'04: The Most Important Election Is Over

It’s over. 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.

The fork of the road is now behind us. We have clearly crossed the Rubicon. The United States will never be the same again.

You may 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.

The wrong 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 in 1908.


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.

Parker was 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.

The Old 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.

This wing 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.

Bryan understood 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.

Parker received 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.

Parker 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.


In 1908, 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.

Taft was 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 State wins.”

In 1908, 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.


The 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.

So, let 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.”

November 4, 2004

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit

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