Posts Tagged 'Politics'

Cross of Gold (7-9-1896)

On this date, a little-known, 36-year-old newspaper editor gave a speech before the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  The next day he was the party’s candidate for President of the United States.

The economy was in bad shape in 1896.  The country was arguing about how to solve the problem.  Put simply, it was about Gold vs. Silver.

Governor William McKinley

Governor William McKinley

The Gold group wanted each dollar in paper money backed by a dollar’s worth of gold.  They thought America needed a stable currency to bring back prosperity.

The Silver group wanted paper money backed by both silver and gold.  That would put more money in circulation, and lead to inflation.  But in the short term, the economy would rebound.

The Republicans nominated Governor William McKinley of Ohio for president.  He was a Gold man.  When the Democrats gathered in Chicago for their convention, none of their possible candidates seemed very exciting.

They met at the original Chicago Coliseum, at 63rd and Stony Island.  On the second day, July 9th, various delegates gave speeches about the party platform.  William Jennings Bryan was one of the Silver speakers.  He had served in Congress, and was now editor of the Omaha World-Herald.

Bryan was young, handsome, and dynamic.  He had a deep, booming voice that carried to all corners of the hall—which was important, since microphones hadn’t been invented yet.  And he knew how to give a speech.

William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan

Maybe it wasn’t what he said, but how he said it.  His Silver arguments were nothing new.  But two minutes into his oration, the delegates were interrupting him with applause.  As he went on, the applause came more often, and grew louder.

Then Bryan concluded, with imagery from the Bible—“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this Crown of Thorns!  You shall not crucify mankind upon a Cross of Gold!”

The convention had become a revival meeting, and the delegates went wild.  They stood on chairs, shouting themselves hoarse.  They threw hats, handkerchiefs, umbrellas, and anything else handy, into the air.  The party had found the man to lead it into battle.

One speech had done it.

Bryan was barely a year older than the age requirement for president.  He was the youngest person ever nominated—and still is.  He waged a vigorous campaign through all parts of the country.

In the end, the voters chose colorless competence over charisma.  McKinley was elected.



A New Deal (7-2-1932)

The Great Depression was in its third year.  Banks were failing and unemployment stood at around 25%.  Many Americans felt hopeless.

This was an election year.  President Herbert Hoover’s efforts to fight the Depression had failed.  So Hoover and the Republicans were on the way out.  The next president would probably be a Democrat.

President Hoover

The Democratic Convention met at the new Chicago Stadium in the summer of 1932.  On the third ballot, they nominated Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York as their candidate.  Then they appointed a committee to go to New York, and notify Roosevelt at a later date.

That’s the way it had always been done.  But now there was radio.  Everybody knew whom the Democrats had picked, as soon as it happened.  Roosevelt sent word to the delegates to forget about the committee, and stay put.  He would come to Chicago.

And to get there in a hurry, he would travel by airplane!

That’s wasn’t easy to do.  Since Roosevelt couldn’t walk, he had to be transported everywhere in a wheelchair.  The flight itself took several hours, battling storm and heavy headwinds.

But now, on the evening of June 2, the candidate was at the Chicago Stadium.  He didn’t look like someone who was in constant pain from his disability.  He didn’t look like someone who had just endured a bumpy, marathon flight in a 1932-model plane.  He was smiling.

Roosevelt radiated confidence.  He told the Convention that the times called for bold action.  That’s why he had abandoned the ridiculous idea that he should wait around, pretending to be ignorant, until he was formally notified.

FDR, with ever-present cigarette holder

Of course he knew that the delegates had chosen him.  So he was accepting in person.  Now it was time to get busy, win the election, and get the country moving again.  And he said: “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.”

Roosevelt had captured the mood of a nation ready to break with tradition.  That fall he beat Hoover in a landslide.  The new president’s program came to be known by the phrase he used in his acceptance speech—the New Deal.

Today historians debate whether Roosevelt’s policies helped the country recover from the Depression.  But he sure did restored America’s belief in itself.


The State of Chicago (6-27-1925)

On this date, Chicagoans were talking secession.  Maybe the city should break off from Illinois and form a new state.

The Illinois Constitution was being violated.  Every ten years, following the federal census, the legislative districts were supposed to be redrawn.  That hadn’t been done since 1901.

Downstaters controlled the state legislature.  Letting Chicago have more seats would take away their power.  So the legislature had simply refused to redistrict after the 1910 census.  They had again refused after the 1920 census.


According to Alderman John Toman, the city deserved five more state senators and fifteen more state reps.  So now Toman offered a resolution to the city council—that the city’s lawyer should investigate how Chicago might secede from Illinois.  The resolution passed unanimously.

Obviously, there were going to be problems.  The U.S. Constitution specifically stated that no new state could be carved from part of an existing state, unless the existing state approved.  Would downstate be willing to let Chicago go, and lose all that tax revenue?

Probably not yet.  But perhaps sometime in the future.  Besides, there were ways of getting around the Constitution.  West Virginia had been torn away from its mother state Virginia during the Civil War.

The proposed State of Chicago would take in all of Cook County.  Suburbia was tiny in 1925.  Out of 3 million people in the county, about 2.7. lived within the Chicago city limits.  The secessionists said they’d consider including DuPage and Lake counties, too.

Most Chicagoans seemed to like the idea of being a separate state.  Along with being freed from the downstate dictators, Chicago would enjoy more clout on the national stage.  The new state would rank 11th out of 49 in population.

Even if the plan didn’t become a reality, the threat was worth making.  “Chicago is having trouble getting a square deal from the state,” a South Side electrician said.  “I believe the only way to get back at them is to rebel.  That would give them something to think about.”

Faced with all the legal roadblocks, secession talk eventually died out.  During the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court’s various “one man, one vote” rulings gave the city its fair share of legislature seats.


The Smoke-Filled Room (6-11-1920)

On this date in history, the President of the United States was chosen in a suite at the Blackstone Hotel.  And a new phrase entered the political dictionary.

In 1920, Democrat Woodrow Wilson was finishing up eight years in the White House.  The Republican Convention was being held at the Chicago Coliseum that June, and it looked like a good year for the party.  The country was in the mood for change.

Blackstone Hotel, 1920

The political conventions of today are nothing more than media events—by the time the opening gavel is banged, one candidate has locked up the nomination.  That wasn’t the case in 1920.  Back then local party bosses controlled things.  Several roll-call ballots were usually needed to pick a nominee.

When the Republicans gathered, there were two front-runners—General Leonard Wood and Illinois Governor Frank Lowden.  The balloting began.  Neither man could get a majority.  The party elders called a recess, then met behind closed doors at the Blackstone to work out a compromise.

Warren G. Harding was a Senator from Ohio.  He was one of the minor candidates, and few people outside his state had ever heard of him.  His main selling point seemed to be that he “looked like a President.”

Harry Daugherty, Harding’s campaign manager, had predicted the convention deadlock.  Then, he said, at about 2 in the morning, 15 or 20 men would be sitting around a table in a smoke-filled room, bleary-eyed from heat and lack of sleep.  The men would be looking for the best presidential candidate.

“At that decisive time,” Daugherty declared, “the friends of Senator Harding will suggest him.”

Daugherty was quite a prophet.  After several hours of wrangling, the party bosses summoned Harding to the power suite at the Blackstone.  It was just after 2 a.m.

Harding said it, 40 years before JFK (though not as poetically)

Harding was asked if there were anything in his past that might embarrass the party.  He said there was not.  He didn’t mention that he’d fathered a child outside his marriage, which would not have played well with the voters in 1920.

So the bosses annointed Harding.  He was quickly nominated, and won the November election in a landslide.  When he died in office in 1923, he was one of the most popular presidents in history.

And today—even with all the restrictions on smoking—we still call a private gathering of political fixers a “smoke-filled room.”


Our Daley Bread

Today would have been Mayor Richard J. Daley’s 116th birthday.  In his honor, I’m posting an artifact from his last campaign, in 1975.  Here we have a recipe from the mayor’s wife, Eleanor “Sis” Daley.

The recipe is in a pocket-size 32-page booklet titled Shopping Tips—Compliments of Mayor Richard J. Daley.  It’s actually a pretty useful tool for your trip to the grocer.  There are tables of weights and measures, a guide to the amount of vegetables to buy based on the size of your family, as well as homey reminders to always shop from a list, check expiration dates, look for seasonal sales, and so on.

I must admit that our family never did try Mrs. Daley’s white bread recipe.  If anyone does do that baking and you like the result, please tell me—or better still, tell Rich Daley.


The Suffrage Train (3-7-1911)

In 1911 women voted in some states—but not in Illinois.  On this date, 107 years ago, a group of female activists from Chicago chartered a train and traveled to Springfield, to lobby for voting rights.

At precisely 9 a.m. the special “Suffrage Train” pulled out of the Illinois Central 12th Street Station.  On board were over 300 women.  The main group was from the Chicago Political Equality League, headed by Grace Wilbur Trout.


Women had lobbyed the legislature before.  This time the contingent included female students from the University of Chicago.  “We’re going to smile and look pleasant at them, and tell them how young they look,” one 20-year-old said.  “That’s the only way to make a man do what you want him to, anyway.”

The Suffrage Train chugged south, stopping at a dozen stations along the way.  People had gathered at each stop.  Trout spoke to them from the train’s rear platform, while her associates moved through the crowd, passing out literature.

Grace Wilbur Trout

They reached Springfield at 5 p.m.  Two hours later, the women made their grand entrance at the State Capitol.  They had changed to evening clothes.

The Illinois House of Represntatives was meeting as a Committee of the Whole.  Fifteen women spoke for three minutes each.  Encouraged by the supporters who had greeted the Suffrage Train,  they presented their case forcefully.

The speakers said that logic was on their side.  There was no reason to deny women the vote, except outmoded custom.  It was time the legislature move forward into the 20th Century.  “We are dreadfully tired of the soft dwaddle of procrastination,” Trout declared.

Margaret Dreier Robins was even more direct.  Pounding the lectern for emphasis, she shouted: “We are not asking you for suffrage—we demand it!”

The legislators thanked the speakers for their insights, and adjourned.  The day concluded with a reception at the Governor’s Mansion.  Most of the Chicago women remained in Springfield a few more days, to lobby on behalf of other issues.

The Illinois General Assembly failed to enact women’s suffrage in 1911.  The activists redoubled their efforts.  They secured some voting rights in 1913.  And in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution finally settled the matter.


Your City Council at Work (2-19-1894)

Today Chicagoans were given a lesson on how their city council did business.  The story in the Chicago Record didn’t read like any civics textbook.

In 1894 Chicago had 35 wards, each represented by two aldermen.  The aldermen served two-year terms.  Their pay was $150 a year.

(That $150 is equivalent to about $3,700 today.  To convert 1894-dollars into 2018-dollars, multiply by 25.)


According to the Record, most of the aldermen could be bribed.  The paper did say there were some honest men in the council.  There had even been times when the honest aldermen were in the majority.  That was not the case in 1894.

Anybody who needed some kind of business permit had to pay bribes.  There was a definite price schedule.  If a coal company wanted to build a track-connection to a freight railroad, it cost $1,000.  For the same track, a brewery had to fork over $2,500—because a brewery made more money than a coal company. But the aldermen got their largest payoffs from granting city franchises.

A franchise was a legal monopoly.  They went to transit carriers or utilities.  Since any company that held a city franchise earned big bucks, the bribes were stupendous.  A few years before, when a certain railroad franchise was up for renewal, four aldermen had collected $25,000 each.

If you were going to pay bribes, you had to pay each alderman individually.  That way there were no witnesses.  Of course, with forty or so men in on the deal, that took some time and effort.


One businessman came up with a more efficient method.  He left packages of currency marked “$1,000” in the men’s washroom at City Hall.  Then, one by one, each alderman would come in to pick up his share of the loot.

The system worked until an innocent citizen wondered into the washroom.  The man found one of the discarded “$1,000” wrappers on the floor.  He chased down the alderman who had just left, gave the alderman the wrapper, and said “You lost something.”

The alderman laughed and said “Thank you.”  Then he tore up the evidence.

The Chicago Record expose gained considerable attention.  It also led to permanent reform.  From that day to this, there has never been another case of a Chicago alderman accepting a bribe in a public washroom.