The Oddities of DW-Nominate Scoring

Back on October 23, 2019, I published “The Problems of Interest Group Ratings” and in the process I mentioned a scale called DW-Nominate which is supposed to represent polarization but also ideology. Members who score closest to 1 are “conservative” while members who score closest to -1 are “liberal”. This scale does indeed hold up quite well for contemporary scoring and most certainly for scoring during and after the New Deal. However, this scaling system has some curiosities that make it in some cases not ideal. I present the major examples I have found of when DW-Nominate seems at least a bit off.

Senator Huey P. Long

Huey Long of Louisiana is often thought of as a New Deal critic to FDR’s left, but what if I told you his DW-Nominate score was very high for a Democrat? It is in fact 0.251. There are only six Democrats in the 20th century who pulled off a higher score on this scale. These were Senators Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Rush Dew Holt of West Virginia as well as Representatives Bob Stump of Arizona, Larry McDonald of Georgia, John Rarick of Louisiana, and Dave Satterfield III of Virginia. Thurmond, Holt, and Stump would eventually switch to the GOP, with Thurmond’s and Stump’s records becoming even more conservative on the scale as Republicans. The plethora of some types of votes may push Long in a “right” direction, such as the sheer volume of votes on the Reciprocal Trade Act in 1934 (he was a protectionist, a position that was held by all conservative Republicans in that time) as well as his non-interventionist views best represented by his complete and utter opposition to US membership in the World Court in 1935. For a more balanced scale, perhaps the Reciprocal Trade Act in its final passage gets a vote along with one or maybe two key votes surrounding amendments to the act. The same goes for the World Court. Long may do well on sheer volume, but if key votes are more balanced for ideology, he still does better than you’d expect given his record, but not as one of the most right-wing Democrats in American history by the MC-Index.  

The Socialists

While the members of the Socialist Party did vote independently quite often, this translates into some bizarre outcomes and their true place on the spectrum would likely be better defined by a measurement that emphasizes key ideological issues. Meyer London of New York, for instance, scores a -0.026. This is more liberal than most Republicans, to be sure, but it is also more conservative than most Democrats. It is in fact more conservative than any Democrat currently serving. This goes even more so for Victor Berger of Wisconsin, who scores a 0.176. This is higher than most segregationist Democrats. It is also higher than the following people not commonly thought of as socialists:

Martin Dies Jr., D-Texas, chair of House Un-American Activities Committee, was considerably more conservative in his second go at Congress from 1953 to 1959 than his first, from 1931 to 1945. Focused a lot on anti-communism. – 0.003.

John E. Rankin, D-Miss., notorious bigot who had a dramatic switch from liberalism to conservatism in his career.  – 0.006.

Howard W. Smith, D-Va. – Famously obstructive chair of the House Rules Committee, used his post to block liberal and civil rights legislation. – 0.035.

Richard M. Nixon, R-Calif. – You know who he is! – 0.162.

Pat McCarran, D-Nevada – A staunch Senate anti-communist, non-interventionist, and sometimes friend sometimes foe of the New Deal. – 0.06.

Warren R. Austin, R-Vt. – Senator who voted against most of the New Deal, including Social Security. His support for FDR’s foreign policy helps shift his score into the more moderate column, but regarding him as less conservative than Berger is…well…off. – 0.106.

I think this represents one of the problems with counting all the partisan procedural votes, as the socialists of the day could go with Republicans on those. Bear in mind, however, both Berger and London did cast some votes that were legitimately in the conservative direction, but 0.176 and -0.026 respectively seem like odd places for them, and it puts most Democrats in the historically uncomfortable position of being to the left of the members of the Socialist Party!

Jack Edwards of Alabama and Charles Mosher of Ohio

These two are some of the best examples I have seen where interest groups and DW-Nominate depart on scoring protocol, and where a major issues scoring system might be better representative. Republicans Jack Edwards of Alabama and Charles Mosher of Ohio were commonly known as being from different wings of the party…Edwards conservative and Mosher of the liberal wing. Edwards was strongly supportive of the Nixon Administration on Vietnam while Mosher was a critic, Edwards was an opponent of the Great Society while Mosher supported some of those programs and shifted further left during the Nixon years. However, both score a 0.177. This is not only right above Victor Berger of Wisconsin and below Huey Long of Louisiana, but these two are scored exceedingly differently by ACU (American Conservative Union), ACA (Americans for Constitutional Action), ADA (Americans for Democratic Action), and my scoring system. As you can see below:

Life Score880858755234645

For ADA scores I have adjusted them to not count non-votes against the legislator. I have written in “The Problems of Interest Group Ratings” why I can’t abide this practice. For the MC-Index, it is counted by legislative session rather than year, thus the same scores two years straight. But as you can see, the conservative scoring systems agree that Edwards is in the 80s (solid conservative) while the ADA holds that he is ultra-conservative based on his low score of 8%. Save for the ACU, which starts counting in 1971, ADA, ACA, and the MC-Index all agree that by life score Mosher is a moderate, with this early career being moderately conservative while moving to moderate liberalism during the Nixon Administration. Edwards only has something of a drop-off in conservatism during the Reagan Administration, which the ADA doesn’t even register. That’s it for tonight. I’m sure there are more examples but these are the ones I can think of for now.

The Rise and Fall of the Fairness Doctrine

On February 17, 2021, an oak in conservative talk radio fell. Rush Limbaugh died of lung cancer after a year-long battle. His rising influence contributed to the Republican Revolution in 1994 and helped others, such as Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Michael Medved, and Glenn Beck move into the medium. Limbaugh’s ascendancy, however, may have not been possible had a policy change regarding radio not occurred in 1987, the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine.

Image result for Rush Limbaugh

During the late 1930s the Federal Communications Commission under chairman Larry Fly grew concerned that with radio business-approved conservative messaging would dominate the radio airwaves. In 1941, they created the Mayflower Doctrine, which required a “full and equal opportunity for the presentation to the public of all sides of public issues” and in the process prohibited editorializing. A justification cited was the limited radio frequencies. This was yet another move the Roosevelt Administration used against conservative critics of the New Deal and politicians who supported it. For instance, Senator Hugo Black of Alabama had pushed for curbs on lobbying in 1936 after an extensive campaign against the Public Utilities Holding Company Act but an effort to pass legislation to regulate lobbying ultimately failed. Although there was controversy surrounding First Amendment implications with this rule, the wartime censorship that came with World War II postponed further discussion. In 1948, however, the Mayflower Doctrine was again reviewed and it was replaced the following year with a successor doctrine, what we know as the “Fairness Doctrine” the following year. This required a balance of political perspectives by stations on the air. The goal was to permit political debate on radio while curbing owners who would want to make their stations reflect only their views. In 1969, the Supreme Court upheld the Fairness Doctrine unanimously in Red Lion v. FCC and cited the limited availability of airwaves as a justification for such a rule, whereas such a rule would be unconstitutional with newspapers as there were no such limitations. However, the court also ruled that if the Fairness Doctrine should serve to suppress speech then its constitutionality would have to be reconsidered. Justice Byron White wrote what the Supreme Court was prioritizing in the decision, that it was “the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcaster, which is paramount” (McCraw).

In the 1970s, opinions and impacts of the Fairness Doctrine were not always favorable to liberals. The doctrine, for instance, helped kill the Equal Rights Amendment as Phyllis Schlafly and her STOP ERA organization got equal time with the amendment’s advocates, who had started with tremendous momentum. Some conservatives thought it was needed as the only counterweight to the “liberal media”, while others saw it as a way to suppress conservatives. There was indeed a case in 1973 in which a conservative Christian broadcaster, Minister Carl McIntire, was denied a license renewal on Fairness Doctrine grounds.
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed Mark S. Fowler to the Federal Communications Commission, an opponent of the Fairness Doctrine. Advances in technology were undermining traditional arguments for the Fairness Doctrine on scarcity grounds and the deregulatory politics of the late 1970s and the 1980s were being applied to radio as well.

In 1987 the FCC voted 4-0 to bring it to an end, an action that President Reagan heartily agreed with. The Democratic Congress, however, did not. Passed in the House and Senate were resolutions overturning the FCC ruling, but Reagan was quick with the veto pen and Congress failed to override. What is striking about the votes is how divided Republican opinion was on the subject. On one hand, you had Dick Armey and Bob Dole siding with the Reagan Administration, but on the other you had Jesse Helms and Newt Gingrich thinking the Fairness Doctrine was worth upholding. The following year, the Rush Limbaugh Show premiered and for a time he was he single most effective voice in conservative media. The incoming Republican Congress in 1995 gave him a lot of credit for having control of the House for the first time in forty years and even unofficially regarded him as an honorary member of the Congress.

The Fairness Doctrine will not return even if the occasional liberal here or there thinks it a good idea. Radio is not, however, the medium it used to be and there’s been a growing attention on cable TV news shows, social media, and podcasts as more prominent mediums of communication, with the latter two growing among the young. With the death of Limbaugh as well as the recent departure of Michael Savage from the radio, it just isn’t the future of what will be prominent. These other mediums wouldn’t have been covered by the Fairness Doctrine in the first place. Its aim made some sense in its time, when radio was of great prominence in the transmission of opinion and there were limited spots, but no longer. Also, there are some disturbing implications about having a Fairness Doctrine return…would the scientists who know the Earth is round have to be counter-balanced by flat-earthers? Would supporters of vaccinations have to be counter-balanced by anti-vaxxers? Under the Fairness Doctrine, such groups may very well win court cases about getting equal representation.


McCraw, S.K. (2009). Right to Respond and Right of Reply. The First Amendment Encyclopedia.

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Perry, A. (2017). Fairness Doctrine. The First Amendment Encyclopedia.

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Pickard, V. (2018). The Strange Life and Death of the Fairness Doctrine: Tracing the Decline of Positive Freedoms in American Policy Discourse. International Journal of Communication, 12 3434-3453.

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The Mayflower Doctrine Scuttled. The Yale Law Journal, 59 759-769.

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George Frisbie Hoar: An Honorable Senator

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On March 11, 1874, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts lay on his deathbed and he supposedly instructed one of his last visitors thrice, “You must take care of the civil rights bill – my bill, the civil rights bill – don’t let it fail!” (U.S. House of Representatives). This man was his protégé, Congressman George Frisbie Hoar (1826-1904) of Massachusetts, and he would valiantly try to continue Sumner’s legacy and succeed in getting the Civil Rights Act of 1875 passed albeit in a weak form.

Hoar was a grandson of Founding Father Roger Sherman, and saw it as his imperative to stick with the Constitution as Sherman and other founders intended. This included a belief that slavery was meant to be eventually abolished and in the early 1850s he joined the Free Soil Party and he subsequently joined the Republican Party. Elected to Congress in 1868, Hoar was a Radical Republican, strongly supporting Reconstruction efforts. He, like Sumner, maintained a lifelong commitment to opposing racial discrimination. On economics, Hoar was decidedly conservative, opposing inflationary policies such as increasing the money supply, maintaining the use of greenbacks unbacked by gold after the war, and free coinage of silver. Hoar stated on the matter in 1893 that “A sound currency is to the affairs of this life what a pure religion and a sound system of morals are to the affairs of the spiritual life” and regarded silver as an “inferior metal” (Kazin, 73). He also embraced the orthodox Republican position favorable to the protective tariff.

Hoar and Discrimination

In 1877, Hoar was appointed a member of the Electoral Commission to determine the outcome of the election, which narrowly went to Hayes. That same year he was elected to the Senate. As the 19th century progressed, the push for restricting immigration grew and grew. Pressure especially was building up for it in California and Oregon against Chinese immigrants. This resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act, which although vetoed by Rutherford B. Hayes, a compromise version would be signed by Chester A. Arthur in 1882. Hoar voted against both versions as he regarded America as a land that ought to be free of legal distinctions based on race and color. Yet, he was not the sort we would think of as favoring “open borders” either; in 1897 he voted for the Lodge Immigration Bill that if enacted would have had a literacy test as a prerequisite for immigration. This bill was vetoed by President Cleveland but a literacy test would ultimately be incorporated into the Immigration Act of 1917.

In 1886, he was one of the first members of the Senate to openly call for women’s suffrage and four years later he was the Senate sponsor of the Lodge Federal Elections Bill, which if enacted would have provided for effective enforcement of the 15th Amendment in the South. Unfortunately, Democratic resistance to it, in the North and South, combined with several Republican defections in the Senate resulted in the bill’s demise. The Republican Party would undertake no serious and coordinated efforts for civil rights legislation until 1922.

Maintaining the Senate

For much of Hoar’s Senate tenure, he served as chair of the Judiciary Committee and drafted the Presidential Succession Act in 1886. Given his direct family link to the Founding Fathers, he saw it as his duty to preserve the Senate as Roger Sherman and people like him intended. He thus was a leading opponent of the direct election of senators and in 1897 he wrote an article, “Has the Senate Degenerated?” Most notable in the article was the following, “The Senate . . . was created that the deliberate will, the sober second thought of the people might find expression. It was intended that it should resist the hasty, intemperate, passionate desire of the people. This hasty passion and intemperance is frequently found in the best men as in the worst. But so long as the political management of the country excites eager interest, so long these feelings will be excited; and when they are excited the body whose function it is to resist them will be, for the time being, an object of dislike and attack. It has, therefore, always been true, is true now, and always will be true, that the Senate is an object of bitter denunciation by those persons whose purposes are thwarted or delayed. That will be especially true when the House and Executive, the popular majority, are of one way of thinking and the Senate, representing the will of the majority of the States, is of another way. It is fair, therefore, that the Senate should be judged not by considering its conduct or its composition at the time when the judgment is to be expressed, but by a review of a whole century of its history.

. . . The President represents the majority of the whole people; the House of Representatives, the present and immediate popular desire of the constituencies. But the Senate stands also for the will of the American people. It stands for its deliberate, permanent, settled desire,—its sober, second thought” (United States Senate).

Hoar also feared that the adoption of this amendment would result in other proposals he thought destructive to the constitutional system, including the abolition of the Electoral College and popular election of judges. In 1902, a brawl broke out between Senators Benjamin Tillman and John McLaurin of South Carolina over their increasing political differences. Hoar in response successfully pushed for the adoption of a Senate rule that banned senators from denigrating each other on the floor.

Hoar and Imperialism

In 1870, Senator Charles Sumner had crossed the Grant Administration when his opposition to the annexation of Santo Domingo proved critical in its defeat, and Hoar likewise crossed the McKinley and Roosevelt Administrations in opposition to American imperialism, unlike Henry Cabot Lodge, the junior senator from Massachusetts. On February 6, 1899, he along with Eugene Hale of Maine and Matthew Quay of Pennsylvania were the only three Republican senators to vote against the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American War and granted the US control over the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam while surrendering control of Cuba. As Republican critics of imperialism, they were later joined by William Mason of Illinois and George Wellington of Maryland. Hoar also called for the independence of the Philippines, which would not happen until 1946. Although he was unpopular with some of the younger Republicans for this, his reputation in Massachusetts was such that he remained politically safe unlike Sumner, who had been penalized for his opposition by loss of his chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Hoar wrote a few works, including the introduction to Charles Sumner; His Complete Works and his autobiography, Autobiography of Seventy Years (1903). After enjoying a life of good health, Hoar fell ill in June 1904 and declined until his death on September 30th. His MC-Index life score is an 89%, with his score from 1869 to 1897 being a 96% while his 1897 to 1904 score was 66%, reflecting his increasing dissent with conservative Republican policies. He had been a much revered senator given his direct ties to the Founding Fathers and despite his frequent partisanship he placed the institutional integrity of the Senate above it.


Civil Rights Act of 1875. U.S. House of Representatives.

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Kazin, M. (2006). A Godly hero: The life of William Jennings Bryan. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

The Idea of the Senate: A Place of “Sober Second Thought”. United States Senate.

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To Agree to the Conference Report on H.R. 7864, The Immigration Laws Bill Amending the Immigration Laws of the United States. Govtrack.

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To Pass H.R. 5804 (Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882). Govtrack.

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To Pass the Resolution to Ratify the Treaty of Peace Between the United States and Spain Signed at the city of Paris on December 10, 1898. Govtrack.

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The Politics of the Personal: The Defeats of President Cleveland’s Supreme Court Nominees

I previously wrote about Richard Nixon suffering the embarrassment of having two justices he nominated in a row be voted down for confirmation to the Supreme Court. He is not alone in having suffered such an embarrassment. It wasn’t liberals that did this president’s nominees in, rather a party rival who was apt at forming political coalitions, in New York and nationally.
Grover Cleveland was known as a Bourbon Democrat but above all his focus as a president was on honesty and integrity in government, and this meant opposition to bossism. Tammany Hall in New York, however, sure didn’t appreciate Cleveland’s emphasis on reform. Enter the antagonist of our story, Senator David B. Hill. Hill was a Tammany Hall Democrat through and through and had been lieutenant governor while Cleveland was governor of New York from 1883 to 1885. Although Hill was something of a Bourbon Democrat as well, he had differences with him on currency policy, stressing bimetallism while Cleveland supported the gold standard. Hill was also the only Democratic senator to vote against the Wilson-Gorman Tariff in 1894 and was a royal pain for the president on the Supreme Court as well.

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Round One: William B. Hornblower

On September 20, 1893, Cleveland nominated William Butler Hornblower, a prominent corporate attorney from New York, to succeed the late Samuel Blatchford on the Supreme Court. He was a solid pick, but Senator Hill along with his New York colleague Edward Murphy Jr. thought otherwise. Despite Hill having appointed Hornblower to a commission on state constitutional amendments as New York’s governor in 1890, he had crossed Hill when he participated in a committee investigating his ally Deputy Attorney General Isaac H. Maynard for alleged ballot tampering. Hill and Murphy invoked senatorial courtesy, a custom in which the Senate refrains from confirming nominees who are objectionable to the senators of the state they are from. This is especially the case if it is the most senior senator from the president’s party, which Hill was. Hill officially objected because Hornblower was at 42 relatively young for the court. Cleveland chose to proceed with the nomination, but the Senate saw fit to reaffirm custom: the nomination was defeated on January 15, 1894, on a vote of 24-30. Democrats split 18-13 in favor while Republicans voted 6-13 on the matter. The other votes against were from third party members. Cleveland tried again with another person with an even more distinctive name: Wheeler Hazard Peckham.

Round Two: Wheeler Hazard Peckham

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Wheeler Hazard Peckham (I love this name) was another prominent New York jurist and as special prosecutor he had successfully prosecuted William M. “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall and had unsuccessfully done so for New York City Mayor A. Oakey Hall. However, like Hornblower, Peckham had crossed Hill. In 1888, he had so strongly disliked Hill as a candidate for governor that he voted for the Republican candidate, Warner Miller. He had also been even more responsible than Hornblower for the investigation into Maynard as he had appointed the committee as President of the New York State Bar. He also could be blunt in his feelings towards those he disliked, which didn’t help him politically. Hill and Murphy again invoked senatorial courtesy and again Cleveland proceeded with the nomination. Curiously, Hill suggested a substitute for Peckham: his younger brother, Rufus Wheeler. His brother was not of a different political persuasion but rather was in Hill’s way where he was, on the New York Court of Appeals. Hill wanted to replace Peckham with his own man. Officially, however, Hill found Wheeler Hazard to be too old at 60. His nomination went down 32-41. Democrats voted for 23-15 while Republicans opposed 8-23. In 1895, Justice Howell Jackson died and Cleveland nominated Rufus Wheeler Peckham, who with the support this time of Senator Hill was confirmed unanimously.

Round Three: Edward Douglass White

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Since Hill and the Senate were being so truculent, President Cleveland decided to make a pick the Senate couldn’t refuse: one of their own, Edward Douglass White of Louisiana. White, a Democrat who had not offended Senator Hill nor being from his state, was easily confirmed. He would eventually serve as chief justice from 1910 to 1921.

Hill’s career in Washington would end alongside Cleveland’s as he lost the 1897 Senate election to Republican political boss Thomas C. Platt, as Republicans had taken control of the New York State Legislature.


William Butler Hornblower. Historical Society of the New York Courts.

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Pomerance, B. (2017). Justices Denied: The Peculiar History of Rejected United States Supreme Court Nominees. Albany Law Review, 80(2).

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Rufus Wheeler Peckham (1838-1909). Albany Rural Cemetery Explorer.

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The Washburns: A Most Influential Family

The Washburn family of Massachusetts and later Maine made more than their share of contributions to the United States in politics as well as in business. Israel Washburn Sr., a Massachusetts politician and farmer, had a whopping eleven children with his wife Patty, ten of whom survived into adulthood and four who served in elective office. These were Israel Jr. (1813-1883), Elihu (1816-1887), Cadwallader (1818-1882), and William (1831-1912). In addition, Charles (1822-1889) was a diplomat. This family was, despite, Washburn Sr. holding office as a younger man, not wealthy and they worked hard farming the land and running a general store. There was little opportunity for play for the Washburn children. They were raised to be strongly anti-slavery through religious conviction and would carry these convictions into their politics.

In 1850, Washburn Jr. was elected to Congress from Maine as a Whig, serving until 1861. In 1852, Elihu joined his older brother, being elected from Illinois also as a Whig. In 1854, Cadwallader was elected from Wisconsin. On June 2nd,  1854, Israel Jr. delivered a speech in Bangor, Maine, in which he used the term “Republican” regarding the new party, possibly the first member of Congress to do so. All brothers joined the Republican Party upon its formation. While in Congress they fought against slavery and even did so physically. In 1856, Laurence Kiett of South Carolina attacked Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania after an exchange of insults, attempting to choke him, and a brawl erupted in the House. Cadwallader and Elihu participated, with the brawl ending after the former attempted to deck William Barksdale of Mississippi, but had grabbed his hairpiece first and the embarrassed Barksdale put the wig on backwards, resulting in hysterical laughter throughout the House.

Israel Washburn Jr. was elected Governor of Maine in 1860 and served two years in this position. He proved very popular and was effective at raising troops and supplies for the war effort. Opting not to run again in 1863, he was appointed by President Lincoln to be the Collector of the Port of Portland, serving in this post until 1877.

Israel Washburn, Jr. - Brady-Handy.jpg

Elihu Washburne (he added an e to his last name) was known for his strong support of President Lincoln as well as his frequent bucking of his party on railroad land grants. He thought of them as corrupt giveaways of public land and regularly voted against them. Washburne was also a supporter of President Grant and served briefly as his Secretary of State and as Ambassador to France from 1869 to 1877. His support continued despite his strong disapproval of the corruption that occurred under his administration. Although he told his supporters not to do so, they put his name up for the presidential nomination in 1880 instead of Ulysses S. Grant, leading Grant to believe that he had sabotaged his effort at the nomination, and this ended their friendship. His MC-Index score is a 59%.

Cadwallader Washburn served as a general in the War of the Rebellion and was unlike other politicians who served in command roles: he proved an excellent administrative leader and was highly recommended by Ulysses S. Grant. He took over the Minneapolis Milling Company along with John Crosby, and in 1866 formed General Mills from it. He served in Congress again from 1867 to 1871, and successfully ran for governor in 1871, serving a single term. His MC-Index score is a 95%.

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William Washburn served in the House from Minnesota from 1879 to 1885, having prevailed over former Republican Ignatius Donnelly for the seat and served in the Senate from 1889 to 1895. He had assisted his older brother Cadwallader with General Mills and founded what later became known as the Pillsbury Company. Washburn also formed what would become known as the Soo Line Railroad. In 1895, he was shocked to lose reelection to fellow Republican Knute Nelson, who had been conducting a secret campaign for the seat. He had been coy, even deceptive about his ambitions, not being straightforward with Washburn on his intentions until his announcement to run on January 3, 1895. Nelson even told the state legislature to “elect your Republican legislative ticket, so as to send my friend Washburn back to the United States senate or if you do not like him, send some other good Republican”.  He also had assistance from James J. Hill, a rival of Washburn’s in the railroad business who Washburn had recently angered by running his railroad between two of Hill’s. The campaign in the state legislature was bitter and the dejected Washburn called for a popular vote to elect senators. A popular vote may not have made a difference as Nelson was popular with politicians and the public alike and his Scandinavian origins helped him in Minnesota while Washburn’s perceived status as an elite from Maine worked against him. His MC-Index score is an 88%.


About the Washburns. Washburn Norlands Living History Center.

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Adams, E.E. The Washburn-Nelson Senatorial Campaign of 1894-1895. Minnesota Legal History Project.

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Emery, T. (2017, July 1). C.C Washburn founded General Mills; studied law in Rock Island. Dispatch Argus.

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Hess, S. (1967). An American In Paris. American Heritage, 18(2).

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Israel Washburn Jr.: Maine’s Little Giant of the Civil War. Maine Memory Network.

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The Populist Parties and Their Conspiracy Theories, Part III: The People’s (Populist) Party

1904 Populist Party campaign poster.

The Gilded Age was a period in which although the standard of living rose for Americans industrialists grew more and more powerful. Tycoons such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie became household names and although wealth grew overall for the people, a lot of it became concentrated at the top. In the meantime, the Panic of 1873 produced a six-year depression in the United States and further economic troubles in the 1880s caused the price of food to drop: farmers in Kansas burned their corn in 1885 as its value was even less other fuels (Glasner & Cooley). Crop failures compounded this problem and farmers increasingly sought government intervention. The “Crime of ‘73”, or the Fourth Coinage Act, was often brought forth as a grievance and it was charged that those who pushed this law deceived the public into demonetizing silver. That aspect of the law was neither hidden nor emphasized by its proponents. Although the Bland-Allison Act of 1878 had established bimetallism, it was a compromise legislation and pleased neither the deflationary gold standard supporters of the east nor the inflationary free silver proponents of the west. Farmers Alliances were formed to lobby for such intervention, but they ultimately had limited impact. In 1890, these groups sought to be more effective so they gathered to issue the Ocala Demands, which included abolition of national banks, free and unlimited coinage of silver, making all land ownership held by Americans, a progressive income tax, direct election of senators, and government ownership of communication and transportation if strict regulation does not work. That year, the People’s Party (or Populist Party) was born and won eight House seats and one Senate seat in the midterm elections. A newly elected senator, James H. Kyle, would switch parties to Populist during the session.

A major Populist leader to rise in the South was Thomas E. Watson of Georgia, a journalist and one-term representative who initially supported black suffrage to unite poor whites and poor blacks to fight the Southern elites. The masthead of his newspaper in 1894 declared that the paper “is now and will ever be a fearless advocate of the Jeffersonian Theory of Popular Government, and will oppose to the bitter end the Hamiltonian Doctrines of Class Rule, Moneyed Aristocracy, National Banks, High Tariffs, Standing Armies and formidable Navies — all of which go together as a system of oppressing the people” (Watson). He also ran for president for the party three times, 1900, 1904, and 1908.

By 1892, the economy was declining, and many farmers were deep in debt. The party’s first convention was in Omaha, Nebraska, and the platform they crafted included government ownership of railroads, telephones, and telegraphs, strict merit based civil service, free and unlimited coinage of silver, a progressive income tax, and no subsidy or assistance to a corporation under any circumstances. They did shockingly well for their first presidential election, with Iowa’s James B. Weaver winning the electoral votes in six states and contributing to the defeat of Benjamin Harrison as three of the states that turned Populist had voted for him in 1888, with none of the states that had voted for Cleveland then doing so. They also picked up three more seats in the House. The nation’s fortunes fell in 1894 with the economic depression in play and although the Populists gained a Senate seat, they lost four seats in the House to Republicans as Republicans gained 110 total seats.

Populists would have 22 seats after the 1896 election and gain yet another Senate seat. While a presence in the legislature, they supported immigration restrictions and had a mixed record on American imperialism. In 1897 they voted 3-0 in the House and 2-0 in the Senate for a bill that would require immigrants to pass a literacy test to be admitted. In 1898, they split evenly in the House on annexing Hawaii and one Populist senator voted against. On February 3, 1899 Populists voted 3-0 in favor of the Treaty of Paris, which granted the US the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam and freed Cuba of Spanish control. However, by the Roosevelt Administration they seem to have turned against such policy.

The successes of the Populists would be short-lived: in the 1898 midterms with William McKinley being satisfactory for many rural people and the economy recovering, the Populists lost 17 House seats and one Senate seat. This midterm they would never recover from and support for the party faded as economic times increasingly improved. The 1900 election would be the last time they won seats in the House or the Senate.

The Conspiracy Theory: Bankers and/or Jews Conspire to Control the Monetary System

Although casual anti-Semitism was not uncommon in the United States, such conspiracy theories, as noted by Ben Macri (2000), “it was the Populist party who used anti-Semitism most distinctively”. One of the party’s leading activists and spokespeople, Mary E. Lease, was most famous for telling Kansas farmers to “raise less corn and more hell”. However, she was also an anti-Semite. Lease was quoted by the New York Times as saying in a speech, “We are paying tribute to the Rothschilds of England, who are but the agents of the Jews” and for her President Cleveland was “the agent of Jewish bankers” (Singer). This went beyond her speeches. In The Problem of Civilization (1895), she wrote “Our commercial system would be sadly disturbed if our government granted a monopoly of gallons, bushels and yards to a company of Jews. Then the man who conducts a wholesale or retail business would be compelled to hire a bushel, gallon or a yardstick from the Hebrew before waiting upon his impatient customers. Hunger, haste and pressing necessity alike would have to wait the pleasure and interest of the Jew” (Singer).

Ignatius Donnelly, a former Minnesota Republican representative who drafted the Omaha Platform, wrote, “A vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized on two continents, and it is rapidly taking possession of the world. If not met and overthrown at once it forebodes terrible social convulsions, the destruction of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute despotism” (Pfaelzer). He also wrote Caesar’s Column (1890), which featured anti-Semitic tropes including a “Shylock” villain and that an upper echelon of Jews controlled the world. However, his protagonist appears to be Jewish as well.

Another prominent populist figure who engaged in anti-Semitism was William Hope “Coin” Harvey, who wrote a popular pamphlet titled “Coin’s Financial School” in 1894, which sold a million copies and advocated for a return to bimetallism and called for free coinage of silver. He also wrote A Tale of Two Nations, in which a London banker, Baron Rothe (a clear stand-in for the Rothschild family) conspires to keep the gold standard and has a Jewish henchman who pursues a Christian girl who has her eyes set on a Nebraska representative who fights against the gold standard (a stand-in for William Jennings Bryan, who served two terms in the House from Nebraska). As Richard Hofstader noted, “While the jocose and rather heavy-handed anti-Semitism that can be found in Henry Adams letters of the 1890’s shows that this prejudice existed outside Populist literature, it was chiefly Populist writers who expressed that identification of the Jew with the usurer and the `international gold ring’ which was the central theme of American anti-Semitism of the age. The omnipresent symbol of Shylock can hardly be taken in itself as evidence of anti-Semitism but the frequent references to the House of Rothschild make it clear that for many silverites the Jew was an organic part of the conspiracy theory of history” (Macri).

It is true, however, that not all Populists were anti-Semites, but the same goes for people who joined up with the American Party in the 1850s and being anti-Catholic: Millard Fillmore accepted the nomination for president despite him not sharing the party’s anti-Catholic views.  There were also some among the Populists who embraced anti-Catholicism, including its three-time presidential candidate, Thomas E. Watson.


The Democratic Party’s pick of William Jennings Bryan was a victory for the Populist Party as someone who embraced many of their views was nominated by one of the major parties. That year they made the fateful decision to nominate Bryan themselves. While the Democratic Party shifting to the left was a victory for the Populists, their endorsement of Bryan had eliminated their independence and doomed the party to decline. Although in the short run, the Populist Party’s causes failed, numerous ones would be adopted in the future. The income tax amendment was ratified in 1913 as was the direct election of senators amendment. Much of the economy, including railroads, would be temporarily nationalized for World War I but was returned to private ownership on favorable terms for railroads with the Esch-Cummins Act. The New Deal would bring monetary policy in a more inflationary direction and would provide extensive aid to farmers but didn’t adopt “free coinage of silver”.

An averse consequence of the rise of the Populists is that it produced for a short time a Republican-Populist coalition in the South, which freaked out the Democrats as they had proven great threats in Alabama and North Carolina, winning Congressional seats and even in the latter case winning the governorship and legislature. Exclusively white Democratic rule was at risk, and this motivated the adoption of new “Jim Crow” constitutions that were ratified to prevent a recurrence of a multi-racial coalition.

Connections to Later Politics

There are two people who embraced the Populist Party who had input in the politics surrounding fascism and World War II. Milford W. Howard of Alabama, who served in Congress from 1895 to 1899, managed to get an interview with Benito Mussolini in the 1920s, after which he subsequently embraced fascism and wrote Fascism: A Challenge to Democracy in support. Howard would also be one of the founders of The Awakener, a magazine that at least initially was a pro-fascist outlet. Elmer J. Garner, a journalist who headed up a Populist newspaper in Kansas, in his older days blasted FDR for having Jewish advisors and attributed his foreign policy to their influence. He would be indicted at the Great Sedition Trial in 1944 only to die two weeks later. However, unlike Howard, he never explicitly embraced fascism.

Commonalities Between Populist Parties

Of the three parties I covered, they all had the following in common:

  1. Conspiracy theories.
  2. They were short-term as parties, carrying influence between 10-15 years.
  3. Some ideas of theirs were later embraced by at least one of the two major parties.
  4. Anti-elitist.
  5. Many members moved into one of the major parties.

What should this tell us about Trumpism? Trumpism as a phenomenon in the Republican Party (and among some independents) may have a few more years yet, and Trump won’t be worshiped in the long term, but some of the themes and policies that were initially unique to Trump stand a good chance of being seen in a future Republican administration. Look for a sustained hardliner stance on immigration policy.


Glasner, D. & Cooley, T.F. (1997). “Depression of 1882-1885”. Business cycles and depressions: An encyclopedia. New York, NY: Garland Pub.

Macri, B. (2000). Anti-Semitism. Vassar.

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Pfaelzer, J. (1984). The utopian novel in America 1886-1896: The politics of form. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Populist Party Platform (1892).

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Singer, A.J. (2020, November 22). The Devil and Mary Lease. History News Network.

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Watson, T.E. (1894, June 22). People’s Party Paper, vol. 3 no. 40. President People’s Paper Publishing Association.

That Time Politicians Attempted to Legally Redefine Pi

Over 20 years ago an urban legend made its way in the annals of the internet that Alabama legally redefined pi as 3 to please religious groups. This never happened but in this age of misinformation and seemingly increasing scientific literacy problems it probably wouldn’t surprise some if this happened. After all, The Onion and The Babylon Bee seem to have more of a place in reality than in years past. Indeed, something like that urban legend nearly happened 124 years ago.

For over two millennia mathematicians had attempted to “square the circle”, or finding a square with an exact same area as a circle and thus producing a rational value for pi. By the late 1700s most mathematicians had given up on it. The French Academy of Science declared it impossible in 1775 and the Royal Society of Great Britain had followed suit the next year. In 1882, mathematician Ferdinand von Lindemann proved that it was a transcendental irrational number (meaning its digits never repeat) and thus squaring the circle was impossible. This didn’t stop Hoosier physician and amateur mathematician Edward J. Goodwin from giving it a shot.

In 1894, Goodwin had come to believe that he had outdone Archimedes on crafting a formula for the area of a circle and had accomplished the squaring of the circle, which would result in pi being through incorrect rounding 3.2 and also increased the area of the circle by 21%. As a resident of Indiana, he thought that his state ought to be first to benefit from his work and ought to have the unique privilege of doing so for free. In 1897, Goodwin persuaded Representative Taylor I. Record to introduce the bill he wrote to the General Assembly which would have provided the new formula in textbooks without paying royalties, thus making his formula for the area of a circle and therefore the value of pi being 3.2 be regarded as legal fact in Indiana rather than the approximation of 3.14. The measure was initially met with confusion and it was originally proposed to go to the Finance Committee but instead it went to the Committee on Education. A representative speaking in favor stated, “The case is perfectly simple. If we pass this bill which establishes a new and correct value of pi, the author offers our state without cost the use of his discovery and its free publication in our school textbooks, while everyone else must pay him a royalty” (Klein).
Goodwin’s squaring of the circle. As you can see, it isn’t a circle.

The bill shockingly passed unanimously on February 6th, but by the time it had made its way to the Senate, mathematics Professor C.A. Waldo of Purdue University, who was at the capitol that day to ask for funding for the Academy of Sciences, had gotten wind of this and intervened. Although he had brushed up senators on geometry, the measure almost passed the Senate. After a senator pointed out that the legislature could not define mathematical truth, the bill was postponed indefinitely. Waldo later reflected, “My state did not further this monstrosity, and it was probably the Indiana Academy of Science alone which prevented it” (Smith). This story, hilarious as it is, demonstrates the limitations of politics to decide what is right and true, for it is good fortune that Waldo was there to stop it.

P.S.: The next entry on my series for populist parties will be the next post. I have some more research and writing I’d like to do before posting.


Alabama’s Slice of Pi. (1998, October 28). Snopes.

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Goins, E.H. In Celebration of Pi Day: The History of the Indiana Pi Bill. Purdue University Department of Mathematics.

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Klein, P. When big government tried to change the value of pi to 3.2. Washington Examiner.

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Smith, K.N. (2018, February 5). Indiana’s State Legislature Once Tried To Legislate The Value of Pi. Forbes Magazine.

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The Populist Parties and Their Conspiracy Theories, Part II: The American Party

In the 1840s, immigration from Ireland and Germany was ramping up and many who were born in America were disturbed by this increasing presence of people who were Catholic, increased job competition, and were blamed for rising social problems. Anti-Catholicism itself had been rather common in the United States: Protestant leader Lyman Beecher had written in Plea for the West (1835) that Catholics should be excluded from settling westward and in 1843, Lewis Charles Levin (1808-1860) became editor of the penny newspaper Daily Sun and founded the American Republican Association, both which he made anti-Catholic and against Catholic immigration. Nativist fears grew when Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick voiced opposition to reading from the King James Bible and having students sing hymns in public schools. They exploded after a Catholic school director, Hugh Clark, proposed suspending Bible reading in Philadelphia schools until the school board could accommodate Protestants and Catholics alike the following year and led to what became known as the Philadelphia Nativist Riots based on false rumors that he had called for ending Bible reading altogether. The riots resulted in over 20 Irish American deaths, numerous homes of theirs being destroyed, and the burning down of three Catholic churches. Although Levin did not commit a single act of violence during these riots and voiced his opposition to rioting, he and his penny newspaper had played a major role in inciting it with the anti-Catholic rhetoric and rumors spread.

That year, Levin founded the “Native American Party” (as in, “born in America”) and in the party’s first try for Congress they won six seats, with Levin winning a seat from Philadelphia. The others were elected only from New York (four) and Pennsylvania. Levin was himself a first as he was the first Jewish representative and served for six years. He was noted for his masterful oratory which would whip up crowds but in 1850 he was defeated for reelection by a Democrat. The Native American Party was an anti-Catholic party that called for immigration restrictions and believed in a conspiracy that Catholics were trying to make America subservient to the Pope. The platform of the party was to prolong naturalization to 21 years so immigrants could not vote until then, only permit people born in America to be elected to public office, and to prevent foreign involvement in all American institutions. This party was not very successful initially as the Democrats and Whigs remained the two dominant forces and their seats dwindled until they had no seats in the 31st Congress. They were ideologically more with the Whigs than with the Democrats, but they occupied a position near the middle. However, the growing tensions between free and slave states would come to increasingly define American politics and presented an opportunity for this seemingly defunct party. In 1849, however, an organization was formed called the ”Order of the Star Spangled Banner” was it would come to support the American Party and, like the Masons, was secretive and had many lodges. This is one respect this populist movement differed from its predecessor, in its stance on secret societies. Its members, when asked about their membership or activities in the order, gave the scripted response of “I know nothing”, thus leading to the party being known popularly as the “Know-Nothing Party”. 

In 1854, President Franklin Pierce signed the notorious Kansas-Nebraska Act, which produced the catastrophe known as “Bleeding Kansas”. This issue resulted in a disastrous election year for both major parties, with the Democrats suffering major losses as well as the Whig Party, with the latter dissolving in the next year. The major party that benefited was the now renamed American Party, which won 51 seats from their previously held zero. American Party Congressman Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts was elected Speaker of the House in an anti-administration coalition, as many who were elected that year also had not settled on a new party yet. However, the newfound success of the American Party had not extended to its founder, Lewis Charles Levin, who lost in his Senate bid to former Democrat Simon Cameron. The Know Nothing Party had both Northern and Southern members and did not focus on slavery, rather anti-Catholicism. Irish immigration had only increased since 1844 due to the Irish Potato Famine, as did German immigration due to economic instability. This massive influx came with growing social problems, as described by historian James McPherson,

“Immigration during the first five years of the 1850s reached a level five times greater than a decade earlier. Most of the new arrivals were poor Catholic peasants or laborers from Ireland and Germany who crowded into the tenements of large cities. Crime and welfare costs soared. Cincinnati’s crime rate, for example, tripled between 1846 and 1853 and its murder rate increased sevenfold. Boston’s expenditures for poor relief rose threefold during the same period” (p. 131).

Such problems led to the election of Know Nothing mayors in major cities in 1854 and 1855 including Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. One state they absolutely swept was Massachusetts, with a Know Nothing governor, legislature, and House delegation. The legislature unsuccessfully pushed for requiring 21 years before legal immigrants could vote and two more before they could run for office and an amendment prohibiting anyone who owed allegiance to a “foreign prince, power, or potentate” from running for office (Taylor, 169). Connecticut and Massachusetts passed laws requiring literacy tests in English to vote, and other New England states followed suit with Know Nothing politics. Other policies pushed by the New England Know Nothings included Prohibition, corporate regulation, women’s rights, aiding railroads in constructing them, and they were firmly anti-slavery. Even the use of written Latin was attacked. In California, the Know Nothings backed Chief Justice Hugh Murray for another term, a virulent xenophobe who had written the decision of People v. Hall (1854), which ruled against permitting testimony from Chinese people against whites in court and thus made it much easier for whites to get away with murdering Chinese.

Abraham Lincoln himself was privately not a fan of the Know Nothing Party but he did not publicly denounce them as he needed their support for his anti-slavery politics. As he wrote to his friend Joshua Speed, “I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy” (NPS). Despite Lincoln’s apparent pessimism in this letter, he and his politics would outlive the Know Nothings.

The Southern Know Nothings did not embrace the anti-slavery politics of the North but were generally anti-secession. Many of them would vote for the Constitutional Union ticket in 1860. Some politicians who joined up with the Know Nothings would later rise to prominence during the Lincoln Administration, including Senator Simon Cameron, future Vice President Henry Wilson, and Thaddeus Stevens (again!). The legendary Sam Houston of Texas also joined up with the Know Nothings given his strong unionist stance making him unpopular in the Democratic Party. Former President Millard Fillmore accepted their nomination for president in 1856 despite his private disapproval of their anti-Catholic views and having never been consulted about it, and won only the state of Maryland as another party had taken the place of the Whigs as the primary opposition to the Democrats: the Republicans. Many of these new political Know Nothing figures had lacked political experience and this, combined with the increasing focus on the issue of slavery and their tendency to jack up taxes did them in. The Northern Know Nothings mostly joined up with the Republican Party, including the opposition Speaker Nathaniel Banks, who had left the Know Nothings during his time as speaker along with many others. In 1857, membership in the Republican Party grew further after the Dred Scott decision with the Know Nothings only remaining a force for a few more years in Southern state parties.

As for Lewis Charles Levin, his health was declining and he appeared to be developing mental illness by 1856 as he increasingly became disconnected with the party he started and by 1859 he had become violently insane. He died the following year in an asylum and the Know Nothing Party went with him. Although the party was gone, nativism was not: Northern members joined up with the Republican Party and nativist sentiments and policies would gain more political currency after the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The American Protective Society would form in 1887, a bipartisan secret anti-Catholic group, and between 1875 and 1924 increasingly severe immigration restrictions would be passed.


Boissoneault, L. (2017, January 26). How the 19th Century Know-Nothing Party Shaped American Politics. Smithsonian Magazine.

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Curran, C.E. (2011). The social mission of the U.S. Catholic church: A theological perspective. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.

Lincoln on the Know Nothing Party. (2015, April 10). National Park Service.

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McPherson, J.M. (1988). Battle cry of freedom. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Schrag, Z.M. (2018, October 22). Lewis Levin Wasn’t Nice. Tablet Magazine.

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Schrag, Z.M. Nativist Riots of 1844. The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

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Taylor, S. (2000). “Progressive Nativism: The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts”. Historical Journal of Massachusetts, 28(2).

The Populist Parties and Their Conspiracy Theories, Part I: The Anti-Masonic Party

The fundamental philosophy of populist parties and movements, be they left or right, is “A small group of people have a disproportionate amount of power in society, it is to the detriment of the public, and we must do something about it.” This philosophy resounds with populism that surrounds support for Donald Trump and the condemnation of “elites” and “Washington insiders”. Trump’s views as well as his entertaining and embracing of conspiracy theories are not at all new to populist movements. They characterize them and have done so since the formation of the first such party, the Anti-Masonic Party.

In 1826, John Quincy Adams was president but Andrew Jackson was a rising political figure who himself had a lot of support from working people and was himself a populistic candidate, but his status as a Mason made him suspect for some. An event of that year would put the issue at the forefront of national attention, and that was what happened to a Batavia, New York brickmason named William Morgan. Morgan’s life is surrounded in controversy, including his reliability and his fate. He claimed to have been a Master Mason in Canada and appears to have attended at least one meeting in Rochester. Morgan publicly announced he was going to publish a book, Illustrations of Masonry, that was apparently going to have exposed all their secret workings after an apparent conflict with other Masons. This was a violation of an oath of secrecy that Masons take of the proceedings of such meetings, and several of them in Batavia made their displeasure public. He and his publisher, David Cade Miller, were subsequently subjected to threats and harassment as well as an attempted arson of Miller’s newspaper office. After being jailed for not paying a loan and apparently stealing a shirt and tie by the sheriff, Morgan was released by his publisher and then jailed again, with two men subsequently abducting Morgan from jail and taking him to Fort Niagara, never to be seen again. Although his fate is technically unknown, he is widely believed to have been murdered by Mason extremists.

The story of William Morgan made headlines, and conspiracy theories about the Masons spread like wildfire. There were public protests, a Masonic lodge was ransacked, and parading Masons were pelted with rocks. Thus, was birthed the Anti-Masonic Party, which was of course against the Masons and secret societies overall. They believed that the Masons were engaged in a conspiracy to control the American government and were as a group strongly Christian and anti-elite. They opposed Andrew Jackson, a Mason, and had some young political activists who would later play more significant roles in American politics, such as Millard Fillmore, Thurlow Weed, Thaddeus Stevens, and William H. Seward. Stevens denounced the Masonic Lodge as “a chartered iniquity, within whose jaws are crushed the bones of immortal men, and whose mouth is continually reeking with human blood, and spitting forth human gore” (Medved).

The Anti-Masonic Party also arose during a time of social and economic change as the frontier was expanding and white settlers were moving west, thus resulting in great uncertainty and angst as social capital declined. Major political players took advantage of the scandal to attack their opponents, with John Quincy Adams condemning Andrew Jackson for being a Mason himself. He would run for governor of Massachusetts on its ticket in 1833. In the 1828 elections, the Anti-Masonic Party won five seats in Congress, the first time a third party had done so. Two years later, they gained twelve more seats. They did especially well in the states of New York and Vermont and many voters vowed not to vote for any candidates who were Masons to curb their influence. Some even sought the end of Freemasonry altogether, with the Anti-Masonic Advocate of Wilkes-Barre holding, “To overcome this evil is a work of intelligence, and a work of time. We have scotched the snake, not killed it. We have forced it to hide in darkness — but though unseen, it is not less dangerous” (Gilmore). However, by 1831 many in the party had come to regard not Freemasonry the greatest threat, rather President Andrew Jackson himself. One leading member, Samuel Miles Hopkins, even admitted that in the last election he had voted for anti-Jackson candidates, even if they were Masons (Burt). The party had adopted additional positions, including support for protective tariffs and internal improvements. They succeeded in pushing making kidnapping a felony, called for anti-trust laws, and many prominent members would be known as fierce opponents of slavery. In 1832, the party nominated former Attorney General William Wirt for president, a protege of Thomas Jefferson and a former Mason himself who differed from party platform by defending the Masons, and they only won the state of Vermont. Their numbers again grew in the House, to 25. However, the 1834 and 1835 elections reflected the weakness of the party at this point, with them only retaining five seats. In the 1838 and 1839 elections, the Anti-Masonic Party retained no seats. Anti-Masons had moved to the Whig Party and in 1840 backed William Henry Harrison, who had earlier aligned himself with the Anti-Masons. The party dissolved in December of that year.

William Wirt, Anti-Masonic Presidential Candidate, 1832.

An Actual Conspiracy?

Although the idea of Masons trying to take over America was a conspiracy theory, the circumstances surrounding Morgan’s disappearance do point to an actual conspiracy…in the form of a cover-up. Although only a few Masons perpetrated the kidnapping and likely murder, many prominent people in Batavia and in New York politics altogether were Masons, including the sheriff who arrested Morgan twice. Prominent Masons even went as far as to defend Morgan’s fate as something he deserved. Freemasons also impacted the trials surrounding Morgan’s disappearance, as Nicholas Gilmore (2020) notes, “In the Genessee grand jury trials of 1826-27, five of the six foremen were Masons, including one who was implicated in the scandal. The juries — picked by sheriffs at the time — were full of Masons, or their brothers or sons, and the few Masons who spoke out against the fraternity’s militant protection of its own were expelled from their lodge. Similar circumstances stalled or obstructed justice in Ontario County trials as well”. The sentences handed down for the kidnapping ranged from only one month to two years. According to historian Kathleen Smith Kutolowski, “Masonry was a more widespread phenomenon than people understand, and they dominated political office” (Gilmore). New York’s governor at the time, DeWitt Clinton, was himself a high-ranking Mason and at one time the top ranking member in the nation. Eleven men were found to have been involved in the kidnapping of Morgan, but they were given light sentences. No murder convictions were handed down as no body was found. Anti-Mason political victories resulted in the end of sheriffs picking jurors.

The next post will be about the American Party, but it’s more common and derided name is the “Know Nothing Party”. 


Burt, A. (2015, May 15). The Mysteries of the Masons. Slate.

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Gilmore, N. (2020, October 26). The Conspiracy Theory That Spawned a Political Party. The Saturday Evening Post.

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Medved, M. (2008, July 23). A Long Tradition of Fringe Parties and Paranoia. Townhall.

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The Disappearance of William Morgan. Lab for the Education and Advancement in Digital Research.

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FDR’s Early Misdeed: The Newport Sex Scandal

In 1912, New York State Senator Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a fateful decision when he backed Woodrow Wilson for the Democratic nomination early and Wilson took notice of this energetic young man opposed, like him, to bossism and corruption. In March 1913, he was nominated Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President Wilson and unanimously confirmed by the Senate. Roosevelt was directly in charge of human relations, naval operations, and contracts while Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels dealt with big picture and political issues. He was 31 years old and an energetic administrator, just the type of man Wilson thought made for an ideal public servant. On the outbreak of the First World War, Roosevelt knew the significance and that the US would eventually become involved. Like Theodore Roosevelt, he stressed preparedness and building up the navy, a position that was not too popular in the Wilson Administration nor among many Democrats, including Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. While he performed well in his role during World War I, it was what he did after the war that proved scandalous.
FDR as Assistant Secretary of the Navy

In February 1919, two patients at Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island, got to chatting. One of them, Thomas Brunelle, confided to the other, Petty Officer Ervin Arnold, that at the Army and Navy YMCA and the Newport Art Club in the city were hotspots for homosexual sex and companionship among naval personnel and civilians and that he had participated in it. He revealed names of people involved, which included an Episcopal chaplain. Arnold investigated the matter for himself and it confirmed what Brunelle had told him and he found heavy use of alcohol and cocaine at these parties in which the men cross-dressed. He reported this to the Naval authorities and Roosevelt gave an official investigation his approval. Arnold managed to convince the Naval authorities in Newport to put him in direct charge of the operation given his nine years of experience as a detective in Connecticut. He assembled a group of sailors under 30 years old who were willing to go undercover with the approval of naval higher-ups. The situation got rather out of hand, as author John Loughery (1998) describes, “The specific duties the recruits were charged with fell into three areas: to gather information about “cocaine joints” and the sale of liquor; to gather information “pertaining to cocksuckers and rectum receivers” and any network of “said fairies”; and to gather information about prostitutes in the area. In reality, once their project hit its stride, Arnold’s band of investigators showed no interest to speak of in the “fallen women” of Newport and only minimal concern with the illegal drug traffic. What went on behind closed doors at the YMCA or in the romantic shadows of Cliff Walk was another matter. In their pursuit of the “cocksuckers” Arnold had charged them to find–and in the fairly staggering amount of oral sex they enjoyed in the line of duty–this group of young men was all but tireless. In fact, their assiduous performance was to become by the end of the summer a profound humiliation to the Department of the Navy and its leadership”.

After two months of sending sailors to have sex with other men and collecting evidence, Arnold started arresting the people named by his enthusiastic investigators and the sailors among them were incarcerated for three months in solitary confinement. On May 1, 1919, Lieutenant Commander Murphy Foster announced that fifteen sailors were going to be court-martialed, but Arnold wanted to cleanse Newport of homosexuality altogether. He expanded his scope and arrests to civilians, with the approval and funding of Roosevelt. The matter became explosive when Reverend Samuel Neal Kent was arrested and charged. The two trials that would occur had testimony from the investigators that proved damning…for the Navy. The public and the jurors were outraged by the methods used in the investigation and the notion that the Navy would be a place where young men would be used in such a manner was scandalous. Bear in mind that the actions these men engaged in were regarded as unprintable in this time. Kent was acquitted both times given the disgust over the methods used here. FDR staunchly denied criticisms of him and the operation, and this resistance to admit any wrongdoing was at least partly due to conservative journalist John R. Rathom getting on his case about it through his newspaper, The Providence Journal. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels started an investigation into the matter, but the report was a whitewash. In 1921, the Senate officially investigated and found that sailors had been denied legal counsel, beaten for confessions, and coached in said confessions. The investigating committee officially condemned Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Assistant Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt, finding the latter’s conduct in the matter “reprehensible”.  That same year, Kent was quietly disqualified from performing religious services. By 1928, the scandal had faded from public memory and Roosevelt was elected Governor of New York. As Roosevelt wrote to Daniels, “In the long run neither you nor I have been hurt by this mud-slinging… what is the use of fooling any longer with a bunch who have made up their minds that they do not care for the truth and are willing to say anything which they think will help them politically” (Brenkert).


Brenkert, B. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Forgotten Anti-Gay Sex Crusade. The Daily Beast.

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt – Assistant Secretary of the Navy. National Park Service.

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Loughery, J. (1998). The Other Side of Silence. New York Times.

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