Alton B. Parker was a New York state judge and the unsuccessful Democratic presidential nominee in 1904. He was born on May 14, 1852 in Cortland, New York, to Harriet Straton Parker and John Brooks Parker. He was educated at the local academy, where he began teaching school at the age of 16. Within a few years, he studied law, first, at a firm in Kingston, New York, and then at the Albany Law School, where he graduated in 1873. That year, he married Mary Louise Schoonmaker; the couple later had a daughter. His first wife died in 1917, and he married Amelia Day Campbell in 1923.
Parker established a law practice in Kingston, where he was elected to the position of county surrogate (estate judge) in 1877 and reelected in 1883. He was the only victorious Democrat in both county elections. In 1885, for financial reasons, he turned down President Grover Cleveland’s offer to serve as the first assistant postmaster general. That same year, he managed David B. Hill’s successful gubernatorial campaign, and was rewarded by Governor Hill with an appointment as judge on the New York State Supreme Court (a lower state court).
Parker soon gained a reputation among lawyers and fellow judges for fairness, competence, and courtesy, and quickly climbed New York’s judicial ladder. He was named to the second division of the Court of Appeals in 1889, to the first division in 1892, and to the appellate division of the State Supreme Court in 1896. The next year, he won a landslide election as chief justice of the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, despite a dismal showing by other statewide Democratic candidates. As the state’s chief justice, his opinions tended to approve legislative acts unless specifically forbidden by the state constitution. He voted to uphold a labor union’s right to strike in order to obtain a closed shop and to affirm the constitutionality of a legislative act limiting the hours of bakery workers (to 60 per week). Parker declined offers over the years for him to seek the New York governorship or a seat in the U.S. senate. His ambition, instead, was a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
After the second defeat of William Jennings Bryan as the Democratic presidential nominee in 1900, conservative leaders of the party quickly gained ascendancy. They wanted to move the party beyond the dead issue of free silver (the Gold Standard Act was enacted in 1900), and return it to the pro-business philosophy and urban North-rural South base of former president Cleveland. However, since the party in 1904 faced almost certain defeat against the popular Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, no Democratic candidate with national stature entered the race.
In 1903, former governor Hill convinced Parker to allow his name to be placed in nomination for president, but only after the cautious judge tested the waters with a speaking tour of the South. Unlike prominent Gold Democrats, Parker had supported Bryan in 1896 and not become involved in intraparty skirmishes. Nevertheless, his silence on the issues before the Democratic National Convention met in early July 1904, and the backing of the business community, spurred Bryan to label him “the muzzled candidate of Wall Street.” Opposition from the temporarily discarded “Great Commoner” only enhanced Parker’s candidacy.
At the Democratic National Convention, Parker won a first-ballot victory, 679-181, over Congressman William Randolph Hearst, founder of the Hearst newspaper chain. Former senator William Davis of West Virginia was nominated for vice president. Unlike Bryan, who had electioneered continuously across the country in 1896 and 1900, Parker ran an old-fashioned campaign by receiving delegations at his home. Only in the final weeks of the campaign did he undertake a brief speaking tour. His last minute charge that large business corporations were funding the Roosevelt campaign in return for political favors was mainly ineffective. In the November election, President Theodore Roosevelt trounced Parker to win a second term, 336-140 in the Electoral College, and 56%-38% in the popular vote.
After the election, Parker established a private legal practice in New York City. He served as counsel for Mayor George B. McClellan (1904-1910), successfully convincing the courts that legislation for a recount of the 1905 mayoral election was unconstitutional. He defended the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which was sued because of its boycott of a nonunion hat manufacturer in Danbury, Connecticut. In 1908, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that the union had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act’s restraint of trade provision. In 1911, he defended AFL president Samuel Gompers and other labor leaders for violating an anti-boycott injunction against the Buck’s Stove and Range Company. In 1913, Parker was prosecution counsel in the legislative impeachment trial of Governor William Sulzer of New York, who was convicted and removed from office. In 1915, Parker represented the AFL during a congressional investigation, which led to congressional modification of federal court authority to issue injunctions. He died in New York City on May 10, 1926.
Sources consulted: The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., 2001 (online); Dictionary of American Biography.