“J. Ham” – Eccentric Democratic Leader and Mentor to a Future President

If you were to observe the Senate during the first six years of the Wilson Administration, a figure you may hear speak, debate, and push his party colleagues to vote for important bills backed by the president is a man who dresses like a dandy, wears spats, makes no effort to hide that he wears a toupee (although he is never photographed without it!), and even has some pink in his Van Dyke whiskers! This is Illinois’ J. Hamilton Lewis (or “J. Ham”) (1863-1939).

Although Lewis represented the “Land of Lincoln” in the Senate, he was the son of an invalid Confederate veteran and his mother had died in childbirth. Thus, he was raised by relatives and after earning his law degree at Augusta University, he in 1885 made his way to the Washington territory, where he practiced law and got into politics. In 1887, Lewis was elected for a single term to the state legislature as a Democrat and after the state’s admission he was on a commission to determine boundaries with Canada. Although his gubernatorial bid in 1892 was unsuccessful, he attracted a lot of support from state Democrats for the 1896 election, namely for the vice-presidential nomination, receiving 11 votes at the Democratic National Convention on the first ballot for vice president, despite not being minimum age. He benefited, however, from the presidential election in 1896, as William Jennings Bryan won the state by double digits, and Lewis in turn won an at-Large Congressional seat. Although Lewis faced a Republican Congress and president, he made his mark even in his first term. He proved a highly capable debater to the degree that even Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine, a giant both intellectually and physically, preferred not to tangle with the young lawyer from Seattle. However, in 1898 he lost reelection to Republican Francis W. Cushman. He then served in the Spanish-American War, rising to the rank of colonel. In 1900, he ran for the vice-presidential nomination, but it went to Adlai Stevenson instead. In 1903, Lewis got a compelling offer to join a law firm in Chicago and moved, and this is where he would stay. In 1908, he ran for governor, but just like in Washington before, he was unsuccessful.

The Senate

In 1913, the situation for Illinois and the Senate was in tumult. The state’s senior senator, Shelby Cullom, was an octogenarian who had been in the House when President Lincoln was assassinated. The state’s other senator, William Lorimer, was a Chicago political boss who got expelled for corruption. Cullom had stuck by Lorimer and was defeated in the “advisory” primary by Lawrence Y. Sherman, a Lorimer critic. Given the divided powers of the state legislature, a compromise was crafted in which they elected Lewis and Sherman. Lewis would be elected Majority Whip, second to Majority Leader John W. Kern of Indiana.

Senator Lewis was critical in pushing Democratic senators to back “New Freedom” legislation such as the Clayton Anti-Trust Act and the creation of the Federal Reserve and was mostly loyal in his record to the administration. His appearance, as noted earlier, was the talk of the town. He didn’t dress down for audiences either; once he was advised to do so when attending a political gathering with working class voters, but instead he came with coattails and a top hat and said to the them that he had come to pay them his respects and that this warranted him wearing the best clothes he had, and they were won over, cheering him as he left the hall (Hill).

Lewis, consistent with his support for Wilson, backed American entry into World War I as well as wartime restrictions on civil liberties. He also supported women’s suffrage and opposed Prohibition. However, Lewis’ time in the Senate would be cut off by dissatisfaction with Wilson in the 1918 midterms. He was defeated by Republican Congressman Medill McCormick, who was known for his dislike of the British government and brother of Colonel Robert R. McCormick, owner of the staunchly Republican Chicago Tribune. Now instead of a highly capable debater in Lewis who almost certainly would have supported the Versailles Treaty, Wilson had to contend with an irreconcilable; McCormick would not back the treaty under any circumstances. In 1920, Lewis was trounced in his run for governor by Republican Len Small, who would become one of the state’s numerous corrupt governors.

Second Act

Although Lewis was in the electoral wilderness in the Republican twenties, he made a good deal of money practicing international law. His chance came around again in 1930. McCormick’s widow (he had committed suicide in 1925), Ruth Hanna, was running for the Senate. However, questionable levels of campaign expenditures haunted her campaign and this with the backdrop of the onset of the Great Depression contributed to J. Ham’s landslide win: he defeated McCormick by almost 34 points. Although in 1932 he was the “favorite son” candidate from Illinois for president with the backing of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, he soon came around to supporting FDR. After the election of Roosevelt to the White House, “J. Ham”, remembered fondly for his efforts for Wilson by fellow Democrats, was again elected the Senate Majority Whip, this time serving under Majority Leader Joe Robinson of Arkansas. Like he had done for Wilson’s New Freedom, he used his position to whip up votes for FDR’s New Deal programs.

Helping a Young Senator

The 1934 midterms were good for Democrats, and in Missouri, incumbent Republican Roscoe Patterson was defeated for reelection. The new senator was a favorite of the Kansas City based Pendergast Machine, and its leader Tom Pendergast was not liked by Roosevelt and his people in the Administration, who had a strong distaste for political bosses. This man initially had a difficult time getting people to talk to him given the reputation of the machine he had come from, and Roosevelt wouldn’t meet with him for five months. However, Lewis decided to befriend and mentor him. He would tell the senator, “Harry, don’t start out with an inferiority complex. For the first six months you’ll wonder how the hell you got here. After that you’ll wonder how the hell rest of us got here” (Hill). Senator Truman, who was regarded as the honest public face of the Pendergast machine, would eventually be preferred by the Administration to his colleague J. Clark Bennett, who was too independent-minded and non-interventionist. He would make his mark during World War II, heading up a committee investigating waste and corruption in the government, which would save the US billions in military spending and ultimately result in his rise to the presidency. Lewis would continue to dress in his way, by this time being out of date, wearing spats and he would also wear wavy pink toupees.

Roosevelt’s Second Term

Unlike 1918, Lewis won reelection in 1936 by over 15 points against his former colleague, Otis F. Glenn, who remained a supporter of the at the time deeply unpopular former President Hoover. Although a Roosevelt Administration loyalist, he did cast a few adverse votes as far as Roosevelt was concerned: he supported deleting the “death sentence clause” of the Public Utilities Holding Company Act in 1935, which was the core of the law, and voted to kill his “court packing plan” in 1937. As a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Lewis opined on September 12, 1938, regarding the Sudeten Crisis, “Czechoslovakia isn’t the real object at all. That is a small matter that could be settled at any time. These gestures of Germany toward Czechoslovakia are to test how far France and England will go in combatting Germany’s larger aims” (The Associated Press). Two days later, England caved and three days after France did so. The Munich Agreement was formalized on September 29-30, 1938, and Nazi Germany occupied the Sudetenland in the following days. They would also invade Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939. On the afternoon of April 9, 1939, Lewis suffered a heart attack and although rushed to the hospital, he died five hours later (The New York Times). The New York Times incorrectly reported his age as 72, when he was in fact 75. The last vote Lewis had cast was to confirm William O. Douglas to the Supreme Court. Lewis stands out as the first official Majority Whip in Senate history (and a highly effective one at that) as well as being one of the few politicians to have represented two states in Congress.


Hill, R. The Senate’s Dandy: James Hamilton Lewis of Illinois. The Knoxville Focus.

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Hitler’s Speech Relieves America of War Fears. (1938, September 13). The Associated Press.

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Senator Lewis, 72, Stricken Fatally; Congress Veteran Is Rushed to Capital Hospital When He Suffers Heart Attack. (1939, April 10). The New York Times.

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Spiro Agnew: The Rise and Fall of the Improbable “Vice” President

If it is true amid speculation that former President Trump will be indicted over the Stormy Daniels affair, a matter of which attracts more questions than strong opinion from me, we will be in uncharted waters. While Richard Nixon was rescued from such waters by Gerald Ford’s pardon and indeed no president or former president has been criminally prosecuted as of March 28, 2023, there has been a vice president who faced legal consequences for crimes. This would be Richard Nixon’s first vice president, Spiro Theodore Agnew (1918-1996), whose rise was improbable and meteoric, and his fall was similarly astonishing.

The Rise of Agnew

After service in World War II, Agnew settled down, got married, and earned a law degree. This led to his start in politics in Maryland, which although historically Democratic, had something of a conservative surge in the 1950s. Agnew had switched from Democrat to Republican in 1946 and served as an aide to Congressman James Devereux and got an appointment to the Baltimore Board of Zoning Appeals. In 1962, he saw his opportunity for elected office as Baltimore County Executive because of a split in the Democratic Party organization and won the election. Agnew proved a moderate Republican who supported civil rights.
Agnew’s election victory in staunchly Democratic Baltimore was without doubt a fluke caused by party divisions, but it provided him with a sufficiently high profile to run for governor in 1966. He would again benefit from Democratic infighting as the Democratic primary had three candidates: Carlton R. Sickles, a liberal Congressman, Maryland Attorney General Thomas B. Finan, and George P. Mahoney. The conservatives in the Democratic Party went for Mahoney, and he won as the liberal vote was divided between Sickles and Finan. Mahoney was a perennial office-seeker who had repeatedly lost close contests in general elections, and he focused his campaign in opposition to open housing and residential desegregation. As a result, Agnew won with 49.5% of the vote, including 70% of the black vote. An independent candidate, Hyman Pressman, had also siphoned some of the liberal vote away.

Agnew continued to govern as a moderate as governor and had a good working relationship with the Democratic legislature. He succeeded in enacting tax reform, banning racial discrimination in housing covenants in new housing, and ending anti-miscegenation laws (Holden & Messitte, 3). However, in the wake of riots, including a deadly one in Baltimore, after the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., Agnew read a group of Maryland civil rights leaders the “riot act” so to speak over their response to the rioting, which he saw as inadequate in quelling mob violence. This act put him on the national map, including for Richard Nixon. Nixon, to everyone’s surprise, picked him for vice president despite Agnew having backed Nelson Rockefeller’s candidacy. This pick, according to The Washington Post at the time, “may be the most eccentric political appointment since the Roman Emperor named his horse a consul” (Holden & Messitte, 3). The pick of Agnew was met for some time by the Humphrey campaign with “Spiro Who?”, but he didn’t remain a national unknown for long. He didn’t exactly relish his role given the political attacks he was now facing, and complained, “I was governor of Maryland, the brightest governor in the East. Then Richard Nixon picked me as his running mate and the next morning I’m the dumbest son of a bitch ever born” (Howe). However, Nixon saw an edge in picking Agnew. Agnew was from a border state and had a moderate record, and Nixon sought to appeal to moderates across the nation. As he wrote in his memoirs, “From a strictly political standpoint, Agnew fit perfectly with the strategy we had devised for the November election. With George Wallace in the race, I could not hope to sweep the South. It was absolutely necessary, therefore, to win the entire rimland of the South – the border states – as well as the states of the Midwest and West. Agnew fit the bill geographically, and as a political moderate he fit it philosophically” (Holden & Messitte, 3).

Vice President

As vice president, Nixon didn’t give him much responsibility beyond that constitutionally mandated and he was out of the loop of major administration decisions. As Agnew himself noted in 1980, “I was never allowed to come close enough to participate directly with [Nixon] in any decision. Every time I want to see him and raised a subject for discussion, he would begin a rambling, time-consuming monologue. Then finally the phone would ring or [White House Chief of Staff H.R.] Haldeman would come in, and there would be no time left for what I had really come to talk about…He preferred keeping his decision making within a very small group” (Holden & Messitte, 4). However, he gave Agnew an outsized role on the messaging front, having him be the “attack dog” of the Administration so to speak.

Agnew was publicly politically incorrect, and once referred to Polish American voters as “Polacks” and called a Japanese American newspaper reporter a “fat Jap” (Howe). He was also blessed with talented speechwriters in William Safire and Pat Buchanan, and he delivered a punch when he spoke at his intended targets. Conservative groups loved him for his rhetorical attacks on the media, on anti-war protestors, and others of the left. On November 13, 1969, he delivered a powerful speech written by Pat Buchanan regarding the power of the news media and media bias before a Republican audience in Des Moines, Iowa. In another speech written by Safire in which he castigated the media, he famously called them “nattering nabobs of negativism” and that “they have formed their own 4-H club – the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history” (Remnick). He had words for opponents of American involvement in Vietnam too. They were “an effete corps of impudent snobs”, “ideological eunuchs”, “professional anarchists”, and “vultures who sit in trees” (Remnick). There was even some thought of Agnew running for president in 1976. However, by 1972 he was thinking of stepping down; Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon both claimed that Agnew was considering stepping down, and Nixon himself was seriously considering replacing him with Treasury Secretary John B. Connally (Holden & Messitte, 5).

The Kickback Kid

The politics of Baltimore and Maryland as a whole were frequently corrupt, and Agnew was far from the exception. It had become known in Baltimore County that any firm that wanted to land major contracts with the county had to pay kickbacks to Agnew, this would be to the tune of 3-5% of the contract (Howe). This scheme would continue with state contracts as governor and as vice president he steered contracts to businessmen would pay him kickbacks. For those unfamiliar with the concept of a kickback, a kickback is classic form of corruption: a bribery and tax evasion scheme in which the recipient compels who they are paying to return a portion of money they get paid to supplement their income without that additional money being reported to the IRS. This practice was astonishingly common in Baltimore County, although not astonishing to those living in the county. Indeed, corruption in Agnew’s time in Maryland was unfortunately common: convicted of corruption during that time were the following Democrats: Senator Daniel J. Brewster, Agnew’s successor as Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson, Speaker of the House A. Gordon Boone, and Baltimore County State’s Attorney Samuel Green Jr. As a border state, Maryland was said to have “combined the worst of the Northern big-city machine with the worst of the Southern courthouse tradition” (Holden & Messitte, 2). Agnew’s practices as executive continued into his time as governor and even as vice president.

The U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland began an investigation into Agnew in 1973, and was prepared to charge him with failing to report $29,500 of income gained in 1967. Despite denying that he would resign if he was indicted to an audience of Republican women in Los Angeles less than two weeks before, he resigned on October 10, 1973, being the second vice president to do so (the first was John C. Calhoun, over disagreements on tariffs with President Jackson). The case against him was so damning that Agnew had agreed to resign and accepted a plea of nolo contendere (“no contest”) to a felony to get a fine of $10,000 and three years of probation. As journalist Richard Cohen noted, “This was a thoroughly corrupt man. He shook down everybody. He got a nickel a pack from the cigarette machines…He was shameless. Even to the point where he kept taking money as the vice-president” (Holden & Messitte, 7).

Aftermath – Trading on His Name and Anti-Semitism

Agnew’s record after office mainly consisted of business consulting, trading off whatever people thought his name could get them in influence. He also palled around with his friend Frank Sinatra and “spent his money on mistresses, sports cars, expensive gifts, jewelry and traveled with 21 secret service agents costing the taxpayer $5,000 a month” (Howe). Agnew also had a turn to literature, writing a novel titled “The Canfield Decision” in 1976, a story, funny enough, about a duplicitous vice president. His history after office really doesn’t paint him in any more of a favorable light than before. Agnew came to blame Jews for his downfall and in 1980 offered his services to Prince Fah’d of Saudi Arabia as a propagandist against American Jews, wanting $200,000 a year for three years for this purpose. His push to him was, “Since 1974, the Zionists have orchestrated a well-organized attack on me to use lawsuits to bleed me of my resources to continue my effort to inform the American people of their control of the media and other influential sectors of American society…I’ve taken every opportunity to speak out against the catastrophic US policies regarding Israel. This has spurred my Zionist enemies on to greater efforts. I need desperately your financial support so that I can continue to fight” (Krausz). Agnew had apparently not always been an anti-Semite. According to his former speechwriter William Safire (1976), “…his anti-Semitic cracks first began when the Jewish businessmen he had known in Baltimore County sought immunity by turning state’s evidence against him. He became embittered at a handful of Jews, which might well have turned him against Jews in general”.

Agnew also regretted the plea of “nolo contendere” and claimed his innocence in his memoirs. He also claimed without evidence that he bought a gun after learning that Nixon planned to have the CIA arrange his suicide. In 1981, Agnew was ordered to pay restitution for the bribes he received while governor, and in 1989 had the nerve to seek a tax deduction from the state of California, where he was living, on the $142,500 he had been ordered to pay (Ellis). Although Agnew and Nixon had not talked since his resignation, he attended his funeral. He stated, “I decided after 20 years of resentment to put it all aside” (Schmich). Agnew died on September 19, 1996, of undiagnosed acute leukemia.

Although I cannot judge Spiro T. Agnew anything but negatively overall, had some positives in his career. He proved an able (albeit a bribe-taking) governor. His career was downright improbable, and he is a first and only for some groups, perhaps to their consternation should they be reading this. Agnew is the only person of Greek extraction and is the only Marylander to serve as vice president (no Marylander has been president). Honestly, although he was responsible for his own behavior and conduct in the taking of bribes, I get the feeling that this was how he understood the game to be played in a corrupt environment, and did so, not believing that consequences would fall on him for doing something seemingly commonplace. Hence, Agnew’s blaming of Jewish businessmen for turning to the Feds for arrangements that were seen by him and others as business as usual.


Ellis, V. (1989, April 4). $24,197 California Refund Sought: Agnew Wants Tax Break on Bribes He Returned. Los Angeles Times.

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Holden, C.J. & Messitte, Z. (2006). Spiro Agnew and the Golden Age of Corruption in Maryland Politics: An Interview with Ben Bradlee and Richard Cohen of the Washington Post. The Occasional Papers of The Center for the Study of Democracy, 2(1).

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Howe, C. (2020, December 8). Exclusive: How Nixon’s VP Spiro Agnew ran America’s most brazen political scandal of bribery and extortion out of the White House – but it went unnoticed in the shadow of Watergate, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow reveals in new book. The Daily Mail.

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Krausz, Y. (2019, February 27). A High-Placed Anti-Semite and Saudi Money – What does the Spiro Agnew story mean? Ami Magazine.

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Remnick, D. (2006, July 2). Nattering Nabobs. The New Yorker.

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Safire, W. (1976, May 24). Spiro Agnew and the Jews. The New York Times.

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Schmich, M. (1996, September 19). Making Up is Hard to do — Especially At a Funeral. Chicago Tribune.

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Spiro Theodore Agnew: Television News Coverage. American Rhetoric.

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RINOs from American History #5: Richard J. Welch

In the 1920s, Republicans dominated in the state of California, including, unthinkable now I know, San Francisco. The 5th district, based in portions of San Francisco and South San Francisco, had elected for almost ten years John I. Nolan, a popular Republican who would break with his party often and was strongly pro-organized labor. However, he died on November 18, 1922, at the premature age of 48 and his widow succeeded him as a placeholder for the next term. Then the district elected Lawrence J. Flaherty, who died in office at the premature age of 47. Elected in his place in 1926 was Richard J. Welch (1869-1949), a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who would last.

From the beginning, Welch, who had a considerable background both in state Republican politics and as an ironworker and machinist, voted independently of the Republican Party line and in his first two full terms was a moderate. However, with the onset of the Great Depression, he moved towards favoring more and more government intervention. In 1933, Welch voted for the major 100 Days Legislation save for the Economy Act, which cut spending and benefits as a means to fund the New Deal and had attracted a lot of conservative support. He would prove one of the most consistent supporters of the New Deal on the Republican side, resulting in him being thought of as a “New Deal Republican”. Welch voted for the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, invalidating gold clauses in contracts after voting for a Republican substitute only prohibiting gold clauses in future contracts, confiscating privately held gold, the Securities and Exchange Act, Social Security, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. However, Welch refused to back certain power-grabs by Roosevelt, such as the 1938 reorganization bill, which further centralized authority in the president and met with a stunning defeat in the House. He also was a consistent non-interventionist up until World War II, voting against the repeal of the arms embargo in 1939, against the peacetime draft in 1940, and against Lend-Lease. Welch, like Nolan before him, proved a consistent friend to organized labor and would not back GOP efforts at limiting the gains of organized labor from the Wagner Act and from decisions made by the National Labor Relations Board. He voted against an investigation of the National Labor Relations Board in 1939, against the Vinson Anti-Strike Bill in 1941, and against the Smith-Connally Labor Disputes Act in 1943. Unlike Nolan, who had voted against the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in 1922, Welch proved a consistent supporter of civil rights legislation, backing anti-lynching and anti-poll tax bills. In truth, it is safe to say that he was one of the was the most supportive Republicans of the New Deal who stayed in the party.

Welch seemed to get more liberal over time, and embraced, with perhaps some reservation, the post-war international consensus and voted for Greek-Turkish Aid and the Marshall Plan. He also had one of the lowest DW-Nominate scores for a Republican in American history at -0.174. Welch voted for the 80th Congress’ tax reduction proposals and for the Mundt-Nixon Communist Registration Bill but against the Taft-Hartley Act, staying true to his support for organized labor. During the 80th Congress, he was chairman of the Committee on Public Lands. Americans for Democratic Action gave him a 45 in 1947 and a 60 in 1948, and in the following year he didn’t vote against the ADA position once. On September 10, 1949, Welch suffered a heart attack and died in the hospital. After his death, he was succeeded by Democrat Jack Shelley, president of the California American Federation of Labor, who easily beat his Republican opponent and would later be elected mayor of San Francisco. The district has not elected another Republican since.


Congressional Supplement. Americans for Democratic Action.

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Click to access 1948.pdf

Political Notes: Fall Planting. (1949, October 3). Time.

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Report Card for 80th Congress. Americans for Democratic Action.

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Click to access 1947.pdf

How They Voted: The First 100 Days Legislation

Between March and June 1933, Congress, under the leadership of Speaker Henry T. Rainey (D-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Joe Robinson (D-Ark.) passed legislation that was enormous in its scope and revolutionary in its change in the Relief, Recovery, and Reform program and the concept of the First 100 Days has since served as a measuring stick for a presidency. Not all proposals were voted on and not all of them were necessarily “liberal”. The emergency banking legislation to stabilize banks, for instance, was embraced by most Senate conservatives, and many voted for the Economy Act. The Cullen-Harrison Act permitting the sale and taxation of 3.2% beer got some significant conservative support as well. The legislation that attracted substantial conservative opposition included the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the National Industrial Recovery Act, and legislation nullifying gold clauses in contracts. Many members of the House and Senate supported the Federal Emergency Relief Act, which provided unemployment aid to the states. I have included MC-Index scores for the 73rd Congress with these votes.

These are:


1. Economy Act

Passed 266-139: D 197-93, R 69-41, F 0-5, 3/11/33.

2. Cullen-Harrison Act

Passed 316-97: D 238-58, R 73-39, F 5-0, 3/14/33.

3. Agricultural Adjustment Act

Passed 315-98: D 272-24, R 39-73, F 4-1, 3/22/33.

4. Federal Emergency Relief Act

Passed 331-42: D 252-12, R 74-30, F 5-0, 4/21/33.

5. Tennessee Valley Authority Conference Report

Adopted 258-112: D 243-29, R 12-83, F 3-0, 5/17/33.

6. National Industrial Recovery Act

Passed 325-76: D 267-25, R 54-50, F 4-1, 5/26/33.

7. Gold Clause Invalidation Resolution

Passed 283-57: D 250-9, R 28-48, F 5-0, 5/29/33.


1. Emergency Banking Relief Act

Passed 73-7: D 51-1, R 22-5, F 0-1, 3/6/33.

2. Economy Act

Passed 62-13: D 43-4, R 19-9, 3/15/33.

3. Cullen-Harrison Act

Passed 43-30: D 31-13, R 12-17, 3/16/33.

4. Federal Emergency Relief Act

Passed 55-17: D 42-2, R 13-15, 3/30/33.

5. Agricultural Adjustment Act

Passed 64-20: D 48-4, R 15-16, F 1-0, 4/28/33.

6. Tennessee Valley Authority Act

Passed 63-20: D 48-3, R 14-17, F 1-0, 5/3/33.

7. Agricultural Adjustment Act Conference Report

Adopted 53-28: D 39-11, R 13-17, F 1-0, 5/10/33.

8. Gold Clause Invalidation Resolution

Passed 48-20: D 43-2, R 4-18, F 1-0, 6/3/33.

9. National Industrial Recovery Act

Passed 58-24: D 47-4, R 10-20, F 1-0, 6/9/33.

10. National Industrial Recovery Act Conference Report

Adopted 46-39: D 41-15, R 5-23, F 0-1, 6/13/33.

House Votes

Senate Votes

Simon Cameron: The Controversial Builder of the Pennsylvania GOP

In 1854, the Pennsylvania Republican Party was founded by David Wilmot, the representative who sponsored the Wilmot Proviso, which if enacted would have blocked slavery from any lands gained in the Mexican-American War. However, he does not turn out to be the foremost figure of the early Republican Party in Pennsylvania, only serving two years in the Senate, nor the man who grows it most. This would be Simon Cameron (1799-1889), a figure who as you will read was a legend of political machinery.
Before I write more about Cameron, there is a story about him that highlights his reputation. When President Lincoln asked Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (R-Penn.) about Cameron’s honesty when considering him for Secretary of War, Stevens responded, “I don’t think he would steal a red hot stove”. When Lincoln related Stevens’ answer to Cameron, who demanded an apology. Stevens would respond, “I apologize. I said Cameron would not steal a red hot stove. I withdraw that statement” (Robinson, 57). To compound matters, Paul Kahan’s biography of Cameron, which tries to put him more in the context of his times, was titled, Amiable Scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Scandalous Secretary of War.


Cameron got his start in Pennsylvania politics in the 1820s in newspaper publishing. By 1824, he was running the Pennsylvania state newspaper for the Democratic-Republican Party of the time and had by that point gotten many valuable contacts in state politics. Cameron was slow to back Andrew Jackson’s candidacy but did so because he supported John C. Calhoun for vice president. When one thinks of what Cameron would become, this support is deeply ironic. Ultimately John Quincy Adams won with Calhoun as vice president, and Cameron would be one of the friendlier Jackson allies to Adams’ policies, such as higher tariffs and the funding of internal improvements. He would become, however, more supportive of Jackson in 1828 and would become a strong supporter of Congressman James Buchanan. Cameron would exercise a great deal of influence in Pennsylvania politics and President Jackson would come to rely on him for getting Pennsylvania’s vote. However, he did say of him that he was a “renegade politician” and regarded him as dishonest.

Aiding the Rise of James Buchanan

Cameron also played a significant role in getting Pennsylvania’s Democrats on board with nominating Martin Van Buren as vice president for Jackson’s reelection run. As a reward, Jackson appointed Cameron to Board of Visitors to the United States Military Academy. He would also engineer James Buchanan’s election to the Senate. Although failing the first time to get him elected, Cameron would persuade Jackson to appoint Pennsylvania’s senior senator, William Wilkins, to a diplomatic post. He then managed to secure his election to the Senate.

The Winnebago Affair: The Start of a Reputation

Cameron’s ill reputation began with his role as a commissioner for the Winnebago Indians, in which his responsibility was to settle land claims. In this role, he sought to enrich himself on land speculation and was also alleged to have defrauded them by colluding with attorneys to convince Indians to grant them power of attorney so they could get the settlement money from their claims (Robinson, 58). The derth of documentary evidence makes the whole affair both suspect and questionable as to who was telling the truth. Although Cameron was exonerated of wrongdoing in the Congressional investigation, he would for a time be known derisively as “The Great Winnebago Chief” for his alleged involvement in fraud. However, this was only a temporary setback for his long career.

First Term in the Senate

As a Democrat, Simon Cameron was a bit of a maverick as he supported a number of key planks of the Whig Party, and as a result he was able to lead a coalition of high tariff Democrats and Whigs to secure his election to the Senate, much to the consternation of Democratic Party regulars. Indeed, Cameron proved something of a pain for Polk and after he declined to consult him on federal appointments, he succeeded in forming coalitions to defeat Henry Horn as Collector of Customs for the Port of Philadelphia as well as George W. Woodward’s nomination for the Supreme Court. Polk ended up nominating Pennsylvanian Robert C. Grier, who was confirmed. President Polk said of him that he was “a managing tricky man in whom no reliance is to be placed” (Robinson, 57) On slavery, Cameron was a proponent of popular sovereignty, meaning the people of the states should get to decide on whether to be “free” or “slave” and he would grow more anti-slavery over time.

His time in the Senate was cut short when in 1848 Zachary Taylor was elected president as a Whig and with this victory the Pennsylvania state legislature went to the Whigs. Cameron had supported James Buchanan for the Democratic nomination for president, but when he lost to Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan, Cameron was accused of working behind the scenes to undermine Buchanan (Kahan, 87-89). He was unable to get enough support for another term due to the Whig composition of the legislature and was also unable to get Democratic legislators behind him…indeed none of them cast their votes for him. Although he was out of office now, this would be temporary as through his business interests he maintained political contacts. Cameron and Buchanan were no longer allies and he managed to undermine him still in a number of ways. Cameron, for instance, sent Jefferson Davis an article that reported that Buchanan had signed an anti-slavery petition thirty years before so as to undermine Southern support for him for the 1852 election. Buchanan had his allies in the press retaliate against Cameron by writing scathing articles. The political battling between them continued into the 1851 gubernatorial election, which although produced the victory of Democrat William Bigler, infighting may have thrown the state Senate to the Whigs. Although as part of the Pennsylvania delegation to the Democratic National Convention he was pledged to support Buchanan, Cameron worked behind the scenes to push for Lewis Cass. Ultimately, this battling between Buchanan and Cass resulted in the elevation of New Hampshire Senator Franklin Pierce, who would win the election.

The 1855 and 1857 Elections

After the Kansas-Nebraska Act was signed into law in 1854, Cameron left the Democratic Party and the following year he sought to return to the Senate, and in the process “loaned” money to Democratic powerbrokers, but his persuasive efforts failed. He then became affiliated with the American Party and hinted support for restrictive policies on immigration to win their favor. As the American Party fell apart, he became affiliated with the Republican Party and in 1856 he was briefly a contender for being picked as vice president by John C. Fremont. However, he opted to pick former Whig Senator William Dayton of New Jersey, and the ticket went down to defeat and the state of Pennsylvania voted for Buchanan. Cameron again ran for the Senate in 1857, this time successfully as a Republican. This election was challenged in the Senate, with claims of the state Senate failing to meet legal requirements surrounding the election and that “corrupt and unlawful means” had been used to secure votes (U.S. Senate). However, a Senate investigation only found a procedural misstep that was minor, and Cameron got to keep his seat.

Secretary of War

As a senator for the young Republican Party, Cameron was, just as he had been as a Democrat, a powerbroker and became a leading figure in the new party. Although he initially ran for the Republican nomination for president, it became clear during the Republican National Convention that he wouldn’t be nominated. The leading contender for the nomination was Senator William Seward of New York. However, Abraham Lincoln’s campaign made an arrangement with Cameron for him to transfer his delegates to Lincoln in exchange for a position in the new administration. This helped Lincoln secure enough delegates to pull off an upset and defeat Seward.

After Lincoln’s election, Cameron met with him and Lincoln wrote him a letter offering him either the Treasury or the War Department as a cabinet office. However, not every Republican in Pennsylvania wanted Cameron to have a post in the Lincoln cabinet. Horace White, a publisher of the Chicago Press & Tribune, wrote to Senator Lyman Trumbull (R-Ill.) that, ‘If I am incorrect in supposing that Mr. C. defrauded the Winebago half-breeds of $66,000 about the year 1832, I am not mistaken in believing that his general reputation is shockingly bad….For my part I wish that Albany and Harrisburgh were in the bottom of the sea” (Mr. Lincoln and Friends). After Cameron’s rivals complained, he rescinded the offer. However, Cameron had a trick up his sleeve, and he showed the Lincoln letter to some friends of his. Lincoln ultimately granted him the post of Secretary of War.

As Secretary of War, Cameron proved how adept he was…at politicking. He proved himself quite competent at political organization but incompetent at properly procuring and distributing resources. Cameron’s agents had disregarded competitive bidding completely and bought only from suppliers that were favored. Inefficiency and fraud contributed to the purchase of “huge quantities of rotten blankets, tainted pork, knapsacks that became unglued in the rain, uniforms that fell apart, discarded Austrian muskets, and hundreds of diseased and dying horses – all at exorbitant prices” (Oates). Some of the problems existing can be attributed to the United States facing the unprecedented problem of secession and a war that could literally be brother vs. brother, and 1861 was far from an easy start for the Union side. However, there were some things that were egregious, such as “selling condemned Hall carbines for a nominal sum, bought them back at $15 apiece, sold them at $3.50 apiece, and bought them back again at $22 apiece” (Oates). Although Cameron had not enriched himself with contract graft, numerous underlings had. He also engaged in a morally iffy arrangement with the Northern Central Railroad to transport troops and supplies, a company in which Cameron had invested in and gained 40% in profits from this move. However, using the Northern Central Railroad also shaved costs by a third (Robinson, 60). Cameron also attracted trouble by getting ahead of Lincoln on race, as he released a report from the War Department that called for granting freedom to any slave who crosses into Union lines and enlisting black soldiers. The latter in particular was a stance that President Lincoln was publicly opposed to at the time, and Cameron resigned in January 1862. He recounted on his influence in Lincoln’s selection of his successor, “When I went out of the Cabinet Lincoln asked me whom I wanted for my successor. I told him I wanted Stanton. Welles said he would go and ask Stanton whether he will take it. I started to go down and on the way I met Chase, and told him I was just going down to see Stanton – and told him what I was going for. No said he don’t go to Stanton’s office. Come with me to my office and send for Stanton to come there and we will talk it over together, and I did so” (Mr. Lincoln and Friends). Interestingly enough, Lincoln didn’t know that Edwin Stanton had assisted writing the anti-slavery part of the report. However, Stanton would be a competent administrator as Secretary of War.

On April 30, 1862, Congress censured Cameron for his poor administration of the War Department. Lincoln took an approach in response that was one that seems uncommon today: he responded that he and all other department chiefs were “equally responsible with him for whatever error, wrong, or fault was committed in the premises” (Oates). He took this stance as he regarded the nation as having been in danger and thus everyone had a difficult job in marshalling the resources needed for the war. Despite performance issues, reviewer Michael Robinson (2022) notes that, “one must admit that by the start of 1862 the War Department and “the army were better organized and provisioned than a year before (157)” (61) Cameron had been confirmed as Minister to Russia, and in 1863 resigned the post and attempted again to run for the Senate but lost narrowly to Democrat Charles Buckalew. Cameron was important in campaigning for Lincoln in 1864 and the state’s voters narrowly voted to reelect him. Cameron was also building up his political machine in the state, and did so despite having to contend with rivals, such as Governor Andrew Curtin (who would later serve in Congress as a Democrat in the 1880s) and Rep. William D. Kelley, who dismissed a pitch by a Cameron ally to get the censure reversed by saying, “To stir foul matter would be to produce a stench” (Mr. Lincoln and Friends).

In 1867, he succeeded in returning to the Senate, being elected over Governor Curtin. There, he aligned himself with the Radical Republicans on Reconstruction and voted to convict President Andrew Johnson. He proceeded to build up the Republican machine in Pennsylvania during this time into a robust political organization. In 1874, Cameron was one of the numerous Republican senators to bend to pressure to support the proposed Inflation Act, inflating the currency in the wake of the Panic of 1873 as a stimulus. Currency inflation was a policy supported by many Philadelphia businessmen to stimulate the economy and ultimately, President Grant vetoed the bill on the advice of Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton Fish. Cartoonist Thomas Nast, who opposed inflating the currency and regarded it as a betrayal of a Republican Party campaign promise, included Cameron among the Republican senators he made fun of on supporting inflation, which he and other economic conservatives regarded as “financial heresy”. The below cartoon he drew in response to heated criticism he received after ripping on them through his cartoons.

Depicted are Senators John A. Logan (R-Ill.), Oliver Morton (R-Ind.), Cameron, and Matthew Carpenter (R-Wis.), with Nast asking “pardon”.

By 1876, Cameron was 77 years old and wanted to officially pass the torch. After ensuring that his son, Secretary of War J. Donald Cameron, would succeed him, he officially retired. Ironically, Cameron’s son would prove to be a bit of the inverse of his father: he had been a highly competent Secretary of War but was not as skilled at the glad-handing, back-slapping politics of his father. Although the elder Cameron was officially retired, he still acted behind the scenes. For instance, he used his influence to attempt to get former President Grant nominated again in 1880. Simon Cameron died on June 26, 1889 at the age of 90, leaving behind a tremendous political machine. The younger Cameron would eventually be eclipsed by Matthew Quay, whose efforts were vital to Benjamin Harrison’s victory in 1888 and inadvertently got Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency. The machine Cameron built would not face a serious challenge until the Great Depression, in which Philadelphia became more inclined to elect Democrats to Congress. However, Republicans would control the city’s political machinery until the election of Democrat Joseph S. Clark as mayor in 1951.


Kahan, P. (2016). Amiable scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s scandalous Secretary of War. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Oates, S.B. (2021, February/March). Lincoln’s Corrupt War Department. American Heritage, 66(2).

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Simon Cameron. Tulane University.

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The Cabinet: Simon Cameron (1799-1889). Mr. Lincoln and Friends.

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The Election Case of Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania (1857). U.S. Senate.

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Robinson, M.D. (2022). “Amiable Scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Scandalous Secretary of War”, by Paul Kahan”, The Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 43(1).

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How They Voted: The Equal Rights Amendment

Before the question of abortion came to the forefront of American political thinking, the Equal Rights Amendment was a measure often supported by Republicans, including conservative ones as this vote will demonstrate. The amendment, written by suffragist Alice Paul, had first been introduced in the Senate one hundred years ago by Majority Whip Charles Curtis (R-Kan.) and Rep. Daniel Anthony Jr. (R-Kan.) (a nephew of women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony), both were regarded as conservatives in their day and the former would be vice president from 1929 to 1933. In 1946, the House version of the ERA was sponsored by none other than Clare Hoffman of Michigan, who I have previously covered and was such a truculent rightist during World War II that FDR wanted him prosecuted for sedition.

Curiously, one of the measure’s opponents was Democrat Emanuel Celler of New York, normally a champion of liberal causes, who I have also covered for his incredible career. He opposed because he didn’t want special labor protection laws for women rendered unconstitutional. Although at one time Celler’s stance was mainstream among liberal Democrats, including Eleanor Roosevelt, few liberal Democrats by 1970 were sticking to this rationale for opposition and he faced an embarrassing defeat as House Judiciary Committee chairman when Martha Griffiths’ (D-Mich.) petition to move the bill out of his committee succeeded. The amendment would be voted on by both chambers in the 92nd Congress and voted for overwhelmingly. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) argued that the ERA should be adopted to counter extensive sex discrimination, while Sam Ervin (D-N.C.) argued that the ERA would give way to developments like co-ed bathrooms and dorms, legalization of homosexuality, and women being drafted. He feared that all distinctions between men and women would be obliterated. Some of Ervin’s predictions came to pass even without the ERA’s adoption, including co-ed bathrooms and dorms and military service for women (U.S. Senate). Today, the ERA is divisive because of the issue of abortion, and the trans issue may now contribute as well to opposition. These are the votes:

House Passage, 354-24: D 217-12; R 137-12, 10/12/71.

Senate Passage, 84-8: D 46-2; R 37-5; I 1-0; C 0-1, 3/22/72.

Notes on the Vote:

Reps. H.R. Gross (R-Iowa) and Durward G. Hall (R-Mo.) voted for…they were among the most conservative members of the House.

Sens. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), James Eastland (D-Miss.), and Wallace F. Bennett (R-Utah), who voted against this version, had voted for the 1953 version of the Equal Rights Amendment after the Hayden Rider was added, which clarified that this amendment would not take away any privileges currently held by women, thus protecting sex-specific labor laws. Interestingly enough, all but six Senate Democrats would vote for the Hayden Rider. The yeas among Democrats included Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. Curiously, John Sparkman of Alabama, who voted for the 1972 ERA, voted against the 1953 version.

Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-Me.), the only woman in the chamber at the time, voted for. She had been a long-time supporter of the amendment.

Mississippi is the only state in which a majority of its federal legislators opposed. The closest to the state were Arizona and Utah, in which half of their federally elected officials voted against.

The states of Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia had no legislators opposed.

No Senate liberals voted against.

Both John Birch Society members in Congress, Republicans John Rousselot and John G. Schmitz of California, were among the opposition.

Although the dissenters were mostly conservative, what is remarkable is that a number of prominent conservatives were on board with this, including Senators Carl Curtis (R-Neb.), Roman Hruska (R-Neb.), Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), and John Tower (R-Tex.).

Rep. Leonor K. Sullivan (D-Mo.) was the only woman in Congress to vote against the ERA.

Judiciary Chairman Emanuel Celler (D-N.Y.) and William McCulloch (R-Ohio) were primarily known for their collaboration on civil rights legislation of the 1960s, but this time they collaborated in opposition to the ERA.

In addition to chairing the Watergate Committee, Sen. Sam Ervin (D-N.C.) led the Senate opposition to the ERA.


S.J. Res. 49. Joint Resolution proposing amendment to the Constitution relative to equal rights for men and women. Hayden amend. providing that nothing in the amendment shall be construed as impairing any rights or benefits given by law to women. Govtrack.

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S.J. Res. 49. Passage. Govtrack.

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The Senate Passes the Equal Rights Amendment. U.S. Senate.

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The Pan-Electric Scandal: A Forgotten Controversy on the Patenting of the Telephone

In 1884, Grover Cleveland was elected president. He was the first Democrat since 1856 to win a presidential election, and part of his platform was honesty and integrity in government, indeed his slogan was “A Public Office Is a Public Trust” (Williams). His ethical stands indeed motivated a number of Republicans known colloquially as “mugwumps”, to vote for him or at least refuse to back Republican nominee James G. Blaine. As part of his administration, Cleveland brought some former Confederates to the cabinet, and one of them was his attorney general, former Senator Augustus H. Garland of Arkansas. He was not aware that by picking him, he opened the door to his administration possibly being caught up in a scandal; in 1883, Garland had accepted $500,000 of nearly worthless shares in the Pan-Electric Company. This was a Tennessee-based company that formed regional telephone companies and used technology developed by J. Harris Rogers, chief electrician of the Washington Capitol Building. This company was a competitor to Bell Telephone, which filed suit against the company claiming patent infringement given the many, many similarities of Rogers’ designs to Bell products. Senator Isham G. Harris of Tennesse was a friend of Rogers’ father, and he had helped them form the Pan-Electric Company in exchange for having authority to add partners to the venture (Hudspeth). A number of Tennessee politicians got in on this company along with Harris, including Congressmen J.D.C. Atkins and Casey Young. The company was nominally headed by Joseph E. Johnston, a former Confederate general and one-time Congressman from Virginia, with an initial estimated value of $5 million based on what they directors thought Rogers’ patents were worth (Hudspeth). Johnston himself would get a position in the Cleveland Administration as U.S. railroad commissioner.

Given that the Cleveland Administration on its face being seen as friendly to their interests, Pan-Electric got U.S. District Attorney for Tennessee Henry W. McCorry in 1885 to request that Garland file suit to invalidate the Bell Telephone Company patent, claiming that Interior Department employees were unduly favorable to Alexander Graham Bell. Indeed, for the Pan-Electric Company stock to have had any significant value the Bell patent would have had to be invalidated (Williams). Had the invalidation suit been successful, Garland would have made millions. He refused to do so and went on a hunting trip, which his critics saw as convenient given what would happen next: acting Solicitor General John Goode, another Southern politician formerly of the Confederacy, filed the suit in the meantime. Critics leapt on this and discovered that Garland owned a tenth of the shares distributed by the company (Williams). Indeed, Garland himself had been on the original board of directors for the company and had been an attorney for them. Once President Cleveland got word, he reprimanded Goode for not going through the proper channel, which was Interior Secretary Lucius Q.C. Lamar. Goode’s decision was revoked and submitted for review by Lamar. He had no ties to the company but when he approved the lawsuit, the press went after Garland for his shares and a Congressional investigation was launched.

Cartoon Lampooning Augustus Garland

The Evidence to Invalidate?

The grounds that Pan-Electric and its friends used to try and invalidate the Bell patent were that it was overly generic and had been obtained fraudulently (Hudspeth, 40). There was also the allegation that people in the Interior Department of the previous administration had been biased to Bell. On February 14, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell had filed for a patent while another inventor, Elisha Gray, had filed a caveat that he would file a patent for the same invention within three months, thus suspending Bell’s patent, but Bell was awarded the patent. Legal proceedings followed and included in the evidence against Bell was an April 8, 1886 affidavit from Zenas F. Wilber, a patent examiner in the U.S. Patent Office. He attested to being an alcoholic who owed money to Bell’s patent attorney Marcellus Bailey, a fellow Union veteran. Wilber also held that he had too hastily ended the suspension of Bell’s patent based on him having paid a fee first, thus denying Gray an opportunity to challenge Bell’s patent. He also alleged that he was afterwards paid $100 to show Bell Gray’s caveat (The Washington Post). Thus, the allegation was that Bell stole Gray’s invention. These details were not in previous affidavits filed by him, and he claimed that a previous affidavit that he signed that contradicted this one was done at the behest of the Bell Company. Wilber held that he was duped into signing it while drunk and depressed before Bell attorney Thomas W. Swan (Evenson, 168). However, the April 8, 1886 affidavit was at the behest of the Pan-Electric Company. Additionally, Swan served as a witness (Evenson, 171). Wilber’s affidavits thus fell apart under scrutiny.


Puck Cartoon showing Senator Harris, Attorney General Garland, and Johnston all caught up in the scandal.

Garland testified before Congress on April 19, 1886, denying that he had used his influence to benefit the Pan-Electric Company. The House, which was majority Democratic at the time, issued a majority report that exonerated Garland, Lamar, and others involved in the affair while the Republican minority report charged that Garland and Goode had deliberately engaged in a scheme to enrich themselves (Williams). Goode had been an appointment as acting Solicitor General, however, and the Republican Senate rejected his nomination. In November 1886, Judge Howell Edmunds Jackson, a recent Cleveland nominee, dismissed the suit against Bell, ending the scandal. Garland retained President Cleveland’s trust and he kept him on as Attorney General until the end of his term, and Jackson would be confirmed to the Supreme Court in 1893.


Augustus Hill Garland (1832-1899). Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

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Garland, Augustus Hill

Evenson, A.E. (2000). The telephone patent conspiracy of 1876: the Elisha Gray – Alexander Bell controversy. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Hudspeth, H.G. (2020, January 10). “One Percent Inspiration and 99 Percent Tracing Paper”: The Pan-Electric Scandal and the Making of a Circuit Court Judge, April-November 1886. Mississippi Valley State University, 39-54.

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Mr. Wilber “Confesses”. (1886, May 22). The Washington Post, p. 1

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Williams, R.H. (2021, February/March). Cleveland’s Attorney General Tries to Get Rich Quick. American Heritage, 66 (2).

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Francis Newlands: A Force of Political Change in Nevada

From 1864 to 1888, the Democrats only won the state of Nevada once, in the close contest between James A. Garfield and Winfield Scott Hancock. With the exception of the one-termer James G. Fair, all their senators had been Republicans, with the most important being John P. Jones and William M. Stewart. However, in 1892 the new Populist Party won a resounding victory in the state, as the state’s interests were naturally with silver given the many silver mines in the state. The winner of the election for Nevada’s sole House district that year was former Republican Francis Newlands (1846-1917) of the newly created Silver Party, who trounced former Republican Congressman William Woodburn about as badly as James Weaver trounced Benjamin Harrison in the state.

Newlands was a lawyer by profession, having earned a law degree at Columbian College (now George Washington University) and moved to San Francisco, California, in 1870. There, he quickly became a success and in 1874 married Clara Sharon, the daughter of mining magnate (and future senator) William Sharon. Newlands helped Sharon run his business enterprises, including the Bank of California and the Palace Hotel. After Clara died after giving birth to their fourth child in 1882, Newlands inherited the Sharon estate. However, he had to move himself and his family to Reno, Nevada after Sharon’s 1885 death to protect it from a divorce lawsuit from Sharon’s mentally unstable former mistress, Sarah Althea Hill, who claimed that they had been married in secret. A story about that tempestuous woman will be one for a different post.

Newlands proved a popular representative and as a member of the Nevada-centric Silver Party would be a tireless advocate for bimetallism and against the adoption of the gold standard. He would support William Jennings Bryan for president in 1896 and was joined in the Silver Party by Senators John P. Jones and William M. Stewart, who had left the Republican Party over its full embrace of the gold standard. Newlands would be reelected time and again. Although he was often opposed to the McKinley Administration, in 1898 he sponsored the Newlands Resolution, which annexed Hawaii. Republicans overwhelmingly supported annexation and it was signed into law by President McKinley. Newlands was also a major supporter of funding irrigation projects, and succeeded in getting his bill, the Newlands Reclamation Act, which established the Bureau of Reclamation, signed into law. Although Senators Jones and Stewart returned to the Republican Party after 1900, Newlands changed affiliation to Democrat. In 1902, Senator John P. Jones let it be known that he was not going to be running for another term after thirty years of service. Newlands took the opportunity to run for the seat and won.

As a senator, Newlands was mostly progressive in his record. He asserted in 1905 that the United States had neglected domestic reform in favor of imperialism, stating, “During the past eight years of continuous international acquisition, we have found the nation drifting into aggression, in strong contrast with the traditions of the Republic and the peaceful intentions of our people at the commencement of this new era. During these eight years, we have almost neglected domestic legislation. Whilst we have been engaged in conquering other countries, monopoly has conquered our own; and, under the leadership of a President whose policy upon all matters of domestic reform is meeting with such general approval, we are endeavoring to recover for our own people the ground which we have lost whilst our eyes have been strained towards the horizon of imperial grandeur” (Newlands, 1905, 887-888). Newlands was also a strong supporter of conservation and backed President Roosevelt in his setting aside lands for national parks. In 1913, he sponsored the Newlands Labor Act, which created the Board of Mediation and Conciliation to address railroad strikes.

Investigating the Titanic

News of the sinking of the Titanic had reached the United States before the surviving passengers had reached the shores of the United States, and the Senate prepared for their arrival. As soon as the surviving passengers of the Titanic had arrived on the Carpathia in New York City on April 18th, 1912, they were met by Newlands, Senator William A. Smith (R-Mich.), and other officials to serve White Star Line chairman J. Bruce Ismay and surviving officers and crew subpoenas to testify at a Senate inquiry at the Waldorf-Astoria. Ismay testified the following morning. Newlands was part of the committee, headed by Senator Smith, investigating the Titanic sinking. The inquiry of this committee produced reforms in international maritime safety, including the creation of the International Ice Patrol.

Newlands and Racism

Francis Newlands was quite racist, even in his day. He had been born in antebellum Natchez, Mississippi in 1846, and despite being raised in Illinois and Washington D.C., the politics of the region of his birth remained in him. This was even present in one of his achievements, the development of the Chevy Chase neighborhood. Starting in the late 1880s he and a group of investors purchased tracts of farmland with the intention of developing it into a neighborhood. While there wasn’t technically a racial prohibition attached there was a minimum cost for people to build a home in the neighborhood which made it unlikely that blacks would be able to buy real estate there, and they didn’t. Blacks, Jews, and immigrants were not welcome to go to the neighborhood’s streetcar line or its amusement park (Flanagan). He also advocated the repeal of the 15th Amendment and supported a “whites only” immigration policy. Ironically, it was Nevada Senator William M. Stewart, who founded Chevy Chase with Newlands, who drafted the 15th Amendment.

On a “whites only” policy, Newlands stated, “Our country, by law to take effect upon the expiration of existing treaties, should prevent the immigration of all peoples other than those of the white race, except under restricted conditions relating to international commerce, travel, and education” (Newlands, 1909, 51). If he had at any time in his past as a Republican held favorable views to blacks, they seem to have been a distant memory. In his article, “A Western View of the Race Question”, he writes “As to the black race we have already drifted into a condition which seriously suggests the limitation of the political rights heretofore, perhaps mistakenly, granted them, the inauguration of a humane national policy which, by co-operative action by the nation and the southern states, shall recognize that blacks are a race of children, requiring guidance, industrial training, and the development of self-control, and other measures designed to reduce the danger of that race complication, formerly sectional, but now rapidly becoming national” (Newlands, 1909, 49). He also was against the acquisition of San Domingo because he feared that next would come Haiti. Newlands stated regarding acquiring Haiti that it would mean “…the addition of over a million of blacks to our population. The race problem now before us is, surely, sufficiently difficult” (Newlands, 1905, 890). Newlands believed that there was no way to create a racially peaceful society that was diverse without interracial relationships, which he of course was against. He stated, “History teaches us that it is impossible to make a homogenous people by the juxtaposition upon the same soil of races differing in color. Race tolerance, under such conditions, means race amalgamation, which is undesirable” (Newlands, 50).

Newlands and the Wilson Years

Francis Newlands, while a supporter of Wilson, was one of the less progressive Democrats during the Wilson Administration, and in 1916 he was the only Democrat to vote against the confirmation of Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court. That year, he continued his work for conservation by sponsoring legislation creating the National Forest Service. Newlands supported American entry into World War I by pairing in favor of the resolution declaring war on Germany. He died of a heart attack in his Washington D.C. home on December 24, 1917.


The ascendency of Newlands in Nevada represents a rise of the Democratic Party on the national level. Although the state itself elected Democratic governors quite a few times before Newlands was elected to Congress, he was the first Democrat to be reelected to the Senate from the state, and others followed in his path, particularly Key Pittman, who would serve from 1913 to 1940. Newlands was a politician who had numerous legislative accomplishments, but his record on racial issues has attracted some recent negative attention. Places named after him have been subject to calls for renaming, including Newlands Park in Reno and a fountain in the Chevy Chase neighborhood given his advocacy for the repeal of the 15th Amendment and his support for “whites only” immigration policy. I think we ought to base whether names, memorials, or monuments should be kept with consideration as to what they are meant to celebrate and not assume that they are meant to celebrate the entirety of the person. Otherwise, every historic figure is potentially up for removal since as humans even the greatest among us are not free of faults.


Flanagan, N. (2017, November 2). The Battle of Fort Reno. Washington City Paper.

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Newlands, F.G. (1909, July-December). A Western View of the Race Question. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 34 (2), pp. 49-51.

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Newlands, F.G. (1905, June). The San Domingo Question. The North American Review, 180 (583), pp. 885-898.

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Senate Committee on Commerce, Subcommittee on the “Titanic” Disaster. U.S. Senate.

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Senator Newlands Dies Suddenly of Heart Attack. (1917, December 25). The San Francisco Examiner.

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William Pitt Fessenden: Dutiful Patriot

In the political history surrounding the War of the Rebellion, the focus is often on Radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Ben Wade of Ohio, the leading promoters of the rights of freedmen who were also punitive in attitude to the South. A figure I’d like to highlight today, however, is one who was not so public and loud but no less important in William Pitt Fessenden (1806-1869).

Fessenden came from the Fessenden political family, and his brothers Samuel and Thomas served in Congress. His father, Samuel, was an abolitionist and such beliefs passed on to his children. He was first elected to Congress in 1840 as a Whig, the year that the shortest-lasting president William Henry Harrison was elected. During his one term in the House, Fessenden pushed to end the “gag rule” on debating the continued existence of slavery and did not himself last long in the House, as he came to have such a strong distaste for Washington that in 1843, he vowed never to return. He did in the meantime build up his political profile in the state as the leading Whig opponent of slavery from Maine. However, the abolitionist Fessenden was compelled by a sense of duty to return to Washington as the debate over slavery intensified in 1854, being elected to the Senate as a member of the Opposition. He would become one of the fathers of the state Republican Party and in Congress would speak vigorously against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the law that had resulted in the end of the Whig Party and the beginning of the Republican Party. In 1857, Fessenden suffered two terrible misfortunes: the death of his wife and contracting malaria, which compromised his health for the rest of his life. Despite being one of the staunchest opponents of the Slave Power, he nonetheless was eager to preserve the Union and attended the last-ditch and unsuccessful Peace Conference of 1861 to avert the eight remaining slave states from seceding. Throughout Fessenden’s Senate career, he was independent-minded. For instance, he voted to strike the Legal Tender Clause from the Legal Tender Act but voted for the bill itself. The Legal Tender Act authorized $430 million in “greenbacks” unbacked by gold or silver as an emergency war measure. Fessenden also was not always up for voting favorably regarding railroads. He could best be thought of as a moderate conservative in his voting. Fessenden’s greatest contribution in the Senate was as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, in which he took the lead on measures to fund the war effort and through his diligence and hard work was able to win unanimous approval on one revenue measure.

In 1864, President Lincoln nominated Fessenden to be the next Secretary of the Treasury without informing him ahead of time, and the Senate confirmed him unanimously. He was reluctant to succeed Salmon P. Chase due to his poor health, and Lincoln pressured him hard to take the post, telling him, “Fessenden, the Lord has not deserted me thus far, and He is not going to now—you must accept!” (Mr. Lincoln’s White House) Ultimately, however, duty called him to do so just as it had for him to return to Washington in 1854 and he resigned from the Senate to be Secretary of the Treasury. In this position, Fessenden focused on funding the war effort while keeping other expenditures down. However, he only stayed until the next year and then he was returned to the Senate. There, Fessenden would resume his chairmanship of the Finance Committee and retain his independent-minded voting; in 1868 he voted to sustain President Johnson’s veto of a bill increasing tariffs on copper and voted with conservatives in support of the Public Credit Bill in 1869, which would require payment of war bonds back in gold as bondholders expected, which was opposed by lame duck President Johnson who pocket vetoed it. President Grant would sign the measure.

Fessenden, Reconstruction, and the Johnson Impeachment

Fessenden was a strong supporter of Congressional Reconstruction, being chair of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, and he strongly disliked and disagreed with President Johnson. He also voted for both the 14th and 15th Amendments. However, when the subject of impeachment came up for violating the Tenure of Office Act, Fessenden was the first of the seven Senate Republicans to vote against it. Two motives for this were not wanting President Pro Tem Ben Wade of Ohio, who was next in line for the presidency, to ascend to the office. Wade was a forceful and divisive figure as well as a supporter of currency inflation and high tariffs, all of which bothered Fessenden as well as a number of powerful businessmen in New England. Johnson survived conviction by one vote. As was written in a contemporary newspaper, “Andrew Johnson is innocent because Ben Wade is guilty of being his successor” (Trefousse, 309). Although deeply unpopular among his Republican colleagues for this vote, he nonetheless became chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Although none of the seven senators were reelected, he ultimately neither faced political consequences for his vote nor was able to make a mark in his position as his bout of malaria had taken its toll and he succumbed to his poor health on September 8, 1869, only a few months after the passing of his father.

Fessenden was overall a constructive legislator whose efforts were vital in saving the Union and was bound by a sense of duty to his country even when his health was compromised. He was one of America’s great patriots and deserves more than a modicum of recognition.


Cabinet and Vice Presidents: William Pitt Fessenden (1806-1869). Mr. Lincoln’s White House.

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Trefousse, H.L. (2000). “Wade, Benjamin Franklin”. American National Biography Online.

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William P. Fessenden: A Featured Biography. U.S. Senate.

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Great Conservatives from American History #7: George H. White

On January 29, 1901, Republican Representative George Henry White (1852-1918) of North Carolina, the only black member of Congress at the time, delivers a speech that would come to be known as the “Phoenix Speech”, which he concluded with,

“Now, Mr. Chairman, before concluding my remarks I want to submit a brief recipe for the solution of the so-called American negro problem. He asks no special favors, but simply demands that he be given the same chance for existence, for earning a livelihood, for raising himself in the scales of manhood and womanhood that are accorded to kindred nationalities. Treat him as a man; go into his home and learn of his social conditions; learn of his cares, his troubles, and his hopes for the future; gain his confidence; open the doors of industry to him; let the word “negro,”, “colored,” and “black” be stricken from all the organizations enumerated in the federation of labor.

Help him to overcome his weaknesses, punish the crime-committing class by the courts of the land, measure the standard of the race by its best material, cease to mold prejudicial and unjust public sentiment against him, and my word for it, he will learn to support, hold up the hands of, and join in with that political party, that institution, whether secular or religious, in every community where he lives, which is destined to do the greatest good for the greatest number. Obliterate race hatred, party prejudice, and help us to achieve nobler ends, greater results, and become more satisfactory citizens to our brother in white.

This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress; but let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised, and bleeding, but God-fearing people, faithful, industrious, loyal people–rising people, full of potential force” (White).

White had declined to seek reelection in 1900, as in the year before an amendment had been adopted to the state’s constitution that served to disenfranchise most blacks. No blacks would serve in Congress from White’s departure until Oscar De Priest’s election in 1928. He would be succeeded by white Democrat Claude Kitchin, who was involved in the deadly Wilmington insurrection of 1898 and said over a week before it, “We cannot outnumber the negroes…And so we must either outcheat, outcount, or outshoot them” (Zucchino, 137). This man would later become House Majority Leader from 1915 to 1919, and Minority Leader from 1921 to 1923. In a sweep of violence and white identity politics, the Republican-Populist coalition’s power was destroyed. This was the context in which black political power in North Carolina was extinguished.


Born on December 18, 1852, whether White was born into slavery or not is disputable, but he did grow up in poverty. He attended the Freedman’s Bureau school at Rehobeth Church in North Carolina and in 1877 graduated from Howard University. After studying law under Judge William J. Clarke, he began practicing law. Although White entered politics in 1881, he was entering in a time in which black political participation was being increasingly marginalized but was able to win respect from whites and blacks alike. He had served a stint in the North Carolina House of Representatives in 1881 as well as district solicitor of the Second Judicial District from 1886 to 1890.

Given that black political power was largely restricted to the majority black 2nd district, White moved there to advance his career. In 1894, White challenged his brother-in-law, Republican Henry P. Cheatham, for the House seat. Cheatham had lost reelection in 1892 to Democrat Frederick A. Woodard after a Populist candidate had siphoned votes from him. Although White lost the primary this time, Cheatham lost the election, and the Republican primary voters opted to change tracks and pick White in 1896.

That year, with the election of President William McKinley came the elections of Republicans Daniel Lindsay Russell as governor, Senator Jeter C. Pritchard, and White. White established a largely conservative record, favoring Hawaiian annexation and supporting the gold standard, but made a few exceptions, such as opposing a bankruptcy bill that favored creditors. However, he would be best known for his efforts for civil rights and pleading with President McKinley to intervene in North Carolina over political violence, but to no avail. The coalition that had taken hold in North Carolina, the Republican-Populist fusion, was in truth bound together by an opposition to Democratic rule and they had many policy differences that couldn’t be reconciled, including Republicans wanting to have a light-handed approach to business while Populists wanted a heavy-handed approach, and Republicans supporting a gold standard while Populists wanted free silver. The coalition being vulnerable, the Democrats were able to run a white supremacy campaign that won them the state legislature, and they proceeded to amend the constitution to impose a literacy test which would be administered discriminatorily at the local level. In 1900, White introduced the first anti-lynching bill, but Congress never voted on it. He also with Edgar Crumpacker (R-Ind.) advocated for legislation penalizing Southern states for discriminatory literacy tests by reducing representation based on total illiteracy rates, but this effort failed. In addition to not running for reelection he also moved out of North Carolina, stating that “I cannot live in North Carolina and be treated as a man” (George Henry White). White moved to Washington D.C. where he became a successful banker and served as the driving force for the founding of the town of Whitesboro, New Jersey, a community where black people could thrive. He subsequently moved to Philadelphia, where he founded the first black-run bank in the city and became active in the city’s Republican politics was serving as Philadelphia’s assistant city solicitor until he died in sleep on December 28, 1918. In 2002 the town ot Tarboro, where he maintained his residence while representing North Carolina’s 2nd district, created a George White Day on January 29th, marking the anniversary of his “Phoenix Speech”.


History. GeorgeHenryWhite.com.

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Schenck, W.Z. (1994). White, George Henry. NCPedia.

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Smith, A. (2021, October 21). Senator Pritchard’s Letter. Western North Carolina Historical Association.

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October 21, 1898 – Senator Pritchard’s Letter

White, G.H. (1901, January 29). Defense of the Negro Race — Charges Answered. Congressional Record.

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Zucchino, D. (2020). Wilmington’s lie: The murderous coup of 1898 and the rise of white supremacy. Atlantic Monthly Press.