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Henningsen: Return Of The 1890's

10/25/10 5:55PM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST) Commentator Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian who's been watching the current political campaigns. And he sees 'more than a little similarity' to the politics of more than a hundred years ago.

(HENNINGSEN) Consider the 1890's, a decade kicked off by the Republican "Billion Dollar Congress", which approved the most restrictive tariff in history, widening the growing gap between rich and poor.  Workers fought big steel and the railroads in episodes like the Homestead Massacre and the Pullman Strike.  The Panic of 1893 ushered in a seven-year depression, during which a desperate government turned to banker J.P. Morgan to save the nation's currency supply singlehandedly.  As is often true in hard times, anti-immigrant agitation reached an all-time high.  Crop failures in the South and West fueled the rise of the People's Party - better known as the "Populists"- calling for government ownership of railroad and communications, a graduated income tax, popular election of senators, direct primaries, ballot initiatives, referendums, the eight-hour day and currency reform.  When the Populists and Democrats came together to nominate William Jennings Bryan for the presidency in 1896, Republicans chose conservative William McKinley and managed to win thanks to enormous contributions from terrified businessmen fearing a wholesale revolt of the masses.

Bryan stampeded the Democratic convention by denouncing the indifference of the wealthy elite, thundering:  "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns.  You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."  Other candidates included Jerry Simpson, who won a Kansas Congressional campaign against a railroad lawyer by accusing his opponent of wearing silk stockings. When the lawyer coldly replied that silk stockings were better than none at all, Simpson sailed into office as "Sockless Jerry".  Cheering them on was Populist orator Mary Lease, famous for urging farmers to "raise less corn and more hell".  

The Republican side boasted wealthy industrialist and US Senator Mark Hanna of Ohio, McKinley's political mentor, campaign strategist, and money man. Hanna oversaw the first modern presidential campaign, most notable for outspending opponents 12 to 1.  

For most Americans the 1890's were terrifying-a decade of financial ruin, corrupt politicians, class conflict, and incipient revolution.  But they didn't lead to the catastrophe many expected.  Rather, they set the stage for the Progressive Era.  Contrary to popular belief, Progressivism wasn't so much a liberal crusade as it was a moderate response to threats posed by the 1890's.  Progressives sought reform rather than revolution - a revolution they were sure would erupt if reforms weren't enacted.  

Populists and others saw government as a solution to the ills of a complex industrial society characterized by huge income disparities and significant social unrest.  Today's Tea Partiers and others see government as the problem.  The larger point is that today's turmoil, like that of the 1890's, might very well usher in a period of moderate reform.
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