The History Channel’s new special on Theodore Roosevelt describes his victory in the 1904 presidential election but doesn’t even mention his Democratic opponent.
That was New York Court of Appeals’ former Chief Judge Alton B. Parker (1852-1926), probably the most neglected major party presidential candidate in U.S. history. Yet at the time of the election Parker was the leader of one of the nation’s two major political parties and one of the nation’s foremost judicial statesmen.
Parker hailed from Esopus in Ulster County. He began his career as county surrogate judge in 1877 and made is way up the state’s Democratic power structure by supporting Grover Cleveland (governor 1883-1885 and a two-term president after that) and David B. Hill (governor 1885-1891 and US Senator, 1891-1897). He also stayed on good terms with Tammany Hall, New York City’s powerful Democratic organization.
Parker advanced to State Supreme Court, then the Appellate Division, and then to Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals in 1897. The Court at that time was the foremost state court in the nation and Parker, a proven vote-getter in New York’s whose electoral votes were essential to gain the presidency, automatically became a front-runner for the 1904 nomination.
As judge, Parker distinguished himself through a record of independent jurisprudence, support for laws for the betterment of society, and an aversion to the courts second-guessing the legislature. His most famous opinion, in People v. Lochner (1904) upheld a law regulating bakers’ working hours and working conditions and strongly asserted the state’s authority to regulate business and labor conditions. It was overturned by the conservative-minded U.S. Supreme Court the next year but it burnished Parker’s image as a moderate progressive.
The Democrats lacked a strong field of potential presidential nominees in 1904. David B. Hill, who had become an informal mentor to Parker, worked effectively behind-the-scenes to gather support. Parker was nominated on the first ballot. He resigned as Chief Judge in August and devoted full time to the campaign.
But he faced an uphill battle against the incumbent, president (and, earlier, New York governor) Theodore Roosevelt. TR was energetic, always making news. He had amassed an impressive record, going after large business conglomerates known as trusts, setting a nationwide coal strike, and developing an assertive foreign policy, including initiating the Panama Canal.
Parker struggled to articulate his vision for the nation or just why he wanted to be president. He gave only a few speeches, preferring to conduct a “front porch” campaign from his estate, Rosemount, in Esopus. Crowds of the party faithful came to hear his speeches, which were mostly about returning to old ways, shrinking the size of government, reigning in the power of the president, deferring to the courts on the trusts and other key issues, and returning to more of an isolationist foreign policy.
In the last days of the campaign, Parker made the accusation that big businesses were funding TR’s campaign. History proved him right, but at the time, he could offer no real evidence. He was overwhelmingly defeated on election day, even losing his home state, New York, to TR.
Yet Parker merits more attention from historians. His opinions are models of a balance between conservativism and progressivism, articulate in how they define the role of the courts, and insightful about government’s responsibilities – and limits – in regulating business and labor affairs.
His 1904 campaign themes – a return to a simpler time, less government spending, circumscribed executive power, deference to judges to espouse the law and the meaning of the Constitution – were somewhat out of sync with an energetic nation eager to get on with the new 20th century. But some still reverberate today – caution against presidential overreach, plea for government economy in an era of high government spending and debt, and warning about the corrosive role of money in politics. He also played a significant role in Democratic party politics in New York in the years after his campaign.
Parker is the only nominee of a major political party who does not have a book-length biography. The Historical Society of the New York Courts has a biographical sketch on its website.
Leslie Southwick includes a biography of him in his book Presidential Also-Ran’s and Running Mates, 1788 through 1996 (1998). I cover his career and opinions in The Crucible of Justice: New York Courts in the Progressive Era (2022).
The best source of information is Parker’s own opinions and writings, e.g.,
National Protective Association v Cumming 170 NY 315 (1902)
Roberson v. Rochester Folding Box Company 171 NY 538 (1902)
John D. Park and Sons v. National Wholesale Druggists Association 175 NY 1 (1903)
People v. Lochner 177 NY 145 (1904)
“Due Process of Law,” American Lawyer 11 (1903), 333-336, 388-391, 431-434
“The Congestion of Law,” Green Bag 18 (1906), 537-543
“President’s Annual Address,” American Lawyer 30 (1907), 339-443
“The Citizen and the Constitution,” Yale Law Review 23 (1914), 631-640
“American Constitutional Government,” Constitutional Review 6 (1922), 79-90
Photos, from above: Alton B Parker and Henry G Davis 1904 campaign poster showing Democratic Party candidates for President and Vice President; and portrait of Alton Brooks Parker (1852-1926) courtesy Library of Congress.