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William Jennings Bryan and the campaign of 1908: A portent of themes to come?

Nicholas E. Hollis

WASHINGTON _ After years of deficit spending, economic turmoil, and occupation wars abroad, which have all hollowed and dispirited the nation, we are stumbling into the most important presidential election campaign in decades.

Across the country, a dazed citizenry _ shell-shocked with mortgage foreclosures and soaring gas and grocery bills _ searches the political landscape for a moral compass, leadership with integrity: something to grasp, to hold our nation together.

When the Democrats head to Denver for their nominating convention in late August after a grueling, divisive primary season, some echoes from a century ago _ harking back to the Campaign of 1908 _ will undoubtedly resonate. Then, as now, the Republicans controlled the White House albeit with the popular "rough riding" Teddy Roosevelt, but "TR" had pledged to not seek a third term. The country had just weathered a severe financial crisis with rampant speculation, a stock-market plunge, and the failure of major lending institutions in the Panic of 1907. American forces were deployed abroad, fighting a protracted, increasingly unpopular war occupying the Philippines (a holdover from the Spanish–American War 10 years earlier).

In 1908, more than 36 percent of our population was living in rural areas and working on farms, but America was coming of age in ragtime. The Great White Fleet of new battleships had circumnavigated the globe, announcing U.S. naval power. John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil monopoly, the railroads, and J.P. Morgan's trusts dominated the industrial era. It was still the dawn of the automobile. Few rural households had electricity or a telephone.

Populism, which had peaked as a rural, farmer-led political movement more than a decade earlier, was still a force _ and the Democrats decided their standard-bearer would be a 48-year-old former two-term Nebraska congressman and lawyer _ William Jennings Bryan. He was a spellbinding orator who cast himself in the role of a crusading, romantic evangelist.

By 1908, Bryan was already a living legend, not new to the national stage.

A native of Illinois, Bryan had been raised on a farm. Twice before he had been a presidential nominee. A dozen years earlier in Chicago, Bryan had brought the Democratic Convention of 1896 to pandemonium with an electrifying speech, which helped propel him to the nomination at only 36 _ the youngest American nominee from a major party in U.S. history. In his "Cross of Gold" speech, Bryan warned about the excesses of corporate greed and the price that the country would pay by neglecting its agriculture:

"Burn down your cities, but leave our farms and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms, and grass will grow in the streets in every city of this country."

The Great Commoner (Bryan) also championed women's suffrage, direct election of U.S. senators, the eight-hour workday, antitrust (anti-monopoly legislation), food safety, the Federal Reserve banking system, and other reforms. In a political career that spanned three decades, he accomplished more than most presidents.

In the end, despite his tireless whistle-stop campaigning, Bryan lost decisively to William H. Taft, who outspent him more than three-to-one.

Bryan had decided not to accept donations from corporations. Taft also benefited from an attractive personality and Roosevelt's reform platform, which undercut Bryan's appeal. In fact, Roosevelt himself campaigned aggressively for Taft, drawing huge crowds. Post-election analysis suggested the jittery electorate seemed more comfortable with Taft and voted from their pocketbooks _ believing the Republicans offered a better chance of a return to economic prosperity.

In defeat, Bryan did not slide into despondency, and his message continued to appeal to millions _ perhaps at a more spiritual level. His campaign may well have helped transform the nation.

Ironically, the moral fervor Bryan espoused, as the conscience of the heartland _ questioning and challenging "Would the people rule?" _ perpetuated his patriarchal hold on the Democratic Party, enabling him to broker Woodrow Wilson's successful upset nomination at the 1912 Baltimore convention.

Wilson went on to victory over the divided Republicans, and Bryan became secretary of state _ a post he resigned two years later after Wilson tilted diplomatically against Germany and edged the country toward entering World War I. At State, Bryan is still remembered for his peace initiatives, seen by some historians as groundwork for the League of Nations.

Today in the more complicated 21st century, Americans are searching for the "genuine article" _ a political leader embodying and articulating their dreams and values. In the seeming eternity since the horrific Sept. 11 day of infamy, many have turned to history, genealogy, and religion for reassurance, trying to reconnect with the principles of the Founding Fathers. But a reconsideration of Bryan _ still on the edge of living memory and the emergence of modern America _ may prove more beneficial.

In the twilight of his life, Bryan concentrated on education, trying to reach America's youth, whom he considered at risk for their materialism and hedonism at the expense of humility. He did not live to see the Great Depression and its terrible toll _ but perhaps in the Roaring Twenties he could sense it was coming. Bryan's political legacy, including his outreach to organized labor, helped fashion FDR's winning alliance that became the foundation for the modern Democratic Party.

His eldest daughter, Ruth Bryan Owen, became the first congresswoman elected from Florida, and later became a diplomat and participated in the San Francisco Conference that set up the United Nations after World War II.

Among her many crusades was preserving the Everglades. The late Jennings Randolph, one of Bryan's namesakes, became a five-term U.S. senator from West Virginia (1958–85) and achieved an enormous legislative record, including spearheading the 26th amendment that gave 18- to 20-year-olds the right to vote.

At this juncture, we hear much about a return to core values and basic principles proffered by candidates flush with huge campaign contribution chests, armies of consultants, pollsters, and advance staff. Perhaps through the platitudes and manicured media sound bites, the citizenry will glean some insights into which nominee will truly lead with a firm hand of experience-based pragmatism and a realistic vision.

We cannot turn the clock back to 1908. And we must not allow nostalgia or "Swift boat" tactics to substitute for substance in a kind of desperate ghost dance reach for heritage and national revival. We may well be at the dawn of a new age of reform. But it would be a mistake in this watershed year of our democratic experiment _ still young _ to ignore the discipline, strength, and wise counsel of our forefathers and reformers like Bryan, who devoted their public lives to the nation's service and built the Republic.



Nicholas E. Hollis is president of The Agribusiness Council, a nonprofit organization that sponsors the William Jennings Bryan Recognition Project and others within its Heritage Preservation Committee. Readers may write to him at: Agribusiness Council, 1312 Eighteenth Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20036. He wrote this for the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va.


(c) 2008, Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.)

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