Most remembered as the architect of political Fusion in North Carolina during the 1890s and for gaining Populist support for the 1896 presidential candidacy of William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), Marion Butler was born in Sampson County, North Carolina. He was the first son of Wiley, a farmer, and Romelia Ferrell Butler. He later became an agricultural leader and United States Senator.
Butler’s family was neither wealthy nor prominent, yet he graduated in 1885 from the University of North Carolina. He then studied law but dropped out to manage the family farm after his father’s death. He later completed his law study at UNC during the summer of 1899 while serving as a U. S. Senator. When the National Farmers’ Alliance organized in the Tar Heel State in the 1880s, Butler joined. Educated and articulate, he quickly rose through the Alliance’s ranks. Butler purchased and edited the Caucasian, a newspaper in Clinton. The paper later relocated to Raleigh and evolved into a leading agrarian publication.
In 1890, Butler was elected to the state Senate as an Alliance Democrat and champion of farmers. In 1891, he became president of the North Carolina Farmers’ Alliance. In 1893, after the unexpected 1892 death of farm leader Leonidas L. Polk (1837-1892), Butler was elected president of the National Farmers’ Alliance.
Butler advocated agricultural reform and free coinage of silver. When gold supporter Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) was nominated for the Democratic presidential candidacy and Tar Heel party leaders disallowed split tickets, Butler abandoned the Democratic Party and joined the newly formed People’s or Populist Party. This party’s Omaha Platform advocated graduated income taxes, free coinage of silver, the secret ballot, direct election of senators, and federal government ownership of the telegraph, telephones, and railroads.
The 1892 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Elias Carr (1839-1900) won only a plurality of the vote. Such a poor performance gave Butler hope for political success. He then started cooperating with Republican Party leaders. In 1894, he met with numerous state Republican leaders to work out a cooperative electoral program called “Fusion.” In the election of that year, Fusionists swept into power, winning control of both houses of the General Assembly.
Butler, at the age of 31, was elected by the legislature to a six-year term as United States senator. He proved a vigorous supporter of his party’s Omaha Platform while in the Senate and became a national spokesman for Populism. He unsuccessfully introduced an amendment for a graduated income tax. Butler did get increase funding for the first trial of rural free delivery of mail by the post office. During his term in the senate, the silver issue rose in importance.
Butler played a significant role in national silver fusion during the 1896 presidential election. As chairman of the national Populist Party, he secured the endorsement of silver Democrat William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) for president, even though the Populist Party still nominated Thomas E. Watson (1856-1922) of Georgia to be vice-president. Despite this national cooperation between Populists and Democrats, Tar Heel Populists continued to work with Republicans at the state level. Bryan lost the bid for national office as the Fusionist influence in North Carolina increased in 1896.
After 1896, Butler experienced serious political challenges. He tried simultaneously to be party chairman of the national Populist Party, a leading Populist spokesman in the U.S. Senate, and maintain control of Tar Heel Fusion. At the same time, his criticism of the “midroad” Populists, who advocated a totally independent course and pure Populist platform, only exacerbated divisions within the People’s Party.
In 1898, Fusionists were defeated in the “White Supremacy Campaign” that climaxed with the post-election Wilmington Race Riot. The disfranchisement campaign of 1900 soon followed. Butler continued as a lame duck senator until 1901.
Despite the setbacks, Butler remained national chairman of the People’s Party until 1904, when he switched to the Republican Party. He befriended Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and joined the Progressive Republican faction of the national Republican Party. After leaving the Senate, he earned his living by practicing law in Washington, D.C.
Butler, a member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, married Florence Faison of Sampson County in 1893. They had five children. Butler died in Takoma Park, Maryland, on June 3, 1938. He is buried in the Clinton (N.C.) Cemetery.
Despite Butler’s clear connection with the demise of the People’s Party, his most recent biographer, James L. Hunt, has maintained that the Sampson County native, believing in the primacy of economics in politics, was philosophically consistent all his life. Yet, in Butler’s last years, politicians started emphasizing cultural issues and interest group politics and, Butler’s political beliefs, therefore, seemed old-fashioned. When Butler died in 1938, Hunt concludes, “American Populism died with him.”
Robert F. Durden, “Marion Butler,” Dictionary of North Carolina Biography vol. 1 of 6 (Chapel Hill, 1979-96); Robert F. Durden, The Climax of Populism (Lexington, 1965); Lawrence Goodwyn, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America (New York, 1976); James L. Hunt, Marion Butler and American Populism (Chapel Hill, 2003).