Butler, Marion, 1863-1938

Alternative names
Birth 1863-05-20
Death 1938-06-03

Biographical notes:

Marion Butler of Sampson County, N.C., was president of the North Carolina and National Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union; state and national Populist Party leader; member of the North Carolina Senate; United States senator, 1895-1901; and Republican Party leader after 1904. He owned and edited a newspaper, the Caucasian, located at various times in Clinton, Goldsboro, and Raleigh, N.C. He practiced law in Washington, D.C., 1901-1938.

From the description of Marion Butler papers, 1862-1938 (bulk 1890-1927). (Oceanside Free Library). WorldCat record id: 31966159

Marion Butler, agrarian leader and United States senator, was born on 20 May 1863 near Clinton in Sampson County, N.C. He was the oldest of six children of Romelia Ferrell and Wiley Butler, a farmer. Marion Butler graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1885. He began to study law at the University, but left to take over the responsibility of running the family farm when his father died. In addition to farming, Butler conducted an academy for the schooling of his younger brothers and sisters, as well as neighbors' children.

When the Farmers' Alliance movement spread to North Carolina in the late 1880s, Butler joined the organization and became president of the Sampson County Farmers' Alliance. He purchased a weekly newspaper in the county seat of Clinton, the Caucasian (which he subsequently moved to Goldsboro and then to Raleigh) and in 1890, at the age of 27, he was elected to the state senate as an Alliance Democrat. In the legislature, Butler became the leader of the dominant agrarian forces, and in 1891 became president of the state Farmers' Alliance. Butler was elected president of the National Farmers' Alliance in 1893.

Advocates of free silver and other financial and economic reforms, Butler and his followers in the Alliance opposed Grover Cleveland, whom the national Democratic party renominated for the presidency in 1892. When the leaders of the North Carolina Democratic party ruled that no member could split the ticket, that is, vote Democratic in the state and local elections but not in the presidential race, Butler led thousands of Alliancemen in a bolt from the Democratic party to join the new People's or Populist party.

In North Carolina, the Populists entered the campaign of 1892 late, yet they and the Republicans together polled a larger vote than the Democrats. In the state elections of 1894, Butler led the Populists into cooperation with the Republicans, a policy known as fusion. The combined forces of the Populists and the Republicans swept the state to gain control of both houses of the legislature and to send Butler to the United States Senate in 1895. In Washington, Butler vigorously advocated reform and took his place alongside other agrarian champions of the silver cause.

Butler achieved his greatest national prominence in 1896 when, as national chairman of the Populist party, he led in effecting the compromise whereby the Populists at their convention in St. Louis, Mo., endorsed William Jennings Bryan, already the Democratic nominee for president, on a ticket with the Populists' own vice-presidential nominee, Thomas E. Watson of Georgia. In the campaign that followed, Butler worked closely with Bryan and other national Democratic leaders to effect a policy of Populist-Democratic cooperation or fusion on the tickets for presidential electors, even though in North Carolina, Populists and Republicans continued to cooperate in many of the state and local elections.

After Bryan was defeated, the Populist-Republican forces extended their control in North Carolina. When the Democrats returned to power with their massive white supremacy campaigns of 1898 and 1900, however, Butler lost his seat in the Senate. He continued to serve as Populist national chairman until 1904, when he became a Republican. Although Governor Daniel Lindsay Russell originated the famous interstate lawsuit wherein South Dakota successfully sued North Carolina over railroad bonds that the North Carolina had semi-repudiated, Butler played an important role in the affair. As a result, for many years, almost until his death in fact, Tar Heel Democrats fought the Republicans using variations on the them of Butler, Boodle, and Bonds.

As a United States senator, Butler played a key role in the establishment of free rural mail delivery. He was also instrumental in initiating the postal savings bank system. In North Carolina, he and his fellow agrarian reformers were proud of their contributions to the establishment of a state college for women at Greensboro, to the establishment of a state railway commission, and to other reforms. A conspicuous friend of public education at all levels, Butler stood by the University of North Carolina at a critical time and served as a trustee and a member of the executive board from 1891 to 1899.

While still a senator, Butler resumed his study of law at the University of North Carolina, and after retiring from public life, he engaged in practice in Washington, D.C.

Marion Butler married Florence Faison of Sampson County on 31 August 1893. They had five children: Pocahontas, Marion, Edward F., Florence F., and Wiley. Butler died on 3 June 1938 in Takoma Park, Md., and was buried from St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Clinton, to which he and his wife belonged, in the Clinton Cemetery.

Adapted from Robert F. Durden, Marion Butler,   Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1979), vol. 1, pp. 291-292.

From the guide to the Marion Butler Papers, 1862-1938, (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Library. Southern Historical Collection.)


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  • Populism--History
  • Farmers--Political activity
  • Postal service History
  • Newspaper editors--History
  • Lawyers
  • Patronage, Political
  • Indians of North America--Claims--History
  • Currency question
  • Silver question
  • Technological innovations--Marketing--History
  • Mineral industries--History
  • Political parties--History
  • African Americans--Political activity


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  • North Carolina (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Washington (D.C.) (as recorded)
  • Sampson County (N.C.) (as recorded)
  • Mexico (as recorded)