William Vincent Allen served in the U.S. Senate from 1893 to 1899 and from 1899 to 1901 in separate terms. He was the permanent chairman for the People's Party's 1896 Convention in St. Louis, where he steered the successful nomination of William Jennings Bryan. More conservative than most Populists, he worked to keep the socialists, under Henry Demarest Lloyd, from taking over the party.
Allen was born in Midway City, Madison County, Ohio, on January 28, 1847. His father died during Allen's infancy. His mother remarried an abolitionist Methodist minister when Allen was young. In 1856, the family moved to Iowa. As a child Allen worked with his family transporting runaway slaves for the Underground Railroad. When the Civil War broke out Allen, age 14, tried to enlist. He managed to join the army at age 15 and served with the Iowa Thirty-Second Volunteers, spending some time as a flag-bearer.
After the war, Allen attended Upper Iowa University in Fayette, Iowa. He studied law in West Union Iowa with local attorney L. L. Ainsworth. He practiced law in Iowa before moving to Madison, Nebraska, where he became politically and socially active. He opened a law office as senior partner in the Allen and Robinson Law Firm. He served as senior commander in the Grand Army of Nebraska, attending numerous encampments. Locally, he managed the community baseball team and joined both the Masons and Oddfellows. Eventually he joined the Farmers’ Alliance movement, which led to the People's Party.
As a Populist, Allen was appointed judge of the Nebraska Ninth District Court. He ran for reelection to that post, campaigning against liquor and railroad political power on the People's Independent Party ticket. Allen won with a plurality in that election. In 1892, he was elected state chairman of the People's Party.
In 1893, U.S. senators were elected by the state legislatures. No party commanded a majority in the Nebraska legislature. The election of a U.S. senator required an agreement with two of the parties. Goldbug Democrats, those who favored a single-metal monetary system, acting under orders from President-elect Grover Cleveland, sought to purge Congressman William Jennings Bryan and other Silverites from that party. The goldbugs offered former governor James Boyd and J. Sterling Morton as possible candidates. The Republicans held a caucus to discuss a coalition to elect Morton. Powerful Omaha Bee editor and reform Republican Edward Rosewater broke into the caucus to stop the election of the former copperhead. Bryan, with journalist Richard Metcalfe, worked for a Populist-Democrat coalition to elect a Populist. During the election process James Boyd accused Allen of offering him a patronage deal. In a public letter, Allen challenged Boyd to produce evidence of such a meeting. The editors of the Wealth Makers, a Lincoln, Nebraska, socialist newspaper, later used the alleged patronage offer when it attempted to gain control of the Nebraska People's Party.
The Populists and Silver Democrats elected Allen to the U.S. Senate as a compromise candidate. He was the only Nebraska Populist and first non-Republican to serve in the Senate. His election automatically made him an enemy of President-elect Cleveland. For his own part, Allen was already on record to organize against Cleveland if Cleveland tried to purge Bryan out of the Democratic Party.
Senators generally refrained from making major speeches in their first year in office. Yet seated next to Kansas Senator William A. Peffer, Allen became a respected Populist speaker in Senate debates. He made major speeches against Cleveland's gold-bond sales. Allen also denounced what he believed was Cleveland's betrayal of a promise to reduce the tariff, and he condemned what he considered a superficial senate investigation of the sugar trust. Allen grew in national stature after a record-setting 15-hour speech against repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act.
Allen turned down numerous requests to seek the Populist presidential nomination in 1896 because he reported that he did not wish to have the position. Allen predicted that the Democrats would split in 1896, leaving the Republicans unchallenged for 30 years. Allen was later criticized for claiming that the Republicans would spend large sums of money to elect McKinley.
The Populists elected Allen as permanent chairman for the 1896 election. He defeated middle-of-the-road candidate James Campion of Maine. As permanent chairman, he led the move to nominate William Jennings Bryan, arguing it was best to have a unity among currency reform parties. Allen ignored a telegram from Bryan stating that he would turn down the Populist nomination if it meant dropping Democratic vice-presidential candidate Arthur Sewall. After the convention nominated Bryan with Tom Watson of Georgia, Allen, while serving on the interparty coordination committee, worked out details so Bryan could run a fusion campaign with different vice-presidential candidates. Allen officially notified Bryan of the nomination by letter in September 1896. He campaigned for Bryan during the campaign.
In 1899, the Republican-dominated Nebraska legislature voted Allen out of the Senate. Later in 1899 Nebraska Senator Monroe Hayward died while in office. Governor William Poynter appointed Allen, who then served to 1901. Omaha World-Herald publisher Gilbert Hitchcock, disgruntled over losing the Senate seat, accused William Jennings Bryan of engineering Allen's appointment. This initiated a Hitchcock-Bryan feud that split the Nebraska Democratic Party. Upon leaving the Senate, Allen returned to Madison County where he operated a successful law practice. He was appointed to the Nebraska Ninth District Court in 1916. He was reelected to that post continually until his death. Allen summarized his political philosophy by claiming all political actions should be governed by Jesus's call to “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Madison [NE] Star-Mail).
In January 1924, Allen went to Los Angeles to have cancer removed from his tongue. The rapidly spreading cancer required an operation. He died January 12, 1924, due to a reaction to the anesthetics. Nebraska journalist and William Jennings Bryan associate Richard Metcalfe delivered Allen's funeral eulogy.
Randal Craig Fulkerson
See also: Bryan, William Jennings (1860–1925) ; Coxey's Army ; Peffer, William Alfred (1831–1912) ; Plains and Midwest, Populism in the ; Sewall, Arthur M. (1835–1900) ; St. Louis Convention of 1896 ; Socialism, Christian ; Van Wyck, Charles Henry (1824–1895)
Charles Manderson to William V. Allen, 18 February 1893, box 1, Allen Papers, Nebraska Historical Society.
Charles Van Wyck to William V. Allen, 15 November 1889 and 17 December 1889, box 1, Allen Papers, Nebraska Historical Society.
Coletta, Paolo. “William Jennings Bryan and the Nebraska Senatorial Election of 1893.” Nebraska History 31 (3): 181–203.
C. W. Phelps to William V. Allen, 21 April 1896, box 1, Allen Papers, Nebraska Historical Society.
Durden, Robert. The Climax of Populism: The Election of 1896. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1981.
H. A. Lambert to William V. Allen, 15 July 1896, box 1, William Allen Papers, Nebraska Historical Society.
Hardford [NE] Telegram, “William V. Allen,” 18 January 1894, scrapbook 1, Allen Papers, Nebraska Historical Society.
London [Ohio] Times, “We Raise Senators,” 9 February 1893, scrapbook 1, Allen Papers, Nebraska Historical Society.
Madison (NE) Star-Mail. “Open Letter to Wealthmakers.” May 17, 1895; “Judge Wm. V. Allen Is Back from Coast.” August 30, 1923; “Senator William V. Allen Dies Following Operation.” January 17, 1924; “Senator William V. Allen Laid to Rest Last Friday.” January 24, 1924.
New York World, “A Plea for Coxey,” 4 April 1894, scrapbook 2, Allen Papers, Nebraska Historical Society.
Omaha World-Herald. “Allen Is Chairman.” July 24, 1896; “Wm. V. Allen Is Senator.” December 14, 1899.
Sheldon, Addison E. “William Vincent Allen.” Nebraska History 19 (3–4): 191–206.
St. Louis Dispatch, “Interview,” 30 April 1896, scrapbook 2, Allen Papers, Nebraska Historical Society.
Washington Evening News, untitled article, 19 January 1894, scrapbook 1, Allen Papers, Nebraska Historical Society.
Washington Star, “Forced to Adjourn,” 17 October 1893, scrapbook 1, Allen Papers, Nebraska Historical Society.