Bryan: The Progressives: Part I

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Now Bryan was absolute master of the delegates. “I thought of a choir,” he recalled afterward, “as I noted how instantaneously and in unison they responded to each point made.” The crowd cheered because he was reflecting its sentiments, but also because it recognized, suddenly, its leader—handsome, confident, righteously indignant, yet also calm, restrained, and ready for responsibility. His mission accomplished, it was time to close, and Bryan had saved a marvelous figure of speech, tested in many an earlier oration, for his climax. “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns,” he warned, bringing his hands down suggestively to his temples; “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Dramatically he extended his arms to the side, the very figure of the crucified Christ.

Amid the hysterical demonstration that followed, it was clear that Bryan had accomplished his miracle. The next day, July 9, he was nominated for the Presidency on the fifth ballot.

The issue was clear-cut, for the Republicans had already declared for the gold standard and nominated the handsome, genial, and thoroughly conservative William McKinley. As a result, the Populists were under great pressure to go along with Bryan. While the Democrats had not adopted all the radical Populist demands, their platform contained a number of liberal planks in addition to that on free silver, including one calling for a federal income tax and another for stiffer controls of the railroad network. For the Populists to insist on nominating a third candidate would simply insure the election of the “gold bug” McKinley. Not every important Populist favored fusion; some were ready to concede defeat in 1896 and build their party for the future on broadly radical lines. “The Democratic idea of fusion,” said Tom Watson of Georgia angrily, is “that we play Jonah while they play whale.” But the rich scent of victory in the air was too much for the majority to resist. “I care not for party names,” said “Sockless Jerry” Simpson bluntly; “it is the substance we are after, and we have it in William J. Bryan.” Indeed, Bryan’s friendly association with the Populists in earlier campaigns and his essentially Populistic views on most questions made it difficult for the party to oppose him. “We put him to school,” one anti-Bryan Populist later remarked, “and he wound up by stealing the school-books.” In any case, the Populist convention endorsed him; thus the silver forces united to do battle with the Republicans.

Both Bryan and McKinley men realized at once that this was to be a close and crucial contest. Seldom have the two great parties divided so clearly on fundamental issues; a showdown was inevitable; a major turning point in American history had been reached. Silver against gold was but the surface manifestation of the struggle. City against countryside, industry against agriculture, East against South and West, the nineteenth century against the twentieth—these were the real contestants in 1896.

After Bryan’s nomination McKinley’s manager, Mark Hanna, abandoned plans for a vacation cruise in New England waters and plunged into the work of the campaign. The situation was “alarming,” he told McKinley. A “communistic spirit” was abroad, business was “all going to pieces.” A mighty effort was called for. Hanna raised huge sums by “assessing” the great bankers, oil refiners, insurance men, and meat packers, using the threat of impending business chaos and wild inflation to loosen the purse strings of the tycoons. While McKinley, “the advance agent of prosperity,” conducted a dignified and carefully organized campaign from his front porch in Canton, Ohio ( see “The Front Porch Campaign,” AMERICAN HERITAGE , December, 1959), 1,400 paid speakers beat the bushes for votes in every doubtful district. The Republican campaign committee distributed more than 120,000,000 pieces of literature printed in ten languages to carry its message to the voters. Boiler-plate editorials and other releases were sent free to hundreds of small-town newspapers. Hanna, Theodore Roosevelt said, “has advertised McKinley as if he were a patent medicine!” The Republican organization reached a peak of efficiency and thoroughness never before approached in a political contest; the campaign marked a methodological revolution that has profoundly affected every presidential contest since.

Bryan had little money, and no organizational genius like Hanna to direct his drive. But he too effected a revolution that has left its mark on modern campaigning. McKinley’s front porch technique was novel only in the huge number of visiting delegations that Hanna paraded across his man’s lawn and the exaggerated care that the candidate took to avoid saying anything impolitic. It had always been considered undignified for a presidential nominee to go out and hunt for votes on his own. Bryan cast off this essentially hypocritical tradition at the very start. He realized that the concerted power of business and the press were aligned against him, and that his own greatest assets were his magnificent ability as a political orator and his personal sincerity and charm. His opponent could afford to sit tight; he must seek out the people everywhere if they were to receive his message. Between summer and November he traveled a precedent-shattering 18,000 miles, making more than 600 speeches and addressing directly an estimated 5,000,000 Americans. His secretary estimated that he uttered between 60,000 and 100,000 words every day during the campaign.