There is no doubt in my mind that the Presidential election of
’04 was by far the most important election of the century. The
American people had a real choice, and they made it.
of the road is now behind us. We have clearly crossed the Rubicon.
The United States will never be the same again.
be skeptical. You may think the election was an echo, not a choice.
You’re wrong. This was a turning point comparable to the election
of Abraham Lincoln.
man won. Frankly, I don’t think the country will ever fully recover.
I am of
course speaking of the landslide defeat of Alton B. Parker. When,
in 1904, Teddy Roosevelt defeated him by 336 Electoral College
votes to 140, it was over for the Old Democracy. Immediately after
the election, William Jennings Bryan, whose “cross of gold” speech
in 1896 had won him the Presidential nomination, and who had won
it again in 1900, announced the obituary of “Clevelandism,” as
he called it, and so it was. Bryan would win the nomination again
Of all Democratic
Presidential nominees since Horatio Seymour (1868), Alton B. Parker
is the least known. Some of you nit-pickers may try to counter
with Winfield Scott Hancock (1880), but General Hancock at least
got considerable publicity in Ted Turner’s Gettysburg.
I will admit that John W. Davis gave Parker a run for his money
in the forgotten Democratic nominee sweepstakes for his candidacy
in 1924, but because he won the nomination on the 103rd ballot,
he made his way into the history textbooks. No other convention
has ever been that deadlocked. Davis also gained additional fame
by more than matching his 1924 defeat when, thirty years later,
he lost the most culture-changing Supreme Court case of modern
times, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954),
in which the arguments of Thurgood Marshall, which had no Constitutional
precedents to support them, persuaded the Court by a 9 to 0 vote.
So, when it comes to obscurity, Parker’s the one.
If you go
to Google and search for “Alton,” “Parker,” and “1904,” you will
find a handful of encyclopedia entries of perhaps three brief
paragraphs. Parker was not dropped down the memory hole; he descended
on his own authority.
the last Presidential major party nominee who openly campaigned
in support of the gold standard. In fact, he was so committed
to the gold standard that, prior to his nomination, he telegraphed
the convention to insist that it not nominate him if it did not
agree with his views.
Democracy had been hard-money, all the way back to Andrew Jackson
and his war against the Second Bank of the United States. Grover
Cleveland was the last great defender of the gold standard elected
by the Democrats. His wing of the Democratic Party preached hard
money and low tariffs.
had been undermined by the unexpected success of Bryan in 1896.
Constitutionally, Bryan’s defense of silver over gold was probably
correct. The dollar in 1787 had been a Spanish silver “piece of
eight.” But in Bryan’s eloquent speeches, silver was a means of
inflation. He opposed gold because the gold standard kept rural
banks from issuing more credit. Bryan was a radical. He favored
easy money, Federal regulatory legislation, and a laundry list
of populist and socialist schemes. He prided himself of being
the most radical politician in American history. A case to this
effect is still plausible, especially in comparison with the candidates
of his era.
that Parker, a New Yorker in Cleveland’s mold, was a threat to
his eight-year hijacking of the Party. Although he had fought
Parker’s nomination at the convention, Bryan formally supported
Parker after the convention. Parker was a strong anti-imperialist,
and had said so in his nomination acceptance speech. This was
a position shared by Bryan. Bryan still planned another run at
the Presidency. He supported Parker for the sake of Party loyalty.
But he rejoiced at the results in 1904. He predicted that Clevelandism,
if not dead, would not soon revive. It never has.
financial support from the Morgan banking interests, just as Cleveland
had before him. But, then as now, Insider money was spent on both
candidates. Roosevelt came to beg money from Henry Clay Frick,
the steel magnate, and his friends. This led Frick to admit years
later in a classic summary of what had taken place. “He got down
on his knees to us. We bought the son of a bitch and then he did
not stay bought.”
Only a handful
of specialists in the Progressive era are familiar with Parker.
George Mowry, who a half-century ago was the reigning expert on
Republican progressivism, wrote of this of Parker’s campaign.
did protest against “the rule of individual caprice,” the presidential
“usurpation of authority,” and the “aggrandizement of personal
power.” But his more positive proposals were so backward-looking,
as for example his proposal to let state legislatures and the
common law develop a remedy for the trust problem, that the New
York World characterized the campaign as a struggle of
“conservative and constitutional Democracy against radical and
arbitrary Republicanism.” [Mowry, The
Era of Theodore Roosevelt, 1900—1912 (1958), p. 178.]
The New York
World had it exactly right.
TRIUMPH OF THE PROGRESSIVES
Bryan ran against William Howard Taft. Taft was Roosevelt’s hand-picked
successor. While Teddy liked to be known as a trust-buster, Taft’s
administration was even more aggressive. It was under Taft in
1911 that Standard Oil of New Jersey was broken up by the U.S.
government, whereupon the company’s senior management decided
to shift from dominating the kerosene market to producing gasoline.
Standard Oil then got much bigger and far richer than it had been
prior to 1911.
a Progressive. He was an interventionist domestically and internationally.
So was Roosevelt. So was Woodrow Wilson. They all ran in 1912.
In 1912, the consummate “echo, not a choice” Presidential election
took place, the election in which it was “heads, the State wins;
tails, the State wins; and if the coin lands on its side, the
it was Progressivism vs. Populism. It was “banking interventionism”
vs. “pitchfork interventionism.” In 1912, it was strictly Progressive
interventionism: the Rockefeller banking interest vs. the Morgan
banking interest. It has remained such ever since.
last opportunity that the non-Progressivist Old Democracy had
at the national level was 1904. Bryan saw clearly that its defeat
had put an end to the limited-government philosophy that had guided
the Democratic Party ever since the days of Jefferson.
us shed a tear for the election of ’04. Let us then drink a toast
to Alton B. Parker. “To the loser who set the pattern. It was
all downhill after him.”