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The First Hurrah

July 2024
15min read

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

The most confident prediction that can be made about the 1980 presidential campaign is that the nominees will invest enormous energy, time, and money in stumping the country. Even though television can now bring them effortlessly into the nation’s living rooms, candidates eagerly commit themselves, sometimes against the advice of their most expert strategists, to the grind and risk of the campaign tour, a hullabaloo of marching bands, pressing throngs, outstretched hands, the candidate fatigued and hoarse, shouting platitudes about the beauty of the countryside, the virtues of its citizens and of their sterling leaders—provided they belong to his party.

It would seem that this boisterous ritual has been going on since the early days of the Republic, and one can imagine, say, Andrew Jackson striding through a shouting mob to the steps of a small-town courthouse, there to give a tough speech against the Bank, and broach a keg of cider. And, in the main, this picture is accurate: there have always been speeches, and cheering crowds, and free cider. But there is one very significant anomaly—until a time within the living memory of many Americans, the candidate himself never even considered appearing.

The inventor of this uniquely American madness was thirty-six-year-old Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan, who, in 1896, committed the full, torrential energy of his huge physique and relative youth to an all-out, grand-scale campaign tour against the Republican nominee, William McKinley. His raucous example has been followed slavishly by candidates ever since.

Before Bryan’s time, presidential “campaigning” was hardly worthy of the name; it was staid and muted, constrained by a decorum that deferred to the presumed majesty of the office and that regarded an active, visible candidacy as unseemly. Thomas Jefferson set the standard in 1800. Though others campaigned ardently in his behalf, Jefferson did virtually nothing, remaining in discreet seclusion at Monticello. Although letters flowed in from his fellow Democratic-Republicans around the country, keeping him in touch with the campaign, Jefferson scrupulously abstained from political comment even in correspondence with his closest friends.

Instead, the campaign of 1800 was conducted through pamphlets—more than a hundred of them—and by an avalanche of communications in the press. Jefferson’s reticence finally prompted Federalist newspapers to carry stories that after an illness of forty-eight hours he had died. Alert Jeffersonians noted that these reports were timed to precede the year’s Fourth of July celebrations, then largely a personal commemoration of their hero’s authorship of the Declaration of Independence, in order to dampen their festive ardor. The most direct involvement Jefferson allowed himself was to correct the draft of a biographical pamphlet, a forerunner of the campaign biography, which included an affirmation, in bold type, that “ Jefferson still lives .”

Jefferson’s pattern of decorous reserve was closely observed for decades. Even Andrew Jackson declined to attend public dinners or travel into other states, boasting proudly at the campaign’s close, “I have not gone into the highways and market places to proclaim my opinions.” He did meet with delegations of politicians and conduct a voluminous correspondence in the press, explaining his views and refuting the “falsehoods and calumny” of his critics.

Abraham Lincoln, despite the enthusiasm his name inspired in 1860, was a model of prim reserve. For all of a long campaign, from May until December, he was removed from public view. Although he managed a flood of visitors and endless correspondence, he made virtually no speeches and left the campaigning to others. Lincoln’s successors in the nineteenth century continued to cultivate the traditional image of disinterested patriotism, leaving active campaigning to party colleagues. In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes even squirmed over the propriety of attending Ohio day at the Philadelphia fair, although he was Ohio’s governor as well as the Republican presidential candidate and everyone agreed the occasion was nonpolitical.


There were a handful of overeager exceptions to the rule. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune and nominee of the Liberal Republicans in 1872, and General James Baird Weaver, nominee of the Greenback party in 1880 and of the Populists in 1892, timidly ventured onto the campaign trail for modest schedules of speechmaking.

Republican James G. Blaine, the “Plumed Knight” of Maine, stretched popular campaigning still further in his 1884 race against Grover Cleveland—and met disaster. Politicians in the East and in the border states, imperiled by the lapping waters of uncertain elections, begged Blaine, whose votegetting magic they venerated, to come to their rescue. Heading west, Blaine moved deftly but wearily through a lengthy schedule of speeches, made bearable only by the warmth of embattled politicians eagerly awaiting his visit.

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.

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. ”

Hanna was indeed increasing the money in circulation. The fear Bryan prompted among the well-to-do enabled Hanna to conduct a mighty levy on wealthy businessmen, much of it underground. He subjected the business community to a massive shakedown. From railroads, insurance companies, and big city banks, he demanded and got sizable contributions. Ultimately, the Republican National Committee reported expenditures of $3,500,000; the actual amount approached $16,000,000. Despite these heartening revenues, the McKinley camp began to worry about the huge, enthusiastic crowds turning out wherever Bryan went. To an adviser who was close to the candidate, Hanna declared emphatically, “We have got to get McKinley out on the road to meet this thing and I wish you would go out to him … and map out a campaign for him.” But McKinley adamantly refused to campaign. He recalled that at the campaign’s start he had declared he would not, and to reverse himself now would acknowledge weakness. “Moreover,” he said, “I might just as well put up a trapeze on my front lawn and compete with some professional athlete as go out speaking against Bryan.”


McKinley chose to emulate Benjamin Harrison, who on a modest scale had conducted a “front-porch” campaign in 1888. In McKinley’s expanded version, his front porch in Canton, Ohio, felt the tread of thousands of delegates from all parts of the country who took advantage of the low excursion rates of cooperating railroads. (One journalist remarked that visiting McKinley was “cheaper than staying at home.…) Before each delegation arrived, a dossier was prepared on its members and their background, enabling McKinley to make pleasant personal remarks before moving into a standard statement on the issues. Between June and November, some three-quarters of a million people visited McKinley in more than three hundred delegations from thirty states. Many snatched souvenirs, carving out pieces of wood from his picket fence, his porch, and his house and snatching leaves from trees and shrubs and plucking blades of grass until the lawn looked “as if a herd of buffalo had passed that way.”


As McKinley labored on his porch, Bryan’s on-the-road campaign intensified. In peak form, Bryan could make thirty speeches in a day—and appear again at any time during the night. Bryan survived this mad pace thanks to his sturdy athletic constitution, and an extraordinary ability to sleep between stops.

To reach crowds of forty thousand in a day innocent of voice amplifiers, and to keep pace with the resulting enormous demands on his physique, Bryan developed a monstrous appetite, consuming plattersful of food, and demanding for his breakfast double or triple servings of what ordinary people expected for their dinner. His orgiastic consumption and his rushed schedule demolished his table manners, sometimes nauseating those who watched him eat. Bryan favored radishes above all foods, and thoughtful hostesses provided them by the bagful, to be munched on as he pushed through his hyperactive day.

Even Bryan’s choice of clothing was adapted to the rigors of constant travel. He rejected linen coats because they were hard to keep clean; cool alpaca suited his needs, along with easily washed string ties. In a day of pointed footware, Bryan wore square-toed shoes that made him less apt to stub his toe and stumble as he boarded moving trains.

Marion Butler, a leading North Carolina Populist who accompanied Bryan during part of his Southern tour, was appalled at his absorption in such trivia as checking train schedules, buying tickets, and arranging for baggage and mail. Bryan rose in the middle of the night to make train changes and connections, toting his own heavy grips. At Butler’s recommendation, the national committee provided Bryan with a special car known inappropriately as “The Idler,” in which the press and local committees could travel comfortably along with the candidate.

The campaign’s most common scourge was the plague of pickpockets irresistibly drawn by the close-packed crowds. Reporters noticed as many as fifty clamber aboard Bryan’s train as the day began, take seats in the smoker, and pile out at each stop for their work. Unwittingly, Bryan aided them with his favorite rhetorical device of asking those in his audience who had gold in their pockets to raise their hands, and then those who had silver to raise theirs. While Bryan proved his point that both metals were commonly accepted, the pickpockets moved in.

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.

Bryan’s recipe for direct energetic campaigning was not immediately taken up by subsequent candidates. Even the normally frenetic Theodore Roosevelt abstained in 1904, abiding by the older tradition that a sitting President would besmirch the dignity of his office if he took to the stump.

Oddly enough, it was sedate Woodrow Wilson who first affirmed Bryan’s approach. In his three-cornered race with Taft and Roosevelt in 1912, Wilson saw the latter, now freed of the Presidency and conducting a vigorous on-the-road tour, as his most formidable opponent, a “real, vivid person” to the public, “whom they have seen and shouted themselves hoarse over and voted for.” In contrast, Wilson found himself “a vague, conjectural personality, more made up of opinions and academic prepossessions than of human traits and red corpuscles.” Still, Wilson announced in early August that he would not engage in undignified “swings around the circle.” Rather, he would stay at home and discuss principles.

But Wilson’s managers protested that 1912 was no time for a front-porch campaign and so, reluctantly, Wilson took to the hustings. It quickly became clear that popular campaigning was not his forte. He was too restrained, too scholarly, his speeches too crammed with facts about the tariff and the trusts, to make sturdy contact with his audiences.

Nevertheless, campaigning had somehow become part of the game, and he had to do it.


The new art flourished throughout the 1920’s, but Franklin Roosevelt brought it to its full maturity. His speeches were carried by radio, enabling the candidate’s mellifluous voice and radiant warmth to reach millions in their homes while he himself faced large big-city audiences. And he had another advantage: “As you know,” he wrote a Montana senator, “I love campaigning.”

Love it or not, his successors have all had to go on the stump.

On-the-road campaigning made a giant leap with the spread of the presidential primary. This year, with primaries scheduled in thirty-five states, popular campaigning will run amok. And, for all the flashy hoopla, it continues to provide important benefits to the political system. It prevents the Presidency from becoming the monopoly of long-established political careerists. It shows the candidate that he must make a broad appeal and that his politics will require accommodation and compromise. And above all, it teaches the candidate—as he follows Bryan’s ghostly footsteps through the tank towns—that the people are his employer.

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