Olney, Richard

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Olney, Richard

In the late nineteenth century, the Massachusetts-born attorney Richard Olney exerted a powerful influence over domestic and international affairs. From 1893 to 1895, Olney served as U.S. attorney general under President grover cleveland and, from 1895 to 1897, as Secretary of State. A nationalist with a forceful personality who took a broad view of federal power, Olney is remembered for two important actions during his public career that had long-lasting implications for U.S. law. First, as attorney general, he used the office in 1894 to break a strike by railway workers that hampered the delivery of mail nationwide. The outcome affected the rights of workers for more than a quarter of a century, thrust Olney into the national spotlight, and earned him the enmity of labor unions. Second, after becoming secretary of state, he resolved a conflict between Venezuela and England that shaped U.S. foreign policy well into the twentieth century.

Born in Oxford, Massachusetts, on September 15, 1835, Olney was educated at Brown University and Harvard Law School. Admitted to the Boston bar in 1859, he established a successful law practice and earned recognition for his work with railroads. A brief political career followed with his election to the Massachusetts state legislature, where he served one term between 1873 and 1874. In 1893 he was appointed U.S. attorney general at the start of the second and deeply troubled administration of President Cleveland. The president became mired in public controversies, and his new attorney general would be at the heart of one of the worst.

When Olney assumed his duties in the department of justice, the nation was suffering from an economic depression. The Pullman Company, a Chicago-based railroad, cut its workers' pay to near-starvation wages but went on paying dividends to its shareholders. In 1894 the company's laborers staged a strike that spread nationwide under the auspices of the nascent American Railway Union: everywhere, railroad workers refused to handle Pullman train cars. Tensions escalated when railroad owners began firing the workers, and violence was threatened. The General Managers Association, a trade organization representing railroads, appealed to the Cleveland administration for federal intervention.

Because the strike had prevented the delivery of U.S. mails, Cleveland and Olney had to intervene. Olney had little sympathy for the workers. His first idea was to use the U.S. Army to crush them. Instead he sent 5000 special deputies to restore order. When riots followed, Olney arrested and prosecuted union leaders on grounds of conspiracy, and he won a sweeping federal court Injunction to prevent workers from interfering with the railroads' operation. Appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1895, union president eugene v. debs lost his case, and the strike was broken (In re Debs, 158 U.S. 564, 15 S. Ct. 900, 39 L. Ed. 1092). The Court's sanction of the injunction was a great boon to U.S. corporations, which thereafter sought court injunctions to break strikes until the practice was restrained during the 1930s. Nonetheless, Olney and Cleveland paid a high political price in the polls for their widely unpopular actions.

In 1895, toward the end of the Cleveland administration, the president appointed Olney secretary of state. At once Olney faced a foreign policy crisis: the conflict between Venezuela and Great Britain over the Venezuela-British Guiana boundary. As much a believer in U.S. supremacy as he was in federal power at home, Olney ordered Britain to enter Arbitration with Venezuela. His order relied on a broad reading of the Monroe Doctrine. As the basis of U.S. foreign policy in the nineteenth century, the Monroe Doctrine essentially preserved U.S. independence in the Western Hemisphere. Although the doctrine prohibited foreign intervention in Latin American nations, Olney believed it permitted U.S. intervention to stop European interference with Latin American affairs. Britain ultimately resolved its conflict with Venezuela through arbitration in 1899. But the broader impact of Olney's views came later. His interpretation came to be known as the Olney Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine and was influential in the foreign policy of President Theodore Roosevelt.

"Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition."
—Richard Olney

Olney left office in 1897 at the end of the unpopular Cleveland administration. Returning to private practice, he was touted as a possible presidential candidate in 1904, but he did not run. He died in Boston on April 8, 1917.

Further readings

Brodsky, Alyn. 2000. Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character. New York: St. Martin's.

Eggert, Gerald G. 1974. Richard Olney: Evolution of a Statesman. University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press.

James, Henry. 1971. Richard Olney and His Public Service. New York: Da Capo Press.

Jeffers, H. Paul. 2000. An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland. New York: Morrow/Avon.


Cleveland, Stephen Grover; Debs, Eugene Victor; Labor Union; Monroe Doctrine.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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