`Great Commoner' created a stir

WAY BACK WHEN

William Jennings Bryan came to the city in summer of 1912 to dominate the Democrats

Back story

March 18, 2006|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

In the sweltering heat of a late June day in 1912, William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic presidential nominee, stepped from a passenger train at Baltimore's Union Station.

Bryan, with his shiny pate and wispy hair, was an impressive sight to the adoring crowds gathered on the smoky subterranean station platform to welcome him to the city.

Dressed in dark trousers, alpaca coat, low collar, black bow tie and carrying a Panama straw hat by his side, he slowly made his way up the stairs and through the waiting room to a taxi that conveyed him to the Belvedere Hotel.

The scene was repeated in the jammed hotel lobby, as Bryan attempted to register for a room. Finally, he reached the ninth-floor room where for the next week he held court during the Democratic Party convention being staged in the Fifth Regiment Armory.

Despite losing three presidential elections, "The Great Commoner" was still a potent force in American politics and had arrived in Baltimore to nominate a "progressive candidate for President of the United States."

Downtown, party candidate James Beauchamp "Champ" Clark, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives who had arrived in Baltimore with a majority of delegates pledged to him -- and Woodrow Wilson's chief antagonist -- made the 15th floor of the Emerson Hotel his headquarters.

Even though Bryan had announced he would not be a candidate, he dominated the convention from its beginning.

Bryan hurried to the convention floor early on the evening of June 27 and in a full stentorian voice that had earned him the sobriquet "Boy Orator of the Platte" in his earlier years, addressed the delegates.

"`As proof of our fidelity to the people, we hereby declare ourselves opposed to the nomination of any candidate for President who is a representative of, or under any obligation to J. Pierpont Morgan, Thomas F. Ryan, August Belmont, or any other member of the privilege-hunting and favor-seeking class,'" Bryan said, according to Michael Kazin in his recently published book, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan.

"The whole show revolved around him," Sun political columnist Frank R. Kent wrote of Bryan in his 1928 book, The Democratic Party: A History.

"Single handed, he made his attack on his enemies and to their faces, amid the wildest turmoil and excitement -- arraigned, indicted, and denounced them. The great bulk of the convention delegates were anti-Bryan. Most of the leaders were hostile to him. His own Nebraska delegation was not unitedly with him," Kent wrote.

"His three defeats were enough to have buried politically any other man in the country. Yet the utter fearlessness, fire and force of the man swung and swayed that convention. Compelled it partly through fear, partly because of inability to cope with him, to yield point after point," Kent wrote.

"In the end he came forth the victor. Beyond all question it was he who defeated Clark after he received a majority of the convention on the tenth ballot. It was he who nominated Wilson and it was he who wrote the platform almost as completely as he had the platforms in the three previous conventions in which he was himself the nominee," Kent wrote.

Bryan had abandoned Clark, whom he had earlier supported, for Wilson, and gained support for the latter by blaming "Eastern Bosses" and Tammany Hall over and over again to convention delegates.

The business of the fractious convention staggered on in the infernal heat in the Fifth Regiment Armory. It wasn't until the 43rd ballot, when he received 602 votes to Clark's 329, that Wilson achieved a majority.

The Wilson nomination came on July 2, on the 46th ballot, after the New Jersey governor received 990 votes in a convention that Kent described as the "most strenuous, wire-pulling, delegate hauling, and intriguing ever seen."

In 1973, Philip Myers, who lived in Guilford, invited me to his home for a drink. He had been an Evening Sun reporter and wanted to tell me about the time he interviewed Bryan in 1916 when he was staying at the YMCA.

Myers said Bryan, who was then Wilson's secretary of state, refused to comment on the war then raging in Europe, which he opposed.

Bryan leaned over to the young reporter and said, "This is my statement to the press. Today is my birthday. I am 56 years old."

Bryan lived in Baltimore at the Rennert Hotel and later the Central Young Men's Christian Association from 1918 to 1919 while his wife was being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The old warrior became a familiar sight on city streets.

"Those who remember him as he looked then say that, seeing him trudging along Charles Street with his baggy black trousers, his black coat and shapeless black hat touched by the rain, one would never have thought him the man who had practically dominated his party for twenty-five years," reported The Sun at Bryan's death in 1925.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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