Read All About It In “The Greenbacker,” Los Angeles, 23 August 1879

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Two prior posts in this blog in the “Read All About It” series have focused on issues of the obscure and very rare late 1870s Los Angeles newspaper, The Greenbacker, which was published weekly by John W. Crisman, a 25-year old native of Iowa, where he worked as a printer when in his teen years, whose stay in the Angel City was brief and who lived most of his life in Wyoming where he worked as a realtor. The paper‘s editor was Alfred Moore, who was in his early 60s and a native of England who resided in Memphis and St. Paul, Minnesota before relocating to Los Angeles in 1875 and working an auctioneer.

The two were devoted adherents of the Greenback movement, which was formed at a notable period of the rapidly accelerating economic and political power of urban financial elites while farmers and others in rural areas of the United States were increasingly concerned about their futures. During the Civil War, the government printed some $450 million in paper money (greenbacks), not backed by gold reserves, to finance the Union Army in its battles against the Confederacy.

Once the war ended in 1865, however, conservatives wanted the paper money to be withdrawn, but the high prices that were yielded from their use was naturally beneficial to the county’s agrarians. Democrats supported a plan a few years later to redeem some bonds issued during the war through the use of greenbacks. During the trying years of Reconstruction, a depression broke out in 1873 due to attempts of powerful tycoons to corner the market in silver which would then be coined to benefit then, while the farming class insisted on the maintenance of the paper money system.

This led the following year to the formation of the Greenback Labor Party, which flourished in the Midwest which was, of course, the nation’s breadbasket, but with Los Angeles County being increasingly agrarian, especially after the demise of the cattle industry by the Civil War period and the rise of wheat, citrus, grapes and other crops, there were adherents of the Greenback philosophy, which also decried bonds, which, it was argued, was in the interest of those who benefited by usury but not the general populace.

In 1875, Congress passed an act that allowed for paper money to be redeemed for gold coin starting the first of 1879 and the party aggressively lobbied for its repeal. Instead, an 1878 piece of legislation, preserved the redemption act, but also allowed for more paper money that applied to the latter, while a new act permitted some coining of silver dollars, hearkening back to the aforementioned issue from earlier in the Seventies.

The 1878 midterm elections found 14 members of the Greenback Labor Party elected Congress, but, in California, there was another movement to which many of the Greenbackers were allied. This involved the Workingmen, who were promoting the interests of what later would be called “blue collar” labor, but who were also virulently anti-Chinese, claiming that the reason was about the lower wages and resulting unfair competition that adversely affected white workers, though racism was very much behind the attitudes and actions of the Workingmen.

A critical component of the agitation of the Seventies was the desire for a new state constitution to replace the one passed at the end of 1849 as the Gold Rush was in full swing. The Depression of 1873, the economic collapse that burst forth in the Golden State two years later, bank failures (including that of Temple and Workman), joblessness and homelessness and other serious issues combined with the Greenbacker and Workingmen movements for a potent agitation that yielded a new constitution in May 1879, just before The Greenbacker was launched by Crisman and Moore, though the paper appeared in time for the Los Angeles County election of early September.

In early March, a convention was convened in Chicago for the revised Union Greenback Labor Party and it was stated that the organization was formed “irrespective of creed, sex, color or condition in life” and distinct from “the old parties known as the Republican and Democratic parties” with regard to which “we hold it to be a matter of sacred principle not to coalese [sic] pf affiliate . . . for any object or purpose whatever.” Having “forever abandoned the old parties,” it was added:

we invite all honest, industrious citizens of the United States to come out from the old and into the new party to make it stronger and more worthy [of] the respect of man and the favor of that Higher Power that is above all earthly or human law.

With the reconstituted party, the paper declared “We Have Enlisted for the War!” and it noted “Greenbackers are a determined set of men notwithstanding their lunacy, they have a certain method in their madness, which will make Rome howl in the camps of the old parties.” While other groups like the Workingmen were not part of the new party, it was hoped that they would “unite with us and prepare for the greatest political contest ever known in America.”

There was “a powerful and wiley [sic] foe” to defeat, but “once the Greenback party gets into power and handles the reins of Government, misery and distress will take wings and fly away . . . measures of relief will be at once adopted that will make the song of joy and gladness once again heard in the land.” Readers were implored to do their duty and join the movement and spend every moment seeking redemption as “the battle is close at hand.”

It was added, “we hope to see the day when the workingmen will be emancipated from the influence of bosses and public monopolists.” Crisman and Moore were doing their part with The Greenbacker and they continued in their belief that “workingmen[,] you will do yours” and the editorial concluded, “if we work in union we shall build upon a rock against which the gates of Hell shall not prevail.”

Another short piece dared supporters of gold and silver to prove that greenbacks were not “honest money” and observed that soldiers during the war were paid with it, while widows and orphans of those who sacrificed their lives in the conflict received pensions supported by it. Furthermore, it was asserted, “let the Shylocks [moneylenders named after the antagonist in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice) who bought bonds at 50 and 33 per cents on the dollar be required to make up the deficiency if the greenback is dishonest money.” The matter, it was stated, was about the powerful and wealthy against “honest industry” and monied interests sneering to farmers and laborers,” Heads I win, and tails you loose [sic].”

A reprint of an article from the Santa Barbara Independent called “The Hard Times” noted that those in the “old parties” who were promoting future prosperity failed to add that “the good times are entirely for the monopolies that have during these hard times, gathered up all the money, all the railroads, and most of the productive lands” and profit, while those who unfairly shouldered the burden of indebtedness for bonds of “the idle rich” were common laborers, farmers, tradesman and so forth.

With politicians bought by the like of the “Shylocks” amid theft, corruption and fraud, and “nearly all the wealth has been gobbled up by a few persons and corporations,” there were many thousands of people who, having been in decent circumstances before, “are reduced to abject poverty.” The Independent continued that “good times can never come to this country till we are relieved from that unjust, unnecessary, unrighteous fraudulent National debt of untaxed bonds” exploited by “idle speculators.” The upcoming election “will decide how far we are yet to be enslaved.”

These are ample samples of the general tenor of The Greenbacker and its views on currency and, while local news is somewhat scanty in its pages, there are some items of note. One concerned its previous criticism of “Pappy Green,” this being the janitor of the County Courthouse, Lewis G. Green, one of the earliest black residents of Los Angeles and a former janitor for the Temple an Workman bank. Green had been castigated for being part of the local Republican political cabal and here it was stated that he “is mad at what we said last week” but the reply was “well we can’t help it if we said too much of what we knew” and that “the Green backers say they must go.”

As for more racism through its ongoing expressions of anti-Chinese sentiment, it was reflected in the odious statement that the private Los Angeles Water Company, who had a young William Mulholland as a somewhat new employee at the time, “is cleaning out their reservoirs this week” and the paper wondered “whether they’ll find any dead Chinamen in them this year” as “the water tastes brackish.”

While the local economy was still largely moribund following the depression of 1873 and the statewide panic of 1875, the paper did seek to promote the region by writing “emigrants ard [sic] invited to the land of perpetual Summer in the Italy of America” noting that there was plenty of land along with the temperate climate “and with a little money you can all buy a farm.” It was also noted that the suburb of Fruitland (where Vernon is today) was thriving as “the ten acre lots of the 500 acre reserve are all under cultivation and make pleasant homes.” Pasadena, a recently established town, was also promoted as “a perfect Eden” and the Mission San Gabriel touted as “an antiquarian curiosity” with nearby orange groves worth perusing.

The new issue of the Southern California Horticulturist was praised as being “replete with much valuable information” and “should be in the hands of all orchardists and growers of fruit in general.” After expressing concern about the health of editor Luther M. Holt, a founder of the fairly new communities of Artesia and Pomona, the paper added that the second annual horticultural exposition was to be held at the end of October.

Another little item of local note was reported as “a shooting scrape” between two unnamed editors, with one calling the other “a pismire,” or an ant, as well as “a yellow dog” and which resulted in the fact that “they both banged away in the public street” with a passerby hit in one of his boots and the door of the Los Angeles Herald hit twice. While it was concluded that “good shots are our Chivalry,” a separate reprint from The Voice of Labor titled “Newspapers—What Are They For?” named the warring journalists: Herald editor Joseph D. Lynch and reporter of the rival Los Angeles Express, William A. Spaulding.

Lynch was called to account for neglecting the mention the affair in his paper and it was asserted that “he had yet to learn that an editor is also a man; and that his acts as a man, when public, as was the little pistol practice in question, are just as much a part of the news of the day as if committed by any other man.” For a public expecting impartial coverage of the news, Lynch demonstrated “his unfitness for the position he occupies” and the Herald “fails to be a newspaper whenever it fails to chronicle an interesting event which happened at its very door” and the omission “was an insult to the readers of the paper.” Why Spaulding was exempted from a critique by The Voice of Labor, however, is not known.

Advertisements were critical for newspapers to operate and it is notable that there were relatively few of these in The Greenbacker and those from commercial enterprises were not from major stores, banks, professionals (lawyers, doctors, etc.), nor of public notices. The most prominent entity found in the columns was the Pico House hotel, built on the Plaza in 1870 by ex-Governor Pío Pico and designed by Ezra F. Kysor, architect, it is said, of the remodeled Workman House (also completed that year.) The ad noted that the hostelry, managed by John Whitney, was “newly fitted thro’out” and below this was the “connected” livery stable of Nicolas Covarrubias, while a separate one was for the billiard parlor, saloon and wine and club rooms of Edward T. McGinnis and Company.

Otherwise, most of the advertisements were for candidates in the upcoming election, such as Moore for Justice of the Peace, and a variety of smaller businesses, such as bakers, butchers, plumbers, restaurants, saloons and the like. One that stands out is for the blacksmith Rufus C. Glover because he was a devoted Greenbacker, who warned “if you don’t like [my politics] then go somewhere else and get worse served.” Glover also left no doubt about his racial views as he added “No hafl-price [sic] price work done for Chinamen.” Other than a saloon that promoted itself as a haven for Workingmen, this was the only commercial ad with an overt political, as well as racist, bent.

While the Greenback movement seems to have peaked by 1878 when the aforementioned act by Congress led to many supporting a broadened currency system to be more favorable to an expansion of silver coining, its candidate for president in 1880, James B. Weaver of Iowa, received over 300,000 votes or over 3% of the total cast, which was about 3 1/2 times what Peter Cooper garnered in 1876 as the party’s first presidential hopeful. Yet, the Greenbackers lost a great deal of support subsequently, with the 1884 candidate Benjamin F. Butler receiving 175,000 votes and the party failing to hold a fourth convention four years later as other popular movements arose and the Democratic Party moved towards a monetary policy that included jettisoning the “gold standard.”

As for The Greenbacker, it may have only existed as long as the local election campaign, as was the case, for example, in 1875, when The Independent was a temporary sheet for the party of that name, including its only successful candidate, F.P.F. Temple for country treasurer. Given that the Homestead’s holdings include just three issues of this extremely rare journal, this post is the last to feature The Greenbacker, which is a curious and interesting footnote in greater Los Angeles newspaper annals.

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