by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the last several decades of the nineteenth century, America was undergoing enormous changes. A primarily rural and agricultural nation for most of the century, the U.S. was rapidly urbanizing and industrializing. In addition, the post Civil War years proved especially turbulent as Reconstruction proved problematic, the Grant administration corrupt, and a scheme by wealthy financiers to corner the silver market pushed the nation in a depression in 1873.
Farmers, laborers and others frustrated at the direction of the country turned to alternative political movements (this might seem vaguely familiar to us now) to express their concern. In California, there was the added issue of a virulent anti-Chinese sentiment that was present from the Gold Rush years but was heightened by the troubled times of the later part of the 1870s.
Los Angeles had a rough go of it, as well, and there was some interest in limiting or expelling the Chinese and fighting against powerful interests that controlled the political scene in the region. At the end of the decade appeared a short-lived little newspaper called The Greenback that echoed some of these concerns.
The Homestead has three issues of this extremely rare paper in its collection and today’s post focuses on the 30 August 1879 edition. Published by John W. Chrisman and edited by Alfred Moore, The Greenback adopted a few core political, social and economic beliefs.
First, it was in support of the issuance of greenback currency, utilized during the Civil War, in which some $450 million in paper money, not secured by gold reserves, were printed to pay for expenses. Because this also caused inflationary prices, farmers were happy to have their products generate more profit and those who carried debt clamored for use of the currency permanently. Democrats supported the greenback concept, while Republicans, supported by creditors, bankers, and others in financial circles, wanted to return to the gold-backed system of currency that existed before the war.
Secondly, the greenbackers were highly agitated by the issuing of bonds, payable with accrued interest to investors, as a means of paying government expenses, because they felt that usurers (that is, those investing, often banks, in the bonds and then profiting on the interest) were abusing the system.
Then, the passage in 1863 of a national bank law, which allowed for the proprietors of national banks to issue government-backed bonds with a 10% interest profit, was another thorn in the side of the greenbackers, especially because these bonds were, thanks to an 1864 law, exempted from taxation.
In 1866, after the war’s end, Congress passed legislation to contract greenbacks and return to gold-backed bonds. More legislation increased the bonded debt of the country and provided for the re-funding of public debt with bonds payable in gold. Almost a decade later, another act provided for the gradual end of the greenback dollar and allowed for holders of bonds to go into national banking without any charge. The cry of the greenbackers was that the “robber barons” controlling hard currency had stolen billions of dollars from the common American.
Additionally, the paper was anti-Chinese, allying itself with the growing popularity of the Workingmen’s Party, which started in San Francisco and which made expelling or reducing the influx of the Chinese a core part of their platform, which also dealt with issues of labor and the economic woes of the period on the common working man. Tapping into the mounting frustration of laborers was a way for greenbackers to grow their movement, or so they hoped.
A lengthy platform of 30 principles adopted by the national greenbackers included such items as reverting to the use of the greenback dollar; the calling in of all bonds and to make they payable in greenbacks; that national banks be abolished; that internal revenue laws be rescinded; that a graduated income tax be adopted; that Chinese immigration and that of “other servile labor” be halted; that the distribution of public lands be reformed; that a 8-hour work day be adopted; that the country should have no permanent standing army; that children under 12 should not be in the workforce; that usury be made illegal; and that monopolies be broken apart, especially in transportation (i.e., the railroads).
Another notable feature of the paper was Alfred Moore’s “Greenback Song” with his lyrics set to “Wearing of the Green,” an 1841 song commemorating the Irish rebellion of 1798. Moore, a native of England who was naturalized in Los Angeles, definitely looked to tap into the heavy numbers of Irish laborers who supported the Workingmen’s Party and other movements tied to labor issues and anti-Chinese sentiment. A sampling of the lyrics is in the accompanying images above.
Almost all of the content of the issue of The Greenbacker concerned its issues and there was virtually no local news or material of other interest in the paper. Another major component was the listing and advertisements of candidates for the upcoming county election, held in early September, for parties affiliated with the general greenback cause.
While most ads for the election were taken out by persons sympathetic to or aligned with the paper’s sentiments, there was one for William R. Rowland, son of John Rowland, half-owner of Rancho La Puente, who was the youngest sheriff in county history in his first run from 1872 to 1875 and wound up winning the election in 1879 and serving another three years. Rowland later was an oil magnate through a discovery on his portion of the ranch high in the Puente Hills (his firm was the Puente Oil Company).
This included the slate of the New Constitution Party’s Ticket for county seats included Superior Court judge incumbents H.K.S. O’Melveny and Volney Howard, who were prominent names and linked to the Democratic Party, while the candidates for other officers were not particularly well-known.
The Workingmen’s Party slate had some duplication, including Howard, but most candidates were different, including two Latinos (the other party offered none), B.A. Yorba for Auditor and Cayetano Apablasa (a street of that name was in the region’s new Chinatown on today’s Union Station site) for Public Administrator.
Meanwhile, editor Moore of The Greenbacker was standing for election as a Los Angeles justice of the peace, but only polled 29 votes in a crowded field in the returns. As for the party, which drew 1 million votes nationally in the 1878 mid-term elections, its candidate for president polled 300,000, or about 3% of the total, votes nationally. The party petered out soon after and other popular movements, such as the Grangers and the Populists, became standard bearers for farmers, workers and others by the 1890s.
Because newspapers paid for expenses with advertising revenue, it is interesting to note which local businesses took out cards in the paper. These included the Pico House hotel and its separate billiard parlor and saloon; the Los Angeles Furniture Company; a dealer in second-hand goods; an agent for a national sewing machine company (the product was deemed “the crowning effort of mankind”; and a meat market ironically named the “Live and Let Live Market”!
As to the principals in The Greenbacker, publisher John W. Crisman was in his late twenties (he was born in Iowa in 1854) when he launched the paper and had been a printer from his mid-teen years in Iowa. Crisman does not appear to have stayed long in Los Angeles and spent most of his life as a realtor in Green River, Wyoming, now a town of 6,000 in the southwestern part of the state. He remained there until his death in 1942, a few weeks prior to his 88th birthday.
Alfred Moore appears to have migrated to the United States in the 1850s and was a boarding house keeper in Memphis, Tennessee, with his wife, Margaret Merryweather and five children in 1860. A decade later, he was an auctioneer in St. Paul, Minnesota. In early 1875, just as Los Angeles’ first boom was cresting, the Moores relocated to the city, where Alfred advertised himself as “an old auctioneer in a new place.” He remained in that profession for years, but may well have picked up his political sentiments in Minnesota.
Moore’s ardent greenbacker views also dovetailed with his anti-Chinese sentiments and he was known to have been involved in public meetings in Los Angeles on both issues during the late 1870s and early 1880s. He was mocked by newspapers, like the Herald and to a lesser extent, the new Los Angeles Times, which debuted at the end of 1881, for his views, but continued them for quite a number of years. Moore, who had a country farm south of the city, died in 1899 at the age of 82, and is interred at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights.