Living History: Parley Christensen was Utah’s first presidential candidate

By EILEEN HALLET STONE

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: May 9, 2014 05:44PM
Updated: May 10, 2014 08:31PM
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Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Eileen Hallet Stone poses for a portrait in the Tribune studio Thursday March 8, 2012.

After five days of political brouhaha at the National Convention of the Farmer-Labor Party in Chicago in July of 1920, a little known maverick from Utah named Parley Parker Christensen stepped into the left-leaning limelight as the newly organized party’s swing vote for the nominee for president of the United States.

The FLP movement engendered social reform, promoted relief from farmers’ price imbalance and trade wage inequity, and advocated for “democratic control of industry,” including railroads, utilities, natural resources, and the right to strike. Members came from 19 diverse agrarian organizations and independent labor groups, including the Committee of the Forty-Eight, Farmer’s Equity Society, Labor Party, Single-Taxers, League of Women Voters, Veterans Association, NAACP, Triple Alliance and Socialists.

Held in a poorly ventilated conference center in one of America’s “wettest” cities — a bootlegger’s paradise during Prohibition — the assemblage often unraveled into a hurly-burly hotbed of disparate issues sparking unruly outbursts, protests, sandbagging, stampedes, and irate departures.

According to Gaylon Caldwell’s “Utah’s First Presidential Candidate,” Christensen was selected the convention’s permanent chairman to restore order. Introduced “as one of the defenders” of the Industrial Workers of the World, he received a standing ovation and exercised a hammer instead of a gavel with “such determination and vigor,” Caldwell wrote, “he could not have known it [then] he was pounding his way to the nomination.”

Christensen was born in 1869 in Weston, Idaho, but grew up across the state line in Newton, Utah, where his father drove freight wagons cross-country from the recently completed transcontinental railroad terminus into remote parts of Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas. Graduating from the University of Deseret in 1890, Christensen taught school in Murray and Grantsville, and was elected superintendent of the Tooele County schools. He then earned a law degree at Cornell University, set up office in downtown Salt Lake City, and took on politics.

A bachelor, Unitarian, and member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Christensen was elected twice as Salt Lake County Attorney. He served as chairman for Utah’s Republican party, and three times unsuccessfully sought the party’s nomination for Congress. By 1912, disillusioned by their rejection of his reforms, he made an abrupt political turn. He joined the Utah Progressive Party and served one year in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Between 1915 and 1920, Christensen became [increasingly] involved with various left-wing and labor groups in Utah,” historian John R. Sillito wrote in the Utah History Encyclopedia. He helped pull together the Utah Labor Party in 1919, defended several radicals jailed at Fort Douglas for opposing America’s involvement in World War I, and was president of the Popular Government League advocating for Initiative and Referendum in Utah.

With the minor party’s endorsement, Christensen campaigned against Ohio Governor James Cox, a Democrat and Progressive reformer who struggled to prevent labor disputes from disrupting the country’s war effort and Republican Sen. Warren G. Harding, whose slogan-rich speeches included provisos: “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration,” and “not the dramatic, but the dispassionate.”

Although Christensen started late in his presidential run, the 6’4”, 260-pound politician known for wearing crisp white linen suits was surprisingly light on his feet.

“Mr. Christensen seems to have an especial delight in whacking Republicans over the head,” Charles Willis Thompson wrote in the Aug. 1, 1920, New York Times.

“When he is not making speeches or writing telegrams, he is making statements, and the moment Sen. Harding’s speech of acceptance had been made, Christensen sprang to the typewriter with a statement that the ‘venerable oration was bunk.’”

To reach the masses, Christensen pledged a 24-7 open campaign. “Compared with him, Harding is as idle as [the incarcerated Eugene V.] Debs, and Cox is a slowpoke,” Thompson concluded.

Harding won. Christensen, garnering more than 265,000 votes from 19 states, moved on politically and out of state.

Historian Eileen Hallet Stone is the author of “Hidden History of Utah,” a compilation of her Salt Lake Tribune columns. She may be reached at ehswriter@aol.com. Additional Sources: July 21, 1920, Beaver County News and Gaylon Caldwell’s article in the Utah Historical Quarterly, October 1960.