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THE BATTLE OF THE STANDARDS

When the Republicans met in convention at St. Louis in the middle of June, 1896, the monetary issue had already dwarfed all other political questions. It was indeed the rock on which the party might have crashed in utter shipwreck but for the precautions of one man who had charted the angry waters and the dangerous shoals and who now had a firm grasp on the helm. Marcus A. Hanna, or "Uncle Mark," was the genial owner of more mines, oil wells, street railways, aldermen, and legislators than any other man in Ohio. Hanna was an almost perfect example of what the Populists denounced as the capitalist in politics. Cynically declaring that "no man in public life owes the public anything," he had gone his unscrupulous way, getting control of the political machine of Cleveland, acquiring influence in the state legislature, and now even assuming dictatorship over the national Republican party. Because he had found that political power was helpful in the prosecution of his vast business enterprises, he went forth to accumulate political power, just as frankly as he would have gone to buy the machinery for pumping oil from one of his wells. Hanna was a stanch friend of the gold standard, but he was too clever to alienate the sympathies of the Republican silverites by supporting the nomination of a man known to be an uncompromising advocate of gold. He chose a safer candidate, a man whose character he sincerely admired and whose opinions he might reasonably expect to sway--his personal friend, Major William McKinley. This was a clever choice: McKinley was known to the public largely as the author of the McKinley tariff bill; his protectionism pleased the East; and what was known of his attitude on the currency question did not offend the West. In Congress he had voted for the Bland-Allison bill and had advocated the freer use of silver. McKinley was, indeed, an ideally "safe" candidate, an upright, affable gentleman whose aquiline features conferred on him the semblance of commanding power and masked the essential weakness and indecision which would make him, from Mark Hanna's point of view, a desirable President. McKinley would always swim with the tide.

In his friend's behalf Hanna carried on a shrewd campaign in the newspapers, keeping the question of currency in the background as far as possible, playing up McKinley's sound tariff policy, and repeating often the slogan--welcome after the recent lean years--"McKinley and the full dinner pail." McKinley prudently refused to take any stand on the currency question, protesting that he could not anticipate the party platform and that he would be bound by whatever declarations the party might see fit to make. Even after the convention had opened, McKinley and Hanna were reticent on the silver question. Finally, fearing that some kind of compromise would be made, the advocates of the gold standard went to Mr. Hanna and demanded that a gold plank be incorporated in the platform. Hanna gracefully acceded to their demands and thus put them under obligation to repay him by supporting McKinley for the nomination. The platform which was forthwith reported to the convention contained the unequivocal gold plank, as Hanna had long before planned. Immediately thereafter a minority of thirty-four delegates, led by Senator Teller of Colorado, left the convention, later to send out an address advising all Republicans who believed in free coinage of silver to support the Democratic ticket. The nomination of William McKinley and Garret A. Hobart followed with very little opposition.

There was nothing cut and dried about the Democratic convention which assembled three weeks later in Chicago. The Northeastern States and a few others sent delegations in favor of the gold standard, but free silver and the West were in the saddle. This was demonstrated when, in the face of all precedent, the nominee of the national committee for temporary chairman was rejected in favor of Senator John W. Daniel of Virginia, a strong silver man. The second day of the convention saw the advantage pushed further: each Territory had its representation increased threefold; of contesting delegations those who represented the gold element in their respective States were unseated to make way for silverites; and Stephen M. White, one of the California senators, was made permanent chairman.

On the third day of the convention the platform, devoted largely to the money question, was the subject of bitter debate. "We are unalterably opposed to monometallism, which has locked fast the prosperity of an industrial people in the paralysis of hard times," proclaimed the report of the committee on resolutions. "Gold monometallism is a British policy, and its adoption has brought other nations into financial servitude to London.... We demand the free and unlimited coinage of both gold and silver at the present legal ratio of sixteen to one without waiting for the aid or consent of any other nation." A minority of the committee on resolutions proposed two amendments to the report, one pronouncing in favor of a gold standard, and the other commending the record of Grover Cleveland, a courtesy always extended to a presidential incumbent of the same party. At the name of Cleveland, Senator Tillman leaped to his feet and delivered himself of characteristic invective against the President, the "tool of Wall Street," the abject slave of gold. Senator David B. Hill of New York, who had been rejected for temporary chairman, defended the gold plank in a logical analysis of monetary principles. But logical analysis could not prevail against emotion; that clamorous mass of men was past reasoning now, borne they hardly knew whither on the current of their own excitement. He might as well have tried to dam Niagara.

Others tried to stem the onrushing tide but with no better success. It seemed to be impossible for any one to command the attention and respect of that tumultuous gathering. Even Senator James K. Jones of Arkansas, a member of the majority group of the committee on resolutions, failed equally with Tillman to give satisfactory expression to the sentiments of that convention, which felt inchoately what it desired but which still needed a leader to voice its aspirations. This spokesman the convention now found in William Jennings Bryan, to whom after a few sentences Senator Jones yielded the floor.

Bryan appeared in Chicago as a member of the contesting silver delegation from Nebraska. A young man, barely thirty-six years old, he had already become a well-known figure in the West, where for years he had been expounding the doctrine of free silver. A native of Illinois, whither his father had come from Culpeper County, Virginia, Bryan had grown up on a farm. His father's means had been ample to afford him a good education, which he completed, so far as schooling was concerned, at Illinois College, Jacksonville, and at the Union College of Law in Chicago. While in Chicago Bryan was employed in the law office of Lyman Trumbull, one of the stanchest representatives of independence in politics--an independence which had caused him to break with the Democratic party over the slavery issue, and which, as expressed in his vote against the impeachment of President Johnson, had resulted in his retirement to private life. To the young law student Trumbull took a particular fancy, and his dominating personality exerted an abiding influence over the character and career of his protege.

After a brief period of law practice in Jacksonville, Illinois, Bryan removed with his family to Lincoln, Nebraska. The legal profession never held great attraction for him, despite the encouragement and assistance of his wife, who herself took up the study of law after her marriage and was admitted to the bar. Public questions and politics held greater interest for the young man, who had already, in his college career, shown his ability as an orator. Nebraska offered the opportunity he craved. At the Democratic state convention in Omaha in 1888 he made a speech on the tariff which gave him immediately a state-wide reputation as an orator and expounder of public issues. He took an active part in the campaign of that year, and in 1889 was offered, but declined, the nomination for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket. In 1890 he won election to Congress by a majority of seven thousand in a district which two years before had returned a Republican, and this he accomplished in spite of the neglect of party managers who regarded the district as hopeless. In Congress he became a member of the Committee on Ways and Means. On the floor of the House his formal speeches on the tariff, a topic to which nothing new could be brought, commanded the attention of one of the most critical and blase audiences of the world. The silver question, which was the principal topic before Congress at the following session, afforded a fresher field for his oratory; indeed, Bryan was the principal aid to Bland both as speaker and parliamentarian in the old leader's monetary campaign. When Bryan sat down after a three-hour speech in which he attacked the gold standard, a colleague remarked, "It exhausts the subject." In 1894 a tidal wave of Republicanism destroyed Bryan's chances of being elected United States Senator, a consummation for which he had been laboring on the stump and, for a brief period, as editor of the Omaha World-Herald. He continued, however, to urge the silver cause in preparation for the presidential campaign of 1896.

Taller and broader than most men and of more commanding presence, Bryan was a striking figure in the convention hall. He wore the inevitable black suit of the professional man of the nineties, but his dress did not seem conventional: his black tie sat at too careless an angle; his black hair was a little too long. These eccentricities the cartoonists seized on and exaggerated so that most people who have not seen the man picture Bryan, not as a determined looking man with a piercing eye and tightset mouth, but as a grotesque frock-coated figure with the sombrero of a cow-puncher and the hair of a poet. If the delegates at the convention noticed any of these peculiarities as Bryan arose to speak, they soon forgot them. His undoubted power to carry an audience with him was never better demonstrated than on that sweltering July day in Chicago when he stilled the tumult of a seething mass of 15,000 people with his announcement that he came to speak "in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty--the cause of humanity," and when he stirred the same audience to frenzy with his closing defiance of the opponents of free silver:

"If they say bimetallism is good, but that we cannot have it until other nations help us, we reply that, instead of having a gold standard because England has, we will restore bimetallism, and then let England have bimetallism because the United States has it. If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost. 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."

 

Meeting Senator Hill's careful arguments with a clever retort, blunting the keenness of his logic with a well-turned period, polished to perfection by numerous repetitions before all sorts of audiences during the previous three or four years, Bryan held the convention in the hollow of his hand. The leadership which had hitherto been lacking was now found. The platform as reported by the committee was adopted by a vote of more than two to one; and the convention, but for the opposition of Bryan himself, would have nominated him on the spot. The next day it took but five ballots to set aside all the favorite sons, including the "Father of Free Silver" himself, Richard P. Bland, and to make Bryan the standard bearer of the party. Far different in character and appearance from the Republican group which had assembled in the same building a few weeks before, was the Populist convention which met in St. Louis late in July. Many of the 1300 delegates were white-haired and had grown old in the service of reform in the various independent movements of preceding years; some of them had walked long distances to save railroad fare, while others were so poor that, having exhausted their small store of money before the long-drawn-out convention adjourned, they suffered from want of regular sleeping places and adequate food. All were impressed with the significance of the decision they must make.

Gone were the hopes of the past months; the Populist party would not sweep into its ranks all anti-monopolists and all silverites--for one of the old parties had stolen its loudest thunder! It was an error of political strategy to place the convention after those of the two great parties in the expectation that both would stand on a gold platform. Now it was for these delegates to decide whether they would put their organization behind the Democratic nominee with a substantial prospect of victory, or preserve intact the identity of the Populist party, split the silver vote, and deliver over the election to a gold Republican.

The majority of the delegates, believing that the Democratic party had been inoculated with the serum of reform, were ready for the sake of a principle to risk the destruction of the party they had labored so hard to build. Senator William V. Allen of Nebraska summed up the situation when he said:

"If by putting a third ticket in the field you would defeat free coinage; defeat a withdrawal of the issue power of national banks; defeat Government ownership of railroads, telephones and telegraphs; defeat an income tax and foist gold monometallism and high taxation upon the people for a generation to come, which would you do?... When I shall go back to the splendid commonwealth that has so signally honored me beyond my merits, I want to be able to say to the people that all the great doctrines we have advocated for years, have been made possible by your action. I do not want them to say that the Populists have been advocates of reforms when they could not be accomplished, but when the first ray of light appeared and the people were looking with expectancy and with anxiety for relief, the party was not equal to the occasion; that it was stupid; it was blind; it kept 'the middle of the road,' and missed the golden opportunity."

 

Although most of the members of the convention were ready to cooperate with the Democrats, there was a very strong feeling that something should be done, if possible, to preserve the identity of the Populist party and to safeguard its future. An active minority, moreover, was opposed to any sort of fusion or cooperation. This "middle-of-the-road" group included some Western leaders of prominence, such as Peffer and Donnelly, but its main support came from the Southern delegates. To them an alliance with the Democratic party meant a surrender to the enemy, to an enemy with whom they had been struggling for four years for the control of their state and local governments. Passionately they pleaded with the convention to save them from such a calamity. Well they knew that small consideration would be given to those who had dared stand up and oppose the ruling aristocracy of the South, who had even shaken the Democratic grip upon the governments of some of the States. Further, a negro delegate from Georgia portrayed the disaster which would overwhelm the political aspirations of his people if the Populist party, which alone had given them full fellowship, should surrender to the Democrats.

The advocates of fusion won their first victory in the election of Senator Allen as permanent chairman, by a vote of 758 to 564. As the nomination of Bryan for President was practically a foregone conclusion, the "middle-of-the-road" element concentrated its energies on preventing the nomination of Arthur Sewall of Maine, the choice of the Democracy, for Vice-President. The convention was persuaded, by a narrow margin, to take the unusual step of selecting the candidate for Vice-President before the head of the ticket was chosen. On the first ballot Sewall received only 257 votes, while 469 were cast for Thomas Watson of Georgia. Watson, who was then nominated by acclamation, was a country editor who had made himself a force in the politics of his own State and had served the Populist cause conspicuously in Congress. Two motives influenced the convention in this procedure. As a bank president, a railroad director, and an employer of labor on a large scale, Sewall was felt to be utterly unsuited to carry the standard of the People's Party. More effective than this feeling, however, was the desire to do something to preserve the identity of the party, to show that it had not wholly surrendered to the Democrats. It was a compromise, moreover, which was probably necessary to prevent a bolt of the "middle-of-the-road" element and the nomination of an entirely independent ticket.

Even with this concession the Southern delegates continued their opposition to fusion. Bryan was placed in nomination, quite appropriately, by General Weaver, who again expressed the sense of the convention: "After due consideration, in which I have fully canvassed every possible phase of the subject, I have failed to find a single good reason to justify us in placing a third ticket in the field.... I would not endorse the distinguished gentleman named at Chicago. I would nominate him outright, and make him our own, and then share justly and rightfully in his election." The irreconcilables, nearly all from the South and including a hundred delegates from Texas, voted for S. F. Norton of Chicago, who received 321 votes as against 1042 for Bryan.

Because of the electoral system, the agreement of two parties to support the same candidate for President could have no effect, unless arrangements were made for fusion within the States. An address issued by the executive committee of the national committee of the People's Party during the course of the campaign outlined the method of uniting "the voters of the country against McKinley," and of overcoming the "obstacles and embarrassments which, if the Democratic party had put the cause first and party second," would not have been encountered: "This could be accomplished only by arranging for a division of the electoral votes in every State possible, securing so many electors for Bryan and Watson and conceding so many to Bryan and Sewall. At the opening of the campaign this, under the circumstances, seemed the wisest course for your committee, and it is clearer today than ever that it was the only safe and wise course if your votes were to be cast and made effective for the relief of an oppressed and outraged people. Following this line of policy your committee has arranged electoral tickets in three-fourths of the States and will do all in its power to make the same arrangements in all of the States."

The committee felt it necessary to warn the people of the danger of "a certain portion of the rank and file of the People's Party being misled by so-called leaders, who, for reasons best known to themselves, or for want of reason, are advising voters to rebel against the joint electoral tickets and put up separate electoral tickets, or to withhold their support from the joint electoral tickets." Such so-called leaders were said to be aided and abetted by "Democrats of the revenue stripe, who are not yet weaned from the flesh-pots of Egypt," and by Republican "goldbugs" who in desperation were seizing upon every straw to prevent fusion and so to promote their own chances of success.

In the North and West, where the Populist had been fusing with the Democrats off and on for several years, the combinations were arranged with little difficulty. In apportioning the places on the electoral tickets the strength of the respective parties was roughly represented by the number of places assigned to each. Usually it was understood that all the electors, if victorious, would vote for Bryan, while the Democrats would cast their second place ballots for Sewall and the Populists for Watson.

In the South much more difficulty was experienced in arranging fusion tickets, and the spectacle of Populists cooperating with Republicans in state elections and with Democrats in the national election illustrated the truth of the adage that "politics makes strange bedfellows." Only in Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, and North Carolina, of the Southern States, were joint electoral tickets finally agreed upon. In Tennessee the Populists offered to support the Democratic electors if they would all promise to vote for Watson, a proposal which was naturally declined. In Florida the chairman of the state committee of the People's Party, went so far on the eve of the election as to advise all members of the party to vote for McKinley; and in Texas there was an organized bolt of a large part of the Populists to the Republican party, notwithstanding its gold standard and protective tariff platform.

No campaign since that of 1860 was so hotly and bitterly contested as the "Battle of the Standards" in 1896. The Republicans broke all previous records in the amount of printed matter which they scattered broadcast over the country. Money was freely spent. McKinley remained at his home in Canton, Ohio, and received, day after day, delegations of pilgrims come to harken to his words of wisdom, which were then, through the medium of the press, presented to similar groups from Maine to California. For weeks, ten to twenty-five thousand people a day sought "the shrine of the golden calf."

In the meantime Bryan, as the Democrat-Populist candidate, toured the country, traveling over thirteen thousand miles, reaching twenty-nine States, and addressing millions of voters. It was estimated, for instance, that in the course of his tour of West Virginia at least half the electorate must have heard his voice. Most of the influential newspapers were opposed to Bryan, but his tours and meetings and speeches had so much news value that they received the widest publicity. As the campaign drew to a close, it tended more and more to become a class contest. That it was so conceived by the Populist executive committee is apparent from one of its manifestoes:

"There are but two sides in the conflict that is being waged in this country today. On the one side are the allied hosts of monopolies, the money power, great trusts and railroad corporations, who seek the enactment of laws to benefit them and impoverish the people. On the other side are the farmers, laborers, merchants, and all others who produce wealth and bear the burdens of taxation. The one represents the wealthy and powerful classes who want the control of the Government to plunder the people. The other represents the people, contending for equality before the law, and the rights of man. Between these two there is no middle ground."

When the smoke of battle cleared away the election returns of 1896 showed that McKinley had received 600,000 more popular votes than Bryan and would have 271 electoral votes to 176 for the Democrat-Populist candidate. West of the Mississippi River the cohorts of Bryan captured the electoral vote in every State except California, Minnesota, North Dakota, Iowa, and Oregon. The South continued its Democratic solidity, except that West Virginia and Kentucky went to McKinley. All the electoral votes of the region east of the Mississippi and north of Mason's and Dixon's line were Republican. The old Northwest, together with Iowa, Minnesota, and North Dakota, a region which had been the principal theater of the Granger movement a generation before, now joined forces with the conservative and industrial East to defeat a combination of the South with the newer agrarian and mining frontiers of the West.

The People's Party had staked all on a throw of the dice and had lost. It had given its life as a political organization to further the election of Bryan, and he had not been elected. Its hope for independent existence was now gone; its strength was considerably less in 1896 than it had been in 1892 and 1894.* The explanation would seem to be, in part at least, that the People's Party was "bivertebrate as well as bimetallic." It was composed of men who not long since had other political affiliations, who had left one party for the sake of the cause, and who consequently did not find it difficult to leave another for the same reason. In the West large numbers of former Populists undoubtedly went over completely to the Democracy, even when they had the opportunity of voting for the same Bryan electors under a Populist label. In the South many members of the party, disgusted at the predicament in which they found themselves, threw in their lot with the Republicans. The capture of the Democracy by the forces of free silver gave the death blow to Populism.

     * Of the 6,509,000 votes which Bryan received, about 4,669,000 were cast for the fusion electoral tickets. In only seven of the fusion States is it possible to distinguish between Democrat and Populist votes; the totals here are 1,499,000 and 93,000 respectively. The fusion Populist vote of 45,000 was essential for the success of the Bryan electors in Kansas; and in California the similar vote of 22,000, added to that of the Democrats, gave Bryan one of the electors. In no other State in this group did the Populist vote have any effect upon the result. The part played by the People's party in the other twenty-two of the fusio-States is difficult to determine; in some cases, however, the situation is revealed in the results of state elections. The best example of this is North Carolina, where the Democrat-Populist electors had a majority of 19,000, while at the same election Fusion between Republicans and Populists for all state officers except governor and lieutenant governor was victorious. The Populist candidate for governor received about 31,000 votes and the Republican was elected. It is evident that the third party held the balance of power in North Carolina. The Populist votes were probably essential for the fusion victories in Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, and Washington; but, as there was fusion on state tickets also, it is impossible to estimate the part played by the respective parties. The total Populist vote in the ten States in which there were independent Democratic and Populist electoral tickets was 122,000 (of which 80,000 were cast in Texas and 24,000 in Alabama) and as none of the ten were close States the failure to agree on electoral tickets had no effect on the result. The "middle-of-the-road" Populist votes, in States where there were also fusion tickets amounted to only 8000--of which 6000 were cast in Pennsylvania and 1000 each in Illinois and Kansas.

The Populist vote as a whole was much larger than 223,000--the total usually given in the tables---for this figure does not include the vote in the twenty-two fusion States in which the ballots were not separately counted. This is apparent from the fact that the twenty-seven electoral votes from ten States which were cast for Watson came, with one exception, from States in which no separate Populist vote was recorded. It is evident, nevertheless, from the figures in States where comparisons are possible, that the party had lost ground.