Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Marion Butler and American Populism

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Marion Butler and American Populism

Article excerpt

Marion Butler and American Populism. By James L. Hunt. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Pp. xiii, 338. Acknowledgments, introduction, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95.)

The Peoples' (or Populist) party was one of the most significant third-party movements in American history, and Marion Butler served as national chairman during its climactic years. Opinions about his role certainly vary, but for better or worse, he was an important figure. Until now, however, he has lacked a biography. James L. Hunt has corrected this deficiency with a solid and thorough account of Butler's life.

Hunt notes in his introduction that he harbors little sympathy for Butler either personally or politically, but his overall objective is to rescue his subject from the dominant portrayal, articulated most influentially by C. Vann Woodward and Lawrence Goodwyn, of a shifty opportunist out of step with true and principled Populism. Hunt traces Butler's rise from his political beginnings as a rural schoolteacher in Sampson County, North Carolina. There he became a locally prominent Alliance man, Democrat, and editor of the weekly Caucasian, who, at the age of twenty-eight, dominated the proceedings of the "Alliance legislature" of 1891. A reluctant convert to the Peoples' party in 1892, Butler nevertheless filled the vacuum created by the sudden death of L. L. Polk and soon dominated the state organization. By 1896, he was national chairman. Hunt judiciously recounts Butler's trials as he attempted to hold the party together during the contentious 1896 campaign, earning enduring enemies in the process.

As the Populist movement deteriorated amid bitter recriminations after 1896, Butler remained a central figure both nationally and in North Carolina. Having reluctantly led the North Carolina Populists into unwieldy coalitions with the Republicans in 1894 and 1896 (he always preferred working with the Democrats), he would wage a rearguard action against the resurgent Redeemers, opposing their disfranchising amendment in 1900 on the grounds that there existed no threat of "negro domination" and proposing instead a bar to black officeholding. With the demise of Populism, Butler gravitated toward the Progressive wing of the Republican party, formally joining in 1904. There he remained for the rest of his life, waging a quixotic struggle to bend the party toward the Omaha platform.

Hunt argues that the Omaha platform, with its demands for nationalization of the railroads and telegraph, the subtreasury, greenbacks, and the free coinage of silver, among others, became Butler's political anchor. …

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