- Historic Sites
The First Hurrah
Presidential candidates stayed above the battle until William Jennings Bryan stumped the nation in 1896; they’ve been in the thick of it ever since
April/may 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 3
Although he longed for a respite, Blaine was persuaded to campaign in New York State. At a welcoming ceremony at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City, the spokesman for the greeting committee was the Reverend Samuel D. Burchard, described by the New York Sun as an “early Paleozoic bigot” and later by Blaine himself as “an ass in the shape of a preacher.” In the same monotone he employed for his other remarks, the cleric said, “We are Republicans and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion. We are loyal to our flag. We are loyal to you.”
Standing impassively at the foot of the hotel’s stairway, his audience filling the lobby, the exhausted Blaine failed to dissociate himself from Burchard’s inflammatory remarks in his own address, concentrating instead on demonstrating a link between the protective tariff and Christian charity. He never lived it down.
William Jennings Bryan was different from his predecessors. Given his talents, upbringing, and political history, it was inconceivable that he would have settled into the traditional candidate’s stance of decorous reserve, even if George Washington himself had graven in stone a commandment prescribing it. His handsome presence and rare oratorical talents demanded that he be seen and heard. Tall and slender, he was “every inch an Apollo,” according to an admirer; his eyes flashed beneath a bold but receding crest of raven hair, and commitment and inspiration illuminated his face. His voice had a fetching timbre and a pitch that enabled it to carry effortlessly and distinctly to the farthest reaches of huge convention halls and outdoor meetings.
Both from family upbringing and from schooling, Bryan was trained to revere declamation as an art and to master its skills. An unsuccessful lawyer, first in Jacksonville, Illinois, and then in Lincoln, Nebraska, he turned to politics in the 1880’s, campaigning for local Democratic tickets in Nebraska, and his reputation quickly fanned out as the state party’s best campaigner. In 1890 he ran for Congress when no established politician wished to challenge the popular Republican incumbent, conducting a whirlwind campaign that missed hardly a crossroad in his sprawling multicounty district and overwhelming his opponent in a series of debates.
Bryan served two terms in Congress, whereupon the Republican-controlled Nebraska legislature gerrymandered his district. Facing certain defeat, he chose not to run again.
In his brief career, Bryan had worked in close alliance with the Populist party and specialized in the money question- the relation of gold to silver and its consequences for the quantity of money in circulation. The quantity of money determined the welfare of his farming constituency. Typically, farmers expanded their acreage and borrowed in intervals of prosperity; then too often they were trapped by a suddenly fluctuating economy, forced to market their crops in a period of deflation and lowered prices. Heavy debt and mortgage foreclosures were the result. The perpetrators of this misery, according to Bryan and other Populists, were Eastern bankers, “Wall Street,” and subservient politicians who limited the coinage of silver and the general money supply.
In 1895 Bryan became a prominent lecturer and strategist for the movement for the free coinage of silver at a ratio to gold of 16 to 1, which was spreading with the fury of a national forest-fire. Lecture bureaus vied to represent him, and his tours led him all over the country. Each appearance had the trappings of a political rally—a speaker’s stand covered with spangled bunting, hawkers of “16 to 1” hats and other silver-oriented adornments moving through the crowd, a brass band, and the crowd itself, huge, attentive, exuberant.
One year later, in the 1896 presidential campaign, the nominee not only of the Democratic party, but of the Populist and National Silver parties as well, Bryan faced a question of basic strategy. Should he follow the practice of General James B. Weaver, the Populist nominee of 1892, and venture into every state, expounding his great cause? Bryan thought so, but when he outlined such a plan, including an extended tour of the East, to the Democratic National Committee, they instantly vetoed it, demanding that he concentrate instead on the West and South, and write off the East as lost to the GOP. A shortage of funds was the problem. While money cascaded into the coffers of William McKinley and his peerless fund raiser, Mark Hanna, it only trickled into Bryan’s basket. Wealthy Democrats, distressed by his nomination and his economic policies, were leaving the party in droves.
To the incumbent Democratic President, Grover Cleveland, a sound money man, the nomination was a personal repudiation. The President’s aide, William C. Whitney, political manager of the Democratic sound-money forces, declared ominously that he would not support the Chicago ticket. The Nation , the leading Democratic intellectual journal, condemned the Chicago convention as a “collection of inflammatory and reckless men,” and predicted that the Eastern branch of the party would renounce the ticket.