William Jennings Bryan, carried victorious through the 1896 Democratic convention
If I walk out the door from where I live, away from downtown and into the rich, quiet part of town, I will encounter an old house where William Jennings Bryan spent his summers. According to local legend, he had a soundproof room where he could practice his oratory.
In the summer of 1896, Bryan — then a young, populist Nebraska congressman — took his famous booming voice to the Chicago Coliseum, where the Democratic Party was holding its convention.
The Democrats at the time were deeply divided on a number of topics, most immediately whether to issue coinage in gold or silver as well. It sounds dry, but the issue was one of those political icebergs, striking at deeper problems of class and power. With no certain nominee for President, Bryan took the stage, broadening his condemnation of gold into a fiery attack on the power of the wealthy:
We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned; we have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded; we have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!
There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.
Forget the currency issue; Bryant's genius was to capture common outrage so perfectly that it's still energizing to read.
Thundering to the assembled delegates, he declared "you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." He finished, arms outstretched, and the crowd went wild.
The results were a populist wet dream: "the Great Commoner" Bryan won the nomination over fat cat incumbent Grover Cleveland and became the first liberal to head the Democratic Party. The convention was one for the books: a genuinely suspenseful battle for control of the country's politics.
Now, I'm leaving for Charlotte, just down the mountain, where the Democratic Party — 116 years later — will again have its convention. To say "they don't make 'em like they used to" is an understatement. The nature of the event is the mirror opposite from Bryan's day, and how the American political convention stumbled from popular decision point to stage-managed spectacle is a revealing story.