Jersey Reflections: Woman in Politics

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Augusta Cooper Bristol promoted the Greenback Party even after her husband’s campaign was cut short.

Vineland poet/lecturer Augusta Cooper Bristol was drawn into the exploits of the Greenback Party through her husband Louis’ interest in running as a congressional candidate for the group in 1882. And her interest in promoting the party’s ideology persisted even after her spouse’s campaign was tragically cut short.

The Greenback Party took its name from the term for the paper money issued by the North during the Civil War that was not backed by the gold standard. According to online sources, the party saw a problem with the gold standard because it was controlled by banks and not the federal government, thereby giving an advantage to the wealthy industrialists over the common laborers.

Those workers included farmers who helped establish the movement in 1873 when they contributed to the creation of an independent party in their pursuit of reform. Bristol’s involvement with the agricultural organization the Grange, which was also outspoken in its promotion of women’s suffrage, had already established her connection to farmers and their causes. The tenets of the Greenback Party matched those of the Grange, but the Greenbacks also favored an eight-hour work day and decried the use of state and federal suppression in the case of union strikes. The organization’s concern for workers echoed the social utopian principles Bristol had recently encountered on her visit to Jean-Baptiste Andre Godin’s Social Palace in Guise, France.

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Another Vinelander drawn into the Greenback Party’s mission was town founder Charles K. Landis. In addition to attending meetings, he lectured and applied his legal skills to the group’s cause by writing resolutions for the party in 1878, the year in which the “Greenback craze” reached its peak.

In autumn 1882, Louis Bristol chose to become a Greenback candidate. Unfortunately, his decision came at a time when the group’s popularity had begun to decline, having already placed 21 members in Congress. The Greenback Party continued to have a presence in national politics, but its achievements would never again be what they had been in the previous decade. Elizabeth Sanders, in her book Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877-1917, identifies that “the year 1878 proved to be the electoral high point for the Greenback Movement…” and while the organization would exist until the late 1880s, its efforts remained unproductive during its final decade.

According to a biographical sketch rendered by the poet’s daughter Bessie Bristol Mason for a posthumous publication of her mother’s The Present Phase of Woman’s Advancement and Other Addresses, Bristol “accompanied her husband through the campaign, supplementing most ably his speeches on currency reform.” In December 1882, however, Louis died. Despite the tragedy, Bristol continued to promote her husband’s political ideas.

In a letter to an unidentified Chicago newspaper, she wrote, “I have had the courage, since his decease, to give a weekly lesson in Political Economy to a class of twenty or twenty-five ladies and gentlemen, following Mr. Bristol’s writings and also those of [poet/patriot] Henry C. Carey and Godin, with occasional reference to Henry George. Perhaps it is little that a woman may hope to do in the way of advancing political reform, and yet when love commands the intellect, neither heart nor brain reflects upon the probability of meagre results, but in admirable congruity with the revelations of a microscopic age, believes and trusts in the infinite importance of little things.”

At the 1884 Greenback Party convention in Indianapolis, Bristol delivered a speech that earned her considerable praise and attention. It also demonstrated to some, like a reporter for the Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, that women were extremely capable of performing more than household duties: “The only speech which attracted any particular attention at the National Greenback Convention was delivered by a woman, Mrs. Augusta Bristol, of New Jersey. As a philosophical exposition of the powers and duties of governments, the speech has been excelled by few, delivered from the political rostrum. Thus are the women coming into the political arena.”

By this time, Bristol had begun to focus more on women’s rights and her speeches were beginning to address gender politics and women’s suffrage in an attempt to redirect society.

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