Olney, Richard

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In the late nineteenth century, the Massachusetts-born attorney Richard Olney exerted a powerful influence over domestic and international affairs. From 1893 to 1895, Olney served as U.S. attorney general under President grover cleveland and, from 1895 to 1897, as secretary of state. A nationalist with a forceful personality who took a broad view of federal power, Olney is remembered for two important actions during his public career that had long-lasting implications for U.S. law. First, as attorney general, he used the office in 1894 to break a strike by railway workers that hampered the delivery of mail nationwide. The outcome affected the rights of workers for more than a quarter of a century, thrust Olney into the national spotlight, and earned him the enmity of labor unions. Second, after becoming secretary of state, he resolved a conflict between Venezuela and England that shaped U.S. foreign policy well into the twentieth century.

Born in Oxford, Massachusetts, on September 15, 1835, Olney was educated at Brown University and Harvard Law School. Admitted to the Boston bar in 1859, he established a successful law practice and earned recognition for his work with railroads. A brief political career followed with his election to the Massachusetts state legislature, where he served one term between 1873 and 1874. In 1893 he was appointed U.S. attorney general at the start of the second and deeply troubled administration of President Cleveland. The president became mired in public controversies, and his new attorney general would be at the heart of one of the worst.

When Olney assumed his duties in the department of justice, the nation was suffering from an economic depression. The Pullman Company, a Chicago-based railroad, cut its workers' pay to near-starvation wages but went on paying dividends to its shareholders. In 1894 the company's laborers staged a strike that spread nationwide under the auspices of the nascent American Railway Union: everywhere, railroad workers refused to handle Pullman train cars. Tensions escalated when railroad owners began firing the workers, and violence was threatened. The General Managers Association, a trade organization representing railroads, appealed to the Cleveland administration for federal intervention.

Because the strike had prevented the delivery of U.S. mails, Cleveland and Olney had to intervene. Olney had little sympathy for the workers. His first idea was to use the U.S. Army to crush them. Instead he sent 5000 special deputies to restore order. When riots followed, Olney arrested and prosecuted union leaders on grounds of conspiracy, and he won a sweeping federal court injunction to prevent workers from interfering with the railroads' operation. Appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1895, union president eugene v. debs lost his case, and the strike was broken (In re Debs, 158 U.S. 564, 15 S. Ct. 900, 39 L. Ed. 1092). The Court's sanction of the injunction was a great boon to U.S. corporations, which thereafter sought court injunctions to break strikes until the practice was restrained during the 1930s. Nonetheless, Olney and Cleveland paid a high political price in the polls for their widely unpopular actions.

In 1895, toward the end of the Cleveland administration, the president appointed Olney secretary of state. At once Olney faced a foreign policy crisis: the conflict between Venezuela and Great Britain over the Venezuela-British Guiana boundary. As much a believer in U.S. supremacy as he was in federal power at home, Olney ordered Britain to enter arbitration with Venezuela. His order relied on a broad reading of the monroe doctrine. As the basis of U.S. foreign policy in the nineteenth century, the Monroe Doctrine essentially preserved U.S.

independence in the Western Hemisphere. Although the doctrine prohibited foreign intervention in Latin American nations, Olney believed it permitted U.S. intervention to stop European interference with Latin American affairs. Britain ultimately resolved its conflict with Venezuela through arbitration in 1899. But the broader impact of Olney's views came later. His interpretation came to be known as the Olney Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine and was influential in the foreign policy of President theodore roosevelt.

"Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition."
Richard Olney

Olney left office in 1897 at the end of the unpopular Cleveland administration. Returning to private practice, he was touted as a possible presidential candidate in 1904, but he did not run. He died in Boston on April 8, 1917.

further readings

Brodsky, Alyn. 2000. Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character. New York: St. Martin's.

Eggert, Gerald G. 1974. Richard Olney: Evolution of a Statesman. University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press.

James, Henry. 1971. Richard Olney and His Public Service. New York: Da Capo Press.

Jeffers, H. Paul. 2000. An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland. New York: Morrow/Avon.


Cleveland, Stephen Grover; Debs, Eugene Victor; Labor Union; Monroe Doctrine.

Richard Olney

views updated May 17 2018

Richard Olney

Richard Olney (1835-1917) served as U.S. attorney general and secretary of state under President Grover Cleveland.

Richard Olney, Massachusetts-born, was from an upper-class family. He was educated at Brown University and the Harvard Law School and specialized in corporate law in Boston. Generally unsuccessful in politics and little known to the public, he was considered by many contemporaries to be haughty, temperamental, and stubborn. Grover Cleveland's choice of Olney in 1893 for attorney general was a surprise, but he fitted well into the group of economic conservatives in Cleveland's Cabinet.

As attorney general, Olney made only perfunctory efforts to enforce the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 against big business, terming the law "no good." He used the full resources of the Justice Department, however, for a showdown with the American Railway Union. Contending that the Pullman strike of 1894 was a conspiracy in restraint of trade, Olney suggested that the Sherman Antitrust Act be used against labor unions for the first time. At his suggestion Cleveland sent troops to Chicago to deal with the strikers, an act which provoked bloody riots. Workingmen throughout the country turned against the Cleveland administration as well as the Democratic party.

Appointed secretary of state in 1895, Olney turned his talents toward the extension of American influence, particularly in the Western Hemisphere. Olney and Cleveland intervened uninvited in the 1895-1896 boundary dispute between Great Britain and Venezuela. Their actions were in response to jingoist domestic pressures and to demands for the protection of American economic interests in Latin America. The Olney-Cleveland Venezuela policy carried the nation to the brink of war with England, which was averted only when the British agreed to submit the matter to arbitration. Similar concerns with protecting economic interests and American citizens were important in Olney's policy toward a revolt in Cuba and disorders in Turkey and China.

At the end of the Cleveland administration, after his return to private practice, Olney became a vigorous opponent of American expansion by territorial annexation. Still active as a public figure in the first decade of the 20th century, he was associated with efforts by economic conservatives to regain control of the Democratic party from William Jennings Bryan, although he refused all opportunities to return to public service.

Further Reading

Henry James, Richard Olney and His Public Service (1923), is a standard source for Olney's public career, based on his papers and addresses. Allan Nevins, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage (1932), is rich with detail and insight for the period of Olney's governmental service. More specific aspects of his career as attorney general are treated in Almont Lindsey, The Pullman Strike (1942), while Walter LaFeber, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898 (1963), analyzes Olney's foreign policy.

Additional Sources

Eggert, Gerald G., Richard Olney: evolution of a statesman, University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press 1974. □

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