|William Jennings Bryan Wowing the Democratic Convention.|
Note: A version published on July 9, 2010. Re-reading this I am struck by the similarity to our own times—economic catastrophe engineered by a powerful oligarchy of investment bankers—J.P. Morgan et. al—and the huge Trusts which were dominating the nation. The collapse wiped out many farmers and small, independent businesses, created wide spread-unemployment, and drove most of the industrial working class into abject poverty. The bankers and Trust lapped up all of lost wealth and forfeited property. Then their prescription for economic salvation—a rigid adherence to the Gold Standard—only accelerated the misery and made them even richer. New wrinkles these day, but the game is the same. No wonder Conservatives wax poetic about the era of unfettered Robber Baron capitalism.
On July 9, 1897 one of the most successful political speeches in American History was delivered at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The issues addressed in the speech seems arcane today, but in the midst of reoccurring financial panics in the late 19th Century, they reflected a growing restlessness among society’s economic underdogs with the Eastern bankers and monopolists who held sway with the full support of the Republican Party.
The impassioned words of 36 year old former Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan electrified the convention and won him the nomination for the Presidency.
Bryan was born in 1860 in Illinois southern Egypt region to an ardent Jacksonian Democrat father and a fervent Christian mother. At the insistence of his mother, Bryan’s father, a prosperous Marion County judge, kept his son homeschooled to concentrate on the moral education offered by the Bible and McGuffey Readers.
The boy listened at the dinner table to his father’s political diatribes and on Sundays attended Methodist services in the morning and Baptist services in the afternoon. Eventually, however, he gravitated toward the Cumberland Presbyterians, a highly Evangelical and egalitarian splinter from the main body of Presbyterianism steeped in the enthusiasms of the Great Awakening.
In 1874 he was sent to Jacksonville, Illinois to attend high school at Whipple Academy, which was affiliated with small, Presbyterian Illinois College. He graduated as valedictorian of his class at Illinois College in 1881 and followed his father’s footsteps into law at Union College of Law (now Northwestern Law School) from which he graduated in 1884.
He married a fellow law school grad, Mary Baird who would help and advise him the rest of his career. The couple set up housekeeping in the small town of Salem Illinois and he established a law practice in near-by Jacksonville. Bryan eventually transferred his membership to the more mainstream Presbyterian Church in the United States, but he never abandoned Cumberland’s emotionalism or egalitarianism.
In 1887 the family moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, then a railroad boom town and the state capital. He came under the tutelage of state Democratic king pin James Charles Dahlman, later the “perpetual mayor” of Omaha. Dahlman boosted Bryan’s political career despite Bryan’s prudish Puritanism and Dahlman’s connections to liquor and vice interests. He got Bryan elected and re-elected Congressman in 1890 and ’92.
The repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, passed in 1890, which had modestly increased the amount of silver that the government was required to purchase led to a collapse of the silver market, vital to the economies of several Western states, and revived the long simmering debate over bi-metalism vs. a single gold standard.
In 1873 Congress passed the Coinage act that essentially demonetarized silver. The mints were brought under the direct control of the Treasury Department to stop buying silver bullion and to draw down existing reserves as necessary for the coinage of small change. The price of gold versus silver skyrocketed causing the collapse of Western mining economies. Stop gap measures like the Sherman Silver Purchase Act were meant to give some relief by requiring the government to purchase some silver at above market prices. But sound money men including almost all Republicans and conservative Democrats like President Grover Cleveland crushed these reforms.
The affect of this de facto gold standard, was the longest period of prolonged deflation in the county’s history which continued unabated from 1873 right up to 1896. While falling prices sound good in the short term, especially for inflation weary modern ears, prolonged price cuts devastated small industries and sectors of the economy not dominated by Trusts who could set prices without regard to completion. Wages not only stagnated, they fell across the board. And for farmers, who depended on regularly borrowing in future crops, it meant repaying loans taken out at a high value with dollars of reduced value.
Farmers and small manufacturers supported the free coinage of silver or bi-metalism precisely because it would lead to some inflation allowing for growth in prices of raw materials and cash crops while allowing debt to be more easily repaid with inflated currency.
As a result of strict gold standard policies the depression following the Panic of 1873 dragged on for five horrendous years and the country was in yet another deep depression following another panic in 1893.
It was against that background that Bryan, using his considerable powers as a spell binding speaker whose style was influenced by the best Evangelical preachers, hit the stump circuit beginning in 1894 relentlessly promoting the free coinage of silver.
By the time of the Chicago convention he was a household name and his cause was gaining traction among Southern and Western Democrats as well as among supporters of the new Populist movement. Conservative Cleveland style Democrats, or Bourbons dominated the delegates and expected to re-nominate the President. But Bryan’s speech unexpectedly electrified the delegates. He concluded with the famous words:
Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.
After spreading his arms apart in a dramatic crucifixion pose, the cheering crowd rushed the stage.
The horrified New York Times commented that “a wild, raging irresistible mob” had been unleashed. Bryan swept aside an incumbent President of his own party and ran away with the nomination himself. He soon also added the nominations of the Populist Party and the tiny break away Silver Republicans.
Unhappy Gold Democrats nominated a candidate of their own, Senator John M. Palmer of Illinois, a Republican until 1890, with the support of President Cleveland. Most large Democratic papers in the East endorsed Palmer or sat out the race.
The Republicans picked Ohio Governor William McKinley, a stolid big business conservative championed by GOP king maker Marc Hanna. McKinley ran a largely traditional 19th Century campaign, hardly leaving his Canton, Ohio and pretending to be “above the political fray.” In a slight twist, Hanna had McKinley run a Front Porch Campaign, bringing crowds of reliable Republican faithful from around the country by rail to hear the candidate speak from his front porch. The fired up troops were then expected to return enthusiastically to their home to campaign for the candidate. A largely sympathetic Northern and Eastern press breathlessly reported ever syllable of McKinley’s speeches promising prosperity, high tariffs, and sound money. Meanwhile Hanna’s operatives smeared Bryan as somehow simultaneously an anarchist and a religious fanatic whose election would destroy both Capitalism and republican government.
Undeterred, Bryan launch his own vigorous campaign featuring the first-ever campaign train and gave over 500 speeches in 27 states. Hanna countered by raising an astonishing $3.5 million dollars, mostly in large donations by the nation’s fattest cats unleashing an unprecedented advertising and promotion blitz. He boasted to friends his advertising dollars bought friends in the editorial columns of even traditional anti-Republican papers. He also strewed the country with badges, banners and all manner of campaign materials and memorabilia.
Brian relied on his own passion and lungs, the loyalty of agrarian voters in the West and South, and the hope that emerging Democratic machines in Eastern big cities would turn out the vote.
In the last month before the election the Republicans held a wide lead in the Northeast. Bryan had safe margins in the West and South. The Midwest became the battleground and Hanna poured all of his recourses into frightening its residents from the “mad man.” In the end more established farmers from the old Northwest kept their Republican loyalty and skilled workers—railroaders, and members of the AFL craft unions were convinced that their bread was best buttered by their bosses. Unskilled workers and immigrants other than Germans usually went for Bryan.
The very large German block in Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri was split between traditional Republican loyalists and large numbers of socialists who didn’t view bi-metalism as a critical issue.
In the end despite a scare, McKinley won 271 votes in the Electrical College to Bryan’s 176.
Bryan ran for president twice more, in 1900 and 1908 each time distancing himself further from Populism and even from the free coinage of silver after almost every nation in the world but China converted to the Gold Standard. By 1904 the Bourbon Democrats had reasserted mastery of the Party and Bryan ran with their blessing in 1908.
An ardent Peace Democrat, Woodrow Wilson tapped him for Secretary of State in 1913. He resigned in 1915 when he came to believe that Wilson was secretly planning to enter World War I.
In the postwar years he battled Democratic Wets in defense of Prohibition, advocated for women’s suffrage, promoted Florida real estate, and lectured on Christianity and against Darwinism.
Bryan’s last public act was as special prosecutor of John Scopes in the Dayton, Tennessee Monkey Trial going toe to toe against a former friend and political supporter, Clarence Darrow.
William Jennings Bryan died of a massive stroke just days after the trial ended at the age of 65.
As for the Gold Standard, adopted officially in addition to de facto in 1907, it did not survive the Great Depression. Another Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt abandoned the Gold Standard in 1933 helping to set off a slow recovery.