Man of Many Hats, Many Parties
BY GARY R. FORNEY
As we enter another national election year, one already providing its share of controversy and rancor, it may be an appropriate time to look back upon one of Montana’s most bitter and divisive political contests. Charles S. Hartman was a prominent attorney during Bozeman’s early years and played a leading role in the 1896 political drama that resulted in the fracturing of the GOP—and Hartman may have the distinction of being the only Montanan elected to public office under the banners of three different political parties.
Charles Hartman was born March 1, 1861, the youngest of three boys born to Sampson and Mary Hartman in Monticello, Indiana. After completing his education at Wabash College, Charles studied law and worked as a teacher before leaving the gently rolling hills of north-central Indiana for a new life in the Montana Territory. He arrived in Bozeman in January of 1882, and quickly found employment as a bookkeeper at Nelson Story’s bank. Hartman remained with the bank until October, 1883, when he left Bozeman for a tour of California, Oregon and Washington. It isn’t clear whether the purpose of this adventure was to seriously evaluate other opportun-ities, or simply a case of youthful wanderlust, but Charles returned to Bozeman in early 1884.
Upon his return, he resumed legal studies under the tutelage of Judge F. K. Armstrong with what must have been devoted zeal. Charles was admitted to the Montana bar in August 1884, and followed this accomplishment with his election as Probate Judge for Gallatin County in November. Thus respectably established, Charles returned to Indiana where he married Flora Imes in December. The Imes and Hartman families were already well acquainted—two of Flora’s sisters had married Charles’ brothers.
Charles and Flora Hartman quickly became a popular addition to Bozeman society, and Charles built his reputation as a highly capable and successful attorney. As evidence of his popularity, and respect for his judgment, Charles was elected in 1889 to serve as one of Gallatin County’s three delegates to draft Montana’s constitution. This broader exposure to Montana’s political heavyweights proved a critical turning point in Hartman’s career path. During the next two years, Charles was frequently invited to address political events throughout the state, including a huge rally at the Bozeman Opera House where he shared the podium with Wilbur Fisk Sanders; the icon of Montana’s Republican Party and legendary vigilante.
In early 1892, Charles welcomed his brother Walter to Bozeman and the firm of Hartman & Hartman opened their offices in the Kreuger Block. It seems obvious that this move was calculated—at least in part—to not only maintain Charles’ growing client base but provide him the freedom to explore political options. In November, he was elected as Montana’s U.S. Representative on the Republican ticket. Hartman was handily re-elected in 1894, and already making known his opposition to the national Republican Party’s stance on the issue of “Free Silver,” he became an outspoken supporter of Democratic Senator William Jennings Bryan and his platform plank of Free Silver.
When the Montana Republican Party Convention convened at Helena in early September of 1896, the party was already badly fractured between those (led by Wilbur Fisk Sanders) who supported the national platform calling for repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, and those who opposed repeal (including Charles Hartman). The convention subsequently split into two tickets, the traditional Republican Party and a new “Silver Republican” Party. Leading the Silver Republi-can ticket as candidate for U.S. Representative was Charles S. Hartman.
Although the Silver Republicans were understandably popular throughout most of the land of gold and silver, they faced their share of criticism from the traditional Republicans. There were even reports that the national Republican interests were funneling money to Montana in an effort to defeat Hartman. When asked his opinion of the propriety of such a campaign tactic, Charles confidently replied: “Montana needs some extra circulation, [so] let them send it up; it will do me no harm, and it may do Montana some good.” Hartman, who had enjoyed the previous support of Bozeman’s Avant Courier, now found himself coldly chided for his party defection. The partisan newspaper effusively praised a speech by Wilbur Sanders at an October 31 Republican rally in Bozeman as “a masterpiece of sound logic and persuasive eloquence.” Less than a week later, however, the Courier would sheepishly acknowledge that “the Republicans in this county and state were manifestedly beaten.” When the final election tally was in, Charles Hartman had received 33,942 votes compared with only 9,492 for his Republican opponent, O.F. Stoddard. The Democrats, incidentally, did not nominate a candidate to oppose Hartman. Despite this overwhelming popularity, however, Charles soon learned how quickly one can fall from the throne of political power.
By the time the state party conventions convened in 1898, the Free Silver policy was no longer an issue and Charles Hartman had burned all his bridges to the traditional Republican party. The Silver Repub-licans merged with the Populist Party, and Hartman made a half-heart-ed campaign for his fourth term as U.S. Representative before withdrawing and giving his support to the Democratic candidate—and eventual winner—Andrew Campbell. The light of Hartman’s political career was seemingly extinguished.
For the next several years, Charles resumed his life as a prominent Bozeman attorney, businessman, and father of two daughters—Lois and Flora. He served as a Vice President of the Bozeman National Bank, led a group of investors who established the Gallatin Valley Electric Railway Company, and returned to a more active role in his law partnership. His brother Walter had carefully nurtured the legal practice and the firm was widely regarded as one of the most successful in Montana, representing clients in some of the area’s most high-profile cases; including Martin Peel for the murder of William Ennis, and with Wilbur Fisk Sanders as the opposing counsel.
In 1910, Charles was persuaded to accept the Montana Democratic nomination for U. S. Representative, but he was defeated by the Republican, Charles Pray. Hartman’s effort and loyalty were not forgotten, however. Upon his election as president in 1913, Woodrow Wilson appointed William Jennings Bryan as Secretary of State and Bryan rewarded his old friend, Charles Hartman, with an appointment as minister to Ecuador.
Hartman served nine years as minister to Ecuador, returning to Bozeman in 1923. He remained in Bozeman until 1926, when he moved to Great Falls and established a law practice with George Judgeon and S. C. Ford. Upon the death of Justice John Tattan in late 1927, Governor John E. Erickson appointed Hartman to fill Tattan’s remaining term
as Judge of the 12th District Court. Hartman stood for election to the District Court seat in 1928 and, despite the fact that the Avant Courier characterized the area as a “Repub-lican stronghold,” he easily won election on the Democratic ticket. Ironically, like his predecessor, Charles Hartman did not complete his term of office.
Charles S. Hartman died on August 2, 1929 following a surgical operation in Great Falls. He was buried in Fort Benton and, perhaps fondly reminiscent of that time when he had helped establish the new state, had named in his Will the eleven surviving members of Montana’s 1889 Constitutional Convention as his honorary pallbearers.
Sources: Anaconda Standard; An Illustrated History of the State of Montana; Avant Courier; History of Montana 1739-1885; Montana the Magazine of Western History; R.L. Polk Directory of Bozeman & Gallatin County; Urban Populism & Free Silver in Montana.
Editor’s note: Free Silver was a major American policy movement in the late 19th century. Advocates touted an inflationary monetary policy through the “free coinage of silver” as opposed to the less infla-tionary Gold Standard. The debate pitted the pro-gold financial establishment of the Northeast, along with businessmen, against poor farmers and miners who would benefit from higher prices. The estab-lishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913 ultimately paved the way for the end of gold and silver currency with the creation of a fiat paper monetary system. —Wikipedia