“The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.” -- Harry Truman

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The First Third Party

How the Anti-Masons Challenged Secrecy and Elites

In 1826 William Morgan, a 52-year-old Freemason and printer from Batavia, New York, became dissatisfied with his local lodge and announced his intention to publish the details of Masonic rituals. When his plan became known, however, Morgan was seriously harassed. That September he was seized by unknown parties, taken to Fort Niagara, and never seen again.

Although Morgan’s fate is unknown, it was widely believed at the time that he had been kidnapped and killed by fellow Masons, a suspicion that only increased the existing hostility toward the order and led to the formation of the first national third party in the United States.

Spreading rapidly from upstate New York across New England and west, the Anti-Mason movement introduced innovations like nominating conventions and the adoption of party platforms. By 1831 the new political party was so popular that Vermont elected an Anti-Mason governor, demonstrating both the depth of public opposition to elite power and how far a single-issue movement can go.

Morgan’s disappearance led more people to conclude that Freemasons were not loyal citizens. Since most Masons were judges, businessmen, bankers and politicians, ordinary folks began to view the group as a powerful, anti-democratic secret society. Others suspected links to the occult and ceremonial magic. One persuasive argument was that the secret oaths administered by lodges could bind members to favor each other over “outsiders.” When the trial of the alleged Morgan conspirators was mishandled and Masons successfully blocked further inquiries, even more concluded that they controlled key public offices, abused their power to promote the interests of the fraternity, and were violating basic democratic principles.

Popular outrage spread as people decided to challenge what they now considered a conspiracy. In western New York, citizens attending mass meetings in 1827 resolved not to support any Mason for public office. The National Republicans, heirs of the Jeffersonian faction, were weak in New York at the time, and shrewd political leaders used anti-Mason feelings to create a new party to oppose the rising “Jacksonian Democracy,” which favored a more powerful president, expansion of the right to vote, a patronage system, and geographical expansion. The fact that Andrew Jackson was a high-ranking Mason and frequently praised the Order further fueled suspicion. One of the most prominent Anti-Masons was former President John Quincy Adams, who wrote a series of stern letters condemning the institution after Morgan’s disappearance.

Numerous Anti-Masonic papers were published, school readers and almanacs were distributed, and Anti-Mason book stores and taverns opened. In some churches it became a religious crusade. The excitement soon extended as far west as Northeastern Ohio. In some parts of that state, lodge halls were destroyed by mobs; property and records were carried away, Masons were ostracized and their businesses closed.

A national anti-mason organization was planned as early as 1827, when New York leaders attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade Henry Clay, a former Mason, to renounce the Order and head the movement. His slippery reply to an inquiry about his opinion of the group was that he had become a Freemason as a young man, but hadn’t given the order any attention for a long time. In fact, Clay was a former Grand Master but the growth of an opposition movement had led him to practically disown it.

In the 1828 elections the new party proved unexpectedly strong, eclipsing the National Republicans in New York State. Within a year it had broadened its base, becoming a champion of internal improvements and protective tariffs. In August 1829 Anti-Mason delegates met in Montpelier for what became Vermont’s first political convention.

When an Anti-Mason convention met in Philadelphia in September 1830 it adopted the following platform:

“The object of Anti-Masonry, in nominating and electing candidates for the Presidency and Vice Presidency, is to deprive Masonry of the support which it derives from the power and patronage of the executive branch of the United States Government. To effect this object, will require that candidates besides possessing the talents and virtues requisite for such exalted stations, be known as men decidedly opposed to secret societies.”

One of the leading Anti-Masons was Thaddeus Stevens, a Vermont native of Danville who made his name in Pennsylvania and later emerged as a leading abolitionist, founder of the Republican Party, and post-Civil War activist for civil rights and stiff retribution against the south. Attending the Anti-Mason Party’s first national convention, he attracted notice with his strong speeches and oratorical style. In one of them, “On The Masonic Influence Upon The Press,” he deplored the lack of publicity given to the convention and attributed that as well to Masonic influence.

“Look around,” Stevens proclaimed. “Though but one hundred thousand of the people of the United States are Free Masons, yet almost all the offices of high profit and honor are filled with gentlemen of that institution. Out of the number of judges in the State of Pennsylvania, eighteen-twentieths are Masons; and twenty-two out of twenty-four states of the Union are now governed by Masonic chief magistrates. Although not a twentieth part of the voters of this commonwealth, and of the United States are Masons, yet they have contrived, by concert, to put themselves into eighteen out of twenty of the offices of profit and power.

In 1833 Stevens was elected to the Pennsylvania legislature on the Anti-Masonic ticket, where his legislative talents quickly showed themselves. An excellent debater with a devastating wit that cut his opposition to shreds, he knew how to maneuver behind the scenes – and bide his time.

Vermont’s Anti-Mason Moment

William A. Palmer was no newcomer to politics. He was a popular Jeffersonian Democrat and former judge who had already represented Vermont in the US Senate by the time he ran for governor on the Anti-Mason ticket in 1831. Vermonters had elected another Anti-Mason to Congress and chosen more than 30 members of the movement to represent them in the General Assembly. Still, it was a shock to the establishment when Palmer led in the popular vote. It took nine ballots in the state legislature before he won.

The next year in Baltimore the national party conducted the first presidential nominating convention in US history. Anti-Masonic candidate William Wirt, a former Mason, subsequently won 7.78 percent of the popular vote – and Vermont’s seven electoral votes. William Slade, who would later become Vermont governor as a Whig, was sent to Congress as an opponent of Masonry and slavery.

Since the state still had one-year terms of office, Palmer ran and won again, but still could not attract a majority of the vote. This time it took 43 legislative ballots before he was re-elected.

In 1834, he won on the first ballot, but only because the other political parties, anticipating the collapse of the Anti-Masons, were competing to win over its constituents. Palmer also led in the 1835 vote. But this time he couldn’t convince the legislature. After weeks of wrangling and 63 ballots the lawmakers declared themselves deadlocked and turned to Silas Jenison, a former Anti-Mason official and winner of the Lieutenant-Governor’s race. The rest of the Anti-Mason ticket was endorsed by the Whigs.

The opposition to Palmer was due primarily to his Democratic leanings and a belief that he intended to support Democrat Martin Van Buren for president the next year.

Gridlock in Vermont’s General Assembly over Palmer’s elections became so disruptive that it led to a Constitutional Convention and the amendment that created the State Senate. Criticism of the unicameral legislature wasn’t new and proposals for a second chamber dated back to 1793. But in 1836 the idea of reducing the power of the House finally achieved critical mass. The Convention stripped it of “supreme legislative power.”

Crucially, bankers backed the change, mainly with the expectation that two chambers would be easier to handle, circumstantial evidence that in opposing the Masons the movement was also confronting the banks. The general public mainly thought the House had become too arrogant, intransigent and uncooperative.

Governor Palmer believed that secret societies were “evil.” But he didn’t take radical stands in his public speeches. In his first inaugural address, he declared the intention to appoint only men who were “unshackled by any earthly allegiance except to the constitution and laws,” and suggested legislation to prohibit the administration of oaths except “when necessary to secure the faithful discharge of public trusts and to elicit truth in the administration of justice.” He wanted to “diminish the frequency” of oaths because of the “influence which they exercise over the human mind.”

For Vermont Anti-Masons, the use of secret oaths represented an invasion of the “civil power of a sovereign state” and a violation of liberty. In June 1833, at the height of movement, the Anti-Mason State Convention passed a dozen resolutions defining its position. The first of these, underlining a core commitment to accountability, said “that an institution which veils itself in secrecy and shrinks from the light of truth and public scrutiny – which imposes in its midnight recesses, partial monopolizing, immoral and illegal oaths, backed by the penalty of death upon its votaries – which confers upon its members aristocratic and kingly titles, directly in the face of the constitution – and which aims in its organization, its obligations, and its whole spirit, at the erection of a privileged order in the land, at the expense of the equal rights of the rest of the community, is anti-republican in all its features and deserving the execration of every friend of his country.”[1]

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, the high point of Thaddeus Stevens’ Anti-Mason period came on January 18, 1836. Prominent Masons who had previously refused to appear before his committee in the Pennsylvania legislature were being compelled to testify. Among them were ex-Governor George Wolf; George M. Dallas, who was Masonic Grand Master of Pennsylvania at the time and ten years later became Vice President under James Polk; and Joseph R. Chandler, editor of the United States Gazette, published in Philadelphia. When ordered to answer questions the three powerful men refused.

In response they and 23 other witnesses were placed in the custody of the House Sergeant-at-Arms. After several days, when some of the Whigs broke with the Anti-Masons, the prisoners were released and Stevens’ campaign ended.

In 1835, when the State Anti-Masonic Convention endorsed William Henry Harrison for President, Stevens initially refused to accept it because Harrison wouldn’t pledge to use the government to go after the Masons. By then he stood almost alone in trying to press the Anti-Masonic agenda on a national basis. Due to his dogged efforts to keep the party alive, he could not secure enough support to be elected to Congress until 1848.

Vermont’s Anti-Masons ultimately succeeded in forcing the lodges to close – at least for a while. But that left the state party with less reason to exist, In 1836 Vermont’s Anti-Mason leaders, including future governor Slade, joined the new, anti-Jacksonian Whig Party.

In Pennsylvania, following the election of an Anti-Mason governor a state convention was held in Harrisburg to choose Presidential Electors for the 1836 election. The Pennsylvanians picked Harrison for President. Vermont’s convention followed suit. But when national Anti-Masonic leaders couldn’t even get Harrison to say that he definitely was not a Mason, they called a separate convention. Held in Philadelphia in May 1836, it was a divisive gathering. A majority of the delegates agreed that the purpose of the party remained anti-masonry but opted not to back a national ticket.

Anti-Mason Joseph Ritner was governor of Pennsylvania from 1835 to 1838. By the end of his time in office the organization was in seriously decline, its members gradually uniting with the Whigs and later the Republicans. The party’s third and final National convention was held in Philadelphia’s Temperance Hall in November, 1838. Almost entirely engulfed by the Whigs, the gathering unanimously supported Harrison for President and Daniel Webster for Vice President. When the Whig National Convention chose Harrison and John Tyler, the Anti-Masons did nothing and soon vanished.



[1] Proceedings of the Anti-Masonic State Convention, Montpelier, June 26-27, 1833, Knapp & Jewett Printers.



Friday, March 7, 2014

Times of Cleavage: The Age of Burke 5

Among his many loyal supporters James Burke was known as honest, fearless and filled with high ideals. His enemies meanwhile questioned his motives and considered him dangerous. Describing his speaking style, a writer for Vermonter Magazine once remarked, “The ideas were expressed with the intensity of conviction that struck a popular chord in the hearts of the proletariat among whom his strength has been greatest.”
     Speaking for himself, Burke proclaimed, “I believe in a progressive spirit, no going backward.” 
     Upon his death in 1943 the Burlington Free Press, a frequent critic of Burke, called him “the grand old man of Vermont Democrats," a tireless fighter “stirring the smoldering embers of democracy when they seemed to be dying out.”[1]
     Still, nothing lasts forever, and the Queen City had already drifted back toward conservatism by the 1930s. The Irish led a growing opposition, but Old Americans – “Yankees” with civic and financial power who still clung to their sense of Anglo-Saxon superiority – continued to dominate local culture. Upper class residents, many of whom literally lived up “on the hill,” fought against unions and the minimum wage, and offered little charitable assistance through their churches. People should “help themselves,” they advised. 
      And they weren’t beyond covering up their own faults. After a housing survey was completed in the 30s it was quickly buried. Some of Burlington’s leading citizens, it turned out, owned several of the shabbiest tenements.
      Sociologist Elin Anderson provided the most vivid portrait of the Queen City during the Depression years in her award-winning study, We Americans, published by Harvard Press in 1937. The city was conservative, rural and individualist, she concluded, a far cry from the liberal, urban and socially-engaged place it would become a half century later. In the 1930s it had lost personal neighborliness without gaining impersonal mobility.[2]
     The dominant social group was still the Old Americans. Leading the opposition were the Irish, who cast their lot with the “have nots.” Their Democratic leanings and Catholic faith sent up red flags among the Yankees, and even some French Canadians viewed their leadership as “officious and irksome.”
     Anderson studied these three groups, along with smaller Jewish, German and Italian communities, for three years. The WPA paid the salaries of six local women who conducted hundreds of in-depth interviews. One odd finding she noted was that the community believed women, more than men, “preserved prejudicial attitudes.”

       An unusual aspect of the study was the auspices under which it was conducted: the Vermont Eugenics Survey. The eugenicist, explained Anderson, is interested in “ethnic adjustment” through “biological blending – intermarriage – of the most desirable qualities of people.” In general, eugenics focused on discouraging propagation by the so-called unfit, reflected in laws allowing sterilization of “mental defectives.” At its worst, it gave support to the concept of cultivating a “superior” breed or race, an idea linked to the rising Nazi movement in Germany at the time. 
     Anderson made no such connections; in fact, she scoffed at the notion of a “pure” American and denounced both Hitler and Burlington’s anti-Semitic Silver Shirts. She also condemned a local nursery school policy that allowed rejection of a child “solely because she is Jewish.”
      Affiliated with UVM’s zoology department, the Eugenics Survey began in 1925 with a three-year genealogical study of 62 families with “outstanding defects, deficiencies and other bad traits.” Included in this group were hundreds of paupers, illegitimate children, and even some blind and paralyzed people. A few years before Anderson arrived in Burlington, the Survey had lobbied the legislature to allow for sterilization of the “feeble-minded.”
     More constructively, Anderson’s study delineated the prevailing social and ethnic “cleavages” and unmasked the community’s WASPs, “stripping away some of the pretense by which the people on top rationalize their position,” according UVM Sociology professor Jim Loewen. “She emphasizes that the Old Americans set the status hierarchy and that what they value sets the community values. That’s pretty hard-hitting. It’s saying the Old Americans are racist, ethnicist, and classist, and get away with it because the lower groups have false consciousness.”
     The impact of “cleavage” between the Irish and French Canadians was revealed in the response to one of Anderson’s questions. Should one vote for the person “who is a member of one’s own nationality” when deciding between two qualified candidate? The findings said that French Canadians tended to vote Republican – with Yankees and, most notably, against Irish Democrats.
     The city remained divided along Yankee-foreigner, Protestant-Catholic lines until the late 1950s. Political gerrymandering helped maintain Yankee dominance. But by the late 1950s, a political alliance was forged between moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats to control city appointments and services. This open conspiracy, known as the Republicrats, ran the City of Burlington for the next two decades, right until the election of another progressive mayor named Bernie Sanders.

PREVIOUS CHAPTERS

[1] Burlington Free Press, April 27, 1943.
[2] Material for this section was originally presented in The Way We Were, a cover story written with Sue Burton that appeared in the September 24, 1987 issue of The Vermont Vanguard Press.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Comeback Trials: The Age of Burke 4

For most people 60 was a reasonable age to slow down. But James Burke was just getting started in 1908 and made a quixotic gubernatorial run against Newport timber man George Prouty.
     Only 50 people attended his opening campaign speech, delivered during an August electrical storm. In that campaign he called for revision of the tax system, a license law on liquor, new highways throughout the state and an eight-hour day for workers. The Republicans ignored him and Prouty suggested that so few differences existed between the two parties that “there is danger of more apathy than should be in a presidential year.”
     But Burke’s real problem was that Vermont Democrats had turned away from their party’s nominee for president, William Jennings Bryan[1] and William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s chosen successor, breezed into office.  So did Prouty, who moved up after a term as lieutenant governor under Fletcher Proctor. Nevertheless, just a few months later Burke was major again, defeating Walter Bigelow by 18 votes. It was his first two-year term after the city’s charter was amended.
James Burke
     In spite of his populist activism, Burke’s support waned again and he was defeated in 1911. Two years later he was back in power, defeating A.S. Drew and calling for a major revision of the city charter. Now he wanted a “commission system” that would place management under the control of a small number of elected administrators.[2]
     When Burke became Burlington postmaster in 1915, rather than enter another mayoral race, it seemed a safe bet that his political career had finally ended. During the next years he lobbied for women’s suffrage and promoted war bonds, but local politics proceeded without him. Leadership of the Democratic Party passed to J. Holmes Jackson, a dentist who served four terms as mayor and ran for governor in 1924.
     But Burke’s retirement turned out to be temporary. When he was elected Burlington’s sole representative to the state legislature – the same year Jackson ran for governor – Burke began pushing for state approval of a city retirement fund and a building department. Within a few months he was also running for mayor again – for the 11th time.
     Burke’s political career still had another 10 years to run. But this phase was, in many ways, the most painful. At first his own party didn’t support him, persuading him to run as a Citizens party candidate. He attributed the rejection to the presence of Republicans at Democratic caucuses.
     When Jackson defeated Burke in the Democratic caucus of 1929, the Irish elder protested after the vote. “I have played the game square,” he said. “I came here tonight resolved to abide by the action of the caucus but when I see the place packed with Republicans, I refuse to accept the decision.”
     That year he ran unsuccessfully as an independent; Jackson had both the Democratic and Republican lines. Burke argued in vain that the city was overburdened with loans, overdrafts and excessive bonding, and warned about the consequences of the city’s growing debt.
     By the end of the year the stock market crashed and the Depression was on the horizon.
     Burke was back in the legislature in 1930, and returned to the Burlington scene as a Citizens candidate for mayor the following year. This time, with more than 800 people jamming City Hall for the Democratic caucus, he came out on top. A week later his Democratic opponent, Jackson, was nominated as the Republican candidate, and defeated Burke in the general election.
     The partisan power plays were signs of a deeper, more ideological struggle. Burke and his “working class” allies were disturbed by the boom-town atmosphere in Burlington, characterized by slogans such as “bigger, busier, better Burlington.” During the late 1920s the city had embarked on a building spree in hopes of becoming a convention center. Burke opposed projects such as Memorial Auditorium on economic grounds, and in his mayoral bids called for a “rigid economy,” meaning a lean city budget and a less speculative attitude.
     In 1933 his time came – again. The Depression had reached its depth, and his nemesis, Jackson, was too ill to seek another term. About 1,000 people attended both the GOP and Democratic caucuses. At the latter Burke, by this time 83 years old, handily defeated his former protégé Hugh Finnegan, who immediately pledged “absolute” support.
     The candidate promised a “sound economy and honesty.” Victory over the Republican hopeful, William Wilson, came easily. Handling city affairs in a time of economic crisis, on the other hand, required hard decisions. Expenditures had to be cut, including municipal salaries, and local government was forced to accept the sad fact that almost $100,000 in unpaid taxes was “uncollectible.”[3]
     If there was any doubt that this “progressive era” was over, Burke laid it to rest in June 1934 when 500 workers at the Queen City cotton mill went on strike. Local textile workers were in the vanguard of a national protest. But Burlington’s mayor, who had enjoyed the support of the Building Trades Union in his early mayoral campaigns, ordered the strikers back to work, warning that they would receive no relief from the city if they refused.
     The workers held out until the fall. But once the strike was over the union was left divided by discrimination against ex-strikers, disillusionment and ideological battles.
      Combining conservative and liberal tendencies, Burke ran a tight local administration while, in his role as city representative, proposing a cooperative savings and investment plan and encouragement of para-professionalism. Still, the strains of the time led to disaffection.
     Burke was defeated in his 1935 and 1937 mayoral bids, each time by a larger margin. The latter campaign was his last.

Next: After Burke - The Politics of Cleavage

[1] It was Bryan’s third run for president and his opponent William Taft was running on Roosevelt’s record. At a time of peace, prosperity and Republican trust-busting Bryan’s agrarian radicalism had lost some of its appeal. He didn’t carry a single state in the Northeast. Bryan’s position on evolution was also becoming known. In a 1905 speech, he said Darwinism represented the “law of hate” and that, if it was true, “we shall turn backward to the beast.”
[2] Mayor’s Message to the Board of Aldermen, 1914.
[3] Mayor’s Message to the Board of Alderman, 1933.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Attempted Fusion: The Age of Burke 2

James Burke’s political vision stretched beyond the borders of Burlington by 1906. He was deeply embroiled in an effort to wrest control of the governor’s office from the Republicans. To attempt this he forged a delicate personal alliance with Percival Clement, railroad tycoon and owner of the Rutland Herald, who was warring with Proctor marble interests. A joint ticket emerged with Democrat and Independent candidates, and Clement at the top.
     That summer, as Burke traveled the state attacking Republican graft and rule, he continued to call President Roosevelt “the greatest Republican since Lincoln and the greatest Democrat since Jefferson.”
     The Burke-Clement alliance was largely rooted in political expediency. Both men wanted to be governor and knew that no Democrat could win statewide. Both had also been mayors, Clement in Rutland, though his control of the Rutland Railroad didn’t ease negotiations about the Burlington waterfront, which was owned by Clement’s line and Central Vermont. But there was also an ideological affinity that bridged the class barrier between them. Both were ardent supporters of the “local option” to issue saloon licenses and vocal critics of graft by marble and coal interests dominating the GOP.
     The day Theodore Roosevelt found out he was going to be president he was riding with Clement on his railroad. The Vice President had been visiting Vermont Lieutenant Governor Nelson Fisk at Isle LaMotte when word came through that the President had been shot. By 1906, Roosevelt was on the attack against the beef, oil and tobacco trusts, while in Vermont Clement was warring with marble interests, especially Fletcher Proctor, the Republican candidate for governor.
     Burke had won another term as mayor over Walter Bigelow, the 40-year-old chairman of the state Republican Party and night editor at the Burlington Free Press.  He saw a “bright and glorious future” for the city and wanted people to move beyond “a narrow or partisan point of view.” But the logic of progressive reform impelled him to influence the movement Clement was building.
     At first it was called the “Bennington idea,” referring to the town where a petition first circulated for Clement to lead an independent movement that aimed to “save the state” after 50 years of Republican rule. But Clement’s supporters decided that a fusion with Democrats was essential, so they tried to induce Burke to join the ticket.
     He wasn’t persuaded. Giving Clement the Democratic nomination would effectively put him in control of the party. If a Democrat won the presidency in 1908, Clement would get to hand out patronage. Thus, Burke remained a potential candidate for governor himself even after a Barre Democrat agreed to join Clement on a slate.
     The Democrats were still divided on June 28, the day of both the Independent and Democratic state conventions in Burlington.
     While the Independents convened in City Hall and the Democrats met at the armory, a joint committee worked out an agreement to divide the state ticket. The Democrats would field candidates for one half of the slate, Independents would take the rest. After accepting the Independent nod Clement walked with Burke to the Strong Theater for a joint assembly.
     Debate on fusion was heated, some people accusing Burke of opposing the idea because he couldn’t head the ticket. Speaking for himself, Burke reminded the audience that he had backed fusion under Clement four years earlier. But the “local option” for alcohol[1] was no longer a galvanizing issue and Clement was, after all, still basically a Republican.
     The Democrats rejected Burke’s advice and approved a joint slate headed by Clement and Democrat C. Herbert Pape. With more than a thousand people packing the theater, Clement took center stage, Burke at his side, and launched into a long, fiery attack on the Republic machine, the marble companies, and the inefficiency and graft that was robbing the people.
     Burke actively backed Clement’s war on the Proctor Republicans, spending much of his time that summer on the campaign trail. As usual, his rhetoric was rich with praise of Roosevelt.
     “Reform is in the air,” he shouted from the back of the candidate’s private train, “and Vermont will share in the benefits that come from the general revolt being made against ring rule and graft.” He envisioned a popular coalition of Lincoln Republicans and Jefferson Democrats that would wipe out party lines. It might even combat corporate lobbying on labor issues like the nine-hour day and minimum wage.
     But Fusion was defeated by Republicans united behind Proctor in November. And the following March, Burke came up short in his first mayoral race in five years – to Walter Bigelow. The defeat was devastating for political allies who lost their jobs and watched old opponents return to power.
     Clement eventually became governor in 1918 – as a Republican. 

Next: On the Waterfront


[1] In 1902 a referendum gave towns the option of granting licenses. Four years later the authority was transferred to the Secretary of State, and in 1917 to the Commissioner of Taxes. In 1921, the old liquor laws were repealed and replaced by a system that conformed to the 18th Amendment. When prohibition was repealed in 1933, the state re-assumed the power to regulate the sale and use of alcohol.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Age of Burke

Burlington's First Progressive Era

Introduction

When Theodore Roosevelt visited Burlington in September 1902 he had kind words about the State of Vermont. He had been to the Queen City a year earlier, on the very day he found out that President McKinley had been shot by what the papers were calling a “crazed anarchist.” But now the “wild man,” the “damned cowboy” hated by Wall Street, Vice President under McKinley for less than a year, had returned as President.
     Burlington Mayor Donley C. Hawley stood with Roosevelt at the train barn near the waterfront, surrounded by flags and bunting. The President told the Vermonters, “You have always kept true to the old America ideals – the ideals of individual initiative, of self-help, of rugged independence, of the desire to work and willingness, if need, to fight.”
     Republicans like Hawley were suspicious. Roosevelt’s rhetoric about a “square deal” for working people and control of big business sounded radical. But Democrats like James E. Burke were unabashed admirers. Burke was already the leading spokesman for the city’s growing Democratic Party. He was also promoting a fusion movement with dissident Republicans. Like Roosevelt, he projected himself as a pragmatic reformer, thriving on idealism, moral outrage and an ability to inspire the masses.


     Born in Williston on May 4, 1849, from a family that admired the British populist Edmund Burke, he had emerged as the leader of a new Irish, Democratic opposition in the city. Son of Irish Catholic immigrants from Canada, he‘d begun his political career at almost 50 years old, identifying himself as a champion of the poor, labor, and ethnic newcomers. He was also known and well-liked as a blacksmith.
     To many local Yankee “puritans” James Burke was something else entirely: a dangerous “papist,” implying that his main allegiance was to the Catholic Church. But he found more than enough support at the foot of University Hill – in low-income neighborhoods, tenements near the railroad tracks and along the waterfront. These were the city’s ethnic neighborhoods at the time, populated not only by the Irish but also Germans, Italians, Jews, and French Canadians. In 18 citywide races between 1903 and 1937, Burke lost only twice in these “immigrant” wards. They were also the base for his five-year foray into “third party” politics during the 1930s Depression – the Citizens Party.
     Burke’s first victory came in 1893, when he was elected to the Board of Aldermen from Ward 4, then the city’s waterfront area. Two years later he was appointed to the Board of Police Examiners. But he couldn’t recapture his aldermanic seat in 1899, and his first two runs for mayor, in 1900 and 1902, were unsuccessful.

Power Struggles

On March 3, 1903, the hotly contested mayoral race between Burke and incumbent Republican Donley Hawley drew an overflow crowd to the city clerk’s office. The men – only males could vote – perched on windowsills and stood on the rail that surrounded the aldermanic table. As the results for each ward were announced the winning side cheered.
     Hawley, a surgeon, came out of top in affluent areas, but Burke’s persistence was finally paying off in the immigrant wards. Plus, he had two compelling issues this time around: a proposed city-owned light plant and local licensing of saloons.
     When the final votes were tallied, Hawley had a three-vote margin. But the reason was that City Clerk Charles Allen refused to count ballots that had been marked twice. Burke was livid. “Those who laugh last laugh best,” he proclaimed. “There are many men who voted today for me and whose ballots were thrown out. We propose to have them counted.”
     Good to his word, Burke took the matter to the Vermont Supreme Court and won, gaining certification of an 11-vote victory by early summer.
     It took more time, but he also got the light plant. Two years later, during his third term, Burke’s daughter Loretta pressed a button at the bandstand in City Hall Park energizing two circuits of streetlights with power from the newly built plant.
     Municipal power had enormous appeal. In December 1902 the Vermont legislature had authorized the city to furnish electricity, purchase needed land – by eminent domain if necessary, and issue bonds for the work. However, it also approved the incorporation of a privately-owned company, Burlington Light and Power, which would subsequently compete with – and sue – the city over the management of energy distribution.
     Burlington Light and Power was founded by B.B. Smalley and Urban Woodbury. In 1892, Smalley, a wealthy Democrat, had run for governor. But his main focus was business, as a corporate lawyer, banker, and president of the Burlington Gas Light Company. Woodbury was his closest business associate, president of the Consolidated Electric Company, a founding board member of Smalley’s Burlington Gas Light, and a war hero who had been mayor and lieutenant governor. In fact, two years after Smalley ran for governor in 1892 and lost Woodbury ran as a Republican and won.
     Only a week after Burke was declared Mayor by the state Supreme Court he asked the alderman to approve bonds for a light plant. Two days later, on June 11, he staged a special city-wide meeting to vote on a proposed $150,000 investment. Woodbury spoke against the plan, along with Elias Lyman, owner of the area’s big coal company and Burlington Traction Company, the local mass transit monopoly. Both men were hissed by members of the audience as they spoke.
     Local voters clearly favored public power, and within ten years the city was generating over one million kilowatt hours with a turbine generator. Despite widespread support, however, the owners of the competing private power company did not cave in. Instead, when the city was on the verge of expanding its department in 1910, Burlington Light and Power made a competing bid to supply energy for street lights, public buildings and parks. When it was turned down the private utility company filed an injunction to prevent the city from issuing new bonds.
     The lawsuit was dropped after two years, since it wasn’t possible to prove that commercial lighting supplied by the city would increase public debt. But Burlington Light and Power did eventually win a battle in court, using a 1904 agreement with the city as the basis for its argument.
     To avoid duplication as demand for electricity increased, the city had made a deal to share utility pole space with the company. Since the city used Light and Power poles, it was supposed to pay a 20 cent per year fee for each wire attached. But the city stopped paying in 1909, claiming that it had a right to use the tops of all poles without charge. Light and Power cried foul, especially since the city was their chief competitor. The Court agreed. No matter what the City Charter said, the light department had to pay up.
     That defeat didn’t change the direction in which the city was moving, however. When Green Mountain Power offered $1 million to lease the department for 20 years the city declined. During those years public power brought Burlington more than $2 million in profit. In 1953, the department became a city monopoly when it bought Green Mountain Power’s franchise.

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