Early on the morning of July 11, Bryan was nominated on the first ballot with nearly 90 percent of the votes. A day later, delegates unanimously named Sen. John Kern from the critical swing state of Indiana to join him on the ticket. Kern was well liked by labor unionists in his state, and he agreed with Bryan's views on every major issue. The vice presidential nominee also displayed, according to one reporter, a "pair of the most picturesque whiskers that have ever been brought into American politics." Aside from the publisher of the World, every prominent Democrat was at least nominally on board.
Although Bryan lost that fall, his three candidacies changed the face of his party forever. Under Grover Cleveland, the Democrats were the party of states' rights and laissez faire; during the depression of the 1890s, Cleveland rejected demands for federal relief, intoning, "Though the people support the government, the government should not support the people." In vigorous dissent, Bryan articulated the belief that became the core of New Deal liberalism: The duty of government was to aid ordinary citizens and curb the power of big corporations.
"Shall the People Rule?" asked the Democratic campaign slogan in 1908. The abstract, plaintive nature of the question suggested Bryan's weakness as a candidate. No one in America could rival his eloquent outrage, grounded in Scripture, against the corrupting influence of business on public life. "I am willing to go down on my knees and ask my heavenly father: 'Give us this day our daily bread,' " he told a huge crowd in Virginia that fall. "I am not willing to make millions of my countrymen get down on their knees and say to some trust magnate: 'Give us this day our daily bread,' and have him reply: 'I will, if you vote the ticket I want you to vote.' "
Yet his three losses revealed that it was not enough to tell voters a gripping story about "the people" vs. "the plutocrats." A majority of voters never trusted Bryan, a gifted architect of moral protest, to manage the nation's business. Barack Obama, whose magnetic eloquence matches Bryan's, may face a similar hurdle this year.
In one striking respect, the Democrats of 2008 have broken completely with their fellow partisans of a century ago. In 1908, Bryan's party was a bastion of Jim Crow; many of those delegates from Dixie who gamboled in the snow had participated in ripping the vote away from African-American citizens in their states, the 15th Amendment be damned. Republicans made little protest, and W. E. B. Du Bois, the great writer and cofounder of the NAACP, wanted to punish the "party of Lincoln" by campaigning for Bryan. But the Democratic nominee, anxious to keep his base in Dixie intact, rejected the offer. Not one black delegate sat in the Denver convention a century ago. History does matter.
Michael Kazin's most recent book is A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (Knopf/Anchor). He teaches history at Georgetown University.