SEPTEMBER 2017

SEPTEMBER  2017
ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO - STANDARD OIL. Still dominating strangling the nation, a century later.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

TOO MANY GOVERNORS

I am surprised that nobody got lynched in Nebraska during the winter of 1890-91. Tempers were tense on the prairie that winter,  and the newspapers all had a dog in the hunt, so to speak, and they could be trusted to be neither fair nor accurate, but certainly unbalanced. In the election on Tuesday, 4 November, 1890, the Republicans and Democrats split between them seven seats in the state senate and forty-six seats in the house. But every other seat, eighteen in the senate and fifty-four in the house, gave a clear majority to an upstart third party, the so called “hogs in the parlor”, the People’s Independent Party. And to those who dream about the transforming- the log-jam busting magic -  of a third party in Congress, let the experiences of the PIPs be a lesson in reality.
Cornhusker politics have often been more colorful than the reticent citizens are wont to admit to outsiders. What other state’s tourism motto could boast with a straight face “We go both ways”? Either they don’t think anybody else is bright enough to get that joke, or they aren’t. And either possibility is not a compliment to the denizens of Nebraska.
Even before Nebraska was admitted to the union, on 7 January, 1859, a fracas of fisticuffs fractured the Nebraska territorial legislature, between those who lived north and those who lived south of the Platte River. It may seem pointless to be divided by a stream famously described as “too thick to drink, and too thin to plow”, a river which, in the late summer, resembles more plain than flood plain, but politics is rarely about reality and doubly so in Nebraska, where reality is so flat and peppered with cow poo. After the brawl the South Platte faction removed themselves across the river to the hamlet of Florence, which had, according to the newspaper “Nebraskian”, “…been, for months, laboring assiduously to delude strangers that it was a city”.
The entire place only became a state over President Andrew Johnson’s veto in 1867. And in the 1870 Supreme Court decision “Baker V. Morton” the justices had to slap down the state’s power structure for stealing land from a poor sod buster and using it to bribe state legislators, in the infamous “Skiptown scandal”. But all of this would prove a mere foretaste to the bounty of bovine pie hurling offered up after the election of 1890.
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 about 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.
Try and start a bank to break the railroad monopoly, and the state legislators would make it illegal. Try and build your own silo, and the state legislators would make it illegal. Politics in Nebraska were so rotten it was said the Union Pacific Railroad picked one of the States’ two Senators, while the other was chosen by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.
Theoretically the American two-party system should offer the oppressed a choice. But by 1890, thanks to political contributions from the railroads,  the Democrats supported a laissez faire approach to capitalism, while the Republicans were tied to an activist government in favor of the capitalists (i.e. the railroads). The oppressed majority were cow pied out to luck.
Thus was born the Farmer’s Alliance, which morphed into the People’s Independent Party. It was forged in response to decades of railroad corruption, railroad influence selling, and political stagnation - sound familiar? (I'll give you a hint - substitute the word bank or insurance company for the word railroad)  And then on top of that, a drought not equaled again until the dust bowl of the 1930’s reduced many Nebraska farmers to poverty. According to one mocking Republican observer, the ideal world envisioned by these “hayseeds” was a combination of a Victor Hugo plot and a Baptist revival meeting. But the truth was, all that most of these farmers wanted was for somebody to just acknowledge the railroads were standing on their wind pipe. It was their hoarse cry for justice which had produced the results of the election of November 1890. And when the Nebraska legislature convened in joint session in January of 1891,  things very quickly developed into that Victor Hugo melodrama.
To begin with, the new speaker of the House, Independent Sam Elder, decided he was going to bypass the acting President of the Senate, Republican Lieutenant-Governor George Meiklejohn, and preside over both houses of the legislature all by himself. That was plainly illegal and extra-constitutional but Sam figured that desperate times called for desperate measures.
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 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 the 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 on 25 men of the State militia under the appropriately named Captain Rhody, who was a Republican,  and the Republican dominated 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 10 January, 1891 it finally occurred to 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 Governor 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 13 January, 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 the United States. 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 Andrew 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 5 May, 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 2 January, 1892. And thus the election of 1890 was finally decided, over a year later. Boyd resumed his office on 3 February of 1892. 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 board. 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, along with similar groups around the nation, 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  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. In the long run. The human race is a marathon, dear readers. And none of us will live long enough to win it. But you still have to run.  You might as well at least try to win.  Just to keep it interesting.
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