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About Omaha daily bee. (Omaha [Neb.]) 187?-1922 | View Entire Issue (Dec. 31, 1905)
The Omaha Illustrated
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Vw ' X'TTrTt.-T OOI
DKCKMItEll 31, 1P03.
Silas A. Hdlcomb, Nebraska's Greatest and Most Successful Populist
Career of the Man Who Has Been Signally Honored by His Fellow Citizens in Many Ways and Who Has Filled High Offices in the State
T'f HE first an,l the last, the beginning and the ending, tbe Alpha
ana umoga or populism, Mias a. uoicomo, wucn nc pasura
today from the stage of public activities Into the background
of private life, draws the curtain upon the career of the peo
ple's Independent party militant and "tolls the knell of (Its)
Judge Holcomb was not the founder of the populist party, nor
even Its first candidate elected to public oflice, but he was the first In
Nebraska to win substantial victory under its banners; he was the
first governor elected in this state, which, with Kansas, formed the
storm renter of that turbulent era of political and social discoiiteut
which brought forth and for a time, nurtured this Illustrious organiza
tion. Twice Silas A. Holcomb was elected governor and once u mem
ber of the supreme court, his otllclnl term covering a period of ten
years, continuously. The last two years of his career on they supreme
bench, from which he retired as the old year passed out, he was the
Practically, therefore, Silas A. Holcomb was not only the longest
reigning populist, but in his ascendancy the party had Its advent and
In hl-t retirement its ottlclal light goes out in final extinguishment.
Around the time, more than the name, of Judge Holcomb, clusters
a merles of events memorable In the political annals, not alone of Ne
braska, but of the nation. It Is not necessary that the plot of his play
be laid on the stage of national politics. True he held none but state
olllces, but he figured prominently In the national councils of his party's
management, and moreover that famous tidal wave of political unrest
which swept him into olTlce, beat back upon the shores of other states
nnd washed away the undent sands of old party regimes. On its crest
Llewelyn rode into power In Kansas, Walte in Colorado, Pennoyer In
Oregon, and, after Holcomb. Poynter In Nebraska. This turbulent
breaker changed state legislatures, It shattered the national
congress, it altered men's political views from one end
of the country to the other, It dethroned old leaders and set up
new ones. It dismantled the oMest of political parties, with which, para
doxical as It raay seem. It coalesced; It created the greatest upheaval
of generations; it subverted conditions of a lifetime; in short. It estab
lished an epoch in American politics.
Drama of Many Elements
It is upon eucb an historic dnunu that Judge llolcoiub draws the
final curtuln. And the ending of the play and the passing of the play
ers ure fraught with more significance to Nebraskans than to the people
of any other state, because it was in this state, together w ith Kansas,
that the plot was laid and the denouement effected. Nebraskans, to
be sure, may not hall with uproarious applause the memory of this
fact, for in many respects they pnid dearly for this undue popularity.
Judge Holcomb, the last of the populist pilots to leave the helm of
their states' ships, may not properly be classed among the ultra rad
icals of this radical sect, for ho admits now, that the battle is over,
he did not approve all the doctrines of populism during the early
stages of its existence. But he still believes In its fundamental
principles and believes they are even more vital today than when
first espoused by the party.
Numerous elements combined to bring into being the populist'
party. It was the culmination of a series of events that had been
steadily moving toward the goal of positive political action for a Ions
period of years. The Farmers' Alliance, tbe Knights of Labor and
other similar reform factors which bad been working out their' owuY
uncertain destiny along corresponding - lines,. cvUlsetstBtojN
one political body and tbe name of that body Vus "tha tophj' lade.. r
pendent party, y "'j::' lV'-: :)
,JQut JJiee:p!enienU ,wj(srjueccly xontrlbutory'--Tb- lanedbra
causes wlilcij made and unmade populism wore contrary to' common
tenets, and -were derived from-more risible and apparent- sources.- In -the
light of the Immediate facts of. Its. being It Is no stretch, of the
Imagination to say that the populist party was a paradox; Its birth
and death anomalies. Grover Cleveland, the enemy, created it; Wil
liam J. Bryan, the friend, killed It
Popular discontent under the first Cleveland administration,
reached the boiling point and out of the crucible came the populist
pnrty. Popular contentment, with the principles and polities of Bryan
lsm, absorbed the populist party and produced a new democracy.
In this theory of the-coming and going of populism Judge Hol
comb believes. He admits the populist party, as a party, Is dead, yet
he maintains the principles on which it was founded and for which it
fought still live and shall live until other parties and other leaders
have passed away; that these principles are paramount today and are
being embraced year by year by the best men of both big parties. He
believes the nation Is better for the" populist party having lived. He
believes the populist pnrty, enunciated principles and promulgated
doctrines on whose triumph the destiny of the nation depends. And
he Wlleves that as sure as principles are eternal, so sure is their
Personal Popularity of Holcomb
It has been said Silas A. Holcomb was bigger than his party. How
ever that may be, be outlived his party and accomplished what none
of his Nebraska colleagues accomplished. He curried the state for
governor by an abnormally large plurulity after the party had passed
over the summit of Its power; after It had, as a party, attained the
um.vimcm of its strength. Then, even after the force of populism bad
been sjcnt, he, still as a populist, was elected to the supreme court
But it must be remembered that Judge Holcomb, nominally and really
a iopullt, all this time was the "fusion" candidate, and In bis race
for the supreme bench received support not only from the waning
fragment of populism, but the democratic party, and drew heavily
from the republican ranks. Indeed, in bis first race for governor, when
Tom Majors was foisted upon the republicans as their candidate, Hol
comb split the republican party and went Into office with a handsome
majority, notwithstanding every other republican was elected from
5,000 to 0.000 majority.
As a veto getter Holcomb was always unique. Friends and op
ponents conr '. this fact. Richard L. Metcalfe, now associate edi
tor of Mr. Bryan's Commoner, who for years has been an active demo
cratic leader, say Holcomb was not only a strong candidate, but be
was a man of uu.in.ual judgment In all matters of politics. His per
ception was clear nnd far-reaching. He could be depended on when
no other could to give tbo advice that followed, led to successful re
sults. "He was the best politician I ever dealt wtt" Mr. Metcalfe re
cently said. "I never had an adviser or counse'or in whose Judgment
1 placed as much confidence. Judge Holcomb has saved the forces of
fusion many a vote and guided them around many a dangerous or
embarrassing place. I've often thought be was gifted with a natural
Intuition In such matters. Certainly be was a profound student of
men and eveuts." ,
Personal Appearance of the Man
As a political candidate several elements combined to make Hol
comb a potent factor. His make-up played no unimportant part. He
was a man of powerful physique, standing over six feet In height and
weighing 2o0 pounds. As he used to say, "I weigh a quarter of a ton."
He was In the full bloom of vigorous manhood, and though at first
rather awkward in some of bis movements, had a commanding sp
pearuuee. In addition to this the man bad the power of convincing
those with whom be dealt, of bis owu sincerity. Wheu he made bis
debut lu polities, however, Holcomb could not have been charged with
being tbe most urbaue man lu the state. Indeed, bis appearance was
attractive, because It was unique and Interesting. Yet there was no
evidence of a studied attempt at eccentricity. Sincere by uature, as
well as by Intention, soeuied apparent.
As a gubernatorial nominee In ISH nolcomb presented an unique
figure. Massive In form, young and decidedly democratic In manners
and dress, be left an Impression wherever he went He waa seracely 37
years of age when be took the nomination of the populist and demo
cratic parties and went out Into tbe state to beat Tom Majors for gov
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.. , SILAS A. HOLCOMB.
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eraor- "Clle bad trld. but one elective office, tba of aisttict 'Judge out nearer settled satisfactorily In that than in any other manner."
coals upi-t the heads
case may have been.
them in concluding bis
m dieter county. .He' was not" the. most 'familiar T-rure .la fb0 state . ' And then, s If not satisfied In . pouring hot
by ftiy''taeahs. 'AaA' MHAji :Urt.'th atVl&.imt01'4.teB "ical frlendfvor enenUes, wblchever the
BrokenrBowso tong,' ne"Vft not -endv'did hot pretend to be authority 'he tent this thunderbolt of conservatism at
on fads nnd fashions. And here is where his old-time frleuds tell a
good Joko' on hliu, in whose humor the" judge himself finds great
Wheu he burst Into the arena of state politics, Invested with the
honor of the gubernatorial nomluation, he showed that while impressed
to some extent with the gravity of the situation, he had not fully com
prehended the scope of the dignity to which he had Just been elevated.
He had equipped himself with a . long Prince Albert black coat,
such as statesmen wear, thus indicating a lack of utter indifference to
existing conditions. Ills friends were both gratified and dismayed.
The thought of the Prince Albert was good; it was generally com
mended. But the coat Itself was not adequate; that Is, It did not fill
the bill. It was long, but not long enough. It needed at least a foot
more length to bring It up' to present vintage. Metcalfe, Benton
Maret and some of the other "cltyfied" fellows conceived the necessity
for prompt and radical measures. They held a council of war. Each
one wanted the other to go to the Judge and suggest the wisdom of
getting another coat one that would go nearer to his knees and whose
sleeves wouldn't hook on his elbows when he went to make a gesture.
They cast lots snd the lot fell to Maret who, by the way, was Mr.
Holcomb's private secretary when he was governor. Maret didn't rel
ish the task, but performed it nicely with his native suavity, and the
judge came out with a garment that gave general satisfaction.
Memories of a Hot Campaign.
It probably would be a far-fetched claim to say that that second
coat cut a vital part in the campaign, but whether it did or did not, the
man w ho wore It came out with dying colors elected by 3,300 mujorlty
over bis republican opponent, while every other republican nominee
went Into office with fat majorities. In his second race for governor,
against John McColl, bo was elected by 23,000 majority.
The campaign of 1804 was the great political upheaval for Ne
braska and the country at large. It was characterized by the most
Intense bitterness. Indeed, it was a veritable whirlwind of excite
ment Both big parties were split wide open. The republicans had a
candidate whom only a part of the organization could endorse and the
democrats were divided on national Issues. Tbe convention which
nominated Tom Majors bad terminated In a disorderly demonstration
due to the outraged feelings of the autl-MaJors men, and this conflict
lost none of its bitterness as the campaign progressed. Cleveland
democrats, who bolted their state convention, were accused by their
silver brethren of being allies of Wall street and republicans were
charged with pandering to capital by high protective tariffs. On the
other band, the combined fury of the republicans and gold democrats
was centered on the populists, who were denounced as radicals, unsafe
to place In charge of the government; advocates of vagaries and de
stroyers of state credit Bo fiercely was this hurricane of vituperation
waged that some people actually seemed to believe that Holcomb's
Inaugural address would be a sulphuric document, painted In all the
lurid colors of a distorted fancy, which conceived the duty of a chief
executive to be to sound tbe alarm for an uprising against the national
government. But people w ho held such Irrational views had a harsh
surprise. Governor Holcomb's Inaugural was about as dispassionate
a product as could have come from any mind or been written by
any pen. It began, or soon after its beginning, took up the discussion,
In tbe calmest style, of the prosaic though then popular subject of
"the actual want of a great number of our people caused by the drouth
of last year." He concluded with this declaration: "But every gov
ernment Is In duty bound to provide at public expense the necessities
to sustain life to its own needy inhabitants." This he asserted in con
nection with some recommendation for legislative action. The gov
ernor then dealt with the vital question of irrigation, railroads and
So far from fulfilling any of the wild expectations of insane radi
calism Governor Holcomb created even more consternation by bis
moderate policy in relation of the state to the railroads, as enunciated
in these words:
"It Is an erroneously conceived Idea, and quite prevalent, that the
Interests of the railway and the people of tbe state are mimical In
fact, the success of each hVs principally In the prosperity of the other.
"I am of the' opinion that if a constitutional amendment creating
a board of railroad commissioners, with ample power in the premises,
could be submitted to the people, It would receive their approval by
u overwhelming majority, ana I believe tali vexed question, could be
"Although possessing various political beliefs, we, as legislators
and executive, should have but one great Ject In view to discharge
the duties Incumbent upon us In n good, businesslike manner for the
common good. Each of you as a legislator has leen elected as an
advocate of the principles of some political party, but today you repre
sent all the people of your district In my capacity I shall earnestly
endeavor to 1h governor of all the people."
It was the Irony of fate that Governor Holcomb was addressing
a republican legislature, elected with him in this stormy campaign,
while his immediate predecessor, Governor Crounse, a republican, was
inducted into office by a populist legislature.
Two Sources of Satisfaction
Slodest of his own attainments, Judge Holcomb Indulges himself
Just enough to take great pride lu one or two f his political adveutures.
It is a matter of special pride with him that he was always able to
poll a big vote bigger than his party and draw from the republican
ranks, while securing the official endorsement of the democratic party.
He took considerable good-natured pleasure In bis election to tbe dis
trict bench over F. G. Humor, but what he finds most satisfaction In Is
his defeat of Judge Reese for the supreme court and thereby his
succession of Judge T. O. C. Harrison, the man who had beat him
in 1893 for the same position.
With both of these men Judge Holcomb always was on the most
friendly terms and his pride involves none of the spirit of revenge
or vindication, but simply that wholesome feeling of exultation bo.n
of peaceable triumph. In 1893 Holcomb was the nominee of the
populist party for supreme judge. The democrats had two nominees
in tbe field, one for tbe gold and ono for the silver wing, and tbe
republicans bad Harrison. Harrison therefore was on the bench
when Holcomb defeated Iteese in 1899 and was displaced by the popu
list be bad previously defeated.
"Judge Reese was regarded by all odds as the strongest man bis
party could name," said Judge Holcomb in a recent discussion of
the Incident, "and of course I was proud of my election.'4
Story of a Farmer Boy i
The life of Silas A Holcomb is not radically different from the
life of many other men of bis time who have taken prominent place
In the affaire of the west. He was by birth and environment a com
moner. He came from a country where commonera were In the as
cendency, a state which has contributed Its quota to the galaxy of
the Btrong men of the nation. He was born In Indiana, in Gibson
county, and on a farm, August 25, 1358. On the farm be was reared
and in bis boyhood became inured to the elements of a rugged life. The
story of his childhood and early manhood days reads like thut of some
of the pioneers of tbe nation. He worked on the farm in tbe summer
and attended school in the winter. He fiun' arose to the distinction
of a student at a normal school. Able to Caiutaln his equilibrium at
such a lofty height of education he launched out as a school teacher
and followed this vocation for four years. During this time he pre
pared himself for college.
In 1878, when Judge Holcomb was just 20, bis father died,
leaving blm with the support of the family on bis bands. These
grave responsibilities, thrust upon him so abruptly, he assumed with
sober determination. He looked around to cast his lot in a place
most promising to a young man of his circumstances and the lot fell
upou Nebraska. To Nebraska then he cumo with his widowed
mother and younger brothers and sisters In 1879, settling in Hamil
ton county. He worked on a farm there for a year and then en
tered the law office of Thummel & P.latt at Grar' Island. He fairly
dug Into the dry bones of Blackstone, and after two years had suc
ceeded In bringing to the surface a rich fund of legal lore.
Iu 1&S1 he was admitted to the bar and the next year the
most pretentious event of bis 1'fe transpired. Of sufficient mo
ment was it to arouse the greatest interest iu.that community where
the chords of sympathy between the simple folk were tightly drawn
and thus sensitive to the slightest touch. "M'' Holcomb, the young
lawyer, led to the altar Miss Martha Alice Brlnsou of Cass county.
His wife and children always have been the fondest objects of Mr.
Holcomb's affections. He is distinctly a borne man.
A year after his marriage young Holcomb moved to Brokea
Bow, where be began the practice of law and resided continuously
until elected governor for the first tirrj la 1894.
. SVheu 611a A. !g!coinb first cua4 Into tbe arena of public life
he was a splendid speclman of physical manhood. Stretpth and
endurance were denoted in very fibre of his massive form. Ho was
young In the prime of life and looked It. But time has wrought
fearful changes. Today as Judge Holcomb retraces his stops from
public service back to private life It Is the foot of another man, for
the tread Is unsteady. Even now Judge Holcomb Is Just 47 past, yet
affliction in the form of rheumatism has fallen heavily upon blm.
Through the long years of his official career, however. Judge Hol
comb did not allow his affliction to stand between him and his
office. He was a faithful attendant upon business. With him busi
ness was paramount to every other consideration. Naturally en
dowed with Indefatigable strength ho refused, even for Impaired
health, to yield or surrender.
When a reporter for The Bee asked the judge a few weeks
prior to his retirement about his plans for the future he was uncer
tain as to them except Insofar as his Intention to try to regain his
"I shall first devote my time to recuperating niy health," said
the chief justice. "I feel that is my first duty."
"Will you leave the state?" wns asked.
"I don't know what that will Involve, but I hope It will not ne
cessitate my leaving the state, nnd I think It. will not. I must havo
plenty of out-of-door exercise, freedom from sedentary habits and
matters taxing on the nervous system. Of course If I find after duo
experiment and upon advice that my condition demands u chango
of climate I suppose I shall take It. I want to regain my strength."
Personal Opinion of Populism
Siiortly before his retirement Chief Justice Holcomb granted
a lengthy interview to a reporter for Tho Bco in his office at the
state house. In discussing the origin nnd career of the party ha
reaffirmed his faith In tho principles on which It was founded, de
clared they had set In motion tho wave of genuine reform now
sweeping over the country, had brought relief to the common people
In many ways, were now embraced by the best element of both big
parties and would continue to live and work good. Ho said tho
purty, as an effectual organization, was dead, but Its voting strength
was alive; that both big parties had embraced so much of its in
herent doctrine that populists, who cared more for principle than
party success, had found the fruition of their hopes realized and they
returned to one or other of the old organizations. Ho expressed the
belief the democratic party was able to withstand defeats of tho past
and live. He expressed the hope Bryan would again bo the nominee
of the fusion forces for president, and said that while Mr. Bryan
was Indifferent to the honor he believed if his party called blm he
"The spirit of independence in voting so pronounced at thn
last general election in the east, and the crystallization of public
sentiment favorable to municipal ownership sprung from and are
the outgrowth of the teachings of tho Independent party begun sev
eral years ago In the west and south," asserted Judge Helcomb. "In
the latter part of the '80s when the party began to assume form and
shape as an organized political party the voters of Nebraska wero
no strangers to an anti-monopoly campaign with Its adjuncts of de
clared hostility to machine politics and bosslsm. There had been
for several years prior to 1819 a mutinous element in the dominant
party which, as opportunity preseated itself, displayed open opposi
tion to the politicians and the candidates for public office which it
was believed had been selected by and to serve selfish Interests
rather than the Interest of the people at large. The. Farmers' Al
liance and the labor unions had, during the several years of their
discussions of the good of the order, reached the deliberate conclu
sion, that, politics and the manner In which the affairs of govern
ment, both state and national, were administered, was in bo small
degree tbe cause of many of the evils ef'which they-were complain
ing and regarding which they were convinced they had good causo
to complain. ' It was felt that the few and they the great corpora
tions, the strong and powerful had altogether too much Influence
in shaping legislation and in the administration of affairs through
public office, and that the Interests of the mass of tho people were
lost sight of; that public office was looked upon as a private snap
rather than a public trust, and selfish rather than public interests
were subserved. The fundamental conception of the creed of the
independent voter was 'equal rights to all and bpecial privileges to
Genesis of Organization in Nebraska.
"The now more popular and vivid characterization of a 'square
deal,' 'fair play,' etc., is giving expression to the same idea in more
striking language. Before there was any attempt at organizing a
national party the Independent voters in many counties in Nebraska '
formed local organizations in opposition to both old parties and es
pecially the dominant republican party, put candidates for county
offices in the field and forthwith began the liveliest kind ef a po
litical fight, and in many instances captured the couaty court
houses completely or partially. The first campaign of this kind of
any considerable extent and proportion was Just preceding the gen
eral election of 1889. The result was eminently satisfactory to
those who had been preaching Independent political action. The
strength of the movement lay In the membership of the Farmers'
Alliance organization and In labor organizations in tho towns and
cities, especially tbe society of the Knights ef Labor.
"In 1890 a state organization was perfected and full state, con
gressional and county tickets were placed la tho field. A whirlwind
campaign followed tbat resulted in a veritable rattling of dry bones
among the old party leaders and politicians. The parades en rally
days, miles in length, winding their way through tbe streets of the
county seats were eye-openers to those who bad been doing the po
litical thinking and manipulating the caucuses In former days. It
at once became obvious that a portion at least of tho electorate had
concluded to do Its own political thinking and acting. They were
men tf earnest conviction and imbued with lofty political Ideals.
They wanted a new political deal and also a 'square deal.' They
bad been studying political history and the sclenoe ef government
around the firesides and were as well or better Informed than the
average political stump orator.
"When the votes were counted It was found tbat the people's
party candidate for governor, according to the returns, lacksd but a
few votes of an election. It was the abnormally large vote cast In
Douglas county and tbe unusual majority there received by Gov
ernor Eoyd that lost tbe office of chief executive to John II. Powers,
the people's independent candidate. The republicans lost all repre
sentation in the lower branch of congress, lost the state legislature,
many county attorneys and other county officers In different counties
throughout the state. In 1891 tbe district Judges were divided
about equally between republicans on the one hand and democrats
and populists on the other, the two latter parties In many counties
working inpolltlcal harmony. The county court houses continued
to fall into the bands of the new party.
Some Well -Remembered Leaders.
"I hesitate to undertake tho naming of thop most prominent
and active In the organization of tho people's independent party.
The names first coining to my mind are: John H. Powers, C. H.
Van Wyck, Jay Burrows, Allen Hoot, W. II. Dech, O. M. Kem, C. D.
Schrader. W. A. McKeighan, J. V. Wolfe, J. II. Edmisten. Senator
Allen and a host of others.
"The party kept stendily growing iu strength and power until
189G, when fc the first time the state offices and the legislature
passed to Its control with the aid of the Lrjau wing of the demo
cratic party. This period may probably be regarded as tho timo
when the party attained the zenith of iu btrength and power. It
was not until leceuilcr, 18:t, that the Ocala (Florida) platform of the
National Farmers' Alliance was promulgated. This may be regarded
as formal proclamation to tho world that this btrong industrial or
ganization was about to play an important part in national politics.
In December, 1891, the Cincinnati platform was adopted as the re
sult of the combined efforts of the representatives of the alliance
and different bodies of labor organizations. This was the birth of
(Continued, ob ftfie Twj
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