Annexation of Hawaii
In early 1893, American business interests, with the help of a contingent of U.
S. marines, overthrew Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani and requested that the United
States annex the island chain. The outgoing administration of Republican
Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) sent an annexation treaty to the U.S. Senate for
ratification, but upon taking office President Grover Cleveland rescinded it.
When Grover Cleveland assumed the presidency in March 1893, he faced the
beginning of an economic depression that would last his entire term. A
drain on gold reserves and the bankruptcy of Pennsylvania Steel in April helped
provoke a panic on Wall Street. On May 4, the most actively traded
industrial stock, National Cordage, plummeted from $140 to $20 a share and then
went into receivership. By July, the entire stock market had lost 35% of
its value from early 1893, and by the end of the year almost 30% of the railroad
system had gone bankrupt, 500 banks had closed, and 15,000 businesses had
failed. Employment reached over 20% in the industrial sector. The
national economy finally revived in 1897.
Repeal of the Sherman Silver
In August, President Cleveland called Congress into special session to repeal
the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. He believed the law had caused a
dangerous reduction in the nation’s gold reserves, which led to the economic
depression. The bill was intensely debated and particularly divided the
Democratic Party, with opposition led by Congressman Richard Bland of Missouri
and William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska. With crucial votes from the
Republican congressional minority, the bill became law in October 1893.
March of Coxey’s Army:
In March, Jacob Coxey, an Ohio businessman and Populist, organized a march of
unemployed laborers, known as Coxey’s Army, to Washington, D.C., to demand an
increased money supply and federal public works programs. Beginning with
100 followers, he expected to attract 100,000 for a May Day demonstration.
Instead, 500 marchers arrived on April 30. Coxey was arrested for
trespassing on the Capitol lawn, and Congress ignored his agenda.
During the economic depression, George Pullman fired one-third of the Pullman
Palace Car Company workforce, reduced the remaining employees’ wages by 30
percent, and kept prices high at stores in the company town outside Chicago.
Eugene Debs, president of the American Railway Union, called a strike in June
when management refused to negotiate. The strike spread to other railroad
companies, interrupted the nation’s transportation system, and erupted into
violence. At the request of railroad executives, but against the wishes of
Governor John Atgeld of Illinois, President Cleveland secured an injunction
against the strikers and sent federal troops to Illinois, thereby ensuring
shipment of commerce and the U.S. mails. Debs was jailed for violating the
injunction and the strike was broken.
Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act:
Hoping to reduce the nation’s high import duties enacted under the McKinley
Tariff Act of 1890, President Cleveland worked with Congressman William Wilson
of West Virginia to introduce a tariff reform bill in December 1893. The
Wilson Tariff, which would have lowered the overall tariff rate by 15%, passed
the House in February 1894. Senator Arthur Pue Gorman of Maryland
transformed the legislation into a high-tariff bill. The final compromise
version cut overall rates by only 7% and actually increased duties on many
items. It passed in July and became law without the president’s signature.
The U.S. Supreme Court handed down three controversial decisions in
1895. In U. S. v. E. C. Knight Co.
(January), it ruled that the American Sugar Refining Company, which
controlled 98% of sugar refineries in the United States, was not in
violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. In Pollack v. Farmers’
Loan & Trust Co. (May), the High Court declared that the federal
income tax enacted the previous year was unconstitutional.
Finally, justices ruled unanimously (May) against a writ of habeas
corpus to Eugene Debs, president of the American Railway Union, who had
been arrested for participating in the Pullman Strike. In re
Debs had the effect of approving the use of court injunctions
Cuban nationalists first rebelled against Spanish colonial rule in the
Ten Years’ War (1868-1878), which ended with Spain agreeing to minimal
reforms only. The situation remained tense, and a second revolt
erupted in 1895. There was much sympathy in the United States for
an independent Cuba, with American volunteers and munitions aiding the
cause. In June, however, President Cleveland declared the United
States officially neutral and condemned American military assistance to
the rebels. The situation later culminated in the Spanish-American
War of 1898.
The Cleveland administration intervened in a longstanding dispute
between Britain and Venezuela over the border of British Guiana.
The colony’s boundaries had never been set precisely, and the two
countries made overlapping claims to the disputed land. Fearing
British expansion in South America, Secretary of State Richard Olney
issued a note in late July arguing that Britain was violating the Monroe
Doctrine, that the United States was “practically sovereign on this
continent,” and insisting on arbitration. After much controversy,
negotiations began in 1896 and the border was settled, largely in
Britain’s favor, in 1899.
Republican National Convention:
Meeting in St. Louis on June 16-18, Republicans nominated Governor William
McKinley of Ohio for president on the first ballot by a wide margin over
Congressman Thomas B. Reed of Maine, Senator Matthew Quay of Pennsylvania, and
others. Delegates then chose Garret Hobart, a businessman and state
politician from New Jersey, for vice president. The party platform blamed
Democratic policies for the economic depression, rejected the free coinage of
silver, and endorsed high tariffs to protect American business.
Democratic National Convention:
Delegate in favor of free silver controlled the assembly in Chicago on July
7-11. Although there was no clear presidential frontrunner, William
Jennings Bryan, a former congressman from Nebraska, attracted attention with his
spellbinding “Cross of Gold” speech. Congressman Richard Bland of
Missouri, another free-silver leader, led in the early voting before Bryan won
on the fifth ballot. At 36, he was the youngest person nominated for
president by a major party. For vice president, delegates chose Arthur
Sewall, a pro-silver businessman from Maine. The party platform endorsed
the free coinage of silver and criticized federal intervention in local affairs
(e.g., the Pullman Strike and Southern elections).
Populist National Convention:
Gathering in St. Louis on July 24-26, Populists endorsed Democratic nominee
William Jennings Bryan for president. However, delegates bypassed Democrat
Arthur Sewall (considered anti-labor) in the vice-presidential position for
Thomas Watson of Georgia, a prominent Populist and former congressman. The
party platform called for the unlimited coinage of silver, a graduated income
tax, postal savings banks, government ownership of railroad and telegraph
systems, a new homestead act, ballot initiative and referendum, direct election
of U.S. senators (rather than by state legislatures), and other reforms.
National (Gold) Democratic Convention:
Meeting in Indianapolis on September 2, delegates nominated Senator John Palmer
of Illinois for president and Simon Bolivar Buckner, a former governor of
Kentucky (1887-1891), for vice president. The platform endorsed the gold
standard and tariff reform.
On November 3, Republican William McKinley decisively defeated Democrat/Populist
William Jennings Bryan, 276-176 in the Electoral College and 51%-46% in the
popular vote, the largest margin of victory since President Ulysses S. Grant’s
reelection in 1872. Republicans retained control of both houses of
Congress, which they had won in 1894, and became the majority party in national
politics until the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.
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