Friday, May 14, 2010

The Winning of the Midwest

My wife's great-grandfather Sam Scholes was county clerk of Green Lake County, Wisconsin, until the 1890 election, when a Democratic Party tide swept him out of office. That garden-variety genealogical fact didn't mean much to me until I read Richard Jensen's history, The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888-1896 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971). As he tells it, that election turned in large part on the dominant Republicans' letting the anti-liquor crusaders take over the party and alienate Germans and other immigrants.

[UPDATE AND CORRECTION Friday afternoon: The hot issue, as Jensen correctly explains and I didn't, was the Bennett law to enforce teaching of English in schools. This issue aroused the same crusading zeal and the same resistance from the same groups, provoking just enough of them to either stay home or vote for the Democrats -- hence my confusion. Beneath both issues nativism was also an element. This is a good example of why blogs are like indexes: go to the source, don't take our word for everything!]

Of course this book is almost two generations old itself now. It's social history told through politics and statistics (with 27 tables, such as "Unskilled as Proportion of Non-Farmers by Politico-Religious Groups, Illinois 1877-1878"), which seems kind of retro in itself. And the shadow of the 1960s campus revolts looms large just behind the story. The division Jensen sees clearest is that between crusading moralists (in that era, the prohibitionists) and countercrusading pluralists (the party bosses), and he is no fan of crusading.

The history I was brought up on assumed that Altgeld and Bryan were heroes, and that the 1896 Bryan-McKinley Presidential election was a contest between the good-guy crusaders and William McKinley's business cronies. (The good guys lost, of course, but they got to write the history books.) The story Jensen tells is quite different and more thought-provoking. Check it out, but don't even try to fit these people into today's shopworn categories. They won't fit.

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