- 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
Following his notification of the nomination and his speech accepting it at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Bryan and his wife Mary, a shrewd judge of character thought by many to be more politically astute than her husband, visited Democratic leaders in New York State, seeking their support. The results were unencouraging, if not unnerving. Even the state Democratic chairman was noncommittal, and though Bryan lavished hours of camaraderie on the most powerful upstate Democrat, David Bennett Hill, nothing came of it. Hill wouldn’t speak to the press.
The chilly rebuff convinced Bryan that much of the regular Democratic party organization was unalterably opposed to him. For his candidacy to go anywhere, he had to take to the campaign trail. He began at once a slow railroad journey, with many stops for speaking, from New York to Chicago, where his Labor Day speech was scheduled.
Labor Day in Chicago, the official opening of Bryan’s extraordinary campaign, was a triumph for himself and for his sponsor, the city’s Building Trades Council. Forty thousand supporters paraded in welcome; thousands more workingmen and their families flocked to hear him speak at Sharpshooter’s Park, though it was well outside the city and hard to get to. The grounds were jammed; men and boys perched in trees overhanging the speakers’ stand; the crush became so intense that Bryan implored the crowd to stay back and stopped his speech again and again to pour glasses of water and help revive fainting women.
The exhilaration of Chicago revived the Bryans’ spirits and made them receptive to new advice about the nagging question of campaigning in the East. A reporter whose opinions Bryan valued warned that he should not be fooled by the hostility of New York’s Democratic leaders: Whitney and other powers were acknowledging privately that the silver ticket “will carry the state.” Similar encouragement came from Pennsylvania. Let Bryan not be misled by the coolness of the state organization; the local clubs were “enthusiastic in the belief that Pennsylvania can be carried for you.”
The frenzied tenor of Republican oratory, too, provided incentive for a truly national tour. Bryan was being depicted as a monster, the ruination of the Republic, an anarchist, and a fool: Theodore Roosevelt dismissed him as “a mere boy, without intelligence or power.” A common Republican oratorical device depicted Bryan as President summoning a cabinet of John Peter Altgeld, “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, Eugene V. Debs, and other supposed apostles of radicalism whom Roosevelt anticipated meeting someday “on the field of battle, sword in hand.” Bryan now felt he had to stump the country to allow the citizenry to see with their own eyes that he was not the Devil with horns. The Bryans decided to campaign in every section, West, South, and East.
After Chicago, Bryan, traveling by train, pushed on to St. Louis and then to Louisville, scarcely missing a way station. In Louisville, the great crowds were so enthusiastic that they cheered at anything, and when Matt O’Doherty, a Silver Republican and the Louisville meeting’s chairman, made a wild, ranging speech in which at the climax of a series of ever more elaborate contentions he shouted that Bryan was “the greatest anarchist that ever lived,” their cheers were deafening. The anti-Bryan press subsequently featured this outburst with I-told-you-so satisfaction, while omitting O’Doherty’s citation of social concerns and patriotism that provided the basis of Bryan’s “anarchy.” Folly struck again when Senator Joseph C. S. Blackburn, acting as cheerleader, asked the crowd to identify some American with one or another superlative capacity or achievement, each time evoking a hearty shout, “Bryan.” Mindful of O’Doherty’s speech, Blackburn went on to demand from the happy crowd, “Who is the recognized leader of anarchists in this country?” “Bryan! Bryan! Bryan!” they roared back in jubilation.
Although his voice had grown hoarse, Bryan pushed on through Kentucky, stopping everywhere. At Lexington, he was escorted to the fairgrounds by a mile-long procession that included one thousand horsemen, many of them mounted on Kentucky thoroughbreds. At Somerset, he rose at 2:00 A.M. to address several hundred people waiting patiently to hear him. Excursion trains from the surrounding countryside brought in thousands to swell the local crowds at Knoxville, Tennessee. In his speech from a stand in front of the courthouse, Bryan explained why 16 to 1 would not cause grave inflation, as his foes predicted. As he elaborated on the intricacies of how money is put into circulation, someone shouted, “Mark Hanna is going to put it into circulation.” Bryan, who loved to rise to such occasions replied, “That is increasing the circulation just before the election in order to contract it after the election. ”