Then and Now: Pittsylvania's Turn of the Century Presidential Elections Compared

The Populist Influence in the 1896 Presidential Election

By Herman Melton

1896 Presidential Election Handbill

Political handbill from the 1896 Presidential election in Pittsylvania County (from the Sutherlin Collection, Perkins Library, Duke University).

Few Presidential elections in the nation's history were as spirited as was the last one held in the 19th century. Pittsylvania County's contest between the Republicans and Democrats in 1896 pitted the conservatives of the old order against the then relatively new moderate Republicans whose ranks were inexorably swelling by the addition of newly enfranchised ex-slaves seeking full citizenship status.

The Democratic/Populist wheel horse was Vincent A. Witcher, the namesake of old soldier/planter/politician/industrialist V. A. Witcher who was a Confederate veteran of the Civil War. The elder Witcher bore the scars of many county political wars. He never ran away from a fight as was evidenced by his complicity in the famous Clement/Witcher feud of 1858. In a scholarly work titled The Roots of Southern Distinctiveness: Tobacco and Society in Danville, Virginia 1780-1865, the author, Frederick Siegal, described him as “Pittsylvania's leading politician in the ante bellum period.” Records indicate that he was a fiery and effective orator who represented the county for seventeen terms (an all time record) in the Virginia House of Delegates. The Vincent Witcher of 1896 inherited a few of his predecessor's political skills and applied them for the benefit of the Populists in the 1896 presidential election.

Whereas the political philosophy of the majority of Virginians at the end of the 20th Century is predominately conservative and Republicans continue to be elected in election after election, such was not the case at the end of the 19th Century. At that time, the population of the Old Dominion stood at 1,854,184. By the year 2000, it had almost quadrupled that figure by registering an estimated six and a half million souls. Moreover, nearly half of the American voters still lived on farms in 1990, thus fulfilling Jefferson's dream of an agrarian nation. However, by the year 2000, less than four percent of the Americans could be classes as agrarian. That made for drastic change in the nation's political landscape.

Among the political “straws in the wind” by the 1890s were the forces demanding reform and protection for the farmer from the greed and abuses of the “robber barons” and their monopolies. Storming out of the Midwest and the Southwest, the winds of political change arrived in Virginia and Pittsylvania County bearing the banner of the Populist movement. The time was ripe for it. Farmers were fed up with low prices for produce and excessive freight rates charged by the nation's railroads. Not the least of their gripes was the high cost of fertilizer — a condition that could be partially traced to excessive rail fares. To Pittsylvania's farmers, as well as to those all across the “farm belt,” the voices of Populist candidates resonated loud and clear. The popularity of the movement manifested itself in the mushrooming of newly formed Farmers Alliances. The Alliance was responsible for forming 113 sub-Alliances or chapters in Virginia alone. One of these was the Pittsylvania Central Trade Union Alliance, which was organized in 1892. It ordered carloads of fertilizer and even opened its own farm supply store. These moves resulted in some reduction in the cost of fertilizer and other supplies thereby constituting the earliest of the cooperatives and Pittsylvania's first experiment in socialism.

The Farmers Alliance was squarely behind the candidacy of the colorful William Jennings Bryan, who was running for President on the Democratic/Populist ticket in 1896. His memorable oratory calling for the free coinage of silver, restraints on the monopolies and greater profits for farmers struck a chord in Pittsylvania County as well as in the Commonwealth of Virginia. What evolved was a merger of the Populist and Democratic parties across much of the South. Although much of the Populist program was palatable to the South, some of the planks in the platform proposed by the National Farmers Alliance were the most radical ever adopted by an organization in U.S. history. They included:

  1. The abolition of national banks,
  2. The elimination of agricultural commodity markets,
  3. The free coinage of silver,
  4. The prohibition of alien ownership of land,
  5. The removal of tariffs on items that were considered to be necessities of life,
  6. The adoption of a graduated income tax, and
  7. The direct election of U.S. Senators.

The more radical of these were never adopted by the Democrats nationally of course, but enough of them were to provide the party with a sharply different agenda from that of the Republicans.

It was into this 1896 melee that the latter day Vincent Witcher made his appearance squarely on the side of the Populists in Pittsylvania County. He crisscrossed the county setting up meetings called “speakings” where fiery Populist nominees (with a measure of oratorical skills) could “rev up” the hotheads at places such as Callands, Whitmell, Chatham, Brights, Pullens, Malmaison, Peytonsburg, Elba, etc. Witcher probably poured much of his considerable wealth into the fray. He printed up handbills showing the locations and dates of “speakings.” One circular is extant and a copy of it appears adjacent to this article in the Packet.

The two 1996 presidential candidates could not have conducted their campaigns more differently. Whereas the peripatetic Bryan traveled 18,000 miles while making 600 speeches in 29 states, the “laid back” William McKinley, the Republican candidate, spent most of the campaign in a rocking chair on the front porch of his home in Canton, OH. A procession of backers called on him daily while he generally ignored the charges hurled by the golden throated Bryan. Despite all the Populists' harsh rhetoric (inherent in a hard fought political campaign) the Republicans turned aside the opposition. Not so in Virginia or in Pittsylvania County where the vigorous Witcher managed to pull out a plurality of 3,987 to 3,761 or 53% of the vote. The opposite was true in Pittsylvania County in 1996 with the Republicans capturing almost 75% of the vote. Current polls indicate that the Republicans will repeat the numbers in the coming Y2K election. It is but one of the many contrasts in the two turn of the century elections. So the question arises: Had there been television with the preponderance of media in 1896, would we have elected a Populist as President? It is an interesting possibility.


Books by Herman Melton

(Available from the sponsor.)

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Other Books Concerning Pittsylvania County History

(Available from the sponsor.)

History of Pittsylvania County, VA

Clement: History of Pittsylvania County

Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County, VA

Hurt: Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County

An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Hurt: An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County

Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Dodson: Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (Dover)

Byrd: Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina

Tales About People in a Small Town

Jones: Tales About People in a Small Town

Herman Melton's online articles are posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.