(aka Silver Democrats)
Grover Cleveland’s Administration
The Democrats entered their convention deeply divided. The severe depression had made their sitting president, Grover Cleveland, (left) wildly unpopular. Cleveland, the first Democratic president since the Civil War, had served two terms (1885-1889 and 1893-1897). In the early years he was popular as a reformer who opposed the corruption of big-spending Republicans in the capital, but the economic shock of 1893 eclipsed this issue.
A fiscal conservative, Cleveland sealed his fate among free silver advocates in the South and West when, in the face of economic hardship, he called a special session of Congress to further tighten the money supply. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman won his nickname when he threatened to “poke old Grover with a pitchfork.”
(Read more on the Gold vs Silver currency question.)
The Democratic National Convention at Chicago 7-11 July 1896
Arriving in Chicago, Eastern Democrats who opposed free silver were stunned by the strength of that cause. William C. Whitney, a millionaire, a close friend of Grover Cleveland, and his former Secretary of the Navy, rushed to the convention to organize the pro-gold forces, but found that delegates who shared his sentiments were in the minority. Cleveland’s Secretary of the Treasury, John G. Carlisle, remained in Washington and denounced the silverites from there. To some Americans’ shock and others’ joy, emerging candidates for the nomination were all Southern and Western free silver men.
The hopefuls included Richard Bland of Kentucky, a stalwart pro-silver voice in the House of Representatives from 1873 to 1894; Horace Boies, former governor of Illinois, also strongly pro-silver; and young William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska. The convention debated the currency question before moving to the nominations. With a dramatic address that became famous as the “Cross of Gold” speech, Bryan prompted an hour of cheering and demonstrations, followed by the convention’s adoption of a free silver plank by 628 votes to 301.
New York Senator David B. Hill, a loyal Cleveland man, moved that the convention express its support for the current Democratic administration. The motion failed miserably, and free-silver men wildly celebrated their victory. In addition, the convention passed an indignant resolution protesting Cleveland’s intervention to squelch Chicago’s Pullman strike. Republicans dubbed this the “anarchy plank, ”linking it to the Civil War doctrine of states’ rights and to fears of labor unrest.
The “Cross of Gold” speech is often credited with winning Bryan the nomination, in part because the convention’s actions seemed impulsive to Easterners unaware of sentiment in other regions. It was also unheard of for a convention to nominate a man in his presence; presidential hopefuls were supposed to wait modestly at home for the results. Bryan and his friends had, however, worked hard in advance, and several delegations came to Chicago already pledged to his support.
Gold Democrats faced a difficult choice. Some, like David Hill, sat quietly through the campaign, awaiting another year when they hoped economic conservatives would regain control of the party. Hill, when asked about his party affiliations, allegedly said he was “still a Democrat—very still.”
Others walked out, especially those who had lost their state and local power to free-silver men, and had little more to lose. Neither faction worked for Bryan, and some publicly instructed Democrats to vote for McKinley. Bryan and the Silver Democrats ran their campaign without the support of some of the party’s key contributors and leaders, including a hostile administration in Washington.
Bryan’s Democratic Running Mate
Democrats further complicated the campaign by nominating Arthur Sewall of Maine for the Vice-Presidency. Sewall, a Maine shipbuilding owner, seemed a good choice to attract Eastern votes and balance the Nebraskan presidential nominee. After the convention, however, Democrats discovered to their chagrin that Sewall had a poor reputation as an employer. His anti-labor record and great wealth made him anathema to the Populist convention, which endorsed Bryan but rejected Sewall, choosing Tom Watson of Georgia.
The “Chicago Platform”
Gold Democrats and Republicans used this term contemptously, to emphasize that the radical proposals adopted in 1896 did not represent the “real, ”traditional views of the Democratic party. Silver Democrats and fusion Populists celebrated the “Chicago platform ”as a new departure that promised aid to those hit hard by the depression and more equal distribution of wealth. The most controversial planks were free silver and the proposed federal income tax.
Bryan’s campaign manager was Senator James K. Jones of Arkansas; he proved ruthless in his dealings with the Populists, but not so effective in besting the Republicans. The silver Democrats were poor in comparison to McKinley’s forces. Toward the end of the campaign they unsuccessfully sought $350,000 from William Randolph Hearst and silver mine operators; even this amount paled in comparison with the hundreds of thousands raised by Republican Mark Hanna. In the end, silver Democrats failed to cover their debts. Bryan was the first presidential candidate to go on nationwide speaking tours. Focusing much of his energy on the hotly contested Midwestern states, Bryan criss-crossed the U.S. by railroad, speaking from the back of his train at all hours of day and night. Bryan’s imposing voice and height made a deep impression on many who thronged to hear him. In many parts of the South and West Bryan supporters welcomed him with parades, speeches, and wild demonstrations of support.
Other Americans criticized Bryan as self-aggrandizing and loud, criticizing his innovative campaign tactics as much as his ideas. Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt took note, however, and by the early 1900s the idea of “barnstorming ”by railroad became widely practiced by candidates in all parties.
Bryan consistently hammered on the theme of “the American people versus the special interests, ”targetting Wall Street bankers and the trusts and monopolies they financed. Even when speaking in New York, he refused to apologize for the Chicago plank that called for a progressive income tax, despite intense criticism from the Republicans.
In the South, Bryan supporters emphasized states’ rights and white supremacy; John Altgeld (right) and other advocates of labor also pointed to the plank that defended states’ rights, but for different reasons, stemming from Grover Cleveland’s intervention to suppress the Pullman strike of 1894.
Toward the end of the campaign, some businessmen began warning workers that a Bryan victory would mean the end of their employment—businesses would be forced to shut down after election day. Republican leaders scoffed at Bryan’s charge that this was “coercion"—a veiled or not-so-veiled threat against employees who might vote Democratic. Silver Democrats’ belief that such threats were widespread, combined with a perception that McKinley won by taking enormous sums from “trusts, ”lent special bitterness to their defeat. It also raised new issues about politics and corporate power that the country would begin to debate as the new century dawned.
HOW THE NOMINATION WAS RECEIVED.
[Omaha, Neb., July 10] All Nebraska is excited tonight over Bryan’s nomination, and informal celebrations, with bands playing, horns tooting and excited Democrats yelling in a most enthusiastic manner, are common throughout Nebraska. The excitement is most intense in Omaha, though no formal steps have yet been taken toward a proper celebration. It came as too much of a surprise. —Denver News, 11 July 1896
A gifted friend of mine said on the first day of the convention that it was a battle between Rothschilds and Bland, and that if Bland were beaten Rothschilds would win. When the nomination was made he leaned over my shoulder and said the Rothschilds are beaten. —John Russell Young in St. Louis Globe-Dispatch, 12 July 1896
TAIL STRONGER THAN HEAD.
Millionaire Arthur Sewall of Maine Placed at the Rear of the Ticket.
The Last Mad Cry of the Moon Worshipers Has Died Away Among the Rafters of the Coliseum.
FROM EVERY POINT COMES NEWS OF BOLTING DEMOCRATS.
—Los Angeles Times, 12 July 1896
The middle-of-the-road Populists have played their party into the hands of the McKinley syndicate. But Mr. Bryan is not defeated. His manly conduct in refusing to throw aside his running mate will commend him to the people. He has shown himself to be a man of honor. He is in very truth, another Lincoln. —Tacoma Daily News in Public Opinion, 6 August 1896
July 27, 1896
Terre Haute, Indiana
My dear Mr. Bryan,
With millions of others of your countrymen I congratulate you most heartily upon being the People’s standard bearer in the great uprising of the masses against the classes. You are at this hour the hope of the Republic—the central figure of the civilized world. In the arduous campaign before you the millions will rally to your standard and you will lead them to a glorious victory. The people love and trust you—they believe in you as you believe in them, and under your administration the rule of the money power will be broken and the gold barons of Europe will no longer run the American government.
Will all good wishes
believe me always
Eugene V. Debs
Bryan Manuscripts, Library of Congress, reprinted in J. Robert Constantine, ed., Letters of Eugene V. Debs, Volume I (1874-1912), ed. J. Robert Constantine (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990)
The same thing afflicts Mr. Bryan, it seems, that led the parrot of story into serious trouble. He talks too much. —National Reflector, Wichita, 31 October 1896
Senator Tillman would seem to have brought into politics the methods of an old-time plantation overseer, dealing with politicians as the overseer was wont to deal with the negroes. —St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 12 July 1896
[New Haven, Conn., Sept. 24] Five hundred students, assisted by a band of the First regiment of the National guard of Connecticut broke up the address by William J. Bryan at this place this afternoon. . . . There were cheers for the nominee, but from the right of the stand the students repeatedly broke forth with their yell, and it was impossible for Mr. Bryan to make himself heard. . . . In vain did Mr. Bryan attempt to restore order, but it was many minutes before anything like quiet was obtained. Then the crowd began to surge again, and the police to fight those in front. Women fainted and several persons were taken from the crowd, overcome by the crush. —Rocky Mountain News, 25 September 1896
Democratic Party Platform.
Adopted at Chicago, July 9, 1896.
We, the Democrats of the United States in National Convention assembled, do reaffirm our allegiance to those great essential principles of justice and liberty upon which our institutions are founded, and which the Democratic party has advocated from Jefferson's time to our own--freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience, the separation of personal rights, the equality of all citizens before the law, and the faithful observance of constitutional limitations.
During all these years the Democratic party has resented the tendency of selfish interests to the centralization of Government power, and steadfastly maintained the integrity of the dual scheme of Government established by the founders of this Republic of republics. Under its guidance and teachings the great principle of local self-government has found its best expression in the maintenance of the rights of States and in its assertion of the necessity of confining the General Government to the exercise of the powers granted by the Constitution of the United States.
The Constitution of the United States guarantees to every citizen the rights of civil and religious liberty. The Democratic party has always been the exponent of political liberty and religious freedom, and it renews its obligations and reaffirms its devotion to these fundamental principles of the Constitution.
The Money Question.
Recognizing that the money question is paramount to all others at this time, we invite attention to the fact that the Federal Constitution names silver and gold together as the money metals of the United States, and that the first coinage law passed by Congress under the Constitution made the silver dollar the monetary unit of value and admitted gold to free coinage at a ratio based upon the silver dollar unit.
The Demonetization of Silver.
We declare that the act of 1873 demonetizing silver without the knowledge or approval of the American people, has resulted in the appreciation of gold and a corresponding fall in the prices of commodities produced by the people; a heavy increase in the burden of taxation and of all debts, public and private; the enrichment of the money-lending class at home and abroad; prostration of industry and impoverishment of the people.
Opposed to the Gold Standard.
We are unalterably opposed to monometallism, which has locked fast the prosperity of an industrial people in the paralysis of hard times. Gold monometallism is a British policy, and its adoption has brought other nations into financial servitude to London. It is not only un-American, but anti-American, and it can be fastened on the United States only by the stifling of that spirit and love of liberty which proclaimed our political independence in 1776 and won it in the War of the Revolution.
Free and Unlimited Coinage.
We demand the free and unlimited coinage of both silver and gold at the present legal ratio of 16 to 1, without waiting for the aid or consent of any other nation. We demand that the standard silver dollar shall be a full legal tender, equally with gold, for all debts, public and private, and we favor such legislation as will prevent for the future the demonetization of any kind of legal-tender money by private contract.
We are opposed to the policy and practice of surrendering to the holders of obligations of the United States the option reserved by law to the Government of redeeming such obligations in either silver coin or gold coin.
Opposed to the Issue of Bonds.
We are opposed to the issuing of interest-bearing bonds of the United States in time of peace and condemn the trafficking with banking syndicates, which, in exchange for bonds and at an enormous profit to themselves, supply the Federal Treasury with gold to maintain the policy of gold monometallism.
The Issue of Paper Money.
Congress alone has the power to coin and issue money, and President Jackson declared that this power could not be delegated to corporations or individuals.
We, therefore, denounce the issuance of notes intended to circulate as money by national banks as in derogation of the Constitution, and we demand that all paper which is made a legal tender for public and private debts, or which is receivable for dues to the United States, shall be issued by the Government of the United States, and shall be redeemable in coin.
We hold that tariff duties should be levied for purposes of revenue, such duties to be so adjusted as to operate equally throughout the country and not discriminate between class or section, and that taxation should be limited by the needs of the Government honestly and economically administered. We denounce, as disturbing to business, the Republican threat to restore the McKinley law, which has been twice condemned by the people in national elections, and which, enacted under the false plea of protection to home industry, proved a prolific breeder of trusts and monopolies, enriched the few at the expense of the many, restricted trade and deprived the producers of the great American staples of access to their natural markets. Until the money question is settled we are opposed to any agitation for further changes in our tariff laws, except such as are necessary to meet the deficit in revenue caused by the adverse decision of the Supreme Court on the income tax.
The Income Tax.
But for the decision by the Supreme Court there would be no deficit in the revenue under the law passed by a Democratic Congress in strict pursuance of the uniform decisions of that court for nearly 100 years, that court having in that decision sustained constitutional objections to its enactment which had previously been overruled by the ablest judges who had ever sat on that bench. We declare that it is the duty of Congress to use all the constitutional power which remains after that decision, or which may come from its reversal by the court as it may hereafter be constituted, so that the burdens of taxations may be equally and impartially laid, to the end that wealth may bear its due proportion of the expenses of the Government.
Foreign Pauper Labor.
We hold that the most efficient way of protecting American labor is to prevent the importation of foreign pauper labor to compete with it in the home market, and that the value of the home market to our American farmers and artisans is greatly reduced by a vicious monetary system, which depresses the prices of their products below the cost of production, and thus deprives them of the means of purchasing the products of our home manufacturers, and, as labor creates the wealth of the country, we demand the passage of such laws as may be necessary to protect in all its rights.
We are in favor of the arbitration of differences between employers engaged in inter-State commerce and their employees, and recommend such legislation as is necessary to carry out this principle.
The absorption of wealth by the few, the consolidation of our leading railroad systems and the formation of trusts and pools require a stricter control by the Federal Government of those arteries of commerce. We demand the enlargement of the powers of the Inter-State Commerce Commission and such restrictions and guarantees in the control of railroads as will protect the people from robbery and oppression.
Reduction in the Number of Offices.
We denounce the profligate waste of the money wrung from the people by oppressive taxation and the lavish appropriations of recent Republican Congresses, which have kept taxes high, while the labor that pays them is unemployed, and the products of the people's toil are depressed in price till they no longer repay the cost of production. We demand a return to that simplicity and economy which befits a Democratic government, and a reduction in the number of useless offices, the salaries of which drain the substance of the people.
Contempts in Federal Courts.
We denounce the arbitrary interference by Federal authorities in local affairs as a violation of the Constitution of the United States and a crime against free institutions, and we especially object to government by injunction as a new and highly dangerous form of oppression by which Federal judges, in contempt of the laws of the States and rights of citizens, become at once legislators, judges, and executioners, and we approve the bill passed by the last session of the United States Senate and now pending in the House of Representatives, relative to contempts in Federal Courts and providing trials by jury in certain cases of contempt.
The Pacific Railroad Funding Bill.
No discrimination shall be indulged in by the Government of the United States in favor of any of its debtors. We approve of the refusal of the Fifty-third Congress to pass the Pacific Railroad Funding Bill, and denounce the efforts of the present Republican Congress to enact a similar measure.
Recognizing the just claims of deserving Union soldiers, we heartily endorse the rule of the present Commissioner of Pensions that no names shall be arbitrarily dropped from the pension rolls, and the fact of enlistment and service should be deemed conclusive evidence against disease and disability before enlistment.
We favor the admission of the Territories of New Mexico, Oklahoma and Arizona to the Union as States, and we favor the early admission of all the Territories having the necessary population and resources to entitle them to Statehood, and, while they remain Territories, we hold that the officials appointed to administer the governmnet of any Territory, together with the District of Columbia and Alaska, should be bona fide residents of the Territory or District in which the duties are to be performed. The Democratic party believes in home rule, and that all public lands of the United States should be appropriated to the establishment of free homes for American citizens.
We recommend that the Territory of Alaska be granted a Delegate in Congress, and that the general land and timber laws of the United States be extended to said Territory.
The Monroe Doctrine.
The Monroe doctrine, as originally declared and as interpreted by succeeding Presidents, is a permanent part of the foreign policy of the United States, and must at all times be maintained.
Sympathy for the Cubans.
We extend our sympathy to the people of Cuba in their heroic struggle for liberty and independence.
We are opposed to life tenure in the public service. We favor appointments based upon merit, fixed terms of office, and such an administration of the Civil Service laws as will afford equal opportunities to all citizens of ascertained fitness.
Opposed to a Third Term.
We declare it to be the unwritten law of this Republic, established by custom and usage of 100 years, and sanctioned by the examples of the greatest and wisest of those who founded and have maintained our Government, that no man should be eligible for a third term of the Presidential office.
The Federal Government should care for and improve the Mississippi River and other great waterways of the Republic, so as to secure for the interior States easy and cheap transportation to tide-water. When any waterway of the Republic is of sufficient important to demand aid of the Government, such aid should be extended upon a definite plan of continuous work until permanent improvement is secured.
Confiding in the justness of our cause and the necessity of its success at the polls, we submit the foregoing declaration of principles and purposes to the considerate judgment of the American people. We invite the support of all citizens who approve them and who desire to have them made effective through legislation for the relief of the people and the restoration of the country's prosperity.
© 2010 Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press
Major events of the campaign,
in cartoon and story. (Click date)