JUNE/JULY/AUGUST 2008 – NO. 25
WILLIAM J. BRYAN (D)
Winner: WILLIAM H. TAFT (R)
The Democratic convention met at Denver, July 7–10. The spectator would hardly have surmised that it was the gathering of a party that had been out of power for 15 years. The physical surroundings lent the occasion particular buoyancy, and neither delegates nor spectators gave any evidence of depression of spirit. Bands met arriving delegations and gave "travelling concerts" on the street-cars at night. Cowboys, cowgirls, and Indians specially costumed staged fancy exhibitions of "bronco-busting." Tons of snow were brought down from the mountains and heaped in the streets for the delectation of the city's guests. Vari-colored lights by night and acres of bunting by day kept the down-town districts aglow.
The work of the convention seemed more spontaneous than that of the Chicago gathering, but in fact it, too, was prearranged. The nomination of Bryan was assured; control by Bryan and his aides was complete; the platform showed at every point the Bryan impress; even the unprecedented "demonstrations" for the Nebraskan, lasting on two occasions more than an hour, bore appearance of having been carefully calculated. The total number of delegates was 1,008, and the number of votes necessary to nominate, under the two-thirds rule, was 672. On the first ballot Bryan received 892 ½ votes, the remainder being divided between Governor Johnson and Judge Gray. Many persons, among them Governor Folk of Missouri, were considered for the vice-presidency. In the end, the nomination went to an Indiana lawyer, John W. Kern, who was Bryan's preference. The nominee lacked distinction, but the vote of his state was considered indispensable.
After his nomination, Taft retired from the War Department, being succeeded by Luke E. Wright of Tennessee; and throughout the summer he remained in Cincinnati, receiving political visitors at the home of his brother Charles. Only near the end of September did he take the stump, first in the Middle West and later in the East and in the northern tier of southern states; and the Republican campaign, as planned by the chairman, Prank H. Hitchcock, was concentrated in the last four weeks preceding the election. Democratic activities were directed by Chairman Norman E. Mack of Buffalo. From the outset it was generally admitted that Bryan must carry New York to be elected. Yet the Middle West was felt to be the principal battle-ground; and for the first time in the party's history, central headquarters were established in Chicago. The Democratic campaign was under way earlier than the Republican, and was carried on with greater energy than that of 1904.
Still, the contest failed to stir the country. The politicians were active and the orators did their best to pump up a steady flow of eloquence, but the people did not respond. Business interests were pressing; no towering issues appeared; even the tariff failed to take hold. Neither candidate inspired a great uprising of followers. Taft was not the sort of leader for whom the populace tosses its hat in the air. Bryan's style of campaigning had lost its novelty.
Some interest was aroused, none the less, by a new question — publicity of campaign contributions and expenditures. For years sentiment had been steadily rising against the lavish use of money by party organizations, and remedial legislation had been enacted in several states. The only federal statute on the subject (approved January 26, 1907) forbade corporations to make contributions in federal elections. The Democratic platform of 1908 demanded publicity "above a reasonable minimum" and at Bryan's request the National Committee announced that no contributions would be received from corporations; that no sum in excess of $10,000 would be received from any individual; and that all contributions exceeding $100 would be published a few days in advance of the election.
The Republican platform made no mention of the subject. Challenged by his principal opponent, Taft announced, however, that his managers would regard themselves as bound by the law of the state of New York requiring the filing of statements of campaign receipts and expenditures after the election. By this move the Republicans relieved themselves of the force of a large part of the charges against them; although their adversaries made the most of the connections of the Republican treasurer, George R. Sheldon, with Wall Street, and argued that publicity after rather than before the election missed the real point. As a matter of fact, neither party in this campaign had a large national fund; and neither pined for publicity. Subsequent congressional investigation showed that the corporations found ways to make contributions, especially to the Republican war-chest. When, shortly before the election, the Democratic managers announced contributions aggregating $248,367, they neglected to take account of offerings to state and local party agencies, although obviously such contributions might have the same effect as funds given directly to the National Committee. The most sensational feature of the campaign was the publication by Hearst of a series of letters disclosing dubious relations between the Standard Oil Company and the Democratic treasurer, Governor Haskell of Oklahoma, who was forced to give way to another man.
Until early autumn the contest seemed substantially even, and as late as the closing week of September the East was swept by a "Bryan scare/' Prominent eastern Democrats — Richard Olney, Judge Gray, Judge Parker, and others — came out for the party ticket, as did influential newspapers, notably the New York World, which had bitterly opposed the Nebraskan's nomination. Characterizing the Republican injunction plank as "a flimsy, tricky evasion of the issue" and the Democratic plank as ''good all the way through," Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, ignored the rule of his organization forbidding political activity, pledged the Democratic candidate his individual support, and promised to deliver, so far as possible, the two million votes of organized labor; and efforts were made to redeem the promise. The action of Roosevelt, in 1907, in disbanding negro regiments under suspicion of a murderous riot at Brownsville was made the ground for an appeal to the negro vote, amounting also to about two millions.
On the other hand, it was clear that even if Bryan should win, the Senate would remain Republican and the House of Representatives would probably be almost evenly divided. Such a situation would be unfavorable to tariff revision and to other legislation which the country wanted. Furthermore, the election came too late to permit the Democrats to capitalize the financial panic and business depression of 1907 - 1908. By November, currency was again abundant, the prices of most securities were normal, confidence was restored, prosperity was general. The fundamental advantage of the Republicans lay, however, in two facts. They could point to a large program of constructive legislation and administration in which the country was deeply interested, and which it was proposed, under a fresh lease of power, to push toward completion. While the sincerity and probity of Bryan were recognized, the average citizen considered Taft to be not only equally honest and far more experienced, but generally safer. The attempt of the labor leaders to make it appear that Bryan and the Democrats stood for workingman's rights failed, notwithstanding the attitude of the Republican candidate, who minimized the dangers of the abuse of injunctions and freely denounced the "secondary boycott" and the Democratic demand for jury trial in prosecutions for contempt.
"The campaign closes," said the New York Nation, October 29, "with the issues yet undefined and with many thoughtful men still dubious as to the proper way to vote." The election of Taft, however, was virtually assured when the Vermont election of September 1 yielded a normal Republican majority. The total number of votes cast (November 3) was 14,887,133, which exceeded the number cast in 1904 by the heavy margin of 1,364,025. The vote was distributed as follows: Taft, 7,679,006; Bryan, 6,409,106; Debs, 420,820; Chafin, 252,683; Hisgen, 83,562; Watson, 28,131; Gillhaus, 13,825. The plurality of Taft over Bryan was 1,269,900; the majority of Taft over all other candidates was 470,879. Bryan's vote exceeded Parker's in 1904 by 1,324,615, but he received a smaller proportion of the total vote than in either 1896 or 1900. To the states carried by Parker — those of the South except Missouri — Bryan added Nebraska, Colorado, and Nevada. It is to be observed, however, that since the election of 1904 Oklahoma had been admitted to the Union; also that the electoral vote of Maryland in 1908 was divided between Bryan and Taft, in the proportion of 6 to 2. The electoral vote stood: Taft, 321; Bryan, 162. Elections to the 61st Congress resulted in the choice of 219 Republicans and 172 Democrats.
The Democratic party went into the contest of 1908 with a record of 15 years of unbroken defeat. Never for an equal period had it been so completely in eclipse. From the election of Lincoln to the Republican debacle of 1874 was but 14 years; and even in that era of darkness there were years, such as 1862 and 1870, when a return of sunshine for the party seemed imminent.
The outcome in 1908 bore the appearance of a sweeping Republican victory, and on the surface there was little to cheer the losers. In reality, however, it was the harbinger of a great shift of party power. Bryan was badly beaten, but his party was not; in all parts of the country Democratic candidates for state and local offices achieved great successes. Five Democratic governors were elected in states which gave Taft substantial majorities: Harmon in Ohio, Johnson in Minnesota, Marshall in Indiana, Burke in North Dakota, and Norris in Montana. In Massachusetts the Republican governor-elect's plurality was but half as large as Taft's, in Connecticut but one-third, in Illinois but one-sixth. In New York Governor Hughes emerged from the most significant state contest of the year with a plurality of but 69,000, as compared with Taft's 200,000.
This meant an exceptional amount of independent thinking and voting. For a decade national party lines had been growing dimmer and the power of personality in politics had been steadily increasing. Platforms, acceptance speeches, and other official expressions rapidly merged in the personality of the candidates. The effect upon Democratic fortunes was disastrous so long as the party's infatuation with Bryan lasted; for the personal popularity of this leader never overcame popular distrust in the East. In 1908 the party still had no other leader who sounded the bugle-note. Plainly, however, the rank and file were gathering strength, and only new leadership and a great moral issue were needed to break the long chain of defeats.
The election of Taft and a Republican Congress was due not alone to the weakness of Bryan as a candidate. Speaking broadly, the people were satisfied with the record of the Roosevelt administration, and they saw no reason why the Republicans should not be given opportunity to prove the merit of the measures that they had passed and to push their program toward completion. Roosevelt's confidence in his chosen successor availed more than anything else to reassure the hesitant.
From National Progress, 1907 — 1917, by Frederic Austin Ogg. Originally published by Harper and brothers in 1918.
Where loss is found.
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