To the farmers living on the Nebraska prairie in the 1880’s it seemed the railroads were standing on their throats. And to those concerned that Health Care Reform or Union busting I urge you to study the century long struggle against the railroad monopolies. All across the American west, farmers had bought their land from the railroads. The banks which held their mortgages were owned by the railroads. The only way to get their wheat and corn to market was via the railroads. The only silos to store their harvested crops while awaiting shipment were owned by the railroads. The railroad monopolies set the shipping rates and the silo rates and there was no appeal to their heartless bookkeeping.
However, Elder’s plans for a grand investigation of election fraud and a remaking of state government were derailed when Meiklejohn grabbed the gavel off the podium and refused to return it. There was a shoving, grasping cat fight for the precious totem, which Meiklejohn eventually won. From this point the business of government in Nebraska got very noisy and ground to a complete halt, all over the issue of the certification of the new governor.
As these things were normally counted, the clear election loser was the Republican candidate L.D. Richards, who received just 68,878 votes. The Democrat, James Boyd, had received 71,331 votes, and was, according to county election officials from across the state (who were all either Democrats or Republicans, of course), the winner. But Speaker Elder was certain the actually winner had been John Powers, the candidate of Elder's People’s Independent Party. Officially Powers had received 70,187 votes, making him second by 1,144 votes. But Elder believed with good reason that 2,000 fraudulent votes had been cast for Boyd in Douglas County, centered on Omaha. And Speaker Elder was demanding an immediate investigation.
With the Republicans siding with the Democrats against the Independents, neither side dared to adjourn. Elder presided from the podium, calling on speakers and announcing votes, while Meiklejohn sat at the clerk’s desk, doing the same. Nobody got anything done because nobody could hear anybody else. Sometime after midnight, with the Republicans caucusing with their Democratic allies in an anteroom, Speaker Elder ordered the doors locked and told the sergeant-at-arms to admit no one without a written pass from him; check.
Meanwhile, the presumed victor, James Boyd, had requested and received an immediate hearing before the State Supreme Court. Boyd was asking for a writ of mandamus (“…a court order that required another court, government official, public body, corporation or individual, to perform a certain legally required act”). Boyd’s attorney argued his case before three judges of the Nebraska state Supreme Court, in a hearing room crowded with armed angry spectators from various political factions. After the hearing it was expected that the judges would retire to consider the arguments. Instead the justices held an immediate huddle and after a few moments Chief Justice Cobb announced that the weighty issues of freedom of speech, suffrage, democracy, public order and good government were all irrelevant. The court had decided that certifying election results was simply a clerical duty and not a matter of choice. Cobb signed the writ of mandamus on the spot and then ran for the exit; checkmate.
The spectators were so stunned they were frozen. And that was probably the only reason none of freshly disenfranchised voters in the room started shooting. The sheriff of Lancaster County (a Democrat), surrounded by deputies (more Democrats), smashed down the locked doors of the legislative chamber, charged to the front of the room and forcefully served the writ upon Speaker Elder. They practically threw it in his face.
And to everyone’s surprise, Speaker Elder did as he was ordered to do. John Boyd was officially declared the official governor of the state of Nebraska. “Thus”, said Judge Bayard Paine forty-five years later, “tragedy was averted in Nebraska statecraft.” Instead, tragedy was converted into low comedy.
At that point in time the most hated man in Nebraska was probably the outgoing governor, Republican John Thayer. It was Thayer’s open kowtowing to the railroads over the previous year which been most responsible for the defeat of the Republican Party in the past election. And he now refused to surrender his office, saying he would “hold on to the chair, the seat, and the office of Governor until the cows come home.” Whatever happens in Nebraskan politics, one way or the other, it always seems to come down to cows.
While the legislature bickered downstairs, Thayer barricaded himself in the governor’s offices upstairs. He called up 25 men of the State militia under the appropriately named Captain Rhody, and the Omaha Police Department, to stand guard over his self. Having finally taken the oath, Boyd moved into other offices in the State House and dispatched the Lincoln County sheriff (again) to take procession of the executive suites. But this time the sheriff ran up against an armed militia which refused to surrender. Fist fights again broke out, until Boyd ordered his side to retire.
On January 10th it finally occurred to the Captain Rhody that he and his little band of men had been maneuvered out on a limb, and if that limb collapsed he was the one most likely to be lynched from it. Rhody announced to Thayer that “I have saluted you for the last time”, and then marched his little army back to their barracks. Abandoned, Thayer surrendered the Governor’s offices, and Boyd moved in.
But Thayer was far from ready to give up. He hired his own attorney and on January 13th 1891, appealed to the state Supreme Court. His argument was inventive; John Boyd was not qualified to be governor because he was not an American citizen because he had not been born in America. And that made John Thayer the original “birther”.
Indeed Boyd had been born in Ireland in 1834. His family had immigrated to America when he was 14. His father had begun the naturalization paperwork in 1849 but events, both personal and political, had intervened. In 1856 the Boyd family had moved to Nebraska territory and had become involved in business and local politics. They were still residents in 1867 when Nebraska had been admitted to the union over President Johnson’s objection. But Boyd’s father had never completed the naturalization paperwork. Ergo, argued ex-Governor Thayer, John Boyd was not qualified to be the current governor of Nebraska.
And on May 5th, 1891 the State Supreme Court agreed with Thayer. Of course most of the judges had been appointed by Thayer, but Boyd chose not to call the Lincoln County Sheriff again. Boyd was out and ex-governor Thayer was Governor again. The Nebraska governor's office was beginning to resemble the prize in a game of musical chairs, but without the music. But what Thayer had done was a desperate power grab and doomed to failure in the long run, if for no other reason than it assured that any Irish Republicans in Nebraska were not likely to vote Republican again in the near future.
More immediately, Boyd appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Their decision was announced by Chief Justice Fuller: “Manifestly," he said, "the nationality of the inhabitants of territory acquired by conquest or cession becomes that of the government under whose dominion they pass…The judgment of the supreme court of Nebraska is reversed…” It was an 8 to 1 judgment, issued on January 2nd, 1892. And thus the election of 1890 was finally decided, over a year later. Boyd resumed his office on February 3. But, since the Governor of Nebraska served just a two year term, the antics of Governor Thayer and Speaker Elder, had effectively cut Boyd’s term in half.
And that is the kind of political victory that only makes sense when figured by the quarterly profit and loss statements of a corporate boardroom. Politically, the Republicans were still out on that limb, in strong disfavor in Nebraska, and the Democrats made the smart move of courting the Independents.
The frustrated farmers and their leaders had come to the realization that to fight the large railroads would take a national political movement, and the Nebraska Independents joined similar groups around the nation. They found themselves drawn toward the Democratic Party, and in the Presidential election of 1896 they aligned themselves behind Nebraska Democratic Senator William Jennings Bryant, for President. He lost.
And that defeat deflated the Independents nationally. They never gave up. But they never completely beat the railroads, which retained a great influence over national politics well into the 1950’s. But rather than the Democrats absorbing the Independents, in fact the Independents absorbed the Democratic Party. What came out of their joining was a populist Democratic party, a party that saw government as a force to redress grievances, a party which, for all its numerous failings, was a people’s party. And in that small way, the Nebraska populists won.
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