Monday, October 5, 2015

Elections and the Old West

Last month, the caving walls of our economy (well, stock market) provided a starting point for exploring how those current facts may have existed, or not, during the time period of my current novel (1883 - 1887). The facts and the musings gave me the blog and, in the month that followed, gave me two opportunities to use this (newfound) knowledge of the circumstances prevailing at the time. Western Fictioneers are dealing with universal truths. Men who have a hard time getting a job sometimes do things they would not do if they had a job.

Since my current novel’s action is partially determined by Washington’s legislative reach out into the West, it struck me that the 2016 elections coming up provided another relevant opportunity to understand the times in which my characters lived.

Again, I invite you to take a not too scholarly, but not fictional, glimpse.

Where to start? Action in 1883 started with the nomination, election, and assassination of James A. Garfield. Less than four months into his term, he was shot at 9:30 a.m. on July 2, 1881, at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. The second president to be assassinated, he was succeeded by his vice-president, Chester A. Arthur.

List of Presidents
Year Name No.
1892 Grover Cleveland (D) 24
1888 Benjamin Harrison (R)* 23
1884 Grover Cleveland (D) 22
1881-85 Chester A. Arthur (R) 21
1880 James Garfield (R) 20
1876 Rutherford B. Hayes (R) 19
*Cleveland won popular vote 5.53M v. 5.44M,
lost electoral college 168 v. 233.

Chester Alan Arthur was an attorney, machine politician, and v.p. nominee by virtue of his ticket balancing New York residence. Generally viewed as a hack of little luster or few values, he was one of the remarkable few who entered office with a lower reputation than he left it. Lincoln biographer, Alexander McClure, reputedly wrote, "No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted, and no one ever retired ... more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe." 

Suffering from poor health, Arthur made but a limited effort to secure the Republican Party's nomination in 1884.  That proved a serious drawback for the Republicans.

Arthur’s health paved the way for Maine Senator James G. Blaine to win the nomination over the – my personal editorial comment – scurrilous Senator George F. Edmunds of Vermont. By then, of course, Edmunds had won his fame and infamy for the 1882 Edmunds Act – that plays a central role in the action of my novel that starts in 1883.

President Grover Cleveland
The Mugwumps

Taken together, and by giving the nation the Mugwumps, Blaine delivered to the Democrats something they had not had since 1856 - the election of a Democrat as President of the United States. Although we may decry today’s dirty politics, this campaign reached the heights of exceptional political acrimony and personal invective. Nevertheless, New York Governor, Grover Cleveland broke the longest losing streak for any major party in American political history: six consecutive presidential elections.

As a matter of interest, that lovely name, title, and epithet, The Mugwumps, belonged to the Republican political activists who bolted from the party and supported Cleveland. They switched parties because they rejected the financial corruption associated with Republican candidate, Blaine (and remember, he was nominated over an even worse candidate, Edmunds.)

With real political acuity, the Mugwumps chose a close election to bolt and made the difference in New York state and swung the election to Cleveland. (The word still finds use when describing persons who are "sanctimonious" or "holier-than-thou," in holding themselves aloof from party politics.)  (One further footnote, Theodore Roosevelt did not bolt, preferring to clear the way for his own political aspirations and hold himself pure until he bolted for his much bigger dissident party, The Bull Moose Party, in 1912.)  (Oops, perhaps accuracy requires noting it was actually called the Progressive Party.

The Mugwumps considered Blaine to be an untrustworthy and fraudulent candidate. Their idealism and reform sensibilities led them to oppose the political corruption in the politics of the Gilded Age.

Notwithstanding his breakthrough, Grover Cleveland was not to have it easy. And yet, in his trials, he achieved another first: the first president to split his first and second term with the incumbency of another man of another party.

Benjamin Harrison (R), a former Senator from Indiana, won the presidency despite the Democratic
candidate's greater share of the popular vote. (A situation repeated in the 2000 election.). For the 26th quadrenni
President Benjamin Harrison
al presidential election, the economy was prosperous and the nation was at peace, and Cleveland may have lost because he strenuously denounced high tariffs as unfair to consumers. His opposition to Civil War pensions and inflated currency made few friends among veterans and farmers.

The general election in 1888 elected the members of the 51st United States Congress. North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming were admitted during the 51st Congress. This election was the first time that one party had won a majority in both chambers of Congress since the 1874 elections.   Note that after the election of 1888, only Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Oklahoma remained as territories, not yet Western states.  
Electoral College 1888

The presidential election of 1888 also produced seven additional parties and nominations for president, namely, Prohibition Party, Union Labor Party, United Labor Party, Greenback Party (perhaps the most famous and with this election, it ceased to exist), the American Party, the Equal Rights Party (with a male nominee), and the Industrial Reform Party.

Relevance to my 1883 - 1887?

My Fugitive Sheriff deals with the Edmunds Act, the Edmunds-Tucker Act, just about every carpet bagging U.S. Marshal who rides the West in search of bounty created by Congress in Washington.  Presidents campaigned and Congresses were elected and the people settling the West barely had a voice (as can clearly be seen from the electoral college map.)  Still, their destiny was determined all of these electoral forces.  Some of it I already show in my stories and more I hope to discover.

E-mail Edward Massey with comments, author of 2014 Gold Quill winner, Every Soul Is Free and Amazon ABNA 2009 Quarter-finalist, Telluride Promise.


  1. Great information. Thanks for sharing. I probably studied this in high school, but I've slept since then. Also, I doubt the classroom offered the insight of your article.

    Robyn Echols w/a Zina Abbott

  2. Thanks, Zina,
    I suspect it is a little low on insight, but I hope it gives some background on the political environment our wonderful characters found influencing their daily lives.

  3. The world of politics has always been colorful. The more things change...