Politics at the national level, have certainly gotten a bit ugly, haven’t they? It’s easy to feel like this is something new, like this is the first-time things have ever been this bad. What are you thinking, this is Rhode Island, of course things have been this bad before! Here is a story to prove just that.
Life, as anyone who has lived for a time can tell you, is fraught with irony. And sometimes, so it would appear, is death. A case in point is that of our fair town’s own David Sherman Baker; a man who in 1893 was elected governor of the great state of Rhode Island.
I know what’s going through your mind right now. “What’s that you say? I thought all you history types have always told us that William Gregory is the only North Kingstown boy ever elected Governor of Rhode Island.” Well, actually the truth is that William Gregory is the only North Kingstown lad to ever serve as governor. He was, indeed, the second citizen of our fair town to be elected governor, David Baker being the first. We’ll come back to old Bill Gregory later in this tale, let’s now take a Swamptown gander at the story behind Rhode Island’s only purloined election; the vote of 1893.
1893 was really a turning point of sorts in the political history of little Rhody. It was the end of a time when there was some semblance of balance between the two political parties. You see, it was the beginning of the age of Perry and Aldrich; a time when these two power brokers, these two capitalists extraordinaire, began their assault upon the nation. And it all began here in Rhode Island and David Sherman Baker. But believe you me, Marsden Perry and Nelson Aldrich understood it all too well. Marsden Perry, the self-styled “Boss of Rhode Island” and his business partner U.S. Senator Nelson Aldrich, whom the Washington journalists dubbed “The General Manager of the United States” by then, were on their way to achieving their goal of total control. A great part of their plan required that they have complete dominion over their power base of southern New England, and this small town lawyer and superintendent of the local school department was standing in their way.
David Baker was North Kingstown born and raised. His boyhood home was on the corner of Pleasant and Friend Streets in Wickford. But by the time he had worked his way through the public school system of North Kingstown and then the well-known East Greenwich Academy followed by a degree from Brown University in 1875, he was known statewide as a fair, honest, and intelligent man of principle. He was also both a success as a lawyer and in the game of love. His marriage to Anita Candler, daughter of Judge and former U.S. Representative John Candler of Brookline, MA, along with his personal success as a lawyer brought him his own base of wealth and power; although nothing along the scale of Perry and Aldrich. So in 1893, this man, who had been, as mentioned, the Superintendent of Schools for North Kingstown, a state representative from North Kingstown, and a state senator from Providence (by then Baker had a home in that city while maintaining his wonderful summer estate on what is now Prospect Avenue in North Kingstown) was the Democratic candidate for governor running against Perry’s handpicked man the seated Gov. D. Russell Brown. The campaign and election was rife with the typical political posturing and subterfuge for the time, and, I’m certain, Perry and Aldrich felt they had it “in the bag.” But, when the dust cleared, things had not worked out the way “The Boss of RI” and “The General Manager of the U.S.” had figured. The final tally was this: Prohibition candidate Henry Metcalf—3265, Republican candidate D. Russell Brown—21,830, and Democratic candidate David Sherman Baker—22,015. Seemingly, Baker had done the impossible, the unthinkable—he had beaten two of the world’s most powerful movers and shakers at their own game; he was to be the Governor of Rhode Island. Or was he?
Not so fast, said the Republicans. The constitution of the State of Rhode Island requires a majority to win, not a plurality; so since Baker did not capture more than 50% of the vote, the election would be turned over to the General Assembly (combined house and senate) where these learned gentlemen were supposed to examine the ballots and interpret the will of the people. This too became problematic as the General Assembly was deadlocked with exactly 54 votes for each party. This being an age before the lt. governor was allowed to vote as a tiebreaker, things remained in a state of flux. The behind the scenes machinations and political subterfuge continued until it was known to both parties that a yet unnamed Republican had done the unthinkable and was ready to switch his vote in favor of Baker. This would surely end the stalemate and he would become Rhode Island’s governor for sure. Or would he?
Perry and Aldrich were not about to give up so easy. Before another vote could be taken, they had their man Governor Brown step in, backed up by the full power of his office (and the state militia) and invoke the parliamentary power of proroguery whereby he could order the deliberations of the General Assembly discontinued and made null and void without having to dissolve the political body, as they had deliberated for four days and not come up with a decision. This, he said, allowed him to remain the governor until the next election. Certainly Perry and Aldrich were pleased.
The Democrats, though, were up in arms. They would take this to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, surely they would make this right and Baker would rightfully become the next governor of Rhode Island. Or would he?
The Democrats did not understand that the deal was done, the die was cast; the RI Supreme Court in 1893 was already in Perry and Aldrich’s back pocket. They declared Brown’s action proper and in line with established law. D. Russell Brown would remain governor and Baker and the Democrats were sent home with their tales between their legs. “Better luck next year fellows. No hard feelings.”
Next year Baker and the Democrats tried again. But David Baker’s moment had passed; it had been wrenched out of his grasp never to return. The Republican machine which would dominate Rhode Island politics for decades to come was firmly entrenched. Perry and Aldrich had gotten their way. Baker was soundly defeated in 1894.
Well, where’s the irony in all this you ask? You see, in 1900 Perry and Aldrich handpicked a new governor for our state. A more palatable candidate than Brown, William Gregory was the man of the people. To Perry, Gregory was the perfect choice—he seemed like one of them but he was really one of us. He won handily and became North Kingstown’s first seated governor, taking the title that had rightfully belonged to Baker. Gregory did not live long after that; he died in office of complications from kidney disease and was buried with pomp and circumstance in Elm Grove Cemetery. Five years later David Baker, a man who, soured by the experience, never returned to public service, passed away from complications of his ongoing struggle with diabetes. He was laid to rest right next to, you guessed it, William Gregory. And they have laid there side by side for the last 100 years. An “only in Rhode Island” tale if there ever was one, eh!