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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 stature.

Cleveland’s 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.

Foremost among 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).

The Democratic 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 the platform.

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. 

In 1889-1890, 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 election. 

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.” 

The shorter 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).

The Populists 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.

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