Don’t worry, you didn’t click the wrong post! In 1892, Grover Cleveland was back for revenge against the man who dethroned him. But the real action was in the People’s Party, whose army of farmers aimed to disrupt the status quo!
The Last Four Years
Unlike his grandfather, who died one month into his term, Benjamin Harrison had a very productive presidency. His predecessor, Grover Cleveland, was known for his economic conservatism, which meant lots of vetoes. Harrison, on the other hand, was perfectly fine with spending money and stayed true to his campaign promises. With the Dependent and Disability Pension Act, Republicans extended pensions to veterans whose disabilities were not a direct result of the Civil War (something Cleveland had infamously opposed). They also passed the McKinley Tariff, which raised the tax to a whopping 48%.
Harrison’s agenda didn’t stop there. He signed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to prevent businesses from combining to restrain trade or commerce. He strengthened the Navy with new, modern battleships. He even set precedents for environmental intervention by the Executive Branch. The Land Revision Act gave the president authority to create forest preserves. Although it started as an economic concern, Harrison also fought the over-hunting of fur seals in the Bering Sea by Canadians. It was one of the first instances of a president acting to protect a species. After a 13-year drought, Harrison oversaw the admission of more states to the Union than any other president since George Washington. With them, came an influx of pro-silver congressmen. As a trade for their support of the McKinley Tariff, Harrison signed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, committing the federal government to purchasing more silver for circulation. In practice, this severely depleted the nation’s gold reserves, setting the stage for economic uncertainty.
One area Harrison failed to make gains in was civil rights for African Americans. Harrison supported Representative Henry Cabot Lodge’s Federal Elections Bill, also known as the Force Bill, to curtail Southern suppression of the Black vote. The bill would have given the federal government more oversight in congressional elections. It narrowly passed the House, but was defeated in the Senate. Many Republicans blamed Vice President Levi Morton for failing to rally the Senate. With the defeat of Lodge’s bill, Jim Crow laws had more room for growth. It was clear that the US had missed the small, post-war window for civil rights action.
As it turns out, all this productivity was expensive. Congress, controlled by Republicans in both houses, earned the nickname, the “Billion Dollar Congress.” Unsurprisingly, Democrats were critical of the huge spending increase.
Although Harrison hoped that he had settled the silver issue with the Sherman Silver Act, it remained a major concern for many rural farmers. While the tariff dominated the political debate four years earlier, now it was the Gold Standard in the limelight.
Party Watch & The Candidates
President Harrison was not eager to stay in office, but he chose to seek re-election due to his sense of party loyalty. In reality, the party wasn’t that thrilled about him, either. Many still saw Secretary of State James Blaine (1884 presidential election loser) as the true head of the party. Officially, Blaine rejected his consideration due to poor health and the recent deaths of three of his children. But as the convention neared, he resigned his position in the Cabinet, giving his supporters reason to believe he was running. Rising ohio politician and tariff bill author William McKinley was also considered for the nomination. But at the end of the day, Harrison still had enough support to win the nomination on the first ballot. There was a change up for vice president, however. Since Levi Morton took the blame for the failure of the Force Bill, Republicans instead chose Minister to France Whitelaw Reid, who had also succeeded 1872 candidate Horace Greeley as the owner of the New York Tribune. The Republican platform was simple and mainly focused on reaffirming the protective tariff.
In his time away from office, Cleveland returned to life as a lawyer. He mostly stayed out of politics until the Democrats made a comeback in the 1890 midterms. Then, he began making more public appearances. As the only living Democratic ex-president, Grover Cleveland held a lot of power in a party with few national leaders. Like Harrison, Cleveland also wasn’t the first choice of everyone in his party. He alienated lots of potential new voters with his strict Gold Standard views and his biggest agenda item, lowering the tariff, wan’t actually accomplished during his first term. But, also like Harrison, Cleveland was able to secure the nomination on the first ballot. To balance Cleveland’s hard money views, Democrats chose former Illinois Representative Adlai Stevenson (grandfather of a future candidate with the same name) as his running mate. Their platform attacked the extreme McKinley Tariff and also opposed the Force Bill in order to court racist Democrats in the South.
1892 saw the most successful third party of the era. The People’s Party (better known as the Populists) had grown out of a coalition of farmer’s alliances. Western farmers were struggling in the global, industrial economy. As produce prices fell, farm equipment became more expensive. Many of them took out large loans and mortgaged their land at high interest rates to pay for it. They believed that introducing more silver and Greenbacks into circulation would help break the grip of the big banks. Though their concerns were mostly economic, they had a very progressive platform, which included popular election of senators (still being appointed by state governments!), a graduated income tax, increased anti-trust laws, and public ownership of railroads. They aimed to unite both rural and urban labor, but struggled to gain much support in cities. Their nominee was Iowan James Weaver, who had previously run under the Greenback Party.
The Prohibition Party passed up the chance to join the Populists and instead nominated their own candidate, former California Representative John Bidwell. Lastly, the Socialist Labor Party called for the elimination of the Executive Branch. Their nominee, camera inventor Simon Wing, committed to resigning the position, if election.
For the two major political parties, the 1892 campaign was relatively uneventful. Despite their differences, Harrison and Cleveland were well-respected presidents that didn’t garner much hate. Unlike the election four year prior, Harrison did not run a front porch campaign due to his wife’s struggle with tuberculosis. Sadly, she died just two weeks before the election. Cleveland, for the third time, adhered to his belief against direct campaigning. One major different in this cycle, however, was that the Democrats were finally the party with more money to spend. They could thank Cleveland’s conservative economic views for attracting bankers and merchants.
In the absence of excitement for the Republicans and Democrats, the Populists picked up the slack. They had help from activist Mary Lease, who teamed up with Weaver on the campaign trail. She denounced the banks and fired up farmers with phrases like, “Raise less corn and more hell.” Unfortunately, the movement stalled in the South, partly because Weaver was a Union veteran who participated in Sherman’s March to the Sea.
In July 1892, a union of steel workers in Homestead, Pennsylvania (near Pittsburgh) went on strike against the Carnegie Steel Company. The strike eventually became an full-on war between workers and Pinkerton private security agents. Harrison’s lack of intervention made him more enemies among the labor class just a few months before Election Day.
After several years without any additions, we finally have some new states to welcome to the Union! Say hello to Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming! Several of these new states provided electoral votes for the Populists. In fact, they will be the only third party to win electors between 1860-1912. Although they were able to sway votes in the West, white farmers in the South still stuck with the Democrats.
Meanwhile, Cleveland won back his home state of New York and even won some Midwestern swing states. He was the first Democrat to win Illinois and Wisconsin since before the Civil War.
Francis Cleveland’s prediction came true. Grover Cleveland was headed back to the White House! He is the only president to serve two, non-consecutive terms (screwing up all the numbering). This puts Harrison in an unenviable Cleveland-sandwich. With 277 electors, Cleveland won the popular AND electoral votes. Harrison had 145 and Weaver had 22.
Cleveland is one of three presidents to win the popular vote three times (Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt are the others). This was also the first time the incumbent president was defeated in two consecutive elections, and it wouldn’t happen again until 1980, following Gerald Ford’s and Jimmy Carter’s defeats.
In addition to their big presidential win, the Democrats won back both houses of Congress for the first time since 1858.
What Did It Say About America?
The working class movement was on the rise, threatening the establishment of both parties. Farmers in the West and laborers in the North were proving that big business would not go unchecked for much longer (sort of). In the meantime, the Republicans’ spending, though productive, hurt Harrison’s chances at re-election. Economic disorder was around the corner, and with it, the end of the Third Party System.
Was It The Right Decision?
Not really. Cleveland’s economic conservatism was really limiting, and I expected it to not be helpful in the upcoming economic panic. That being said, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was the real culprit. The Populists had some good ideas! But the Silverites were about to have some serious egg on their faces. Even though Harrison was more supportive than Cleveland regarding voting rights protections in the South, it was clear that he could not get it done. For what it’s worth, Benjamin Harrison married a woman way younger than him, just like Cleveland. After his wife’s death, 62-year-old Harrison partnered up with her 37-year-old niece. His children, who were older than his new bride, did not approve.
Overall, Harrison had mixed success as president, but he set the stage for a new era of Progressivism.