Bryan: The Progressives: Part I

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The young man’s “superlative self-assurance” (one might call it effrontery but for the fact that his daring plan succeeded) staggers the imagination. Many men within his party were far better known than he, and his state, Nebraska, was without major influence in Democratic affairs. With Cleveland and the national organization dead-set against free coinage and other inflationary schemes, Bryan’s chances of capturing the nomination seemed infinitesimal. But if bold, his action was by no means foolish. Democratic voters were becoming more and more restive under Cleveland’s conservative leadership. At least in Bryan’s part of the nation, many thoughtful members of the party were beginning to feel that they must look in new directions and find new leaders if they were not to be replaced by the Populists as the country’s second major party. Recognizing this situation before most politicians did, Bryan proceeded to act upon his insight with determination and dispatch.

First of all, he set out to make himself known beyond his own locality. Accepting the editorship of the Omaha World-Herald at a tiny salary in order to obtain a forum, he turned out a stream of editorials on the silver question, which he sent to influential politicians all over the country. He toured the South and West with his message, speaking everywhere and under all sorts of conditions: to close-packed, cheering throngs and to tiny groups of quiet listeners. His argument was simple but forceful, his oratory magnetic and compelling. Always he made sure to meet local leaders and to subject them to his genial smile, his youthful vigor, his charm, his sincerity. He did not push himself forward; indeed, he claimed to be ready to support any honest man whose program was sound. But he lost no chance to point out to all concerned his own availability. “I don’t suppose your delegation is committed to any candidate,” he wrote to a prominent Colorado Democrat in April of 1896. “Our delegation may present my name.” When the Democratic convention finally met in Chicago, Bryan believed that he was known personally to more of the delegates than any other candidate.

Few delegates took his campaign seriously, however. At the convention, one senator asked Bryan who he thought would win out. Bryan replied characteristically that he believed he himself “had as good a chance to be nominated as anyone,” and proceeded to tick off the sources of his strength: Nebraska, “half of the Indian Territory, …” but before Bryan could mention his other backers the senator lost interest and walked off with some of his cronies. The candidate, amiable and serene, took no offense. A majority of the delegates favored his position on silver. No one had a clear lead in the race. All he needed was a chance to plead his case.

The opportunity—Bryan called it an “unexpected stroke of luck,” although he planned for it brilliantly—came when he was asked to close the debate on the platform’s silver plank. When he came forward to address the jam-packed mob in the Chicago auditorium he was tense, but there was a smile on his face, and to observers he seemed the picture of calm self-confidence. He began quietly, but his voice resounded in the farthest corners of the great hall and commanded the attention of every delegate. He was conscious of his own humble position, he told the throng, but he was “clad in the armor of a righteous cause” and this entitled him to speak. As he went on, his tension evaporated and his voice rose. When he recounted the recent history of the struggle between the forces of gold and silver, the audience responded eagerly. “At the close of a sentence,” he wrote later, “it would rise and shout, and when I began upon another sentence, the room was still as a church.”

He spoke for silver as against gold, for the West over the East, for “the hardy pioneers who have braved all the dangers of the wilderness” as against “the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world.”

We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned; we have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded; we have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!

The crowd thundered its agreement. Bryan proceeded. One after another he met the arguments of the party’s Cleveland wing head on. Free silver would disturb the business interests? “Gold bugs” were defining the term too narrowly. Remember that wage earners, crossroads merchants, and farmers were also businessmen. The cities favored the gold standard? Their prosperity really depended upon the prosperity of the great agricultural regions of the land, which favored bimetallism. “Burn down your cities and leave our farms,” he said, “and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”