Friday, July 8, 2016

This Day in Convention History (Bryan Electrifies Dems With ‘Cross of Gold’ Speech)

July 8, 1896—With a barn-burner of an address to Democratic delegates gathered in Chicago for their Presidential convention, William Jennings Bryan did more than just switch the direction of his party in a more liberal direction, toward an acceptance of silver that incumbent Grover Cleveland would not support.

The former two-term, 36-year-old Congressman from Nebraska and advocate for the Populist movement also served notice that he would launch a campaign in which personal intensity would only be matched by physical mobility, as he became the most important Democratic figure for the next generation—its Presidential nominee three times, and a political force to be reckoned with in two others.

You can listen to Bryan’s recording of his “Cross of Gold” speech on the American Rhetoric Web site, but I’m afraid it would be like hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony played on a single note. He read the speech in a recording studio, on equipment far more primitive than today’s, requiring careful pronunciation above all else. It lacked an audience that “The Boy Orator of the Plains” could cajole, convince, exhort, and—at one memorable point, to one lukewarm group—defy.

Most of all, it lacked the suspense—and unexpected drama—of the real-time event. “When I finished my speech," Bryan recalled, “I went to my seat in a silence that was really painful. When I neared my seat, somebody near me raised a shout, and the next thing I was picked up—-and bedlam broke loose.”

At least since the Republican Convention of 1976, when Gerald Ford narrowly beat down the insurgent candidacy of Ronald Reagan, nothing of consequence remains to be decided at the two parties’ quadrennial gatherings. If, as historian Michael Beschloss noted in this past Sunday’s New York Times, modern conventions resemble heavily scripted “infomercials,” the style of their predecessors was political theater. It may have been best exemplified in 1896, when, upon the conclusion of Bryan’s speech, the transported delegates marched around the hall for an hour.

The next day, the delegates nominated Bryan for the Presidency. No prior candidate had been present for his own nomination.  Moreover, although well-received convention speeches have thrust other up-and-rising politicians to national prominence (e.g., Hubert H. Humphrey, Barack Obama), no other has become his party’s nominee the week of his speech.

The fiery finale of the speech (“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold”) ensured its permanent place in political annals. It also manifested the religious intensity that Bryan would display on public occasions throughout the rest of his life.

As Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, for instance, he and the President placed in State Department posts a high number of former missionaries and their children—part of their plan to ensure that post-imperial China would not only be a democratic nation, but also a Christian one. The concluding, perhaps most controversial, chapter of his life—his participation in the Scopes “monkey trial”—resulted from his fear that the theory of evolution was becoming increasingly accepted by churches.

This unfortunate end to Bryan’s life ensured that he would not be remembered as he should have been—as the most radical contender for the Presidency until another religious-minded candidate, Jesse Jackson, came along in the 1980s. Furthermore, it undoubtedly encouraged historians such as Richard Hofstadter to view perhaps more darkly than they should have the roots of the Populist movement he came to spearhead.

Populism took shape in the Gilded Age, as farmers found themselves increasingly marginalized in an America turning away from agriculture and toward industry. Farmers especially felt themselves at the mercy of railroad magnates and East Coast financiers.

In certain ways, farmers’ sense of loss and rhetoric that blamed Wall Street and foreigners for their plight (Britain had withdrawn money from American banks in the Panic of 1893) has led some media observers (notably, Forbes and U.S. World Report) to liken Bryan and the Populist wing that took over the Democratic Party in 1896 to Donald Trump’s and his supporters that upended the GOP establishment this year.

Historian H.W. Brands anticipated these critics in a 1996 appearance on C-Span’s Booknotes to promote his history of the 1890s, The Reckless Decade:

“A populist is someone who appeals to the masses, who generally employs a rhetoric of distrust of groups that they identify as elite. And in a democracy like the United States, to be branded ‘elitist’ is a serious charge. Populists portray themselves as the defenders of received values, of traditional virtues. They often tend toward demagoguery. In . . . the I890s, they were quite taken by conspiracy theories. This was in line with their thinking that elites controlled the American political systems, the American economy. And there was a notion that if somehow the United States could simply get back to its populist roots, if the common people could once again take control of the political and economic system, then we would return to some golden era of American history.”
Certainly, a powerful sense of grievance and a feeling that too many remained stranded in hard times (the Panic of 1893, the Great Recession of 2007-09) are common threads running through these different points in time. Bryan gave voice to this when he directly addressed gold-standard adherents who followed the lead of the incumbent President, Grover Cleveland:

"When you [turning to the gold delegates] come before us and tell us that we are about to disturb your business interests, we reply that you have disturbed our business interests by your course." He went on to redefine "business man" in a broader sense than the proprietor of a large urban concern, as it was already becoming known.

But Bryan, unlike Trump, was a Democratic loyalist, ready to draw sharp contrasts with intra-party opponents on positions but without resort to name-calling; he was not a billionaire, but a man
who had to recoup his finances after the 1900 Presidential race; and, far from espousing vague
and occasionally contradictory positions, he proposed specific reforms way in advance of their eventual enactment (e.g., the federal income tax, railroad regulation, women's suffrage, a Department of Labor, state initiative and referendum, and two issues with sharp resonance today: the abolition of capital punishment and campaign fund disclosure). 

The youngest major party Presidential nominee in American history, with little opportunity to make a name for himself during his four years in Congress, Bryan made a virtue of necessity by launching something unprecedented in national politics: a barnstorming campaign by train, in which he made at least 250 speeches, seen by at least 5 million people. This drew an implicit generational contrast with the 54-year-old Republican nominee, William McKinley, who conducted a “front-porch campaign” from his Ohio home.

But McKinley’s campaign manager, Mark Hanna, countered with an all-media promotional blitz based unapologetically on funds derived from the commercial interests that Bryan castigated. 

In his fine new book The Fight to Vote, Michael Waldman not only itemized the multiple ways that the GOP got its message out (e.g., 120 million pieces of literature, brochures in nine languages, and a short film of McKinley that was, in effect, the first campaign commercial), but also its systematic, even shameless form of fundraising (for instance, “Banks were dunned to donate one quarter of 1 percent of their capital to McKinley’s campaign”).
Predictably, Bryan was swamped in November 1896. He would go on to be nominated again by the Democrats in 1900 and, after skipping the 1904 race against overwhelmingly popular Theodore Roosevelt, for a third time against William Howard Taft in 1908. He lost each election. But, as leader of the party’s liberals, he lent critical support to Wilson at the 1912 Democratic Convention.  That alliance proved ill-fated for Bryan. Wilson appointed him Secretary of State but sought his advice little, and Bryan resigned in protest over the President’s handling of the Lusitania controversy.

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