statement of the case was laid before the public by Thomas Francis Bayard, Secretary of State, a few days before the election, but this was not enough to undo the harm that had been done, and the Murchison letter takes rank with the Morey letter attributed to General Garfield as specimens of the value of the campaign lie as a weapon in American party politics.

President Cleveland received a slight plurality in the total popular vote; but by small pluralities Harrison carried the big States, thus obtaining a heavy majority in the electoral vote. At the same time, the Republicans obtained nearly as large a majority in the House as the Democrats had had before.

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