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Democratic Convention Delegate Badge

"Official National Democratic Convention" badge in support of candidate William Jennings Bryan, worn by Wisconsin delegate Charles Donohue in Denver, Colorado, July 1908.
(Museum object #1997.36.1)

Democratic delegates from around the country gathered in Denver from July 7 to 10, 1908 to select a candidate who would lead their party against the Republicans in the November presidential election. To advertise support for their favorite candidate, many delegates wore ribbons like the one featured here, which promoted William Jennings Bryan. This badge was worn at the convention by Charles "Charley" Donohue, the mayor of New Richmond, Wisconsin, who not only attended the event as a state delegate, but also telegraphed reports about the convention to his hometown newspaper.

While attending the convention, Mayor Donohue served as "Special Representative on the Spot" for the New Richmond News & Republican-Voice. On July 8, he wrote from Denver: "There is no doubt of Bryan's nomination. The [John A.] Johnson and [George] Gray opposition is only kept alive by trained expert nursing and an abundance of money. But, poor fellows, the only thing that can resurrect them now is to have lightning strike Bryan before the inevitable vote is taken." As per Donohue's prediction, Bryan proceeded to secure the nomination on the first ballot on July 10.

A former Congressman from Nebraska, by the 1890s Bryan had become an influential figure in the national Democratic Party. He made a name for himself primarily as a skilled orator and populist who fought the wealthy and powerful on behalf of the ordinary citizen. Bryan's political agenda included government regulation of business and the democratization of the political process through the primary and referendum and the popular election of senators. Bryan claimed to speak for discontented farmers and factory workers whose problems stemmed from westward expansion, urbanization, and explosive economic growth. He earned the nickname, "the Commoner."

Bryan had first run for the presidency in 1896, when he was just 36 years old. His first campaign centered on the free coinage of silver that he argued would expand the nation's money supply in the wake of a national depression. Bryan lost to Republican William McKinley. Four years later, he returned to rail against American imperialism that followed the Spanish-American War of 1898, but he lost again to McKinley.

After declining to contend for the 1904 Democratic nomination, Bryan returned once more to lead his party in 1908. At its Denver convention, the Democratic Party adopted a platform that favored government control of interstate commerce (primarily railroads) and opposed high tariffs, monopolies, and the influence of corporations in political elections. It also criticized the growth of "unnecessary" and "wasteful" government offices, the waste of taxpayer money, the power of the Speaker of the House, and the "dynasty" that President Theodore Roosevelt was perceived as establishing by endorsing the nomination of his chosen successor, Secretary of War William Howard Taft.

The News & Republican-Voice reported that, in reaction to Bryan's 1908 nomination speech, "immediately perfect pandemonium of sound and motion was unloosened as delegates and spectators rose en masse and joined in the reverberating chorus of tribute to the Nebraska candidate. The standards of the states were wrenched from their places and borne throughout the hall to the platform, while banners bearing the portrait of the commoner [Bryan] were waved aloft, and the multitude joined in continued tribute. At times, the intensity of the demonstration threatened a panic. One woman was borne out fainting."

Despite the excitement of the Democratic Convention, Bryan faced his third presidential defeat as Taft won the presidency in the general election that November. As in 1896 and 1900, Bryan failed to win Wisconsin. Bryan lost in Donohue's home city, where 434 New Richmond citizens voted for Taft, 140 for Bryan, 41 for Socialist Eugene V. Debs, and 10 for Prohibition Party candidate Eugene W. Chaflin.

During the next presidential election season in 1912, Donohue again served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, this time supporting Woodrow Wilson. Donohue ran his own campaign as the Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress from the 10th Congressional District that year, but lost to Republican James A. Frear. In 1914 President Wilson appointed Donohue postmaster at New Richmond, a position Donohue held until his death the following year.

[Sources: Easton, Augustus B., ed. History of the St. Croix Valley, 1909; New Richmond News & Republican-Voice, July 11, 1908; Wisconsin Blue Book, 1909, 1913.]

PGB


Posted on July 24, 2008

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  • Politics & Government
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