1896 was a year of great triumph for the Republicans. Their standard bearer, William McKinley, had won a decisive victory against the Democratic and Populist Party nominee, William Jennings Bryan. However, it would be especially a triumph for four senators: Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island, William B. Allison of Iowa, Orville H. Platt of Connecticut, and John Coit Spooner of Wisconsin. This group, through their influence and chairing of major committees was able to consolidate power. All four were close political allies and good personal friends with different specialties. Aldrich was the staunchly conservative chair of the Finance Committee and highly knowledgeable on matters of economics, and he was de facto leader of the Senate Republicans. Allison was chair of the Appropriations Committee and although a conservative he was also a pragmatist known for his ability to forge compromises, most notably the Bland-Allison Act in 1878 that cemented bimetallism rather than a gold standard or free coinage of silver. Platt was the staunchly conservative chair of the Cuban Relations Committee and drafted what would become American policy towards Cuba from 1901 to 1934 with the Platt Amendment and was effective at building support for policies. John Coit Spooner was chair of the Rules Committee and although a bit more moderate than the others he was known for his strong debating ability and stood as a strong critic of the progressivism of the Republican upstart Robert La Follette.
The conservative, pro-business agenda of these four men fit well with McKinley’s presidency but not as much with the reformer President Theodore Roosevelt, who they, along with Speaker of the House Joe Cannon of Illinois, kept in check. Indeed, nothing that met with the disapproval of this Senate quartet could pass. They were, however, helpful in passing modest reforms that in their final product were acceptable to business interests of the time, including the final Food and Drug Act and the Hepburn Act and were supportive of President Roosevelt’s foreign policy. However, the first crack in their rule appeared with the death of Platt in 1905 and in the following year muckraker David Graham Phillips released an expose in Cosmopolitan titled “The Treason of the Senate” commissioned by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, in which he accused Aldrich and Spooner of corruption and questionable political practices, but especially former as deeply connected to the Rockefeller family and influencing which Republicans got campaign contributions from them. After all, Aldrich’s daughter was married to John D. Rockefeller’s son! It was in response to this article that President Theodore Roosevelt coined the term “muckraker” in criticism of the article’s strong use of innuendo and exaggeration and of journalists who sensationalized the bad while ignoring the good. However, many people paid attention to this article and the power of the Republican conservatives began to slide with a growing faction of progressive Republicans challenging conservatives.
In 1907, Spooner resigned and the following year Allison, who had prevailed in a tough primary fight with the more progressive Governor Albert B. Cummins, died only two months after his victory resulting in Cummins succeeding him. Aldrich was the last among them, but he managed to get the Aldrich-Vreeland Act passed to establish a commission to investigate the causes of the Panic of 1907 and in 1910 had his final success, the Payne-Aldrich Tariff, which only marginally cut tariffs in the face of demands for significantly larger cuts. Aldrich’s scheme to defeat the adoption of the income tax, however, proved a failure after the 1910 elections, in which Aldrich opted not to run again and with his departure, the power of Senate conservatives fell as the progressives in the Democratic and Republican parties scored a smashing election victory, paving the way for the adoption of numerous reforms. These included the income tax and the direct election of senators, which was what Phillips was aiming to build public support for in “Treason of the Senate”.
Phillips, D.G. (1906, March). The Treason of the Senate: Aldrich, The Head of It All. Cosmopolitan.
Spooner, John Coit. Wisconsin Historical Society.
Spooner, John Coit 1843-1919 | Wisconsin Historical Society (wisconsinhistory.org)
The Senate Four. U.S. Senate