Sunday, October 24, 2010

120 years later, populists look sort of familiar

Bryan pushes Free Silver, $100,000 bet placed, and cross of gold touted

By Rob Carrigan

The populist movement of more than 120 years ago looks familiar. “Mr. Gold” from Cripple Creek weighed in. The very first time Colorado voters gave their electoral votes to a Democrat, it came on the heels of a speech by William Jennings Bryan, who first delivered it July 9, 1896, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
“If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands 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,” ended Bryan.
His dramatic speaking style and rhetoric roused the crowd to a frenzy. The response, wrote one reporter, “came like one great burst of artillery.” Men and women screamed and waved their hats and canes. “Some,” wrote another reporter, “like demented things, divested themselves of their coats and flung them high in the air.” The next day the convention nominated Bryan for President on the fifth ballot, according to History Matters.
Such bi-metalism sentiments made Bryan a tremendous hit here in Colorado at the time.
In the 1896 election here, Bryan overwhelmed Republican McKinley in the state, 161,269 to 26,279. Alva Adams was selected for Colorado Governor and most of the state offices were filled by a Democratic-Silver Republican slate.
The fame of Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech led him to repeat it numerous times on the Chautauqua lecture circuit where he was an enormously popular speaker.
Some of the rhetoric is even familiar, sounding very similar to one of today’s presidential candidates, despite the lack of substance in some cases.
“The people of Nebraska are for free silver, and I’m for free silver.  I will look the arguments later,” said Bryan to a crowd in a nearby state. In 1903, thousands gathered to hear the master deliver the same speech from the balcony of the New Sheridan Hotel in Telluride (see photo).
In 1896, the issue was whether to endorse the free coinage of silver at a ratio of silver to gold of 16 to 1. (This inflationary measure would have increased the amount of money in circulation and aided cash-poor and debt-burdened farmers.) Bryan, who was 36, at the time became the youngest candidate to be selected by a major party and went on to run for election in 1900 and again in 1908.
“Not the strangest of the many strange episodes during the campaign was the action of Colorado’s “Mr. Gold” himself — Cripple Creek’s Winfield Stratton — who endorsed free silver and Bryan,” writes Carl Ubbelohde, Maxine Benson and Duane Smith in “A Colorado History.”
“In fact Stratton went even further. He announced a public wager of up to $100,000 that Bryan would win, a possibility that the regular Republicans believed would immediately and substantially reduce his own personal fortune.”
“He not only came out for Bryan,” wrote Marshall Sprague in Money Mountain. “But he placed on deposit at the First National Bank $100,000 in cash to be bet on Bryan if someone would put up $300,000 on McKinley. If Stratton lost the bet, that was that, if he won, the $300,000 would be given to the Colorado Springs Free Reading Room and Library Association.”
“News of that bet flashed around the world and for a week McKinley and Bryan found themselves losing much front-page space to Stratton. His bet was the largest ever offered by one man on an election. And to most people it seemed as peculiar an act as a man could commit. Why, if Bryan won and the United States resumed silver coinage at sixteen to one, Stratton’s gold wealth would be cut in half!” Sprague wrote.
Stratton explained himself in a note given to each reporter at a press conference in Colorado Springs:
“I don’t make the offer because of any information that I have on the election, but I have a feeling that Bryan is going to win. I am deeply interested to see Bryan elected. I realize that the maintenance of the gold standard would perhaps be the best for me individually, but I believe that free silver is the best thing for the working masses of this country. It is because I have great respect for the intelligence and patriotism of the working people and I believe that they will see their duty at the polls that I am willing to make such an offer,” said Stratton’s note.
The move put the Republicans on the defensive and though they made all sorts of noise and motions to give the impression that they were happy to cover such a bet, they never did, which in retrospect was fortunate for Stratton.
Byron was a clear winner in Colorado. In the rest of the nation, however, McKinley carried the majority of the states and Bryan and Free Silver was defeated.
Bryan, sometimes called the perennial candidate, later became a key figure in the prohibition movement and anti-Darwinism efforts and eventually served as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson.


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