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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Democrats a Century Ago


Democratic delegates from around the country assembled in Charlotte, No. Carolina, this week, hot on the heels of the Republican meeting in Tampa. Back before primaries, when candidates were actually chosen at the conventions, delegates expected to do more than socialize and rubber-stamp the nominee. They expected to argue, persuade, and vote until a consensus emerged around a specific candidate.

The 1908 Democratic Convention

Charley Donohue, mayor of New Richmond, Wisconsin, went to the 1908 Democratic Convention to support William Jennings Bryan, and telegraphed reports about it back to his hometown newspaper.

On July 8, he wrote home 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."

To show his support for Bryan, Donohue wore this "Official National Democratic Convention" badge that's now in the Wisconsin Historical Museum. As Donohue predicted, Bryan secured the nomination on the first ballot two days later.

What Democrats Stood For in 1908

During the 1890s, Bryan had become an influential figure in the Democratic Party by speaking out against the wealthy and powerful on behalf of the ordinary citizen (his nickname was, "The Great Commoner"). He advocated government regulation of business, democratization of the political process through primary elections and referendums, and the popular election of senators. After unsuccessful runs in 1896 and 1900, Bryan returned once more to head his party's ticket in 1908.

At the 1908 convention, the Democratic Party adopted a platform that favored government control of interstate commerce (which meant railroads, since there were no highways then), opposed monopolies, and wanted to restrain the influence of corporations in elections. It also criticized the growth of "unnecessary" and "wasteful" government offices, the waste of taxpayer money, and centralization of power in the Speaker of the House and the Presidency.

Festivities Haven't Changed Much

Mayor Donohue 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 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."

But the excitement was short-lived. In November Bryan lost his third presidential bid, this time to William Howard Taft. He failed to carry Wisconsin, including Donohue's home town of New Richmond, where 434 citizens voted for Taft, 140 for Bryan, 41 for Socialist Eugene V. Debs, and 10 for Prohibition Party candidate Eugene W. Chaflin.


:: Posted in Curiosities on September 3, 2012
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