Wednesday, July 16, 2008

James Weaver: Campaign Trail Blazer

When TV political commentators make historical comparisons with current events, it seems to me they seldom venture back before the Reagan administration. (I know some of them are at least as old as I am, and I remember Dwight Eisenhower, albeit vaguely. The vice-president had a little dog named Checkers....) This is too shallow a dip into the history lesson well. I'm thinking Teapot Dome comparisons would be valuable, as would railroad monopolies, miners' wars, the International Workers of the World, etc. I was heartened to hear John McCain define himself as a conservative in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt. At least we're breaking out of the anomalous bubble of the last 30 years.

That's why I was pleased to see this article: Egad! He Moved His Feet When He Ran: James Weaver, the First To 'Run' in a Presidential Race by Robert B. Mitchell, Washington Post, July 5, 2008, adapted from "Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver," to be published this fall by Edinborough Press. While the emphasis is on Weaver's innovation in presidential campaigns, I was pleased to see mentioned some hard times that put modern day troubles in perspective, including the Panic of 1893, the violence of the Pullman strike and the legions of unemployed who marched on Washington under the banner of Coxey's Army....

In the early hours of July 5, 1892, before an enthusiastic convention of radical farmers and their allies in Omaha, a 59-year-old Civil War veteran from Iowa made a solemn pledge that helped give birth to the modern presidential campaign.

Gen. James B. Weaver...had just won the nomination of the People's Party. Looking out over the assembled Populist delegates, Weaver predictably declared his fealty to the party's platform in the campaign ahead against Republican President Benjamin Harrison and the Democratic nominee, former president Grover Cleveland.....Weaver vowed to campaign on his own behalf for the White House. "I wish to make you here and now a promise that if God spares me and gives me strength, I shall visit every state in the Union and carry the banner of the people into the enemy's camp," he declared to the convention.

Such a promise hardly seems unique today, but in the 1800s it challenged prevailing political custom....presidential candidates of the period usually avoided soliciting votes in person because -- in a textbook example of 19th-century hypocrisy -- they were not supposed to appear too eager to hold the highest office in the land.

....Weaver's pledge in Omaha injected an element of drama into what was shaping up as a tedious rerun of the campaign of 1888. With Harrison paired against Cleveland, yet another election fought over the dreary terrain of tariffs, the tired Civil War symbolism of "waving the bloody shirt" and states' rights appeared inevitable. The cynicism engendered by the prospect of another contest between Cleveland and Harrison was so pervasive, one observer joked, "either party would have been glad to defeat the other if it could do so without electing its own candidate."

....Energetic, articulate (though given to occasional flights of florid rhetoric) and combative, the blue-eyed, mustachioed Weaver had spent the better part of the previous two decades campaigning for the economic and political reforms advocated by agrarian radicals. Before the Civil War, Weaver addressed anti-slavery rallies across southern Iowa in support of the Republican Party. A lifetime of stump speeches and schoolhouse debates provided ideal preparation for the presidential campaign ahead.

In the West, where miners strongly supported the Populists' commitment to expand use of silver in the money supply, the People's Party campaign generated enormous excitement. Appearing with Populist firebrand Mary E. Lease, and accompanied by his wife, Clarissa, Weaver drew wildly enthusiastic crowds in Denver and Pueblo. He spoke to a large and friendly audience in Los Angeles. Bands and celebratory cannon fire greeted the Populists as they toured the small towns of Nevada.

In an unusual and quite possibly painful fundraising stunt, Lease invited the crowd in Denver to hurl coins at her. The invitation prompted laughter, applause and "a rain of silver dollars," according to a Washington Post account.

....Weaver and Lease campaigned in Lincoln, Neb., where Rep. William Jennings Bryan was running for reelection and had endorsed Weaver instead of Cleveland. Nebraska voters returned their young congressman to Washington, but by a narrow margin of 140 votes. In the end, Cleveland returned to the White House, but his second term -- marred by the Panic of 1893, the violence of the Pullman strike and the legions of unemployed who marched on Washington under the banner of Coxey's Army -- was hardly triumphant.

As for Weaver, his Populist campaign proved stunningly successful; for the first time since 1860, a third party won electoral votes. He carried Kansas, Colorado, Nevada and Idaho and won additional electoral votes in Oregon and North Dakota. Despite the intensely negative campaign against him by Southern Democrats, he received 36 percent of the vote in Alabama and 23 percent in Texas. Overall, it was a vast improvement over the dismal third-party showings of the 1880s.


Sherry said...

Eugene V. Debs got in a lot of trouble for leading the Pullman strike. If I remember correctly, he had been a loyal Democrat until about that time.

One thing I've learned from reading about Debs's trial and imprisonment for speech against the war effort in WWI is that things are not nearly as repressive now as they could be.

I'm not sure whether to celebrate that. I think it may be more that the powers that be have learned that it's better (for them) to marginalize protest than to oppose it head on.

Rebecca Clayton said...

I started reading about Mother Jones about the same time you first posted about the Debs bio--it really brings home how bad things were in America, and in the world. Mother Jones was one of the leaders of Coxey's army, and a friend of Debs.