An Imperfect Politician – The Election and Career of a Pa. Legislator and How Things Haven’t Changed From 1894-2008
Politics and Our Ancestors: Finally, it’s a COG topic I really know. After all, the man at the center of my non-genealogical historical research was a politician–specifically a United States Representative–from turn-of-the-century slightly rural Pennsylvania. Though he was primarily a private businessman, his two-term Washington career ultimately became his best-known and most-hyped accomplishment. However, being a persistent researcher such as I am, I soon discovered there was a lot to his Congressional doings that the mainstream local histories and county biographies, well–just forgot to mention. And, at the same time, I found that I was uncovering an interestingly familiar story, one that in this turbulent political season may just prove that some things don’t entirely change with time.
In 1894, Republican Monroe H. Kulp of Shamokin, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania was elected Representative of the 17th Congressional District. Now, over a hundred years later, that Congressional election–practically of the Victorian era–bears considerable resemblance to the same issues you’ll hear about on any television news channel today. A close election; the economy; war; pensions; experience vs. inexperience; old school vs. change–these familiar “talking points” dominated the campaign for Pennsylvania’s coal region votes in 1894, just as they dominate both Congressional and national campaigns of the 21st Century.
Experience vs. Inexperience
Much of the controversy surrounded the striking differences between Kulp and his Democratic opponent, 73-year-old Charles R. Buckalew of Bloomsburg, Columbia County. Buckalew had a long record and a career in Washington spanning several decades, having begun that career as a U.S. Minister Resident to Ecuador in 1858–which, contrastingly, was the year Monroe H. Kulp was born. Then, during the Civil War, Buckalew has served as U.S. Senator until 1869, returning to politics several years later as a Representative in 1887. He continued in that office until 1891, when he was succeeded by Simon P. Wolverton of Sunbury.
On the other hand, Kulp had no experience in politics, only in business–and even that was somewhat of a short record. He had worked as general manager of his father’s successful lumber company since 1886, and as president since his father’s illness in 1892 and subsequent death a year later. At 36 years of age, he had a reputation of competence in his short business career, but otherwise there was nothing to speak of in his background except for two good colleges in New York and Ohio.
His supporters, however, argued that a long-time Washington insider like Buckalew was just what the district didn’t need. “Charles Buckalew,” proclaimed one area newspaper, “is seventy three years old and has been in politics all his life. These hard times will not permit voters to send professional politicians to Congress. Place a sound, common sense business man there. Such as M. H. Kulp of Shamokin.”
Meanwhile, Buckalew’s voting record was in question. Being a Democrat, he had voted against the Civil War three decades earlier in the Senate. This vote, and the fact that he also did not support soldier’s pension, no doubt threatened his support from veterans. One of them spoke out anonymously in the newspapers, saying that “when the question of improving the condition of the soldier came up this same Charles R. Buckalew had not a word of encouragement to offer, and if you will examine the Congressional proceedings you will not find a single instance where this man Buckalew voted to provide a dollar of pension for the worthy and needy soldier…” The veteran also cited the fact that Buckalew was “an old politician, who has spent a large portion of his years in office, drawing a large amount of money (by way of salary) from the public treasury.”
“At last…a State issue.”
Even outside of the 17th District, Kulp’s candidacy was causing a bit of a flurry in the press. The Philadelphia Inquirer, which in later years seems to have overwhelmingly sported all the negative stories about Congressman Kulp, once used its signature sarcasm in defense of him. Mocking the comments of another newspaper, which, being published in Buckalew’s hometown, was probably “in the tank” for the Democratic candidate, the Inquirer wrote this brief but scathing remark a few weeks before the election: “The Bloomsburg Sentinel complains that Monroe H. Kulp, the Republican candidate for Congress in that district, parts his hair in the middle. At last we have a State issue such as the Democratic candidate for Governor has longed for.”
A Close Election
Throughout his life, Kulp was described as charismatic, genial, and a talented orator. He was also less than half the age of his opponent, and was known by the endearing nickname of “Farmer,” reflecting his promise to be an advocate for the agriculturists. Some say the nickname actually dated from his childhood, but whether or not this is true is uncertain. (See my earlier COG post, The “Farmer”.) Whatever the case, Kulp was certainly a charismatic figure. Was it this, perhaps, that won him the election? His chances seemed exceedingly slim throughout the campaign, considering among other things that the district had never elected a Republican Congressman before in its history.
But, he did win on Election Day, November 6, 1894–narrowly, but it was a win nevertheless. The 17th District was comprised of four Pennsylvania counties–Northumberland, Columbia, Montour and Sullivan. According to early reports, Buckalew scored narrow victories in Columbia, Montour and Sullivan, but Northumberland County went for Kulp in a near landslide. Apparently, it was this single strong victory that won him the election. Newspaper reports from the town of Mount Carmel, near Shamokin, listed Kulp’s majority as 891 votes. Ironically, however, Buckalew lost his own hometown of Bloomsburg.
In a stunning display of lack of emotion, the Mount Carmel newspaper concluded its report of the election returns with the phrase: “Well, guess we’re satisfied.”
I Wouldn’t Call This a Meeting
Shamokin, meanwhile, responded with a “ratification meeting”–perhaps better described as all-out revelry. Newspapers reported the event this way:
The Republicans of Shamokin had a big ratification meeting last evening, and such a demonstration has never before been witnessed in the coal region. The Germania band, of Reading, accompanied by about twenty prominent citizens of Berks county capital, who are friends of the Honorable Farmer Kulp, arrived in a special car attached to the 8:30 Reading train. At the depot they were met by the leading band of Shamokin and a delegation of prominent citizens, and escorted to the Cresco club house. A parade was formed and the Hon. Monroe Kulp driven through streets while fireworks illuminated the entire town. Such a scene of enthusiasm was never equalled in the coal region. It is estimated that fully 15,000 people turned out to pay their respects to the occasion. After the parade a reception was held at the Vanderbilt hotel where for two hours the newly elected congressman shook hands with his friends. Quite a number of Mt. Carmel people attended the rally.
The Quiet Years in Washington
For the most part, Kulp’s first term and the early months of his second went smoothly. He was building a reputation as a somewhat flamboyant individual, being called “the cheekiest member in the House” by an Illinois newspaper in 1896, but the real trouble hadn’t yet started. Only a few minor, unflattering incidents were occasionally reported by the newspapers.
Dishonesty or Business Shrewdness?
“During the last session of the Fify-Third [sic] Congress,” wrote the Illinois paper, “he had the privilege of the floor of the House, being a member-elect. It happened that a vote was pending on an important question, and, the decision being rather close, tellers were appointed. Under such circumstances the members all pass in line between the tellers in order that their votes may be recorded. Kulp coolly took his place in the line and voted, the cheat not being discovered.”
Also in 1896, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in somewhat obscure language the following brief article:
“A thrifty representative from Pennsylvania, Monroe H. Kulp, has been caught franking his cuffs to a Troy, N.Y., laundry. Not that he couldn’t easily afford to pay the postage, but some men think successful dishonesty is a mark of business shrewdness.”
“A Bit of a Swell”
He was known to be a “bit of a swell in respect to dress,” having a taste for rather sporty fashions. Heavy-set, fair-haired, and frequently seen with a gold watch, it was said that he so closely resembled two other members of the House–George B. McClellan and John Simpkins–that they were called “the triplets” by their colleagues. The Philadelphia Inquirer said in 1899 that there was “no more genial and interesting character in politics,” and that “in his earlier days he disregarded conventionalities and went around among his neighbors frequently with his trousers tucked down inside his boot tops, and if the weather was warm he did not hesitate to go in his shirt sleeves.”
Pork and Promises
Monroe Kulp was a businessman–first and foremost, and in that capacity he had always been undeniably successful. However, his four years in Washington, though they brought him considerable prominence and notoriety, were not his greatest achievement.
The Congressional Record reveals that he did propose several bills even in his first term. Most concerned pensions, removing charges of desertion from various Civil War veterans, and agriculture–apparently indicating that he had kept the promises which had been at the center of his 1894 campaign. The list of his Congressional activities, however, also contains bills resembling what might now be referred to as “pork.” Among other things, he asked for $65,000 for an unspecified public building in his hometown of Shamokin, and although what became of this bill is unknown, a similar one was proposed in the following session–this time, however, the price was $75,000. Another bill concerned a Mrs. Henry Shuman, “for relief.” Henry Shuman was a Perry County Civil War veteran, and father of Kulp’s late brother-in-law, Edwin, who had married the Congressman’s sister Joanna.
One of the more revealing years in Kulp’s political career was 1898–the year of the Spanish-American War. In February the United States ship Maine was sunk, supposedly by hostile Spain, igniting a national outrage that eventually led to the declaration of war a few months later. In addition, Spain’s dictatorial dominance of Cuba was also a hot topic in the controversy.
“Not Losing Any Sleep.”
Rumors of war were going stronger than ever in March, when a reporter from the Mount Carmel Daily News interviewed Congressman Kulp at his quaint brick half-double residence in Shamokin.
“I don’t think there will be war.”
Hon. Monroe H. Kulp, the live and efficient Congressman from this district, made this remark to a “Daily News” reporter, who visited him at his Shamokin home this morning, to which place Mr. Kulp had been called by a business transaction in relation to his settling up an estate.
“Why, no war, you ask?” continued the Congressman. “Because when President McKinley shows his hand it will be in such a way that there is only one thing for Spain to do–throw up its hands, give Cubans what they have long sought, many laid down their lives and thousands still battling for–their independence–freedom. I feel that Spain would have done this long ago if an opportunity had been afforded to get out of the difficulty in an honorable way and without an apparent disgrace. I tell you in all candor, that the interference of the United States will force them to give up the fight. As to the exact situation we representatives in Washington know little more than you people do. All agree that Cuba should be free. Individually I think the Maine calamity will have little bearing on the freedom of the Cubans. It will, as it should be, treated in a separate way. It is doubtful if it can be shown that Spain or any person directly caused the calamity. It therefore becomes a grave question and must be handled by the President in a diplomatic way.
“You favor an early adjournment, according to a concensus of opinions taken by a New York paper?” remarked the reporter.
“Yes,” replied the Congressman, “and I am still of that opinion. The matter has become so serious that I think it safer in the hands of the President than if left to Congress. A big body at times becomes rabid and is hard to control, besides there is danger of politics getting mixed up in the question. Such a state of things would be very unfortunate. Congress, to a man, has shown that it will stand by the President in whatever course he thinks right. We should then transact the necessary business and leave the rest to him. With McKinley as President, Reed as Speaker of the House, and Lee at Havana, I consider this country in safe hands, and I am not losing any sleep.”
“Why this warlike action on the part of Spain?”
“Oh! that’s simply to draw this country on, so that Spain may sooner have the chance to be relieved of its present unpleasantness.”
As the “Daily News” representative left him he replied:
“Well! We will all know more about it this time next week.”
War was declared a month later in April.
“I Stand With the Administration”
On March 27th, the Philadelphia Inquirer printed a poll taken of the members of Congress, regarding the issue of Spain. Kulp was listed as one of those “who wish to hear from the President and have full official information as to the condition of affairs in Cuba before talking for publication.” He also provided a brief statement explaining this position:
“I am in favor of recognizing the independence of Cuba, of intervention, either peaceably or by force, or any other policy that President McKinley will recommend to put a stop to the frightful condition of affairs that prevails in Cuba. I stand with the administration.”
“Not a Candidate.”
The issue of Kulp’s reelection to a third term also came up in 1898. That year, however, he declined to run again in order to focus on his numerous business interests. Instead, Republican William H. Woodin took up the cause against Democrat Rufus K. Polk. According to Kulp, the district had “always been classed as Democratic,” but after his election in 1894 he believed it had become “safely Republican.”
“You can rest assured,” he told a reporter in Philadephia, October 1898, “that the Seventeenth district will for a third time elect a Republican Congressman.”
He was proven incorrect in this prediction; Woodin lost the election, and for several years afterward the district remained Democratic. However, in the interview on the subject of his retirement from Congress, Kulp mentioned his support for a Pennsylvania senator whose controversial reelection would, in less than a year, provide the centerpiece of an all-out scandal involving this previously obscure coal region politician.
“I am still for Senator Quay,” he said, “and will do all I can to assist in his re-election to another term in the Senate…”
Only a Horse Deal
I admit that I have not extensively researched the biography of Senator Matthew S. Quay, of Pennsylvania, nor the issue of his reelection. It seems, however, that this famous Pennsylvania politician, known for his cynical and distantly Machiavellian philosophies, was involved in a bribery scandal sometime around 1898. Other legislators, therefore, were divided on whether or not he should be elected, and in early 1899 a vote related to the subject came up in, I believe, the Pennsylvania State House or Senate.
It was not until March, however, that another scandal broke concerning several Pennsylvania politicians who had allegedly bribed various colleagues to vote certain ways or to be absent from voting, concerning in some cases the Quay issue, and in others the McCarrell bill, although what exactly the latter was is uncertain. Among the men in question was then ex-Congressman Monroe H. Kulp.
Rendezvous With Bribery, or Misunderstanding?
According to Shamokin area newspapers, one Representative Francis E. Brown of Union County, formerly a Republican but currently of the opposite party, had told the Legislative Bribery Investigation Committee at Harrisburg that he had been offered $200-$300 not to vote on the Quay issue–and “much more,” if he would support Senator Quay. At first, Representative Brown had declined to name the person who had approached him, but upon threat of being “handed into the custody of the Sergeant-at-Arms and committed to Dauphin county jail,” he reluctantly revealed the politician’s identity as Shamokin Congressman Monroe Kulp.
Brown testified that Kulp had asked him, in Harrisburg some time previously, to take a walk, and at a place “where the street was rather dark,” he had made the first proposition, and added that if Brown would specifically cast his vote for Quay, “the price would be much more.” According to the papers, a handful of other witnesses were called, but the evidence was “meager.” The Mount Carmel press expressed confidence that Kulp would be able to refute the charges satisfactorily.
Kulp soon requested an opportunity to appear before the committee to respond to the charges, and the chairman set a date in early April shortly afterwards. This date, however, seems to have “conflicted” with certain business matters needing his attention, and he asked to have the date changed to a more convenient time. Finally, on April 4th, he arrived in Harrisburg accompanied by his attorney, Simon P. Wolverton–whose seat in Congress, coincidentally, he had filled five years earlier.
Kulp told the committee that he had indeed met Brown in the lobby of the Commonwealth Hotel, and had then asked him to call on Senator Quay, who was staying at the Lochiel in Harrisburg. Brown had declined, he said, but instead had accompanied him on a walk later that evening. Along the way, Kulp asked Brown if he would be supporting Senator Quay in the upcoming vote. Brown replied that he would not, but “if anything turned up later he might do so.”
The conversation, Kulp testified, had then drifted to a business discussion. Brown, a dealer in livestock, had in the past done business with the Congressman, and Kulp said that he had talked with him concerning the purchase of horses. He had asked if Brown would go to Philadelphia to buy the horses in question, and told him he thought there might be “$200 to $300 in it for him,” meaning profit on the transaction.
Nothing in the conversation, he said, had been intended to influence improperly Brown’s vote on the Quay issue, and he believed that Brown must have misunderstood his meaning.
During this controversy, and that of the other accused legislators, the news spread throughout the country. When the committee declared their final decision, it was reported as far away as Montana and North Dakota, and the somewhat skeptical term “only a horse deal” was used in at least two different articles. In the end, the committee decided that there was not enough evidence against Kulp to proceed, and the issue was dropped.
Today, it’s a little-known controversy. It was nimbly left out of the county biographies, disappearing quickly from area newspapers, and consequently forgotten–to be repeated in area histories on only one known occasion in all the years following.
But what was the political career of Monroe H. Kulp all about? To me, it was his most notable, but never his greatest, success. As a businessman, an entrepreneur, a builder, he was an admirable man, but in Washington his talents had little or no use.
Yet, those years in Washington are significant–to his life, his biography–and also to the way we view politics today. His political campaign and career mirrors those of the present era, in the issues that were discussed, the controversies that came up, the scandals that broke and were buried. As many are today, he was an imperfect politician, but, as some are, he was also an achiever nevertheless, whether flawed or not.
Note to all COG readers: I missed the Halloween edition, but if you’re in for a slightly eerie tale, check out this post: An Abandoned School, 2 Cameras and a Determined Researcher.
U.S. Minister Resident – Wikipedia.org
U.S. Senator until 1869 – Op. cit.
Representative in 1887 – Op. cit.
continued in that office until 1891 – op. cit.
worked as general manager – Floyd’s Genealogical and Biographical Annals of Northumberland County (1911), p. 862.
illness in 1892 – Op. cit.
“Charles Buckalew” – Newspaper, Mount Carmel, Pa., about October 1894.
“when the question of” – Ibid., November 1894.
“The Bloomsburg Sentinel” – The Philadelphia Inquirer, 23 October 1894.
According to early reports – Newspaper, Mount Carmel, Pa., about 6 November 1894.
listed Kulp’s majority – Ibid., about 7 November 1894.
Buckalew lost his own hometown – Ibid., about 6 November 1894.
“The Republicans of Shamokin” – Ibid., about 7 November 1894.
The Quiet Years in Washington
“the cheekiest member in the House” – Sunday Inter-Ocean, Illinois, 8 February 1896, “Oddities in Congress. Lawmakers Who Are Distinguished by Queer Manners and Careers.”
“During the last session” – Op. cit.
“A thrifty representative” – The Philadelphia Inquirer, 19 February 1896.
“A bit of a swell” – Sunday Inter-Ocean, 8 February 1896.
they were called “the triplets” – Steubenville Daily Herald, unknown date, Ancestry.com
“no more genial” – The Philadelphia Inquirer, 13 October 1899, “Caught on the Fly No. 21, Monroe H. Kulp, of Northumberland”
“I don’t think there will be war” – The Daily News, Mount Carmel, Pa., 25 March 1898.
The Philadelphia Inquirer printed a poll – The Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 March 1898.
“I am in favor of recognizing” – Op. cit.
“always been classed” – The Daily News, Mount Carmel, Pa., about October 1898, “Kulp is Sanguine.”
“safely Republican” – Op. cit.
“You can rest assured” – Op. cit.
“I am still for Senator Quay” – The Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 January 1898.
Only a Horse Deal
According to Shamokin area newspapers – The Daily News, Mount Carmel, Pa., March 1899.
Kulp told the committee – Ibid., about 5 April 1899.