The Front Porch Campaign

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As soon as the Nebraska contestants were seated at Chicago, Bryan claimed and obtained a place on the resolutions committee, for which his delegation had favored him. The Democratic platform of 1896 sounded a new note in the pronouncements of the major parties of the United States. It was a declaration made on behalf of the masses of the people. The money plank stood first. It uncompromisingly demanded the free and unlimited coinage of both silver and gold at the ratio of sixteen to one, without waiting for the consent of any other nation. The platform condemned governmental dealing with banking syndicates, to their profit. It denounced the protective tariff as a prolific breeder of trusts. It demanded stricter federal control of trusts and railroads, specifying the enlargement of the powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission to protect the people from robbery and oppression. Its denunciation of arbitrary federal interference in local affairs was an attack on President Cleveland’s action in the Pullman strike. Its censure of “government by injunction” in labor disputes and the recommendation of an income tax defied the Supreme Court and impugned its judgment, with a plain hint that the problem might be solved by packing the Court in future.

After the platform was reported, Bryan arose to address the Democratic convention. He said nothing new, nothing that he had not said hundreds of times before. He had twice employed in public speeches the very rhetorical figure with which he concluded at Chicago: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” The Republican press took what comfort it could from the fact that the Democrats were stampeded by “a chestnut.” Bryan’s impassioned periods had electrified the convention, and made him its presidential candidate.

The inflationists had found their leader. The dissension over the currency flamed into open conflict in the campaign of 1896. It was a sectional conflict, the debtor farmers of the West against the eastern magnates. It was a class conflict, the crusade of the proletariat against the entrenchments of privilege. The scattered and impotent forces of protest united to assail the existing economic system and the dominance of the “money power.” To Bryan’s standard flocked Populists and Silver Republicans, who soon held conventions to endorse the Democratic nominee. He enlisted farmers and workingmen, and all the radicals, chronic objectors, bankrupts, and visionaries to whom he was an inspired prophet. But his clarion voice reached a far wider audience. It rang across a country weary of hard times with the confident promise of plentiful money; and, when Bryan called on Americans to renew their allegiance to the rights of the common man, he awakened an ancient faith and a desire for social justice. Like the old slavery issue, the moral cause of Bryan’s campaign shattered the bonds of party loyalty.

Bryan was of service to his country in laying bare the abuses of concentrated wealth and its control of government. He touched the laggard conscience of America, and disturbed its complacent absorption in material success. But over his crusade, belittling its purpose and confusing its significance, floated the banner of fiat money. Bryan knew nothing of economics. He preached free silver as he might have preached Christ crucified, the hope of man’s salvation. The inflationists surpassed the high tariff advocates in provincial exclusiveness of outlook, for they proposed that a great commercial nation should be isolated and self-sufficient in its money system. They were heedless of the country’s financial structure, and indifferent to foreign trade. Their most reckless demand was that the technical question of the currency, understood only by financial experts, should be settled at the polls. With the national solvency at the mercy of the sovereign and uninformed people, the campaign of 1896 became a grandiose farce—democracy reduced to an absurdity.

Bryan’s conservative contemporaries were shocked by his folly. They were also appalled by the strength of his cause. In July, the masses seemed spellbound. Had the election been held in the first weeks after Bryan’s Chicago speech, the Democrats would have carried the country. It does not now appear that the United States was in imminent jeopardy, or that the wildest measures of inflation could have long availed to arrest its progress and stamp out its production. But, in 1896, Republicans and Gold Democrats believed that they faced a crisis more serious than that of the Civil War. This was the rise of bankruptcy, nihilism, anarchy. This was red revolution.

The Republican leaders rallied to meet the challenge and man the barricades. Hanna gave up his holiday and began a summer of hard work, directing campaign headquarters established in New York and Chicago. The old lines would hold in the East, but Republican morale sank dangerously low in midsummer. The firm ground of the tariff had been swept from under McKinley’s feet. The champion of protection appeared a feeble defender of the gold standard—a candidate as illogical, the Nation had observed, “as a Methodist preacher would be in an election for Pope of Rome.” Bryan began a tremendous campaign, taking the Middle West by storm.