For Harper’s Weekly, the election of 1896 was concerned with far more than the money question. It was a stark choice of law and order against anarchy, of democratic free enterprise against paternalistic socialism. Editor Carl Schurz considered Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan to be a person of good character, but weak intellect, who was a front man for dangerously radical politicians, such as Governor John Peter Altgeld of Illinois. While the devalued bunco dollar symbolic of free silver is prominent in W. A. Rogers’s cartoon, the dominant theme is the political extremism of the Democrats, derided in the caption with the term “Popocratic”—a combination of “Populist” and “Democratic.” Rising from his seat as a future Supreme Court chief justice, Altgeld has angrily thrown away the U.S. Constitution.
The role of federal courts in the American political system was a controversial issue during the election of 1896. A major complaint of organized labor and its Populist and Democratic supporters was that federal courts ruled consistently against the interests of ordinary workers. In 1894, a federal court issued an injunction against laborers involved in the Pullman strike. The next year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant a writ of habeas corpus to Eugene Debs, president of the American Railway Union, who had been jailed for disregarding the injunction. That decision had the effect of validating court injunctions against strikers. Two other Supreme Court rulings in 1895 upset labor and populist leaders: nullification of the recently passed income tax as unconstitutional; and, the refusal to find the American Sugar Refining Company, which controlled 98% of sugar refineries in the United States, in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. In fact, it was the Democratic platform plank criticizing the federal courts that opponents, such as Harper's Weekly, labeled the “anarchy plank.”
Governor Altgeld was vilified for two reasons. In 1893, he pardoned three anarchists sentenced to life imprisonment for an 1886 bombing in Chicago’s Haymarket Square that killed seven police officers. The governor argued that the prisoners had not had a fair trial and the evidence for conviction was lacking. His decision was widely condemned in the press. The next year, Altgeld was criticized for objecting to President Cleveland’s order sending federal troops to maintain law and order during the Pullman strike. When violence erupted, the governor sent in the state militia, who killed seven rioters, but it was Altgeld’s stance against federal intervention that solidified his radical image. The unpopularity of his actions resulted in the governor’s defeat for reelection in November 1896.
The cartoon’s emphasis on political radicalism is showcased by the figures at the top. Above the bunco-dollar is a skull with the anarchist torch and a bloody knife in place of the usual cross-bones. The busts of hallowed forefathers are three men convicted and sentenced to death for involvement in the Haymarket bombing (left-right): Louis Lingg (who committed suicide in jail), Adolph Fischer (executed), and August Spies (executed). The other honored ancestor is "Charles Guiteau," the assassin of President James Garfield (1881).
The “wild-eyed” justices foreseen by the cartoonist after a “Popocratic” victory are (left-right): Sylvester Pennoyer, former governor of Oregon (1887-1895), who was elected as an anti-monopolist Democrat before joining the Populist Party in 1892. He supported Coxey’s Army in 1894 and campaigned vigorously for Bryan in 1896. Davis H. Waite, a former Populist governor of Colorado (1893-1895), he was nicknamed “Bloody Bridles Waite” after an 1893 speech in which he asserted, “it is better … that blood should flow to the horses’ bridles, rather than our national liberties should be destroyed.” Jacob Coxey, an Ohio businessman, organized a march of 500 unemployed workers, known as Coxey’s Army, to Washington, D. C., in May 1894 to demand (unsuccessfully) a federal public works program.
Union president Eugene Debs became a socialist while in jail for violating the court injunction against the Pullman strikers and later ran five times for president on the Socialist ticket. Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina, known for his demagogic oratory, was an outspoken critic of President Cleveland’s economic policies and earned the nickname “Pitchfork Ben” when he threatened to “poke old Grover with a pitchfork” to move the president in a different political direction. To the right of Altgeld is Senator William Morris Stewart of Nevada, a wealthy silver mine owner. He was a former and future Republican who was reelected to the U.S. Senate in 1892 on a Silver Party ticket and was a leader in the short-lived National Silver Party that nominated the Democratic ticket in 1896. The beard is that of Senator William Peffer of Kansas, the first Populist elected (in 1891) to the U.S. Senate.