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Alson Streeter: Forgotten Populist

campaign poster.pngOn this Martin Luther King Day, we should also remember the birthday of another, far more obscure, campaigner for social justice: Alson Streeter, born January 18th, 1823.

The eldest of eight children, Alson Streeter and his family moved from New York to a farm on the Illinois frontier when he was thirteen. Their blacksmith was another New England transplant named John Deere, whom they paid in wagonloads of charcoal. The Streeters would become the owners of one of the first steel plows in the world... the invention that would make John Deere famous.

At 23, with thirteen dollars to his name, Alson attended the newly-formed Knox College, where he supported himself by working odd jobs and carving shingles. Alson's education ended after three years, since college regulations prohibited students from marrying and Alson had fallen in love with Deborah Boone, a direct descendant of Daniel. Together, they set out for the California gold mines, arriving one year too late to qualify as 49'ers.

After two years, Alson learned that mining was neither fun nor profitable. So he went back to Illinois, where he farmed livestock; he led two cattle drives back to California, having discovered a more promising way of obtaining the region's gold. During the Civil War, Alson signed up as a veterinarian, but was later transferred into a regular regiment.

Alson Streeter entered politics as a Democrat and a Granger, serving as a county supervisor before running for the state legislature. In its House, he attempted to curb the railroads' power, favored protective tariffs, and voted against a bill to distribute the governor's annual message in foreign languages. During this time, Alson -- formerly a supporter of the traditional gold standard -- morphed into a Greenbacker, a supporter of inflationary policies designed to reduce debt by lowering the dollar's value.

Streeter ran for reelection with the Greenback-Labor Party, losing by wide margins. Two years later, he was the party's nominee for Governor of Illinois. Soon after this campaign, the Greenbackers dissolved into the Anti-Monopoly Party; Alson served as chairman at its first convention, when it nominated the former Union general Benjamin Butler (renowned for freeing slaves -- and stealing spoons -- during his service in the South during the war) for president. This party was committed to fighting monopolies, gaining an eight-hour workday, regulating corporations, and obtaining a graduated income tax and direct election of Senators.

Later that year, Alson went to the State Senate on a Greenback-Democratic ticket, winning by 61 votes. A prolific legislator, Alson joined seven committees and sponsored eighteen bills, on issues ranging from curbing the railroads' power, to making it easier to apprehend horse thieves, to prohibiting the sale of tobacco to kids. Only one of his measures passed -- a bill reforming the manner in which school district elections were conducted. During his second term, he was able to raise the age of consent for girls from ten to fourteen years, but didn't make any headway with the rest of his regulatory agenda.

During the 1870s, following the end of his term, Alson became involved with the fledgling Farmer's Alliance, quickly becoming president of the Northwestern Farmer's Alliance. He urged for a merger with the powerful Southern Alliance, but other members of the movement were less willing to acknowledge the end of the Civil War.

In 1888, Alson was nominated for president by the new Union Labor Party. He attempted to negotiate a merger with the United Labor Party, but the parties differed on the issue of taxation: Streeter's group wanted a graduated income tax, while the United Labor Party wanted a heavy tax on land. In early September, the region's Democrats -- together with the Ku Klux Klan -- resorted to violence and intimidation to prevent the Union Labor candidate for governor (Charles M. Norwood, a one-legged Confederate veteran who was supported by an enormous, racially diverse electorate that included most of the region's Republicans) from being elected. Other Union Labor candidates in the state -- and those who alleged fraud and corruption -- were murdered.

Despite the risks, Streeter actively campaigned for other Union Labor candidates -- including the unfortunate Arkansans -- and for himself, taking to the stump in ten states. On Election Day, Alson polled well in Kansas and Texas; nationwide, he received 1.3 percent of the popular vote. (In part, this was due to the fact that ballots for the Union Labor ticket were only given out in 23 states; voters in other parts of the country had to write to party headquarters to obtain a ballot).

Later, Alson would come five votes away from winning a seat in the United States Senate (then appointed by the state legislature). But he would never again attain political prominence; instead, he focused on his farm, home of an enormous crow's roost, and the enormous ranch house he'd built. Known as the "Sage of New Windsor," Alson Streeter was well-liked by those in his community -- and never lost faith in the third-party movement.


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