Thursday, October 27, 2016

Kansas Mortgages and the Supreme Court

Cartoon from the St. John County Capital
In the late 1800s, many Kansans like Isaac Werner were struggling with debt.  Most had mortgaged their property as collateral at the time they borrowed money, but drought and lower crop prices made farmers unable to pay their loans, and they faced the possibility of foreclosure.  Merchants also suffered when farmers could not pay for merchandise bought on credit, their businesses furthered jeopardized because customers no longer had cash with which to shop.  Transactions entered into when the future looked bright became tragic for many as times changed.

The Kansas People's Party legislators tried to relieve the economic crisis by retroactively altering the law to impose limits on foreclosures whose mortgages did not give borrowers that relief at the time the documents were signed and the money was loaned.  The Republican majority on the Kansas Supreme Court overturned that law, but after the next election when a majority of People's Party judges assumed the Kansas bench, the law giving borrowers relief was reinstated.

Cartoon from the St. John County Capital
That resulted in an appeal to the US Supreme Court, where Justice George Shiras, Jr. wrote the opinion.  The court ruled that the terms when the contract was signed could not be altered by the Kansas legislature retroactively after one party to the agreement had relied on the promises of the other party, despite unanticipated hardships.  Although the law was clear and the ruling was correct, Justice Shiras added a note that the ruling was not intended to address the fairness of these mortgage contracts.

Too often, people do not understand the role of judges.  They are the watchdogs  protecting our laws and when people bring cases to the court they must determine the outcome based on the law, not on their personal feelings.  That is what Justice Shiras attempted to explain.  At the time the farmers received the money from the banks, they agreed to certain terms which the bank required in order to make the loan.  It was contrary to established law to permit the desperate farmers to get the benefit of modified foreclosure protections retroactively when the bank had relied on stricter requirements at the time they agreed to loan the farmers money.

It isn't about whether it makes the judges happy to adhere to laws.  Rather it is their duty to apply the laws in all cases, without regard to their personal feelings.  

US Supreme Court Justice George Shiras, Jr.
People who disagree with rulings sometimes object that a case was overturned on "technicalities," but that shows their bias or misunderstanding of the law.  We all depend on the courts to resolve matters according to law, not just in the easy cases but also in those cases that seem difficult.  Clearly Justice Shiras was sympathetic to the plight of the farmers who had worked hard and would lose the benefits of years of backbreaking labor if they could not pay their notes and the banks foreclosed on their farms.  Yet, it was what they had agreed to when they received the loan and the bankers had kept their part of the bargain.

So if you hear someone complaining about a court overturning a case on a technicality, do not misunderstand the meaning of "technicality."  "Technicality" means that something was done wrong or the law was not applied correctly.  In criminal cases particularly, sometimes hateful or disgusting people benefit from the technicality or error in their trials, and those are the hard cases.  Yet, we would want to be protected by the laws if we stood before a court, and if judges began ruling willy-nilly as they personally found fair, none of us could depend on our laws.

Holbein's painting of Sir Thomas More
In the movie A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More is asked by his son-in-law William Roper:  "So now you give the Devil the the benefit of law!"  To which More replies:  "Yes, what would you do?  Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?"  Roper answers:  "Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that.

Here is the important reply from More:  "Oh, and when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide Roper, the laws all being flat?  ...[D]o you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?"

(If you are not familiar with this motion picture, I recommend that you find a copy to watch.  The devout More adhered to his faith and willingly suffered the legal consequences, sacrificing his own life by respecting both the laws of his country and the tenants of his faith.)

Beware someone who criticizes judges who overturn a lower court's decision on a technicality.  As much as the farmers in the late 1800s may have been disappointed by the US Supreme Court's decision, those judges were doing their jobs as duty demanded.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Presidential Election of 1896

Democratic Presidential Banner from 1896

Americans seem to think the Presidential Election currently in the news is the wildest one yet, but last week's blog shared some of the elections that have been called "the dirtiest."  This week I will share events of the 1890 elections, the last Presidential Elections of Isaac B. Werner's lifetime, which were pretty crazy!!

The era most of us know as the Gilded Age was great for a small segment of Americans, but for farmers like Isaac, as well as other workers engaged as miners, small ranchers, and factory laborers, times were hard.  The big issue became whether adhering to the gold standard to keep a stable economy was best or whether implementing bimetalism to include silver would benefit more ordinary Americans.

Cartoon from St. John, KS County Capital
For farmers and other working class people who were suffering most economically, 'Free Silver!' became the rallying cry.  The Republicans had the political wealth and power, but the People's Party believed that if they joined with the Democrats in nominating William J. Bryan as their Presidential candidate that their combined votes could defeat the Republicans. 

The caption on the cartoon showing Uncle Sam trying to ride his bicycle with only one wheel, identified as "Gold" reads:  "The country will never be Prosperous again until Silver is restored to full and unlimited coinage."  The "Silver" wheel lies on the ground, crushed by "Demonitization" with the guiding light of a lamp left behind on the ground labeled "Common Sense."

It was William Jennings Bryan's Cross of Gold speech at the Democratic Convention, with its reference to drip down economics, that probably lifted him above other potential nominees, and it was certainly Bryan's nearly exclusive focus on "Free Silver" that led the People's Party to nominate him, despite the fact that he was not a member of their party!

When it came to selecting the Vice-Presidential candidate, however, the Democrats and the People's Party nominated different candidates.  The Democrats chose a wealthy man from the east coast, hoping he would bring some votes from those Republicans who favored silver (and there were a few who did).  The People's Party nominated one of their own as the Vice-Presidential candidate, wanting to be represented on the ticket. 

The tactic did not succeed.  Republican McKinley received 271 electoral votes while Bryan received only 176.

Four years earlier in the 1892 Presidential Election, bimetallism had also been an issue, with the Democrats choosing Cleveland as their candidate, the Republicans choosing Harrison, and the People's Party choosing Weaver.  Cleveland prevailed with 277 electoral votes to Harrison's 145 and Weaver's 22.  The poor economy during Cleveland's administration was blamed on adherence to the gold standard by many in the People Party and Cleveland's own Democratic party, and they demanded bimetallism.

Political Cartoon from St. John, KS County Capital progressive newspaper

The above political cartoon uses the bicycle theme to illustrate why bimetallism beats the gold standard.  President Cleveland is depicted riding a unicycle, cheered on by the wealthy.  The caption reads:  "Cleveland--'This blasted wheel wobbles too much.  I never can catch that fellow ahead and you might as well save your breath.  I am in a perplexing and delicate predicament as a result of ill-advised financial expedients.'"

The poor economy set the stage for the Democrats in 1896 to nominate Bryan as their candidate.   People's Party candidate Weaver's weak performance in 1892 motivated the populists in 1896 to make the unusual decision to select the nominee of the Democratic ticket for their own Presidential candidate, while at the same time nominating a different man for Vice President. 

The Republicans who favored bimetallism split from their party to form a splinter party, as did the Democrats who favored retaining the Gold standard, while the People's Party nominated a Democrat as their candidate, resulting in William Jennings Bryan having two different running mates.  Talk about a crazy Presidential Election!

So, as you follow the news of the upcoming Presidential Election of 2016, perhaps you can take some comfort in the fact that as crazy as it may seem to you, America has survived crazy Presidential elections in the past.

By the way, although Bryan did receive a strong showing of 47% of the popular vote in 1896 to McKinley's 51%, the electoral vote was McKinley 271, Bryan 176.  That difference shows how important it is that candidates pay attention to states with more electoral votes during their campaigning.  It also explains why we see so many charts on our television screens showing the likely votes of the "Important" electoral states and why Isaac's old home state of Kansas, with fewer electoral votes, is rarely mentioned by the television commentators. However, in the 1896 Presidential election, Kansas was at the heart of political news.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Political Rhetoric in the Late 1800s

Although Isaac Werner did not have a television or the internet, he too was bombarded with political rhetoric during presidential campaign seasons.  The above cartoon is from the St. John County Capital to which Isaac subscribed.  Most of the political cartoons they published used the image of Uncle Sam to represent the nation, and a depiction of a wealthy man to represent the imbalance in power of the wealthy in political decisions.  However, this cartoon depicts a senator and the president to express why the People's Party, representing farmers, miners, and other workers politically, was growing.  On the left a farmer shows how getting 40 cents a bushel for his wheat is less than what it costs to raise it. (See which compares 2016 with those low markets.)  On the right, striking factory workers are shown being fired upon by government troops.  (The government had also sanctioned the use--by such men as steel magnate Carnegie--of hired private armies like the Pinkertons to confront striking workers.)

In addition to political cartoons, campaign buttons were also used even prior to Isaac's time, although the cheap manufacture of flat discs with a straight pin came into use during his era, specifically in the 1896 presidential race between McKinley and Bryan, when the People's Party and the Democrats both nominated Bryan.  One button I found online read "In McKinley we trust; in Bryan we bust" dealing with their opposing views about the gold standard vs. bimetalism.  To read more interesting information visit "The Long Story Behind Presidential Campaign Buttons and Pins," by Elizabeth King in the May 17, 2016 issue of "Time Magazine."  Also interesting is the website on which very early campaign buttons are pictured for sale.

The earliest buttons were primarily purchased by supporters to wear the button of their favorite candidate.  These early buttons were expensive to make, so it was logical that supporters were more likely buyers or buttons were produced by the candidates for their supporters to wear.  In the 1960s the trend toward buttons made by private marketers increased.  On the Ron Wade website, the earliest "anti" buttons I found were from the Reagan-Carter era, and most humor was fairly gentle.  One more abrasive button read "Nutrition Quiz:  Which one is the vegetable?" with an image of a ketchup bottle and a cartoon of Reagan below the question.  Another read "Nancy gets red dresses; We get pink slips."  Lampooning Carter a button read "The Carter Special:  A little peanut butter; A lot of balony" [sic], and another depicted a peanut in top hat and cane and asked "Do you want a Nut in the White House?"  Certainly these aren't complimentary, but they don't reach the level of vulgarity that anti-Hillary buttons reached among vendors outside the Republican convention.  The parody of Trump's hair on buttons is more akin to the buttons of the 1960s.

However, dirty politics are not new, although in the past the mud was thrown by surrogates rather than by the candidates themselves.  The election of 1800 in which John Adams and Thomas Jefferson vied for the office of President is often named as the dirtiest.  A Connecticut newspaper wrote that if Jefferson were president "murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced." In 1828 in the race between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson the abuse included slandering Jackson's wife.  In the Douglas-Lincoln debates, Douglas called Lincoln a drunk.

Not all dirty politics are Presidential nor national.  In fact, a race for Kansas state representative split Isaac's community.  In 1892, two men who lived within walking distance competed, one on the People's Party ticket and the other a Republican.  Although the People's Party candidate won easily throughout the district, in their home township he won by a single vote.  The old newspapers document the rancor of their campaigning.

Hatefulness, slanders, and misinformation is nothing new to politics, but the internet certainly spreads them faster!