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About Marion Butler
Marion Butler (May 20, 1863 – June 3, 1938) was a Populist U.S. senator from the state of North Carolina between 1895 and 1901.
Butler was born in rural Sampson County, North Carolina during the American Civil War. He was a graduate of the University of North Carolina, where he was a member of the Philanthropic Literary Society. His goal of practicing law was not immediately realized due to his father's death, which forced Butler to take responsibility for managing the family farm in lieu of further education.
Farmers' Alliance and Populism
As the son of yeoman farmers, Butler grew up in a strong agrarian tradition, and by the age of 25 was elected President of the local Farmers' Alliance.
Still a Democrat at this time, Butler was elected to the North Carolina Senate as an "Alliance Democrat" in 1890. In 1891, at age 28, he was elected President of the State Farmers' Alliance. Due to a general distaste for Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland, and the North Carolina Democratic Party's ruling that no voter could vote on a "split ticket", Butler led a mass exodus of Alliance members and followers to the Populist, or "People's Party" in 1892.
During his tenure with the Populists, Butler was an advocate of "Fusion", meaning outright cooperation with the North Carolina (and national) Republican Party as a means to achieve some of the more important goals of his party. While some Populists disliked what they saw as a compromise made on some of their core beliefs, Butler saw short-term success, as the Populists and Republicans swept North Carolina Elected offices in the Election of 1894.
In 1894, Butler was elected as United States Senator from North Carolina, serving alongside Senator Jeter C. Pritchard. As a United States Senator, Butler continued to advocate for workable reforms from the Populist Party Platform, including the regulation or outright ownership by the United States Government of railroads and telegraphs, as well as for a silver-based currency system.
In 1896, Butler strongly supported William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat, in his quest for the Presidency, while ironically continuing to encourage cooperation between Populists and Republicans in North Carolina. After Bryan's loss, Butler continued to work for reform on the national stage which would benefit farmers, but this work would soon be cut short by the "white supremacy" campaigns of the Democratic Party in North Carolina. Butler lost his bid for re-election in 1900, and would later formally leave the Populist Party in 1904, officially becoming a Republican.
Life After the Senate
During his time as Senator, Butler received his law degree from the University of North Carolina, and after his electoral defeat in 1904, practiced law in Washington, D.C.
The former Senator died in Takoma Park, Maryland in 1938, and was buried at Saint Paul's Episcopal Church in Clinton, North Carolina. A portrait of Marion Butler during his time in the U.S. Senate is included in the collection of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies in their chambers on the campus of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Butler's legacy is surrounded by considerable debate among scholars of the era. Progressive historians, who tend to look favorably on the goals of the Populist Movement in general have often discarded Butler's fusionism, silver-backed currency and emphasis on white supremacy as being "un-Populist". In refuting this analysis, some historians point to Butler's immense popularity among Populist adherents, and to the fact that Butler held at different times the Presidency of the National Farmers' Alliance and was Chairman of the Populist Party itself.
Regardless of the classification of Butler's beliefs and actions, it is undisputed that his actions and rhetoric were extremely influential in the North Carolina and national Populist movement, especially after the death of Leonidas L. Polk, the movement's elder statesman, in 1892.
United States Senator Marion Butler was born on May 20, 1863 near Clinton, the eldest of Wiley and Romelia Butler’s six children. As a young man, he shared in his family’s struggles during the Reconstruction era, but managed to graduate from the University of North Carolina in 1885. Intent on becoming an attorney, Butler returned to the school to study law, but his academic pursuits were cut short by the death of his father in the 1890s. He then returned to Sampson County to manage the family farm.
Butler entered politics shortly after returning home. The Farmers’ Alliance a militant agrarian movement, came into North Carolina from the Southwest. Attracted by the Alliance’s espousal of farmers’ rights, Butler joined, and quickly became head of the Sampson County Farmers’ Alliance. In 1890, at the age of twenty-seven, Butler was elected to the state senate as an Alliance Democrat. Four years later he became acknowledged as the state head of the Farmers’ Alliance. After the death of Leonidas L. Polk in 1892, Butler became president of the National Farmers’ Alliance.
Butler and the Farmers’ Alliance were strong supporters of free silver and other reforms, but the Democratic Party nominated Grover Cleveland in 1892. Cleveland supported none of the measures put forth by the Alliance. When the Democratic Party ruled that no member could vote Democratic in the state and local elections without voting likewise in the presidential race, the Farmers’ Alliance in North Carolina abandoned the traditional “white-man’s party,” favoring the burgeoning Populist Party.
During the state elections of 1894, the Populist Party “fused” with the Republicans to challenge Democratic control. Dubbed “the sly fox of Sampson County,” Butler led the Populists and Republicans in sweeping both houses of the legislature and getting himself elected in 1895 to the United States Senate. The following year, Butler gained national prominence by formulating the compromise that allowed the Populists to place Democrat William Jennings Bryan on their presidential ticket alongside Populist vice-presidential candidate Thomas E. Watson. Nevertheless, Bryan lost the election in 1896, and the Populists and Democrats again parted ways.
During the 1898 and 1900 elections, the Democrats, led by Charles B. Aycock and Furnifold M. Simmons, regained the state legislature, and Butler lost his Senate seat. He remained national chairman of the Populist Party until 1904, when he became a Republican. Butler left politics shortly thereafter, and resumed the study of law. He established a practice in Sampson County, where he died on June 3, 1938. Butler left a wife, Florence, and five children. He is buried in the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Clinton.
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, I, 291-292—sketch by Robert F. Durden
James L. Hunt, Marion Butler and American Populism (2003)
James L. Hunt, “Marion Butler: The Making of a Populist,” North Carolina Historical Review (January, April, July 1985), 53-77, 179-202, 317-343
Robert S. Boyette, "Marion Butler: A Reluctant Populist" (East Carolina University honors paper, 1977)
Marion Butler, U.S. Senator's Timeline
Sampson, North Carolina, United States
Takoma Park, Montgomery, Maryland, United States
Clinton, Sampson, North Carolina, United States