John Ashcroft and Richard Olney

A Historical Parallel

By Ben G. Price

Sometimes history can give us perspective on the present. Consider the case of Richard Olney, President Grover Cleveland's Attorney General. In the mirror of morality, he's a John Ashcroft look-alike. In other words, a bloodless scoundrel.

"A great democracy will be neither great nor a democracy if it is not progressive." -- Former President Theodore Roosevelt, circa 1910

From Olney, Richard:

"In 1895, [Richard] Olney became Secretary of State. He played a vigorous part in the negotiations with the British over the Venezuela Boundary Dispute . In the course of the talks he stated flatly that the United States is "practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition." This principle was later supported by Theodore Roosevelt as a corollary of the Monroe Doctrine."

"As Attorney General (189395), he obtained an injunction against the strikers in the Pullman strike of 1894; under it Eugene V. Debs was held in contempt of court. Olney also persuaded Cleveland to send in troops to break the strike, ostensibly to prevent interference with the mails, although Gov. John P. Altgeld declared troops unnecessary."

An added political sidelight to this century old tyrany is highlighted in Robert Benson and Ronnie Dugger's "Challenging Corporate Rule" [The Apex Press, 1999, ISBN 1-891843-04-4]. On page 44 they write: "By financing two-party-only elections, and by direct lobbying, the business community has for years generally dominated legislators and captured administrative agencies. Corporations essentially have followed the advice of Richard Olney, President Grover Cleveland's Attorney General. Olney told railroad executives not to resist the creation of a regulatory commision because it could 'be of great use' to them, 'satisfy[ing] the popular clamor for government supervision of railroads, at he same time that the supervision is almost entirely nominal.' (Olney is also remebered for representing a private railroad client at the same time that he served as Attorney General and ordered federal troops to attack railway workers in the bloody Pullman Strike of 1884.)"

Consider the trade policies within the expanding United States and how, then as now, it was not people but concentration of power that drove the rule of law toward the establishment of what is now the greatest world empire in history. The farther west the settlers went, the more dependent they became on the railroads to move their goods to market. At the same time, farmers paid high costs for manufactured goods as a result of the protective tariffs that Congress, backed by Eastern industrial interests, had long supported. Over time, the Midwestern and Western farmer fell ever more deeply in debt to the banks that held their mortgages. We the People, indeed!

By 1890 the level of agrarian distress was at an all-time high. Working with sympathetic Democrats in the South or small third parties in the West, the Farmer's Alliance made a push for political power. From these elements, a third political party, known as the Populist Party, emerged. Never before in American politics had there been anything like the Populist fervor that swept the prairies and cotton lands. The elections of 1890 brought the new party into power in a dozen Southern and Western states, and sent a score of Populist senators and representatives to Congress. Its first convention was in 1892, when delegates from farm, labor and reform organizations met in Omaha, Nebraska, determined at last to make their mark on a U.S. political system they viewed as hopelessly corrupted by the monied interests of the industrial and commercial trusts. Their platform stated:

We are met, 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 of the bench [courts].... From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes -- tramps and millionaires.

The more things are run by the same kind of people, the more they stay the same.