The Democratic Nomination
As president, Grover Cleveland had
not been an effective party leader, his core policy of tariff
reform failed to gain congressional approval, and his unwavering
commitment to the gold standard alienated many fellow Democrats.
After leaving the White House in March 1889, he divided his time
between a prosperous law practice in New York City and a
vacation home in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. Satisfied
with private life, he stayed aloof from politics and refused to
campaign in the congressional elections of 1890. That
year’s sweeping Democratic victories, however, prompted him to
reenter the political scene gradually. He began speaking
at party assemblies, and by the end of 1891 had decided to seek
the Democratic presidential nomination for a third time.
Despite weak points, Cleveland’s assets included prominence as
the only living Democratic ex-president and a political base in
his party’s dominant Northeast. At the time, the
Democratic Party had an absence of other leaders with national
candidacy was motivated partly by an attempt to keep Senator
David B. Hill of New York from winning the nomination.
Hill had been Cleveland’s lieutenant governor (1883-1884), but
upon assuming the governorship had built a state political
machine comprised mainly of anti-Cleveland groups. In
1888, the managers of Cleveland’s renomination campaign had to
defeat efforts by Hill’s organization to have the state
delegation endorse the governor for president. While
Cleveland stayed on the sidelines during 1890, the governor
stumped for candidates throughout the Midwest and South in the
ill-fated hope of attracting support for a presidential
candidacy. Although Hill accumulated a modest record of
tenement-house and labor reform, Cleveland considered him to be
simply an unscrupulous machine boss whose deal-making would
undermine the political principles to which the former president
had dedicated his public career.
those principles, and perhaps the key reason Cleveland ran for
president in 1892, was his opposition to free silver and other
inflationary proposals. The contentious issue of monetary
policy had a long history, but heated up as the century entered
its final decade. Cleveland and other advocates of the
gold standard believed that it ensured a stable economy.
Critics wanted to spur inflation by putting more money in
circulation in order to alleviate the financial burden of
debt-ridden farmers. The Greenback Party of the 1870s and
1880s proposed flooding the nation with paper currency
(“greenbacks”) not redeemable in gold.
In the 1890s,
the dominant inflationist idea became “free silver”— the
unlimited coinage of silver at a 16-1 value ratio with gold
coins. In 1890, Congress enacted the Silver Purchase Act,
which increased the amount of silver purchased and coined by the
federal government. The legislation angered gold-standard
advocates like Cleveland, but was insufficient to satisfy the
inflationists. The major political vehicle for
inflationists was the Populist Party, which won nine seats in
Congress and numerous state and local offices in the 1890
elections. Gold supporters had long controlled the
Democratic Party at the national level, and Cleveland wanted to
keep the growing free-silver movement from taking over the party
leadership. He was concerned that a bimetallist like David
Hill would cut a deal with Democratic free-silver forces to win
the nomination. In February 1892, Cleveland issued a
public “Silver Letter” to remind the party of its historic
commitment to the gold standard.
In early 1892,
Cleveland laid the groundwork for his nomination by meeting with
party leaders and delivering occasional public speeches
(emphasizing tariff reform and avoiding the silver issue).
Determined not to concede the South to Silver Democrats or
Populists, he corresponded with Southern politicians and
newspaper editors, emphasizing party unity, concern for the
region’s farmers, and opposition to federal oversight of voting
rights (the “Force Bill”). The latter was
Republican-sponsored legislation aimed at protecting the voting
rights of black men, who overwhelmingly lived in the South and
voted Republican. Cleveland, his campaign manager (and
former Navy secretary), William C. Whitney, and other top
advisors agreed that the ex-president needed to achieve victory
on the first ballot to stop the opposition from uniting behind
another candidate, such as Senator Hill or Senator Arthur Pue
Gorman of Maryland. Whitney raised ample funds from
Eastern bankers and businessmen to finance the campaign.
In order to
stop Cleveland’s momentum and aid Hill’s chances, New York
Democratic Chairman Edward Murphy hastily convened the state
party convention in February 1892. A fierce snowstorm
prevented many delegates from attending. Those present
voted to endorse Hill under the unit rule—he would get the
entire state delegation vote at the national convention.
The underhanded ploy backfired, however, generating much
negative press (deriding it as the "Snap Convention") and
casting Cleveland in a positive light. Whitney met with
Democratic leaders from other states so that by the eve of the
national convention Cleveland had the commitment of all but a
few of the number of delegates needed for victory (607).
National Convention began on June 21, 1892, in Chicago.
The next day, delegates adopted a platform denouncing federal
oversight of elections as “fraught with the gravest dangers,”
brashly claiming that it “injures the colored citizen even more
than the white.” The document criticized Republican
tax-and-spend policies, which had “squandered an enormous
surplus,” and trade protectionism “as a fraud, a robbery of the
great majority … for the benefit of the few.” It declared
that the Constitution allowed only tariffs to raise revenue, not
those shielding industry from foreign competition. The
McKinley Tariff was singled out as an “atrocity of class
legislation.” While endorsing the principle of trade
reciprocity, it dismissed treaties signed by the Harrison
administration as a “sham.” It affirmed bimetallism and
condemned the Sherman Silver Purchase Act as “a cowardly
makeshift.” Delegates rejected free-silver amendments to
Passage of the
platform was followed by nominating and seconding speeches.
Despite Tammanyite Bourke Cockran’s spellbinding oration
elaborating Cleveland’s many alleged faults, the ex-president
swept to victory on the first ballot with 617 2/3 votes to
Hill’s 112 (little beyond New York’s 72) and 103 for Governor
Horace Boies of Iowa. To balance the ticket, the delegates
chose Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, a Midwesterner and soft-money
advocate (greenbacks, free silver). Stevenson was a former
congressman who had served in the previous Cleveland
administration as first assistant postmaster general, a position
in which he angered civil service reformers by replacing 40,000
Republican officeholders with Democrats.
The Populist Party
The late-nineteenth century saw the
decline of American agriculture relative to industry, falling
prices for agricultural products (particularly wheat and
cotton), and increased debt of farmers. Some of those
adversely affected blamed large railroad corporations, banks,
grain-storage businesses, federal monetary policy, and an
allegedly unfair tax structure. During the 1880s,
primarily in the South, Midwest, and Plain States, Farmers’
Alliances formed to advocate government regulation or ownership
of railroads, an inflationary monetary policy through printing
greenbacks or coining silver, tax relief, and similar reforms.
Farmers’ Alliance members joined other reformers to form the
People’s (or Populist) Party in various states. The major
exception was the South, where the Alliance worked through the
Democratic Party and elected pro-Alliance governors in four
states, legislative majorities in eight, U.S. senators in two,
and over 40 congressmen who expressly endorsed Alliance
principles. In Kansas, the Populists elected five
congressmen, won overwhelmingly control of the lower state
house, and sent the first Populist to the U.S. Senate, William
Peffer. In Nebraska, Populists gained majorities in
both state houses. The outcome in other states was less
successful but still impressive for the party’s first contested
On July 4,
1892, Populists met at a national convention in Omaha, Nebraska,
to draft a platform and nominate a presidential ticket.
The preamble warned solemnly that the United States was on “the
verge of moral, political, and material ruin.” It sketched
a picture of America starkly divided into two classes:
wealthy, powerful capitalists and the oppressed masses. It
condemned gold-backed money for benefiting the privileged few
and denounced resistance to silver as “a vast conspiracy”
spanning two continents and “rapidly taking possession of the
world.” If not stopped, it would result in “terrible
social convulsions, the destruction of civilization, or the
establishment of an absolute despotism.”
body of the platform endorsed the permanent “union of the labor
forces”; criticized capitalists by declaring, “Wealth belongs to
him who creates it”; advocated government ownership of the
railroad, telephone, and telegraph systems; and called on the
federal government to reclaim railroad- and foreign-owned land
and redistribute it to American citizens for settlement.
The central and lengthiest part of the platform dealt with
finance. It demanded a sub-treasury system, “free and
unlimited coinage of silver and gold” at a ratio of 16 to 1,
increased greenbacks in circulation, a graduated income tax,
limits on government spending, and the establishment of postal
savings banks (i.e., government-protected savings accounts).
nominated James B. Weaver of Iowa for president and James G.
Field of Virginia for vice president. Weaver had been a
Union general, Greenback congressman (1879-1881; 1885-1889), and
presidential nominee of the Greenback-Labor Party in 1880.
Field was a lawyer who had lost a leg while serving as a
Confederate officer; he was Virginia’s attorney general for five
years, 1877-1881. The Populists campaigned primarily in
the Great Plains and silver-mining regions of the West.
Nevertheless, they boldly withstood verbal and physical threats
by carrying their message into the Democratic South.
Nationally, the two major parties ignored the Populists,
although Southern Republicans and Western Democrats attempted to
fuse with them at the state and local levels.