William “Watchdog” Holman and Richard “Silver Dick” Bland: Democratic Legends of the Gilded Age

Although the period of 1861 to 1933 is regarded as one of Republican domination because between James Buchanan and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the people only saw fit to elect among Democrats Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson to the presidency. However, what is less known is that in the period between 1875 and 1895 the parties were roughly equal. Republicans held the White House 70% of the time, but the Democrats held the House 80% of the time while Republicans held the Senate for all but six years, and in two of those the parties were exactly tied in control. There were only four years in which both parties controlled both legislatures and the presidency: Benjamin Harrison’s first two years, and the first two years of Grover Cleveland’s second term. Two Democrats who served in the House and made their marks during this time in their opposition to much of the politics of the age were William “Watchdog” Holman (1822-1897) of Indiana and Richard “Silver Dick” Bland (1835-1899) of Missouri.

William S. Holman


Holman was first elected to the House in 1858, and during the War of the Rebellion he was a “War Democrat” as opposed to Indiana’s Senator Jesse Bright, who was expelled for treason for his support of the Confederacy. He opposed the adoption of emancipation as a war aim and voted against the 13th Amendment. Although he declined to run again in 1864, he decided to return in the 1866 election. Holman would become known as the “Watchdog of the Treasury” for his eye on what he considered wasteful spending. Rep. Amos J. Cummings of New York (1889) wrote admiringly of Holman in The Sun, “He has all the characteristics of a blooded mastiff. His sense of intelligence is high, and he is as trusty as the best combination lock. He never bays at the moon. Loud and clear is his bark. Courageous as a lion, he is as sagacious as an elephant. He bolts not seductive dog-buttons, for he is totally beyond the reach of temptation. Uncle Sam’s barnyard resounds with his defiant utterances. He is tireless and apparently sleepless. You will always find him at his post. He lies in wait for jobs of all kinds. The words “I object” have made him famous. No matter how great the din and confusion, his ears are over cocked. No legislation can be done until he understands its object. If wrong, he kills it quietly, but effectually, and then lies down and licks his paws”. He was celebrated in his fight against the deeply unpopular “back pay” bill in 1873, which retroactively raised the salaries of members of Congress. Holman’s primary fight was against land grants and giveaways to railroads and fought hard restore millions of acres to public ownership, so settlers could use the land. He also fought against other special treatments using the tax code with businesses and was a formidable foe of expanding the navy.

In 1876, Holman got what is known as the “Holman Rule” adopted, which enabled Congress to cut the pay of a specific employee of the government and was intended to combat patronage appointees. This rule was suspended from 1983 to 2017, but briefly resurrected by Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), only for it to be again suspended in 2019 with Democrats winning control of the House. Holman again declined to run for reelection, but decided again to return to Congress in the 1880 election.

He also applied his frugality to personal matters. Holman was not in any way ostentatious and wore no wealth indicators to enhance his appearance. He did, however, carry a jackknife that he would play with, and with it a temper if he thought his honor besmirched. In one incident, a member twenty years his junior questioned his integrity after he questioned the merits of his claim for relief of a prominent Federal official. Holman in a rage responded, “You insolent jackanapes, how dare you talk to me in this way?” to which the man responded that he took offense to his response and only Holman’s age (he was in his sixties) spared him from chastisement to which he replied, “I waive my age and invite you to do the same. Come out into the lobby, you conceited ass, and I’ll mop the floor with you” (Cummings). No fight occurred.

Although Holman had been reelected time and again, the backlash the Democrats suffered after the depression that followed the Panic of 1893 was catastrophic: in 1894, House Democrats lost 105 seats, including all eleven they held from Indiana. Holman had been defeated by future Republican Senate Majority Leader James E. Watson. However, his defeat was temporary, with him defeating Watson in an 1896 rematch.  Holman got little time to celebrate his victory, however, dying only a month after being sworn into office in 1897 of spinal meningitis.

Richard “Silver Dick” Bland

File:Richard P. Bland (10506992553) (1).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

A lawyer who had lived in the Utah Territory during the Comstock Lode Rush, Bland’s key issue would quickly come to the forefront with the Panic of 1873 as well as the Coinage Act of 1873. The former combined with dissatisfaction over corruption in the Grant Administration would bring the Democrats back to a legislative majority for the first time since before the War of the Rebellion in the 1874 midterms. The latter, while fairly uncontroversial at the time of passage, would be subsequently denounced as the “Crime of 1873” for dropping silver dollars from coinage, an effect not realized by the general public at the time of its passage. For his advocacy of bimetallism and free coinage of silver, Bland would be known as “Silver Dick” and also “The Great Commoner”.

In 1878, Bland proposed what was called the “Grand Bland Plan”, which required the U.S. government to purchase $2-4 million of silver monthly and put it into circulation. Western farmers and debtors supported currency inflation while Easterners and bankers opposed. Many of Bland’s constituents were farmers and they were supportive of the “Grand Bland Plan”. The proposal became known as the Bland-Allison Act, and was passed into law over President Hayes’ veto. This law would be replaced with the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1890 and then this would be repealed in 1893 in response to the Panic of 1893. Bland was not just a silver man, indeed in a speech in tribute to him after his passing, “The Lion of Lebanon”, speaker T.O. Towles went into some detail, “He bitterly opposed the “force bill”, the right of United States marshals to interfere with elections in the States, the presence of use of United States soldiers at polling places, and government by injunction of the United States courts. On all party questions he was a typical Democrat, the ablest and most fearless advocate and champion of the people’s rights and the untrammeled liberties of the individual citizen since the days of Jefferson and Andrew Jackson” (U.S. Congress, 105-106).  Like Holman, Bland lost reelection in 1894.

Bland was initially the favorite for the nomination for president in 1896 as a longtime crusader for free coinage of silver, but he was a hesitant candidate and the fact that his wife was Catholic attracted anti-Catholic prejudice. William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska ultimately swept up the party in enthusiasm and he settled for running for his old district while supporting Bryan’s candidacy. After Congress adjourned in March 1899, Bland contracted influenza and his health deteriorated over the following months, dying after a resurgence on June 15th. The great irony of Bland’s signature issue was noted by the U.S. Mint (2017), “The attempts to return to bimetallism actually demonstrated the instability of silver and eventually led to the establishment of the gold standard in the United States during the 20th Century”. Only a year after Bland’s death, President William McKinley signed the Gold Standard Act into law.

As both Holman and Bland passed before the turn of the century, they remained figures of the 19th century as did their style of Democratic politics. Neither man would be a fit for the Republicans or Democrats of today. They were too strongly against business interests for Republicans, their racial politics were very much products of their time and place, and their Jefferson/Jackson style of progressivism is outdated in the modern Democratic Party. However, in their day and age they struck blows for the Democratic Party and, as they would have it, for the common man.


Cummings, A.J. (1889, February 10). Watch Dogs in Congress. The New York Sun.

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Memorial Addresses on the Life and Character of Richard P. Bland (late a Representative from Missouri). United States Congress.

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U.S. Mint History: The “Crime of 1873”. (2017, March 22). United States Mint.

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William S. Holman Dead; “Watchdog of the Treasury” Succumbs to Spinal Meningitis in Washington. (1897, April 23). The New York Times.

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