Bryan's support was solid in Denver, few other places
By Chris Bragg
When William Jennings Bryan came to Washington D.C., on Jan. 25, 1908, a number of Democratic U.S. senators were waiting to deliver one simple message: Don’t run for president again in 1908.
After all, Bryan had been the Democratic nominee in 1896 and 1900 — and had lost both times.
But working up the nerve to confront one of the most famous men of the era wasn’t easy. Numerous Washington politicos had spoken out in the press against a third Bryan run. However, during the trip to Washington, apparently no one could look the “Great Commoner” in the eye and tell him he should climb down from his perch atop the Democratic Party.
“There were plenty of volunteers (to talk to Bryan) up to the time of Mr. Bryan’s arrival in Washington,” reported the New York Times. “Since then, the number has reduced materially.”
As that quote demonstrates, the press had no problem addressing the topic. But Bryan dismissed reporters’ questions, saying the prospect of not running had never been raised with him.
“It has not,” Bryan told the Times. “And I can see no reason why it should be.”
Bryan had good reason for confidence. In 1904 — the only election between 1896 and 1908 in which Bryan was not the Democratic nominee — Democrat Alton Parker, a conservative New York judge, lost to Teddy Roosevelt by almost 20 points nationally. The Democratic Party also lost 42 seats in the House of Representatives that year. (In 1896, Bryan had lost by just 4.3 points, and Democrats had gained 30 new congressmen. In 1900, he had lost by 6.1 percent, and Democrats lost only 10 seats in the U.S. House.)
Furthermore, Bryan had returned for the 1908 presidential run after a highly publicized world tour full of meetings with dignitaries and diplomats.
In addition, Bryan’s brother, Charles, had quietly helped Bryan become the favorite to win the Democratic nomination in Denver before the contest even began. During the winter of 1907 and spring of 1908, Charles Bryan sent out 600,000 notes to subscribers of Bryan’s newspaper, The Commoner, asking them “to see that no one attended the precinct, city, county, state and national conventions who were not friendly” to Bryan’s nomination, according to Michael Kazin’s Bryan biography A Godly Hero. (Knopf, 2006.)
In 1908, the nomination process was very different from the lengthy Democratic battle between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008. In 1908, the nationwide system of primaries and caucuses had not yet taken hold.
“The role of rank-and-file voters in the delegate selection process was minimal, at best. Delegates were basically picked by two different means — state and local caucuses or conventions, or through appointments by the state party hierarchy,” writes Rhodes Cook, in his book The Presidential Nomination Process: A Place For Us? (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.)
In addition, Democrats had a rule stating that any nominee had to win two-thirds — not just a majority — of the vote at the national convention. That gave the South, which was quickly losing power to the Northeast in most respects, a veto over the nomination of any candidate.
The rule often prevented the Democrats from putting their best candidate forward, and was finally dropped in 1936. The rule is considered by historians to be one major cause of the Republican dominance of presidential elections from Abraham Lincoln through Herbert Hoover.
In 1908, Bryan, a Nebraskan, had strong support in the South, but his major base of support was still in the Midwest, where he had planted the seeds of the Populist Party in the 1890s, and where the movement remained firmly rooted.
Early in the nomination campaign, John A. Johnson, a young governor from Minnesota and one of Bryan’s main challengers for the nomination, tried to erode support for Bryan in the heartland by sending hundreds of thousands of letters to Midwesterners in April 1908.
“For months the party has been drifting toward an autocratic convention where a popular choice is to be subordinate to personal will,” Johnson wrote. “Rebelling against the doctrine of despair, we take it for granted that there is no necessity for the ravens of defeat to perch on the banners of Democracy in 1908 simply because they did in 1896, 1900 and 1904.”
Former Minnesota Gov. Frank A. Day, a Democrat, would express the anti-Bryan sentiment in more pragmatic terms, telling the Rocky Mountain News that, “I love, respect, almost adore the Great Commoner, and would lay down my life for him, but when it comes to the election next fall — well, I own $10,000 worth of stock in several corporations which Mr. Bryan would destroy.”
Nonetheless, by mid-April, Bryan had racked up the unanimous support of delegations from Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and North and South Dakota.
Bryan faced his greatest resistance in the Northeast — no small factor, considering he needed two-thirds of the delegates to win. Many in that region feared Bryan’s trust-busting, populist stances.
According to Kazin’s biography, former President Grover Cleveland — the only Democrat to be elected president after the Civil War — lamented the “radical takeover” of the party. Princeton University president Woodrow Wilson, the next Democrat who would become president, “longed for someone who could finally break the spell of Bryanism over the rank and file.”
And, from his yacht, Joseph Pulitzer instructed his editors at the New York World to float the names of 16 other potential Democratic candidates in his newspaper.
One of Bryan’s toughest fights would be over the Pennsylvania delegation. The party boss in Pennsylvania, Joseph Guffey, was vehemently anti-Bryan.
It was reported in the Chicago Tribune that Guffey’s feud with Bryan was personal. It began when Guffey had paid for “handsome glass windows” for Fairview, Bryan’s famous home in Lincoln, Neb., during a period of amicable relations between the two.
Bryan had responded to the gift by telling Guffey he would send him a check for the cost of the new windows. And Bryan had reportedly told the would-be benefactor that a gift of windows would not be enough to make it possible for Guffey to return to his spot on the Democratic National Committee in 1908.
As retribution, Guffey waged a campaign in Pennsylvania against Bryan during the nomination process. Bryan, however, had a trump card in his masterful oratory skills.
Bryan visited Pittsburgh to give an impassioned speech appealing directly to the Pennsylvania delegates — and ended up winning a majority at the Pennsylvania State Democratic Convention.
Guffey’s anger over Bryan’s victory — on Guffey’s home turf, no less — came with him to Denver, where he continually slammed Bryan in the press.
“Is the Democratic Party really absorbed? Has it no councils? Is Mr. Bryan the whole organization?” Guffey asked in a press release at the convention’s outset.
“ ‘Let the people rule,’ he shouts, and forthwith proceeds to dictate not only every act, every office and every resolution of this convention, but also to put the ban upon every man from any state who is opposed to his candidacy or platform,” Guffey wrote.
Guffey went on to call Bryan a “falsifier,” “hypocrite” and “ingrate.” Bryan responded by making good on the threat to remove Guffey as national committeeman at the Denver convention.
Meanwhile, Bryan also faced a possible challenge from Tammany Hall, New York City’s political machine. Tammany Hall boss Charles Murphy remained mum at the convention’s outset as to whether the influential New York City delegation would support Bryan, Johnson or Judge George Gray, a former U.S. senator from Delaware.
Behind the scenes, though, Coler, the Brooklyn borough president, was working to secure the state’s 78 votes for Bryan, even though most in the delegation thought Bryan’s nomination meant sure defeat in November. New York reportedly had accepted Bryan’s nomination as inevitable, since no real challenger had come forth.
“There is absolutely no one in the anti-Bryan camp who has either capacity or the bravery to head such a movement,” observed the Chicago Tribune.
The New York delegates at first worked to ensure that, at the least, Bryan would run on as conservative a platform in 1908. In a surprise move, though, the New Yorkers eventually accepted a more radical platform.
Their decision reportedly was a crass political maneuver to ensure Bryan would not again rule the party in 1912. The New Yorkers decided to “acquiesce in anything and everything he proposes, merely making a perfunctory show of opposition for the sake of preserving their record,” reported the Times. “By such tactics the entire responsibility for the ticket, the platform, and the campaign will be thrust unavoidably on Bryan, and he will have no excuses to offer for his defeat.”
Bryan was officially elected the Democratic nominee at 3:40 in the morning on July 10. He won on the first ballot, gaining 892.5 votes, to 46 for Johnson and 59.5 for Judge Gray.
The Tammany men cast their votes for Bryan, but refused to participate in an 87-minute celebration for the Nebraskan. And the New York predictions about Bryan’s chances in November proved accurate.
Bryan lost badly to William Howard Taft — by 1.2 million votes. Outside the Old South, Bryan won only Kentucky, Colorado, Oklahoma and his home state of Nebraska. Bryan lost every major city except Denver, Kansas City and New Orleans. He even lost New York City, where he had prevailed in his two previous presidential efforts.
“His base was always in the South and West. But he never had the national appeal to win an election,” said Colorado State Historian William Convery.
“He was also in the shadow of Teddy Roosevelt,” added Convery, noting that Taft, as the Roosevelt’s secretary of war, was handpicked to succeed the highly popular incumbent.
Besides being the site of Bryan’s final nomination, Denver’s convention also marked the end of an era of exclusivity in the nominating process. By the outset of the 1912 election, seven states had enacted legislation establishing presidential primaries, where voters would either directly elect delegates or hold a preference vote on the candidates.
The primary phenomenon quickly caught on. Five more states would hastily add primaries during the 1912 election, in response to the heated battle between Taft and Roosevelt for the Republican nomination.
The advent of direct primary elections would dramatically increase the influence of nation’s voters in picking nominees. And the change came simultaneously with other electoral reforms, including the advent of secret ballots and the direct election of senators — progressive causes championed by Bryan during his years in the national spotlight.
Indeed, election reform was one of many ideas that indicated Bryan was politically ahead of his time. Bryan’s progressivism, according to some historians, led the Democratic Party irrevocably toward Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.”
“He’s one of most important national political figures that’s never held the presidency,” Convery said of Bryan. “It’s nice to think, too, that political figures with the stature of Bryan can be runners-up. Because what does that say about the winners?”