Greenback Party

The Greenback party was a nineteenth-century U.S. political party. A product of agrarian discontent in the decades following the Civil War, Greenbackism embodied the idea that the federal government should maintain or increase the currency supply in the country to meet the demands of the expanding U.S. economy. Greenbackers, who took their name from the wartime treasury notes issued by the federal government, argued that an inflated currency would help wipe out farm debt incurred during periods when prices on agricultural commodities were high and thus offer financial relief to farmers during tough times. Greenbackers were wary of big banks, railroads, and eastern business monopolies, all of which they felt were conspiring against famers’ interests. Influenced in part by the writings of Alexander Campbell of Illinois, who was a protégé of antebellum currency reformer Edward Kellogg, the greenback movement gained prominence among farmers and laborers following the Panic of 1873.

After failing to convince the Democratic Party to adopt their views, members of the Greenback movement met in November of 1874 in Indianapolis, Indiana, to form an independent political party called the Greenback Party (sometimes referred to as the Independent Party or the National Party). At their organizational meeting the Greenbackers clarified whom they perceived as their enemies and protested against a host of government economic policies that they believed favored the wealthy. Hard times had driven many farmers and workers to believe that some type of conspiracy was at work involving wealthy creditors and other monied interests who controlled the foundation of the nation's economy. The Greenback Party held its first major political convention in Indianapolis in May 1876 with almost 250 delegates representing 17 states. The convention nominated Peter Cooper of New York as its first presidential candidate. A successful businessman and philanthropist, Cooper had a history of supporting reform movements including abolition and programs designed to give better treatment to Native Americans. Following the Civil War, Cooper gave speeches around the country on monetary reform and was a staunch opponent of the gold standard. He won his party's nomination by a wide margin despite the fact that at the time he was 85 years old, making him the oldest person to ever run for president. Cooper's running mate was 62-year-old Samuel F. Cary of Ohio, an attorney who had briefly served in the U.S. Congress as a Republican following the Civil War. Like Cooper, Cary supported antislavery causes before the conflict and was also involved in the prohibition movement. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won the 1876 election over Democrat Samuel Tilden, with the Cooper-Cary ticket running a very distant third, garnering 75,973 popular votes, which amounted to almost 1 percent of the total votes cast, and no electoral votes. While the Greenback Party was not really a factor in the presidential election's outcome, the party did manage to have 15 candidates elected to Congress.

In June 1880, the Greenback-Labor Party held its national convention in Chicago, where members nominated James Baird Weaver as the party's standard-bearer in the upcoming presidential election. The 47-year-old Weaver was a lawyer and politician from Iowa who had at one time been a loyal Republican. Convinced that the Republican Party had become corrupted by wealthy special interest groups, he won a seat in Congress in 1878 as a Greenbacker. Rather than run for reelection in 1880, he accepted the Greenback-Labor Party's presidential nomination, with Texas lawyer Benjamin J. Chambers being chosen as his running mate. Weaver was a tireless campaigner who toured much of the country giving speeches criticizing the national Republican and Democratic parties and promoting farmers and industrial laborers as the backbone of American society. As was the case four years earlier in the presidential election of 1880, the Greenback-Labor Party ran a distant third behind Republican James A. Garfield, who won the contest, and Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock. The Greenback-Labor Party received 305,997 votes out of more than 9 million total votes cast and was unable to attract even a single electoral vote.

Interest in the Greenback-Labor Party peaked in 1880, but the party survived through one more presidential election cycle. In 1884 the party met again in Indianapolis and nominated Benjamin Franklin Butler for president. A lawyer and politician from Massachusetts, Butler served as a general in the Union army during the Civil War, becoming one of the war's more controversial figures as a result of policies that he dictated during the Union occupation of New Orleans. Butler began his political career before the war as a Democrat, but he eventually switched to the Republican Party. After the conflict he served in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican and as governor of the state of Massachusetts as a Democrat. Butler's running mate was Absolom M. West of Mississippi, a railroad executive who served as a general of Mississippi militia during the Civil War and was active in prewar Democratic politics. The Greenback ticket polled 175,096 popular votes, just under 2 percent of the total votes cast, and no electoral votes. This placed the party once again a distant third behind the Democratic victor Grover Cleveland and Republican nominee James G. Blaine. After the election the Greenback-Labor Party began to decline. In many states the party merged with the Democrats, while some Greenbackers found temporary political homes in other small, independent parties.

Ben Ray Wynne

See also: Democratic Party ; Depression of 1873 ; Gold Standard/Free Silver ; Gilded Age ; Granger Movement ; People's Party ; Populism


Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Movement: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

McMath, Robert C., Jr. American Populism: A Social History, 1877–1898. New York: Hill and Wang, 1990.

Ritter, Gretchen. Goldbugs and Greenbacks: The Antimonopoly Tradition and the Politics of Finance, 1865–1896. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.