Saturday, October 30, 2010

1896 Senate race: Sound familiar?

If you think this year's race for the Florida's open seat in the U.S. Senate is contentious, you should have seen the 1896 election. There are similarities. That race 114 years ago pitted conservative railroad and corporate interests against a populist liberal candidate. There was lots of political maneuvering going on. The rivalries were bitter indeed. And one candidate pulled out to prevent his rival from winning. A little background:

W.D. Chipley
W.D. Chipley may have been to Pensacola and the Panhandle what Henry B. Plant and Henry Flagler were to the rest of the state – the railroad moguls who made things happened and weren't inclined to let local or state public officials stand in their way.

Plant and Flagler certainly had their moments in having things their way politically but William D. Chipley may have won the top honor for Tammany Hall-style machinations.

Chipley was born in Georgia, educated in Kentucky and served as a Confederate officer during the Civil  War. He was wounded twice and was taken prisoner by the Union. After the war, Chipley became involved in the management of several southern railroads companies, including Pensacola & Atlantic Railroad, which he joined in 1881.

Wilkinson Call
Chipley became vice president and superintendent, and also served as the company's general land agent. The company had a 2.8 million-acre federal land grant to build a railway from Pensacola to Chattahoochee. That was a half-way point to unite east and west Florida by rail. It would give the Pensacola area access to the extensive Atlantic seaboard rail systems.

But Chipley wanted more. He wanted to company to basically own most of the Florida Panhandle. He planned to accomplish that by securing a large pre-Civil War land grant given to a railroad that had already gone out of business.

Chipley inserted himself into Florida politics to make sure things went his way. He became chairman of the state Democratic Executive Committee, a position that gave him significant influence over selecting legislative candidates with pro-railroad leanings.

Stephen Mallory II
Enter the man who was to be Chipley's archrival: liberal U.S. Sen. Wilkinson Call. He was the nephew for former territorial governor Richard Keith Call. The liberals had a litany of charges to level against the railroad special interests. They called the land grants "land grabs." They accused the railroads of using discriminatory freight rates and excluding Florida ports in shipments of citrus and phosphate.

In 1888, when Call introduced a measure in the U.S. Senate calling for the forfeiture of all expired land grants and opening them to the public for homsteading, it was the last straw. For Chipley, it became personal. He targeted Call. In a New York Times account of a speech in Fort Myers in 1890, Chipley accused Call of lining his pockets with public money, stealing land from poor negroes and having unsavory banking connections. He tried to block Call's reelection in 1891 to a third term with a lot of back room politicking. Call won anyway.

But it wasn't over yet. The railroad was completed. Chipley had accumulated a political power base. In 1896, he decided to run against Call himself. He rallied the state's newspapers in his bid to unseat Call. He tried to divide the liberal bloc by declaring support for populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. He even hinted that he'd support a state railroad commission.

Voting in the legislature took 25 ballots. Legislators switched their votes back and forth. It appeared to be a real cliffhanger but on the final night of balloting it looked like Chipley would win. In late-night haggling, liberals convinced Call to drop out in favor of moderate liberal Stephen Mallory II of Pensacola. That was enough for Mallory to win, keeping Chipley from becoming senator.

Publicly, Chipley said he'd accomplished his mission, to get Call out of office but privately he raged that all that vote switching had robbed him of his victory.

The bitter campaign may have taken its toll on Chipley. He died about a year later.

Information from Gene Burnett's Florida's Past: People & Events That Shaped the State, Volume 2, History of the Confederates Memorial Associations of the South and The New York Times, was used in this report.

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