Recalling 1887, centennial year of the Constitution

AS Americans prepare to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution, they should be aware that the centennial commemoration took place in a year in which domestic discord seemed to be the national hallmark. In sum, 1887 was a very bad year for the United States. Labor strife was manifest from sea to shining sea. The Haymarket Square riot in Chicago the previous year led to the conviction of eight anarchists on evidence that was conspicuous for its paucity; in 1887 four of them were executed, and one committed suicide in his cell. In New York City a streetcar strike in 1886 succumbed to police intervention, and five leaders were sent to prison. Union leaders had attempted to elect a mayoral candidate that viewed organized labor differently, but their candidate failed in a close and bitter election that was still the talk of the town in 1887.

In the West in 1886, a Missouri Pacific Railroad strike affecting 6,000 miles of track was described by labor leaders as outright ``war,'' and although it was put down by state militia and local police, there were calls in Congress the next year for increasing the number of federal troops to ward off subsequent labor uprisings. What was perhaps worse, organized labor could not illustrate domestic tranquillity in 1887, with the Knights of Labor and American Federation of Labor in fierce competition. The Knights, said AFL head Samuel Gompers in 1887, ``are just [as] great enemies of Trades Unions as any employers can be, only much more vindictive. I tell you that they will give us no quarter and I would give them their own medicine in return. It is no use trying to placate them or even to be friendly.''

The year 1887 saw farmers in the throes of organizing against the political system that in their eyes had done them wrong. The Farmers' Alliance in the West held its first convention in 1887, drawing up its own constitution in this centennial year. And in the South, 1887 marked the time when the Southern Alliance received a national charter in the District of Columbia. Within months the demands of both groups focused on public ownership of various businesses as well as inflationary policies designed to raise the prices of farm goods. Both proposals fueled the fires of political controversy.

American literature in 1887 scarcely reflected a more perfect union. Edward Bellamy's best-selling book, ``Looking Backward, 2000-1887,'' is a case in point. The book focused on life in America in the 21st century. Instead of the 1787 Constitution holding forth, the nation's government is typified by socialist schemes: Every person would have a job in the business of government, and all would have an equal economic share, even after age 45 when retirement would be effected. The root of America's problem in 1887 that led to a socialist state was clear, according to Bellamy: private enterprise. ``Competition, which is the instinct of selfishness,'' he wrote, ``is another word for dissipation of energy, ...''

In politics in 1887, promoting the national welfare was never more elusive. Democratic President Grover Cleveland believed tariff reform was absolutely necessary, calling the high rates ``vicious, inequitable and [an] illogical source of unnecessary taxation.'' The Treasury was in surplus, which in his view meant congressional disposition to spend the public funds wastefully. Never before in US history had a President devoted his State of the Union message to one subject, but that's what Cleveland did in 1887. Yet his call for tariff reform fell on deaf ears.

Capitol Hill in this centennial year still had not hit rock bottom in terms of its reputation. That occurred in the days after May 26 when President Cleveland issued the Rebel Flag Order, which permitted the return to Southern states of Confederate flags still in the possession of the War Department. A conciliatory gesture some two decades after the Civil War had come to an end, it was withdrawn three weeks later by a humiliated President forced to concede that only Congress had the power to approve return of the flags (an action that the body did not take until 1905).

To be sure, the Constitution would be commemorated on its 100th birthday, but the nation had a long way to go before the letter and spirit of that document were honored.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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