1890 One Hundred Years Ago

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On January 25 a half-century of unsuccessful attempts to unionize the coal-mining industry ended when miners from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan founded the United Mine Workers of America. The union’s main objectives included an eight-hour day, better safety conditions, and the end of scrip payments and child labor. “Without coal there would not have been any such grand achievements, privileges, and blessings as those which characterize the twentieth-century civilization,” said the first UMWA constitution. “Those whose lot it is to daily toil in the recesses of the earth…are entitled to a fair and equitable share of the same.”

Introducing legislation to the House of Representatives, said Thomas Reed of Maine, was like trying “to run Niagara through a quill.” The Democratic majority of the House had resisted for years all attempts to reform the procedural rules that too often caused congressional business to grind to a halt, and when a new Republican majority elected Reed Speaker in December 1889, he vowed to reform the process.

On January 29 Reed had enough Republican votes to pass a routine confirmation vote, but he lacked a quorum because 165 Democrats in attendance had refused to vote. Under the House tradition of the time, Reed’s only choices were to vote again or give up. Reed chose to defy “this system of metaphysics whereby a man could be present and absent at the same moment” and directed the House clerk to register the names of forty Democrats as present but not voting. Furious cries of “czar” and “tyrant” arose from the Democratic side of the chamber, but Reed was implacable. When Rep. James McCreary rose to deny the Speaker’s right to count him in attendance, Reed observed that he had made “a statement of the fact that the gentleman from Kentucky is present. Does he deny it?” Public sentiment supported Reed’s campaign to end “delay and obstruction” in the House. “The country wants results,” wrote the New York Tribune , “and doesn’t care much in what way they are obtained.”

“Reed’s Rules” took effect in February. Under his direction the Fifty-first Congress passed the longest legislative program since the Civil War, raising expenditures until it earned the title of Billion Dollar Congress. The Democrats attempted to reenact the silent quorum following their sweep of the 1892 election, but Reed, as the leader of the House Republicans, gleefully used the rule to hold up congressional business until the Democrats were forced to relent for good.

On February 18 two major American women’s-suffrage organizations united to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association at a convention in Washington, D.C. For two decades the suffrage movement had been divided between Susan B. Anthony’s politically aggressive organization and a more conservative New England group that disapproved of Anthony’s activist social program. By 1890, though, the suffrage movement was no longer regarded as a radical fringe issue, and a new generation of feminists was determined to work together to gain the vote. “Every right achieved by the oppressed has been wrung from tyrants by force,” declared Elizabeth Cady Stanton, NAWSA’s first president. “While the darkest page of human history is the outrages on women—shall men still tell us to be patient, persuasive, womanly?”

NAWSA would concentrate its resources on individual states, although Anthony, who assumed the organization’s presidency in 1892, insisted that the ‘Very moment you change the purpose of this great body from National to State work you have defeated its object.” Indeed, hundreds of statewide campaigns over the next twenty years gained women the vote in only two states, Colorado and Idaho. Renewed focus on a national suffrage amendment after 1910 revitalized the issue and led to passage of the Nineteenth Amendment a decade later.