Adlai E. Stevenson and Southern Politics in 1892

Article excerpt

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. …