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A Little Story About an Ancient Montana Plutocrat

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A long, long time ago (the Gilded Age) in a land far, far away known as Montana there was a man named William Clark. Not the Lewis & Clark guy but instead a mining capitalist. Born in Pennsylvania in 1839, he followed his family to Iowa as a teenager and then went to the Colorado gold mines during the gold rush in 1859. Clark found he enjoyed the mining world and thus went north to Montana Territory to pan for gold in 1863. He quickly realized that panning gold was for suckers. The smart move was to invest in the mines or sell things to the miners. Clark began running a supply service between Montana and Salt Lake City and made a good bit of money in it. He used that capital to become a banker where he began buying up defaulted mining properties and by the 1870s was raking money in hand over fist in the copper industry.

Clark became one of Montana’s three Copper Kings, the territory’s (state in 1889) version of monopolists John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie. Unlike most of the period’s plutocrats, Clark had personal political ambitions. But very similarly to his fellow capitalists, he felt that he should just be able to purchase his political will. He started this by running a powerful Butte newspaper, where he had built a resplendent mansion while the miners who made his fortune lived in conditions nearing slavery. But that wasn’t enough for Clark. He wanted to be a senator. Now remember that before the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913, state legislatures chose U.S. senators. One of the big reasons why reformers pushed this amendment was because of William Clark.

When Clark wanted to become senator, he figured the easiest way to do it was to get out his checkbook. Literally. He bought the votes of the Montana state legislature for the 1898 election for about $140,000. Even for the Gilded Age, this was beyond the pale of acceptable corruption. When this came to light early in 1899, the Senate refused to seat Clark. That didn’t stop him though; acting with slightly less obviousness, he managed to get the state legislature to reelect him in 1900 and he served a single term in the Senate. As Clark said, “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.”

For reformers, William Clark was Exhibit A for the terrible depths to which the American political and corporate world had sunk. Mark Twain hated Clark with special vigor, writing:

“He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs. To my mind he is the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed’s time.”

When Clark died in 1925, he was worth $150 million. Today, that would equal $3.482 billion. His Butte mansion is now a bed and breakfast.

This is the world the 5 Republican Supreme Court justices long to recreate through Citizens United and today’s decision to overturn the century-old anti-corruption laws Montana passed to keep this embarrassment from happening again.

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