Arkansas’s Greenback Party emerged in the political tumult of the post-Reconstruction era in the late 1870s, in part because of an agrarian reaction to the Republican-controlled federal government’s hard money policies. Despite some initial successes in state and local elections in the late 1870s and early 1880s, however, the Greenbacks were spent politically by 1884. They disbanded as their issues were largely co-opted by the Democrats or rendered moot by an improving national economy.
Origins of the Party
As a result of the economic recession that followed the Panic of 1873, the national Greenback Party organized in 1876 to address agrarian concerns over the Specie Resumption Act of 1875. The act was a deflationary Republican initiative to redeem federal bank notes with coin beginning in 1879. These notes, called “greenbacks,” were paper currency not backed by gold or silver and were first issued in 1862. With close ties to the Grange movement, Greenback clubs began to organize throughout Arkansas in the summer of 1876 as the state’s Democratic and Republican parties failed to respond to agrarian demands that the federal government adopt a more inflationary monetary policy by expanding the production of paper money, thereby making credit more easily available to farmers and allowing for the repayment of past debts in inflated dollars. Although Peter Cooper, the Greenback presidential candidate, won just 81,737 votes nationwide (only 289 of which were from Arkansas) in 1876, labor unrest and agrarian dissatisfaction with tight credit and low agricultural commodity prices would bolster the party’s prospects in the late 1870s.
Greenbacks in Public Office
Arkansas’s Greenback movement—composed primarily of African Americans, Republicans, and disaffected Democrats, such as Arkansas’s former Civil War governor Henry M. Rector—enjoyed limited success initially. Having just recaptured the state from Republican control in 1874, Arkansas Democrats successfully cast the Greenbacks and other third-party movements as threats to white Southern rule. In the meantime, public attention focused on the larger political issue of whether Arkansas should repudiate debts the state had accrued during the Reconstruction period.
By 1878, however, the nation’s economic recession was at its lowest point, and Greenback policies were enjoying renewed public support. In fact, public demands for a repeal of the Specie Resumption Act and for an inflationary monetary policy were so powerful that Arkansas’s Democratic Party adopted most of the Greenback platform at its state convention in Little Rock (Pulaski County) in July 1878. Although the Arkansas Greenbacks held their own convention in Little Rock on July 13, 1878, and later nominated for state office a slate of candidates that included a number of prominent Democrats, the co-option of Greenback issues by the Democratic Party led to the withdrawal of all of the Greenback statewide party candidates from the race by mid-August. Nevertheless, while the Democratic Party’s slate of statewide candidates won unopposed, seven Greenback candidates won election to the state legislature.
The Greenbacks’ Decline
Victims of their own success, the election of 1878 would prove the high point for Arkansas Greenbacks. The party’s prospects began a slow decline thereafter. Despite the best efforts of the Greenbacks and their allies, the Specie Resumption Act went into effect in January 1879, and this, followed by a general improvement in the nation’s rural and agricultural economies, took the wind out of the Greenback movement. As interest in monetary reform declined in Arkansas and nationwide, Arkansas’s Democratic Party repudiated its platform of the previous year and returned to a “hard money” policy.
Ironically, it was just as the Arkansas Greenbacks were beginning their long, slow decline toward political irrelevancy that they acquired their most high-profile convert. In response to the Arkansas Democratic Party’s repudiation of its 1878 platform, Rufus King Garland, a former Whig and Know-Nothing who was the brother of the state’s former governor and then-current U.S. Senator Augustus Hill Garland, publicly condemned and disavowed the Democrats in a July 1879 statement published in the Arkansas Gazette. He threw his lot in with the Greenbacks, who selected Garland as their leader, a position he held until the party’s demise in 1883.
As public interest in inflationary monetary policies diminished after 1878, the Greenbacks’ survival as a political movement in Arkansas had more to do with the collapse of the state Republican Party as a source of political opposition to the dominant Democrats. In 1880, Arkansas Republicans chose not to nominate a slate of candidates for state office and instead endorsed the Greenback candidates. At their state convention in Little Rock on June 16, the Greenbacks nominated W. P. Bucks for governor and the Arkansas Grange official Charles E. Tobey for secretary of state, as well as a full slate of candidates for all offices except for chancery judge. The Republican Party did field candidates in each of the state’s four congressional districts, however, while the Greenbacks nominated Garland as their sole congressional candidate in the Second Congressional District.
Despite a hard-fought statewide campaign and a visit from the Greenback presidential nominee James Baird Weaver, Arkansas Democrats were successful in convincing most voters that a Greenback vote was a vote for a return to Radical Republican rule. Low voter turnout among Republicans hampered Greenback efforts at the state level, with Bucks winning just twenty-seven percent of the gubernatorial vote, while other statewide candidates fared much worse. The Greenbacks also lost seats in the state legislature, while Garland was soundly defeated by the popular Democrat James K. Jones for the Second Congressional District seat later that fall, coming in third behind the Republican candidate with just fifteen percent of the vote. Presidential candidate Weaver received just 4,079 votes statewide, far fewer than the 61,000 Democratic and 41,000 Republican presidential votes.
The End of the Greenback Party
The Greenbacks’ demise would come two years later when Arkansas Republicans decided to field their own slate of candidates for statewide office, something they had chosen not to do in 1878 and 1880. Without Republicans in attendance, turnout was light at the Greenback’s state convention in Little Rock; Garland was nominated as the party’s gubernatorial candidate, with Tobey again the nominee for secretary of state. Soon thereafter, however, the national Republican Party, under the leadership of Navy Secretary William E. Chandler, announced plans to field a fusion ticket in Arkansas to be composed of Arkansas Republicans, Greenbacks, and Democrats opposed to the repudiation of the state’s Reconstruction debts. Even though Chandler threw the national party’s support behind Garland for governor, Powell Clayton—Arkansas’s former Reconstruction governor and state Republican party power broker—maneuvered to prevent the Arkansas Republican Party’s candidate, W. D. Slack, from withdrawing from the race. Garland and Tobey each received less then ten percent of the vote in the election that followed; the Greenbacks would never contest an Arkansas election again, and the party soon dissolved.
For additional information:
Barjenbruch, Judith. “The Greenback Political Movement: An Arkansas View.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 36 (Summer 1977): 107–122.
Hennington Jr., Berton E. “Northwest Arkansas and the Brothers of Freedom: The Roots of a Farmer Movement.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 34 (Winter 1975): 304–324.
Hild, Matthew. Arkansas’s Gilded Age: The Rise, Decline, and Legacy of Populism and Working-Class Protest. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2018.
———. Greenbackers, Knights of Labor, and Populists: Farmer-Labor Insurgency in the Late-Nineteenth-Century South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007.
———. “Labor, Third-Party Politics, and New South Democracy in Arkansas, 1884–1896.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 63 (Spring 2004): 24–43.
Moneyhon, Carl H. Arkansas and the New South, 1874–1929. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997.
William D. Baker
United States Department of State
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