West Main St from Art Work of Rochester the Flower City, 1896. Banners showing Republican candidates McKinley & Hobart and Democratic candidates Bryan & Sewall. [Courtesy Rochester Public Library Local History]
Our opponents—I do not mean the little ones that stand about sometimes upon street corners in the hope of some petty office and find fault with those who are candidates—but I mean some of the conspicuous opponents whom we meet in this campaign, who have declared openly and publicly that they must exert themselves to keep anarchy and socialism from dominating in the United States. I want to assure you, my friends, that the people who are opposing the success of the ticket nominated at Chicago are not doing it because they are afraid that anarchy, such as they speak of, will be triumphant, but it is because they know that the Chicago platform aims its blows at the real enemies of this country: those who think they are greater than the government and can make the government their instrument for private gain.
— The Evening News, Thursday, August 27, 1896. Speech by William Jennings Bryan, Wednesday, August 26, 1896 at 2:15pm, Brown’s Square, Rochester, NY
Recently, I learned that William Jennings Bryan spoke at Brown’s Square on August 26th, 1896 during his presidential campaign against William McKinley, often considered a watershed election in American history. As seen in the excerpt Bryan dismissed charges that he was a socialist, arguing that the charges were a smoke stream meant to shift focus away from those who would “make the government their instrument for private gain.”
Later, I visited Brown’s Square, possibly for the first time ever.The inscribed rock dates the park to 1872. In my mind’s eye, I saw the panorama of a century and a half. In the 1870s, families picniked in the park. The father in a starched, black suit; the mother in a tight fitting corset; the children flying kites perhaps meant to look like colorful Chinese dragons or maybe airborne American flags. I could imagine a photographer taking a family portrait that might somehow survive as a fading family heirloom. During the 1960’s and especially during the riots of 1964, no doubt the park was a place of protest and solidarity. Today, when there is no pandemic, hispanic families gather to play salsa music and — I can almost smell — turning and cooking grilled thin beef skewers, Carne en palito.
I could imagine Bryan’s visit. Arriving at the train station, taken by horse carriage to the Square where thousands eagerly awaited the “Orator of the Platte” whose famous voice carried preternaturally long distances, although in the relatively compact Square his audience would be close. Bryan’s cadence was biblical; his audience would hear him denounce what he saw as enemies of the people with the force of a jeremiad: “the man who is interested in the stock exchanges,” “the syndicates,” “the great combinations of money grabbing,” “the plunderer of the industrial masses,” the “money corporations,” and the “eastern financiers.”
Not surprisingly, the coverage of the Republican Democrat and Chronicle who had endorsed McKinley and the Democratic Union Advertiser who had endorsed Bryan tilted towards their candidate.
The Democratic and Chronicle was tepid in its coverage.
The headline implies the large crowd was merely curious to see the oratorical powers of Bryan, but relatively unmoved by his heated calls for bimetallism. The report highlights that Mrs. Bryan took a ride during her husband’s speech, apparently registering the general indifference the Democrat and Chronicle felt was the appropriate response to Bryan’s overwrought rhetoric of class warfare.
By contrast, the Union Advertiser touted Bryan as “Democracy’s Standard Bearer,” comparing him to Lochinvar, an ancient Scots Gaelic hero.Unlike the Democrat and Chronicle, the Union Advertiser included a sketch of Bryan, here in a statesmanlike pose. Mrs. Bryant is also pictured, with no mention that she took a ride during her husband’s speech.
I learned that while Bryan gave his thundering “Cross of Gold Speech” on July 9, 1896 at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he officially accepted the nomination in a ceremony in New York’s Madison Square Garden on August 12, 1896.
Instead, of returning right away to Nebraska to continue his campaign in the midwest, Bryan made the questionable decision to make an extended tour of upstate New York — including Rochester — even though the state was heavily Republican and even referred to by Bryan as “enemy territory.”
An August 29th Democrat and Chronicle article says Bryan seemed to be wasting his time with the upstate New York junket when the eastern states were solidly in McKinley’s camp. The Democrat chairman Butler wondered why Bryan “lingered.”
Bryan’s upstate New York tour proved quixotic. Bryan was trounced in Rochester.
One of the staples of Bryan’s stump speech, one he repeated at Brown’s Square, was that his opponents claimed they were motivated “to keep anarchy and socialism from dominating in the United States.” That Bryan would be attacked — and would defend himself — against charges that he was a socialist and an anarchist (in the late 19th century the terms were overlapping) is significant.
Historians argue that the election of 1896 was the first time socialism — real or perceived — was a major factor in a presidential election. Of course, socialism had been in the political ether since the Civil War. The Socialist Labor Party was founded in 1876. In 1892, the party fielded its first presidential candidate. Simon Wing received 21,000 votes –on a platform calling for the presidency to be abolished! In 1896, the SLP’s presidential candidate Charles Matchett received 36,000 votes.
Bryan never ran on a socialist platform nor formed any alliance with socialist parties. Although he was nominated by the Populist Party as its presidential candidate in 1896, Bryan never officially accepted the nomination. Nonetheless, as seen in his stump speech at Brown’s Square, Bryan’s opponents condemned his anti-rich, anti-big business, anti-corporation and pro-labor rhetoric as socialistic. Bryan’s call for Free Silver itself was seen as anti-capitalist. While McKinley did not personally campaign in 1896, Republicans dispatched some 1,400 party speakers to stump the nation, painting Bryan as a radical, a demagogue, and a socialist.
A survey of the Democrat and Chronicle‘s coverage of the campaign, especially in national letters it published provides a representative example of rhetoric linking Bryan with socialism.
Following the July Democratic Convention in Chicago, this letter writer sees the election as “no mere battle for temporary supremacy between two rival American political parties.”
Instead, the writer sees Bryanism as the incarnation of socialism and anarchism. Even further, Bryanism may represent communism itself as the writer invokes the “reg flag” of European communism. The election of 1896 was the “Stars and Stripes against the red flag.”
This letter writer also sees the Chicago platform as communistic and socialistic whose success would destroy the “very foundations of the Republic.”
Fundamentally, at the Democratic Convention, the otherwise reasonable Democratic Party was hijacked by “a powerful clique of socialist plotters.”
A common refrain was that European, especially German, socialist parties rejoiced at the triumph of Bryan in Chicago, seeing the platform as a victory for socialism and anarchy.
As seen in Rochestarian was twenty feet from Lincoln when he was assassinated, the Democrat and Chronicle wrote several stories about William Martin Jones, a former leader in the Prohibition Party who returned to his Republican roots to campaign for McKinley.
Like the other letter writers, Jones warned his Rochester audience against the disastrous and dangerous socialism and communism that would result from Bryan’s election.
While the Democrat and Chronicle was against Bryanism, compared with other more sensational newspapers, its response to Bryan was relatively staid and sedate. Essentially, the editors believed that Bryan’s Free Silver plank was unsound, impractical and would be unrealizable in practice. The editors spent much time showing that their rival Democratic newspapers had actually disavowed Free Silver and only endorsed Bryan out of partisanship.
The Democrat and Chronicle seemed mostly to be dismissive and condescending towards Bryan, rather that antagonistic. My hypothesis is that the editors knew full well that Bryan had no chance in New York and Rochester, so there was no need to indulge in vitriol that might alienate its readers who did support Bryan.
By comparison, the Buffalo Evening News was more vivid in its rejection of Bryan. After Rochester, Bryan’s next stop was Buffalo. On the day of Bryan’s address in Buffalo, the Evening News ran a cartoon equating Bryan’s campaign with a minstrel show. Its racist content is clear, although to its contemporary audience the images would be commonplaces.
In this case, the critique was not explicitly Bryan’s socialism but rather that the southern Populist movement included a fusionistic element that aligned black and white agrarians. At the same time, to a degree, anti-Bryanites saw integrationist politics themselves as a form of anarchy.
For more on the 1896 campaign: (from Would Cruz crucify himself on a “cross of gold?”)
Fast forward to the just finished Republican National Convention where “socialism” and its dangers was a salient rallying cry. Historians have noted that — beginning in 1896 — one continual and consistent trope in American politics is the invocation of socialism as a negative if not un American force. For example, in America’s next great watershed election of 1932, FDR was accused of being a socialist, a charge that gained traction during his 1936 re-election campaign. Most recently, Obama was attacked for his socialist agenda. Today, the target is the supposed radical left democratic socialist wing of the Democratic Party that has supposedly hijacked Biden, much like what was said in the 1896 Democrat and Chronicle letter about Bryan and his “powerful clique of socialist plotters.” (For a recent discussion of other presidents accused of “socialism,” see “Americans love Social Security but fear ‘socialism.’ Trump is exploiting that,” John Harwood, 8/30/20, CNN.)
“Republican convention is all about saving the U.S. from ‘socialism'”(Caitlin Dickson, 8/26/20, Yahoo News) and “Socialism Trumps Pandemic at RNC”(Ramsey
For examples, Nikki Haley said, “Their [the Democrats] vision for America is socialism. And we know that socialism has failed everywhere,” adding that, “Joe Biden and the socialist Left would be a disaster for our economy.” Kimberly Guilfoyle argued that “Biden, Harris and their socialist comrades will fundamentally change this nation.” RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel said, “Democrats have chosen to go down the road to socialism.” Both U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Pensacola Republican, and Miami Cuban-American businessman Maximo Alvarez warned of an impending socialist takeover of the United States. Alvarez proclaimed that the president was “fighting against the forces of anarchy and communism,” Sen. Tim Scott (R‑S.C.), perhaps in a slight linguistic slip — he meant dystopia — claimed of the Democrats: “If we let them, they will turn our country into a socialist utopia.” Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) called on people to “stand up and fight the socialists.”
Ultimately, the last word at the convention was Trump’s, who before the convention said, “Joe Biden is a Trojan horse for socialism.” At the convention, sounding like the 1896 letter writer who described the election as a contest between the red flag and the Stars and Stripes, Trump declared:
This election will decide whether we save the American Dream, or whether we allow a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny.
Invoking imagery right out of the 19th century, Trump concluded:
If Joe Biden doesn’t have the strength to stand up to wild-eyed Marxists like Bernie Sanders and his fellow radicals, then how is he ever going to stand up for you?”
Bernie Sanders could be replaced with William Jennings Bryan.
Check back in November to see if the configuration of Biden as a puppet of the radical left’s socialist agenda works — as it did to a degree in 1896 — or if the Republicans went to the anti-socialist well one time too many.
More on the 1896 campaign in Rochester
MORE ON THE ELECTIONS OF 1896 and 1900 compared with the election of 2016
SIMILARITIES BETWEEN BERNIE SANDERS AND WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN
BERNIE SANDERS’ 2016 CAMPAIGN