GOVERNMENT: "I AM NOT A POLITICIAN."
1884 Constitutional Convention
On May 26, 1864, Montana became a territory in its own right. It did not become a state, however, until 1889, mainly because Montana reflected to an amazing degree national political currents. During the Civil War a large contingent of Southerners flocked to the Rocky Mountain gold camps, including Bannack and Virginia City. But as a territory, administrators were appointed by the national government, which from 1860 to 1884 was dominated by the Republican party—hence eastern Republicans flowed to Montana, confronting the southern Democrats and paralyzing the government. Thus an 1866 constitutional convention aborted stillborn.
By the early 1880's the Montana political scene moderated to the point where extremes blunted. In addition, its citizens protested bitterly at being governed by eastern and foreign politicians: the stage was set for another attempt at statehood. The chances brightened on the national scene too, for the radical Republicans' iron grip on Congress loosened and in 1884 the country elected Grover Cleveland president, the first Democrat in the White House since pre-Civil War days. Consequently, the territory issued a call for a constitutional convention to be held at Helena early in 1884. [Toole, Uncommon Land, pp. 95-112.]
James Fergus, by the summer of 1883, had been living in Meagher County of central Montana for two years. That October the Republicans nominated him as one of three to run for a seat in the upcoming convention. A friend correctly predicted, "If you run you undoubtedly will be elected." [Louis Rotwitt to James Fergus, October 25, 1883, Box 7 F. 56, FP, UM.]
Fergus succeeded; but, curiously, he then expressed second thoughts. For one of the few times in his active life James worried about his age—he was seventy at the time—but probably more than that he hesitated to leave Andrew to manage the ranch alone. The editor of the Rocky Mountain Husbandman urged James to lend his wisdom to the convention; besides, the change would do him good and Andrew could manage without him. Fergus attended the convention, much to the delight of the Helena Herald, which exclaimed:
His election . . . is a fitting tribute to his experience as a legislator and a compliment to the constituency that elected him, and it is eminently proper to say that a convention to form the State of Montana would not have been complete without the contributing presence of James Fergus. [W. H. Sutherland, Editor, Rocky Mountain Husbandman, to James Fergus, November 28, 1883, Box 9 F. 23, FP, UM. Helena Herald, January 1884, Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 27, FP, UM.]
The convention opened January 14 in Helena. Its forty-five members included nineteen of Northern birth, twelve from the South and the remainder foreign born. Political division numbered twenty-five Democrats, twelve Republicans and one Independent, with the majority having lived in the territory a long time. [Toole, Uncommon Land, p. 112.]
Delegates spent their first few convention days organizing its structure and setting operational procedures. A small hassle developed over the pay per diem for clerks, stenographers and other convention help. Fergus, true to past convictions, supported a reduction in pay, considering it vital to control "exhorbitant salaries to importuning office seekers," to benefit the territory. They consequently reduced these salaries from eight to about six dollars per day. [Helena Herald, January 16, 1884. The Delegates served without pay.]
Convention leadership appointed Fergus on the Ordinances Committee, the Corporations other than Municipal Committee, and made him chairman of the Agriculture, Manufacturing, Commerce and Immigration Committee. [Proceedings of the Daily Sessions of the records of the Montana Constitutional Convention of 1884, Office of the Montana Secretary of State, Helena, Montana. Hereafter cited as: Proceedings: 1884 Convention, MSS. Helena Daily Independent, January 18, 1884.] After the convention had been in session for a few days, James commented with some disgust, "we have been in session a week and done nothing except organizing, voting big pay to clerks and other employees and appoint committees." He confessed that his chairmanship of the committee on Agriculture, Commerce, Manufactures and Immigration sounded "big on paper and would be enough for four legislative committees, where practical laws have to be made, but in a constitution which is only a set of rules to govern our legislatures, there is not much for such a committee to do." [James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, January 19, 1884, Box 14, F. 45, FP, UM.]
During the first week Fergus' most appreciated comment dealt with the meeting hall. James observed that in a city such as Helena there must be a better place to conduct the business of a constitutional convention. He termed the acoustics so dreadful that members often did not know what issue was being considered, causing confusion and ill chosen votes. "I would also suggest that the officer having charge of the ventilation of this room give us a little more fresh air—about the only thing in Montana (besides our service) that is free!" [Helena Herald, January 16, 1884.]
One of the most explosive issues before the convention dealt with mining taxation—that is, whether to provide the mining industry a tax break. Fergus opposed such a provision unless all state industry and business received similar consideration. For example, if a house could not be rented, as a non-producer it should not be taxed. Likewise, there should be no tax on cattle or livestock as this business involved an inherent risk and their exact value could not be determined. Unproductive farms should not bear a high tax assessment. Mining property, Fergus insisted, should be assessed at cost; if it cost $2.50 a share it should be taxed on that basis. The same would apply to a $100,000 piece of mining property bought on speculation. In other words, Fergus opposed the concept of the net proceeds tax on mining property. [Ibid., February 5, 1884.]
The pro-mining press, such as the Butte Intermountain, attacked Fergus for his stand on the mining tax issue. James, never one to retreat from a confrontation, quickly responded in the Butte Miner; he considered a tax break for mining property to be unconstitutional. Besides, the argument that mining capital would avoid the state without special consideration swayed him not at all:
All right, let foreign capital stay away. Your mines will be worked out soon enough. Look at poor Nevada, where is the great Comstock? Worked out and the Mackays and Floods are spending the proceeds in Europe. Our minerals are as much the wealth of the country as the grass or the timber and why should we allow foreign corporations to carry off much of this wealth and not tax them on their investments the same as on other property. The writer asked a leading mine owner or manager in your city how long it would take to work out his mine? He said he hoped it would last ten years—say twenty—when Butte will be a second Virginia City, worked out, the bulk of its wealth in Europe and these foreign corporations must be petted, favored and pay less taxes than other industries, while they are carrying off our wealth our capital that can never be replaced. [James Fergus to Butte Miner, March 21, 1884. Toole develops this thesis, noting Montana struggled under a colonial economy in mining, lumber, agriculture, cattle raising and power. See Uncommon Land.]
Thus Fergus, the former miner, looked beyond immediate gain to the long-range building of a solid Montana based state. But his resistance was swept aside and Montana sped toward colonialism in another area of the economy.
Another issue which aroused Fergus but remained minor to most delegates involved the mention of God in the constitution. As an outspoken agnostic, James carefully watched his Christian friends to protect the rights of non-believers. For example, when arguing against the tax break for mines, he also suggested removing the non-taxable status enjoyed by churches. His reasoning: this continued exemption placed an unequal tax burden on non-church going citizens. [Helena Herald, February 5, 1884. As a Lewis and Clark County Commissioner in the 1870's, Fergus would have taxed Helena church property and income. Helena Herald, n.d., Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 14, FP, UM.]
By early February the delegates considered a preamble and bill of rights. The committee report included the first article with this devout passage:
We, therefore, the people of Montana, acknowledging with grateful hearts the goodness of the Great Legislator of the Universe, in affording us, in the course of His Providence, an opportunity, deliberately and peaceably, without fraud, violence or intimidation, of meeting into an original, explicit and solemn compact with each other, and of forming a Constitution of civil government for ourselves and our posterity; and devoutly imploring His direction in so grand and interesting a design, do agree upon . . .
This immediately aroused the ire of agnostic Fergus, who responded with a carefully written speech justifying the exclusion of God from the Montana Constitution. While he stood almost alone on this delicate issue, the speech does reveal parts of his philosophy and marks him as one of the most well-read delegates in attendance, contrary to the image held of typical ranchers.
Mr. President; I move to strike out all in the preamble between the words ‘people of Montana,' and ‘do agree upon.' A member on this floor has remarked that this Constitution is to endure through all time. Time, sir, is but the measure of eternity. Time always was and always will be. Man came on the earth, as it were, but yesterday, yet in that short time, nations, languages and religions have had their infancy, their maturity and their decay. It is an inexorable law. Our Government, our language and our religion will in turn be swept away by the scythe of time, and the place that knows them now will know them no more forever. Space, too, is everywhere, it is without limit. Our sun is but one of the millions of stars, and our earth but one of its smoothest satellites (and a poor one at that), rolling from side to side, burning us in summer and freezing us with its winter blasts. If there is a God—an impartial God—He must divide his time amongst this great universe, and Montana's share cannot be worth asking for. Therefore, in regard to the passage I move to strike out as only an incumbrance to our fundamental law.
If he guides and protects us, I have looked for this protecting power in vain. The cars rush together and there is no God to warn. The engineer asks not God to stay their mad career, but applies the air brakes; the invention of a fellow-man. The steamship sinks in mid-ocean and no helping hand is there; the shrieks of the helpless are borne on the winds until they are buried in the insatiate sea. The earthquake, the cyclone and the volcano, following inexorable laws, destroy the just and the unjust, and nature neither pities nor rejoices, neither loves nor hates. If man is saved, he must save himself; if he is hungry, he must feed himself; if he is cold, he must warm himself. Our prayers are unheeded; no Diety puts forth his helping hand. Then why bemean our manhood by inserting a lie in this our fundamental law?
Jefferson, in a more superstitious age, and the framers of our National Constitution, pandered not to popular prejudice. Yet the nation lives, our own people have ever ruled themselves; if Montanians cannot do the same thing they are unfit to be a free people.
I have heard it said on this floor that we don't want moss-backs or old fogies. In this case, sir, some of the old fogies are in accord with the spirit of the age. Henry Ward Beecher said in Denver not long ago that Adam never fell, that he began at the bottom, and if he fell at all he fell up. Dr. McCosh, President of Princeton College, has published a pamphlet upon the same subject; and Bishop Hever, I think it is, of England, has also placed himself on record in favor of evolution. Had these men uttered such sentiments 200 years ago, they would have been burned at the stake.
But the world moves, except the Constitutional Convention of the Territory of Montana, which goes back to the Constitution of good, old, Massachusetts, just after she had burnt her witches, for stale, worn out adulation to an imaginary being, who is supposed to be floating around in our uncongenial atmosphere, while we are enjoying ourselves in warm apartments.
I venture the assertion that neither the people of the United States nor the people of Montana are in accord with the spirit of this passage which I ask to have stricken out. It is simply clinging to old traditions. A very intelligent gentleman on this floor has well said that man is only half developed, and to prove his assertion, he sits enveloped in the smoke of a poisonous weed, clinging to the superstitions of an ignorant age and race.
Mr. President, about this matter I have no pride of opinion; but I think the declaration I have excepted to is unnecessary, uncalled for and only an incumbrance. Old, with one foot in the grave, I still love and honor the man who stands up to his convictions without fear, favor or affection, at all times and in all places. One whose hell is to do wrong and whose heaven is found in well doing. Whether for or against this measure, I hope to be able to love and honor all here.
Only one delegate supported Fergus' motion to keep religion in its proper sphere. Only two voted with him, "probably to relieve the gentleman from Meagher of his feelings of loneliness." [Butte Semi-Weekly Miner, February 13, 1884. James thought "other members believed as we did but did not have the courage of their convictions." Fergus to Fergus County Argus, n.d., Box 21 F. 4, FP, UM. James also opposed allowing 21-year olds to run for the State House of Representatives on the grounds that they would be too inexperienced. His amendment lost, however. Proceedings: 1884 Convention, 26th day, February 8, 1884, MSS.]
Shortly after this speech the Butte Intermountain attacked Fergus for his stand on the religious issue. At the same time, James observed, "with a very few exceptions I was the only consistent member of the Convention." Their vote acknowledged the existence of a supreme being. Yet when Samuel T. Hauser, President of the Helena and Jefferson Railroad, invited the delegates to the Helena Reduction Works at Corbin, they not only accepted the free ride but went on Sunday. Only Fergus and two others voted against going on a Sabbath.
James noted with disgust that most delegates went and had a lively time, oiled by free whiskey and champagne. Consequently, "much of their conversation sounded more like the yells of a band of drunken Indians than a party of Christian Constitution makers and when they got home some of them looked like anything else than if they had been keeping the Sabbath." Fergus concluded sarcastically: "Now my own opinion is that there was not one stanchly religious man in the convention. Not one even in full accord with the modifyed religious spirit of the age unless possible Hedges." [James Fergus to Louis Rotwitt, n.d., MC, MHSL. Helena Daily Independent, January 26, 1884. Ironically, Fergus was one of three appointed to arrange the trip. On February 5 the Independent noted the special train "well equipped for the comfort and entertainment of the excersionists [sic, excursionists]."]
While Fergus raised the ire of some delegates and press for his opposition to a tax break for mining and his unorthodox stand on religion, he did not lack for editorial support. In mid-February one Meagher County paper took issue with the Butte Intermountain's broadside on "our venerable delegate." The editor thought Fergus aroused partly by section four of the Constitution which exempted church property from taxation; hence the paper mounted a scathing attack on James' detractor:
Still, he has the right and the courage to speak his views on all questions, and is entitled to consideration and respectual treatment, however much others may differ from his conclusions. Such recognition has been shown him except in this instance, which was probably the slimy emittings of a bowlegged idiot, who, like the name of his paper, wears his hair parted in the middle. Thanks to the Miner for its defense of our aged but clear-headed delegate. [Lewistown Democrat, n.d. (about mid-February 1884), Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 28, FP, UM.]
While Fergus probably welcomed editorial support in his right to express his opinions no matter how controversial, at least one editor thought James could more than hold his own against most politicians, noting "it is our opinion that Hon. C. M. Goodell is making a serious mistake in engaging in a controversy with the Hon. James Fergus, as the latter gentleman is too well equipped for the average politician to tackle." [Unidentified clipping, n.d., Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 89, FP, UM.]
Later that month the Helena Herald also commented on "the harsh criticism . . . made concerning the attitude of Mr. Fergus on questions before the Constitutional Convention." The paper insisted, however, that those who criticized him did not know the man for "He is a man of strong character, who has read and thought much, who has the moral courage under any and all circumstances to say and do just what he thinks is right, and whose integrity no man can question." The editor felt certain that "the opinions of such a man, even when he is believed to be wrong, are entitled to respect, and no man in the Convention stood higher in the estimation of his associates. It is well that James Fergus sat in the body to frame a Constitution for the State of Montana." [Helena Herald, n.d. (late February 1884), Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 28, FP, UM.]
The convention made quick work of its business, adjourning February 9, having been in session only since January 14. The Helena Independent praised the group and placed its special stamp of approval on the favorable mining tax; certainly this would encourage mining development and benefit the entire territory. [Helena Daily Independent, February 10, 1884. Waldron, Montana Politics, p. 43.]
On the whole the deliberations had been earnest and mostly harmonious. "The discourse of North versus South had dwindled to a whisper, and there was no widespread Republican opposition to statehood." Though the people approved the Constitution by almost a four to one margin—15,506 for and 4,266 against—there was opposition. [Toole, Uncommon Land, p. 113.] James Fergus and the editors of the Rocky Mountain Husbandman resisted its passage, mainly on the mining tax issue. They urged Fergus to write several articles on the topic during the campaign to secure approval of the Constitution. Later that fall the paper wanted to print 20,000 extra copies of their issue opposing the Constitution but could not afford the expense. Fergus apparently did not work actively for the defeat of the document he helped construct. [Rocky Mountain Husbandman to James Fergus, April 5, 1884, and September 28, 1884, Box 9 F. 23, FP, UM.]
During the convention James and Pamelia stayed upstairs in their oldest daughter's house—with the R. S. Hamiltons. Pamelia had been there less than a month when she tired of visiting old friends, though she enjoyed this immensely. But like James she quickly yearned for the privacy of their own home. Thus by late January James wrote Andrew, "Mother says tell them she is tired of staying here, wants to go somewhere, would prefer to go home! Too much noise, too many houses, too many people and too many locomotives howling around, would rather hear the cayotes." [James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, January 27, 1884, Box 14 F. 45, FP, UM.]
After the convention adjourned, James and Pamelia indulged in one of the few luxuries of their Spartan life, an extended trip to the Pacific coast. They stayed in the Portland area for a few days, visiting C. A. Freeman, an old business associate from Little Falls, and their youngest daughter Lillie. By the 18th of February they arrived in San Francisco after a difficult ship passage down the coast. Both became seasick despite the advice to "wear a sheet of writing paper over our chest next to our skin as a preventative of sea sickness." Nonetheless, "mother and I ate nothing and keep our bed all the way we were both pretty sick and tired of the sea." [Ibid., February 18, 1884, Box 14 F. 45, FP, UM.]
California presented the elderly tourists with interesting sights, many of which James described in numerous letters to his Montana children. Unfortunately, their vacation excitement was dimmed by discomfort—they found San Francisco "chilly"; Pamelia had a cold and James' back hurt from the jostling sea journey and lack of physical activity.
One product of their visit to San Francisco—a great respect for the Chinese—came as a result of a Chinatown tour. James expressed admiration for most oriental habits, urging whites to follow suit:
On our way back we met a Butte man who took us through Chinatown. They have fine stores filled with every imaginable thing in their line and most of them a grat curiosity to us, dried and preserved birds, fish and vegetables in all conceivable shapes and sizes and formes. The overalls, boots, etc. that come to us from this coast are nearly all made here by Chinese, in immense factories. While laboring men can be seen lounging round the [streets] we have not seen an idle Chinese loafer since we have been here, and I shall leave California with a far higher opinion of the Chinese than I entered it. We see few of the Tartar population we used to see in Montana, but mostly all of the true Chinese race and intelligent looking people. California would have been a very different state today but for these. They have built the railroads and done nearly all her hard work. [James Fergus to Luella Fergus Gilpatrick, February 28, 1884, Box 17 F. 44, FP, UM.]
The Ferguses returned from their month-long Pacific Coast trip by way of Salt Lake City. By mid-March they arrived in Armells, happy to be back on the plains. James had been home only a few days when he penned fond praises of Montana, which he considered the best place to live. The acclaim given his adopted territory could easily grace a twentieth century chamber of commerce brochure:
. . . California is no doubt a good country for wealthy people to spend their days in, but for poor people or those who work for a living, Montana heads the list. In Oregon or Washington territory one has their choice of clearing a farm out of the timber or out of the sage brush. In Idaho or Nevada there is little or no choice, unless it is between sage brush and grease wood. Here we have a rude climate and a long winter, but our clear, bracing atmosphere gives us the vigor to stand it. We have no ague, few feavers, and I for one am willing to spend the remaining years of my life here rather than in a warmer climate where nature has done so much that man becomes enervated and is hardly willing to do the little that nature has left for him to do. [James Fergus to Rocky Mountain Husbandman, March 18, 1884. While James thought the Mormons had many faults such as plural wives and false beliefs, he admitted they had made the desert bloom and were an "industrious, economical and thrifty people," qualities he admired. Ibid.]
1885 Territorial Council
By early July 1884 Fergus struggled to determine, in his own mind, if he wanted to declare himself a candidate for the 1885 legislature on the Republican ticket. Convinced that he could secure the nomination, he also believed he would win by securing "two thirds of the vote in eastern Meagher county." But Fergus hesitated. As he confided to his old friend Wilbur F. Sanders, "as I have often said before if there is one thing I never was intended for it is legislating." James also considered his age and poor health. He concluded only to accept the nomination if the constitution was adopted and he would have an opportunity to vote for Sanders for the United States Senate. Fergus still opposed the mining tax break but overlooked that to promote Sanders as the state's first Senator. [James Fergus to W. F. Sanders, July 5, 1884, Manuscript Case, B.F. 38, FC, MHSL.]
Sanders thanked his friend, indicated he still held no opinion on the mine tax issue, and encouraged Fergus to enter the legislature. Sanders insisted, "I know no person who in the legislature has more usefully served his people than have you. I see nothing but good to come to Meagher County from your presence in the legislative assembly." [W. F. Sanders to James Fergus, July 18, 1884, Box 9 F. 47, FP, UM.]
Fergus apparently suppressed his doubts, allowing his name to be entered at the Republican nominating convention that fall. His motive is unclear, though several possible reasons can be advanced. He wanted to support Sanders. From his action in the legislature, it is known he had strong feelings on dividing Meagher County and holding the line on public salaries—perhaps he truly felt he would be the most effective in these area. The prestige factor can be considered less important in this case, for James seldom actively sought recognition—he felt it would come to those most deserving. At any rate, James allowed his name to be submitted to the convention and received the Republican nomination for the Territorial Council "without opposition." [W. Sutherland, Rocky Mountain Husbandman, to James Fergus, September 28, 1884, Box 9 F. 23, FP, UM.]
Receiving the nomination did not displease nor surprise Fergus; but he was jolted by the discovery that he would oppose good friend and fellow rancher Granville Stuart for the upper house. After learning of this, James wanted to withdraw, for he had pledged to Stuart he would not oppose him. The Republicans, however, refused to accept his withdrawal, for they considered him the only man in the county who could possibly beat the Democrat Stuart, whom many considered the most popular man in the territory. They urged Fergus to reconsider and oppose his good friend.] W. Sutherland, Rocky Mountain Husbandman, to James Fergus, September 28, 1884, Box 9 F. 23, FP, UM.]
Individual Republican friends, like Louis Rotwitt of White Sulphur Springs, also prevailed upon James to remain in the race. Like Fergus, Rotwitt did not relish the situation, for he preferred seeing both men at the legislature, one in the upper and one in the lower house. He agreed with Fergus that Granville Stuart "is as strong a man as walks in the Territory today." The outcome of a Stuart-Fergus race was unpredictable. "In short it would be nip and tuck. . . . You are both old timers—both old infidels and neither cares a d__m what he says." Rotwitt concluded, "all I can see to do is to put your name on the ticket and run you just as if nothing had happened, and no matter who is elected Granville or yourself we can all feel satisfied that Meagher County is in good hands." [Louis Rotwitt to James Fergus, October 8, 1884, Box 7 F. 56, FP, UM. William Wallace, Utica, felt the same way: "Neither need or will feel any chagrin at being defeated by the other and you must both take your medicine as public martyrs, so that in any event we may be well and honorably represented in the Council." September 26, 1884, Box 11 F. 23, FP, UM.]
Neither Stuart nor Fergus wanted to oppose the other, initiating a campaign unusual, if not unique, in political history. Fergus appreciated the honor but considered it "too much like runing against a member of his own family." Stuart felt much the same way. The Helena Herald noted this peculiar circumstance and believed neither to be working a sham, calling both honorable, respectable men. "Stuart is also thoroughly honorable and a life-long Democrat, but his friendship for Fergus was stronger than his political ambition, and the two perhaps furnish the only instance on record of opposing candidates working for their own defeat." [Helena Herald, November 14, 1884.]
Fergus won the council seat by 127 votes, somewhat to his surprise and despite the fact that "I preferred Mr. Stuart's election, voted for him and never asked a man to vote for myself." Because of the peculiar situation neither campaigned actively and Stuart in particular remained silent on issues. The county knew James' views on several questions, however, which may have promoted his election: he opposed the tax break for mine, high public salaries, and strongly splitting Meagher County. The Mineral Argus considered this last position decisive, one which brought Fergus support from the northern and eastern sections, including the Maiden-Lewistown areas. [James Fergus to friend in Sabula, Iowa, MC, MHSL. Fell and Vrooman, proprietors, Mineral Argus, to James Fergus, November 15, 1884, Box 7 F. 64, FP, UM.]
Shortly after the election Fergus confided in friend W. F. Sanders, expressing a combination of surprise and hesitation, though pleased a Democrat would not represent Meager County:
Well I am elected over Granville Stuart much to my surprise and more to my regret. My only consolation is in having helped to redeem Montana from the control of the original advocates and supporters of slavery. Old, unfitted by nature, habit and education for the performance of Legislative duties I would have preferred home, work, and good books to a trip in mid-winter at my age to the capital and a month or two's excitement there.
James acknowledged, however, that some of the unpleasant tasks would be mitigated by seeing old friends "among whom none stand higher than W. F. Sanders," from whom Fergus planned to seek advice concerning his legislative duties. [James Fergus to W. F. Sanders, fall 1884, Box 11 F. 59, FP, UM. The principal factor keeping James in the race probably concerned Stuart's political affiliation. This concept is illustrated in the following imaginary interview of Fergus after the election:
"Reporter: I want to know how you got elected over Granville Stuart who is so popular.
Fergus: I got the most votes.
Reporter: But that is just what I want to know how you came to get the most votes.
Fergus: Montana is becoming Republican. More Republicans have come into the Territory since the railroads have been opened and the left wing of Prices Army is relatively weaker. Granville Stuart is an excellent man or he would not be a leader in our church [of infidels] but he is human and has one great fault.
Reporter: Have you any objection to saying what that fault is?
Fergus: Not in the least. He is a Democrat."
A handwritten note to himself by James Fergus, Box 3, F. 6, MC, MHSL.]
Fergus arrived in Helena before Christmas and occupied the holidays visiting friends and relatives. [James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, December 23, 1884, Box 14 F. 45, FP, UM. Pamelia probably accompanied him to Helena.] With the opening of the legislature Fergus was appointed to the standing committees on Federal Relations, Public Lands, Grazing and Stock Growing, and the Committee on Agriculture. [Helena Herald, January 15, 1885.]
James believed a good legislator best served his constituents by "the oftener he voted no and the fewer bills he introduced." Therefore, he introduced only two major pieces of legislation during the session—a bill resulting in the division of Meagher County, supported by most of his constituents, and a series of bills to reduce public salaries, one of his pet complaints.
Councilmen introduced several bills to divide counties during that session. Fergus initially proposed the establishment of a commission to study the territory, thereby dividing it into appropriate counties according to natural boundaries, population, and other determining factors. [Butte Semi-Weekly Miner, January 24, 1885. The Miner supported the Fergus plan as the most sensible, but the Ft. Benton River Press opposed it, urging the Council to wait until the Indian reservations were opened to whites. January 28, 1885.] By the end of January, however, Fergus withdrew his omnibus bill, mainly because he did not want to interfere with the several individual counties seeking division. Instead, he introduced his own bill to divide Meagher County and create Judith. The new county would comprise the eastern portion of the parent body, extending north to the Missouri River, absorbing a small strip of Chouteau County. Lewistown was to be the temporary county seat; the initial officers were to be appointed with each party to be allotted half the positions. [Butte Semi-Weekly Miner, January 31, 1885. Helena Herald, February 4, 1885. Granville Stuart, Wm. Berkins and E. J. Morrison were named in the bill as the first county commissioners. Territory of Montana, Council Journal, Fourteenth Regular Session, Assembly of 1885, p. 68, January 29, C.B. No. 27. Hereafter cited as: 1885 Council Journal.] Both Cottonwood and Maiden protested naming Lewistown the county seat, as they desired the center of government themselves. [Louis Rotwitt to James Fergus, January 18, 1885, Box 7 F. 56, FP, UM. N. M. Erickson to James Fergus, May 1, 1885, Box 8 F. 75, FP, UM.] But most of the county residents, especially in the north and east, supported Fergus and division. By February 9 James received supporting petitions signed by over six hundred voters. Most petitions cited inconvenience as the reason for splitting the county, since old Meagher County extended some 300 miles from the Missouri River to the mouth of the Musselshell. As the north and east settled, the vast distance rendered county government ineffective. White Sulphur Springs, the county seat, nestled in the southwest corner, creating hardships for many of its citizens. [Butte Semi-Weekly Miner, February 14, 1885. Helena Herald, February 9, 1885.]
Shortly after Fergus introduced the bill to create Judith County, the committee as a whole suggested renaming the new county Fergus, in honor of their fellow legislator. "This was made on the motion of Buck, seconded in an eloquent speech by DeWolfe, and adopted in spite of the protests of the venerable member himself." [Butte Semi-Weekly Miner, February 14, 1885. The bill passed by a unanimous vote, save for Fergus who abstained. 1885 Council Journal, pp. 68, 93, 98, 100, 107, 235, 236.]
[Click on the following image from the thesis to get a
better copy with better resolution. I could not locate an original to scan or a
The following year the patriotic Fergus urged Lewistown's civic leaders to plan early and well for their first July 4th celebration in the new county seat. They subsequently invited him to make appropriate remarks, the introduction to which follows:
It were fitting that some young and abler man, some one with more time and a better memory, should address you on this occasion, but like the aged soldier when he hears the sound of battle, grabs his musket, forgets his infirmities and feels like falling into line, so in contemplating this occasion, my patriotism got the better of my strength. I forgot I was a wreck and unequal to the task. I come before you therefore, with only a few statistics to show what strides we have made, and are making under a free government, in all that conduces to human happiness. It is fitting, however, that this, its seat of government, and in advance of its organization, that old Fergus should welcome the new; that the invalid old man, ready to step into his grave, should welcome the new country containing 200 townships, 7,524 square miles and more than 4,815,000 acres, with its large and increasing possibilities. Then, Fergus County, all hail! [N. W. Erickson to James Fergus, May 11, 1866, Box 2 F. 81, and June 1, 1886, Box 8 F. 75, FP, UM. Mineral County Argus, n.d., Box 21 F. 5, FP, UM.]
the 1885 session, Fergus opposed granting special tax consideration to the
mining industry, just as he opposed it in the 1884 Constitutional Convention
and at the 1879 legislature. James repeated his previous argument that "I
am in favor of taxing mines and all improvements thereon the same as I would
tax any property . . . and would tax mines at their actual value," using a
jury of experts to determine such. He did not worry about failure to entice
foreign capital to the territory, in fact he considered it a questionable
action. He noted, "friends of this bill claim the mines here generally do
not pay expenses, that is that they yield no net proceeds and yet they bring in
a bill here to tax the net proceeds, that is to tax that which they themselves
claim does not exist. Then why bother the legislature with the matter at
Fergus speech "On Taxing Mines" delivered to 1885 Territorial Council, Box 14 F. 1, FP. UM.]
The Butte Semi-Weekly Miner, which often supported Fergus' right to be heard and considered him "a reasonable and just man—one who would not willingly impose onerous or unjust burdens upon any class of laborers or who would not lend his voice or vote to cripple any industry in the Territory," considered Fergus to be misinformed on mining taxation. It considered $25,000 invested in cattle to be certain and taxable; $25,000 worth of mining property, however, could soon be worthless; therefore the mine's net proceeds should be taxed—only the profits. [Butte Semi-Weekly Miner, March 11, 1885. The laws remained unchanged.]
As in the 1879 session, Fergus also opposed the Sunday Law prohibiting labor on the Sabbath, which he termed contrary to public sentiment and totally unenforceable. More important, it acted in opposition to the United States Constitution, which prohibited Congress from establishing a religion or interfering with any citizen's religious choice. The bill would force everyone to conform to the religious practices of those who introduced the measure, depriving opponents of fifty-two work days a year.
Now with me labor is a duty as sacred and probably as acceptable to the diety himself, if there is a personal God, as attending church. It provides food, clothing and shelter for myself and my family. These are sacred duties that no good man will ignore; and who shall say, and who has a right to say when where and how I shall perform that duty and when it shall be most convenient for me to do it. . . . We do not say when or how the advocates of this bill shall go to church or what church they shall go to or whether they shall practice virtue and morality. . . . Such laws are contrary to the spirit of the age, are but a remnant of the old blue laws of Connecticut, where, I believe a man was forbidden to kiss his wife on the sabbath—a sacred and religious duty. [James Fergus, handwritten speech to 1885 Council, Box 14 F. 3, FP, UM. In 1879 Fergus used the same kissing argument and helped defeat the measure. Helena Daily Independent, January 26, 1879. Fergus later chastised his friend W. F. Sanders, U. S. Senator from Montana, for voting to close the world's fair on Sunday, calling the closure hypocritical. Fergus to Sanders, n.d., Box 11 F. 65, FP, UM.]
One of the most controversial bills introduced during the 1885 session concerned the legalization of gambling. Fergus, by his very nature, opposed this as an unmitigated evil and stood four-square against the measure. James labeled the gambler:
. . . a parasite fastened and feeding on the body politic, he neither delves in our mines, extracts food or other products from mother earth, or changes these into things useful to the human family. Still he lives, wears fine clothes, his white hands covered with jewels and all this is wrought from the hard earned toil of half developed humans whose habit or desire for sudden wealth has led into these seduction dens. [James Fergus, handwritten speech opposing gambling delivered to the 1885 Council, Box 14 F. 1, FP, UM.]
Fergus observed gambling in numerous places but much of it at "church fairs and fairs in behalf of charitable institutions." He also blamed churches, indirectly, for "sending many to the saloon and gaming house." Young men raised in good, moral, Christian homes in rural states came west to Montana for adventure and employment. He worked as cowboy or miner, was laid off in the fall and came to town. Although raised to attend church and avoid saloons, he can neither find a "private boarding house or a temperance Hotel," nor is he welcomed in church without his Sunday clothes which he left behind:
If our churches and moreal influences would take some pains to establish temperance hotels and boarding houses where such men could spend their spare time and where they could find congenial homes they would do more towards shutting up our gambling houses than all we can do by legislation. [Ibid.]
Besides, Fergus insisted, the question centered on standards of conduct which must be set by the individual, something which could not be legislated. It amounted to "nothing less than whether we shall force ourselves to be good, or be good without force, whether we shall retain as much as possible of our personal liberty, raise the standard of individuality, or surrender it, and have the whole mass compel the separate atoms to behave." The legislators themselves should set a personal example.
"Therefore I believe all reforms must begin at home, begin in the family, in the individual." In addition, "we depend too much on churches and laws to make us good, where we ought to be good ourselves, to know that goodness has its own reward and the time to be good is now, that it does not lie in the beliefs and creeds but in doing right." [Ibid.]
Fergus, however, opposed a bill which seemed to have considerable popular support. "I am sorry too sir to be in opposition to the ladies who I am told are generally in favor of this bill and whom I believe are also generally at the front in every good work, but the first duty a man owes is to himself and his own convictions." Someone then hinted James would not hazard to resist the ladies and their church fairs. Fergus responded in no uncertain terms. "Sir about not daring to vote against this bill. I dare to vote against any bill that is not right, anything that I do not believe is right. I would rather have the approval of my own conscience than that of all the world beside." [Ibid. Fergus did not always oppose what he considered inappropriate. In the 1879 legislature he reversed his position to support H.B. 31 which would have subsidized a railroad to Helena. He supported it because his Lewis and Clark constituents petitioned for the measure. Helena Herald, February 19, 1879.]
In opposing this attempt to legalize gambling, which despite all its sound and fury failed, Fergus enunciated his belief in a personal morality instead of institutionalized religion, in the home as the most important single source of reform, and that his conscience acted as his guide, not the fickle sway of public opinion.
Keeping with his belief that a good legislator should usually vote no and introduce few bills, James presented only one other major bill to the 1885 Council. In early February he introduced what came to be known as the Fergus Fee Bill, designed to generally reduce the salaries of county officers about 25 per cent and to limit the total any county official could earn to $2500. All fees earned above that amount would be paid into the county treasury. This, he declared, would prevent officials from becoming "wealthy" at public expense. Certainly, those foolish enough to spend $1500 securing election to county office should not expect a $3000 salary, for the public can not pay election bills. [Butte Semi-Weekly Miner, February 14, 1885. Helena Daily Herald, February 10, 1885. James Fergus, penciled notes to himself, Box 3 F. 15, FC, MHSL.]
A lively controversy developed through the pages of the Rocky Mountain Husbandman after Fergus declared $1500 to be adequate, if not excessive, for county assessors. From his observations, it appeared to be about six months of work and no more. The Husbandman insisted Fergus' bill would make Meagher County salaries lower than any other in proportion to the work performed. James responded, "admitting this to be the case it does not follow that they (salaries) are too low. It may be the others are too high; we have been so long accustomed to paying county officers enough to make them rich in a few years that a fair salary looks small." [James Fergus to Rocky Mountain Husbandman, April 9, 1885.]
Fergus explained the difficulty in lowering public salaries. When the territorial government rested in Virginia City James had tried to lower salaries. But a legislator observed: "Nearly every member had been a county officer, expected to be one, had some particular friend in office, or had been nominated by a county ring and not less than seven members aspired to the position of delegate to Congress." [Ibid.]
The Husbandman, and particularly Sam Snyder, Meagher County assessor, defended an increase in county salaries and attacked Fergus for his efforts toward reduction. Fergus responded in print, convinced their comments did little to prove that $1500 was not a fair salary, the only issue at hand. "Labor . . . like everything else, is worth just what it will bring in open market—what competent men will do it for." James insisted plenty of good men would assess for that wage and "that ought to settle the whole question. If other counties pay more for their work than it is worth that is no reason we should." [James Fergus to Rocky Mountain Husbandman, n.d. (probably late April-early May, 1885), Box 21 F. 4. For the controversy, see pages 46-49 of the Fergus Scrapbook, FP, UM.]
W. F. Sanders offered moral support to his friend in trying to "reduce the compensation of officers to reasonable limits." Sanders considered it "painfully sickening . . . to witness in matters of this kind where the interest of all the people are on one side and a few officers on the other." He thought Fergus had the support and sympathy of "every intelligent citizen even if the newspapers blackened you and open their columns to the petty nobodies who want to fatten at the public crib." [W. F. Sanders to James Fergus, May 9, 1885, Box 2 F. 9, FC, MHSL.] Fergus agreed for he believed "the people of these United States are governed too much and taxed too much." He listed the descending levels of government, from the federal through township, "wheels within wheels, all paid for and supported by the people." The amount of government must be reduced, as must the cost, James insisted. [James Fergus to Mineral Argus, 1885, n.d., (probably early March as James reported legislative matters through its columns), Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 41, FP, UM. It is probably fortunate for James he did not live to witness the county division craze which swept Montana early in the 1900's leading to the present excessive governmental division and suffocating costs. Also, Fergus thought taxes were high then, but they would go higher. In 1891 James Fergus and Son paid $408.03 on $24,050 assessed valuation. Box 3 F. 11, FC, MHSL. In 1896 the company paid $1015 on $47,096 assessed valuation. Box 19, F. 48, FP, UM.]
Despite the controversy, the legislature passed instead the Potts' Salary Bill, which allowed slightly higher salaries. But Fergus received a certain amount of satisfaction, for the Meagher County assessor's salary was set at $1500. [Territory of Montana, Laws, Resolutions and Memorials Passed at the Fourteenth Regular Session of the Legislative Assembly, January 12 to March 12, 1885, pp. 62-69. James Fergus to Governor-Elect R. B. Smith, December 23, 1896, Box 11 F. 63, FP, UM. James worked for lower public expenses even in the 1890's. He insisted his 1885 fee bill would then be law but it and the Pott's bill came to the Council the same day for final passage. Unfortunately, "the clerk picked up the salary bill first and it passed."]
During the Council session Fergus' sharp tongue sometimes softened into a dry sense of humor. Such was the occasion on March 3 as James both honored and chided the Democratic members of the Council with this resolution:
Whereas, A Democratic President is to be inaugurated today in the national capital, an event that has not occurred in a quarter of a century; Now to give the Democrats an opportunity to witness so rare an event, and further believing that before night our Democratic friends will be so happy that they will be willing to vote for any bill good or bad to the immenent detrement of the public good,
James urged the group to adjourn until the following day. The motion received Council approval. [Helena Daily Herald, March 4, 1885.]
The next day Fergus again aroused the Council's mirth, for after reading the journal of the previous day he moved to amend by striking out the words "Prayer by the chaplin," and insert, "Political appeal to the Lord." James thought the chaplain had made a "remarkable prayer" during which he saw fit, in addition to much political news, to inform the Deity that 100,000 men were trembling in their shoes for fear of losing their offices, and 100,000 others waited anxiously to take their places.
Fergus supported the motion with these characteristic remarks, noting, "I think he varied the routine just a little too much, and gave us a political address, and as I am a truthful man, preferring to hear a spade called a spade, I would like to have it so recorded." Remarkably, the Fergus motion lost by only one vote. [Butte Semi-Weekly Miner, March 7, 1885.]
Earlier in the session James rose and made this startling offer. Since churches paid no taxes and hard times plagued the territory, he offered to serve as the Council's chaplain, reading the prayers and performing other chaplain-like duties. He would either work for nothing or donate his pay to the poor:
I think it is time that the people were exempt from paying for prayers in our behalf; but if a majority think otherwise I suggest that we buy a prayer book, which will cost but a trifle, and let the clerk read the prayers. Should the clerk not consider it any part of his duty, I offer my services to your honorable body. I will read the prayers faithfully and to the best of my ability, and donate the per diem to the poor. [James Fergus to Boston Investigator, n.d. 1885, Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 38, FP, UM.]
At the close of the 1885 legislative session, the Butte Semi-Weekly Miner offered a description of James Fergus, including both his mental and physical attitude. The correspondent called Fergus "thoroughly western" in every respect, one who nearly all his manhood days had battled with "the wild surroundings of Western counties." This experience, combined with his "naturally determined and not offensively obstinate disposition adds to his manner a flavor of positiveness if not aggressiveness" usually found only in men with a frontier background.
Exposure and age, the correspondent noted, had "bent his form and whitened his locks and long flowing beard," causing James to move slowly, leaning on his cane. Still, he "looks every inch the Patriarch that he is, and the stranger, as he looks into his bright and kindly eyes and listens to the tones of his strong but pleasant voice, that he is in the presence of a remarkable man." With tongue in cheek, the paper observed that Fergus had given several speeches, some of which were "not strictly orthodox" from a religious standpoint. However, to the reporter, this indicated the "fearless and positive character of the man." [Butte Semi-Weekly Miner, March 12, 1885.]
Politics, 1886-1902: Defeat-Bitterness-Withdrawal
James Fergus returned from the 1885 Territorial Council the patriarch of a new county named in his honor. The honeymoon, however, lasted only slightly more than a year, and before the decade closed, James withdrew in tempered bitterness. The decade of the 1890's found him a respected observer of the political scene, though not totally detached, for his biting pen continued to prod both politicians and public on various issues. After receiving the honor of presenting the first July 4th speech in the Fergus County seat of Lewistown, James helped organize the new county's republicans. His name headed a list of thirty calling for Republican voters to meet in Lewistown to select delegates for the Republican county convention on July 24, 1886. [Fergus County Argus, n.d. 1776 (probably June), Box 21 F. 5, FP, UM.] Thereafter, James served as a member of the Fergus County Republican Central Committee and precinct leader for Armells, both until at least the end of the decade. [Isaac D. McCutcheon, Chairman, Republican Territorial Central Committee, to James Fergus, September 29, 1886, Box 9 F. 8, FP, UM. Frank E. Smith to James Fergus, April 18, 1888, Box 3 F. 12, FP, UM.]
That fall, the Republican party persuaded Fergus to run for the Territorial House of Representatives, ironically, again in opposition to Granville Stuart. Fergus suffered defeat, finishing a poor fourth in a race of four. He somewhat bitterly analyzed his thumping in the Husbandman, insisting he did not wish to run in the first place but wanted the two Fergus County parties to unite in support of Granville Stuart.
But the Republicans would not have it and on the recommendation of Col. Sanders [I] was put on the track as a kind of forlorn hope, and in the end it was best, as it is doubtful whether any Republican from the new county could have been elected under the circumstances, and better beat an old man who has always been at the front and can afford to be beat, than a young man just coming into notice. [James Fergus to Rocky Mountain Husbandman, n.d. 1886 (shortly after November elections), Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, pp. 62-63, FP, UM. There is some confusion surrounding this election, but apparently the Fergus County Bill in the 1885 Legislature did not provide for representation, thus forcing joint elections in the old and new counties. The Fergus County candidates, Stuart (D) and Fergus (R) lost. However, Fergus would have lost even if only the Fergus County votes had been counted.
From undated 1886 clipping, unidentified newspaper, Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 57, FP, UM.]
Shortly after the election the White Sulphur Springs based Husbandman commented that "Mr. Fergus ran rather slow" in the recent contest. As usual, James did not allow public chiding to slip by unchallenged. Admitting he had run slow he observed the track was not to his favor and several handicaps proved detrimental. James thought the Meagher County assessor had worked against him for two years because James slashed his salary from "over $4000 to $1,500 a year for six months work." Fergus also considered his tally reduced by angry Cottonwood residents who wanted the county seat, angry Maiden miners misinformed that five dollars would be withheld from their wages for the poor and road tax, for which they blamed Fergus, and residents angry with the boundary line drawn in 1885. In addition, James thought area sheepmen voted against him for supporting stockmen too much, though in 1885 they gladly accepted his assistance.
But paradoxically James considered his biggest handicap to be the county name of Fergus which he did not seek in the first place. "Two years ago they wanted something done which they believed the Old Man could do. Now they don't need him and, like an old shoe, he is cast aside." James terminated this response, so saturated with self-pity, claiming he was also rejected because "if one gets a little ahead of his neighbors in this world there are always plenty ready to pull him back." [James Fergus to Rocky Mountain Husbandman, n.d., Box 21 F. 4, FP, UM.]
Shortly thereafter David Hilger, friend and fellow rancher, though a Democrat, reacted to the Fergus articles. Hilger considered Fergus' interpretation of his defeat to be incorrect, insisting many of James' democratic friends voted their party and thus supported Stuart, who in addition was a younger man, for "to fulfill the office of a legislator is no primrose affair and it will tax the energies of a young man physically." Hilger, chairman of the Democratic Central Committee, insisted James remained "just as much respected today in this county as you was two years ago." Personally, "I know of no one whom I would have greater respect for or whose opinion and advice I would put more dependence on than on yours." [David Hilger to James Fergus, December 28, 1886, Box 6 F. 29, FP, UM.]
By 1888 the national political climate created conditions favorable for the admission of Montana to statehood. That fall Republican Benjamin Harrison had been elected President and the lame-duck Democratic administration sought political credit for admitting Montana and three other western states—North Dakota, South Dakota, and Washington. Territorial Delegate Joseph K. Toole presented Montana's case to Congress in January 1889. The following month a conference committee provided for the admission of the four states, but required each of these territories to convene new constitutional conventions. [Toole, Uncommon Land, pp. 113-114.]
During the spring of 1889 Montana held elections to select delegates to the fall constitutional convention. James Fergus, despite his advanced age of seventy-seven years and his physical impairments, longed to represent his county. Unfortunately for him, he was not selected, leaving W. F. Sanders indignant, for he still thought highly of his longtime friend. [W. F. Sanders to James Fergus, June 28, 1889, Box 2 F. 9, FC, MHSL.]
After confessing he was not a speech-maker and felt inferior with legislators, Fergus revealed to Sanders his bitter disappointment in not being chosen to represent Fergus County. "I would rather have been insured a seat in that than in heaven (if there is such a place) because in the convention I know I would be among friends and what I had to do." James cast about for the causes of his defeated ambition. Jealousy "about the county being named after me" rose to the front. Also, he suspected his good friend Granville Stuart of being "a snake in the grass" who, if he could not go, prevented James from going. [James Fergus to W. F. Sanders, July 9, 1889, Box 11 F. 60, FP, UM.]
James listed other factors, including "my vote in favor of taxing mines in the constitutional convention of '84," which brought mining opposition; "my efforts in the legislature to reduce fees to a fair living rate," and "that I done nothing on my own behalf." Besides, "my son did not want me to be a candidate and did all he could to prevent it." While Fergus recognized multiple causes for being overlooked as the Fergus County delegate, including his own lack of effort and Andrew's active opposition, he ascribed his rejection more to certain unnamed individuals in the nominating convention, vowing that "death alone in this case will prevent me from getting ‘even' with one or two" of those delegates. [James Fergus to J. W. Moe, n.d., Box 11 F. 60, FP, UM. Fergus put it this way: "As I said to you before, the people have a right to employ whom they please and while I have a highly nervous temperment I am possessed of enough philosophic spirit which has been trained by adversity to take everything as it comes, being neither cast down by adversity or elated by prosperity but while full of this philosophic spirit I am no saint, never turn the other cheek, but generally move in a spirit of performing a duty than in that of revenge have always tried to get ‘even' and so far have been very successful and death alone will prevent me from getting ‘even.'"]
Granville Stuart, upon hearing Fergus believed he acted shabbily during the campaign, quickly wrote his old friend because "I don't want you, one of my most valued friends, to think that I worked against you." Stuart insisted he had not worked against James, in fact had voted for him. Certainly he never spoke in opposition to Fergus, though he did say once in his own home that the session might be hard on James physically. [Granville Stuart to James Fergus, October 29, 1889, Box 10 F. 39, FP, UM.]
That fall Fergus attended the state Republican nominating convention in Butte which nominated T. C. Power for Governor and Louis Rotwitt as Secretary of State. Both were long-time friends of Fergus, with Power from Ft. Benton and Rotwitt a Meagher County official. For several years Power and W. F. Sanders had vied for leadership in the territorial Republican party. Whenever Power ascended, Fergus viewed it with disgust as a case of money besting ability. Thus later when the Council selected Sanders as one of the first United States Senators to represent Montana in Congress, Fergus rejoiced, for he had great respect for Sanders dating back to their Virginia City days. Sanders exerted the stabilizing influence in the rip-roaring Bannack mining camp threatened by Henry Plummer's road agents:
Those of us who saw W. F. Sanders face and dare the road agents from a platform in the open air at the trial of George Ives, one of their members, for murder, with a dozen cocked pistols drawn on him and his continued prosecution of them without fee or reward until law and order was established believe that above all other men he is entitled to the highest office in the gift of the state.
Besides, Fergus insisted, "Wilbur F. Sanders is a statesman in the highest sense of the term, the peer of any man in the Great West." [James Fergus to Helena Herald, March 14, 1893. When Fergus wrote this he was upset that Sanders had not been appointed to the U. S. Senate, but that Lee Mantle had, "not that we loved Mantle less but we loved Sanders more." James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, August 24, 1889, Box 4 F. 3, FC, MHSL. Though this is uncertain, the Fergus Falls Daily Journal reported that James chaired this nominating convention. Undated clipping, Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, pp. 80-81, FP, UM.]
The following month the party encouraged Fergus to vote a straight Republican ticket. James never responded well to pressure and often reacted in opposition, being naturally independent and strong minded. He reminded the promoter of his membership in the Republican party ever since its inception which in no way bound him to vote for every party candidate. While he enjoyed good friends within the party, "I owe them nothing and ask nothing from them." In a particularly feisty mood that day, James smoldered, "If the voters of Fergus County had another county to divide with every thing against the division but a few petitions then I might be useful. Oh you got paid for that with your name. I did not want the name and got it from the Democrats, not the Republicans. So you see I am still a Republican but independent." [James Fergus to "Friend Erickson," October 13, 1899, Box 3 F. 4, FC, MHSL.]
A short time later James wrote a legislator friend, chiding somewhat, admitting his contentment at not being in the legislature:
What a lot of scalawags you legislators are. Still I am sorry for you and glad I am not one. You know I am not a politician. In all home and county matters generally vote for the party that I think will make the best officer and never thought the Republicans were all saints and the Democrats all sinners." [James Fergus to J. C. McNamara, December 7, 1889, Box 3 F. 4, FC, MHSL.]
A year later, the fall of 1890, James responded to Sanders' query as to why he did not seek some county or state office. Fergus insisted he made no effort to secure nomination because most knew he would not accept it. Besides, James did not think he could be nominated even if he desired it. "The Republicans threw off on me the last time I ran for office mainly because I recommended Granville Stuart on account of local interest and while I am as good a Republican as ever I have more friends among the Democrats." [James Fergus to W. F. Sanders, October 19, 1890, Box 11 F. 61, FP, UM.]
A few days later James apologized for being unable to promote Sanders for the U. S. Senate. He had expressed little interest or participation in county politics the previous two years:
1st I am growing old and prefer leaving such matters to younger hands; 2nd the party treated me mean the last time I was on their ticket and they don't appear to have a faculty of now wanting their best men or else they have not got any where as the Democrats nominate popular men.
James expressed disgust with the local Republican situation but offered to help by talking privately with a few area voters. [Ibid., October 29, 1890, Box 11 F. 61, FP, UM.]
Fergus held underlying distrust, at best suspicion, of most politicians and both political parties. As he confessed to friend Sanders, part of this stemmed from the fact that:
I am always looking for the perfect man, for the man who we can send to our legislatures and put on our judicial benches and at the head of our government who can set down calmly and wisely and do what is best for his fellow man. But that man does not exist he is human with human imperfections he is always in contact with other imperfect men differences arise. Men take sides this leads to political armies. This leads to the expendation of time and money in Congress and out of it, one party trying to ‘down' the other, lies are told about honorable men. The leaders that are in office want to stay in those that are out want to get in the herd follow, all coming out of the pockets of the worker at cash. I am no anarchist. Still there is much in what they advocate that is good. I might rather be called a fault finder because so much is taken out of my pocket directly and indirectly that I get nothing for. [Ibid., October 19, 1890, Box 11 F. 61, FP, UM.]
Fergus had cause to suspect certain politicians, especially in Montana during this period when Marcus Daly and William Andrews Clark struggled for political control of the state. One facet of their fierce competition emerged in 1894 as the citizenry prepared to vote on the location of a permanent capital. Daly marshalled money and men behind his company town of Anaconda; Clark supported Helena, the temporary capital since the 1870's, if for no other reason than to frustrate his arch rival. A multi-million dollar battle erupted as the copper kings warred for prestige and power. [Toole, Uncommon Land, pp. 182-83.]
By early October Luella Gilpatrick, James' second daughter, reported Helena to be fearful of losing the vote as it "has so many enemies that she will need every vote that she can get." Luella could not understand how Montanans might even consider voting for Anaconda, because "if Anaconda gets the capital all of Montana will be under Daly's thumb. Can't people see and figure it out as he owns the whole town." [Luella Fergus Gilpatrick to James Fergus, October 8, 1894, Box 4 F. 25, FP, UM.]
Led by their patriarch, the Fergus clan, like much of the Helena area, vigorously opposed Daly, motivated from fear and self-interest. Robert Hamilton boasted, "we are making the Daly men sick and we will make them sicker." James urged Andrew to "register all the boys that will vote for Helena if you can," while attacking the Daly forces in the press. Luella noted that one Fergus letter "has made them sick or worried them or they would not have made such a fuss about it." [Ibid., September 16, 1894, Box 4 F. 25, FP, UM. On November 16 Luella noted the Chinamen in Helena had raised $1000 to support their city. James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, October 8, 1894, Box 14 F. 47, FP, UM.]
Just before the capital vote James wrote in support of Helena to the Helena Herald, unleashing a blistering attack on vote-buying, including those who stooped to such depths. Fergus insisted the capital should stay in Helena because of its location and accessibility—two-thirds of the state lay east of the mountains; also it had more conveniences. However, the principal reason for retaining Helena lay in its diversified investment base, including cattle, sheep, horses and mines, but "not a dollar of Anaconda capital." Fergus hoped:
. . . the people of this county will show by their votes that they are not serfs, but American freemen, whose votes cannot be bought or controlled by wealthy capitalists, American or foreign. These are trying times; government by the people is on trial; let us not aid by our votes in its overthrow. [James Fergus to Helena Herald, November 28, 1894.]
As he had for years, James continued criticizing men and corporations that extract Montana's precious metals, scattering them only for the profits involved. But that this type of money would be employed to buy votes, influencing a vital issue such as locating a capital, infuriated the principled old man. Uncertain which he considered more despicable, those who used mining profits to make drunkards of youth and sots of old men, or those who accepted money and whiskey for their vote, James vilified both. "A true American will not sell his vote for love or money, much less for the rotgut whiskey that flowed here like water. From my standpoint this whole business is a sin, a crime, a curse and a disgrace to our American civilization." James opposed forgiveness for those involved but instead said he would "boycott every man who voted for Anaconda, be he rich or poor, native born or naturalized, whose vote was bought, directly or indirectly, by Anaconda influence or ‘boodle,' and hope all liberty-loving citizens will do the same." [Ibid.] After the election James proudly told Andrew that Fergus county "gave over 900 majority for Helena," which retained the capital in a 27,028 to 25,118 vote. [James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, November 21, 1894, Box 14 F. 47, FP, UM. Toole, Uncommon Land, p. 183.]
Even before this exhibition in political manipulation James had expressed doubts concerning universal manhood suffrage. Earlier that decade he observed, "manhood suffrage is beautiful in theory, but when a loafter whose vote has been bought by whiskey, and who never paid a dollar in taxes in his life, walks up alongside of you at the polls to kill your well considered vote, the theory goes to pieces and it don't look so nice." [James Fergus to Fergus County Argus, n.d. 1892, Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 76, FP, UM. After the capital fight Luella echoed the same sentiment. "This sufferage business should be a property qualification then there would not be so much buying and selling of votes and people would vote for their own interest or conviction." Luella to James, June 19, 1895, Box 4 F. 26, FP, UM.] James observed that elections often bring out the worst in certain citizens. He looked to the day when the public conducted their elections with less passion and more equity, for "calling a man an ass does not make him one, and as a general rule personalities do not constitute facts, prove arguement or add anything to the good breeding of those using them." [James Fergus to Fergus County Argus, n.d. 1892, Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 76, FP, UM.]
Toward the end of the decade Fergus still held the view that "politics in Montana is very corrupt." Their high taxes could be traced directly to crime, corruption and excessive public salaries. James made an open suggestion to reverse all this:
Now, then, my plan to get rid of this bribery and these debts is to elect our senators by the people, as we do our other officers. Have legislative sessions every four years in place of every two; have thirty-day sessions in place of sixty; reduce the per diem to $4 and the members of the lower house and the employes of both houses by one-half; all fees and salaries, except jurors and witnesses, 50 per cent, and reduce the $1 a day and limit the number of witnesses in all trials.
What did James see as the result of this drastically frugal action? "We would have just as good laws, have them just as well administered, and have less briberies and lower taxes." Finally, burdened with exasperation and age, Fergus sighed, "between extravagance, saloons, unemployed men, strikes, trusts, wars, briberies and murders I don't know what this country is coming to." [James Fergus to Fergus County Argus, n.d. (about 1899), Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 113, FP, UM. Some years earlier he suggested saving about 100 million in federal, state and local elections by enacting a six-year term for the president of the U. S. Letter to Fergus County Argus, n.d. 1892, Box 21 F. 4, Scrapbook, p. 76. Also, George W. Beatty to James Fergus, December 10, 1900, Box 1 F. 32, FP, UM.]
Despite his concern with corruption and monied influence at all levels of government, James was not ready to abandon his Republican party. Instead, he spoke of the need to "educate to get good men" into the system. On the other hand, his friend Henry Gardner of Forman, North Dakota, tried to convince James that "thoroughbred" men could be rascals too. Gardner's remedy: certainly, "if we had laws as proposed by the Populists our Government would yet be—of—for—and by the people in place as now only for the Trusts." [Henry O. Gardner to James Fergus, January 11, 1895, Box 4 F. 6, FP, UM. Neither was James ready to abandon the defense of his state, for in the late 1890's he challenged a Truthseeker article: "You say in your issue of Oct. 6 that Governor Roosevelt was mobbed in Montana and hit with a stick. I think this is a mistake. We stand at the head of all the states on the bribery question, but stop at mobs and sticks. Don't make us worse than we are." Fergus to Truthseeker, n.d., Box 21 F. 4, FP, UM.]
Though Fergus avoided active participation in county politics during the 1890's he still, according to one aspirant to county office, exerted "great influence in shaping the policy of your party in this county." Accordingly, as in the 1870's and 1880's, Fergus received numerous requests for political support, if only in the form of a letter of recommendation or a word to appropriate leaders. Cal Dickenson, seeking office as Fergus County clerk and recorder in 1894 inquired of Fergus, "I hope I am not presuming too much in asking if you will lend me your influence in the coming campaign." In 1900 A. L. Hawksworth of Great Falls, trying to secure appointment as chief boiler inspector for the state, hoped James would lend him support. "If it would not be asking too much of you, I would suggest that you write a letter of recommendation to Governor Toole in my behalf, knowing full well that a letter from you would have considerable bearing on the Governor and in turn would aid me immensely." [Willard E. Beau to James Fergus, August 21, 1894, Box 1 F. 33. Cal Dickenson to James Fergus, August 8, 1894, Box 3 F. 91. A. L. Hawksworth to James Fergus, December 7, 1900, Box 6 F. 13. Other examples casually noted include: Thomas J. Pounds to Fergus, January 13, 1885, Box 9 F. 3; Judge Dudley DuBose to Fergus, March 31, 1893, Box 2 F. 63; Richard Stuart to Fergus, January 5, 1895, Box 10 F. 45; Rudolf Von Tobel to Fergus, September 26, 1900, Box 11 F. 20, FP, UM.]
While most seeking Fergus' help had to actively search James out, some did not, such as luminaries like Wilbur Fisk Sanders, whom James eagerly promoted. It seems James sought to support at least one other type, for when Scottish rancher Donald Fowler of Highfield, Montana, fell on hard times and wrote for advice, James urged brother William: "Let us do what we can for our brother Scot. He writes a good hand composes a good letter has a good education is in difficult circumstances has a sick wife and needs it." Fowler subsequently found work in a county office at Lewistown, and by 1901 was county assessor. [Donald Fowler to James Fergus, January 18, 1896, March 4, 1896, October 6, 1898, and September 25, 1901, Box 3 F. 44, FP, UM.]
Despite his political withdrawal and biting pen state political leaders from both sides of the isle considered James Fergus a respected state builder and honored him during the 1890's. Thus after Helena beat out Anaconda's attempt to claim the state government in 1894, James received this special invitation to the celebration:
While we are extending only general invitations to our Capital Celebration next Monday night we feel from your long personable and honorable association with our territory and state that we should make an exception in our case and hereby send to you a most cordial invitation to join us in celebrating our glorious victory. [J. P. Woolman and T. A. Marlow, Chairmen of the Capital Committee, to James Fergus, November 9, 1894, Box 6 F. 21, FP, UM.]
Likewise, Fergus was invited to attend the reception and ball in Helena January 7, 1901, honoring newly elected Governor Joseph K. Toole. That fall, after President McKinley was assassinated, Governor Toole appointed Fergus a member of the McKinley Memorial Committee. Though Fergus declined because of ill health, Governor Toole nominated a replacement but did not accept James' resignation, urging him to "continue to serve as a member, whether you are able to attend a meeting or not." [Invitation to Governor's Ball, Box 14 F. 6. Joseph K. Toole, Governor, to James Fergus, November 14, 1901, Box 8 F. 4, FP, UM. Fergus contributed $10 to the Lewistown McKinley Memorial fund, the largest individual contribution. G. W. Cook to Fergus, January 22, 1902, Box 2 F. 28, FP, UM. One Helena paper, reporting that Fergus had given $10 to the fund, observed "That was very much like James Fergus. There isn't a more patriotic man in the northwest that this pioneer. I know when he was a resident of this county he was foremost in every patriotic enterprise. One must travel far indeed to find a more patriotic, public-spirited citizen than James Fergus, the pioneer." n.d., n.n., Box 21 F. 4, loose clipping, FP, UM.]
By 1900 Wilbur Fisk Sanders and James Fergus were both old men who had helped Montana develop from a raw mining camp to a more diversified western state. Throughout the 1890's they both worried over the degenerating condition of Montana life and politics. Sanders believed most problems to be linked to a lessening of public morals and individual backbone. The state could certainly benefit form the experience of a man like James Fergus, "and above all of your splendid independence. One sickens at the cowardice which stifles the knowledge and opinions of the average Montana politician, editor and preacher in this riot of bribery that is now playing to crowded houses in Washington." Sanders continued his dim view of society: "Of course a man who will bribe or accept bribes will commit perjury. Of course a man who will buy an office will sell our laws. The sate that sells its honor is bankrupt of honor and commits hari kari." [W. F. Sanders to James Fergus, February 1900, Box 9 F.48, FP, UM.]
Two years later, only a few months before Fergus died, Sanders suggested to his good friend that he would greatly aid the state by informing the new President, Theodore Roosevelt, of the state's sordid political mess. McKinley had been appraised of Montana's problems but was killed before he could act. Therefore, Sanders thought, "the trouble is to get the facts before the new President. We have done so in a degree. But if you with all your years and infirmities could cross the country and tell him the situation it would be the most impressive and effectual spectacle of the generation." [Ibid., February 9, 1902, Box 9 F. 48, FP, UM. Sanders wrote from Chicago where he was recovering from eye surgery.]
Fergus' response is not known, but he may have been too infirm to be able to make the trip even if he had agreed with Sanders. It would indeed have been impressive, however, to have the 89-year old Fergus, bent and crippled from age and hard work, journey to Washington. That a plea to help cleanse the state from political corruption even from this old pioneer with the flowing white beard, would bring results, on the other hand, is conjecture. Of course, the state labored under the shadow of outside interests well past the mid-century mark. [Toole, Uncommon Land, Chapter XII.]