With Democrats fully in control of the federal government and ideologically as far to the left as at anytime in history, recent polling indicates that an increasing number of Americans have become apprehensive about the direction the Obama White House and the Pelosi-led Congress are taking the country. A massive economic stimulus priced at nearly $800 billion; the seizure of banks, financial institutions, and businesses like GM; plans to take over the health care industry; the potential destruction of the capitalist system with a “cap and trade” climate bill, politicization of the census, and the intention to silence talk radio are just a few of the agenda items either on the books or on their way to becoming law. This is, without question, the greatest legislative overreach in American history and, what’s more, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
But if history is any indication, their ambitious agenda will only lead to a crushing electoral defeat in the near future.
Using history as a guide, our present situation harkens back to the political circumstances in 1890, when Republicans, the liberal party in those days, over-reached during the 51st Congress, leading to a landslide by conservative Democrats in two successive elections and full party control of the government for the first time since the 1850s.
For its part, the GOP, after the 1888 election, believed the country was decidedly Republican, giving them a mandate to do as they wished. And they had every reason to think just that. From Lincoln’s election in 1860 until Benjamin Harrison’s defeat of Democratic President Grover Cleveland in 1888, Republicans dominated Washington and were accustomed to setting policy and administering the government on a more progressive basis.
During that time span, as the Civil War nearly destroyed the Democratic Party, the GOP held the White House for 24 of 28 years. The makeup of Congress was almost as one-sided. From the midterm elections in 1858 until 1888, a period of three decades, Democrats, with a strengthening Northern wing, coupled with its steadfast Southern stronghold, managed to control the House for only 12 years; the Senate for only four.
The only real Democratic respite came in 1884, with the election of Grover Cleveland and a Democratic House, a brief period when the nation turned back to the policies of Mr. Jefferson and the government was administered very conservatively.
But the Jeffersonian administration of Cleveland only made liberal Republicans more eager to get their national vision back on track, and after the election of 1888 they had full control of the federal government once again, embarking on an ambitious, far-reaching agenda, seemingly to make up for lost time. The new House Speaker, Thomas “Czar” Reed, summed up the Republican attitude. “The danger in a free country is not that power will be exercised too freely, but that it will be exercised too sparingly.” Such a statement could be the official slogan for the Obama-Pelosi administration.
During the first session of the 51st Congress, Republicans enacted several major pieces of legislation, which have an eerie similarity with present government actions. Liberals went after corporations, inflated the currency, raised taxes, massively increased spending, and tried to assert federal control over the electoral process.
First, succumbing to pressure from its Western base, Republicans authorized the Sherman Antitrust Act, a strong measure that gave the federal government more control over big business. Authored by Senator John Sherman of Ohio, brother of the famous Civil War general, William T. Sherman, the bill stated in its very first sentence: “Every contract, combination in the form of trust or other- wise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is hereby declared to be illegal.” Yet the new law consisted of very vague language, allowing future administrations, namely that of Theodore Roosevelt, to use it in wide-ranging ways. With this bill, the federal government could essentially seize and break up any company it deemed a monopoly.
Second, to provide more inflation in the currency, pressure which also came from the West, Congress passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which required the government to buy 4.5 million ounces of silver per month, as opposed to just 2 million per month under the old law. Though not all of it was coined and put into circulation, the Sherman Act authorized new Treasury notes to purchase the bullion, greenbacks that could be redeemed for gold at the U.S. Mint. This caused a slow drain on the nation’s gold reserve, which, along with the new element of cheap currency into the economy, led to a severe depression in 1893.
Third, protectionist Republicans wanted higher tariffs, even though rates were already at all-time highs. Ohio Congressman William McKinley, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, authored a new tariff law which raised duties to their highest level in history. By doing so, it was hoped the McKinley Act would keep out most foreign imports, which would also help to alleviate the growing federal budget surplus, ongoing since 1866. With such high rates, imports would fall, thereby diminishing revenue. But despite its intentions, this bill effectively raised taxes on everyone by making products more expensive for consumers.
Fourth, in another effort to get rid of the pesky surplus, Congress passed an extravagant pension bill, the Dependent Pension Act, to provide help to veterans and their dependents. Older, more stringent requirements were loosened tremendously, so that anyone who had served at least 90 days in the Union army and had a disability, regardless of how the handicap occurred, could receive a pension. President Cleveland had vetoed a similar measure in 1887 as a raid on the treasury but the Republican Congress, now with a Republican President, was determined to place it into the law books and reward one of its favored constituent groups with funds from the public trough.
Under Harrison and the Republican Congress, spending on pensions rose from $80 million in 1888 to $160 million by 1893. The pension list also swelled from 489,725 recipients in 1889 to 966,012 in 1893, as the Pension Bureau added 19,000 new pensioners per month, whereas before just 19,000 per year were placed to the rolls.
In addition to the increased spending on pensions, Congress also spent a wealth of money on other schemes, earmarking funds for additional naval vessels and various internal improvements projects, such as river and harbor development.
With all the spending, Democrats quickly dubbed it the “Billion Dollar Congress,” the first Congress in American history to spend a billion dollars. Czar Reed, in his smug, arrogant manner, responded to Democratic epithets by noted that “It’s a billion dollar country!” But Americans weren’t buying it.
Under liberal governance, the nation saw its hard-earned surplus, accumulating in the Treasury at a rate of $100 million per year, vanish with scarcely a return. President Cleveland had watched over it like a mother over her child, and tried on many occasions to return it to the people, but Republicans squandered it with little regard for its rightful owners. Political cartoons routinely depicted Harrison pouring Cleveland’s surplus into a large hole in the ground.
Furthermore, Congress attempted to put the federal government in charge of elections, even on the local level. In shades of the current ACORN scandal, a bill authored by Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts would have given the federal courts jurisdiction over elections and voter registration efforts, presumably to aid disenfranchised blacks in the South. But Democrats feared the measure would enhance the GOP’s hold on power through fraud. Southerners, reminded of the hated days of Reconstruction, were outraged, calling the act the “Force Bill.” It passed the House by a close party-line vote, but later died in the Senate.
This was all too much for the American people. In the midterm elections in 1890, Republicans were trounced, losing 93 seats in the House. Conservative Democrats gained an astonishing 238 of 332 congressional seats. When the 52nd Congress opened in 1891, only 86 Republicans remained in the U.S. House of Representatives. Among the vanquished – staunch progressive and future presidential candidate Robert M. LaFollette of Wisconsin, future House Speaker “Uncle Joe” Cannon of Illinois, and Bill McKinley himself, who was punished for his massive tax hike. And though they did not reclaim the Senate, Democrats gained four seats there as well.
Such a midterm landslide is nothing unusual in American political history. A more recent example would be 1994, when Bill Clinton’s overreach caused a Republican congressional sweep that year, but the GOP did not keep up the momentum and fouled up its opportunity to make further gains in 1996, as Clinton held on to the White House.
But after the 1890 elections, conservatives did not stop working. Two years later, in 1892, the conservative tide continued unmolested, as the nation turned once again to the Jeffersonian Grover Cleveland, and Democrats took control of the Senate, while maintaining its majority in the House. Not since the 35th Congress, from 1857 to 1859, had the Democrats controlled the Senate, the House, and the presidency. A massive, seemingly insurmountable political mountain had been climbed by a party many though dead after the war.
For Obama, Pelosi, Reed, and company, happy days are, indeed, here again! But, though their agenda is far-reaching, even frightening, history can provide real hope for conservatives. Americans have traditionally reacted strongly against any swift move to grow and expand the federal government.
Let us hope for a repeat of 1890, when the American people rose up in righteous indignation against government encroachment and returned our Republic to those who believed in its original purity.