Thayer's Note: The gentle reader is invited to bear in mind that I did not write the text on this page; I transcribed it from a book published in 1919. It does not reflect my opinions or language, but those of its author and its time.
The late eighties saw in North Carolina, as in many other Southern and Western states, a vast and steadily growing unrest and discontent. Economic and social in its origins, this feeling was translated into a political movement — a revolt at first but shortly to become an attempted revolution — which imperiled the foundations of the social and governmental structure in North Carolina. Beginning as an agricultural movement, as it gained momentum it gathered to its standard those who were for any reason dissatisfied with existing conditions, a group of idealists — some of whom were radical fanatics — who saw in the movement the beginning of the millennium, and a considerable number of political adventurers of a demagogic sort who saw in it the opportunity for advancement for themselves which had been hitherto denied for reasons more or less obvious.
At this period of the state's history agriculture was still entirely dominant. Conditions affecting that industry determined the prosperity of the population or the reverse. In the period following 1870 conditions were far from good but there was steadily increasing prosperity. Beginning about 1886 or 1887 depression set in. Cotton prices in spite of fluctuations from year to year had steadily fallen, the average price from 1880 to 1887 being 9 cents. It was 11 cents in 1890, 9 in 1891 and about 6½ in 1892. Grain was similarly affected by the tremendous expansion of the grain fields of the northwest and the enormous crops which were produced. Wheat, which had averaged $1.07 from 1880 to 1887 was 86 cents in 1887 and still falling. Corn, averaging 46 cents for the same period, had dropped to 34 cents in 1888, to 28 in 1889. In 1890 it rose to 37 cents. Tobacco was beginning to show the p222effect of consolidation of manufacturers by which the price was controlled.
Conditions were indicated in another way. The mortgage burden of the state was heavy. During the decade from 1880 to 1890 it amounted to $55,832,062 and in 1890 it was $21,471,428 and steadily increasing. Nearly 18 per cent of the taxed acres were under mortgage and on the average every taxed acre bore a mortgage burden of 53 cents. The average value of the farm acre was $8.12. The per capita mortgage debt was $13, but this was low, only South Carolina of all the states having a lower rate.
A hopeful sign was the steady increase in the number of farms and the decreasing size, tending to intensive agriculture and a wider spread of opportunity.
Returning to the causes of discontent, labor as well as low prices caused trouble. Of course there were no strikes but the negroes in many quarters were unsettled and restless and the exodus to Arkansas and Nebraska produced a serious shortage of labor in some parts of the state.
The effects of the war and of Reconstruction were still centrally visible in the state and the farmers largely living from hand to mouth, were without an adequate reserve to carry them over a lean year, much less to bear the burden of a succession of them. They thus felt keenly the effects of the progressive impoverishment of their class. To all this was added the pressure of high railway rates, poor service and discrimination. Attempts to secure a remedy for railroad oppression, which was, it is fair to say, highly magnified, for the railroads themselves were not over-prosperous, were uniformly and successfully thwarted by the railroad interests which, in one way or another dominated the legislature of the state. It was no wonder that to many observers conditions seemed hopelessly bad and that discontent was widespread.
As is so often the case the action of government was held entirely responsible for these conditions. The protective tariff was at first the object of attack but in a short time the monetary system of the country and the banking system were regarded as the real basis of the evil, with trusts and p223railroads in close competition for the second position among the causes of distress. With feeling of this sort dominant political activity in time was a certainty. And in politics, no less, the time and conditions were ripe for revolt.
During the period following the redemption of the state in 1876, a steady process of crystallization had gone on in politics. Redemption from governmental corruption, extravagance and misrule had been accomplished through the efforts and leadership of a body of men who were, in the main, young, and considering everything, fairly progressive, and who were able to unite the majority of white men in the state and hold them in the democratic party because of the fear amounting almost to certainty that the restoration of the republicans meant the return of the evil government of Reconstruction. The real basis of democratic organization became in a sense, then, opposition to the negro in government and politics. For this reason the republican party was chiefly distrusted and every protestation by republican leaders of devotion to white supremacy was heavily discounted with the constant answer that republican success, under the existing organization of the party, meant, in spite of what a few leaders might desire, the return of the negro and misgovernment. But as time passed, the task of holding the democratic majority together became increasingly difficult. The memory of Reconstruction became more indistinct, particularly to younger members of the party. Signs of revolt were not wanting even in the early eighties, as witnessed by the liberal movement of 1882.
Many things contributed in preparing the way for revolution. As always there was a considerable element of disappointed politicians — self-seekers — who looked to personal advantage and advancement. A large and growing number of able, honest, and influential democrats were sick at heart over election methods, particularly in the East but not confined to that section. The disfranchisement of the negro by force, intimidation, bribery, or fraud, begun to rescue the state from ruin, had continued. Undoubtedly it saved the state, but like all evils of its kind, it was progressive and it had grown until in many quarters of the state fraud in elections was looked upon by both parties, not only as something to be expected, p224but as something entirely justifiable when committed for the benefit of one's own party. It was a far cry from the political purity of the ante-bellum period, and the legacy of the apostles of "Northern Civilization," the carpet-baggers, bore heavily upon forward-looking people. Thinking men began to see the logical end of this — caught a vision of the probable political ideals of their children and grandchildren if such a system were perpetuated, and, fearful, sought a way out. And there was none in sight. Of hope there was likewise none so long as unrestricted negro suffrage continued.
Nor were party conditions promising. In addition to the inseparable alliance of the republican party with the negro and the resulting social stigma, it was dominated and controlled by Federal office-holders who quarreled and squabbled over the spoils of office and who in the main saw politics from the angle of place. Many of them wanted the party to remain in the minority that the number entitled to spoils might not be increased. Some few leaders were of a different stripe and in the rank and file of the party, particularly in the West, were good men, but in the party as a party there was, at the time, small hope for the future. In addition, it was a fact unchangeable that unaided by democratic revolt it could not win.
The democratic party of the late eighties could scarcely be called progressive. The instinct of political leadership of the older day spent itself now in preventing negro equality in politics and had little energy for other tasks. It was chiefly interested in keeping in power and maintained with truth that only by its success could good government be maintained. But it was uninterested in questions of social reform, it was indifferent to progress in public education, it sought at all costs to avoid spending money and, failing utterly to distinguish between extravagance and proper investment for the future, it capitalized the habit of poverty which had always characterized the state. Its control was in the hands of elderly men who, naturally conservative, looked pityingly and scornfully upon progressive and ambitious youth and if unable to enforce a somewhat reverential acceptance and support of their ideas, methods, and rule, were able to combine very successfully p225to stifle opposition. Their argument was chiefly the negro and Reconstruction. One too young for service then had small chance for promotion from them or even for an interested hearing whatever might be his object and however great might be the eloquence and logic of his argument, if it differed from the accepted dogmas of the party faith. Their faces were turned to the past and the only question was how long they could maintain control and preserve the status quo.
The same situation existed in other Southern states, but the white republicans were too few to be important. When the revolt came in those states, it was merely a shifting of supremacy within the party. In North Carolina it meant a complete overturn of the party in power.
As has been said the revolt found its beginnings in agricultural conditions. The generation then at maturity had an inheritance hard to overcome in the defeat of its fathers in war, a destroyed labor system, the constant threat of social and political anarchy, and the grinding poverty which beset it. Unrest was natural and found expression in the founding of local farmers' associations of one sort and another. The first of these was the Grange. The first Grange in North Carolina was organized early in 1873; by the middle of May there were 20, and by October, 110. A year later there were 430, and in January, 1875, the highwater mark was reached with 477, with a membership of more than 10,000. The following year decline commenced. It was never very important in the state, although a few co-operative stores and Granger schools were established. It took no part in politics and its chief importance lay in its accustoming the farmers to the idea of agricultural organization and so preparing the way for the Farmers' Alliance.
In February, 1887, a farmers' convention met in Raleigh, perfected a plan of organization, and elected Elias Carr president. To its influence and activity was due, to a considerable extent, the foundation of the Agricultural and Mechanical College and the withdrawal of the landscrip fund from the University. It is probable that it was called chiefly for that purpose. Its success indicated that the time was ripe for a more complete organization which speedily followed.
p226 The Farmers' Alliance was first organized in North Carolina in October, 1887, and was at the time composed of 132 subordinate alliances situated in eight counties. The first local sub-alliance had been organized in April. It spread rapidly and by the following summer had 1,018 local branches in sixty-two counties of the state and a membership of more than 42,000. It had not reached the mountains and was strongest in Wake, Chatham, Sampson, Robeson, Moore, Union, and Cumberland. The membership increased to 72,000 in 1889 and the sub-alliances to more than 1,600. In 1891, organized in every county of the state, there were 2,221 sub-alliances with a membership of more than 100,000, after which the decline began, almost coincident with the rise of Populism.
Syndenhamº B. Alexander of Mecklenburg was the first state president. Elias Carr succeeded him in 1890, and in 1891 Marion Butler was elected. He served two years and then was elected first vice president of the National Alliance, becoming president in 1894. He was succeeded in the state presidency by Dr. Cyrus Thompson. The most influential person in the organization, however, was L. L. Polk, formerly state commissioner of agriculture and editor of the Progressive Farmer who became its first secretary, and first vice president of the National Alliance.
Col. L. L. Polk
In its inception in North Carolina there was no conscious political purpose in the mass of the members, whatever may have been the aims of the leaders, but it had certain practical aims which made political activity inevitable, and the foundation of a new party, in the event of failure to control the old ones, almost a certainty. These aims were all in the direction of correcting outstanding abuses. Because of railway discrimination and high rates, they advocated state control of freight rates, and later demanded the public ownership of railways and telegraph lines. To enable them to hold agricultural products, the sub-treasury scheme was devised by Harry Skinner, a North Carolinian, by which the Federal Government would undertake the warehousing of such products and the issuance of receipts therefor which would circulate as currency. Along with this they demanded a larger per capita circulation of legal tender notes. For very obvious p227reasons they opposed the growth of trusts and demanded that the Government undertake their destruction. These were farmers' demands, and lawyers, merchants and bankers were at first excluded from the organization. Along with these practical purposes, the Alliance was intended to furnish social light and recreation to the farming population. This was a most important factor in the rapid spread of the organization for the life of the average North Carolina farmer was dreary enough and the Alliance brought the light and stimulus of social intercourse to many depressed and weary women, hard-driven and hopeless men, and joyless young people, deprived of the pleasures of youth. It is no wonder that for a time the Alliance was almost a religion, offering as it did p228comfort and joy in the present and the promise of happiness and salvation to come.
The first state meeting of the Alliance passed resolutions denouncing the Cotton Bagging Trust, demanding the repeal of the tax on tobacco, the revision of the tariff in such a way as to lighten the burden on necessities and increase it on luxuries, the establishment of a state railroad commission, the prohibition of the use of railway passes by public officials, and revision of the laws which would reduce the cost of minor litigation; and protesting against the state's giving away the labor of convicts.
About the same time criticism of legislators and the political parties became common. In discussing the reasons why the farmers had suffered so, the Progressive Farmer gave the following explanation: "It is because the great mass of the American people, blinded by party spirit and bowing to the mandates of self-constituted partisan bosses, have surrendered their manhood and are victims of designing corrupt men."
Even before the union of the various state alliances into a national organization the political influence of the North Carolina Alliance was important. S. B. Alexander was a farmers' candidate for the democratic nomination for governor in 1888 and received and declined the nomination for lieutenant-governor. In county affairs some influence was exerted but the local groups of officers, the "court-house rings," as Alliance men began to call them, were too firmly established for anything short of a political revolution to overturn them. With the members of the legislature it was different as there was a firmly established precedent for frequent changes, and so the legislature of 1889, elected in 1888, contained a larger proportion of farmers than any other since the war. In the House they were strong enough to force the election of Leazer, an Alliance leader, to the speakership. In the Senate they were not so powerful, however, and the Railroad Commission Bill, which had passed the Senate in 1887, only to meet defeat in the House, was now defeated in the Senate after fairly easy passage through the House. Governor Scales had urged its passage in his message and it could not be said to be entirely p229a farmer's question although it was the measure in which they were chiefly interested. In this legislature appeared the beginning of the attacks upon the national banks and also of the demand for a more abundant currency, veiled, however, in the form of a demand for state banks of issue.
The Alliance men lacked leadership and as the old conservative democratic leaders were experienced and not yet distrusted, the session saw little attempted for the relief of the agricultural interests. As a result dissatisfaction was increased and the way prepared for independent party action. The republican leaders saw this clearly and fostered carefully the spirit of discontent.
Polk was rapidly extending his influence and in 1889 he was chosen head of the National Farmers' Alliance and devoted all his energies to pressing its demands. S. B. Alexander was still at the head of the state organization and associated with him were men like Dr. Cyrus Thompson, Maj. William A. Graham, Elias Carr, and Marion Butler, the last mentioned being editor of the Caucasian, an influential country paper in Sampson County where he was very strong.
Most of the members of the Alliance were democrats and they were able largely to control the party. In 1890 they openly denied support to those who would not pledge themselves to support their demands. Upon candidates for Congress they imposed the pledge to support the abolition of national banks, the prohibition of dealing in future in agricultural products, the free coinage of silver, the prohibition of alien ownership of land, the abolition of special taxation, and the issue of fractional paper currency. In state affairs they still made their former demands, adding a declaration in favor of better schools and for the higher education of women.
In the campaign the Alliance continued to champion independent thought and action by members in the interest of reform. As yet there was little thought of a new party, the aim being not to break either the democratic or republican party but to reform and dominate them, taking their direction and control out of the hands of "bosses."
Their tactics were very effective as concerned the candidates for Congress. Two candidates for the democratic nomination, p230one a sitting member and the other a former member, were forced to withdraw in favor of farmers' candidates. Another sitting member found it necessary to sever his connection with a national bank to have any hope of success and failed after all. Of the nine nominees, four were members of the Alliance and only two were in open opposition to it. The same methods were no less effective in dictating the nominees for the legislature and determining the policy of the party. When the democratic convention met, a majority of the delegates were members of the Alliance and the platform in substance was simply a restatement of the demands of the organization. The democrats nominated A. S. Merrimon and Walter Clark to succeed themselves as chief justice and associate justice respectively. They were full of uneasiness at Alliance activity but since the members were chiefly democrats they felt fairly confident that the trouble would soon blow over.
The campaign, for several reasons, was of considerable interest for an off year, due to several causes. In republican politics, the chief event was the meeting in Raleigh a few days before the state convention of a negro conference which discussed very freely and fully the treatment of the negro by the republican party. Declaring the negroes in North Carolina the true republican party since they cast nine‑tenths of the votes, they passed resolutions demanding better educational facilities, a new election law, the repeal of the existing laws relating to county government, and a share of the offices. When the republican convention met the feeling of the colored element again manifested itself, but was quieted and the convention closed in apparent harmony. Charles Price was nominated for chief justice and W. T. Faircloth for associate justice. It was clear that the proposed Force Bill had the approval of the delegates, but all mention of it was omitted from the platform. Not all republicans felt this way, however. H. G. Ewart, a member of Congress, in June made a strong speech in the House against it, declaring elections in the state to be generally fair, and adding in explanation of Southern feeling towards the republican party: "The state governments fell into the hands of the most disreputable gang p231of thieves and plunderers that ever disgraced a nation, and the very name of Republicanism became a stench in the nostrils of all honest men." But such sentiments were rare among the Federal office-holders who as usual dominated the convention.
During the course of the campaign, on account of the growing demands of the negroes and the issue of the Force Bill a number of prominent republicans left the party. Notable among these were Francis D. Winston, William A. Guthrie, and Neill McKay.
One of the most interesting questions of the whole campaign was one injected into democratic politics by the radical members of the Alliance. Early in 1890 the Progressive Farmer, after some preliminary criticism of Vance, openly opposed his re-election to the Senate. Vance was so strongly entrenched in the affections of his party that the matter was treated lightly at first. But it soon appeared that the attitude of the Alliance organ was in fact representative of a considerable element of Alliance opinion, though of how great, could not be ascertained. The reason for the opposition was Vance's failure to press and support the sub-treasury bill which at the request of Polk he had introduced into the Senate and managed to have referred to a rather friendly committee, telling Polk that he could not promise any personal support for it. In June, Vance wrote Elias Carr, as president of the Alliance, that he was unable to support it in the form in which it had been presented, believing that it was unconstitutional. He at the same time urged moderation on the members of the Alliance, begging them not to make of it a new party and thus lose what they were otherwise certain to gain. In spite of the feeling against him, it was soon certain that he could not be defeated. But he took no chances. He was very active in the campaign and just before election he felt compelled to say that if any decision of the Supreme Court was found which would show the sub-treasury bill to be constitutional, he would vote for it. Even the result of the election did not reassure him and when on November 20th, Elias Carr wrote him to ask if he would obey instructions from the legislature, he replied p232that he accepted the doctrine of instructionsa and would obey or resign.
The election resulted in a clean democratic victory, the majorities being far larger than in 1888 and one more seat in Congress being gained. The explanation of the gain is to be found in the prominence of the Force Bill which the democrats used very skillfully, and the emphasis upon the negro which while less apparent was very real.
Senator Zebulon B. Vance
The legislative session showed the farmers better organized and more aggressive. It developed that they had all the democratic members and more than half of the republicans pledged to their demands. They had also pledged eight of the nine members of Congress chosen. As soon as the session began the question of Vance's election dwarfed all other matters p233as was always the case in North Carolina with senatorial elections until the advent of the primary. Just before the time of election, the democratic caucus adopted for presentation to the legislature a resolution of instruction to vote for the sub-treasury scheme. When Vance saw it, he declared that he would not accept an election under such instructions. There was much discussion in the party and a good deal of anger, but in the end the resolution was changed so as to instruct him to vote to secure the objects of the financial reform contemplated in the Ocala platform. Vance was willing to agree to this and accepted the election to which he received a unanimous caucus nomination, but he did not alter his opposition to the sub-treasury scheme.
The legislature was marked by a more progressive spirit than its predecessor. Ten thousand dollars was appropriated for a geological survey and J. A. Holmes was made state geologist. Twenty-five thousand dollars was appropriated for an exhibit at the World's Fair. The school tax was increased, a normal and industrial school for women, the present Normal College, a new school for the deaf and dumb, an agricultural and mechanical college for negroes, and a normal school for negroes were established, and increased assistance given the University and the Agricultural and Mechanical College at Raleigh.
In spite of bitter opposition from all the railroad interests, a railroad commission was established amid mournful forecasts of the dire results to the prosperity of the state. A committee was appointed to look into a proposition of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad to pay $20,000 as an annual tax and receive in return certain valuable privileges, including the renewal of the expiring charter of the Petersburg road which the Wilmington road was operating. The committee reported favorably, but the legislature was firm in its determination to secure in time at least the full right of taxation, and so the charter was renewed for two years only and an act passed forbidding the construction of a parallel line. With the same purpose a bill was proposed designed to force the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad to pay taxes. There was no p234disposition to check construction and a large number of new roads were chartered.
After the adjournment of the legislature there was a general feeling in the state that any tendency of the Alliance towards the formation of a third party had been checked. In May the meeting at Cincinnati was held at which a new party was organized but there was little apparent inclination on the part of the Alliance in North Carolina to join in the movement. There was a general feeling that such action was useless since the Alliance now controlled absolutely the democratic party in the state. Alexander, Carr, Butler, and other leaders were opposed, the Progressive Farmer was apparently so, and Polk had nothing to say upon the subject. But when the state meeting of the Alliance was held in August it was apparent that the feeling of the delegates was far from being unfavorable to the new party. At the bottom of this was the failure of the democratic party in the country to accept the sub-treasury which the rank and file of the Alliance were inclined to regard as the specific for all financial and economic ills. Still no definite action was taken other than to endorse with emphasis the sub-treasury plan. Butler, who was elected president, was, as has been mentioned, opposed to a third party. Yet it was very clear to many that unless the democratic party went the whole way and swallowed the sub-treasury and free and unlimited coinage of gold and silver, accepting at the same time the domination of the Alliance in the choice of candidates, separation was certain. But neither the Alliance nor the democratic party faced the facts in the case.
In the meantime Polk, who was chosen in the fall president of the national organization for the third time, probably as the man most favorable to a new party, was using every effort to prepare the way for the People's party. His influence in the North Carolina Alliance was tremendous and his work highly effective. The Progressive Farmer, which of course reflected his views, began to advocate the entrance of the Alliance as a body in state politics. This, of course, would mean a third party. In October, Butler announced it to be the firm intention of the Alliance to stand by the sub-treasury p235even if it split the democratic party, and a little later Polk declared his opposition to the re-nomination of Cleveland. Both maintained that there would be no third party, unless it was brought about by the intolerance of democratic leaders. There was of course plenty of intolerance among politicians and newspaper editors, but, on the other hand, any difference of opinion or honest criticism was construed as intolerance and proscription by the Alliance and resented as such. These were radical views. Such men as Elias Carr and Alexander opposed extreme views and action. Thus by the end of 1891 there was a real division of Alliance leaders into radicals — rule or ruin men — bent on carrying their every point and really hopeful that a third party would be formed, a more conservative element who would only as a last resort join in such a movement, and a group that could not be persuaded to join a third party. The members of the last two groups lost no occasion of pointing out that the Alliance could not hope for more in a new party than it already possessed in the democratic party; that it could not really get as much; and that the formation of a new party would mean inevitably the loss of the prestige and power of the Alliance and its becoming a mere side-show of the republican party in North Carolina. At the St. Louis conference in February, 1892, over which Polk presided, the North Carolina delegation opposed any third party action, but Polk identified himself with the movement.
The republicans in the State watched the movement with undisguised pleasure and very cleverly lost no opportunity of encouraging the progress of Alliance discontent. They could easily do this for the republican membership of the organization was negligible and had been all along rather unwelcome to the mass of Alliance men except when they desired to make the point that the movement was not partisan. Thus the republicans were able to see in the formation of a third party, with or without fusion, a strong probability of republican success. Therefore a considerable body of republican politicians devoted their energies to the promotion of a new party and, when it finally came, joined it, seeking to p236give it, so far as possible, into the control of republicans in the interest of fusion.
During the legislature of 1891, Jeter C. Pritchard, the foremost republican leader in the state, had declared that he regarded the county government issue as settled and the republican press in the main had agreed, but in the summer it appeared that it was to be revived and that many republicans were relying upon that and the third party to win in 1892. Talk began of a reorganization of the party on a white basis. Part of this was genuine since many republicans were heartily sick of the negro and of political identification with him. But in part it was intended only to offset the argument that the democrats were certain to use — which in fact they had used since the beginning of the movement. A protective tariff league was organized during the year as a part of this movement and an attempt made to interest the rapidly-growing group of manufacturers in the matter.
After the St. Louis meeting and the adoption of the platform there, Polk became an open advocate of the populist party as of course did the Progressive Farmer. It was said, but with what truth is not known, that he confidently expected to be nominated for President at Omaha. He had sufficient following in the state to alarm the democrats who began with real venom to denounce him, the populist party, and even the Alliance, vehemently emphasizing the fact that the sole result would be republican success. It was later said that they set out "to make Populism odious" in North Carolina. But it was mistaken tactics, serving only to alienate many who were friendly and strengthening the advocates of populism by making them appear martyrs. The press was particularly active and the Progressive Farmer in March was able to say: "It is well known that two years ago the Alliance together with its friends was the Democratic Party in North Carolina; yet now there is not one democratic paper in the State which champions the cause of the former."
By April the St. Louis platform had been repudiated by many Alliance leaders, including Elias Carr. Harry Skinner, while not condemning the platform, was opposed to any separate party organization. Marion Butler, president of the Alliance, p237lingered, endorsing the St. Louis platform, threatening the democratic party unless it accepted it, but confidently expecting to win the state convention. In June the executive board of the Alliance expressed dissatisfaction with the action of the Progressive Farmer and Polk at once announced that it had ceased to be the official organ of the Alliance.
In the meantime, Butler issued a call for an Alliance conference in Raleigh on the day of the meeting of the democratic convention. Undoubtedly this was intended to influence the convention. Trouble was brewing, for while extreme Alliance men urged the friends of the St. Louis platform to control the democratic primaries and convention, many democrats in retaliation wanted to exclude from the primaries and convention all who favored the St. Louis platform. Democratic leaders naturally demanded that none should be admitted to the primaries who would not agree to abide by the decision on nominees and platform of the party in state and nation. This was not welcome since Alliance influence was being exerted to defeat Governor Holt for nomination, accompanied with threats of independent action, and there was bitter opposition to the nomination of Cleveland for President.
When the democratic convention met, the elements opposed to Holt were in control and he was defeated by Elias Carr who had not been a candidate for the nomination. His selection was a triumph for the Alliance, but for the conservative wing.
Of leading Alliance men, Harry Skinner was present, and his name was presented for nomination for lieutenant-governor. He declined, however, to have it considered, stating that with his financial views his nomination would be unwise and that success must be won since the democratic party in North Carolina was the ark of the covenant. The platform was shaped by the same influences. It denounced the protective tariff, the force bill, and demanded financial reform, the relief of the agricultural classes, abolition of national banks, the issue of more greenbacks, the free coinage of silver, a graduated income tax, and the prohibition of alien land-holding and dealing in futures on agricultural products. p238The only state question receiving any attention was that of education, better schools being demanded.
With such complete triumph all save the most radical element of the Alliance seemed satisfied. But preliminary steps were taken at the Alliance conference, on the same day which was attended by the delegates from seventy counties, to organize the people's party in the state, and that was accomplished later in the month. Polk's name was presented for the presidential nomination at Omaha and S. Otho Wilson and Harry Skinner were elected delegates to the Omaha convention. Skinner at once repudiated this action as far as he was concerned. Polk died in June and the greatest influence in the Alliance and a very radical one was thus removed. Butler as late as July was apparently favorable to the democratic state ticket, and, while the question of a state convention of the people's party to make nominations was discussed, such action appeared unlikely. Up to this time there had been no Alliance criticism of the state government, but division on men developed and was followed rapidly by criticism of government which was increasingly vehement.
With the nomination of Cleveland, however, the radical element had a chance. The rank and file of the democrats were for him heart and soul but democratic politicians, led by Vance, liked him if anything less than did the Alliance radicals. Hoping to take advantage of this discontent which was not concealed, believing the current republican report that they would not nominate a state ticket, separate action was decided upon in July and a convention was called to meet August 15th. Alliance opposition to Cleveland was due to dislike of his attitude towards silver and the wide-spread belief that he was the friend of Wall Street, with all that such a thing then signified to the agricultural classes. The feeling was intensified by the attempt of the democrats to make his name a shibboleth.
The first populist convention was an interesting body. Marion Butler served both as temporary and permanent chairman although so recent a convert. In the convention were a number of republicans who had never left the republican party in reality but, more or less openly, were there primarily to p239assist in the defeat of the democratic party and if possible to engineer a fusion in the interest of the republican party. The platform adopted called for economy in state government, encouragement to education, agriculture, and manufacturing, a 6 per cent interest law, secret ballot, purity of elections, and the taxation of all railroads. It was in all respects an admirable document. Harry Skinner was then by acclamation nominated for governor. A sensation occurred when he took the platform and accepted only upon the condition that if the republicans nominated a state ticket and he saw division among the whites endangering white supremacy, he was to be free to say so frankly. His chief interest, he said, was in financial reform and if the republicans had a ticket he would vote for the democratic candidate. A tremendous demonstration of hostility followed and Skinner declined the nomination. He was, however, later nominated with Butler for elector for the state-at‑large. For governor, Dr. W. P. Exum was nominated over J. H. Mewborne.
In the republican party there was genuine division. Some leaders like J. J. Mott and D. L. Russell desired no republican ticket in the field and the breaking of the race issue which would result. Others saw and publicly predicted what would happen if a ticket was nominated. In the West, however, there was widespread eagerness for a ticket and an aggressive campaign with emphasis upon the tariff as a national issue and county government as a state issue. This feeling coupled with a natural desire for the maintenance of party solidarity prevailed and on September 7th the republican convention met in Raleigh. It adopted a platform denouncing the election and county government laws, and nominated a state ticket headed by D. M. Furches.
All the parties went into the campaign in earnest although it is not likely that the republicans hoped to win. The populists were hopeful and intensely earnest. Public meetings in large numbers were held at which great enthusiasm was aroused, and twelve newspapers, of which the Progressive Farmer and Butler's Caucasian were the most important, assisted in spreading the doctrines of the party. The democrats very skillfully used the race issue and once more the p240Force Bill played a large part in campaign argument. Many populists were so alarmed at the prospect of the return of the negro to power that they refused to support the ticket, and W. A. Guthrie, who had declined the nomination for associate justice of the Supreme Court, issued a public letter to members of the party urging them to beware of republican success. So effective were these arguments that it became apparent long before the end of the campaign that there was a real identity of interest between what was left of the people's party and the republicans.
General Weaver, the populist presidential candidate, visited the state in the course of the campaign but did little to help the party cause, the democrats making effective use of the bitter speeches against the South which he had made while a member of the republican party. Exum, the candidate for governor, attracted unpleasant attention by losing his temper in a debate with Charles B. Aycock, one of the democratic candidates for elector for the state-at‑large, and slashing him with a knife. Aycock warded off the thrust with his arm and possibly thus saved one of the most valuable lives in history of the state. He, with his colleague, R. B. Glenn, covered the entire state and thus began the establishment among the people of a reputation which steadily grew brighter with the passage of time.
The discovery of the existence of a secret political society among the populists, known as Gideon's Band, caused some excitement in the state, particularly among those who remembered the Ku Klux, and undoubtedly was effective in checking the growth of the party. Little or nothing is known of it. It was contrary to the state constitution and during the following year S. Otho Wilson was indicted in Wake Superior Court for membership. He entered a plea of nolo contendere and no further action was taken.
While the elections resulted in a rather sweeping democratic victory, the party winning the state and electoral tickets, eight out of nine members of Congress, and a majority in both Houses of the Legislature, the populists gave a good account of themselves for so young a party. In a number of counties, notably in Chatham, Nash, and Sampson they p241showed great strength. The best view of the election results can be obtained from the following tables:
|The General Assembly|
In these results was food for democratic thought. The vote for governor showed a shrinkage of republican votes from 1888 of almost 40,000 and of democratic votes nearly 13,000. The democrats with a plurality of approximately 40,000 were still 7,000 short of a majority of the total vote. The plurality of the electoral vote was about 33,000 in a much lighter vote, with more than 10,000 votes lacking of a majority. It was therefore clear that the democratic party could only hope for escape from defeat by inducing the malcontents to return, a thing which could only be made possible by a very successful democratic national administration and a period of agricultural prosperity. The populist party, as it existed, was definitely aligned with the republican party for the defeat of the democrats and if fusion could be accomplished without loss of strength, victory would be won. Populist feeling against the democrats, too, was intensified by the election. A section of the election law which had never been strictly regarded, requiring the full name to be recorded in registering, was invoked in a large number of cases by democratic p242election officials in order to disfranchise populists and republicans. Populists thus came to feel that they had been robbed of victory everywhere, and thus to hate the election law, all of which formed another bond with the republican party.
The legislature of 1893 was in no sense notable. It was a rather conservative body, thanks to the withdrawal of the more radical element of the Alliance. Party feeling showed itself strongly in the introduction of a bill to repeal the charter of the Alliance. This was nominally done at the request of members of the Alliance in order to protect certain funds of the organization and to prevent their being employed for the benefit of the populist party, but the real reason was partisan dislike of the Alliance. The bill failed to pass, but another bill amending the charter greatly limited the Alliance and made its destruction an easy matter. Apart from the manifest injustice and wrong of the law, it was the poorest politics imaginable. It consolidated a mass of Alliance opinion and feeling against the democratic party which lost the support of a large conservative element, and convinced the populists that the democratic party would stop at nothing in order to win. In a sense it made certain the continuation and growth of the populist party and insured democratic defeat at the polls at the next election.
The only other work of the legislature worthy of mention was the final securing from the Raleigh and Gaston and the Wilmington and Weldon railroads of a surrender of their exemption from taxation. This left exempt only the North Carolina Railroad which saw the handwriting on the wall and surrendered its exemption the following year.
The year 1893 furnished still more reasons for party division. The panic played directly into the hands of those who desired the overthrow of the democratic party. The quarrel of the President with the silver men over the repeal of the silver purchase law had a strong reaction in the state and the final passage of the repeal bill by a democratic Congress seemed final and conclusive proof that the party was dominated by "gold-bugs" and hence was not to be trusted. Vance won anew the affections of the populists by voting against p243the bill, but Ransom supported it and thus won an intensity of hatred from the populists which made them ascribe to him every evil quality to be found among members of the United States Senate. This feeling played no small part in securing fusion the following year.
By 1894, then, the potential strength of the populist party was much greater and its leaders, and no less its rank and file, were determined, at any cost, to secure democratic defeat.
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History of NC
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