An Inquiry into the Career of a Populist
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By: Roger G. Kennedy

An Inquiry into the Career of a Populist

(populist then/populist now)

PopulistIgnatius Donnelly died of derision. Not his corpulent Red Irish body, which has survived so many blizzards and dust storms and endless haggling conventions and caucuses – his body died of a heart attack in his sixty-ninth year, two months after he lost his twenty-third election campaign. Nor did his spirit die – it animated the reforms of two Progressive decades built upon his four decades of agitation, and it went marching on into the agricultural policies of the New Deal. But his reputation, that part of his reality about which he cared most, his “darling reputation,” was buried under the ridicule of respectable politicians and journalist during his lifetime and respectable historians thereafter. Even during the liberal years, the 1930’s and 1940’s, Ignatius Donnelly, like William Jennings Bryan, was thought to be too much the hayseed Gracchus, too much the product of the pre-deodorant era, to please the fastidious urban intellectuals.

“Ignatius Donnelly” he was called at the end. He had led the Anti-Monopolists and the Greenbackers and the Grangers and the Populist, had lost so many campaigns for the Congress and the Senate and the Governorship and the Presidency that he had become a figure of fun. William Watts Folwell, the establishment historian of Minnesota, called his life a “dreary record.” Latter-day critics agreed: Richard Hofstadter said he had been a leader of “country cranks’; Eric Goldman said he “had a reputation of the kind of theories that too many nights on the prairie can produce.”

PopulistDuring Donnelly’s lifetime Folwell set him down as “discredited,” a “mountebank politician.” He was attacked from the Left: Everett Fish called him a “fat brute,” and Sidney Owen called him the “Benedict Arnold of Populism.” From the Right the St. Paul Pioneer Press said he was “like Judas Iscariot…a dictator (and) a dog”; the Mississippi Valley Lumberman called him a “dishonest political juggler’; and during a famous exchange of invective, the stately Elihu Washburne of Illinois accused him of taking bribes, of being an “office beggar,” a coward, liar, a populist, and criminal “whose record is stained with every fraud – whiskey and other frauds – a man, who has proved false alike to his friends, his constituents, his country, his religion, and his God.”

Donnelly was quite capable of sustaining this sort of discourse. He replied to Washburne seriatim, pausing upon the matter of office begging to note that four Washburne (or Washburn, they differed in their spelling) brothers had sat in the House of Representatives (Folwell piously notes “with honorable records”), and that “out of office they are miserable, wretched . . . as the famous stump-tailed bull in fly time . . . every young male of the gentleman’s family is born into the world with ‘M.C.’ (Member of Congress) flanked across his broadest part. The great calamity seems to be that God, in his infinite wisdom, did not make any of them broad enough for the letters “U.S.S.’ (U.S. Senate.”

Though Donnelly’s words were thought to have been so intemperate as to cast him beyond the pale of parliamentary discourse, Washburne’s did not cost him his power and place. Why the difference? The language of each was equally sulfurous. But Washburne was, according to Folwell, “distinguished,” rich, and related to other rich and distinguished men. Much could be forgiven him. Donnelly was poor and Irish, and did not recognize who might be his betters. A friend, Major Thomas N. Newson, reviewing Donnelly’s career, concluded that:

Had his sense of propriety or even policy enabled him to have endured the slings of his enemies quietly . . . it is possible he would have saved himself the opposition he has since encountered, but that would not have been Donnelly. He had the Celtic blood and the Irish spirit of resentment, and he resented what he felt was a wrong . . . . The combative elements of the man have kept him in political hot water for nearly twenty years.

Newson was writing in 1884. Actually, the water had been hot for thirty years, and remained at a slow boil for sixteen more. Another friend, Wilford L. Wilson, said that Donnelly had “fallen in the esteem of the cultivated, refined and religious people who largely make up the Republican party”; while Washburne and his brothers went on to greater eminence among these same people. Folwell, their spokesman, said that without Donnelly’s final paragraph “his own future and that of Minnesota politics would have been different from the dreary record.”

What was that record? Was it so dreary after all? Now that the tempers of a vehement generation have cooled, can the man, Ignatius Donnelly, be described without patronage or billingsgate?

Ignatius Donnelly was never part of a community in which his status was secure, in which peers steadily exchanged esteem and reassurance. If that is “an establishment,” none was ever open to him. From the outset he was an outsider. His father was an anticlerical Irish immigrant who had barely begun the practice of medicine in Philadelphia when he contracted typhus from a patient and died. The education of the children, like the medical schooling of the father, was financed through the pawnshop kept by the proud, stiff, domineering mother.

PopulistThe city was aglow at night, , but not with brotherly love. Long afterward Donnelly recalled that “Philadelphia was afflicted by many riots; riots between whites and blacks, between natives and foreigners, between the different churches and different fire companies.” Especially after the Panic of 1837, there were anti-Irish riots by the Native American, Know-Nothings who feared the competition for jobs  from the Irish newcomers. The Irish were accustomed to civil disorder. They had a long inheritance of suspicion and resentment of authority. And the Native Americans resented the Irish: “If an Irishman is hung for murder, his nativity is freely admitted,” Donnelly commented, “but if he distinguishes himself in an honorable walk of life, then it is discovered that h is Scotch-Irish.”

Ignatius Donnelly was proud of his heritage, though the signs DOGS AND IRISH, KEEP OUT were constant reminders of a bitter welcome – and as a non-Catholic who attended public schools, he was not a member of the “club of the Irish” either.

After high school he studied law in the aristocratic ménage of Benjamin Harris Brewster, who was to become Attorney General of Pennsylvania and later of the United States. Brewster and his clerks were courteous, correct, but distant. “I lived with them, as it were, per gratia. The bond of connection has never been a pleasant one – I sever it without regret,” he said after three years. Brewster and the Philadelphia upper classes were Whigs, and their party was infected with Know-Nothing hatred of the irish; significantly, Donnelly began his political career with a speech for the Democrats, in Independence Square, supporting an open immigration policy. He ran for the state legislature but finally supported the Whig candidate, who took a strong anti-Know-Nothing position. In June of 1856 he was supporting the Democrats again, attacking the Republicans and their Know-Nothing allies as “holding midnight council over the Irish and the Dutchman.”

Two years earlier he had married Kate MCaffrey, the daughter of a shop-owner, after a family dispute. His mother resisted the match, and he resisted her, finally deciding in 1856 to make a new start in the West.

The young Irishman went west on the make. He told a high-school friend that “money makes the man, the want of it the fellow.” He had seen enough of poverty. “Seneca praised the beauties of poverty, but Seneca had a large income. The beauties of poverty! It is nothing but unsatisfied wants, restricted capabilities, underdeveloped virtues.” One way to wealth was through real estate speculation. As a young lawyer in Philadelphia he had learned about land promotion, serving as an officer of five emigrant aid associations. He toured the new states of the Northwest and settled on Minnesota as the place to make his fortune: “What a beautiful land has the red man lost and the white man won”

populistHe had no sentimental feeling for the land in its primitive state. His was a dream of golden prairies turning green with dollar bills as the money-bearing settlers came upon it ready to pay well the man who had gotten there first. Donnelly saw the peaceful land “waiting for the crowding numbers and the clamorous competition of the human animal to flow in.” He arrived during the great land rush of the 1850’s. Emigration spilled out upon the land. In six years 140,000 people came flooding in where only 4,000 had been. A St. Paul newspaper said,” A very subordinate interest of attention was paid to farming, the interest of the community being principally absorbed in projects of speculation.” Donnelly went into partnership with John Nininger. Together they bought a thousand or more acres along the Mississippi fifteen miles southeast of St. Paul, attracted investors, and became “land sharks.” On the emigrant packet boats “Bill Mallen . . . with his marked cards, and Ingeneous Doemly (sic) with city lots on paper selling for a thousand dollars each” were equal hazards.

But Donnelly believed his own propaganda. Mortgage debt in the territory was growing form $22,553 in 1854 to $2,124,071 in 1858, and Donnelly borrowed with the rest to improve his cloud city (named Nininger, after his partner). Among a hundred houses built on the vast plat, he commenced a mansion for himself; in his fever  he thought he was a millionaire. After all, tax valuations in Minnesota had grown from $3,500,000 in 1854 to nearly $50,000,000 in 1857. Everybody was getting rich.

Then the bubble broke. In the summer of 1857 the credit system of the West collapsed. It was said that half the population of St. Paul retreated t the East. Hundreds of townsites returned to weeks, and in September of that bleak year Donnelly failed to pay his creditors. The collapse of 1857 had three crucial conseque3nces for him: it drove him back from prosperity, back into the arms of the debtors and the poor; it drove him into farming (for he had to do something with land which would never, now, contain a city); and it drove him back into full-time politics.

The Populist Donnelly, A disappointed land shark, was no more disposed toward idealism than before. “Self-defense is the first instinct of nature and the first duty to ourselves. A man who would take the clothes off his back to give his creditors would only be kicked for his pains.” He went to work to pay what he could, breaking with Nininger. While he was strengthening his emotional solidarity with the debtor class, he was, at the same time, dependent upon the patronage of Alexander Ramsey, governor of Minnesota and Nininger’s brother-in-law, who supplied him with legal work and was bringing him along politically. It was a convenience that his long-standing aversion to slavery coincided with Ramsey’s patronage, for in the pre-Civil War years he became an organization Republican. After two unsuccessful races for the Senate, he became Ramsey’s hand-picked lieutenant governor in 1859. He was off to a good start and persisted as a janissary for the Ramsey dynasty for nearly a decade. He shifted to the U. S. Congress in 1862, at the urging of his wife (“Money to live on and glory to die on,” she said), his creditors (“If I am (elected) I will be able to do something for you,” he said to them), and Ramsey. His three terms in Congress were demonstrations of his capacity to adjust to the moral, political, and economic depravity of wartime and Reconstruction. He was a typical Ramsey Radical Republican, covering railroad lobbying and personal speculation with empty patriotic forensics.

PopulistIn 1864 he sold to speculators information about government commodities dealings and took railroad stock in exchange for supporting land grants. In 1867 he took more stock for delaying the passage of a land grant until promoters could buy ripe townsites. In 1869 he was involved with General John C Fremont in the fraud of and bankruptcy involved in the promotion of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad. Throughout the period he was one of Jay Cooke’s chief congressional agents.

All the time, however, the bravura instincts of the rebel and outsider were driving him to seek his own conspicuous political position. He differed with Ramsey and the “dynasty” over the tariff issue, believing that high tariffs were penalizing consumers. He felt himself increasingly isolated from the millers, lumbermen, and railroad builders who were Elihu Washburne’s “Anglo_Saxon” friends. Through the St. Paul Glove he spoke of the “cold-blooded, purse-proud aristocracy characteristic of Washburne,” and he finally broke openly with Ramsey’s machine in both the House and the Senate campaigns of 1868. He still lobbied for Cooke; but in 1870 when he ran for Congress, supported by the Democrats and the “Peoples Party,” and lost again, Cooke’s contractors organized their men against him.

Donnelly was still not ready to make a complete break. Though he told a crowd that “railroads . . . were created to transport the commerce of the country, not to rule its politics or corrupt its laws,: he succumbed to the blandishing agents of Ramsey and returned to the Republican fold “like a drowned gopher.” He had committed no sin in his flirtation with the Democrats, he told a convention, for, like a boy caught fishing on the Sabbath, “I hain’t ketched nuthin’.”

His reconciliation was deceptive. Ramsey’s intermediaries feared Donnelly’s nature, which one of them called “sanguine – pugnacious,” and they were right. Donnelly was moving to the left, impelled by character and by his experience on the farming frontier (which reinforced his predilections) to assume more and more the role of the paladin of the down-trodden farmer – a role that, despite many changes of his party uniform, he never abandoned for the rest of his life.

Consider the strange, halting, anguished progress of Ignatius Donnelly’s romance with the farmer. He was a son of the city, no lover of open country, a rustic in spite of himself. He had found  himself forced to find another use for land intended for a town. Only then did he resort to farming. Even after he had tried t supervise his tenants at Nininger and had started an agricultural society, his speeches were still those of a physiocrat rather than a sodbuster.

In 1864 he was still using the rhythms of his Philadelphia speeches, invoking the image of a golden bridge between the hungry masses of Europe and a billion empty acres on this side of the Atlantic. But he retained his skepticism about the agrarian illusions of the eighteenth century and of contemporary romantics. After the frontier had been put under the plow, he knew that dumping millions of unprepared townsmen upon the land would not make them into free and independent yeomen, no matter how many congressional incantations were made over their heads. Idealism without aid in the form of tools and money and education did not impress him. “A human being on 80 acres of unimproved land is as helpless as if he were on 80 acres of water – in fact more so, for he could get a fishing line and probably catch something eat.” Land was no ennobling habitat; it was a commodity like any other.

The farmer had gone into the West persuaded of his special virtue. The national romance, taught by Thomas Jefferson, had schooled him so. By the 1890’s he had been persuaded by deflation and adversity of his special tribulation. He rose up in the Greenback and Granger and Populist movements, and inarticulate, he sought a voice. For forty hears, as the great parties vacillated between the requirements of silver lobbyists and gold lobbyists – and there were many who did not comprehend and many who did not care – Ignatius Donnelly gave the farmer a voice. He spoke too often and too loud, but more often than not he was right in what he said.

PopulistThe real Ignatius Donnelly, city-bred and reluctant farmer, is an inconvenience to those who would employ him as a stock figure of rustic romantic. Literary historians like Larzer Ziff, who write with clarity and compassion about urban social critics, are made uncomfortable by Donnelly’s apocalyptic novel, Caesar’s Column, written during a period of despair when he feared that the just resentments of the famers and workers would find no redress from the plutocracy. Ziff winces at what he calls “the familiar high-flown changes on biblical rhetoric . . . the romantic lyrics of the cardboard motto, written to be sung to the accompaniment of the melodeon: of Donnelly’s preamble to the Populist platform of 1892. Ziff deprecates Donnelly further as “romantic in a relatively unconscious fashion,” unable to take a roundhouse swing at social problems because reality was for him “cushioned.” His “imagination,” it seems, “still lingered in an Eden of sentimental patriotism.” He and the rest of “rural America” were “naïve and sullenly defensive,” believing that if foreign conspiracies would pass away there would be “an Eden regained.” It might be well at this point to take a look at the “Eden” that Donnelly knew.

The 1870’s were a gloomy period in his political career. He had been reduced “to his fists and his backbone.” He borrowed money and once again went to farming an unbroken prairie in Stevens County, where there was no glade, no sheltering oak or pine to break the wind sweeping down from the Arctic. The land cost a dollar an acre, but three times as much was required to break the sod with a steel plow. His recourse to full-time farming opened him to the ridicule of his urban enemies. They enjoyed the spectacle of Donnelly working his land. Said the St Paul Pioneer Press: “Woe to the usurer, the wheat scalper, or the grasshopper that tries to pitch his tent therein.” Grasshoppers were no joke to the farmer that year. The Rocky Mountain locust fell upon Stevens County. In the towns, “the very lawns (were) eaten bare by them, the wheat-fields were ravaged.” Farmers desperately tried to drive them off by dragging ropes or to destroy them with coal tar and sheet-iron scoops. It was no “romantic” dream of an American “Eden” that Donnelly saw, but a bitter, often brutal reality. He knew, and said, precisely who benefited from the pricing policies, monetary policies, and excessive economic power under which the farmer suffered; those who sold supplies and lent money to farmers and those who bought his produce and carried it to market.

It is by now a truism that Donnelly wrote the most pungent documents of the Populist revolt. He animated the councils of that party, and hi oratory could still rouse a crowd. Though John Hicks, Populism’s historian, scored him for “florid rhetoric,” Donnelly’s words forced understanding – the abuses against 3which they were directed would not have yielded to sweet diffidence. The call for initiative, referendum, and direct primaries was heeded, and Hicks himself sums up the era with the statement that Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential “messages read like the preamble to the Populist platform” – which was written by Ignatius Donnelly fifteen years before.

populistsThe contribution made by Populism to Progressivism is acknowledged even by those who persist in downgrading Populism. But, what of Donnelly’s radical views on the money question? It is  upon the money question that he, and the Greenbackers, Alliancemen, and Populists he led, have been most severely derided. Just how silly were his monetary views: Was he a realist, laboring to meet needs in practical ways, or was he a fool? Upon the answer to these questions must rest the reputation of Ignatius Donnelly.

His views on Greenbacks (paper money not redeemable in gold) and on the use of silver as a standard for currency were ridiculed in his day and afterward, but they appear more sensible today. The economic history of his time is being re-written by a new generation of economists, headed by Milton Friedman, making new schedules with new data spewed from computers. In general, what Donnelly said was true, though it sounded shocking at the time. During the period from 1865 to 1895 the Midwestern farmer was forced by national monetary policy to borrow in “100 cent” dollars and repay in 125, 150, 200 or, in long term, 300 cent dollars, plus interest. There was a deliberate and often successful effort by creditors to sustain a national policy that would give them extraordinary profits, beyond interest on their loans. There was frequent and successful recourse to a corruptible national congress by powerful financial interest to defeat efforts to even out the purchasing power of the dollar. In the process speculative fortunes were made in precious metals.

It was the supply of money that interested the farmer. He lost the fight, by Grant’s veto, to keep the Greenbacks in circulation, and he slowly lost his supply of bank notes as prudent bankers withdrew them. (Bank notes in circulation fell from 339,000,000 in 1873 to 168,000,000 in 1891.)

Unfortunately, the “supply of money” issue became confused with the sideshow over free silver. “Bimetalism” was distracting, and ultimately fatal, to the farmer’s fight for a growing, not contracting, money supply. Donnelly always saw it so and resisted to the end the reduction of the reformer’s platform of a dozen or more specific measures to the narrow question of the free coinage of silver. But the financial pressure of the silver magnates and the urge of politics toward simplification were too great for him; and in the 1890’s when gold suddenly became cheaper, the whole effort to assure a congruence of economic growth with growth in the currency supply was put to sleep by the formal return to the Gold Standard in 1900. Fresh discoveries of gold in South Africa, Colorado, and the Klondike, and new ways of extracting gold from ore (like the cyanide process), made it “cheap,: and with cheap gold came higher prices. Thus a gold standard became palatable, and the issue Donnelly had persisted in raising seemed, for a decade or two, moot.

Donnelly’s position, however, had been consistent, and today is once again interesting.

If silver was remonetized, there are still vastly important questions of government paper money, of an abundant currency, of land, and of transportation . . . We all believe that metallic currency is a temporary expedient – a relic of barbarism, but so long as either metal is to be sued we insist that both be used, because both constitute a larger and more abundant currency. . . . (We must) divorce the idea of money totally from any metallic commodity; to make the measure of values rest entirely upon the . . .  power of government . . . We do not believe in commodity money (whether based on ) gold, silver, brass, lead, wheat or potatoes, but as long as gold is continued to be sued, we insist that its ancient colleague, silver, shall be sued with it as a matter of justice to the debtor class.

There is a solid and fairly respectable group of economists who hold that the nation would have been better off it had not abandoned the Greenback policy of the Civil War years or had chosen silver rther than gold as the standard Populistof its currency. The statistical evidence is this: Throughout the post-Civil War period, western farmers were heavy borrowers. In 1890, for example, the census showed that, though it was a relatively poor state, Kansas had the highest ration of mortgage debt to true value of taxed real estate of any state except prosperous New York. Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Minnesota were all within the top nine states in these rations. In Kansas and North Dakota that year, there was a mortgage for every two people, in South Dakota, Nebraska, and Minnesota one to every three. In many wheat counties total mortgage debt was close to 75 percent of true valuation.

During the same period the dollar was appreciating in value against a cost index largely made up of farm products. Alex M. Arnett has shown that if the dollar’s “commodity value” were set at a base of 100 in 1865, it reached 200 in 1876, 250 in 1885, and 300 in 1894. Milton Friedman surveyed the period of 1867-1960 and concluded that deflation was so severe in the post-Civil War decade that “in no other period did wholesale prices fall so continuously at so high a rate” and that “prices fell at a rate of over 1% a year from 1879 to 1897.” The consequences to the farmer were two-fold: the weight of his debts doubled and redoubled, and the value of his crop shriveled. Arnett suggest that, because of deflation, the burden of a five-year debt grew during the period when most of the agricultural Northwest was being settled and debt incurred by the following amounts: 1865-69 by 35 percent, 1870-1874 by 19.7 percent, 1875-79 by 4.5 percent, 1888-90 by more than 11 percent. During the same period, naturally enough, it took fewer and fewer dollars to buy wheat and corn, so the farmer’s return for his labor diminished. Wheat prices wobbled downward from 106.7 for the years 1870-73 to 100.6cents in 1878-81, 80.2cents for 1882-85, 74.8 cents for 1886-89, 70.9 cents for 1890-93 and 63.3cents for 1894-97. Prices so low as 45cnets a bushel were not unknown.

We, in the middle of the twentieth century, are so accustomed to inflation as a concomitant of economic growth that it is difficult for us to acknowledge that the explosion of economic energies and the outpouring of production that occurred in the last half of the last century occurred during a long deflation, and that his was true in large measure because the national government, largely in the hands of creditors and heavily influenced by international financiers, wanted it that way.

PopulistIn 1865 Secretary of the Treasury McCullogh called for a return to “constitutional currency,” meaning a gold standard. The farming West had expanded rapidly to meet the needs of wartime, borrowing Greenbacks to do so, and McCullogh was using pious words to espouse a tax upon debtors. The government had issued paper money, not redeemable in gold, and the chief business of the states east of the Rockies was being done in such currency. McCullogh’s “return” meant that he and his financial friends were determined to force repayment in gold by depreciating the currency. Friedman and his colleagues have demonstrated that the money stock fell “precipitously” from 1867 to 1879; not until the 1931-39 period “was there anything like it.” Then after a “deflation of 50% (that) took place over the course of the decade and a half after 1865,” leaders of the farmers, like Donnelly, abandoned their wary view of deflation (Donnelly had been for a mild, slow return to pre-war prices) and came out fighting.

Talk of “constitutional currency” did not impress Donnelly; he had found no cause for deflation in that document. He saw the real need to be providing enough money to do the nation’s business so that prices did not fall sharply and the burden of debt did not swell to panic proportions: “What the nation wants is prosperity. Money is a mere incident – a means of exchange.” He wanted no more fiscal pieties about the constitution; he wanted debt to be repaid in the same currency it had obtained from the lender. “Can you keep a room warm next winter, with the thermometer at 30 below zero, by reciting the Declaration of Independence?” he asked.

But President Grant, in the midst of this deflation, was persuaded after a series of conferences with New Your bankers to veto a bill passed by both houses of congress to permit continued, but limited, issue of irredeemable currency, calling it an “inflation bill.” Deflation continued, and at the same time the national economy boomed. The period 18867-79 saw the greatest railroad expansion in the nation’s history, freight through the New York lines quintupled basic industrial production nearly doubled. In the 1880’s (Simon Kuznets has computed) grow and net national product rose more than in any other comparable period in the nation’s history.

The consequence was as Dr. Friedman puts it, that ‘an unusually rapid rise in output converted an unusually slow rate of rise in the stock of money into a rapid decline in prices.” In 1887 a less sophisticated farm journalist put it in simpler terms: “There is something wrong in our . . . system. The railroads have never been so prosperous, and yet agriculture languishes. The banks have never done better . . . and yet agriculture lanquishes. Manufacturing enterprises never made more money . . . and yet agriculture languishes. Towns and cities flourish and ‘boom’ . . . yet agriculture languishes.”

It has been argued that Donnelly saw the monetary policies of the government too much in terms of conspiracies of bankers and international financial speculators, and some critics like Richard Hofstadter, have sniggered at his fear of the power of such conspiracies. Yet Donnelly knew the legislatures of the period very intimately. Like a reformed drunkard, a reformed recipient of bribes and a reformed agent of commodity speculators can be unusually conscious of the temptations of sin. He knew the potency of money and the pliancy of policy to its requirements. It was not only that he had watched the government of the United States twice go begging to private bankers to support its credit (in the Civil War period when Jay Cooke managed the national bond issues – for a substantial profit – and in 195 when J. P. Morgan and August Belmont helped Grover Cleveland survive a gold crisis – for a substantial profit.) He knew also that international gold brokers and the holders of gold securities had influenced national policy, year in and  year out; and even the less forceful silver interests were occasionally capable of rallying congressional strength to secure fat speculative profits (as they did for a few weeks during and after the passage of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890).

The momentary policy of the United States could be manipulated during the Grant administration and the Cleveland administration, and in between, by small groups of powerful men who may have been wise but were certainly not disinterested. In fact, there is now a substantial though not dominate, body of opinion that would agree with Dr. Friedman, (and Ignatius Donnelly) that ‘on the whole the adoption of silver would have been preferable (to an early commitment to gold because) it would have been moderated or eliminated deflationary tendancies here (and) . . . in the world at large.” And that a commitment to either would have been better than the “uneasy compromise that was maintained.” Professor Friedman has long advocated relinguishing the gold standard again – it has not, or course, been with us very long – and he has carried with him many who today believe that the primary object of monetary policy should be “an abundant currency” growing with the economy at an orderly rate.

The harangues of the Greenbackers and the Populists of the period were based, more often than not, upon fact. The abuses they pictured cried out for cure. Donnelly has been portrayed as a windbag, but he was a shrewd and often successful legislator. After his “drowned gopher” return to Republicans in 1871, he induced them to adopt a platform calling for tariff reform (the issue upon which he had broken with Ramsey) and a graduated income tax. Though he failed during the 1870’s to find the right ticket to congress or the Senate (he ran as a Republican. As a Democrat. And as an Anti-Monopolist), it is also true that during those years as a state legislator he succeeded in writing laws to achieve his practical objectives. The St. Paul Press ranted that he “rules the Senate with lawless license of demagogic deviltry, as was commune-governed Paris.” While he pushed through a series of reforms that gave strength to the farmer in their struggle against the railroads and grain merchants. Russell Nye falls into the common habit of derogating Donnelly. It is not true that those reforms “all failed.”  Some passed immediately, some in later sessions. In 1877, for example, he forced the passage of a usury law over bitter opposition, and then a measure requiring some protection against “snap foreclosures” of chattel mortgages.

He was no heedless demagogue, careless of the sparks struck by his words. In 1877, a year of unemployment and hunger, class hatred exploded in terrorism, insurrection, and pitched battles between militia and strikers. Though he sympathized with the resentment of the hungry unemployed, he decried their violence. In Caesar’s Column, he showed he feared bloodshed, and he took a moderate position during similar outbreaks in 1893. “The remedy is not to be found in violence . . . a single drop of blood would disgrace our civilization.” He worked steadily and effectively for thirty years to attack specific injustices with legislative remedies. Even in the middle of 1880’s after the Granger movement died like a tired warhorse beneath him, and he was slogging along ahead of the threadbare Farmers Alliance, he still had the respect of the Republicans. Once again Mr. Nye is unjust; Donnelly did not “climb aboard” the Alliance bandwagon. He started it.  Even the hostile Folwell had to admit how significant was his espousal of the program.  “The Republican convention listened to the overture and to Donnelly’s delicious blarney and straitway lifted into their platform substantially all the ‘demands’ of the Alliance and its associates.”

It may be that this posthumous appreciation is of some satisfaction to the spirit of Ignatius Donnelly, but in his last years he was poor, exhausted, and powerless. Many of his opponents recognizing that he was beaten, treated him better than have some recent writers. He was an old man who had achieved dignity, had turned his back upon easy acceptance, and had stood by his principles in a remarkably unprincipled age. The rich, powerful, and respectable to do not treat ridiculous and repudiated antagonist with affectionale respect, and at the end there are several occurrences that seem to show how the, despite their public utterances, did not feel him to be contemptible.

In 1895 Donnelly stepped down as leader of the Farmers Alliance. He returned from the last session of the annual meeting to sit alone, eating dinner in the dinning hall of the Brunswick Hotel in Minneapolis. He was too fat, too scarred, too shabby to be an impressive figure. Then H. C. Long, the new chief of the Alliance, came into the room and asked him to join many of his old friends and antagonists in the hotel’s parlor. There they presented him with a pen, and Long said, “May it be sued unhesitatingly against the enemies of your cause.” As Martin Ridge describes the scene: “Before Donnelly could reply, Major J.M. Bowler, who had known him as a political friend and foe for thirty-seven years, also presented him with a gold-headed cane. Donnelly was deeply touched. ‘I assure you that I have always tried to do right,’ he responded. ‘I know I am not infallible . . . I am not used to a cane.’”

During the previous year Donnelly had privately received evidence of the personal esteem of the most frequent butt of his polemics against the railroads, James J. Hill, and of his political agent in the Democratic party, Michael Doran. Kate Donnelly had been ill for a long time. In June she died. The grieving Donnelly was crippled with rheumatism. His eldest son, Stan, had cared for his mother, and himself exhausted, required medical care. Ignatius Donnelly was in deep financial trouble; these illnesses had drained his small reserve. In this extremity, not only Hill, through his son-in-law, but Doran as well offered to help. Hard men like these, who had learned contempt for most office-seekers, certain that Donnelly was beyond the reach of their influence even in misfortune, would not volunteer aid to him unless he had their respect.

In the summer of 1900 Donnelly, with sixty-eight years behind him, was having trouble getting all the way through his speeches in support of the presidential ticket headed by Bryan. He noted that though “my hair is not yet gray . . . my legs are weak.” Just as the new year began, on the morning of January 1, 1901, he died. His pallbearers were “some of the most distinguished business and political leaders of Minnesota – some of whom had been his bitterest political enemies.”

It is well to remember Ignatius Donnelly as he was at the peak of his career,  in the 1880’s when Major Newson described him: “Mr. Donnelly looks and acts like a  young Falstaff, with a round, chubby face, a round, well-developed body, and round, chubby hands . . . one not knowing him would take him to be a jolly bishop . . . As a man he is very social . . . bubbling over with good humor and anecdote . . .his hearty laugh is like the cholera, very contagious . . . In debate he is a stubborn, able political opponent; fearless . . . and decided in his convictions; remarkably ready in repartee and inexhaustible in resources.”

Donnelly was a man whose hopes for wealth and eminence had died early, who had seen crops turn brown and shrivel in drought years, and ripe wheat consumed by locusts. He was an “outsider” who lost more efforts at office than ten men might try, and though he had passed through a “dreary period” as a member of a corrupt machine, his generous instincts , combative temper, and unflinching realism had made him a hero to the farmers he led. Some critics have found it amusing to quote Donnelly’s exclamation that he was proud to be “one man proclaiming truth year after year,” though few listened. Such sentiments were –  and are – unfashionable accents. Silly plays like “Inherit the Wind” have sought to make those who used these biblical accents seem silly, but William Jennings Bryan and Ignatius Donnelly were brave men, contending for justice against hosts of error and larger hosts of indifference. It is pleasant for well-fed urban liberals to chortle over rural reformers grown old, depicted without dignity upon the stage. But in the days of their glory, of their long and sweaty struggle to bring justice to the West, these men and been giants. In the armor of a righteous cause – despite their lapses and their excesses – they are proof, even today, against the derision of their detractors.

Editor’s Note: There have been few periods in the history of the West more thoroughly convulsive than that between 1880 and 1900, a time when all the agonies of class conflict in America found sharp focus in the plight of the western farmer, whose dream of a Jeffersonian Eden had been mutilated by reality _ and, in his view, by the villainous manipulation of money-lenders and capitalists. The period gave birth to Populism, one of the most significant political movements in western history, and one that would have a profound effect on both major parties, even while the presidential campaigns of the party’s leader, William Jennings Bryan, went down to defeat.

If William Jennings Bryan was Populism’s messiah, then Ignatius Donnelly was its prophet. A pragmatic politician first schooled in the ward-heeling atmosphere of eastern politics and later educated in the grasping, frequently brutal politics of semi-frontier Minnesota in the 1860’s and 1870’s. Donnelly escaped the bounds of an often sordid past to become the most articulate voice of western discontent – a vocal, vigorous, and effective spokesman for the rights of men who found themselves at the mercy of forces beyond their control or comprehension. History has too often remembered this Irish activist as a literary amateur, a vague dreamer, and an impractical “hayseed Gracchus,” whose social and economic theories were the effusions of a utopian fantasist. In the essay that follows, Roger Kennedy reminds us that Donnelly was far more of a power in his place and time than his critics have admitted, and that his “utopian” economic schemes may well have been precisely correct.

An Inquiry into the Career of a Populist!

Author: Roger G. Kennedy

An Inquiry into the Career of a Populist
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