On November 25, 1874 a new political party was born at a convention held in Indianapolis, Indiana. They
called themselves the Independent
Party. In some states they would first appear on the ballot as the National
Party. But within months the new
party was widely known as the Greenbacks
as they grew at an astonishing rate challenging the entrenched Republican and Democratic Parties.
The Party was formed out of frustration with both major parties as major eastern banking interests demanded that
the Federal Government stop issuing paper money and return the issuance of currency to
the banks. Federal paper
money, popularly known as greenbacks,
had been first issued under Secretary of
the Treasury Salmon P. Chase to help finance the Civil War. Inflation had been an inevitable result.
The banks and conservative hard money politicians
in both parties, wanted not only to stop
the government printing presses,
they wanted to require that bills be redeemed in specie—gold.
This would create instant
deflation. But farmers and others who took out
loans in inflated dollars would
be required to repay the full face value of
the loan plus interest in the much more expensive new currency or gold. This alone would wipe out many farmers and small
businesses. It was also a blow at western mining interests by demonetizing silver coinage. Silver coins would continue to circulate, but notes—printed
currency—would have to be paid in gold.
The banks got their way with the
passage of the Coinage Act of 1873. Facing ruin,
borrowers and their soft money supporters in both parties, organized to challenge the banking oligarchs
of the Gilded Age.
Within months the new party was
established and running under different names in most states. Although its greatest strength was in the Mid-West and West, it also found support among small farmers in the South, and Northeast. In fact, with
Democrats and Republicans fracturing mainly
along the lines of the Civil War, it looked for a time like
the Greenbacks were the only truly
The Species Payment Restoration Act of 1875 completed what the Coinage Act had begun. It limited
remaining Greenbacks in circulation to $300 million and The Secretary of
the Treasury was directed to “redeem, in
coin” legal-tender notes
presented for redemption by January
In 1876 the new party nominated the distinguished, but eccentric 85 year old Peter Cooper as its candidate for President. Cooper was an industrialist who had built the first practical locomotive in the U.S.; a philanthropist who had founded the Cooper Union, a college open to students of all economic, religious, racial, and ethnic backgrounds; and a leading liberal voice in New York City politics. The party knew it had no chance to win the presidency, but the prestige of Cooper led to success in getting on the ballot in most states and helping elect local office holders.
The Greenbacks crested in the off-presidential
year of 1876 when they elected 13 members of Congress. Thomas Ewing, Jr. of
Ohio a pre-war Kansas Free Soil leader
and post-war soft money Democrat, was the leading
spokesman for the party in Congress and the most widely known and influential
In 1880 the party broadened its base and attracted new
support from industrial workers
in the Northeast, especially the politically
savvy Irish, by adopting a staunchly pro-labor platform advocating
a progressive income tax and the eight hour day. It also made a bid for the support of middle class reformers, previously
primarily Republican, by endorsing
women’s suffrage. The rise of the Grange Movement mirrored Greenback
popularity among its original farmer base.
The 1880 Presidential Candidate was Iowa’s James B. Weaver. He received
305,997 popular votes, 3.3% of the
total and the high water mark of the
Greenbacks in Presidential elections.
Despite the continued popularity of
their core demand—the return to a system of government issued currency detached
from gold—in some areas, the party began a decline. Those middle class reformers never did abandon
the Republicans in any significant degree.
Southern Democrats gained in popularity as Reconstruction ended and they seized
state governments from Black
Republicans and fusion or pro-union whites leading to the Jim Crow Era.
Meanwhile the Knights of Labor largely
collapsed following the Great
Railroad Strike of 1877 and the rising craft
union movement was both conservative
and actually hostile to mass industrial workers greatly
weakening their political power and influence.
The Irish returned to the traditional Democratic loyalties in most big
Back in Indianapolis the 1884 Party
convention nominated Benjamin F. Butler for
President. Butler had also received the
nomination of an even smaller Anti-Monopoly Party. The sitting Governor of Massachusetts, Butler was a polarizing figure in American politics. A pre-war Democrat, Butler was a political general famous for his occupation command of New Orleans and the order to treat “disrespectful” ladies as
“women of the streets plying their trade.” He had a later command of the Department of Virginia where he refused to return runaway slaves that reached his lines to their owners,
declaring the “contraband of war.” He was also widely suspected of
corruption. Elected to Congress
after the war he became a leading Radical
Republican and one of the managers of the President Andrew Johnson’s unsuccessful impeachment prosecution before
the Senate. Back in his home state of Massachusetts
he ran three times for Governor, finally winning in 1882 on a Democrat-Greenback fusion ticket.
The nomination of controversial former Civil War Union general and Massachusetts Governor Benjamin Butler killed the remaining support of the Greenbacks in the South.
Butler’s presence on the ticket,
despite a Mississippi running mate, virtually killed the Greenbacks in the
South. As head of the ticket he won only
177,096 popular votes, just 1.7% of the total.
The party was also reduced to just two seats in Congress, one of them
taken by former Presidential candidate Weaver.
By 1888 local party apparatus around the country had collapsed. Only 8 delegates
showed up for a nominating convention.
They gave up and went home. The party was essentially dead. But not
In the 1890’s the new Populist Party took up most of its core
platform. The Populists’ first
Presidential Candidate in 1892 was the last Greenback in Congress—James B.
Weaver. In 1896 fiery Nebraska orator William Jennings Bryan got the nomination of both the Populists and
Democrats, campaigning on the old Greenback demand of the free coinage of
silver and end to the de-facto gold