Marion Butler was a Populist leader and politician from North Carolina who was most active during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Butler supported certain reforms, including a national currency based on silver and federal ownership of railroads and telegraphs, which would benefit his rural followers. He also recognized the need for Populists to cooperate with other parties to achieve the political power necessary for reforms. After one term in the U.S. Senate, Butler spent the remainder of his life as a businessman and supporter of the farming community.
In the late 1880s, the Farmers’ Alliance movement spread from Texas to North Carolina, working for the economic improvement of farmers. Butler was attracted to the movement, and it quickly proved to be a path for his professional advancement. Unlike most other farmers, he possessed the educational background and articulateness needed to spread the Farmers’ Alliance message. Butler rose through the ranks rapidly and was elected president of the Sampson County Farmers’ Alliance when he was 25. Butler bought into a newspaper in Clinton, the Caucasian, and used it to spread the Farmers’ Alliance movement's message. He later moved the paper to Goldsboro and Raleigh as his political fortunes advanced. The Caucasian became a leading agrarian publication with a regional following.
As Butler's standing as a leader of the Farmers’ Alliance grew, he turned to politics. In 1890, his fellow farmers elected Butler to the North Carolina state senate as an “Alliance Democrat.” While in the state legislature, Butler helped to create a state college for women at Greensboro and a state railway commission. His political affiliation remained with the Democratic Party, but Butler was viewed as a champion of the farmers and a leader of the movement. In 1891, even though he was still young at only 28 years old, members of the Farmers’ Alliance elected Butler president of the North Carolina Farmers’ Alliance. The next year, Leonidas L. Polk, another North Carolinian and leader of the farmers’ movement, died unexpectedly. His death raised leadership opportunities for Butler on the national stage. In 1893, Butler was elected president of the National Farmers’ Alliance.
By that time, Butler had largely broken with the state Democratic Party. The party's candidate for president in 1892 was Grover Cleveland. Cleveland favored currency based on gold and other measures friendly towards businesses. Although farmers did not want to support Cleveland, the North Carolina Democratic Party would not let members split their support. Butler led a mass exodus of farmers and agrarian interests from the Democrats, therefore, to join the People's Party in 1892. The Populists entered the 1892 campaign in North Carolina too late to hope for victories, but they and the Republicans received a majority of the ballots cast.
The Democrats labeled Butler the “sly fox of Sampson County,” and he became the party's chief nemesis for the rest of the decade. While remaining the national leader of the Farmers’ Alliance, he took over the position of state chairman of the People's Party. Butler advocated fusion between the Populists and Republicans. This was less than a merger of the party, but represented a cooperative effort to enact reforms to reach joint goals. In 1894, the Populists and Republicans swept the state elections and gained control over the state legislature. The state senate elected Butler to the U.S. Senate, where he took office in 1895.
In 1896, Butler reached the peak of his national political importance by carrying his policy of fusion to its greatest extreme. He convinced his fellow Populists to nominate William Jennings Bryan as their candidate for president at their convention in St. Louis. Bryan had already been nominated by the Democratic Party and supported many of the same goals as the Populists, including silver-based money. The party showed its independence, however, by nominating Populist Thomas E. Watson as vice president to run with Bryan, while the Democrats had a different vice-presidential candidate. During the election campaign, Butler worked closely with the Democratic leaders to develop joint lists of presidential electors in each state. Ironically, even while Butler was working for fusion with Democrats on a national level, he remained committed to joint campaigns with Republicans at the state level in North Carolina.
Before the elections of 1898 and 1900, the North Carolina Democratic Party refused to cooperate with the Populists. Instead, they campaigned to win voters away from the fusion Populist and Republicans. Democratic leaders used race as an issue, presenting themselves as the “white man's party.” Butler made many campaign appearances in the state, debating Democratic leaders and pushing his program of reforms. As election day in 1898 drew near, Butler's paper, the Caucasian, resorted to accusing Democrats of appointing many African Americans to offices and presenting the Populists as the true white man's party. Nonetheless, the Populist control over the state government was broken by the two elections.
When Butler ran for reelection to the U.S. Senate in 1900, his foes in the state senate were able to defeat him. While still a senator, Butler had finished his law degree at the University of North Carolina. After he reentered private life in 1901, Butler practiced law in Washington, DC. He remained chair of the Populist Party in 1904. That year, Butler left the party and became a Republican. He favored the progressive wing of the Republican Party and supported Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Butler died on June 3, 1938.
Tim J Watts
See also: Bryan, William Jennings (1860–1925) ; Cleveland, Grover (1837–1908) ; Gold Standard/Free Silver ; Polk, Leonidas L. (1937–1892) ; The Press and Populism ; Roosevelt, Theodore (1858–1919) ; South, Populism in the
Beeby, James M. Revolt of the Tar Heels: The North Carolina Populist Movement, 1890–1901. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008.
Durden, Robert F. “Marion Butler.” Dictionary of North Carolina Biography. Vol. 1. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979–1996.
Hunt, James L. Marion Butler and American Populism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.