United States Senator Marion Butler was born on May 20, 1863 near Clinton, the eldest of Wiley and Romelia Butler’s six children. As a young man, he shared in his family’s struggles during the Reconstruction era, but managed to graduate from the University of North Carolina in 1885. Intent on becoming an attorney, Butler returned to the school to study law, but his academic pursuits were cut short by the death of his father in the 1890s. He then returned to Sampson County to manage the family farm.
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Butler entered politics shortly after returning home. The Farmers’ Alliance a militant agrarian movement, came into North Carolina from the Southwest. Attracted by the Alliance’s espousal of farmers’ rights, Butler joined, and quickly became head of the Sampson County Farmers’ Alliance. In 1890, at the age of twenty-seven, Butler was elected to the state senate as an Alliance Democrat. Four years later he became acknowledged as the state head of the Farmers’ Alliance. After the death of Leonidas L. Polk in 1892, Butler became president of the National Farmers’ Alliance.
Butler and the Farmers’ Alliance were strong supporters of free silver and other reforms, but the Democratic Party nominated Grover Cleveland in 1892. Cleveland supported none of the measures put forth by the Alliance. When the Democratic Party ruled that no member could vote Democratic in the state and local elections without voting likewise in the presidential race, the Farmers’ Alliance in North Carolina abandoned the traditional “white-man’s party,” favoring the burgeoning Populist Party.
During the state elections of 1894, the Populist Party “fused” with the Republicans to challenge Democratic control. Dubbed “the sly fox of Sampson County,” Butler led the Populists and Republicans in sweeping both houses of the legislature and getting himself elected in 1895 to the United States Senate. The following year, Butler gained national prominence by formulating the compromise that allowed the Populists to place Democrat William Jennings Bryan on their presidential ticket alongside Populist vice-presidential candidate Thomas E. Watson. Nevertheless, Bryan lost the election in 1896, and the Populists and Democrats again parted ways.
During the 1898 and 1900 elections, the Democrats, led by Charles B. Aycock and Furnifold M. Simmons, regained the state legislature, and Butler lost his Senate seat. He remained national chairman of the Populist Party until 1904, when he became a Republican. Butler left politics shortly thereafter, and resumed the study of law. He established a practice in Sampson County, where he died on June 3, 1938. Butler left a wife, Florence, and five children. He is buried in the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Clinton.
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, I, 291-292—sketch by Robert F. Durden
James L. Hunt, Marion Butler and American Populism (2003)
James L. Hunt, “Marion Butler: The Making of a Populist,” North Carolina Historical Review (January, April, July 1985), 53-77, 179-202, 317-343
Robert S. Boyette, "Marion Butler: A Reluctant Populist" (East Carolina University honors paper, 1977)