The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

Opinion & Letters to the Editor

September 17, 2012

Blame it on William Jennings Bryan

Monday, September 17, 2012 — Are you are already tired of the presidential campaigns and the barrage of television ads, glad the conventions are over, and dreading the upcoming debates?

Blame it on William Jennings Bryan.

It used to be different. That was before radio, television, and airplanes. It was not so long ago that presidential candidates did very little personal campaigning. Sometimes the candidate stayed at home on his front porch and let his supporters across the country organize for the election.

All that changed in 1896 when William Jennings Bryan secured the nomination of the Democratic Party and mounted a hard-charging national campaign. Until that year a presidential candidate had rarely, if ever, appeared in North Carolina.

But, as Bob Anthony, told me the other day, Bryan whistled stopped through North Carolina for three days in September 1896 making more than 20 stops in “Asheville, Black Mountain, Old Fort, Marion, Morganton, Hickory, Statesville, Mooresville, Charlotte, Salisbury, Greensboro, Burlington, Durham, Raleigh, Selma, Goldsboro, Wilson, Rocky Mount, Whitakers, Battleboro, Enfield, Halifax, and Weldon. Longer stops and off the train rallies at Asheville, Hickory, Charlotte, Salisbury, Greensboro, Raleigh, Goldsboro, Wilson, and Rocky Mount. Briefer stops, with Bryan often speaking from the rear of the train at the other places. He arrived in Asheville from Knoxville on Sept. 16, and his last stop was at Weldon on his way to Virginia during late afternoon of Sept. 18. In three days in the state, he spoke to crowds that collectively were estimated to have numbered more than 100,000 people.”

If you are tired of full-time campaigns, blame it on Bryan.

Anthony, curator of the North Carolina Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill, has been preparing a talk for a program on important North Carolina political campaigns at the Wilson Library on the UNC campus.

The program will examine campaigns of North Carolinians like William Graham, Zeb Vance, Kerr Scott, Luther Hodges, Jim Holshouser, and Reginald Hawkins, and the Raleigh mayor’s campaign of Isabella Cannon.

How does William Jennings Bryan fit into this pattern?

Anthony says that the three-day, multiple-stop tour in our state was reason enough. Presidential and gubernatorial campaigns have never been the same in North Carolina or the rest of the country.

But there is more. Anthony’s talk is titled “Next to Nebraska: North Carolina and William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 Presidential Campaign.”

Anthony says that Bryan credited support from North Carolina as being, next to his home state of Nebraska, the most important for him in securing his party’s nomination.

Even though Bryan, at age 36, barely met the minimum age requirement to be president, he had several things going for him in our state, according to Anthony.

He was a compelling public speaker who had previously proved his talents with a rousing speech at the Women’s College in Greensboro, where he gained many admirers.

He had made a good friend of Josephus Daniels, the young but influential editor of the Raleigh News & Observer.

He was a pro-farmer advocate who had admirers not only among Democrats, but also among supporters of the Populist Party, which had come to power in the North Carolina legislature in a cooperative or fusion effort with the Republican Party. Many North Carolinians, whatever their political party, agreed with Bryan’s efforts to increase the supply of money by coining more silver and weakening the gold standard.

After his famous “Cross of Gold” convention speech opened the door, Bryan’s North Carolina supporters were poised to help him win the nomination.

Bryan lost the election. But his vigorous effort won in North Carolina and led to earthshaking changes in the state’s political power structure. Bryan’s candidacy drew support from Populists, thereby weakening their fragile partnership with Republicans.

That change led to the 1898 and 1900 White Supremacy campaigns that destroyed the Populists, marginalized the Republicans, and froze African-Americans from the North Carolina political process for most of the 20th Century.

Blame it on Bryan.


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