A young, inexperienced orator captures the Democratic presidential nomination and squares off against the war hero and senior statesman nominated by the Republicans. Speaking as if from a pulpit, in a style learned from fiery preachers, the magnetic newcomer had the crowds swooning. I’m referring, of course, to the presidential election of 1896.
That year, the Democratic Party was sharply divided between an establishment faction led by President Grover Cleveland and those who wanted even more government control over the economy. This leftist faction also advocated “free silver.” What was that all about, anyway? The free (as in, unlimited) coinage of silver would have combined increasing the money supply, to help farmers deep in debt, with boosting demand for silver, to assist miners in the Rocky Mountain region.
Even further to the left on the political spectrum was the Populist Party, a bastion of the free silver movement. The Populists were socialists, calling for government ownership of the railroads, telephones and telegraphs. Some of their leading agitators would have found themselves comfortable on today’s lunatic fringe.
Had they positioned themselves between the Republicans and the Populists, Democrats likely would have won the White House. Fortunately for the GOP, Democrats handed their presidential nomination to a man who shifted his party to the left by embracing the Populist Party’s agenda.
Barack Obama’s keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was not the first time a newcomer’s oratory catapulted him to prominence.
A 36-year old former two-term U.S. Representative from Nebraska stood up at the 1896 Democratic National Convention and delivered an eloquent speech in favor of the free coinage of silver. Thundering against the rich and powerful on behalf of the common people, William Jennings Bryan concluded with a flourish still remembered today: “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 convention erupted in cheers for their new messiah. Shoving aside the front-runner, Rep. Richard Bland, delegates nominated Bryan on the fifth ballot.
A cross of gold? Such magnificent, if absurd, rhetoric was necessary to obscure the fact that the free silver position did not make much sense. A lack of silver coins was not the reason for bad times down on the farm, or in mining towns, or among factory workers. The Democrats’ claim that it was the reason discredited the rest of their economic agenda and handed the policy initiative to the Republicans for the next sixteen years. Along with free silver, the Democrats adopted the bulk of the Populist Party platform. At their subsequent convention, the Populists had little choice but to nominate Bryan as well, in effect merging their party into the Democratic Party.
Like Obama, Bryan spoke in a mellifluous baritone and could hold an audience spell-bound. To be sure, there were differences between the two men. Bryan did not associate with a rogue’s gallery of characters such as Bill Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn and Tony Rezko. He later commanded a regiment during the Spanish-American War, and his fundamentalist religious convictions were a constant throughout his life.
The magnetic Democrat nominee was the first presidential candidate to travel around the country extensively. Bryan’s campaign was also the first by a major party to make an overt appeal to class consciousness. He speechified non-stop.
The Republican presidential nominee was 53-year old William McKinley, a former seven-term U.S. Representative and two-term Governor of Ohio. He had risen to the rank of major in the regiment commanded by Rutherford Hayes during the Civil War.
Rather than try to match the oratory, McKinley responded with his front porch campaign. With few exceptions, he remained at home looking presidential, speaking to Republican delegations from across the country who came to see him. Accompanying him at many appearances were the officials he said would figure prominently in his administration.
The Republicans campaigned for common-sense, pro-growth economic policies. Free silver, McKinley said, was nonsense that would cause inflation while decreasing trade with foreign nations that used the gold standard. Another theme was the contrast between the poor, backward South controlled by the Democrats and the prosperous North, where the Republicans were largely in charge. Republicans asserted that only they were in favor of industrialization and progress. They also condemned Democrats for their oppression of African-Americans.
Early on, Bryan looked like a winner, but his campaign faded in the fall. Rhetoric that had once seemed inspirational came off as pompous and bombastic. Worse, many voters wondered if Bryan really knew what he was talking about. While McKinley presented himself as a seasoned team leader, Bryan proved himself to be a naive, one-man show.
Those supporters of Senator Hillary Clinton who do not vote for Barack Obama would be following the example of many Democrats in 1896. President Cleveland, for example, refused to campaign for Bryan and voted for an independent Democrat candidate instead.
William Jennings Bryan carried the Solid South and other Democrat strongholds, but McKinley won over Middle America and so won the presidency. Republicans retained majorities in both houses of Congress.
Sure and steady won the race for the Republican.
BTW, Karl Rove’s hero, Mark Hanna, was McKinley’s campaign manager.
This article is adapted from Back to Basics for the Republican Party, a history of the GOP from the Republican point of view. It is also posted at the Grand Old Partisan blog, which celebrates 154 years of Republican heroes and heroics. See www.republicanbasics.com for more information.