In 1890, James Boyd, an Irish immigrant who had served two terms as Mayor of Omaha was elected Governor of Nebraska, the first Democrat to be elected after 24 years of unbroken Republican victories. Gov. John Milton Thayer was not a candidate in the 1890 general election. But when it came time for him to vacate the office, he waged a legal battle to prevent his successor from taking office on the pretense that he was not a citizen, eventually ousting him after a decision by the Nebraska Supreme Court. In Boyd v. State of Nebraska ex rel. Thayer,1143 U.S. 135 (1892). the United States Supreme Court found in favor of Boyd, recognizing his citizenship and restoring him to office.
James Edward Boyd was born September 9, 1834 in Tyrone County, Ireland.2“Boyd, James E., 1834-1906,” | Nebraska History His family moved to Ohio in 1844, and he eventually settled in the Nebraska Territory in 1856. Boyd served in first session of the Nebraska State Legislature in 1866, representing Buffalo County.3Nebraska Legislature (1867), House Journal of the State Legislature of Nebraska: First, Second, and Third Sessions. p.5. In 1868 he moved back to Omaha, and in 1881 was elected Mayor.4Boyd, 143 U.S. at 148. Omaha Daily Bee publisher Edward Rosewater boosted Boyd’s candidacy for Mayor,5It must be noted again that Rosewater was a Republican, and indeed the Bee was a leading Republican newspaper. However, Rosewater frequently feuded with Republicans who he believed to be corrupt, and often saved his fiercest criticism for his competitors such as the Omaha Republican, the Democratic Omaha Daily Herald, (and later the World-Herald) the Nebraska State Journal, and others. saying “every vote for [Isaac] Hascall (Boyd’s opponent) is a vote for hoodlum government.”6Omaha Daily Bee, April 5, 1881. In the wake of his election, the Bee declared “it was simply a question of honesty versus rascality, and honesty won the day.”7Omaha Daily Bee, April 7, 1881.
Boyd was not a candidate in the next election, in which former Nebraska Attorney General Champion S. Chase was returned to office for his third stint as Omaha Mayor.8Omaha Daily Bee, April 5, 1883. But Chase was impeached and removed from office by the City Council on June 30, 1884, for counts related to drunkenness and neglect of office.9Omaha Daily Bee, July 1, 1884. Boyd became Mayor again in the election the following spring, defeating the incumbent acting mayor Patrick Murphy. This time, the Bee did not support Boyd, boosting the Republican ticket instead. “We do not propose to help Boss Boyd and his democratic ring,” the Bee wrote.10Omaha Daily Bee, April 2, 1885. And the Omaha Republican, which accused the Bee of apostasy in the 1881 election for supporting Boyd, supported Boyd over the Republican Murphy.11Omaha Daily Bee, April 3, 1885.
The 1890 election for Governor was a three-way affair. The Farmers Alliance nominated John H. Powers.12The People’s Independent Party, as they were officially known in Nebraska, eventually became known as the Populists, merging the Farmers Alliance with Free Silver and Greenback interests when they nominated a candidate for President in 1892. They elected Silas Holcomb in 1894 on a fusion ticket with Democrats, and began to fade as a political party after the rise of William Jennings Bryan as a national figure. The Democrats nominated Boyd at the state convention in August.13Omaha World-Herald, Aug. 15, 1890. The Republicans nominated L.D. Richards of Fremont.
The election was a nailbiter. Prohibition was on the ballot, and the three candidates found themselves neck-and-neck as the ballots were counted. Ultimately, Boyd received 71,331 votes. Powers finished second with 70,187 votes. Richards trailed in third with 68,878 votes, with 3,694 scattered among other candidates.14Boyd, U.S. 143 at 138. At just a hair under one-third of the vote, It remains the lowest percentage vote total any elected Governor of Nebraska has ever received in a winning general election. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the People’s Party planned to contest the election result.
The day after the election, the Bee celebrated the demise of Prohibition at the ballot box. (Its headline, “Fanaticism’s Death Knell,” turned out to be a premature celebration.)15Omaha Daily Bee, Nov. 5, 1890. The results of the gubernatorial election were still uncertain, but the Bee was quick to put to rest any notions of fraud in Douglas County, given the importance it placed on Prohibition’s defeat at the polls. By the next day, the Bee had called the election for Boyd. “Caught In A Blizzard: A Very Cold Wave Seems to Have Hit Nebraska Republicans,” the headline screamed, as Republicans faced defeat across the state, owing to the popularity of Alliance candidates.16Omaha Daily Bee, Nov. 6, 1890. One Democratic victor in the election was William Jennings Bryan, who was elected to Congress.
Uncertainty still reigned, and Powers’ supporters claimed that he had been elected.17Nebraska State Journal, Nov. 9, 1890. The Alliance claimed that thousands of noncitizen Omahans voted fraudulently for Boyd.18Lincoln Evening News, Nov. 19, 1890. As the contest was underway, a report out of an Ohio newspaper suggested that Boyd’s father had never been naturalized as a citizen until 1890.19Nebraska State Journal, Dec. 13, 1890. Under the statutes at the time, if Boyd’s father had not been naturalized as a citizen before Boyd reached the age of majority, Boyd would not be a naturalized citizen himself.
It’s hard not to view what followed through the lens of xenophobia and a naked grab for power. No one elected John Milton Thayer to serve another term as Governor. He was scheduled to leave office in January, he was not even a candidate at the preceding election. The Republican candidate for Governor had, in fact, finished third. Even if Boyd had been ineligible to serve as Governor, and Powers unable to be installed because the election was declared void, the newly elected Lieutenant Governor Thomas Majors, himself a Republican, should have rightfully been the next man up for the job. But for various reasons, possibly owing to Majors’ own issues within the party,20Issues which would become apparent four years later when Majors himself ran for Governor. the decision was made to enter the next stage of the legal battle with the incumbent leading the charge.
The Legislature was scheduled to convene, and the possibility of a Populist being elected Speaker raised in the press.21Omaha Daily Bee, Jan. 5, 1891. But between the contest for the election, a scheme to install Powers as Governor, and the reality that as soon as the results of the canvass were received and read aloud in the chamber, Boyd’s election would have to be acknowledged, things proceeded on a more chaotic scale. Samuel Elder was elected Speaker, but Lt. Governor George Meiklejohn took the chair and ordered the canvass results to be published.22Omaha Daily Bee, Jan. 8, 1891. The independents were outraged, as this would dispose of Powers’ challenge. It soon became clear that the Republicans wanted their own man in power, but they also worried that the contest would throw the election of several Republicans who won their offices into doubt.
The next day, Governor Thayer had called up the militia to patrol the halls of the Capitol. The Supreme Court issued a writ of mandamus compelling Speaker Elder to publish the election results. And Elder issued a warrant for the arrest of Lt. Governor Meiklejohn. Eventually, Elder relented and published the returns. That day, Governor James Boyd was sworn in, while John Milton Thayer refused to vacate his offices, locked and guarded by police and militia, in the Capitol.23Omaha Daily Bee, Jan. 9, 1891.
Thayer instituted quo warranto proceedings in the Nebraska Supreme Court to have Boyd’s election as Governor vacated on the grounds of his ineligibility for office.24This post is primarily interested in the political and historical significance of the court case, and as such won’t spend a great deal of time on the legal analysis of the case itself. For more on the legal case, See Anna Williams Shavers, A Century of Developing Citizenship Law and the Nebraska Influence: A Centennial Essay, 70 Neb. L. Rev. (1991) Available at: https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nlr/vol70/iss3/5 The Supreme Court allowed the case to proceed notwithstanding Boyd’s arguments that Thayer had no legal standing. All the while, Boyd acted as Governor despite Thayer’s proceedings against him, while Thayer claimed to be legally entitled to the office. While Boyd and Thayer awaited the decision of the Supreme Court, Boyd vetoed a bill to set maximum railroad rates. The Populists in the House quickly moved to override the veto, but were unsuccessful in the Senate. The bill was dead.25“Knocked Clear Out,” Omaha Daily Bee, April 4, 1891.
On May 5, the Supreme Court ruled against Boyd’s citizenship, declared him ousted as Governor, and installed Thayer in office. Democrats could scarcely believe it. “Newspaper men were shunned as if they were adders by the politicians of all parties,” the Omaha World-Herald wrote. “If the leaders had anything to say they were careful to say it in privacy. Their perplexity was really affecting, and its gradation as reflected by their faces was an interesting study. The longer they thought over the decision and its possible consequences the more bewildered they became. It is not surprising that a large number of the city’s brightest political minds were obscured by beer when the memorable 5th day of May, A.D., 1891, went out.”26Omaha World-Herald, May 6, 1891.
Ultimately, Boyd appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and was successfully reinstated into office. The decision itself was not especially controversial, but the manner in which it was revealed to the public certainly was. On January 2, 1892, the Bee reported that the Supreme Court had made up its mind that Boyd was a citizen.27“Boyd is a Citizen,” Omaha Daily Bee, Jan. 2, 1892. The Court, for obvious reasons, closely guards its decisions and there have been very few instances before or since in which a decision of the Supreme Court has been leaked prior to its official announcement. The World-Herald said that a court stenographer had sold the information to several newspapers, of which the Bee was one.28Omaha World-Herald, Jan. 3, 1892. The decision of the Court came down on February 1, 1892, and was received with enthusiasm by Democrats. William Jennings Bryan took to the floor of the House to announce the decision and “rejoic[e] over the restoration of popular government” in Nebraska.29Omaha Daily Bee, Feb. 2, 1892.
The World-Herald blared “BOYD GETS THERE” across the body of the front page. 30Omaha World-Herald, Feb. 2, 1892. Boyd would soon be restored to office, with only eleven months remaining in his term.