Blogs > Liberty and Power > MUGWUMPS ARE GO

Dec 27, 2003 1:43 am


David and Linda Beito's article"Gold Democrats and the Decline of Classical Liberalism, 1896-1900" (mentioned below in"Anti-Imperialists, Classical Liberals, and Progressives") describes the presidential election of 1896, in which some classical liberal Democrats were so opposed to their party's rabble-rousing inflation-advocating presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan, that they formed a new political party, The National Democratic Party (NDP), to oppose him. They captured only a meager (Libertarian Party-like) less-than-1% of the vote but, as they hoped, Bryan lost. (Some NDPers would later claim responsibility for Bryan's loss but this is questionable; unlike, for example, the Nader votes in 2000, even if all of the NDP votes had been gone to the Democrats Bryan would still have lost.) The"Mugwumps" (more or less"big chiefs," a mocking name given to them by their critics), New England reformers who viewed themselves as defenders of the old republican virtues, were important organizers of the NDP and later the Anti-Imperialist League. Daniel B. Schirmer ("Republic or Empire") suggests a group economic basis for the Mugwumps' emphasis on free trade, sound money, and ethical government:

"The political thrust of mercantile discontent had been carried after the Civil War not by the merchants alone, but also by a group of Boston liberals, many of whom were later prominent in the anti-imperialist movement. Linked as they were to the city's older mercantile wealth by manifold family ties and social connections, these lawyers and professionals quite naturally shared its hostility to the new-rich industrialists and their policies. …

"In addition to free trade, the Boston liberals were concerned with sound currency and civil service reform. Sound currency was important to the holders of inherited wealth, who felt threatened in these years by the popular agitation for cheap money (the free coinage of silver). The demand for civil service reform arose from the evidence of corruption at all levels of government after the Civil War. The country's new industrial entrepreneurs caused more than one scandal by their efforts to buy what they wanted politically, offending puritan sensibilities."

To continue this analysis, we can say that the Democrats in 1896, by advocating the inflationary free silver policy, represented the economic interests of debtors, especially indebted farmers, while the Republicans, by advocating protective tariffs, represented the economic interests of the manufacturers. Both parties wished to use the state to benefit their favored constituency. Under the circumstances, starting a third party to highlight the lack of a classical liberal alternative and to sabotage the candidacy of what was in their opinion the greater of the two evils may have been the most politically effective choice.

It's a controversial opinion, but it seems to me that the Mugwumps were skilled political operators worthy of study by today's drastically outnumbered classical liberals. In 1884, repulsed by the Republican Party's nomination of a candidate ("Slippery Jim" Blaine,"the continental liar from the state of Maine") accused of taking bribes from the railroad industry, the Mugwumps-to-be left the Republican Party and joined the Democratic. The Democrats were infamously and somewhat accurately called the party of"rum, Romanism, and rebellion" - in other words an alliance of urban Catholic immigrant"machine" politics and the former Confederates running Dixie, opposed to Protestant puritan prohibition and"blue laws" (as late as the 1970s you couldn't shop on Sunday in parts of Massachusetts). Joining the Democratic Party was, therefore, a pretty radical step for New England Protestant reformers of the Jerusalem-building variety but it paid off, as the Mugwumps were probably the deciding factor in securing the party's nomination for Grover Cleveland, a classical liberal with an unblemished record in public life (though with some personal relations issues).

The Mugwumps distrusted populism and organized labor, yet allied themselves with both, leading critics to charge that they represented"Harvard and the slums." (One interesting and successful alliance was with the"Red" classical liberal"single taxers" - followers of Henry George.) When founding the Anti-Imperialist League the Mugwumps allied with a veritable who's-who of outsider trouble-makers:

"Putting aside their upper-class aversion to organized labor and Boston's Irish population, the Brahmin anti-imperialists turned to them as important participants in the common cause. Their bitter disagreements with currency-reforming Silver Democrats, Silver Republicans and Populists they likewise set aside; they included even the Socialists, whose views most of them abhorred. They made special appeals to blacks and women. They worked to influence and unite with anti-imperialists in Democratic, and, so far as they could, Republican ranks. They sought out anti-imperialist clergymen, intellectuals, farmers' representatives. They worked to bring the press into the anti-imperialist fold."

That the Mugwumps refused to treat their, often distrusted, allies as"useful idiots" can be seen by the fact that the Anti-Imperialist League endorsed the hated Williams Jennings Bryan in the presidential race of 1900.

I agree with most of Gene Healy's comments about Howard Dean. Still, it seems to me that if we're going to participate in electoral politics we should use our votes to punish and reward. And we should punish Bush for the invasion of Iraq, the PATRIOT Act and the doctrine of preventive attack (a.k.a. permanent war) - and let that be a warning to the rest of them. 1896 would imply a slate of sane, I mean classical liberal, Republican defectors; 1884 would imply joining the Democratic Party and campaigning for the least-bad legitimate candidate.

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