Bourbon Democracy of the Middle West is a study of the Democratic Party in the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Illinois, and Iowa during the Gilded Age. Horace Samuel Merrill begins in the aftermath of the Civil War, when the woes of a disorganized party were exacerbated by the chaos created by Andrew Johnson's presidency. Radical Republicans dominated state politics in the region during these years, often adopting a strategy of "waving the bloody shirt" by reminding voters of the Democrats' association with the traitorous South so as to further discredit their opponents. Seeing to shift the conversation, many Midwestern Democrats fell back on traditional issues such as tariff reduction in an effort to rally voters. This galvanized the Bourbon Democrats, a pro-business "cabal" (in Merrill's words) who took over the control of the party organizations throughout the region. In moving the party away from its traditional agrarian and labor roots, however, Merrill sees the Bourbons as missing an opportunity to exploit the Republicans' status as the party of "big business" by forming a countervailing oppositional party of the little man.
In 1872 the Democratic Party reached its nadir with the nomination of Horace Greeley as its presidential candidate. Though they ceded political dominance in the region to the Republicans, the Bourbons succeeded in keeping a lid on reforms that challenged their financial interests and, in cooperation with their counterparts in New York, ensured that the national party organization remained in conservative hands throughout the 1870s and 1880s. Yet while many frustrated farmers and laborers broke with the party during this period, others worked within the organization to resist Bourbon dominance, ultimately triumphing in 1896 with the selection of William Jennings Bryan as the party's presidential nominee -- a renunciation of Grover Cleveland that Merrill sees as proof of the eclipse of Bourbon power.
By adopting a regional rather than the more traditional national focus, Merrill's book offers a valuable look at the mechanics of party operations in post-Civil War America. Though parts of his analysis has not aged well, his considerable archival research has contributed to its endurance as a source for scholars, one that remains rewarding reading for anyone interested in Gilded Age politics.