Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Agricultural Wheel, the Union Labor Party, and the 1889 Arkansas Legislature

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Agricultural Wheel, the Union Labor Party, and the 1889 Arkansas Legislature

Article excerpt

DURING THE FIRST WEEKS OF ARKANSAS'S Twenty-seventh General Assembly, convened in January 1889, debate raged over the elections of the preceding fall. A legislative contest in Pulaski County garnered particularly intense scrutiny because ballot boxes and poll books had been stolen after the September 3 state elections. On February 3, Oliver S. Jones, a Union Labor party representative and former Greenbacker from Nevada County, introduced House Joint Resolution No. 12, which authorized the governor to offer a reward of $500 for the arrest and conviction of the thieves who had stolen the Pulaski County election returns. Legislator Jasper W. Dollison of Clay County addressed the house briefly after Jones's introduction of the resolution. Dollison, a Democrat-cum-Union Laborite and a member of the Knights of Labor and the Agricultural Wheel, summed up in a comedic speech the situation in Arkansas. He suggested that the reward should apply to all counties where election fraud had allegedly occurred. "But if this happens," he concluded, "the penitentiary would be so full of thieves they would be sticking out through the windows like calves' heads at a butcher shop; and I fear the payment of rewards would bankrupt the state." House Joint Resolution No. 12 was adopted with the support of every third-party member in the legislature.1

The strong challenge the Union Labor party posed to Arkansas Democrats in 1888, and the consequent election fraud and violence, has been noted by historians.2 But there has been little investigation, either in studies of Arkansas's vigorous third-party politics or in the broader historiography of Populism, of the actions, interactions, and voting records of thirdparty members who did manage to get themselves elected to office.3 Historians such as Clifton Paisley and Matthew Hild, for example, have described how third-party men won election to the Arkansas legislature in the 1880s, but do not say much about what those men accomplished (or did not accomplish) once in office.4

But studying these legislators, even though few in number, can tell us much about the broader third-party challenge. In Populist historiography, Peter Argersinger argues, "scholars continue to comb the same newspapers and manuscript collections, in the belief that . . . . 'we have no other sources.'" While some scholars have utilized quantitative analysis to get at popular voting behavior or to characterize the constituency of Populists and other insurgents of the late nineteenth century, little effort has gone into examining what legislative journals can tell us about third-party politics, even though Allan Bogue termed such material "the largest body of opinion data, systematically collected and organized, that American society has preserved."5 Examinations into the minutiae of legislative proceedings, especially roll-call analysis, Argersinger says, can elucidate the "the issues of most interest to the legislators themselves and the relative importance of those issues," as well as help uncover the questions that divided or united policy-makers. Legislative evidence thus "provides a practical perspective on the concerns of [third-party men] not available through either the traditional analysis of campaign speeches or the quantitative investigation of mass politics."6 Finally, it can tell us something about grassroots politicians for whom little other information is available. Studying the 1889 Arkansas House of Representatives, then, offers a case study that illustrates the value of using legislative material as historical evidence and also sheds light on the little-studied subject of the third-party role in Arkansas government.

These sources show that third-party Wheeler and Union Labor representatives in the 1889 Arkansas legislature, as their first order of business, addressed the widespread election frauds that threatened to kill their movement in its infancy. Wheeler William Manning of the committee on elections managed to seat three legislators from Pulaski County who contested fraudulent results. …

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