On June 9, 1880, the Greenback Party’s political convention began in Chicago. While the Greenbackers would not make a long-term impact on American political life, they were indicative of the great dissatisfaction millions of Americans had over the Gilded Age, which was a slap in the face to them of the promises that capitalism had made.
The Gilded Age was a pretty terrible time in America. Rising racial violence, widespread political corruption, growing inequality, the establishment of monopoly capitalism, violence against working-class movements, and a political malaise by which the two major parties both subscribed to a free market orthodoxy created a great deal of discontent. Most Americans, at least white Americans, really wanted to believe in capitalism, or at least the free labor version promised in the North. The idea that capitalism should naturally spread its benefits relatively equally to freeholding and hard-working Americans seems anachronistic today, but it was deeply revered. Of course, this was not reality. But it took decades for American workers to come around to this. Instead, they believed that something–and often just one thing–had tipped the balance of the nation away from them and toward capital. If they could only fix it, the natural balance would be restored. This explains the enormous appeal of the cooperative commonwealth ideas of Edward Bellamy, the single-tax campaign of Henry George, and the obsession with eliminating Chinese workers, who western labor believed destroyed the worker-capital balance by undermining their labor. The eight-hour day campaigns were a move toward a more sophisticated solution, but really was pretty one-dimensional too.
This is the context of the rise of the Greenback Party. Primarily popular in the West and South, the Greenbackers came out of the discontent over the monetary system and domination of the railroads over American life in the aftermath of the Civil War. The Republicans and Democrats legitimately were effectively the same on most economic issues in the Gilded Age, except for the tariff. The Lincoln administration had issued paper money–greenbacks–during the Civil War, which was an inflationary policy that was good for farmers and small producers. Both parties saw this as a wartime measure alone and fought to go back to a bullion-only money system after the war, which was deflationary and contributed to the poverty and feelings of powerlessness of average Americans during this period.
To create a more just monetary policy, a series of groups began to join forces. Organized labor had some interest in this, especially early attempts to create a larger labor federation, such as the National Labor Union. In rural America, the Grange became a major advocate for an inflationary monetary policy. It was in the strong rural states and under the Grange banner that what became the Greenback Party (though it officially went through several names) in 1874 developed. Farmers were in debt and inflation would help them pay those debts. The Panic of 1873 just made their lives worse and their demands more strong. The Grant administration was hemming and hawing about what to do and ultimately left the monetary situation unsettled. Moreover, pressuring one of the major parties wasn’t really an option for northerners. Republicans were goldbugs and the enemy. But Democrats–well, they had just committed treason in defense of slavery. So that was unacceptable too. A third party was born, starting in Indiana.
The Greenbackers held their first convention in Indianapolis in 1875 and nominated Peter Cooper, founder of Cooper Union and the man with arguably the most impressive beard in American history, as their candidate in 1876. Of course, Cooper had little success. But on a local level, the party began to have success. While as a third party it really didn’t have a shot nationally, locally and in many states, it functioned basically as a second party. In the South, Republicans would receive almost no white votes for another century. In parts of the North, especially the rural North, Democrats were anathema. So these were one-party states and localities. That allowed the Greenbackers to elect 21 people to Congress at one point, which is actually a pretty impressive number.
For the 1880 convention, the Greenbackers did more work to build alliances with organized labor. Farmer-labor alliances have always been tough in the United States. Cultural divides as much as policy have gotten in the way and continue to do so today. But this was the next step for the Greenback Party. They adopted a platform that included the 8-hour day, the income tax, and women’s suffrage. This was not uncontested. Since the party was bringing dissidents from around the nation together over a single issue, all the other issues were really divisive. Lots of conservative southerners hated the idea of women’s suffrage, even if they liked inflationary monetary policy. They nominated James Weaver of Iowa as their presidential candidate, a Greenback congressman who had made a speech on the House floor that better monetary policy would end the nation’s sectional divisions while criticizing both the government’s use of troops to protect black voting and southern discrimination against black voters. Weaver beat out the one and only Benjamin Butler. One of the strangest figures in American political history, this was the latest stop for the former John C. Breckinridge fireeater who then stayed with the Union, discovered a way to emancipate slaves without actually calling it that, put the people of New Orleans in their place as an occupying force, led the impeaching forces against Andrew Johnson, and coauthored the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Said to be “a member of all parties and false to each,” Butler was probably the most famous Greenbacker. The VP was a former Confederate from Texas named Barzillai Jefferson Chambers.
The Greenback Party only received 3.3 percent of the vote in 1880. With the exception of Butler–who had once again left the Republicans and won the governor of Massachusetts in 1882 on a combined Democratic and Greenback ticket–the party disappeared soon after. But its spirit remained very much alive and would reappear in a more serious and impactful Farmers Alliance and then Populist Party by the 1890s, which really did make history through it’s reformist demands that largely ended up becoming law by the 1910s. In fact, Weaver would reappear as the Populist candidate for president in 1892, doing better than any third party candidate since 1860.
This is the 315th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.