A century ago this fall, voters were at one another’s throats in one of the hardest-fought campaigns ever
I brag and chant of Bryan, Bryan,
Bryan, Candidate for president who sketched a silver Zion,
The one American Poet who could sing outdoors…
Neat stuff, in my opinion. Can you imagine anyone writing passionate poetry about either contestant in this November’s election? I certainly can’t. But in 1896 sixteen-year-old Vachel Lindsay was set afire by his hero-candidate, even though he didn’t write “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan” until 1919. I have enjoyed every line of the poem ever since running across it in my own youth, though I now know that it’s far from historically accurate. Despite that flaw, it’s still an important witness to the intensity of the Bryan-McKinley electoral contest of just a century ago, and the story of that canvass, its tempests and its legends, deserves retelling for the light it throws on what makes an election truly pivotal. Few candidates have been so openly feared and hated as was William Jennings Bryan, and few electorates have ever been so convinced that the fate of democracy hung on the outcome.
To condense the story is not easy, but clarity dawns if we approach the election through three avenues: the issues, the parties, and the candidates. The absolute defining question of the hour was how to rally a stricken economy. A massive depression beginning in May of 1893 had shattered the just-begun second administration of the Democrat Grover Cleveland. The President’s early response was to protect the Treasury’s shrinking reserves of gold (the only authorized backing for the nation’s currency) by compelling Congress to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. That measure commanded the government to buy a fixed quantity of silver each month and add it indirectly to the circulating medium. In killing it, Cleveland thwarted a growing political demand from the solid Democratic South (and the West as well) to restore silver to the status of legal tender, which it had lost twenty years earlier. Though other conflicts would soon arise, from the moment of repeal—November 1, 1893—the “money question” swallowed up competing issues like a rampaging shark.
Was it truly so central? As a historian I sensibly leave the jungle of monetary theory to economists. I have no idea of how the supply of money actually affects economic activity. But I can readily explain why voters of the 1890s perceived the matter in life-and-death terms. Producers—especially wheat and cotton farmers—had suffered through a long period of falling prices for what they sold, while their fixed expenses like interest, freight charges, and manufactured goods seemed to rise, helped not a little by the price rigging of trusts and railroad cartels and by a stiff protective tariff. They believed that the sickening drop in the prices they got for their crops was deliberately exacerbated by a shortage of circulating currency—too many goods chasing scarce dollars. But there was an answer in the rising output of the silver mines of the Far West. If the government would coin silver at a fixed, artificial value—say, one-sixteenth that of gold, even when it was worth less on the market- there would be plenty of dollars in circulation again. Debtors believed passionately that sticking to a gold-only currency condemned them to work more and receive less while parasitic bankers fattened on their labor.
Gold’s defenders like Cleveland thought otherwise. If the government could manipulate the value of money by decree, it could turn economic law upside down. It could replace reliance on an ancient, honorable, and universal standard of value with a currency fluctuating in tune with political expediency. Contracts would have no meaning; valuable dollars loaned out could be repaid with tinsel; business would collapse. It was the classic confrontation between debtors and creditors, each wanting an “honest dollar” that benefited them most. But in the pain of the 1890s the clash took on ugly overtones. Were you for gold, the tool of plutocrats and plunderers? Or for silver, the vehicle of expropriation, socialism, and chaos?
In their national conventions of 1896, the two mainstream parties staked out their currency positions in opposing trenches. The Republicans held on as the party of prosperity through industrial growth and the tariff, nominated their fifth Union-army veteran since 1868, Ohio’s governor William McKinley, and declared essentially for a gold standard. The Democrats were taken over by silverites, produced a platform plank calling for the unlimited coinage of silver at sixteen to one, and named Bryan their candidate. But there were three parties in the game (actually five, counting disgruntled splinter factions of “Gold Democrats” and “Silver Republicans”), and the new People’s party, better known as the Populists, was one more frightening symptom of impending calamity to political regulars of 1896.
The Populists, who had done very well in state and congressional elections in 1892 and 1894, were primarily a Farm Belt coalition. They embraced free silver but also had a much more far-reaching program for taming corporations and democratizing the industrial order; it included the direct election of senators, rural credit systems, and public ownership of railroads among other highly radical ideas for the 1890s. In their July 1896 convention the Populists had to choose between naming their own candidate to run on this wider agenda or getting an actual chance of having a friend in the White House by endorsing Bryan. He himself, while sympathetic to many Populist ideas, would fight hard only for silver, the cause that had made his reputation since he embraced it as a congressman from Nebraska. He had won the nomination mainly through a stem-winding and unforgettable oration climaxing with the thundering admonition to Cleveland Democrats: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” After heated debate the People’s party delegates chose “fusion” with Bryan over independence. Ultimately the merger worked to their disadvantage and his.
That was because Bryan could thereafter be easily tarred both with Populist “extremism” and the ignorance and inexperience of youth. In 1896 he was just thirty-six years old, and he had been in diapers when McKinley was advancing from private to major on bloody fields. Actually, there were personal similarities between the two, both small-town Midwesterners (Bryan was raised in Illinois), good family men, devout churchgoers and faithful to the belief that success in life was largely self-made by the exercise of will and virtue. But these parallels were obscured by the storms of a canvass in which multitudes of family farmers who considered themselves the moral backbone of the Republic were fighting a rear-guard action against being marginalized, and legions of other Americans likewise buffeted and bewildered by a changing economic order were terrified of unfamiliar initiatives. The ordinary billingsgate of politics turned into the language of class war.
The Populists had always received a poor press in the big cities; one newspaper described the delegates to their convention as “anarchists, howlers, tramps, highwaymen, burglars…men with unkempt and matted hair.” One clergyman said that the Democratic platform “was made in Hell,” while Harper’s Weekly warned that beyond Bryan’s “feeble and ignorant presentation of his money heresy” lay “the deep abyss of socialism.” John Hay, a future Secretary of State, described Bryan as “a halfbaked glib little briefless jack-leg lawyer…promising the millennium to everybody with a hole in his pants and destruction to everybody with a clean shirt.” Hay’s friend, young Theodore Roosevelt, the police commissioner of New York City, supposedly told a New York editor that “the sentiment now animating a large proportion of our people [could] only be suppressed…by taking ten or a dozen of their leaders out, standing…them against a wall, and shooting them dead.” (Roosevelt later denied the words; the editor stood by his version.)
Not all the vehemence was on the Republican side. Pro-Bryan cartoonists drew caricatures of McKinley’s campaign manager, Mark Hanna, as a bloated plutocrat wearing a vest patterned in dollar signs—ignoring the fact that wealthy silver miners and their heirs, like William Randolph Hearst, were among Bryan’s backers. In fact, Hanna did raise much more cash—some $3.3 million, a huge sum in 1896—from worried businessmen than did the Democrats. And businessmen had especially persuasive tactics; persistent stories of factories that hung out placards announcing that they would be shut down after election day if Bryan won seem to have some historical foundation. As Lindsay recalled it later, “the whole Atlantic coast/Seemed a giant spiders’ nest.”
Bryan could not offset these disadvantages with his own incredible outpouring of energy. He barnstormed the nation by rail, speaking to perhaps five million people in twenty-seven states as he journeyed some eighteen thousand miles. But the results on the night of November 3 were crushing. McKinley won 271 electoral votes to Bryan’s 176. The popular vote was closer—some 7 million to 6.5 million—but no matter that, the election had really made a difference. The people had voiced their clear preference, if not for gold, at least for the industrial status quo and what McKinley called “the Full Dinner Pail.” In a sense they had voted in the twentieth century.
Vachel Lindsay never forgave them. His 1919 verses cruelly lampooned McKinley as “the man without an angle or a tangle,” Mark Hanna’s “slave, his echo, his suit of clothes.” Even “boy Bryan,” the “gigantic troubadour, speaking like a siege gun” in 1896, had by then become fat and old and a consistent but outdated defender of an “old-time” religion that contested not only evolution but much of the open-mindedness that characterized modern thought. That may be why, though Bryan still had six years to live, Lindsay wrote that he, too, had “gone to join the shadows…where the kings and the slaves and the troubadours rest.”