Of populists and political fusion

  • Ed Quillen

  • A 1896 Judge magazine cartoon shows a William Jennings Bryan-headed snake called Populism swallowing a mule representing the Democratic party.


The last time the Democratic Party held its national convention in Denver was exactly a century ago, in 1908. That was also the first time the Democrats convened west of Kansas City.

The presidential nominee that year was no novelty, though; for the third time, William Jennings Bryan, once known as "the boy orator of the Platte,‚" was selected. Bryan is sort of a historical footnote today, perhaps best known as the inspiration for the character of Matthew Harrison Brady in the play and movie Inherit the Wind -- a prominent lawyer who prosecutes a teacher for teaching evolution, much as Bryan did in the famous Scopes trial of 1925.

But Bryan was once a power in the land. He served as secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson, resigning in 1915 because he was a pacifist and could not support Wilson's belligerent attitudes. Bryan was also the Democratic candidate in 1896, and was nominated again four years later.

Bryan, then only 36 years old and an obscure two-term congressman from Nebraska, electrified the 1896 convention with his "Cross of Gold‚" speech, which got its name from its biblical conclusion: ¬†"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.‚"

It was a speech that enabled him to carry most of the West in 1896, along with what was then the Democratic "Solid South‚" of the old Confederacy.

The issue that brought those delegates to their feet was something that, today, is seen as an arcane matter best left to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System: monetary policy. Back then, it was the hottest of election issues, discussed in pool halls and barbershops throughout the country.

For farmers, then 43 percent of the American labor force and 47 percent of the population, the problem was deflation: The dollar was gaining in value every year. That meant it bought more, which tended to work against farmers. In 1881, for example, corn fetched 63 cents a bushel. In 1890, it was down to 28 cents. In 1881, a farmer with a mortgage payment of $1,000 a year would have needed to raise 1,587 bushels to make that payment. But nine years later, he would have needed 3,571 bushels -- more than twice as large a harvest. If he could not raise that much corn, foreclosure loomed.

Little wonder, then, that the nation teemed with millions of angry farmers who wanted to see the nation's money supply increased to reverse the deflation. But how to do that, when the dollar was then tied to gold?
"Greenbackers‚" suggested that the government just print more dollar bills, or "greenbacks.‚" Another idea was to make silver, which was then being mined in abundance in the West, a legal currency, thereby expanding the money supply. The resulting inflation would drive up crop prices; farmers could pay their bills while silver miners in the Rockies kept their jobs.

Thus arose the uneasy alliance that became the Populist Party of the early 1890s. It elected a governor in Colorado, Davis H. Waite, in 1892. That year, the Populist presidential candidate, James B. Weaver, carried Colorado, Kansas, Idaho and Nevada. Six Populists served in the U.S. Senate of that era. Seven states, mostly in the West, elected Populist governors, sometimes as fusion candidates with the Democrats -- that is, they were nominated by both parties.

And that's what Bryan was in 1896 -- a fusion candidate nominated by both the Democrats and the Populists.

Some of the Populist platform eventually became law: direct election of U.S. senators (they were previously selected by state legislatures) and a graduated income tax. The party fizzled away for a variety of reasons, but it was certainly as influential as any "third party‚" in American history.

Bryan fizzled, too, from the nation's leading progressive advocate for farmers and laborers, to a standard-issue Democrat in 1900 and 1908 (carrying only Nevada, Colorado and Nebraska in the West), to the puritan reactionary of the Scopes trial in 1925.

Political alliances were different then. Today, Prohibition is seen as an extremely conservative position, but back then most progressives supported closing the saloons and breweries -- a goal shared by much of the women's suffrage movement. Populists opposed immigration because it would lower wages, and many, like Tom Watson, became vile race-baiters even if they didn't start out that way.

Bryan's opposition to the teaching of evolution in public schools was more progressive than it might seem today. It was motivated by more than his adherence to a rather literal interpretation of the Bible. Bryan had a humanitarian objection to "social Darwinism‚" -- the theory that the strong are supposed to oppress the weak in human society.

As for Populism, the party that dominated the West at the end of the 19th century, consider the preamble to the 1892 platform, and how much of it might remain relevant today:

"... we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling places to prevent universal intimidation and bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages. ... The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of the world. ... From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes -- tramps and millionaires.‚"

Ed Quillen lives in Salida, Colorado, where he publishes Colorado Central Magazine and is a regular op-ed columnist for the Denver Post.

High Country News Classifieds