Carter Glass: The Most Significant Legislator in American Banking History

Most of the time it is difficult to point to specific political figures who aren’t presidents for major achievements that have a continual impact on our lives. In the case of Carter Glass (1858-1946), however, matters are different.

Life and Career Until Election to the Senate

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Born and raised in Virginia, Glass had early memories of the Civil War and Reconstruction, these experiences shaping him into what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called an “unreconstructed rebel”. This label he embraced with pride and it was the title of his biography. A journalist by trade, Glass started a successful newspaper, The Lynchburg News. By the 1890s, he had acquired the Daily Advance and the Daily Republican. During this time, Glass observed the enormous debt problems of the state of Virginia, and this made him conservative on fiscal matters. Despite being a Democrat, Glass often opposed fellow Virginia Democrats, whose fiscal policy he frequently opposed. Elected to the state Senate in 1899, Glass played a major role in the state’s 1901-1902 constitutional convention. This convention instituted numerous progressive reforms including a new state commission to regulate corporations. This was also the convention that instituted Jim Crow laws throughout the state, including an onerous poll tax that required that not only must the voter pay to vote in an election, but also for any elections he missed, making voting economically prohibitive for most blacks and many whites. This also included a literacy test, which was not standardized, rather graded by a registrar, opening wide the door to blatant racial discrimination. Glass made no bones about the racial motivations of election law changes: “to eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State” and to guarantee “the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government” (Stinnett, 2017). These measures were successful at this aim: the number of blacks who were qualified to vote fell by 86% after the adoption of the new constitution, eliminating any political clout they had. Glass and his allies were simultaneously contemptuous of the Fifteenth Amendment while claiming to be following it. Despite Glass’s stated intentions, these laws also impacted poor whites to the extent that only 5% of the state’s population determined who was governor, as only 5% of them would vote in the Democratic primary, the only election that mattered on a statewide level until the 1960s. For his role in this system, Glass was called by Historian J. Douglas Smith “the architect of disenfranchisement in the Old Dominion” (Stinnett, 2017). While Glass was capable of acts of great kindness to individual blacks he knew such as his chauffeur, he never thought of them as equals. In 1902, he was elected to Congress to fill a vacancy caused by the death of the incumbent.

Although Glass initially lacked power as a member of the minority party, he paid attention in the years he served on the House Banking and Currency Committee, becoming an expert on the subject by the time his expertise would be required. His time to shine arrived after the election of President Woodrow Wilson in 1912. As chair of the House Banking and Currency Committee, Glass played a crucial role in his sponsorship and involvement in drafting of the Federal Reserve Act. In 1918, Wilson appointed Glass Secretary of the Treasury, where he was effective in selling bonds to fund the war effort. In 1920, Senator Thomas S. Martin died, and Glass was appointed to fill the vacancy.

Glass the Senator

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As a senator, Glass again started out having limited power in a Republican-controlled legislative body. He stood as one of the more centrist members of the Democratic Party of the time, supporting lower rates of income taxation than most of his fellow Democrats while nonetheless frequently opposing Republican policy. During this time, he warned of a coming economic crash, which occurred on Black Friday in 1929. Although he was growing increasingly conservative on numerous issues, he sided with progressive Democrats on banking and in 1933 he sponsored the Glass-Steagall Banking Act, which separated investment banks from retail banks. It turned out race wasn’t the only subject in which he approved of segregation. However, upon the election of FDR, Glass would not be operating from a position of friendliness to a Democratic administration. He had been offered the post of Secretary of the Treasury by FDR, but Glass suspected correctly that he had significant differences with the incoming president on such matters.

Glass the Foe of the Roosevelt Administration

Among Democratic senators, Glass was one of the most hostile to the New Deal. Although he backed FDR’s economy measures, he also opposed key pillars of the New Deal designed to raise agricultural prices. He opposed the Agricultural Adjustment Act, invalidating gold clauses in contracts, and the confiscation of privately-owned gold. Glass also opposed the National Industrial Recovery Act, work relief legislation, the 1935 wealth tax, Social Security, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Among Democratic Senators, he, along with Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, were the Roosevelt Administration’s strongest critics. Glass even voted against the Reciprocal Trade Act, the only federally elected official from his state to do so. He generally supported lower tariffs, but he opposed the transfer of power from Congress to the Executive. Unlike Gore, however, Glass was an institution in the state of Virginia and a friend of the state’s ruling Byrd Machine, thus he was politically invulnerable. Despite his policy differences, he backed Roosevelt for reelection and quipped after his 1936 victory, “It is well nigh impossible to beat a five billion dollar campaign fund” (Hill). This was in reference to popular support for expensive work relief programs. Glass had other reasons to oppose this expansion of federal power: he predicted that the expansive use of the Commerce Clause would be used to justify civil rights legislation in the future. In 1937, he went to the radio to speak against Roosevelt’s court-packing plan, and although he initially thought he was going to lose this battle, it turned out to be FDR’s worst legislative defeat.

Glass the Friend of the Roosevelt Administration

Despite his many policy differences with FDR, the two remained on friendly terms. Glass did vote for the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Securities and Exchange Act, but most importantly, he was an unwavering supporter of the president on foreign policy. Some of Roosevelt’s bitterest political feelings were reserved for opponents of his foreign policy, but not his domestic policy as there were numerous people in the Democratic Party who had issues with his domestic policy while favoring his foreign policy and were too great a faction in the Democratic Party to alienate at the time. After the declaration of war, Glass became more supportive of the administration and this coincided with his downturn in health. Glass’s health had always been fragile:  a man of 5’4″ and only 100 lbs., he had such a sensitive constitution he would tiptoe to avoid upsetting his stomach and by 1942 his digestion was wrecked. His status as an “unreconstructed rebel” did not only apply to his politics as he fought through his health issues, but by this time he was ready to give up and his problems resulted in him becoming an invalid. Yet, again fitting his label, he refused to quit the Senate despite not attending sessions of Congress.

From his recorded pairs* in the era, we can know that he supported legislation to stop wartime strikes, supported a shockingly liberal soldier vote measure, opposed tax relief, and proved a strong internationalist. Despite being slightly older than the late Theodore Roosevelt, he even managed to outlive FDR by a year, who was 24 years his junior. He finally lost his mortal struggle in 1946 to congestive heart failure at the age of 88. Glass had been the last serving senator to be born before the Civil War.

Carter Glass’s accomplishments are very much with us today, from the continued existence and influence the Federal Reserve has on our economy to the Jim Crow legacy left by the influence by him and others at the Virginia constitutional convention. Many people who are politically aware can recognize his name as the Glass from “Glass-Steagall Act” but don’t know the full extent of how he influenced American banking. Glass, the stubborn “unreconstructed rebel”, is easily the most influential American legislator in the history of American banking.

*- Casting a “pair” is an expression of how a senator would have voted had they been present. Another senator of the opposing view also “pairs” out so as not to upset the outcome of the vote. The most recent example of a “pair” was Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the sole Republican to oppose the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, not voting because supporter Steve Daines (R-Mont.) couldn’t be present as he was attending his daughter’s wedding.


Hill, R. (2013, January 27). Carter Glass of Virginia. The Knoxville Focus.

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Stinnett, J. (2017, 15 September). Carter Glass’s influence for good and bad was enduring. The News & Advance.

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James W. Wadsworth Jr.: A Principled Republican With Staying Power

Born of a wealthy political New York Republican family, James Wolcott Wadsworth Jr. (1877-1952) never wanted for anything, yet was a conscientious, honest, and principled politician. His father, James Wolcott Wadsworth Sr., had been a longtime New York Republican Congressman who sponsored the Food and Drug Act in 1906. His grandfather,  James S. Wadsworth, was a Union general and abolitionist who was mortally wounded in the Battle of the Wilderness. In the early 1900s, he was elected to the New York Assembly, where he served as Speaker from 1906-1910 and became friends with another up-and-coming politician of the time: Franklin D. Roosevelt. After spending some time managing his aunt’s ranch in Texas, he decided to run for the Senate.

Senator Wadsworth

The first man to be elected to the Senate from New York by popular vote in 1914, Wadsworth was distinctly a member of the party’s conservative wing. He supported measures that encouraged efficiency in government workers such as performance bonuses and permitting the use of a stop-watch to measure said efficiency and was an advocate for military preparedness. Wadsworth also voted against the Sedition Act on free speech grounds. He became most notable for his stances, however, on the two social hot-button issues of the day: Women’s suffrage and Prohibition, both of which he opposed. On Prohibition, Wadsworth predicted a general contempt for the law would arise as a consequence of its nationwide adoption. Both measures he also opposed on state’s rights grounds. While you would think this would cause difficulties with his wife, Alice Hay, she was the head of the organization National Association Opposed to Women Suffrage and was known for her vitriolic writings linking suffrage to feminism and socialism. On the Versailles Treaty debate, Wadsworth sided with Senators Henry Cabot Lodge Sr. and Warren Harding in support of a strong reservationist position.

Although many women and supporters of Prohibition opposed his reelection in 1920, he won in the Republican wave election. In his second term, he was a staunch supporter of the conservative policies of the Harding and Coolidge Administrations. Wadsworth even went as far as to oppose the Sheppard-Towner Maternity Act and a constitutional amendment prohibiting child labor, both subjects in which many Republican conservatives were willing to make exceptions, including Harding and Coolidge. In 1926, Wadsworth would have likely won reelection if it had not been for the entry of an independent Republican candidate, Franklin W. Christman,  who supported Prohibition. The three-way race resulted in victory for Democrat Robert F. Wagner.

The Return of Wadsworth: His Career in the House

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While out of office, Wadsworth regularly advocated the repeal of the Prohibition Amendment, which came to pass in 1933. Wadsworth won election to the House just in time to face FDR and the New Deal. He proved one of the staunchest opponents of the New Deal, opposing every major such law, including Social Security. On civil rights, Wadsworth’s record was not as positive as most Republicans. Although he had opposed an effort to only grant suffrage to white women and opposed a segregation measure for D.C. beaches and bathhouses in 1924, he was one of only eight Republicans in 1940 to vote against anti-lynching legislation and he opposed most efforts to ban the poll tax. Although Wadsworth seemed a man out of his time on domestic issues, he was one of the few Republicans who maintained a strong level of influence during this period and this was not only due to his good reputation on both sides of the aisle.

Unlike his views on the New Deal, Wadsworth strongly supported FDR’s foreign policy when most Republicans were opposing it. In 1940, he sponsored with Sen. Edward Burke the first peacetime draft in U.S. history, which was signed into law by FDR. This constituted a continuation of his views on preparedness from his days as a senator. He also gave critical backing to the Lend-Lease Act and made the difference in saving the peacetime draft from expiring in 1941. Although Wadsworth supported the war effort, he repeatedly supported efforts to minimize wartime controls on the economy. In 1946, he proposed ending all price controls on livestock. As it may be expected, Wadsworth supported both the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine to combat communist influence abroad. However, his support for foreign aid was limited to aid that he regarded as in the direct interests of the U.S.: in 1950, he voted against the Point IV Program, which provided aid to poor nations not recovering from the devastation of World War II. Wadsworth opposed the Fair Deal just as he had opposed the New Deal. By 1950, he was in failing health and chose to retire, dying less than two years later.

Wadsworth was overall a figure in national politics who, despite having some views that would make his election impossible today, lost only one election in his thirty years of federal politics. He was recognized as a principled conservative figure who was fearless in his willingness to disagree with the tides of popular opinion or even some prevailing views in his own party. I may not agree with everything Wadsworth stood for historically, but I respect a politician who stays true to his principles, and this is what he did. He stood for military preparedness before American participation in both World Wars, and consistently stood for limited government and state’s rights on the home front.

The 1852 Election: “Frank Perse” vs. “Old Fuss and Feathers”


The America of 1852 was of course much different than the America we know now. First and foremost in people’s minds is the existence of slavery, which was a festering issue of its time. In that year, the president was Millard Fillmore, the “most forgotten president”, even if the designation doesn’t make him that anymore. He was, however, the latest disappointment for the Whig Party. Although Millard Fillmore considered himself “anti-slavery”, he was rather weak in practice: Millard Fillmore’s embrace of the Compromise of 1850, specifically his signing of the Fugitive Slave Act, enraged “Conscience Whigs” (anti-slavery) but pleased “Cotton Whigs” (pro-slavery). The Fugitive Slave Act made it the responsibility of the federal government to track down runaway slaves and in free states this policy encountered a lot of resistance. However, the slavery issue hadn’t boiled over in national tensions yet. Americans in 1852 wanted to elect someone who wouldn’t serve to inflame the political atmosphere.

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Winfield Scott, or “Old Fuss and Feathers”

That year, the Whigs decided to dump President Fillmore in favor of Commanding General of the U.S. Army Winfield Scott. The choice made sense: the presidential elections the Whigs won (1840, 1848) both had war heroes as the candidates. Unfortunately, both William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor died in office and both were succeeded by men who the Whig Party gave the boot. Scott was known as “Old Fuss and Feathers” for his insistence on military etiquette. The Democrats, however, also looked towards a man of military accomplishment: Franklin Pierce.

Franklin Pierce, the leader of the New Hampshire Democratic Party who people referred to as “Frank Perse” (yes, he pronounced his last name that way), helped his political career significantly during the Mexican-American War by applying for and receiving a commission to command by President Polk. He served under the command of General Scott during the Mexican-American War. He had proved capable for the brief time he served, despite an unfair accusation that he fainted out of fear in battle that earned him a derisive moniker from his opponents: “Fainting Frank”. He had in truth passed out from the pain of his leg being crushed under a fallen horse. A staunch Jacksonian Democrat, Pierce’s central issue was not national banks or currency, but opposition to the abolitionist movement. Although not a slaveowner himself being from New Hampshire, his friends on the national political scene were. He counted his closest ally in Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, who would later be President of the Confederacy.

Since both candidates had little differences in policy, personality was the name of the game. Pierce had the advantage of being from a free state yet opposed to abolitionism at a time in which many American voters thought this to be extreme. Winfield Scott, despite being a Southerner by birth and upbringing, had an anti-slavery perspective that alienated Southern voters. Alexander Stephens, as the time a “Cotton Whig” from Georgia and future Vice President of the Confederacy, refused to endorse him. Despite Scott’s reputation, he, like Pierce, backed the Compromise of 1850. Numerous controversies about Scott’s military career surrounded him despite his accomplishments and Pierce proved to be more charismatic on the campaign trail. Pierce’s campaign’s slogan was “We Polk’d you in ’44, we’ll Pierce you in ‘52”. Pierce ultimately won in a blowout, winning all states but Kentucky, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Vermont. He also won by almost eight percent in the popular vote, which was the greatest mandate for a president since James Monroe’s unanimous victory in the “Era of Good Feelings”. History, however, tells us that Pierce was anything but a safe candidate.

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The Winner, Franklin Pierce

As a “doughface” (a Northern politician who took the Southern position on slavery), Pierce signed into law the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which violated the balance between free and slave states. Signing this single act into law resulted in the catastrophe of “Bleeding Kansas”, the creation of the anti-slavery Republican Party, and brought the country, more than anything else, on the course to war. Like the Whigs dumped Fillmore, the Democrats would dump Pierce in 1856 in favor of James Buchanan, who had the political advantage of being overseas for most of Pierce’s presidency. Winfield Scott would historically fare better, recommending as commander at the start of the Civil War the Anaconda Plan, which would choke the South of resources gradually through a sea and land blockade. The proposal, although what was ultimately adopted, was not politically popular at the time and he was retired in favor of George McClellan, who completely misread the strength of the Confederacy. Sadly for New Hampshire, their only contribution to the presidency was the dreadful “Frank Perse”. Their punishment has been to have presidential candidates descend upon their state and try to ingratiate themselves with the locals to win their approval every four years.

Super Wood Bros.: New York City’s Corrupt Thorns in Lincoln’s Side

Where did New York City stand on the Civil War? The answer to this question is rather complex and much of it involves two brothers who were always on the border of treason. Fernando (1812-1881) and Benjamin (1820-1900) Wood were figures who helped define New York City politics, and especially did so during the Civil War. Although both men served intermittently in Congress, Fernando was more of the politician than Benjamin, who was interested in media and bought the New York Daily News in 1861. As Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall as well as Mayor of New York City, Fernando Wood was as corrupt as he was handsome and set up the system that Boss Tweed used so greatly to his advantage. Taking bribes, ballot stuffing, and vote buying were regular practices under Wood’s system. He made a casual effort to restrict prostitution on street corners, but had no interest in cracking down on brothels. Wood simply wanted to give New York City an increased appearance of wholesomeness while all sorts of graft occurred under his watch. He resented the level of interference in New York City’s affairs from moral conservatives in Albany, whose state prohibition law he ignored to the delight of his Irish constituents. Additionally, Wood eagerly welcomed new immigrants into the city as they often proved to be votes for Tammany Hall. Although defeated for reelection in 1857, he managed to found the Mozart Hall faction of New York Democrats that frequently battled Tammany Hall. He was elected back into office in 1859, serving until 1862.

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Fernando Wood, Mayor of New York City

Cartoon portraying Benjamin Wood preferring his lotteries over his country.

Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Mayor Wood offered up a most unusual proposal for New York City: that it secede from the Union as its own separate national entity. Although rejected by the Common Council, it was true that New York City profited from the production of cotton, and Wood wanted to see not only New York City’s but his own bottom line and power through patronage continue to prosper. He also stated his case against federal abolition of slavery in terms of support for the working men of New York City, stating that “until we have provided and cared for the oppressed laboring man in our own midst, we should not extend our sympathy to the laboring men of other States” (New York Times). Fernando always walked a tightrope between loyalty and treason and was a frequent White House visitor who consistently tried to ingratiate himself with President Lincoln despite his blistering public criticisms of his administration, and this was to his annoyance. Wood played both sides of the fence for his own political gain: he also assisted Lincoln in raising $1 million for the Union war effort, perhaps in an effort to shed the image of him being disloyal. He was a most duplicitous fellow and a scoundrel to boot.

Fernando Wood is portrayed in the movie Lincoln as a staunch opponent of the 13th Amendment, which he was. He attacked War Democrats who supported the amendment as having “a white man’s face on the body of a negro” (Vorenberg, 43). The brothers did not shy away from using racist rhetoric to justify slavery and criticize the Civil War. Benjamin Wood’s New York Daily News, a propaganda outlet for Mayor Wood, regularly editorialized outright racism, and even beforehand it had editorialized that if Lincoln won the 1860 election, “we shall find negroes among us thicker than blackberries swarming everywhere” (The Lehrman Institute).  The paper became outright scandalous when it was shut down by the government in 1861 for abetting treason, and would not reopen until 1863. The public came to believe that Ben Wood himself was a traitor, which he may or may not have been. What is clear is that he and Fernando were Confederate sympathizers. In the meantime, he wrote a commercially unsuccessful novel, Fort Lafayette; or Love and Secession, a pro-secession book. The fiery editorials in the New York Daily News against the draft played a role in inciting the draft riots, which resulted in the deaths of approximately 120 mostly black people in Manhattan and the destruction of millions of dollars worth of property including the burning down of a black orphanage (the orphans were evacuated beforehand). As a consequence, many blacks moved to Brooklyn or New Jersey and the city became more de facto segregated.

After the Civil War, both brothers remained a presence in New York City politics. Fernando even was regarded as a leading House Democrat but could never be the party’s leader as he sided with Republicans too often on fiscal issues, making him one of the more conservative Democrats. He did, however, become chair of the House Ways and Means Committee in his final years. Fernando would die of a heart attack on a visit to Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1881, while Benjamin would continue to run the New York Daily News until his death in 1900.

The legacy of the Wood brothers is such that there are no memorials and honors for them and nor shall there be, yet they played a major role in the politics of New York City. Like the Confederates they sympathized with, they cared more for their part of the country than the nation as this position served to line their pockets. They were, however, more clever about it and even managed to continue their careers without serving a day in jail. Their sympathies to the Confederacy, while strange to modern readers when they think of New York City, make sense in their time due to their investments in the South and their dislike of Albany Republican efforts to rein in Democratic power and corruption. Their sort of corruption would continue to be played out throughout Tammany Hall’s existence.


“Benjamin Wood (1820-1900)”. The Lehrman Institute.

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“Fernando Wood (1812-1881)”. The Lehrman Institute.

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Syracuse Convention Delegates Large Charleston Convention Speech, Mayor Wood. (1860, February 8). The New York Times.

Vorenberg, M. (2001). Final freedom: The Civil War, the abolition of slavery, and the thirteenth amendment. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.


Aside From Their Push for Equal Rights, What Was the Ideology of the Radical Republicans?

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Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts

It is a common belief today that the Republicans of the time of Lincoln and the Civil War would be Democrats today. This makes sense at a cursory glance: if you look strictly from the Southern perspective of states’ rights, the modern left-wing conception of civil rights, and completely ignore where the respective parties stood on other issues or fail to contextualize the issues for their times. A prime example of failure to contextualize is the imposition of the income tax during the Civil War, which has led to modern leftists saying that Abraham Lincoln was progressive like them. The problem here is that the income tax was intended to fund the war and for no other purpose. Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner, the man who was infamously beaten with a cane by Congressman Preston Brooks, stated on the matter, “There was an understanding, when it was established, that it should live only into the year 1870. It has now reached its natural death, and no resurrection ought to operate upon it. An income tax is a war tax. It ought not to be made a peace tax” (Sumner, 41). The income tax ultimately was repealed in 1872 and would not return until 1894, when it was included as part of the Democratic Wilson-Gorman Tariff and subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court. This is why the Constitution had to be amended to allow an income tax. Internal improvements were for helping the private sector expand across the country, not the creation of “make-work jobs”. The project costs were also not inflated by powerful unions and Davis-Bacon wages. I have taken the good time to examine how these people voted in Congress. Several issues stand as rightist positions:

. Support for higher tariffs (to fund internal improvements and protect growing American industry). While this isn’t the case today, the GOP stood for tariffs as a business-friendly policy up until the 1960s, and the leftist Americans for Democratic Action opposed high tariffs as late as 1970. Additionally, the two Socialist Party members of Congress in the 1910s and 1920s voted against high tariffs.

. Opposition to railroad regulation. This should go without saying.

. Support for selling generous amounts of public land to railroads and subsidizing construction to grow the nation. I could easily see modern-day leftists lobbying against the sale of public land for such a purpose under the guise of “environmental protection”.

. Support for a federal bankruptcy law favorable to northern creditors (and surprisingly enough, southern debtors).

. Opposition to inflationary monetary policy.

. Opposition to limiting workdays of federal employees to eight hours.

. Conviction of Andrew Johnson in the Senate for violation of the Tenure of Office Act.

I did not include slavery, as this stands as a fundamentally regional and partisan issue in this time. Radical Republicans were aligned based on their views on the subject of race and nothing else. When you take away matters of slavery and Reconstruction, what does this leave ideologically?

My findings:

The Republican Party was at its start a gathering of people with a common purpose: opposition to slavery. On other questions, there was a diversity of opinion and this became increasingly apparent as the 1860s came to a close. Some people who departed the party on ideological grounds in the 1870s included Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois and Congressman Benjamin F. Butler of Massachusetts, both who had been Democrats before the Civil War.

Among the most notable of the Radical Republicans…

. Senators Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Zachariah Chandler of Michigan were rightists. From 45 key roll calls through 1863-1869 I tabulated for ideological purposes, Sumner averaged 90% and Chandler averaged 94% for rightist votes.

. Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio was kind of a mixed bag despite being opinionated to the chagrin of his colleagues. He was highly supportive of railroad grants and opposed to restricting railroad rates but also supportive of currency inflation and organized labor. His scores average to 68% for the period 1863-69.

. Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania was a Republican leftist. His scores average 35% for the period 1863-69. Where he went right was when he would go to bat for business interests in his state, including for railroad grants. He went left on currency inflation, higher pay for federal workers, opposition to federal bankruptcy laws, and even the reduction of some other tariffs.

. Representative Benjamin Butler scored a 42% in the 1867-69 Congress and he only got more leftist from there given his later affiliation with the Greenback Party, including a presidential run on its platform in 1884.

As for the Democrats? Think of them in this time as believers in the common man and the downtrodden, provided these people are white. The Democrats today don’t really identify with their party’s history, nor should they on their stances of race. However, economically and otherwise, many Democrats maintained stances that wouldn’t be unfriendly for Democrats today. For instance, the leading Copperhead Democrat during the Civil War, Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, would after the Civil War’s end endorse proposals such as a progressive income tax and civil service reform while abandoning his prior opposition to black suffrage. History is more complicated than what can be described in a tweet or cultural meme and it certainly isn’t true that the “parties switched”, the latter point I will never stop pushing on this blog.


Sumner, C. (1880). Charles Sumner; his complete works, volume 18. Norwood, MA: Norwood Press.

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Vallandigham, J. (1872). A life of Clement L. Vallandigham. Baltimore, MD: Turbull Brothers.

The Liberal Republicans: 1870s Version

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Horace Greeley, founder of the Liberal Republican Party. Isn’t he a strange fellow?

In 1868, the GOP united to elect Ulysses S. Grant president. The GOP at the time was on top of the world and as such was such a big tent party. Different Republican factions wanted hard money while others wanted greenbacks, some supported labor rights while others opposed, many were keen on land grants to railroads while others thought them corrupt. The late 19th Century overall was a politically corrupt period in American history, with the buying of votes, voter fraud, bribery of politicians, and voter intimidation of blacks in the South running rampant. The Grant Administration was quite far from free of the taint of corruption even if Grant himself was. These developments and more troubled a group of primarily left to moderate Republicans who became known as “Liberal Republicans”. They also stood opposed to imperialism and tired of Republican Reconstruction efforts, believing that Reconstruction had fundamentally succeeded at its aim, had become corrupt, and that no more protections of blacks should be implemented. Some of the most prominent figures in the movement were New York Tribune founder Horace Greeley, Senator Carl Schurz of Missouri (who had participated in the 1848 Revolutions in Prussia), and Governor B. Gratz Brown of Missouri. A small group of senators and representatives came to identify themselves as “Liberal Republicans”. They were determined to deny Grant a second term, even if it meant allying themselves with the Democrats. For this, they were often the subject of lampooning by the famous Republican cartoonist Thomas Nast. Their members if the Senate aside from Schurz were Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Thomas Tipton of Nebraska, Reuben Fenton of New York, and William Sprague of Rhode Island.

Charles Sumner was kind of the odd man out in this group. Although most famous for being radically anti-slavery, at heart he was a New England conservative on economic questions. He opposed currency inflation as well as an eight-hour day bill for government workers. Sumner was also the only one of the Liberal Republican senators to vote for the Ku Klux Klan Act in 1871, cracking down on violence against blacks and Republicans in the South. However, he shared the anti-imperialism of the Liberal Republicans in his opposition to the proposed annexation of Santo Domingo and their strong dislike of Grant. In Sumner’s case, it seems to have stemmed from his leading role in defeating Santo Domingo’s annexation as well as Republicans stripping him of committee assignments for his rebellious behavior.

The movement ultimately proved to be an epic failure, even with the Democratic National Convention officially endorsing the Liberal Republican candidate, Horace Greeley. Greeley was a problematic candidate on a multitude of fronts. He was highly eccentric, an ineffective campaigner, and had taken many reformist stances in the past that at times lacked consistency with each other. These included socialism, free enterprise, vegetarianism, opposition to slavery, and feminism. Greeley was game for just about anything utopian. His ticket only won Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas. Because Greeley went insane and died mere weeks after Election Day and before the Electoral College counted the votes, votes for him were split among other Liberal Republicans and Democrats. The movement died out after this failure and aside from Schurz, the most prominent members’ careers ended.

The Blair Bill: A Unique Opportunity for Education

When it comes to federal involvement in education, historians tend to associate it with Lyndon B. Johnson and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, Jimmy Carter’s Department of Education in 1979, or George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind in 2001. However, the first major effort at federal involvement in education was undertaken all the way back in 1881.

Senator Henry W. Blair (1834-1920) of New Hampshire was generally a traditional conservative Republican, but he saw a major crisis in the United States that he believed required government action: illiteracy. As chairman of the Senate Education and Labor Committee, he was alarmed by the high illiteracy rates in the South, among both whites and blacks. He feared that many Southerners, especially blacks, were living in ignorance of the alphabet and argued that “ignorance is slavery” (Rodriguez, 195). Blair and his supporters saw this measure as an antidote to moral degeneracy, economic malaise, black poverty, and uninformed voting. He was willing to extend federal aid to education to combat the problems of ignorance, and in 1881 he introduced his education bill. Blair’s bill was a ten-year program that would allocate federal funds based on illiteracy rates, which would result in 75% of the benefits going to the South. The funds would gradually decrease per year until its sunset. Although Southern Democrats you would think would oppose federal involvement in education given the Jacksonian view of states, the measure received significant crossover support from them as the measure didn’t dictate how the states were to use their benefits aside from ensuring that both whites and blacks got aid. Many Southern whites didn’t see the measure as challenging Jim Crow as it didn’t dictate that schools be integrated, and this was an argument Southern senators used to try and get some of their hesitant colleagues to back the bill. Both of Virginia’s Democratic senators, for instance, voted for it in 1890 as did one of Mississippi’s and one of Alabama’s senators. Prominent black politicians and activists also urged passage as they figured that this literacy bill was better than none at all, given that the black illiteracy rate at the time was 47.7% (the white rate nationwide was a little under 7%). The strongest opposition to this measure actually came from Northern Democrats, a situation that today is nigh impossible. This was also a unique issue in which blacks and some Southern whites could unite in support.

The Senate voted on the bill four times but the circumstances were never quite right for its passage. Although the Senate passed the bill in 1884, the Democratic House, led by Bourbon (conservative) Democrat Speaker John Carlisle of Kentucky, shelved the bill. The measure was passed again in a Republican Senate in 1886 and 1888, but the president was Grover Cleveland, another Bourbon Democrat. Support for the measure dropped somewhat since 1884 which portended future developments. In 1890, the stage seemed to be set for the bill: Republican Benjamin Harrison was president, and as a senator he had voted for the bill. Better yet, Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress. Theoretically, this bill should have passed given the circumstances. However, matters got complicated.

First, enthusiasm had declined: Benjamin Harrison was noncommittal on the bill now, not viewing it as a priority. Second, conservative Republican opposition was growing as constitutional doubts plagued the measure and some Republicans, such as John Ingalls (R-Kan.), were hostile to the South and argued for an alternative formula on the basis of population. Third, some Southern whites didn’t want the bill because it would educate blacks beyond performing menial labor. Fourth, many Democrats harbored suspicions that this was simply a way for the GOP to dump a budget surplus caused by high tariffs. Although Senator William Evarts (R-N.Y.), the man who had led Andrew Johnson’s impeachment defense, offered a passionate and compelling defense for the bill’s constitutionality, he couldn’t save the Blair Bill as he had Johnson’s presidency. The measure failed 31-37 on March 20, 1890, shocking Blair, who thought he had the votes. Some senators who had previously voted for or had been reported as favoring the bill changed their minds. Unfortunately for him, this ended the bill’s prospects and he lost re-nomination that year. Blair briefly served as Minister to China under President Harrison but ultimately resigned after the Chinese government objected so strongly to him having voted for the Chinese Exclusion Act that they declared him persona non grata. Aside from a brief return to the House in the 1892 election, his political career was over.

Ultimately, the waning Republican support of the Blair Bill that resulted in its defeat was a symptom of declining Republican commitment to black interests. That same year, Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.) had pushed a bill to enforce voting rights in the South, but because support and opposition to the bill was highly partisan, it could not overcome a Senate filibuster. The Democrats made the Lodge Bill part of their campaign against the Republicans, and the dismal results for Republicans in the 1890 House midterms were a factor in them scaling back their commitments to black voters. Presidents McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft did not pursue civil rights legislation and the party would not seriously pursue civil rights legislation again until 1922, when President Warren G. Harding endorsed anti-lynching legislation. The Blair Bill stands today as a footnote of history, a lost opportunity, and an interesting precursor proposal for federal involvement in education.


Rodriguez, J.P. (2007). Slavery in the United States: A social, political, and historical encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc.

“To Order Engrossment and Third Reading of S. 185, A Bill to Aid in the Establishment and Temporary Support of Common Schools (P.2429)”. Govtrack.

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This was the final vote on the Blair Bill. Blair himself voted against so he could potentially reintroduce it later under Senate rules.

Consequential Losers: Clay, Bryan, Goldwater, and McGovern

In presidential elections, political losers tend to not have a tremendous influence in the long run. No one with the possible exception of a few remaining “Never Trump” Republicans will identify themselves as a “McCain Republican” and no one in the Democratic Party identifies as a “Dukakis Democrat”. However, there are, from time to time, those who never won the presidency yet carried influence well beyond their careers and deaths. Henry Clay of the Whig Party, Barry Goldwater of the Republican Party, and William Jennings Bryan and George McGovern of the Democratic Party are such people.

Senator Henry Clay (1777-1852) of Kentucky is perhaps the most influential person who ran for president and lost. He sought his party’s nomination four times and won it thrice, but lost all the times he ran. These were 1824, 1832, and 1844. Famously known as the “Great Compromiser” for his bargains to keep the union intact over the issue of slavery, Clay was the foremost proponent of the Whig Party’s economic philosophy. This philosophy entailed using the federal government for internal improvements, establishing a national bank, and raising tariffs. All three policies were Hamiltonian and with the purpose of growing the private sector, thus the Whig Party’s historical designation as “conservative”. Although the Whigs were never the dominant party and had some wretched luck on presidential victors, their philosophy would come to dominate American political thought after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, who had previously been a staunch Whig and was a loyal adherent to his fellow Kentuckian’s economic views. Clay’s perspective arguably lives on in today’s Republican Party through its pro-business philosophy. The next consequential loser, William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), came from a different place.

To understand where William Jennings Bryan was coming from, it is necessary to understand the state of the Democratic Party from the Civil War to the 1890s.  The Democratic Party had been dominant until the election of Abraham Lincoln, and it fell tremendously from prominence afterwards. After the Civil War to the late 1870s the Democrats stood unified against Republican Reconstruction policies, but after the end of Reconstruction, the party was utterly divided on what direction they should go, making them an ineffective ideological force against the Republican Party. They simply served to curb what they regarded as excesses of the Republican Party, such as the generous doling out of Union veterans benefits. The only president they elected in the Gilded Age was Grover Cleveland, whose views on economics were frequently conservative. He and many others were what were known as “Bourbon Democrats”. Like the Republicans, they tended to support hard money and free enterprise, while differing from them in backing tariffs “for revenue only” as opposed to boosting domestic industry. In 1890, however, a young Democrat was elected to Congress from traditionally Republican Nebraska, William Jennings Bryan.

Bryan advocated moving the party away from the philosophy of the Bourbons, believing that the federal government needed to be highly active in wealth redistribution and providing more for the public. He represented views that were not being considered by the leadership of either of the parties. Although the 1892 election was a reaffirmation of the Bourbon Democrats, the 1894 election would prove catastrophic as it was during an economic depression. While Bryan himself lost reelection, more significantly the Bourbon Democrats were repudiated in a manner that no group would face until the Republicans at the onset of the Great Depression, as they lost 127 seats in the House. Rank and file Democrats wanted something new, something different, and Bryan, a man of only 36 in 1896, offered a solution. His Cross of Gold speech, condemning the Gold Standard, electrified the Democratic National Convention and secured him the nomination. The most notable line was “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” (History Matters). The choice in 1896 was of greater difference than any presidential election in over thirty years. Bryan solidly represented the left of American politics in farmers and laborers while Republican William McKinley represented the right in the middle-class and business interests. The central issue was free coinage of silver vs. the gold standard, the latter McKinley embraced. Business, fearing Bryan, went fully to bat for McKinley and he won. This loss would not deter the Democrats from continuing their support for him.

Bryan would be nominated again in 1900, but this time he muted his views on currency since the economy had recovered at this point and focused on an anti-imperialist platform. Bryan again lost, and more decisively than in 1896. The Democrats passed him over in 1904 for a completely forgettable Bourbon Democrat, Alton B. Parker, who won no states outside the South. In 1908, they selected Bryan again to run against William Howard Taft, but Taft benefited too much from Theodore Roosevelt’s influence to lose. Although he was three-time presidential loser, his candidacy in 1896 brought Populists on board with the Democratic Party and decidedly pushed the national Democratic Party to the left. Although Bryan died in 1925, his views profoundly influenced Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, the latter credited him with keeping liberalism alive in the United States.

I will not go into a full description of Goldwater as I have already written six posts about his views in my review of Conscience of a Conservative. What you need to know is that he lost the 1964 election badly, only winning his home state and five Deep South states, but his views carried on into the Reagan Administration and have the greatest influence on today’s Republicans.

In 1972, Democrats were looking for someone to take on Nixon, and the top candidate they had in mind initially was Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine. However, the Nixon campaign actively worked to undermine his campaign and did so by producing a phony document that claimed that Muskie’s wife insulted French Canadians with an ethnic slur. Given that this is an important group in Maine politics, Muskie had to go on the defensive and at a press conference it looked like he was tearing up over the accusations. This made him appear weak in the public eye, and George McGovern (1922-2012) was resorted to as an alternative. His candidacy ran into trouble as he represented the left-most elements of the Democratic Party, and a campaign insider (who would later be revealed as Senator Thomas Eagleton) told journalist Robert Novak that “people don’t know that McGovern is for amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot. Once middle America – Catholic middle America, in particular – find this out, he’s dead” (Washington Examiner).

Although George McGovern lost everywhere except Massachusetts and Washington D.C., the 1974 midterms brought many staunchly liberal Democrats to Congress, who proceeded to limit the power of conservative Southern Democrats by making it clear that seniority would not be the only criterion for committee chairmanships. McGovern’s candidacy ultimately signaled a second shift of the Democratic Party to the left. While Hubert Humphrey in 1968 had been a representative of liberalism in the New Deal and Great Society mold, McGovern represented the anti-Vietnam War side of the Democratic Party and one that greater emphasized social liberalism.


Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” Speech: Mesmerizing the Masses. History Matters.

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Novak Outs Eagleton As “Amnesty, Abortion and Acid” Source. (2007, July 15). Washington Examiner.

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George Vest and Man’s Best Friend

George Vest (1830-1904) was a longtime Missouri politician who got his start on the wrong side of history, serving as a delegate from Missouri to the Confederate Congress during the Civil War. However, after the war he made a touching contribution to American history in a most unexpected way. In 1869, farmer Charles Burden sued sheep farmer Leonidas Hornsby, who had shot and killed his hunting dog, a foxhound named Old Drum. Hornsby had previously sworn to kill any dog found on his property after some of his sheep had been killed. Vest took Burden’s case, and in his closing argument on September 23, 1870, he delivered a speech now called “Eulogy of the Dog”:

Gentlemen of the jury. The best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter that he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has, he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it the most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads. The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him and the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog.

Gentlemen of the jury, a man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.

If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies, and when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in its embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even to death. (Vest, 1870)

The speech won over the jury, which awarded Burden $50. A statue of the dog was subsequently erected in front of the Warrensburg, Missouri courtroom, as was a bust of the dog in the Missouri Supreme Court building in Jefferson City. Vest himself would be elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 1879, where he would distinguish himself through his oratory, debating skills, and vigilant efforts to preserve Yellowstone National Park against development. He also may have been the first person to employ the phrase “history is written by the victors”, stating at an ex-Confederate convention, “In all revolutions the vanquished are the ones who are guilty of treason, even by historians, for history is written by the victors and framed according to the prejudices and bias existing on their side” (Abilene Weekly Reflector, 1891). Vest also opposed U.S. expansion in Puerto Rico and the Philippines, anti-polygamy laws, women’s suffrage, and big business interests. Terminally ill and physically weak by January 1903, Vest managed to stand and deliver his final speech in the Senate, railing against the coal interests who had lobbied for high coal tariffs to keep the price of coal high at the peak of winter. This speech shamed the majority Republicans into removing the tariff. He managed to live until August 9, 1904, leaving behind perhaps America’s finest recorded tribute to dogs, quite possibly the phrase “history is written by the victors”, and a preserved Yellowstone Park.


Classic Senate Speeches. U.S. Senate.

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Vest, G.G. (1870, September 23). Eulogy of the Dog. U.S. Senate.

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“Vest on Secession”. (1891, August 27). Abilene Weekly Reflector.

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