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8: The Republican Opportunity

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The Republican party had the inestimable advantage in the year 1889 of being able to act. It controlled the Senate which had become the seat of legislative authority; it controlled the House; and it had placed its candidate in the presidential chair. All branches of the Government were now in party accord. The leaders in both Houses were able men, experienced in the diplomacy which, far more than argument or conviction, produces congressional action. Benjamin Harrison himself had been a member of the ruling group of Senators, and as he was fully imbued with their ideas as to the proper place of the President he was careful to avoid interference with legislative procedure. Such was the party harmony that an extensive program of legislation was put through without serious difficulty, after obstruction had been overcome in the House by an amendment of the rules.

In the House of Representatives, the quorum is a majority of the whole membership. This rule enabled the minority to stop business at any time when the majority party was not present in sufficient strength to maintain the quorum by its own vote. On several occasions, the Democrats left the House nominally without a quorum by the subterfuge of refusing to answer to their names on the roll call. Speaker Reed determined to end this practice by counting as present any members actually in the chamber. To the wrath of the minority, he assumed this authority while a revision of the rules was pending. The absurdity of the Democratic position was naively exposed when a member arose with a law book in his hand and said, "I deny your right, Mr. Speaker, to count me as present, and I desire to read from the parliamentary law on the subject." Speaker Reed, with the nasal drawl that was his habit, replied, "The Chair is making a statement of fact that the gentleman from Kentucky is present? Does he deny it?" The rejoinder was so apposite that the House broke into a roar of laughter, and the Speaker carried his point.

Undoubtedly, Speaker Reed was violating all precedents. Facilities of obstruction had been cherished by both parties, and nothing short of Reed's earnestness and determination could have effected this salutary reform. The fact has since been disclosed that he had made up his mind to resign the Speakership and retire from public life had his party failed to support him. For three days, the House was a bedlam, but the Speaker bore himself throughout with unflinching courage and unruffled composure. Eventually he had his way. New rules were adopted, and the power to count a quorum was established.(1) When in later Congresses a Democratic majority returned to the former practice, Reed gave them such a dose of their own medicine that for weeks the House was unable to keep a quorum. Finally, the House was forced to return to the "Reed rules" which have since then been permanently retained. As a result of congressional example, they have been generally adopted by American legislative bodies, with a marked improvement in their capacity to do business.

With the facilities of action which they now possessed, the Republican leaders had no difficulty in getting rid of the surplus in the Treasury. Indeed, in this particular they could count on Democratic aid. The main conduit which they used was an increase of pension expenditures. President Harrison encouraged a spirit of broad liberality toward veterans of the Civil War. During the campaign he said that it "was no time to be weighing the claims of old soldiers with apothecary's scales," and he put this principle of generous recognition into effect by appointing as commissioner of pensions a robust partisan known as "Corporal" Tanner. The report went abroad that on taking office he had gleefully declared, "God help the surplus," and upon that maxim he acted with unflinching vigor. It seemed, indeed, as if any claim could count upon being allowed so long as it purported to come from an old soldier. But Tanner's ambition was not satisfied with an indulgent consideration of applications pending during his time; he reopened old cases, rerated a large number of pensioners, and increased the amount of their allowance. In some cases, large sums were granted as arrears due on the basis of the new rate. A number of officers of the pension bureau were thus favored, for a man might receive a pension on the score of disability though still able to hold office and draw its salary and emoluments. For example, the sum of $4300 in arrears was declared to be due to a member of the United States Senate, Charles F. Manderson of Nebraska. Finally, "Corporal" Tanner's extravagant management became so intolerable to the Secretary of the Interior that he confronted President Harrison with the choice of accepting his resignation or dismissing Tanner. Tanner therefore had to go, and with him his system of reratings.

A pension bill for dependents, such as Cleveland had vetoed, now went triumphantly through Congress.(2) It granted pensions of from six to twelve dollars a month to all persons who had served for ninety days in the Civil War and had thereby been incapacitated for manual labor to such a degree as to be unable to support themselves. Pensions were also granted to widows, minor children, and dependent parents. This law brought in an enormous flood of claims in passing, upon which it was the policy of the Pension Bureau to practice great indulgence. In one instance, a pension was granted to a claimant who had enlisted but never really served in the army as he had deserted soon after entering the camp. He thereupon had been sentenced to hard labor for one year and made to forfeit all pay and allowances. After the war, he had been convicted of horse stealing and sent to the state penitentiary in Wisconsin. While serving his term, he presented a pension claim supported by forged testimony to the effect that he had been wounded in the battle of Franklin. The fraud was discovered by a special examiner of the pension office, and the claimant and some of his witnesses were tried for perjury, convicted, and sent to the state penitentiary at Joliet, Illinois. After serving his time there, he posed as a neglected old soldier and succeeded in obtaining letters from sympathetic Congressmen commending his case to the attention of the pension office, but without avail until the Act of 1890 was passed. He then put in a claim which was twice rejected by the pension office examiners, but each time the decision was overruled, and in the end he was put upon the pension roll. This case is only one of many made possible by lax methods of investigating pension claims. Senator Gallinger of New Hampshire eventually said of the effect of pension policy, as shaped by his own party with his own aid:

"If there was any soldier on the Union side during the Civil War who was not a good soldier, who has not received a pension, I do not know who he is. He can always find men of his own type, equally poor soldiers who would swear that they knew he had been in a hospital at a certain time, whether he was or not—the records did not state it, but they knew it was so—and who would also swear that they knew he had received a shock which affected his hearing during a certain battle, or that something else had happened to him; and so all those pension claims, many of which are worthless, have been allowed by the Government, because they were 'proved.'"

The increase in the expenditure for pensions, which rose from $88,000,000 in 1889 to $159,000,000 in 1893, swept away much of the surplus in the Treasury. Further inroads were made by the enactment of the largest river and harbor appropriation bill in the history of the country up to this time. Moreover, a new tariff bill was contrived in such a way as to impose protective duties without producing so much revenue that it would cause popular complaint about unnecessary taxation. A large source of revenue was cut off by abolishing the sugar duties and by substituting a system of bounties to encourage home production. Upon this bill as a whole, Senator Cullom remarks in his memoirs that "it was a high protective tariff, dictated by the manufacturers of the country" who have "insisted upon higher duties than they really ought to have." The bill was, indeed, made up wholly with the view of protecting American manufactures from any foreign competition in the home market.

As passed by the House, not only did the bill ignore American commerce with other countries but it left American consumers exposed to the manipulation of prices on the part of other countries. Practically all the products of tropical America, except tobacco, had been placed upon the free list without any precaution lest the revenue thus surrendered might not be appropriated by other countries by means of export taxes. Blaine, who was once more Secretary of State, began a vigorous agitation in favor of adding reciprocity provisions to the bill. When the Senate showed a disposition to resent his interference, Blaine addressed to Senator Frye of Maine a letter which was in effect an appeal to the people, and which greatly stirred the farmers by its statement that "there is not a section or a line in the entire bill that will open the market for another bushel of wheat or another barrel of pork." The effect was so marked that the Senate yielded, and the Tariff Bill, as finally enacted, gave the President power to impose certain duties on sugar, molasses, coffee, tea, and hides imported from any country imposing on American goods duties, which, in the opinion of the President, were "reciprocally unequal and unreasonable." This more equitable result is to be ascribed wholly to Blaine's energetic and capable leadership.

Pending the passage of the Tariff Bill, the Senate had been wrestling with the trust problem which was making a mockery of a favorite theory of the Republicans. They had held that tariff protection benefited the consumer by the stimulus which it gave to home production and by ensuring a supply of articles on as cheap terms as American labor could afford. There were, however, notorious facts showing that certain corporations had taken advantage of the situation to impose high prices, especially upon the American consumer. It was a campaign taunt that the tariff held the people down while the trusts went through their pockets, and to this charge the Republicans found it difficult to make a satisfactory reply.

The existence of such economic injustice was continually urged in support of popular demands for the control of corporations by the Government. Though the Republican leaders were much averse to providing such control, they found inaction so dangerous that on January 14, 1890, Senator John Sherman reported from the Finance Committee a vague but peremptory statute to make trade competition compulsory. This was the origin of the AntiTrust Law which has since gone by his name, although the law actually passed was framed by the Senate judiciary committee. The first section declared that "every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is hereby declared to be illegal." The law made no attempt to define the offenses it penalized and created no machinery for enforcing its provisions, but it gave jurisdiction over alleged violations to the courts—a favorite congressional mode of getting rid of troublesome responsibilities. As a result, the courts have been struggling with the application of the law ever since, without being able to develop a clear or consistent rule for discriminating between legal and illegal combinations in trade and commerce. Even upon the financial question, the Republicans succeeded in maintaining party harmony, notwithstanding a sharp conflict between factions. William Windom, the Secretary of the Treasury, had prepared a bill of the type known as a "straddle." It offered the advocates of free coinage the right to send to the mint silver bullion in any quantity and to receive in return the net market value of the bullion in treasury notes redeemable in gold or silver coin at the option of the Government. The monthly purchase of not less than $2,000,000 worth of bullion was, however, no longer to be required by law. When the advocates of silver insisted that the provision for bullion purchase was too vague, a substitute was prepared which definitely required the Secretary of the Treasury to purchase 4,500,000 ounces of silver bullion in one month. The bill, as thus amended, was put through the House under special rule by a strict party vote. But when the bill reached the Senate, the former party agreement could no longer be maintained, and the Republican leaders lost control of the situation. The free silver Republicans combined with most of the Democrats to substitute a free coinage bill, which passed the Senate by forty-three yeas to twenty-four nays, all the negative votes save three coming from the Republican side.

It took all the influence the party leaders could exert to prevent a silver stampede in the House when the Senate substitute bill was brought forward; but by dexterous management, a vote of non-concurrence was passed and a committee of conference was appointed. The Republican leaders now found themselves in a situation in which presidential non-interference ceased to be desirable, but president Harrison could not be stirred to action. He would not even state his views. As Senator Sherman remarked in his "Recollections," "The situation at that time was critical. A large majority of the Senate favored free silver, and it was feared that the small majority against it in the other House might yield and agree to it. The silence of the President on the matter gave rise to an apprehension that if a free coinage bill should pass both Houses, he would not feel at liberty to veto it."

In this emergency, the Republican leaders appealed to their free silver party associates to be content with compelling the Treasury to purchase 4,500,000 ounces of silver per month, which it was wrongly calculated would cover the entire output of American mines. The force of party discipline eventually prevailed, and the Republican party got together on this compromise. The bill was adopted in both Houses by a strict party vote, with the Democrats solidly opposed, and was finally enacted on July 14, 1890.

Thus by relying upon political tactics, the managers of the Republican party were able to reconcile conflicting interests, maintain party harmony, and present a record of achievement which they hoped to make available in the fall elections. But while they had placated the party factions, they had done nothing to satisfy the people as a whole or to redress their grievances. The slowness of congressional procedure in matters of legislative reform allowed the amplest opportunity to unscrupulous business men to engage, in the meantime, in profiteering at the public expense. They were able to lay in stocks of goods at the old rates so that an increase of customs rates, for example, became an enormous tax upon consumers without a corresponding gain to the Treasury; for the yield was largely intercepted on private accounts by an advance in prices. The Tariff Bill, which William McKinley reported on April 16, 1890, became law only on the 1st of October, so there were over five months during which profiteers could stock at old rates for sales at the new rates and thus reap a rich harvest. The public, however, was infuriated, and popular sentiment was so stirred by the methods of retail trade that the politicians were both angered and dismayed. Whenever purchasers complained of an increase of price, they received the apparently plausible explanation, "Oh, the McKinley Bill did it." To silence this popular discontent, the customary arts and cajoleries of the politicians proved for once quite ineffectual.

At the next election, the Republicans carried only eighty-eight seats in the House out of 332—the most crushing defeat they had yet sustained. By their new lease of power in the House, however, the Democratic party could not accomplish any legislation, as the Republicans still controlled the Senate. The Democratic leaders, therefore, adopted the policy of passing a series of bills attacking the tariff at what were supposed to be particularly vulnerable points. These measures, the Republicans derided as "pop-gun bills," and in the Senate they turned them over to the committee on finance for burial. Both parties were rent by the silver issue, but it was noticeable that in the House which was closest to the people the opposition to the silver movement was stronger and more effective than in the Senate.

Notwithstanding the popular revolt against the Republican policy which was disclosed by the fall elections of 1890, President Harrison's annual message of December 9, 1891, was marked by extreme complacency. Great things, he assured the people, were being accomplished under his administration. The results of the McKinley Bill "have disappointed the evil prophecies of its opponents and in large measure realized the hopeful predictions of its friends." Rarely had the country been so prosperous. The foreign commerce of the United States had reached the largest total in the history of the country. The prophecies made by the antisilver men regarding disasters to result from the Silver Bullion Purchase Act, had not been realized. The President remarked "that the increased volume of currency thus supplied for the use of the people was needed and that beneficial results upon trade and prices have followed this legislation I think must be clear to every one." He held that the free coinage of silver would be disastrous, as it would contract the currency by the withdrawal of gold, whereas "the business of the world requires the use of both metals." While "the producers of silver are entitled to just consideration," it should be remembered that "bimetallism is the desired end, and the true friends of silver will be careful not to overrun the goal." In conclusion, the President expressed his great joy over "many evidences of the increased unification of the people and of the revived national spirit. The vista that now opens to us is wider and more glorious than before. Gratification and amazement struggle for supremacy as we contemplate the population, wealth, and moral strength of our country."

Though the course of events has yet to be fully explained, President Harrison's dull pomposity may have been the underlying reason of the aversion which Blaine now began to manifest. Although on Harrison's side and against Blaine, Senator Cullom remarks in his memoirs that Harrison had "a very cold, distant temperament," and that "he was probably the most unsatisfactory President we ever had in the White House to those who must necessarily come into personal contact with him." Cullom is of the opinion that "jealousy was probably at the bottom of their disaffection," but it appears to be certain that at this time Blaine had renounced all ambition to be President and energetically discouraged any movement in favor of his candidacy. On February 6, 1892, he wrote to the chairman of the Republican National Committee that he was not a candidate and that his name would not go before the convention. President Harrison went ahead with his arrangements for renomination, with no sign of opposition from Blaine. Then suddenly, on the eve of the convention, something happened—exactly what has yet to be discovered—which caused Blaine to resign the office of Secretary of State. It soon became known that Blaine's name would be presented, although he had not announced himself as a candidate. Blaine's health was then broken, and it was impossible that he could have imagined that his action would defeat Harrison. It could not have been meant for more than a protest. Harrison was renominated on the first ballot with Blaine a poor second in the poll.

In the Democratic convention, Cleveland, too, was renominated on the first ballot, in the face of a bitter and outspoken opposition. The solid vote of his own State, New York, was polled against him under the unit rule, and went in favor of David B. Hill. But even with this large block of votes to stand upon, Hill was able to get only 113 votes in all, while Cleveland received 616. Genuine acceptance of his leadership, however, did not at all correspond with this vote. Cleveland had come out squarely against free silver, and at least eight of the Democratic state conventions—in Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, South Carolina, and Texas—came out just as definitely in favor of free silver. But even delegates who were opposed to Cleveland, and who listened with glee to excoriating speeches against him forthwith, voted for him as the candidate of greatest popular strength. They then solaced their feelings by nominating a free silver man for Vice-President, who was made the more acceptable by his opposition to civil service reform. The ticket thus straddled the main issue; and the platform was similarly ambiguous. It denounced the Silver Purchase Act as "a cowardly makeshift" which should be repealed, and it declared in favor of "the coinage of both gold and silver without discrimination," with the provision that "the dollar unit of coinage of both metals must be of equal intrinsic and exchangeable value." The Prohibition party in that year came out for the "free and unlimited coinage of silver and gold." A more significant sign of the times was the organization of the "People's party," which held its first convention and nominated the old Greenback leader, James B. Weaver of Iowa, on a free silver platform.

The campaign was accompanied by labor disturbances of unusual extent and violence. Shortly after the meeting of the national conventions, a contest began between the powerful Amalgamated Association of Steel and Iron Workers, the strongest of the trade-unions, and the Carnegie Company over a new wage scale introduced in the Homestead mills. The strike began on June 29, 1892, and local authority at once succumbed to the strikers. In anticipation of this eventuality, the company had arranged to have three hundred Pinkerton men act as guards. They arrived in Pittsburgh during the night of the 5th of July and embarked on barges which were towed up the river to Homestead. As they approached, the strikers turned out to meet them, and an engagement ensued in which men were killed or wounded on both sides and the Pinkerton men were defeated and driven away. For a short time, the strikers were in complete possession of the town and of the company's property. They preserved order fairly well but kept a strict watch that no strike breakers should approach or attempt to resume work. The government of Pennsylvania was, for a time, completely superseded in that region by the power of the Amalgamated Association, until a large force of troops entered Homestead on the 12th of July and remained in possession of the place for several months. The contest between the strikers and the company caused great excitement throughout the country, and a foreign anarchist from New York attempted to assassinate Mr. Frick, the managing director of the company. Though this strike was caused by narrow differences concerning only the most highly paid classes of workers, it continued for some months and then ended in the complete defeat of the union.

On the same day that the militia arrived at Homestead, a more bloody and destructive conflict occurred in the Coeur d'Alene district of Idaho, where the workers in the silver mines were on strike. Nonunion men were imported and put into some of the mines. The strikers, armed with rifles and dynamite, thereupon attacked the nonunion men and drove them off, but many lives were lost in the struggle and much property was destroyed. The strikers proved too strong for any force which state authority could muster, but upon the call of the Governor, President Harrison ordered federal troops to the scene and under martial law order was soon restored.

Further evidence of popular unrest was given in August by a strike of the switchmen in the Buffalo railway yards, which paralyzed traffic until several thousand state troops were put on guard. About the same time, there were outbreaks in the Tennessee coal districts in protest against the employment of convict labor in the mines. Bands of strikers seized the mines, and in some places turned loose the convicts and in other places escorted them back to prison. As a result of this disturbance, during 1892 state troops were permanently stationed in the mining districts, and eventually the convicts were put back at labor in the mines.

Such occurrences infused bitterness into the campaign of 1892 and strongly affected the election returns. Weaver carried Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, and Nevada, and he got one electoral vote in Oregon and in North Dakota; but even if these twenty-two electoral votes had gone to Harrison, he would still have been far behind Cleveland, who received 277 electoral votes out of a total of 444. Harrison ran only about 381,000 behind Cleveland in the popular vote, but in four States, the Democrats had nominated no electors and their votes had contributed to the poll of over a million for Weaver. The Democratic victory was so sweeping that it gained the Senate as well as the House, and now for the first time a Democratic President was in accord with both branches of Congress. It was soon to appear, however, that this party accord was merely nominal.


(1) The rule that "no dilatory motion shall be entertained by the Speaker" was also adopted at this time.

(2) June 27, 1890.

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