Thursday, November 8, 2018

A Documentary Treasure

I would not expect any of you to be surprised by the expectation that valuable things might be found at a bank.  However, who might have expected the discovery of this particular documentary treasure?  

The Peoples Bank in Pratt, Kansas has its own 'history detective' who manages to explore the historic documentary heritage of that bank in spare moments.  Founded in 1887, dating back to both the era in which Isaac Beckley Werner was documenting events in his daily journal and also the era of the Populist Movement, the Peoples Bank has witnessed a great deal of history.  When their in-house detective discovered that I share his passion for history, and specifically history of our region and the time of the Populist Movement, he knew he had met someone with whom to share his discoveries of special documents among the forgotten papers stored at the bank.  What a treasure he found recently!

The story behind the treasure is one of the high points of my manuscript, for the document is from the moment when the People's Party reached its political peak and became a national power, while at the same time splintering because of differences within the party that led to its decline.

The Gold Bugs buzz around Uncle Sam
One group, known as Mid-Roaders, wanted to adhere to the initial goals around which the People's Party had formed, having to do with regulation of railroad rates, breaking up monopolies, and  weakening the political power and influence of the wealthy.  The other group, known as Fusionists, wanted to fuse with one or the other of the two major political parties in order to combine enough votes to elect their presidential candidate.  In Northern states, like Kansas, the populists had sometimes worked with the Democrats to defeat Republicans, but in Southern states the old and more powerful political machinery was Democratic, so populists joined with Republicans to defeat the Democrats.  The Mid-Roaders opposed the tactic, pointing out that once elected the politicians ignored the goals of farmers and other laborers.

However, by 1896, the issue of abandoning the gold standard and returning to bi-mentalism, in which both gold and silver supported our national monetary system, had split all three of the parties--the young People's Party and the established Democrat and Republican parties.

Just as a bicycle needs 2 wheels, the Gold standard needs Silver

In the People's Party, the old-line members, the Mid-Roaders, wanted to adhere to their broader goals, but the newer leadership, the Fusionists, wanted to put old goals on the back burner and elevate Free Silver above above everything else.  The same split happened in the Democratic Party, with the majority favoring Free Silver and the minority splitting to form the National Democratic party.  In the Republican Party there was also a split, but its minority was smaller and had less impact.

President Cleveland can't compete without bimetalism

The People's Party Fusionists believed so strongly in Free Silver that they succeeded in convincing the populists to join with the Democrats to nominate William Jennings Bryan.  In exchange, they asked the Democrats to allow the People's Party to name the Vice-President.  The Democrats refused.  William Jennings Bryan was the Presidential candidate for both parties, but the People's Party nominated a well-known and popular Southern populist, Tom Watson, (hoping to win Southern votes) as their Vice-Presidential candidate, while the Democrats nominated a wealthy New Englander named Arthur Sewall.  Sewall ties to Railroads and Banking, (the archenemies of Populists), thinking his credentials could attract Eastern and non-labor votes from the Republicans.

If you have been counting, that makes five different political parties, and it gets even more complicated.  Back-room deals within the populist delegations, including Kansans, were made to swap votes, in which some People's Party leaders agreed to support the Bryan-Sewall ticket in exchange for Democrat support for down-ballot populist candidates.  (More about that later.)  Those 'deals' resulted in six different tickets.  Add the Prohibition Party, which was a strong third party at that time, and the Independent Party, and eight different choices were included on the ballot.

As I said earlier, my research had made me very familiar with this odd political situation, but I never imagined that I would see this odd ballot.  Now I have!  As the People's Bank 'history detective' has surmised, an actual 1896 ballot may very well have survived because someone at the bank was frugal and decided that the blank backs of the unused 1896 presidential election ballots made perfectly good scratch pads. (See back of ballot above.)

Two ballots, the Middle-of-the-Road Populist ticket and the People's Party ticket, have Thomas E. Watson as the vice-presidential nominee.  That may seem to be a distinction without a difference, but it was not.  The President and Vice-President were the same, but the Presidential Electors were different.  That was important.  In fact, after the election NO presidential electors cast their votes for Thomas E. Watson, regardless of where voters may have marked their ballots.   

Tom Watson had not asked to be put on the ballot as the vice-presidential nominee, and he had not been present at the convention when that was done, but he accepted the decision and campaigned.  The new-comers to the Populist Movement not only engineered the Free Silver strategy and participated in the back-room deals, they openly supported Sewell.   When Watson visited the Kansas People's Party state headquarters, he faced the humiliation of entering through a door over which a banner reading "Bryan and Sewell" was hung.

That, and other such treatment that Watson saw as disloyal to a man who had stood with the People's Party in the past, changed him.  His bitterness caused him to turn away from things he had once championed.  Reading his political history before and after 1896 is like reading the record to two different men.

Bryan lost the election, the strategy failed, and the self-inflicted wounds within the People's Party led to its decline.  The amazing ballot found by the Peoples Bank 'document detective' Phillip Toalston is a unique piece of Kansas political history at a time when the State of Kansas wielded great political power.  Thank you Phillip!

Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge them.  


1 comment:

Phil Toalston said...

Great post, Lyn! It's so good to see a spotlight being shined on Kansas's unique history!