Populism was the watch-word of the 2016 United States presidential election. Two candidates in the race, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, were often described as populists, and one of them won. Populist political figures are those who speak to the average, working-class people, promising that they will shift government to meet their needs, rather than allow government to be run by and for the wealthy, the elite, corporations, or career politicians and lobbyists.
Populism was not concocted for the 2016 election, though it might seem a new and modern political strategy. If we jump back 120 years, to the presidential election of 1896, we’ll find a populist candidate taking his ideas directly to the masses, an orator of great renown who is credited with shifting the ideologies of two major political parties. And, to top it all off, he made an appearance in Morrison County during his campaign, an exceedingly rare event for a presidential candidate in the county’s history.
William Jennings Bryan took the Democratic National Convention by storm in 1896. The convention was held in Chicago, Illinois, in early July and from the get-go, conventioneers had no idea who the candidate would be. Even the party platform was up in the air. (1)
“The situation is all confusion in the Democratic convention. Only one thing looms up like a searchlight in the fog that hangs over the situation and obscures the vision of the wisest and most far-seeing leaders. That is the convention will be for silver at 16 to 1. As for candidates, the convention is still groping in the murk.” (2)
At the crux of all the chaos was one main issue: Bimetallism. The Democrats were split into two factions, “gold men” and “silver men.” The gold men were in favor of continuing with the gold standard backing the nation’s currency. The silver men (the bimetallists), which included William Jennings Bryan, wanted to have both silver and gold backing the nation’s currency, with 16 ounces of silver being the same value as 1 ounce of gold.
As the conventioneers went back and forth between various candidates, Bryan’s name was put forth as a dark horse candidate. (3) What clinched the nomination was a speech, known as the “Cross of Gold,” that Bryan gave on July 9, 1896, at the convention. The speech “stirred the convention to a frenzy” (4), with those in attendance screaming, waving their hats and canes, and even throwing their coats in the air. (5) Bryan focused on bimetallism, clearly tying the currency issue to the working class. He said,
“There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.
“You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard. I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” (6)
Sound familiar? Within two paragraphs of his 1896 speech, Bryan described what we now call “trickle-down economics” and the rural/urban divide currently facing the United States. He also tapped into the desires of working class people to be part of operating the country, as well as having them form the base of the Democratic Party. This started the shift in ideologies between the Democrats and Republicans that wouldn’t be complete until Franklin D. Roosevelt became president. (7)
Where did this rousing speaker come from? Bryan was born in 1860 in Illinois, the son of a lawyer who was a Baptist. “[Bryan’s] fear of water was so great that it led to his decision to leave the Baptist Church and become a Presbyterian at age fourteen.” (8) His oratory skill was remarked upon by no less than Teddy Roosevelt, who connected it to his religious upbringing by saying, “By George, he would make the greatest Baptist preacher on earth.” (9) Bryan’s mother provided his education until he was 10 years old. He attended Illinois College “and graduated as the valedictorian and class orator.” (10) Then he went on to law school and got married.
Bryan and his wife moved to Nebraska, where he practiced law and got involved in politics, being elected to the state’s Congress as a Democrat in 1890. That year, the Populist Party was formed in Nebraska and Bryan adopted a number of their views. (11, 12) “At the Democratic convention in 1894, Bryan was able to fuse the Democratic Party with the Populist Party.” (13) He carried this party fusion with him to the 1896 Democratic National Convention.
When Bryan was nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate in 1896, he was only 36 years old, “younger by 10 years than any other man ever nominated for the chief magistracy of the American republic.” (14) He was called “the Boy Orator of the Platte” and later became known as “The Great Commoner.” National boilerplate articles in the Little Falls Daily Transcript described Bryan in glowing terms, however, the Transcript was a Republican-leaning newspaper and its local editorials on the man were scathing. One described him thus: “He is a handsome, showy, vain fellow, with a surprising gift of gab and a trick of saying nothing in a very edifying fashion.” (15) The Morrison County Democrat was another local newspaper in operation at the time and, as you can guess from its name, it was in favor of Bryan. “There is one thing that the DEMOCRAT would urge all democrats, populists and free silver men: Vote the ticket straight from top to bottom: pocket any petty jealousy or spite, for the good of the cause, and put up an overwhelming majority for the whole ticket.” (16)
The Transcript followed national politics and Bryan’s candidacy closely, with practically every edition of the paper between July and November of 1896 providing some mention of bimetallism and the presidential race. When Bryan set off to campaign at multiple stops around the nation, including in Morrison County, the Transcript carried the coverage. Traveling to voters to stump as a presidential candidate was unusual at the time. “Bryan was running against Republican William McKinley who advocated conservative polices and ran a “front porch” campaign – McKinley stayed at home and had groups of supporters come to him. Bryan, on the other hand, traveled over 18,000 miles and made over 600 speeches.” (17)
Bryan stopped in Little Falls to campaign on October 13, 1896. “The Bryan special train reached here at 11:45 Tuesday forenoon, and the Popocrat candidate for president spoke from a stand erected on the baseball grounds near the depot. Judge Shaw introduced him.” (18) From there, the Transcript launched into a long screed taking Bryan to task for his views on bimetallism. Note the use of the term “Popocrat” to describe Bryan. It appears to be a combination of Populist and Democrat, but the Transcript seemed to use the term with a negative edge.
Meanwhile, the Morrison County Democrat described Bryan’s visit to Little Falls in an article with the following headings: “OUR NEXT PRESIDENT – William Jennings Bryan Was in Little Falls Last Tuesday – Talked Twenty Minutes to About Five Thousand People – Largest Crowd that Ever Gathered in Little Falls” (19) As the 1895 census put the population of Little Falls at 5,116, the turnout, which probably included more than locals, was stupendous.
The Democrat was so sure Bryan would win the race that it ended its article with the following: “Mr. Bryan made a number of good points, but unfortunately the time was limited and he could scarcely more than give us a glimpse of him, and he was gone, whirling through space, on the road that leads to the White House, where he is due to arrive promptly on March 4th, 1897.” (20)
It was not to be. William McKinley won the presidency in a tight race with Bryan, getting “51 percent of the vote to Bryan’s 47 percent.” (21) Morrison County favored McKinley, too, casting 1,960 votes for him and 1,734 votes for Bryan. (22)
Bryan went on to run for president two more times, in 1900 and 1908, but lost both races. He paid one more visit to Morrison County, speaking on Democratic issues from a train in Royalton on October 11, 1912. (23) He later served as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, and was part of the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925, arguing for creationism and against evolution.
While Bryan didn’t achieve his presidential aspirations, his effect on the U.S. political system still reverberates today, particularly in his push to popularize populist ideals meant to elevate average workers. David Frum, in his July 29, 2016, article for The Wall Street Journal entitled “The Trump Before Trump” (24), makes the connection between William Jennings Bryan and president-elect Donald Trump, who campaigned and won the 2016 election with populist messages. What’s old is new again.
~ Mary Warner
MCHS Executive Director
This article was first published in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Volume 29, Number 4, 2016.
(1) Little Falls Daily Transcript (LFDT), July 6, 1896.
(2) LFDT, July 7, 1896.
(4) LFDT, July 11, 1896
(5) History Matters, “Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” Speech: Mesmerizing the Masses, http://historymatters.gmn.edu/d/5354/, site accessed 12/6/2016.
(7) Wolchover, Natalie, “Why Did the Democratic and Republic Parties Switch Platforms?,” Live Science, http://www.livescience.com/34241-democratic-republican-parties-switch-platforms.html, site accessed 11/2/2016.
(8) Linder, Doug, “William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925),” UMKC School of Law, http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/fTrials/scopes/bryanw.htm, site accessed 12/2/2016.
(12) LFDT, July 11, 1896.
(13) “Roots of Progressivism: The Populists,” NebraskaStudies.org, http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0600/frameset_reset.html?http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0600/stories/0601_0304.html, site accessed 12/9/2016.
(14) LFDT, July 11, 1896.
(15) LFDT, July 13, 1896.
(16) Morrison County Democrat (MCD), October 22, 1896.
(17) “Roots of Progressivism: William Jennings Bryan,” NebraskaStudies.org, http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0600/frameset_reset.html?http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0600/stories/0601_0304.html, site accessed 12/9/2016.
(18) LFDT, October 13, 1896.
(19) MCD, October 15, 1896.
(21) “Roots of Progressivism: William Jennings Bryan,” NebraskaStudies.org, http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0600/frameset_reset.html?http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0600/stories/0601_0304.html, site accessed 12/9/2016.
(22) LFDT, November 7, 1896.
(23) LFDT, October 11, 1912.
(24) Frum, David, “The Trump Before Trump,” The Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-trump-before-trump-1468607827, site accessed 11/2/2016.