By Billy Arthur (1911-2006)
The one-time U. S. senator garnered plenty of friends and enemies as a Democrat, Populist, and Republican.
Until his death in 1938, U. S. Senator Marion Butler was doubtless the most discussed and cussed politician North Carolina produced following the Reconstruction period.
For one reason, he served with distinction in three political parties – Democrat, Populist, and Republican. His political opponents, while praising his contributions to the state and nation, charged him with betraying one party into the hands of another. Secondly, he was accused of attempting to force the state to pay what some factions claimed were unjust and repudiated bonds.
Historians now agree there was no substantial foundation to either accusation. As a state senator from North Carolina in the 1890s, Butler wrote three laws considered the most important during the last part of the 19th century. They regulated and taxed railroads, established the State Normal and Industrial School for Women at Greensboro (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) and extended the public school term to four months without a tax increase.
In addition, when denominational groups sought to impede the growth of the state university and other public institutions by cutting their appropriations, Butler fought successfully to save them.
In the U. S. Senate for a single term from 1895 to 1901, he wielded immense power and was the most noted Tar Heel Republican member of Congress before Jesse Helms. Who’s Who and the records credit Butler with establishing rural free mail delivery and leading the fight for appropriations to build the first submarine. Also, he is listed as a strong and successful advocate of the penny post card, parcel post, postal savings, telegraphs, and telephones. Incidentally, the first RFD postal system was in his home county of Sampson.
As for his switching political parties, historians recognize that the Populist Party was born of a genuine desire to better conditions in the state. However, Populists looked to the larger Democratic Party as a leader in that direction and offered to help, but the Democrats scorned the fusion. The Republicans were open to it, so Butler remained a Republican after the passing of the Populist Party.
As for the North Carolina bonds, they were held by the State of South Dakota and were proven bona fide instead of “repudiated carpet bagger bonds,” as his political enemies and some other confused citizens charged. Butler exercised the privilege of any lawyer in representing South Dakota to force payment. But he admitted later it was a mistake in public relations.
Butler was born near Clinton in 1863, and his early life was spent interspersing days of hard farm labor and nights with books and study, directed by a mother with scholastic training. He was said to have had the equivalent of a seventh-grade education when he entered public school. At age 18 he entered UNC. After graduation in 1885, he taught school and looked after the farm.
Following the depression of 1886 and 1887, a Farmer’s Alliance organizer came to Butler’s community promoting the interest of agriculture, and the tall, brilliant, handsome and personable Butler, who had a facility for remembering names, became very active in it. He was its state president in 1892 and 1893 and national president in 1894 and 1895.
His entrance into politics came with his founding the Clinton Caucasian, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. It was ably edited and commanded a wide influence, which was extended when Butler moved it to Raleigh in 1894.
In 1892, he declared opposition to the renomination of Grover Cleveland as president, withdrew from the Democratic Party of his forefathers and set about to build the Populist Party. The Populist carried North Carolina and gave Butler a commanding position in state politics.
As chairman of the Populists’ state committee in 1894, he staged the coup of fusion with the Republicans, which resulted in 1895 in the defeat of the Democrats and his own election to the U. S. Senate.
But his power was short-lived. Sulking because of Butler’s desertion and their loss of power, the Democrats regrouped behind Furnifold M. Simmons of New Bern. Simmons, whose small stature had brought him the nickname of “The Little Giant,” figuratively became a “Jack the Giant Killer,” as he went after the physically as well as politically powerfully Butler.
In those days black citizens, who supported the Populist Party, voted in huge numbers and, as a result, in some eastern counties had elected blacks to office. Political foes widely heralded it, bringing disrepute onto the Populists.
The Democrats, who were not about to lose again, began laying the groundwork for the election of 1898.
The campaign between Butler and Simmons was unusual and eerie, as night-riding “Red Shirts” romped over the state starting bonfires, burning effigies, and intimidating black voters. Simmons and the Democratic Party swept to power, and Butler was never able to rally his battered forces. (The Red Shirts were armed gangs of white men acting as a terrorist and intimidation wing of the Democratic Party in the state elections of 1898 and 1900. The Red Shirts received their name from loose red tunics worn as uniforms.)
A strange parallel between the careers of Butler and Simmons is that Butler, a Democratic bolter, was turned out of the U. S. Senate in 1901, and 28 years later Simmons, who succeeded him, suffered the same fate after he had bolted Al Smith, the 1928 Democratic presidential nominee.
Despite fusion with the Republicans in North Carolina, Butler supported William Jennings Bryan, Democratic nominee for president in 1896 and 1900. In 1904, however, he supported Theodore Roosevelt and remained a Republican the rest of his life. He was a delegate to the GOP national conventions from 1912 through 1924.
In later years, he practiced law in Washington, D.C. but always voted and spent part of the summers in Sampson County.
* From “The State” magazine, March 1989, reprinted with permission