During the 1890s, a national phenomenon called Fusion politics united political parties. In some western states the Populist (or People’s Party) and the Democratic Party united, but in North Carolina the movement, spearheaded by agricultural leader Marion Butler (1863-1938), combined the Populist and Republican parties. In the presidential election of 1896, the Populist Party found itself ironically backing the Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) at the national level, while joining forces with Republicans at the state level.
The term Fusion is somewhat misleading, for it implies a merger. The parties maintained separate executive committees and merely cooperated whenever feasible by forming joint electoral tickets. In the Tar Heel State, the Populist and Republican parties disagreed on certain national issues, such as the tariff, the gold standard, and silver coinage. The parties, however, agreed on many state issues, including education, voting rights, and restoring the charter of the Farmers’ Alliance.
It became apparent in 1892, when Democrat Elias Carr (1839-1900) won only a plurality of 48.3% votes in the three-way race for governor, that Democrats were in trouble. Rather than entertain growing Populist demands for economic reform, county self-rule, and increased educational funding, the Democratic legislature spitefully repealed the charter of the North Carolina Farmers’ Alliance (which was blamed for the emergence of the Populist Party) and instituted tighter restrictions on the election process.
The undemocratic County Government Act of 1877 already hampered elections. By means of this act, Democrats maintained power over local governments. The law allowed the legislature to appoint local justices, and permitted these appointed judges to choose county commissioners. Though other county offices remained elective, the law helped maintain Democratic control of “purse strings” and prevent blacks or Republicans from gaining local power.
In addition to the political chicanery of the Democrats, a steady currency deflation ruined the financial dreams of many farmers since the 1870s. As farmers’ acquired debt, they demanded free coinage of silver to inflate crop prices. This desire, combined with an economic depression that started under the presidential administration of Democrat and gold supporter Grover Cleveland (1837-1908), fueled the intensifying disenchantment of farmers with the Democratic Party.
Prior to 1894, Marion Butler, chairman of the state People’s Party and editor of The Caucasian, held secret meetings with black and white Republican leaders, including former black Congressman Henry P. Cheatham (1857-1935) and future Governor Daniel L. Russell (1845-1908). Finally, Butler and other Populists met with Republicans on July 30, 1894. Among the Republicans present were silver leader John J. Mott (1834-1919) and Congressman Richmond Pearson (1852-1923). They helped the two parties’ leadership reach a tentative agreement that divided political offices according to the parties’ electoral support in the General Assembly districts; a similar agreement was also made for U.S. House of Representative seats. The parties’ leadership also divided statewide offices to ensure that, for any office, either a Republican or Populist (not both) would run against a Democrat.
On August 1, 1894, the Populist Party convention endorsed a combined slate for state offices. On August 30, the Republican Party convention followed suit. The die was cast.
In the 1894 election, the Fusion alliance of Populists and Republicans swept the state. Fusionists won control of the legislature, elected several Congressmen, and secured some statewide offices. They immediately pursued a reform agenda. First, Fusionists elected Marion Butler to the U.S. Senate for a full six-year term and Republican Jeter C. Pritchard (1857-1921) to the two-year vacancy created by the 1894 death of Senator Zebulon B. Vance (1830-1894). Second, they repealed the County Government Act of 1877 and restored county home-rule. Third, they set the legal interest rate at six-percent, increased funding for public education, and for state prisons and charitable institutions. Perhaps the greatest legislation of Fusionist rule was ensuring that all political parties were represented by election judges at the polls and requiring designated colors and party insignias on ballots so that the illiterate had a political voice. The reforms were highly successful and popular. The election law alone led to an increase of registered voters by over 80,000.
The Fusion agreement for the election of 1896 was not reached until September of that year. In November, the Fusion legislative victory was impressively larger than in 1894. The entire statewide slate of Fusionist administrative officers was elected. Republican Daniel L. Russell handily won election as governor.
For the first time since Reconstruction, Democrats were totally out of power. There were only twenty-six Democrats in the 120-member House, and only seven in the fifty-member Senate. All statewide offices were in the hands of Republicans or Populists.
One of the most interesting aspects of Populist-Republican Fusion rule was the service of African American office holders. There were approximately 1,000 elected or appointed black officials, including Congressman George H. White (1852-1918). Although black Tar Heels were still underrepresented, the presence of black officials troubled Democratic white supremacists.
In the 1898 “White Supremacy Campaign,” led by future U.S. Senator Furnifold M. Simmons (1854-1940), chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee, the Democratic Party used identity politics to regain power. “Negro rule” and “Negro domination” became the catchphrases of the campaign. Josephus Daniels (1862-1948), editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, was the unabashed press spokesman for white supremacy. Red Shirts, reminiscent of the Klan, intimidated blacks and thereby limited the number of Republican votes.
Shortly after a resounding victory, Democrats disfranchised African Americans and thereby ended a possible Republican resurgence. Democrats, however, realized they must maintain some of the Fusionist education and business policies and thus acquiesced to school funding demands and business regulation; in 1900, emulating Republican-Populist interest in education, Democrat Charles B. Aycock (1859-1912) became the party’s first “Education Governor.”