hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News December 2020- January 2021


A populist campaign in the swing state of NY

Maury Thompson


On the afternoon of Oct. 28, 1884, about 800 people, many from out of town, listened in a drizzling rain in the park at Sandy Hill (now Hudson Falls, N.Y.) as third-party presidential candidate Benjamin Franklin Butler delivered a 90-minute speech.

Butler, the candidate of the Greenback-Labor and Anti-Monopoly parties, forerunners of the progressive movement, lashed out at corporations, such as Armor & Company meatpackers of Chicago, that controlled prices.

“If I had the power, I would issue an order that every monopolist speculating in the necessaries of life should suffer the death penalty,” Butler said, according to a report the next day in The Morning Star of Glens Falls. “I look on those who create an illegitimate advance on the price of food as worse than criminals.”

Butler, who had just completed one year as the governor of Massachusetts, said federal policies and a “defective” financial system enabled a handful of monopolists to accumulate exorbitant riches while the rest of society struggled financially.

“This great country of ours is rich but not prosperous,” he said. “Why is this? God has given us inventive genius for manufacturing, and our eastern storehouses are bustling.”

Butler, who was born in New Hampshire and raised in Lowell, Mass., was a successful trial lawyer before he entered politics. In his third-party presidential bid, he said railroad barons had undue influence on politicians of the two major political parties, rendering government ineffective at reform.

“The party in power says it is not able to do this,” he explained. “Then for God’s sake, get out of the way and let somebody else do it.”

Butler had switched back and forth between political parties in the course of a long political career that included two terms as a Massachusetts state legislator and five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He had most recently been elected governor of Massachusetts as a Democrat.

There had been speculation Butler might emerge as a dark-horse candidate at the 1884 Democratic National Convention.

“The doorkeepers of the Democratic National Convention will please look out for a man with a bad eye and a stout club under his arm,” The Palatka Daily News of Putnam County, Fla., wrote in an editorial on July 6. “His name is Butler – Benjamin Franklin Butler – and he wants to get in for the purpose of kicking up a row.”

The “bad eye” was a reference to a bug-eye condition that made Butler often appear as if he was sleeping. The condition manifested itself as Butler listened to music and warm-up speakers at the Sandy Hill rally, The Morning Star reported.

When the national Democratic Party didn’t embrace Butler, the Greenback-Labor and Anti-Monopoly parties, which were closely aligned in political philosophy, recruited him to run in a tandem presidential campaign that became know as the “People’s ticket.”

Butler’s platform called for a public transportation system, an eight-hour workday, federal control of interstate commerce, and a return to currency backed by gold bullion. He also opposed repealing taxes on whiskey and tobacco.

At first, Butler’s “ambitious scheme” was to secure enough votes in the Electoral College to prevent either of the major-party candidates from reaching 50 percent, thereby forcing the U.S. House of Representatives to choose the new president. There, he hoped to use his electoral votes as leverage to get attention to his issues, the San Marcos Free Press of Texas reported on Sept. 18.

That strategy failed. Butler received just 1.33 percent of the national popular vote, coming in fourth behind Prohibition candidate John Pierce St. John, a former Kansas governor. Butler earned no electoral votes.

But his presence on the ballot might have influenced the outcome in New York, where Democrat Grover Cleveland prevailed over Republican James G. Blaine by just 1,149 votes, or 0.1 percent of the 1.16 million ballots cast. New York’s electoral votes proved crucial to Cleveland’s narrow victory nationally.
In New York, Butler received 17,004 votes, or 1.46 percent statewide, including 179 votes in Warren County, 92 votes in Saratoga County and 686 votes in Rensselaer County.
In Vermont, he received 785 votes, and in his home state of Massachusetts, he garnered 24,382 votes, or a little more than 8 percent of the statewide total. Blaine carried all of the New England states except Connecticut.

Butler said after the election that the vote count did not accurately reflect the level of support for his candidacy, because many who supported his platform voted for Blaine in an attempt to stop Cleveland.

Butler said each of those votes redirected to Blaine was effectively a “half-vote” for the People’s ticket, The Morning Star reported on Nov. 11.
Some newspapers lampooned Butler.

“Benjamin Franklin Butler’s address to the people of this country is too long-winded a document for our columns,” The Dillon Tribune of Montana wrote in an editorial on Aug. 30. “Old Ben’s address is something like his candidacy. His candidacy grabs at all the combinations, while his address attempts to catch all of the votes.”

The Port Tobacco Times and Charles County Advertiser of Port Tobacco, Md., wrote in a June 6 editorial: “Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler is one of those persons who is expected to notice that the world moves. There may be some doubt as to the sincerity of his convictions, but none in the world as to his acuteness in discovering the lay of the land.”

Butler received the rank of major general in the Civil War. His service in the Union Army was controversial, and he was recalled from duty. But Butler was praised for his role in emancipating slaves on the basis that they were “contraband of war,” liberated from Confederate states.
Supporters of Butler’s candidacy touted his intellect, his expertise in the arts and his civil rights record.

While in Congress, Butler wrote the Enforcement Act of 1871, also known as the KKK Act, which gave the federal government stronger powers to protect the voting rights of freed slaves and to suppress the efforts of white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate and unlawfully detain blacks.

Butler was a co-sponsor of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which provided equal treatment in public accommodations and transportation for people of all races. (The law, however, was not enforced for many years.)

President Ulysses S. Grant signed both pieces of legislation into law.
Butler broke what was then a longstanding tradition of presidential candidates wrapping up their campaigns on the Saturday night before the election.

He continued campaigning through Election Day, speaking to about 7,000 people at a rally at Natick, Mass., just after noon, and speaking later in the afternoon at Marlboro, The Morning Post reported on Nov. 5.

The Brooklyn Eagle, calling Butler the “court jester” of presidential politics, rejoiced in his defeat.
“Among the results of Tuesday’s election, for which the American people have every reason to be thankful, is the final disposition made of Mr. Benjamin Franklin Butler,” the paper editorialized on Nov. 6. “Mr. Benjamin F. Butler is not likely to be heard of again in politics. If he is, it will be in his own county and nowhere else.”


Maury Thompson was a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls for 21 years before retiring in 2017. He now is a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.