Thursday, November 15, 2018

A Peek into the Voting Booth in 1896

In 1896 Mary Elizabeth Lease delivered her famous speech at Cooper Union Hall in New York City.  It was a time of great anomosity between the wealthy and the working people.  The Democrats and the People's Party had nominated the same Presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, and his campaign was focused on replacing the Gold Standard with bimetallism, a monetary standard supported with gold and silver.  If you did not read last week's blog about the 1896 election, you may want to scroll down to "A Documentary Treasure," posted 11-8-2018, to read what has been one of the most popular blogs I have posted.  This week I provide a peek into what some of your farming and other laboring ancestors may have been thinking when they marked their ballots. 

Mary Elizabeth Lease was a Kansan and one of the most popular speakers of that time.  Although women did not have the vote, she appeared before cheering crowds to hold them spellbound for 2 or 3 hours, or more.  On August 11, 1896, according to the New York World newspaper, the crowd was "charmed by the seductive oratory of Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Lease."  Among the targets of her criticism were "the name of Whitney and Cleveland, of Vanderbilt and Rothschild" which were "hailed with hisses and cat-calls" from the crowd.  She declared, " in this country we find in place of an aristocracy of royalty an aristocracy of wealth."

It was a time when farmers in Kansas like Isaac Werner had gone into debt to buy horses and oxen (the tractors of their time) and equipment when the prices for their crops were high and the interest on their loans was low, only to be crushed by debt when crop prices fell and interest rates soared.  Added to that were the rising fares Railroads imposed to ship farmers' crops to Eastern markets.  To the farmers, Wall Street, Speculators, and Railroad Tycoons were the villains. Populists wanted (1) government regulations to control the power of the wealthy and (2) bimetallism to curtail the hoarding of gold by the wealthy at the expense of the government and the American people.  As Mary Elizabeth Lease said, "They say this question is so deep that the common people are not fit to decide it.  They say 'leave it to the financiers.'  We have left it to them too long, and while we have been sinking into bankruptcy our financiers have been growing millionaires."

Some of these American milliionaires had grown so wealthy they sought to connect their families to royalty by marrying their daughters to royalty in Europe, paying a considerable 'dowery' to secure the match.  Lease didn't think much of that, describing the shame of " American to pay $10,000,000 for the cast-off, disreputable rags of old world royalty, for the scion of a house that boasts the blood of a Jeffreys and a Marlborough."  Winston Churchill's mother was an example, and Downton Abbey fans know that Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, is a fictional example.

Hanna was the president's advisor, looking for gold from war bonds.
Mary Elizabeth Lease also railed against the profits made by the wealthy when the government issued bonds to fight the Civil War, as they did for the later Spanish-American War.  "...we have arrived at a point when there is not enough money to carry on the business of the country. ...When the war broke out the Government was compelled to beg for men and money.  You [the American workers] responded nobly to that cry, but the men who had been crying, 'on to Richmond!' refused to answer.  They locked up their gold or sent it to Europe.  They held their gold more sacred than your lives, your liberty, your wives and children, while the Government was compelled to mortgage itself to get that sneaking cowardly yellow metal.  And if war was to break out again to-morrow gold would disappear as suddenly again."

It is always enlightening to look back at history in reflecting on today's issues.  The year Mary Elizabeth Lease was making this speech in 1896 was the same year some of your ancestors were voting on a ballot similar to the ballot that was the subject of last week's blog.  Those voters, called populists, were farmers and other laborers angry with the influence and special treatment of the wealthy in this country.  A few days ago, many Americans voted, and while voters from varying backgrounds and economic groups could be found in both the Republican and the Democratic parties, it is interesting that those voters today identified as Populists and Progressives tend to vote with the Republicans.  What would Mary Elizabeth Lease think?!

I thought this would be an interesting bit of history to follow last week's blog about the 1896 election.  I hope you enjoyed both of them.

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

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