Adlai E. Stevenson, Vice President of the United States from 1893 to 1897, played a prominent role in the presidential election of 1892. His most important task was winning the South, a region where he had built a political foundation by maintaining close personal associations with numerous public figures in most of the states of the old Confederacy. With Southern manners, the Kentucky-born and -bred Stevenson, who was sympathetic to Southern life and interests, appealed to voters below the Mason and Dixon line.(1) He promised programs to encourage investment and development of the region's natural resources, hoping to compensate for the more radical proposals of the Populists, a third party committed to reform. A firm believer in the future of the South, Stevenson worked to lessen social, economic, and political problems as well as resolve sectional tensions. In 1892, Stevenson, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee and a proponent of national harmony, was a coalition Democrat who preached the politics of accommodation among contending groups in Gilded Age America.(2)
Born in Christian County, Kentucky, in 1835, Stevenson grew up on his father's tobacco farm, where a small band of slaves worked the fields. His boyhood coincided with a memorable period in Southern history, including Jacksonian Democracy, territorial expansion, war with Mexico, political compromises between North and South, contention over slavery, and the oratorical messages of Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. In 1852, Stevenson moved to Bloomington, Illinois, with his parents. There he worked at his father's sawmill and taught school to earn money to attend Illinois Wesleyan University and later Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. He returned to Bloomington in 1857, studied law under Robert E. Williams, and in 1868 formed a law partnership with his cousin, James Stevenson Ewing. Their practice prospered over twenty-five years; Stevenson was the politician and office lawyer while Ewing was the trial lawyer who promoted his colleague's political career. In one sensational case, they won a $50,000 damage verdict for an attractive young woman who claimed that a Bloomington physician had contributed to her downfall through the use of drugs.(3) Stevenson also served as president of the McLean County Coal Company, a family operation, headquartered in the old Gridley Bank; with nearly three hundred employees, it was, after the railroads, the city's second largest industry.
Stevenson entered national politics in 1874 when the Democrats of his congressional district nominated him for a seat in the United States House of Representatives. Endorsed by the Greenback party, Stevenson defeated the Republican incumbent. Two years later, he lost his bid for re-election, but he regained his seat in 1878. Serving in Congress for two non-consecutive terms and representing a Republican constituency where Democrats had to scrap for every vote, Stevenson in large measure managed to win a House seat due to his persuasive skills, political instincts, and ability to make politics out of the issue of nonpartisanship. He wooed the local GOP assiduously. Yet he won only in off-year contests that occurred with Democratic victories and majority control of the lower chamber, and he narrowly lost re-election bids in presidential years when he suffered the effects of high voter turnout, intense partisanship, and presidential coattails. Stevenson cut his political teeth in this arena, but his defeats kept him from gaining seniority and tempered him as a politician. While in Congress, Stevenson favored tariff reduction, silver coinage, economic development of the South, immigration restriction, electoral college reform, and reduced federal expenditures. He also made many friends among Southern Congressmen, including Representative Roger Q. Mills of Texas, Senator Henry G. Davis of West Virginia, and Representative Hilary A. Herbert of Alabama, who later served as secretary of the navy from 1893 until 1897.(4) Throughout these years, Stevenson remembered his roots back home and the basic strengths and values of the community that sent him to Washington. Unfortunately, during this period, Stevenson was such a conciliator by nature that at times he did not seem to understand that in politics the way to pierce the public consciousness revolved around the matter of creating conflict.
A turning point in Stevenson's political career occurred in 1884 when, as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, he endorsed the presidential nomination of Governor Grover Cleveland of New York. He also formed a crucial political association with William F. Vilas, a Wisconsin lawyer whom Cleveland appointed to head the Post Office Department. Regarding Cleveland's victory that year as "the grandest moral triumph of the age," Stevenson assured Vilas that he would "gladly. serve you in whatever manner I may be able."(5)
In 1885, President Cleveland selected Stevenson as first assistant postmaster general, a position dealing with the appointment and removal of fourth-class postmasters. Stevenson relished the assignment, for he was a typical spoilsman of the 1880s who at the time opposed civil-service reform. He earned the wrath of reformers, such as Carl Schurz, for the more than 40,000 changes that occurred during his tenure in office from 1885 to 1889. An observer reported that Stevenson "beheaded Republican officeholders with the precision and dispatch of the French guillotine in the days of the Revolution."(6) Stevenson readily complied with the requests of friends to establish post offices near their homes, and on one occasion he not only set up a post office but a town as well.(7) While performing these duties, Stevenson collected valuable IOU's from Democrats across the nation, especially in the South. An undisputed master of quashing controversy and getting things done while in the Post Office Department, Stevenson managed to trumpet his accomplishments and gloss over any problems by cleverly courting politicians of every stripe. Steeped in conventional wisdom, he was a shrewd career politician and a tough practitioner with an instinct for opportunity.
After Benjamin Harrison defeated Cleveland in 1888, Stevenson returned to Bloomington to resume his law practice. During this political interregnum, he closely watched events in Washington. Convinced that Harrison would be vulnerable in 1892, Stevenson traveled to several states as Cleveland's unofficial representative and forwarded his findings to %-hose in charge of Cleveland's campaign. Chairman of the Illinois delegation to the 1892 Democratic National Convention at Chicago, Stevenson persuaded the Illinois delegates to vote unanimously for Cleveland, thereby contributing to the former president's first-ballot victory. Opposed by his own state for the nomination and rejected four years earlier by the general electorate, Cleveland captured the coveted prize for a third time. Delegates thereupon turned their attention to the selection of a vice-presidential nominee.
Stevenson emerged as a strong contender for the vice presidency for several reasons. A political moderate, he did not antagonize any faction and found himself in the advantageous position of being a compromise choice around whom all could unite. Cleveland's supporters liked Stevenson because he advocated tariff reform, fiscal responsibility, and plodding caution in foreign affairs, and they also considered the geographical balance he could give the ticket. Opponents of Cleveland also supported …