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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: ‘The Boy Orator of the Platte’

By Tom Morrow

While Donald Trump may not meet the definition of being neither Republican nor Democrat, he could best be described as a “populist.” He would not be the first to attract the populist vote in a presidential election. There was one other who made nearly as much of splash as Trump: William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska.

A “populist” has more than one description, but the most commonly accepted definition in this context is one who attracts the support of the general public, regardless of party affiliation.

Born in 1860, Bryan grew up in rural Illinois and in 1887 moved to Lincoln, Neb., where he practiced law and entered politics. He won election to the House of Representatives in 1890, and was re-elected in 1892.

In Congress, Bryan was appointed to the powerful Ways and Means Committee and became a major spokesman on the tariff and money questions. He also introduced several proposals for the direct-election of U.S. senators.

In May 1894, Bryan announced he would not seek re-election to the House of Representatives, feeling the incessant need to raise money to campaign in a marginal district was inhibiting his political career. Instead, he sought the Senate seat the Nebraska legislature would fill in January 1895. Although Bryan was successful in winning the non-binding popular vote, Republicans gained a majority in the legislature and elected John Thurston as senator for Nebraska.

Bryan Believed he could be elected President in 1896 even though he remained a relatively minor figure in the Democratic Party. In anticipation of a presidential campaign, he spent much of 1895 and early 1896 making speeches across the United States; his compelling oratory increased his popularity among Democrats, becoming known as the “Boy Orator of the Platte.” (The Platte River runs from the Missouri across Nebraska into the western states).

In 1896, Bryan gained the Democratic nomination after electrifying the Democratic National Convention with his “Cross of Gold” speech. He had gone to the convention as an undeclared candidate, whom the press had given only a small chance of becoming the nominee. His “Gold” speech, given to conclude the debate on the party platform, immediately transformed him into a favorite for the nomination, and he won it the next day.

Bryan undertook an extensive tour by rail to bring his campaign to the people. He spoke some 600 times, to an estimated 5 million listeners. His campaign focused on silver, an issue that failed to appeal to the urban voter, and he was defeated in November.

The ’96 Presidential race is generally seen as a realigning election. The coalition of wealthy, middle-class and urban voters who defeated Bryan kept the Republicans in power for most of the time until 1932. Although defeated in the election, Bryan’s campaign made him a national figure, which he remained until his death in 1925. He was defeated in the general election by the Republican candidate, former Ohio governor William McKinley.

Bryan ran for president a second time in 1900 and a third time in 1908, each time losing. Through the nearly three decades before his death in 1925, Bryan was ever present on political platform and speaking circuit, fighting first for silver, and then for other causes. Bryan served as Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson from 1913 to 1915, resigning as Wilson moved the nation closer to intervention in World War I.

His final years were marked with controversy, such as his involvement in the famed 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial” (Hollywood captured the episode in the film “Inherit the Wind,” starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March in a fictional role depicting Bryan). The orator died shortly after the trial. But, according to a biographer, “Bryan’s sincerity, warmth, and passion for a better world won the hearts of people who cared for no other public figure in his day.”


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