the repudiation of 1894 -- 2/13/23

Today's selection -- from A Man of Iron by Troy Senik. The middle of President Grover Cleveland’s second term in office saw the worst Congressional election results for an incumbent president in U.S. history:
"The [outcome of the] 1894 midterm elections [was] one of the most decisive party repudiations in American political history. Between the anemic economy and the administration's refusal to indulge the public's growing appetite for overseas adventurism, the table was set for a Republican resurgence. Moreover, the deepening schisms within the Democratic Party had left the president utterly isolated. Republicans and dissenting Democrats could point to the same set of facts: while the ordinary farmer watched his crop prices nosedive and the ordinary worker saw federal troops called in to put down labor strikes, Grover Cleveland's main obsession seemed to be preserving a monetary system that satis­fied Wall Street. Whether it was a fair caricature or not was beside the point; it was a politically profitable one. Thomas Reed, the Republican congressman from Maine who had served as Speaker of the House for two years during Harrison's administration (and who would soon be restored to the position), predicted of the midterms, 'The Democratic mortality will be so great ... that their dead will be buried in trenches and marked "unknown."'

1894 House of Representatives election net gains by state

"By the time that November 1894 rolled around, Reed looked more prophetic than hyperbolic. The losses Democrats suffered in the House of Representatives remain to this day the worst in American history. The 53rd Congress, which sat during the first half of Cleveland's second term, had 218 Democrats in the lower chamber. Its successor, the 54th Congress, had only 93. In twenty-four states, Democrats did not win a single House seat; in six more, they took only one. Republicans also moved into the majority in the Senate, though the margins were close enough that the balance of power was held by the handful of Populists elected to the upper chamber (in addition to their own victories, the Populists had also denied Democrats seats in many contests by fusing with Republicans).

"The Democrats had been reduced to a southern rump party -- and even there the GOP was making encroachments, picking up multiple seats in Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Champ Clark, the Missouri Democrat who would later serve as Speaker of the House for most of Woodrow Wilson's presidency, declared the results of the election 'the greatest slaughter of innocents since the days of King Herod.' The outcome was not merely a tempo­rary rebuke to a party presiding over economic torpor, but rather the beginning of a full-scale realignment. It would be eighteen years before Democrats gained back control of both houses of Congress, by which time the newly progressive party, headed by the incoming president Wilson, was unrecognizable as the one once helmed by Cleveland.

"Like any leader who sees a realignment away from his party, Cleve­land suffered his fair share of blame for the Democrats' prolonged de­scent into irrelevance. Some of it was surely deserved. Stubborn and self-assured, he was temperamentally and philosophically unfit to man­age the internal divisions. Cleveland -- of whom one Washington jour­nalist wrote, 'He did not know what conciliation meant and rubbed out sore spots with a brick' -- was not the most adroit negotiator, but even the most adroit negotiator would have had difficulty unifying Demo­cratic factions whose views of public policy were irreconcilable."



Troy Senik


A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland


Threshold Editions


Copyright 2022 by Troy Senik


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