We think of William Jennings Bryan as the creationist blow- hard outwitted by Clarence Darrow at the Scopes Trial, a judgment embalmed in umpteen high school productions of Inherit the Wind. But before Scopes, Bryan ran for president three times, and his first run in 1896 was the most radical campaign of any major party candidate ever. Bryan attacked the wealthy and thrilled the downtrodden. His blazing debut can teach today’s Occupy Movement a lesson in nuts-and-bolts politics, while his ultimate burnout might warn them about the limits of confrontational rhetoric.

Bryan, the son of a Baptist minister, was born in Salem, Ill., in 1860, and spoke the language of small town America and its churches—a great help to him in politics. He moved to Nebraska, where he was elected to Congress as a Democrat at the age of 30.

America in the 1890s was suffering economic growth pains. Railroads spanned the continent, and industry churned out goods. But not all benefited. Agricultural prices were in free fall and a punishing recession in 1893 spread the misery around. The cause of the malaise seemed to be America’s currency. President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, and the Republican Party both supported the gold standard: tying the dollar to a set price of gold, which stabilized its value. But farmers wanted a shot of inflation to lift them out of debt, and hoped to get it by making dollars redeemable in silver, a more common precious metal, as well as gold. Young Bryan became a vocal silver Democrat. After a losing run for the Senate, he continued to campaign for the silver cause in newspaper editorials and stump speeches.

The 1896 Democratic convention, held in Chicago in July, shaped up as a showdown on currency. The party was ripe for a takeover. Democrats had been hammered in a midterm election and Cleveland, champion of gold, was stepping down after two terms. Silver Democrats seized party machinery in state after state, and a session of the convention was set aside to debate their issue.

This was Bryan’s moment. He was an imposing figure, with a high forehead, aquiline nose, long dark hair and what one reporter called “the physique of a gladiator.” Years of advocacy had sharpened his punch lines and his delivery. On the eve of the currency debate he wangled the coveted concluding slot. Before he took the stage he ate a sandwich to settle his jittery stomach and sucked a lemon to soothe his throat.

The most stirring American speech between Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” was superficially simple. Bryan eschewed personal attacks and presented free silver as ordinary Democratic politics: sticking up for the little guy in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.

But his rhetoric crossed the line to class warfare. He contrasted ordinary Americans, the 99 percent of 1896, and their rich oppressors: “the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day” versus the financier who “bets on the price of grain”; “miners who go a thousand feet into the earth” versus “magnates who in a backroom corner the money of the world.” He summoned “the avenging wrath of an indignant people” against “idle hoarders of idle capital.” He pitted the heartland against the urban Northeast: “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” His most audacious lines were his last, which channeled his preacher father: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” As he said “crown of thorns,” Bryan brushed his own temples; when he said “cross of gold” he stretched out his arms.

For a moment, silence. Bryan thought he had bombed. Then came what one ear-witness called “a perfect Niagara of sound.” Delegates cheered, screamed, waved hats, canes and jackets. The next day Bryan, who had come to the convention as a dark horse, won his party’s presidential nomination. He followed his sensational kickoff with a cross-country campaign, using a private railroad car misnamed “The Idler,” in which he covered 18,000 miles and 29 states, giving as many as 30 speeches a day.

Bryan was polarizing. Novelist Willa Cather described farmers weeping “like children” as Bryan addressed them. Some admirers deluged him with mementoes and lucky charms, from rabbits’ feet to a fungus in the shape of his profile. Those who were not swept away were terrified. One gold Democrat at the Chicago convention said, “for the first time I understand the French Revolution.” William Allen White, a Republican newspaper editor in Kansas, branded Bryan “the apotheosis of riot, destruction and carnage.” Bryan did little to allay such fears. Before a swing through New York City, he referred to America’s capital of commerce repeatedly as “the enemy.” Then as now New York was the home of Wall Street, but it was also the home of Tammany Hall, the Democrats’ biggest urban machine. Bryan would need a lot of enemy votes if he wanted to win the White House.

The Republican nominee, William McKinley, was ideally suited to counteract Bryan’s appeal. A Civil War veteran, former congressman and governor of Ohio, McKinley won the GOP nomination as a likable moderate. People “always apologize to William,” a colleague observed, “when they are going to call him names.” Knowing he could not out-barnstorm Bryan, he decided to stay in his hometown, Canton, Ohio, and received delegations of supporters at his front porch, speaking to 750,000 people in all.

The McKinley campaign also spent money—lots of it. Campaign manager Mark Hanna raised $3.5 million, then an astounding sum, while the Democrats raised only $300,000. The Republicans churned out 200 million pamphlets. There was special outreach for blacks, German Americans and women (even though women then voted in only three states). Bryan’s energy, Republican thoroughness and the issues at stake ensured a record turnout—as high as 95 percent of eligible voters in some states.

McKinley’s solidity and Bryan’s fury determined the result. Americans can be wowed by a spectacle, but they generally want a cool head in the White House. Bryan swept the South, the Great Plains and the Rockies, carrying 14 of 19 states west of the Mississippi, but McKinley rolled up huge margins in the Northeast and Midwest, including a landslide in New York. The Republican won 51 percent of the popular vote and 271 electoral votes; Bryan took just under 47 percent of the popular vote and 176 electoral votes. Bryan faced McKinley again in the election of 1900, and William Howard Taft in 1908, but the fire was gone. His share of the vote sank each time.

In 1896, Bryan’s rural roots gave him a base of support, silver gave him a clear issue and his congressional career gave him standing to mount a national campaign. Today student debt and severe unemployment give the Occupy Movement supporters, though a concrete agenda and regular political activity have so far been lacking. In the end, Bryan’s appeal was limited by his demonizing rhetoric, just as the Occupy tent cities wore out their welcome thanks to antics, dirt and disorder. Bryan’s father might have told his son and the Occupy Everywhere protesters to ponder Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.”


Originally published in the April 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.