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“all My Immense Labor For Nothing… ”
Author of a nightmare fantasy about what the twentieth century might be like, Ignatius Donnelly never saw his other radical ideas—even the good ones—come to pass
June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
The same erratic quality also appears in Dr. Huguet (1891), a fantasy protesting race prejudice in the South, and in The Golden Bottle (1892), where the Kansas hero does away with the gold standard, frees Ireland from the British, and conquers Europe.
Donnelly’s books were widely read in the farm areas of the Midwest, and were for many the great literature of Populism. By mid-1892 Caesar’s Column had sold over 150,000 copies and had been translated into three languages. Perhaps more important, it ran in serial form in many of the nine hundred Farmers’ Alliance newspapers throughout the country. But the climax of Ignatius Donnelly’s career, and the high point of the agrarian revolt, came on the sultry afternoon of July 4, 1892, in the Coliseum at Omaha, Nebraska. Here the Populist party platform, largely Donnelly’s work, was read aloud with almost exactly the preamble Donnelly had read five months before at the St. Louis Populist convention: The conditions which surround us best justify our cooperation. We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine on the bench. The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling-places to prevent universal intimidation or bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, our homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of the capitalists …
The indictment went on to make the same forecast Donnelly had made in Caesar’s Column —that without corrective action there would follow “terrible social convulsions, the destruction of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute despotism.”
The platform then listed its specific demands: “a national currency, safe, sound, and flexible”; a graduated income tax; establishment of postal savings banks; a free and secret ballot; direct popular election of United States senators instead of by state legislature caucus; direct voter initiative and referendum; an eight-hour work day; the prohibition of “armed mercenaries” in labor disputes; public ownership of telephone, telegraph, and railroad systems; and free coinage of silver at the ratio of 16 to 1.
One reporter who witnessed that scene probably did not exaggerate the reaction of the business and financial community when he wrote that an intelligent man could not look on “without a feeling of great alarm at the extent of the social lunacy there displayed … Cheers and yells … rose like a tornado from four thousand throats and raged without cessation for thirty-four minutes, during which women shrieked and wept, men embraced and kissed their neighbors … and leaped upon tables and chairs in the ecstasy of their delirium …”
Seventy years later their “social lunacy” seems all but commonplace. The Populists never proposed to desert a basically free economy or appeal to any arbiter but the ballot box. The actual means of reform which Donnelly suggested were often unworkable, to be sure; the silver coinage plank has been well replaced by a more radical scheme—the Federal Reserve System—and his demand for public utility ownership has been met instead through federal regulation. But his fundamental ideas have proven uncannily sound; and the Omaha platform reads for the most part like a list of the worthwhile changes in twentieth century American government—finally accepted and enacted by the major parties.
At Omaha Donnelly was offered enough support for the Presidential nomination to make him think he might win it, but the majority thought him too unpredictable and turned instead to General James B. Weaver of Iowa. Back in Minnesota, however, Donnelly became the People’s party nominee for governor. His diary on November 3 recounts the last great burst of energy: Aitkin, Minn.—I am sixty-one years old today. Here I am, in this little frontier town, full of sand and sawdust, near the end of a gigantic campaign, in which I shall have made about 88 speeches, or, counting the addresses delivered before the nomination about 130 in all … I have conversed with 10,000 persons, wrote a novel, prepared two “broadsides” of eight pages each; carried on a large correspondence and supervised the whole campaign. I hope to win, but nothing is certain … I may have all my immense labor for nothing; … I live in Caesar’s Column and I would avert those results if possible.
A week later his hand shook as he wrote: Beaten! Shippedl Smashed! Got but 40,000 votes when I looked for 100,000. Another of a long series of disappointments. Our followers scattered like dew before the rising sun …
Like any man who has made politics his career, Donnelly measured his success largely in votes received and offices won. He saw little hope for the future; he had grown old in battle and saw no one ready to rise in his place. He did not correspond with, and appeared to take little note of, other politicians like La Follette, Norris, and Theodore Roosevelt—the men who would press for reform in the coming century. His resilient spirit never recovered from the defeat of 1892.