Two-Party Politics in the One-Party South: Alabama's Hill Country, 1874-1920

Two-Party Politics in the One-Party South: Alabama's Hill Country, 1874-1920

by Samuel L. Webb

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817359232
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 05/22/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 300
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Samuel L. Webb is professor emeritus of history at The University of Alabama at Birmingham. He coedited Alabama Governors: A Political History of the State.

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The Old Guard and the Populists

Roosevelt ... had a special genius for phrasing and for galvanizing the progressive temper, and progressivism, for all its internal contradictions and doctrinal vagaries, gave a twentieth century thrust and cadence to the tradition of American reform. It translated Jacksonian precepts into a language relevant to an industrial nation.

John Morton Blum

The presidential election of 1912 featured major candidates from three parties and was one of the most exciting in American history. The Progressive, or "Bull Moose," party nominated former President Theodore Roosevelt after Republicans denied him their nomination. This new party, formed in part by Republicans opposed to the conservatism and patronage policies of President William Howard Taft, gained momentum from the exposure of shady tactics used by Taft's agents to deny Roosevelt the nomination. Some Taft delegates to the national GOP convention in Chicago presented dubious credentials, and their right to be seated was challenged by Roosevelt. Taft's supporters governed the GOP national committee and the convention, and they "displayed blatant highhandedness in awarding nearly every contested seat" to their man. One of the most heated delegate quarrels concerned Alabama's delegation.

When Republicans from Alabama's Ninth Congressional District met in March 1912 in Birmingham, a majority chose delegates to the June national convention pledged to Roosevelt, but a pro-Taft group left the meeting, chose their own slate, and claimed to be the legitimate Ninth District delegation. Roosevelt supporters offered compelling evidence to both the GOP national committee and the convention, evidence that demonstrated that Taft was not the choice of most Ninth District Republicans, yet Taft's group was officially seated. Roosevelt, who said that Taft's men acted with "scandalous disregard of every principle of elementary honesty and decency," was especially mad about the decision on the Alabama delegation.

After Taft's first-ballot renomination, Roosevelt's delegates decamped to a nearby hall and formed their new party. Among those who escorted Roosevelt to the platform of the rump convention was Birmingham attorney Oscar R. Hundley, one of the Ninth District Roosevelt delegates rejected by the Republicans. Insurgents shouted encouragement to their charismatic leader, who said he would be their candidate even if only one state supported him.

A struggle to save the GOP from irreparable division shifted back to the state level when Taft's supporters went home to urge local party members not to jump ship, but they failed to stop the formation of state Progressive parties. The disagreement in the Ninth District further divided Alabama's Republicans, and pro-Roosevelt dissidents created Alabama's Progressive party at a Birmingham convention on July 24, 1912. They selected delegates to the new party's national convention, which met two weeks later.

The Progressive party national convention resembled a giant evangelical revival. Delegates sang "Onward Christian Soldiers" and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Speakers regaled the crowd with the rhetoric of uplift. A leading Socialist charged those who wrote the party's platform with stealing "half the working program of the Socialist party." Roosevelt told delegates that their righteous cause would triumph even if he lost. "We stand," he said, "at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord."

Despite the high moral tone, those with sinister motives mingled with the pure of heart beneath the new political tent. Republican political hacks concerned about losing patronage under Taft, and steel industry executives thankful to Roosevelt for looking the other way when the United States Steel monopoly was formed during his presidency, shared convention seats with social workers, left-wing intellectuals, and reform politicians such as Governor Hiram Johnson of California, who became Roosevelt's running mate. An "outward unity" masked splits between urban progressives from the East, whose reform ideas did not include breaking up big business, and western or southern men who feared monopolies and supported trust busting.

Roosevelt was not as committed to radical reforms as he wanted to appear. His largest campaign contributions came from wealthy businessmen whose ideology sharply conflicted with left-leaning reformers, but if he was not sincere, sophisticated progressives such as Learned Hand, Felix Frankfurter, and William Allen White, all of whom flocked to Roosevelt's standard, were badly fooled. "You could see," Frankfurter said of Roosevelt, "that he just sort of jumped out and was going to lead the armies of regeneration. All this about 'We stand at Armageddon,' wasn't just flapdoodle. That's the way he felt."

The fact that Roosevelt had the heart of an aristocrat meant little to people who believed he spoke for them against selfish special interests. He had popularized reform by suing monopolies, attacking "malefactors of great wealth," calling for railroad regulation, and sympathizing with workers in labor disputes. He argued that the rights of labor were prior to those of capital, supported workers' compensation, and denounced child labor. Such attitudes broke with the pro-business views of past presidents of both parties. Taft was anti-labor; supported the use of the federal antitrust law to enjoin labor union activities; backed the dictatorial reign of the reactionary leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, "Uncle Joe" Cannon; refused to join progressive Republicans in an effort to protect American consumers from high tariffs; and backed away from Roosevelt's controversial forest conservation policies. Taft's administration actually sued more monopolies under the antitrust law than had Roosevelt's, but progressives viewed Teddy as a symbol of reform and Taft as an inept tool of reactionary "Old Guard" Republicans.

Alabama's GOP leaders faced the same difficult decision as Republicans from other states. They could remain loyal to Taft and their party, despite its fatal split, and maintain good standing with the party hierarchy or risk losing their influence in the party by supporting Roosevelt's crusade, which had little chance of success. Despite the common dilemma, the various state parties did not mirror one another. Each one had grown out of a distinctive history, developed its own peculiarities, and contained unique personalities. State and local factors did have an impact on the nominees Republicans finally chose. The history of southern Republican parties is too often ignored because they operated in states dominated by Democrats, yet an understanding of why Alabama's Republican activists chose Roosevelt or Taft and the special role Upcountry leaders played in that choice can be gained only by examining the party's varied internal forces.

When the presidential campaign got under way in September of 1912, Prelate Demeck Barker could have been labeled the most successful Republican politician in Alabama's history despite never having won a single office in an election. He had come to Alabama from Connecticut at age twenty-two in 1857, established southern credentials by serving in the Confederate army, and was thereafter known to associates as "the Major." He was trained as a lawyer, but after the war he worked in various areas of the cotton business in Montgomery and Mobile and briefly sojourned as an executive with a petroleum refining company in New York City.

An active Alabama Republican since the early 1870s, Barker was a delegate to eight GOP national conventions between 1876 and 1912, served several terms on the state Republican executive committee, was appointed state collector of internal revenue by Republican presidents from Grant to Harrison, became Mobile's postmaster under President McKinley, and retained that job under both Roosevelt and Taft. He was a sensitive man, jealous of his status, and quick to anger. By the fall of 1912 he was both furious and bewildered. The acute strategic sense that had led to his control of the state Republican party since the spring of 1911 had deserted him, and real danger existed that Alabama Republicans, by a wide margin, would bolt their party and choose Roosevelt. Barker was a member of the Republican national committee, governing body of the party, and Taft's man in Alabama. Only Democrats could win statewide elections in Alabama, but if Roosevelt won a majority of Alabama's non-Democratic voters, Barker would be embarrassed.

The major worked assiduously to insure that when the election was over he would remain Alabama's premier Republican. Such zestful politicking by a younger man would have been understandable, but at age seventy-seven, Barker's career should have been winding down. He had been granted rewarding positions by his party for more than forty years, yet he was especially driven in 1912. Past honors had not blunted his personal ambition, which shone through in letters he wrote to party operatives, but he was also motivated to protect his longtime GOP political friends and benefactors and to justify their long stewardship of Alabama's Republican party.

Barker was the quintessential representative of men who had been active in the state Republican hierarchy since Reconstruction. Until just after the turn of the new century they had controlled the party, doled out patronage plums handed down from national GOP administrations, and divided party offices among themselves. Like Barker, few of them had ever run for office. They were motivated by a desire for federal office and their traditional roles in GOP national conventions. They had long since jettisoned any hope of making their party a serious challenger to Democrats in statewide elections, which no Republican had won since 1872. They were, said one observer, "pie counter" Republicans, or men whose sole reason for political activism was their desire for "political pie."

The history of the "Old Guard," as they were often referred to, was exemplified in the careers of Charles Waldron Buckley and Joseph W. Dimmick of Montgomery, Morris D. Wickersham of Mobile, and Julian H. Bingham of Talladega. Buckley, Wickersham, and Dimmick were all natives of northern states, had served in the Union army, and moved to Alabama after the Civil War. Bingham was a native Alabamian, but he was the son of a Reconstruction Radical Republican. Each man made a career out of gaining federal offices, including such positions as Montgomery's postmaster, state collector of internal revenue, and chief clerk of the United States district court. They were never without a "place" while Republicans controlled the executive branch of the national government.

The Old Guard lost their power in 1904 when a new group of men, loyal to Theodore Roosevelt, won the state party offices and seized control of federal patronage. Some of the old leaders died, and Barker was one of the few who remained in office under Roosevelt, but he was determined to oust the upstarts and put control of the party back into the hands of safe conservative men with strong ties to old party leaders. Barker achieved his goal by the summer of 1911, but only after several years of intense intraparty warfare.

The accession of Roosevelt to the presidency in 1901 marked the beginning of the Old Guard's problems. Roosevelt was not ideologically palatable to the dominant conservative hierarchy of his party, but his popularity with voters insulated him from a serious challenge for the GOP nomination in 1904. Doubts about his commitment to traditional Republican beliefs ranked second among Alabama's Old Guard to their concerns about Roosevelt's refusal to accommodate their patronage demands. In 1903 the president began to funnel patronage through a rising new group of Alabama Republicans, many of whom were very young. Sometimes he even appointed Democrats to significant offices.

Roosevelt also demanded that blacks be included in party meetings and that they receive minor government posts. His appointment of a black woman as postmistress of a small Mississippi town in 1902 created a furor in the South. Some of Alabama's Old Guard had supported Negro rights during Reconstruction, but by the 1880s they had been assimilated into southern society. Supporting racial equality brought them diminishing returns, and most of them believed in white supremacy as ardently as the Democrats.

The Old Guard had sometimes split into "lily-white" and "black-and-tan" factions, depending on how solicitous of black rights national Republican administrations were at any particular time and according to which faction best served their interests. Some longtime Republicans had been members of both racial factions, as necessity demanded; their allegiance was not to racial justice or racial oppression, but to officeholding. The national GOP had become tepid in its support of black rights after Reconstruction, but in the first few years of his administration, Roosevelt seemed more committed to racial inclusion.

Roosevelt was influenced by the "Wizard of Tuskegee," Booker T. Washington, the country's most powerful black man, whose presence in Alabama was a constant source of irritation for older Republicans. The president brazenly consulted the black educator about patronage disputes and embarrassed state Republicans when he had dinner with Washington at the White House. Washington might have been acceptable to the Old Guard if he had shown proper deference to them, but he endorsed a new set of party leaders.

Booker Washington's closest associate among Alabama's white Republicans, and Barker's archenemy, was Joseph Oswalt Thompson of Tuskegee. Thompson, with Washington's help, seized control of federal patronage coming to Alabama in 1903 and became chairman of the state GOP in 1904. Thompson, a younger brother of Black Belt Democratic congressman Charles W. Thompson, was the only Republican in his family. He declared his allegiance to the GOP while still a teenager, held low-level federal jobs during the Harrison and McKinley administrations, and won notoriety when he became the recipient of a moonshiner's bullet while trying to enforce federal revenue laws against illegal liquor. He was only thirty-three when he became party chairman.

Thompson's opportunity came when conservative Republicans, anxious about Roosevelt's independent ways, backed Senator Marcus Alonzo Hanna of Ohio, who strongly supported big business, for the 1904 Republican presidential nomination. Hanna, a brilliant tactician who managed William McKinley's two successful presidential campaigns, had been chairman of the national Republican party. He knew grassroots Republicans in all regions but had no chance for the nomination because the party was not going to dump a popular incumbent. When Hanna died in early 1904, the anti-Roosevelt Republicans became a movement without a leader. Factions generated by this brief challenge to the president "persisted in several states" and divided Alabama's old guard. Unlike some of his political cohorts, who ruined their credibility with the Roosevelt administration, Barker astutely avoided the ill-fated Hanna boomlet.

Thompson's subsequent exercise of power galled the Old Guard because his closest friends and some men he supported for federal offices had been Republicans for only a brief time. His chief advisor was Birmingham attorney Oscar R. Hundley, a shrewd political operator who had served several terms in both the state house of representatives and the state senate as a Democrat from Madison County in the 1880s and 1890s. Hundley abruptly switched to the Republican party in 1896 when he ran unsuccessfully as the GOP nominee for Congress from the Eighth District on a fusion ticket with the Populist party. He moved to Birmingham in 1901 after his marriage to Francis "Bossie" O'Brien, daughter of Democratic politician Frank O'Brien of Birmingham and a leader in the women's suffrage movement. Hundley directed the forces that elected Thompson chairman at the 1904 state GOP convention, and the new chairman relied on the ex-Democrat to outmaneuver the Old Guard during the remainder of the Roosevelt administration. Thompson's loyalty to the dexterous Hundley widened rifts among Republicans.

In 1907, Thompson persuaded Roosevelt to name Hundley to a federal district judgeship, an appealing office that carried a lifetime appointment. Republicans with a longer span of service to the party sought the job. Stung by Hundley's methods and the ruthless manner in which Thompson exiled opponents, the Old Guard fought to keep the ex-Democrat from being confirmed. They received help from southern Democrats anxious to punish Hundley for switching parties. This strange alliance held up a vote on Hundley's confirmation for the remainder of Roosevelt's term. Under the law, Hundley became the "interim" judge while awaiting formal confirmation, but after Taft took office in 1909 the appointment was withdrawn, and Thompson's loyal lieutenant was forced to step down from the bench.


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Copyright © 1997 University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1 The Old Guard and the Populists 11

2 James Lawrence Sheffield and the Roots of Hill Country Independence 31

3 The Growth of Dissent: Anti-Democrats, 1876-1887 59

4 Alliancemen, Populists, and Republicans, 1888-1892 86

5 Who Were the Populists, and What Did They Believe? 114

6 Triumph, Tragedy, and Disillusionment, 1893-1898 131

7 What Happened to the Upcountry Populists? 1898-1904 155

8 From Populists to Progressive Republicans, 1904-1912 185

Conclusion 213

Notes 221

Bibliography 263

Index 275

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