“Citizen Parker”

August 20, 1904

William A. Rogers

“Citizen Parker”

New York State, Judiciary; Presidential Election 1904;

Hill, David B.; Parker, Alton B.;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

No caption

This cover cartoon shows Alton B. Parker leaving his seat on the New York Court of Appeals to accept the Democratic presidential nomination in 1904.  In the background is the bottled figure of David B. Hill, the controversial former New York governor (1885-1891) and U.S. senator (1891-1897), who managed Parker's campaign in 1904. "Wolfert's Roost" was the name of Hill's estate outside Albany, New York.

After the second defeat of William Jennings Bryan as the Democratic presidential nominee in 1900, conservative leaders of the party quickly gained ascendancy.  They wanted to move the party beyond dead issues, such as silver (the Gold Standard Act passed in 1900), and return it to the pro-business philosophy and urban North-rural South base of former president Grover Cleveland.  In the process, however, they alienated many of Bryan's supporters and failed to cultivate a candidate of national stature.

Senator Arthur Pue Gorman of Maryland was a possibility until his opposition to Republican president Theodore Roosevelt's Panama policy, which was popular in the South, undermined his chances.  Cleveland and his former secretary of state and attorney general, Richard Olney, both turned down requests to enter the race.  In the face of almost certain defeat against the popular Roosevelt, no formidable Democratic candidate surfaced; therefore, Democrats coalesced around a state judge from New York, Alton Parker.

Parker was born in 1852 in Cortland, New York.  At the age of 16, he started teaching school and studying law, graduating from the Albany Law School in 1873.  He began practicing law in Kingston, New York, and was elected to the position of county surrogate (estate judge) in 1877, and reelected in 1883 (the only successful Democrat in both elections).  In 1885, he turned down President Cleveland's offer of first assistant postmaster general for financial reasons.  That same year, he managed David B. Hill's successful gubernatorial campaign, and was rewarded by Governor Hill with an appointment as judge of the New York State Supreme Court (not the highest court).  

Parker soon gained a reputation among lawyers and fellow judges for fairness, competence, and courtesy, and quickly climbed New York's judicial ladder.  He was named to the second division of the Court of Appeals in 1889, to the first division in 1892, and to the appellate division of the State Supreme Court in 1896.  The next year, he won a landslide election as chief justice of the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, despite a dismal showing by other statewide Democratic candidates.  As the state's chief justice, his opinions tended to sanction legislative acts unless specifically forbidden by the state constitution.  His ambition was a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Over the years, Parker had declined offers that he run for the U.S. senate or the New York governorship.  In 1903, former governor Hill convinced Parker to allow his name to be placed in nomination for president, but only after the cautious judge tested the waters with a speaking tour of the South.  His silence on the issues before the Democratic National Convention met in early July 1904, and the backing of the business community, spurred Bryan to label him "the muzzled candidate of Wall Street."  Opposition from the temporarily discarded "Great Commoner" only enhanced Parker's candidacy.

Parker won a first-ballot victory, 679-181, over Congressman William Randolph Hearst, founder of the Hearst newspaper chain.  Former senator William Davis of West Virginia was nominated for vice president.  Unlike Bryan, who had electioneered continuously across the country, Parker ran an old-fashioned campaign by receiving delegations at his home until undertaking a brief speaking tour in the final weeks.  In the November election, Roosevelt trounced Parker to win a second term, 336-140 in the Electoral College, and 56%-38% in the popular vote.  After the election, Parker resumed practicing law, and died in New York City in 1926.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Citizen Parker”
June 17, 2024

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