The First Hurrah

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The most important organizational components of the campaign were the Bryan and Free Silver clubs, which had sprung up in communities across the land to work for his election. Many of them had little or no connection with the local Democratic party, which often was in the hands of the alientated sound-money Democrats. “We have to depend largely upon clubs to carry this election,” Bryan declared in a speech in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, “to offset the club that employers hold over their employees. ” Local clubs existed in rich variety, particularly in the ethnic neighborhoods of the great cities, where they proved invaluable for distributing campaign buttons, placards, and pamphlets, and for corralling immigrant voters. In Chicago, for example, Silver clubs, Bryan clubs, the Democratic and Silver clubs of Cook County, the Cook County Democratic Marching Club, and the Negro Free Silver club all turned out when Bryan came through.

The dominant motif of the Republican campaign was that Bryan was an outsider, a threat to the Establishment. Businessmen feared that his victory would bring economic collapse. Businesses advised their employees that their work would cease if Bryan won. In Worcester, Massachusetts, Bryan spoke beside a huge underwear manufacturing plant -on whose wall was spread a giant portrait of McKinley with the American flag as background; alongside it was the red standard of anarchy bearing Bryan’s picture.

Sometimes factory workers would listen in silence to Bryan, suppressing any desire to applaud for fear of spotters stationed by their employers in the crowd. Depositors were informed that if Bryan won, their banks would fail, insurance companies advised policyholders that they would be unable to fulfill their obligations, and investment houses predicted a shattering collapse in the value of securities. “It was a reign of terror in industrial communities,” recalled Josephus Daniels, editor of the Raleigh, North Carolina, News Observer , who toiled and counseled in Bryan’s campaign, “the like of which never was seen before in this country.”

Pushing unflaggingly through the West, South, and East, Bryan toiled to reassure the doubters and spread the gospel of free silver. Though that issue appealed enormously to rural audiences, it did not stir labor leaders and union memberships, or the immigrant colonies, or the general body of urban voters. Handicapped by technical obscurities, the silver issue lacked bread-and-butter appeal outside rural America. In fact, labor and city people were apprehensive that a silver policy would prove inflationary and reduce the buying power of existing wage scales. In the later stages of his campaign, particularly in Eastern cities, Bryan downplayed silver and stressed two issues of wide appeal to city workers- government by injunction and the progressive income tax.

Weakened by a cold, Bryan finished out the campaign with a 344-mile journey through Nebraska, chiefly to aid the congressional tickets. He reluctantly ended his marathon speaking early on election morning at Creighton Hall in Omaha. The campaign over, fatigue suddenly overwhelmed him, and at 6:30 P.M. he went to bed. A telegraph apparatus had been installed in his home, and the operators handed incoming election bulletins to Mary, who brought the major ones to her husband. From her expression he immediately knew the worst. By 11:00 P.M. he acknowledged defeat.

Though his electoral-college defeat was overwhelming, 271 to 176, the popular vote was respectably close, McKinley receiving 7,107,822 to Bryan’s 6,511,073, or 50.88 per cent for McKinley and 46.77 for Bryan. Why did he lose? Bryan believed that he had been victimized by gross electoral irregularities. Others believed that a sensational and manipulated rise in wheat prices in the campaign’s closing weeks cost Bryan the major wheat-growing states. In the longer view of history, the 1896 election was a watershed one, regrouping the supporters of both major parties for the future. Bryan had hoped to align farmers, city workers, and small businessmen within Democratic ranks. He failed, and the Republicans drew new support from all kinds of economic and social classes, so that for the first time the aggregate Republican vote in urban areas nearly matched that in rural sectors. This realignment would endure until 1932 when Franklin Roosevelt effected another grand reshuffling of voters’ allegiances.

In 1900 Bryan again ran against McKinley and again he lost, this time by a greater margin. Bryan’s campaign was similar to his 1896 race in method, organization, and the obstacles encountered—the bogeyman image and McKinley’s lopsided financial advantage. Early on, Bryan had heeded counsel to wage a stay-at-home campaign, but before many days, seeing that his race was going nowhere, he set out on the campaign trail with his old gargantuan vigor, attracting huge audiences, capturing their enthusiasm, but not their votes. Eight years later he tried again, this time against Theodore Roosevelt’s anointed successor, William Howard Taft. Again, Bryan announced his commitment to a stay-at-home plan, again succumbed to the fever of hard campaigning, and again he lost.