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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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  • Mike Clinch

    There are two plaques in the rotunda of the capitol building in Helena, Montana. Fortunately, it’s an outside corner projecting into the rotunda, so if you are in front of one plaque, you can’t see the other. One commemorates the life of Clark, as a business leader, philanthropst and politician. Around the corner is one to the editor of the Anaconda newspaper, commemorating his revelation of the Clark corruption.

    I kid you not. Unfortunately, the 5 Supremes have only viewed the Clark plaque.

  • Holden Pattern

    I fail to see the problem here. The people who own the country ought to run it.

    • Anonymous

      The Golden Rule: ” ’em wots got the gold, sets the rules.” eh??????

  • DrDick

    And let me just say that our modern Montana Republicans are the proud lineal descendents of Sen. Clark.

    • What is the feeling in Montana about all of this?

      • DrDick

        Liberals are depressed, but the Republicans are rejoicing. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Loathsome) declared it “a victory for free speech.” I am sure that this has nothing to do with the fact that Rove’s and Koch’s superpacs have dumped a ton of money (outspending both candidates combine by a large margin) running ads attacking Tester.

  • dp

    Clark’s daughter died fairly recently at age 104, and there’s a gigantic fight going on over her estate. http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/manhattan/battle_of_wills_left_by_year_old_GVPtfdxdfHkKhziEK0Z8oN

    Thank goodness the Supreme Court is on top of keeping America safe for the plutocracy.

    I commented elsewhere that this is an excellent example of the right-wing majority allowing the fantasies in their heads to serve as established facts that then trump inconvenient observed reality.

    • Yeah, I was reading about that. Kind of crazy.

    • Mike G

      His daughter died with a massive oceanfront estate in Santa Barbara, CA valued at over $100m. The estate was maintained at huge cost by dozens of staff, but she hadn’t bothered to visit in over fifty years.

      • Anonymous

        So what! It was her father”s money to do with as she pleased. If you read anything about W.A. Clark’s life you’d know it was a rags to riches story the author of whom was a brilliant, clever, industrious self made entrepreneur.

  • dan

    It’s about time we started taking the Supreme Court at their word and stopped trying to argue that Citizens United leads to corruption like that described in this post and recognize that, as five members of this Court have essentially stated, what Clark did in purchasing votes is “democracy” and not “corruption”.

  • rea

    If money is speech, why is bribery illegal?

    • Holden Pattern

      Shouldn’t be. It’s just a clearly denominated conversation.

    • DrDick

      I am pretty sure that it is on the conservative justices’ agenda, just as soon as they figure out how to legalize it for corporations, plutocrats, and Republicans, but not anybody else.

    • UserGoogol

      The problem with bribery isn’t so much the giving of money, but the giving of benefits in exchange for that money. Just giving money to politicians would be pretty harmless if the politicians didn’t get corrupted by the money. In principle, campaign spending is supposed to be separate from that. Money isn’t going to the politicians themselves, it’s going to campaign funds (the candidate’s own fund or PACs or SuperPACs or whatever) which are used to fund communications in order to promote the candidate. Of course the problem is that since politicians want to win and think campaigning will help them, there’s still some corrupting possibility there, and the other problem is that if campaigning does help politicians win, then the dissemination of such money distorts electoral outcomes. But that’s still not quite the same thing as bribery.

      • Timb

        Why do they all leave public office richer than they started?

      • rea

        And yet, if I talk a politician into supporting my issues, that’s somehow not bribery!

    • dp

      If money is speech, then bribery is just persuasion.

  • William Burns

    His son, William Andrews Clark, set up a rather nice research library in Los Angeles, the Clark Library. So there’s that.

  • KadeKo

    Tangent: Funny that the robber baron’s place is a B&B. Today’s robber barons aren’t building anything I’d want to B&B in a century from now.

    Today’s economic uberlords seem to have more money than ever and less taste.

    • Warren Terra

      Today’s robber barons aren’t building anything I’d want to B&B in a century from now.

      How would we know? Whether because they don’t care to open up or because they’re slightly circumspect, they often don’t care to let the hoi polloi see their stately homes. There was an article I saw over the weekend about some ridiculous mansion within helicopter distance of Manhattan (the plutocrat who owns this monstrosity has attracted the ire of his more-or-less equally wealthy neighbors because his ride of choice is especially noisy, the Hummer of the helicopter world, a flying bus that can carry two dozen comfortably when it’s not fitted out to carry him on luxury). Except for perhaps being too large – this monstrosity had two or three dozen bedrooms, most or all likely in suites – and being uneconomical to run, there’s no reason this behemoth mansion with its expansive estates and ocean winds couldn’t be a B&B.

      • KadeKo

        You have me caught out.

        My sample size is only two:

        Everything with a bedroom and Donald Trump’s name on it.

        Plus 50-Cent’s mansion in suburban Hartford, CT.

    • Many years ago I worked for a lecture agency and booked a date for Chris Miller (the main writer of Animal House) to speak there. We had him stay at The Copper King.

      Jeez, a check out time of 9 a.m. and check in time of 4 p.m. for a five room B & B?!?! Is their housekeeping staff made up of the infirm?

      • Okay it has 34 rooms (I was counting the rooms listed on the description page). Still that is the earliest check out and latest check in times I’ve ever seen. If you stay there for one night you essentially stay for 17 hours.

        • KadeKo

          Checkout at 9? Sheesh.

          When’s breakfast, 6?

      • Bill Murray

        A group I was part of rented the Copper King for supper and a tour a couple of years ago. The food was tremendous and the tour interesting although I don’t think they talked about what a jerk Clark was too much. We also toured the Rookwood speakeasy found underground in Butte and the site of Frank Little’s lynching. As engineer’s (and several of us in mineral processing and geology) we also had a good tour of the Berkeley Pit. Ah, Butte pretty in a dangerous way

  • efgoldman

    “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.”

    Nobody, but nobody, did a takedown like Mark Twain in high dudgeon.
    Brother Pierce is the blogger version, but even he would admit he’s no Sam Clemens.

  • Perfectly matched author to current event. And ++ on the site known for legal (battleship) analysis.

    Bravo, Erik

  • Mark

    Great post. I especially love reading about this era of US history.

    anyone else reading (or did I miss a post on) “Rising Tide” The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 by John Barry?. I”m half way through and am convinced its one of the best on American history. I don’t want it to end.

    • It’s a fine book, but take it from me: you will want it to end. Not that that’s Barry’s fault.

    • I’ve actually never read the Barry book, though I am quite familiar with professional historians work on the issue. I probably should read it at some point. I used to teach a course on Hurricane Katrina, but I haven’t in like 4 years and it’s hard to see bringing it back now.

    • mining city guy

      An excellent book. Highly recommend it.

  • Joe

    The Montana ACLU supports the law while the ACLU itself supports Citizens United.

  • heckblazer

    Hmmm. So was Clark the inspiration for the nasty Elihu Wilsson in Red Harvest? Dashiel Hammett did base the novel on his experiences as a Pinkerton in Butte after all. (As an aside, I find it interesting that Hammett was so disgusted by the tactics used by Pinkertons to break strikes he quit working as a detective and become a communist).

  • Timb

    I’m reading “The Copper Kings” right now. I used to think the late19th century was the most boring time in American history. Little did I know they expected me to live in it

    • The idea of the late 19th century being boring is one that interests me because I know people feel that way. I think there’s a tendency to think this because by the traditional markers of history–presidents, wars, foreign policy, big legislation–not much happened during those years.

      But the country was going completely insane and that’s why I’d argue it’s probably the most fascinating time in American history, though that’s obviously the most subjective thing in the world.

      • Captain Haddock

        I agree. I’m immensely frustrated that the Oxford History of the United States has yet to publish their volume on that time period — I’ve really enjoyed the other volumes in the series. Are there any good survey books that cover the period after Reconstruction?

        • Well, there are plenty of books that cover it along with the Progressive Era, but if you really want to get into the spirit of the time, you couldn’t do better than Richard White’s Railroaded.

  • bradp

    The vast majority of SuperPAC spending is funded through extraordinarily wealthy individuals like Clark, and Citizens United doesn’t affect that does it?

    • Joe

      Citizens United overall principles blanches at regulation of money in a way that affects SuperPacs & a lower court applied it to them in the influential Speech Now case.

      • bradp

        Explain.

        I apologize, but its a little vague for me to understand what you mean, and I want to understand before I respond.

        • Holden Pattern

          Here’s one way: rich individual sets up string of shell corporations with nothing but mailboxes for contact information. Said shell corporations pass rich individual’s money around like a joint at a Dead concert, with the money winding up in some politician’s campaign coffers.

          Presto! Zero traceability, zero accountability, except to the rich guy, whose contacts have quietly tipped said politician as to the source of his funding.

          I am not making this up — Mother Jones has been trying to find the source of money in various campaigns and has hit this exact dead end.

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  • Great Story, and amazing man William Clark (gold man). This is compared to anything else is extra. The other way is not a lot of people have a choice. But this one is special, as well as abnormal.

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