No speaker at this week's convention is likely to evoke with pride the only other time the Democrats met in Denver—in the summer of 1908. A century ago, the party rallied around William Jennings Bryan, the stirring orator who had also won the nomination in 1896 and 1900. That fall, Bryan became a three-time loser. The Republican victor, William Howard Taft, was the protégé of incumbent President Theodore Roosevelt, and a majority of voters liked the idea of continuing TR's mildly progressive policies.
Bryan did endure as a leader of his party; in 1912, he helped Woodrow Wilson win the nomination and the election and then joined his cabinet as secretary of state. But one can hardly blame contemporary Democrats for not wanting to remember an unsuccessful candidate best known today as an ardent foe of teaching evolution in public schools.
Still, the party stalwarts gathered in Denver this week may hear echoes of that 1908 convention when they hear their nominees talk about the ills of the economy. A century ago, the entire platform was read out loud, and its populist message was strong and clear. In the official document, every line of which Will Bryan wrote or edited himself, Democrats attacked the GOP for being too friendly with corporations, for leaving the banks and stock market unregulated despite a Wall Street panic the year before, for appointing conservative judges who sided with big business and against union workers, and for acting in an aggressive, imperialist manner overseas. The platform concluded, "The Democratic Party stands for Democracy; the Republican Party has drawn to itself all that is aristocratic and plutocratic." That year, for the first time in its history, the American Federation of Labor endorsed and worked closely with a major presidential candidate. In fact, Bryan cleared the platform with Samuel Gompers, perennial head of the AFL.
At the start of 1908, like this year, the party was not yet united behind its eventual nominee. Grover Cleveland, the only Democrat elected president since the Civil War, soberly lamented Bryan's "radical takeover" of the party; while Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, the highest-circulation paper in the nation, floated the names of 16 different politicians other than Bryan, any one of whom the World thought could lead the party to victory.
But Bryan, like Barack Obama, ran a campaign that simply out-organized every would-be competitor. During the winter and early spring, his wife, Mary, and younger brother, Charles Bryan, sent out some 600,000 notes to individual supporters "to see that no one attended the precinct, city, county, state, and national conventions who were not known to be friendly" to his positions. Will spoke at numerous Democratic banquets in big cities, and his allies got their state party conventions to endorse his candidacy (there were no primaries).
The decision to hold the convention in Colorado, which Bryan had won handily in his two previous races, demonstrated that no serious alternative really existed. "To be suspected of disloyalty to Bryan in those days," a journalist later recalled, "was almost like buying a ticket to private life." Few of the Democrats who met that summer in the metropolis of the Rockies were willing to take the risk.
Without a contest for the nomination, the event lacked the drama typical of party conventions in that era. Reporters had lots of time to describe how the host committee trucked in several tons of snow from the mountains to delight southern delegates who had never seen the white stuff. The leading man himself stayed back home near Lincoln, Neb., where he followed the proceedings by telegraph while harvesting his alfalfa crop. By tradition, presumptive nominees did not appear at the convention, lest they appear too greedy for the prize. Bryan didn't deliver his acceptance speech until more than a month later.
The only spontaneous public event worth noting in Denver occurred on the second day of the convention. During a routine address, Sen. Thomas Gore (Al's distant cousin) casually mentioned Bryan's name. The 15,000 delegates and spectators burst into a loud demonstration and kept it up for some 87 minutes. It may have been the longest such event in American political history.
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.