Harrison’s election seems to have been based on some very corrupt practices. Harrison’s campaign manager, Matthew Quay (a political boss from Pennsylvania), upon hearing that Harrison ascribed his narrow victory to “Providence,” was quoted as saying, “Think of the man! He ought to know that Providence hadn’t a damn thing to do with it.” Harrison, Quay added, would “never know how close a number of men were compelled to approach the gates of the penitentiary to make him president.”
In the election of 1888, Harrison’s fellow Hoosier, W.W. Dudley (hailing from Richmond, Indiana) was the Republican National Committee treasurer, buying votes wholesale in Indiana in what came to be known as the Blocks of Five scandal. Interestingly, ten years earlier, Dudley — while employed as U.S. Marshal in Indiana, had arrested numerous Democrats, accusing them of vote fraud. The special prosecutor, Benjamin Harrison, had managed only one conviction.
Intensely polarized and almost perfectly balanced in partisan strength, “venal Indiana” was notorious during this period for bitterly contested, frequently corrupt elections with miniscule margins between victory and defeat, margins often secured with the votes of nonresident or irregular floaters at two to five dollars each.
Fraudulent or not, Harrison took office in 1890.
One landmark piece of legislation during Harrison’s tenure was 1890’s, Sherman Antitrust Act named after Senator John Sherman (who had lost the nomination battle to James Garfield). The law was intended to combat monopolistic practices that were plaguing the U.S. economy at the time. In a general sense, a trust is an old legal device where one holds property for the benefit of another. For example, a trust that holds an inheritance for the benefit of a minor heir. But, the trust in question here was where several large businesses were held in trust together, getting around prohibitions where corporations were forbidden from holding stocks in other corporations. The law aimed to prohibit combinations that restrained trade while permitting monopolies that were created and maintained simply because that business provided the goods or services of higher quality or at a better price than others could. Initial efforts to use the Act against trusts were fairly anemic. And, in an ironic but somewhat predictable twist, its initial uses were mostly only successful against trade unions. Later legislation would specify that trade unions were acceptable and Teddy Roosevelt was able to make more effective use of the tools under the Act.
Also in 1890, the struggles with the Native Americans were coming to an ignominious end. The massacre at Wounded Knee took place on December 29, 1890. U.S. soldiers were ostensibly trying to disarm a band of Lakota but ended up killing at least 150 of them with at least 51 wounded. Twenty-five U.S. soldiers were killed and 39 wounded. Twenty soldiers were dubiously given the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions that day. (One was given for “conspicuous bravery in rounding up and bringing to the skirmish line a stampeded pack mule.”) This was to be the last major Indian battle of the 19th century.
Tariffs continued to be a major issue. Republicans, particularly from the northeast, tended to favor them as protective to domestic industry. Westerners and southerners tended not to favor them as they restricted agricultural exports. One by-product of the high tariffs was a major (and apparently embarrassing) government surplus. Under the Harrison administration, one way the government tried to spend down the surplus was through generous pension benefits to disabled Civil War veterans (whether the disability was war related or not). This legislation had a great deal to do with the support of the Grand Army of the Republic — a lobbyist group devoted to Civil War veterans issues. Rather than lower the tariffs, Congress — through an initiative of future President William McKinley — actually raised tariffs even higher.
Harrison was the first President to have his voice preserved on a phonograph and also had electricity installed in the White House. During his administration, six new states were admitted to the Union: North and South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming. No states had previously been admitted in more than a decade. Congressional Democrats were reluctant to admit states that would add to Republican majorities. Their concerns were well founded. All six of those states initially sent Republican delegations.
Harrison also embraced naval technology and started the U.S. on its path to becoming a legitimate naval power. The Harrison administration, additionally, was quick to recognize the new government of Hawaii installed by Sanford Dole after a coup d’etat overthrew Queen Liliulokalani. The Harrison administration tried to move on a subsequent petition for annexation of Hawaii, but could not get it done and the second Garfield administration backed off of that initiative.
Harrison’s re-nomination was not without trouble. A contingent of Republicans preferred James G. Blaine (continental liar from the state of Maine). Harrison did get the nomination and ended up facing a re-match with Grover Cleveland. The surplus was evaporating and the economy was declining — a precursor to the upcoming Panic of 1893. Tariffs were so high that imported goods were prohibitively expensive. Republican support in the west eroded as many former Republicans defected to the Populist Party who promised free silver, generous veterans’ pensions, and an eight hour work day.
Cleveland ended up winning the popular vote by 400,000 votes out of 10.6 million cast and an electoral vote of 277 to 145. Harrison did not win his home state of Indiana.
Grover Cleveland II: Electric Boogaloo (1893 – 1897)
Almost immediately after his election, Cleveland faced the Panic of 1893. The panic had to do with a tangle of reasons probably too complicated for me to easily explain. But it seems to have had to do with a combination of the U.S. economy’s reliance on high commodity prices, a wheat failure in Argentina, and U.S. monetary policy having to do with gold and the relative ease with which international business could obtain gold from the U.S. This triggered a panic and bank runs which left the economy in the doldrums for some time.
The McKinley Tariff Act was replaced by the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act. The sausage making nature of legislation seems to have been particularly egregious with this bill, but it lowered the tariffs from the McKinley version. The shortfall in revenue from reduction of the tariffs was made up by the first peacetime income tax — a 2% tax on incomes over $4,000 (about $100,000 today). This income tax was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and led to the passage of the 16th Amendment. Prior to the 16th Amendment, the Supreme Court held that the constitution required direct taxes to be imposed in proportion to a state’s population.
In 1894, Congress passed an enabling act permitting Utah to enter the Union as a new state. Prior to the Harrison administration, it had been a decade since a new state was admitted. While six states were admitted once the ball got rolling in the Harrison administration, Utah was not one of them. The state was thought likely to vote for Democrats, and there was still concern over polygamy (which had only been disavowed in 1890.) Those concerns were overturned and Utah joined as the 45th state in 1896.
In May and June of 1894, Cleveland faced the Pullman Strike. A strike by railroad workers over low wages and a 12 hour work day, augmented by sympathy strikes led by Eugene V. Debs and the American Railway Union ended up paralyzing national commerce. Grover Cleveland’s Attorney General had been a railroad attorney and the Cleveland administration took the side of the railroads. (“If it takes the entire army and navy of the United States to deliver a postcard in Chicago”, Cleveland proclaimed, “that card will be delivered.”) The election of 1894 was disastrous for Cleveland. The economy and the hardened attitude of labor against him resulted in landslide Congressional victories for Republicans.
In 1896, Cleveland did not seek the Democratic nomination. Nationally things were not going well for his administration, and there were factions inside the Democratic Party who did not want him to run. And, while there were no term limits and he had not been elected consecutively, he had served two terms which was, by custom, the limit for Presidents. At age 36, William Jennings Bryan became the youngest major party nominee for President. He had a gift for oratory, and his Cross of Gold speech helped him secure the nomination over Richard Bland who had been the favorite going into the convention. I should probably try to do a better job of explaining the gold/silver coinage debates, as they dominated the political discussion for a good long time. But, my understanding of the subject is limited. Basically, it had to do with whether to expand the money supply or not. The gold-standard advocates wanted to limit the money supply because it made international trade more secure and because it preserved the value of the debts owed to them. The silverites or bimetalists thought that increasing the money supply — by allowing silver to be struck into coins — would increase the nation’s prosperity. (It would also make their debts easier to pay off.) Bryan was a populist, and he was not shy about casting his message in religious terms. He concluded his speech:
Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
The speech won him acclaim, but that cross of gold fueled the election of William McKinley who outspent Bryan 5 to 1 and won the election 271 to 176 electoral votes.