Picture of William Jennings Bryan

Essay in "The North American Review": The Election of 1900

December 01, 1900

In considering an election, we are concerned, first, with what has actually happened; second, with the causes which have produced the result; and, third, with the influence which the election will exert upon the future of the country.

The first division can be disposed of in a few words. The Republicans have won a signal victory, a much greater victory than the preliminary polls made by either party indicated. At the time this article is written, the returns are not sufficiently complete for careful analysis; but, generally speaking, as compared with 1896, the Republicans lost in the East and gained in the West, while the Central and Southern States showed comparatively little change. Again, speaking generally, the Democrats gained in the large cities, and lost in the smaller cities and in the country.

More space will be required to state the reasons for the victory.

The Republicans had a great advantage in having a large campaign fund. There are certain legitimate uses which may be made of money in a campaign. Honey is needed for the circulation of literature; for the travelling expenses of speakers; for securing preliminary polls, and forgetting the vote registered and polled. For all this legitimate work, the Republicans had plenty of money, while the Democrats had very little.

The Republicans were also able to secure transportation for all Republican voters who were away from home. Instances are known where passes or tickets were furnished for long distances. The Democrats were not in a position either to secure passes or to pay for transportation. This advantage alone was sufficient to change the result in close Congressional districts and in close legislative districts. It is impossible at this time to calculate the effect of colonization, or the extent to which votes were purchased by the direct payment of money or by employment for political work. There are instances where as much as five hundred dollars was offered to one man for his political service for a few days.

The Republicans had another advantage, the influence of which it is difficult to estimate, viz., the advantage which accrues to an Administration while a war is in progress. The old saying that it is not safe to swap horses while crossing a stream was used for all it was worth, notwithstanding the fact that, in this instance, it was an ocean instead of a stream that was being crossed; for imperialism is an idea of European origin. Many were led to the support of the Administration by the plea that the insurrection must be suppressed before any plan could be adopted for dealing with the Philippine question. They refused to believe that the Republican leaders contemplated an imperial policy.

The most potent argument, however, used by the Republicans in the late campaign was the argument which compared present conditions with those which existed from 1893 to 1896. To the laboring man, the Republican party would say: "Remember how many were idle during the last Administration. Do you want to risk a return to hard times?" This argument, based on the theory that a Republican Administration insures good times, was answered; but the answer did not always reach the man to whom the argument was addressed. The panic which followed 1873 occurred under a Republican Administration; the Homestead strike of 1892 occurred under a Republican Administration; and the panic of 1893, while it occurred during a Democratic Administration, came before any Republican law was repealed, and it came under an Administration as thoroughly committed to the gold standard as the present Administration. The strike in the bituminous coal regions occurred in 1897, and the strike in the anthracite regions occurred during the campaign of 1900.

The prosperity argument influenced many farmers. The crops have been better during the four years since 1896 than they were immediately preceding that year, and business in the West has felt the reaction from the prostration of 1893 to 1896. Klondike, South Africa and Cripple Creek have considerably increased the world's supply of gold; a famine in Europe and Asia added to the supply of money in this country by giving us higher prices for breadstuffs, and this has been still further enlarged by our increasing exports; the Spanish war withdrew two hundred thousand young men from the labor market, and the Philippine war retains in the service seventy-live thousand of that number; a war loan took two hundred millions from the safety vaults, and put it into circulation for the purchase of army supplies; and the war in South Africa increased the demand for our products. These are some of the abnormal influences which have contributed to a temporary improvement in industrial conditions. The Republicans cannot justly claim credit for any of these things, and yet their party profited by all of them.

I shall speak later of the manner in which the money question influenced the campaign. To recapitulate, the Republican victory was due to money, war and better times.

The past is profitable only for instruction, and the more important division of my subject, therefore, deals with the influence which the election will exert upon the future of the country. First, what is to be the result of the use of money in polities? In every contest there are three classes of citizens to be considered. First, those who will vote the party ticket regardless of what the party has done, is doing or will do; that is, those who make their convictions suit the party platform, and stand ready to defend any policy which their party may endorse.

As an illustration of the first class, I might mention a distinguished member of the Republican party, who, when asked whether he would vote the Democratic ticket, gave vent to his partisanship by saying:

"No, a thousand times no! I'd rather go to sea in a boat of stone, with sails of iron, and oars of lead, the wrath of God for a gale and hell for a port."

In the second class will be found the independent voters who are ready to support the ticket which comes nearest to their ideals} and in the third, the floating vote which can be influenced, directly or indirectly, by purely pecuniary considerations. Of the three classes, the independent voter is the one to whom all intellectual and moral arguments are addressed. All literature is circulated on the theory that the voters are independent, and will change their party when convinced that they have been wrong or that their party is wrong. The party which has the money to circulate literature, establish and maintain newspapers and pay the expenses of halls and speakers, has a great advantage over a party with, an insufficient campaign fund. No matter how well disposed and conscientious a jury may be, the evidence on both sides must be fairly presented before an intelligent verdict can be rendered. In any close contest, therefore, the party having the largest campaign fund has the best chance, although the money is spent in ways which are considered legitimate.

No time need be wasted in the condemnation of the illegitimate use of money. No one will attempt to defend the colonization of voters, the employment of repeaters or the purchase of votes.

But it is worth while to consider why such large campaign funds are now used by the Republicans, and how such funds are collected, together with the remedy to be employed for the protection of the public against the improper use of money in the elections. The magnitude of the fund which can be collected depends upon the interest which the great corporations feel in the result, and upon the imminence of the danger to the privileges which they are enjoying. Prior to 1896, the moneyed element of the country was divided between the two leading parties; but, even then, the Republican party had a considerable majority among the bankers, railroad magnates and manufacturers. In 1896, the Republican party secured the support of practically all of those capitalists who thrive through governmental favoritism, or in the absence of necessary restraining legislation. The Republican campaign fund that year surpassed any fund employed in previous campaigns, but the immense amount then employed would have failed of its purpose but for the coercion practiced by money loaners and employers of labor. Since 1896, the consolidation of wealth has gone on with a rapidity never before known. The following are a few of the large combinations which have been formed within the last four years:

The American Agricultural Chemical Co., organized in 1899, has an authorized capital of $40,000,000, and controls twenty-two of the largest fertilizing concerns in the country.

The American Hide and Leather Co., organized in 1899, has an authorized capital of $35,000,000, and controls about seventy-five per cent, of the upper leather output of the country.

The American Linseed Oil Co., organized in 1898, has a capital stock of $33,500,000, and controls over eighty-five per cent, of the linseed oil properties of the United States.

The American Steel and Wire Co., organized in 1899, has $90,000,000 of stock, and controls about eighty per cent, of the nail and wire products of the United States.

The American Thread Co., organized in 1898, has a capital stock of $12,000,000, and consolidated fourteen large thread companies in New York and New England.

The American Tin Plate Co., organized in 1898, has $50,000,000 of stock, and controls about ninety-five per cent, of the tin plate output.

The American Window Glass Co., organized in 1899, has $17,000,000 of stock, and controls about eighty-five per cent, of the output.

The American Writing Paper Co., organized in 1899, has $25,000,000 of stock, and controls over seventy-five per cent, of the output.

The Continental Tobacco Co., organized in 1898, has a capital stock of $100,000,000, and controls the leading plug tobacco factories of the country.

The Federal Steel Co., organized in 1898, has an authorized capital of $200,000,000, and is a consolidation of several railroad, steamship and manufacturing companies.

The International Paper Co., organized in 1898, has an authorized capital of $45,000,000, and controls eighty-five per cent, of the output of newspapers.

The National Biscuit Co., organized in 1898, has a capital of $55,000,000, and controls one hundred and sixteen plants.

The National Salt Co., organized in 1899, has $12,000,000 capital, and controls ninety-five per cent, of the output of salt.

The National Tube Co., organized in 1899, has a capital stock of $80,000,000, and controls ninety per cent, of the output.

The Rubber Goods Manufacturing Co., organized in 1899, has a capital stock of $50,000,000; the Standard Rope and Twine Co., organized November 8th, 1896 (five days after the election), consolidated twenty-two large cordage mills and fixed the capital stock at $12,000,000; the Union Bag and Paper Co., organized in 1899, has a capital stock of $27,000,000, and controls ninety percent of the paper bag business; the United States Envelope Co., organized in 1S98, has a capital of $5,000,000, and controls ninety per cent, of the output of commercial envelopes; and the United States Cast Iron Pipe and Foundry Co., organized in 1899, has an authorized capital of $30,000,000, and controls the principal cast-iron pipe factories.

All of these trusts, and many others, had a pecuniary reason for supporting the Republican ticket, for they have not only enjoyed immunity during the present Administration, but they had every reason to expect further immunity in case of Republican success; while the Democratic platform and the Democratic organization were outspoken in their condemnation of private monopolies, and the candidates were pledged to aggressive measures for the extermination of all combinations formed in restraint of trade.

The alarming feature of a contest between the trusts and the victims of the trusts is that the former, enjoying great profits out of the system; are able and willing to contribute liberally to perpetuate the system, while the people at large are not always able to calculate the amount of the extortion, and are therefore slow to apply a remedy. Since the election the meat combine at Chicago has raised the price of meat. One paper estimates that the increase will amount to thirty-nine millions in one year. If this estimate is correct, the beef combine alone could afford to contribute fifteen millions to the Republican campaign fund, for this would be less than ten per cent, of the amount it could realize in four years from the increase before mentioned. Such a campaign fund would be sufficient for all legitimate purposes, and leave enough to purchase every floating vote in the United States and to colonize all the doubtful States. On the day before the election of 1900, the stock of the Standard Oil Company was worth six hundred and twenty-five dollars per share, the par value being one hundred dollars. According to report of Henry Clews & Co., the Standard Oil Co. paid twelve per cent, dividends from 1891 to 1895. In 1899 it incorporated under the laws of New Jersey, and controls two-thirds of the output of oil in the United States. This year its dividends will aggregate about fifty per cent, on the capital stock. The Standard Oil Co. alone, by contributing a small percentage of its profits, could so finance the Republican Committee as to secure a victory for that party in any close election. I have mentioned two trusts, whose contributions might be enormous. There are several others, any one of which out of its profits could supply a campaign fund ten times larger than it would be possible to raise from the people, who are the victims of all the trusts. Can any one doubt that such conditions will result in increasing injustice to the masses, and in fabulous fortunes for those who stand at the head of the monopolies? Is there any remedy for the improper use of money in elections? Yes, there is a remedy; a statute making it a penal offence for any officer of a corporation to contribute corporation funds to a campaign fund, limiting the amount that can be legally expended by candidates or committees, and compelling the publication of the names of contributors to campaign funds, together with the amounts contributed. Such a law would help, and yet such a law would be a dead letter unless enforced, and such a law would not be enforced unless the conscience of the people was aroused.

Until four years ago, everybody denounced the trusts; but, during the late campaign, the Republicans spent more time warning the people not to hurt the good trusts than they spent in pointing out a remedy for the trusts which were admitted to be bad. The work of education must continue, until the great majority of, the people recognize that a private monopoly is indefensible and intolerable.

A combination which controls a great industry is objectionable on moral, economic and political grounds. In ethics, it is impossible to distinguish between the disreputable highwayman who holds up his victim upon a country road, and risks his life to secure a small amount of money from one person, and the eminently respectable trust magnate who stands by the highways of commerce, and, by means of monopoly and without personal risk, collects an enormous amount from seventy-five millions of people.

From an economic standpoint the trust is equally subject to criticism. It is the natural tendency of monopoly to increase the price of the article and to lower the quality; for, when the stimulus of competition is removed, the manufacturer will no longer seek to offer to the public the best article at the lowest price. The employee becomes the vassal of the employer when there is but one employer for his skill, for he cannot leave without sacrificing the experience of a lifetime.

The political objections to a private monopoly are scarcely less serious than the moral and economic objections. Daniel Webster said: "The freest government cannot long endure where the tendency of the law is to create a rapid accumulation of property in the hands of a few, and to render the masses of the people poor and dependent." When hundreds of thousands of workingmen must go down on their knees each morning, and, addressing their petition to trust magnates, say, "Give us this day our daily bread, a government of the people, for the people and by the people will be a thing of the past.

The Republican leaders did not attempt to defend the party's record on the trust question. The trusts supported the Republican party, and the enormous rise in the value of trust stocks since the election indicates that the trusts are preparing for a saturnalian feast. We can only hope that the excesses which are likely to follow so complete a victory will arouse a protest sufficiently pronounced to overcome any influence which money can exert.

The argument put forth by Republicans in defence of trusts has been already seized upon by socialists, who argue that if monopolies are necessary they must be owned by the people. The voters who rejected the conservative remedies proposed by the Democratic party have aided those who advocate still more radical measures.

The most surprising feature of the campaign was the indifference manifested by many Republicans to the attack on governmental principles heretofore regarded as sacred. The party in power is clearly committed to a colonial policy so repugnant to our history, our traditions and our political maxims that there was no substantial effort made by Republican leaders to defend the party's position. Where a defense was attempted the gist of it was about as follows: "We did not want the Philippine Islands; they came to us by accident; but now that we have them, we cannot honorably let them go; besides, it looks as if it was God s work; and then, too, there is money in it."

Destiny, Divinity and Dollars! The destiny argument is a subterfuge. Bulwer's description of it is the best I have seen. In speaking of William of Hastings, who laid his sins at the door of destiny, he says:

"'It Is Destiny!' phrase of the weak human heart! 'It is Destiny!' dark apology for every error! The strong and virtuous admit no Destiny! On earth, guides Conscience, in Heaven watches God. And Destiny is hut the phantom we invoke to silence the one, to dethrone the other!"

The destiny of the American people must be determined by the American people themselves. No circumstances can justify an individual in doing wrong; neither can. circumstances justify a nation in doing wrong. If American principles are good, we should continue to observe them; if they are bad, we should abandon them; but, whatever we do, we should do as a matter of choice and not hide behind the pretence that we are the victims of blind necessity.

It is hard to believe that any one acquainted with the Scriptures would defend a war of conquest as a matter of religious duty, and yet many have imagined that they saw the hand of God in the tragedy now being enacted in the Orient.

The doctrine that we are commanded by the Almighty to sacrifice our own citizens and slaughter Filipinos, in order to establish a carpet bag government over a distant people, is on a par with the doctrine that kings are divinely appointed to govern their subjects, and, as a corollary to this theory, divinely commissioned to kill their subjects if they do not like the government which the kings provide. Lincoln properly described this doctrine when he said:

"Those arguments that are made, that the inferior race are to be treated with as much allowance as they are capable of enjoying, that as much Is to be done for them as their condition will allow—what are these arguments? They are the arguments that Icings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of king-craft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden. That is their argument."

But, while the partisan Republican may plead destiny as a reason for endorsing the policy of imperialism, and while the pious Republican may throw the blame upon Providence, the more candid of the Republican leaders boldly preach the doctrine of commercialism, and advocate an imperial career on the ground that it will expand trade and add to the nation's wealth. This is by far the most influential argument given in defence of imperialism.

The partisan has little influence with the party management, because, while he loudly endorses imperialism to-day, he would condemn it with as much emphasis to-morrow, if the Administration should change its policy. Neither are the Republican leaders influenced by those who now advocate the spread of Christianity by the sword, for the Republican party is not being conducted as a missionary society. The dollar argument, however, has influence. The same powerful financial interests which protect industrial trusts at home will attempt to force the nation to join the international land-grabbing trust. The same unseen, but well-nigh irresistible, force which can compel the Republican party, when dealing with American citizens, to trample upon the doctrine of equal rights to all and special privileges to none, can also compel it, when dealing with the unknown inhabitants of a distant land, to repudiate the doctrine that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. To admit that the nation can permanently pursue the imperial policy now mapped out by Republican leaders, would be to admit the probability of the overthrow of the Republic, for the nation could not long remain half Republic and half Empire, half free and half vassal. Hope of relief is to be found, first, in the fact that a full development of the Republican scheme will alienate independent Republicans, who are devoted to the principles of the fathers, and who have thus far been deceived as to the purpose of Republican leaders; and, second, in the fact that an imperial career will impose increasing burdens upon the taxpayers, and thus alienate those Republicans who can be reached only through the purse. The same greed which has already led to a violation of the promise made by Gen. Miles to the Porto Ricans, and which is leading to a surrender of the Declaration of Independence in order to force our sovereignty over the Filipinos, is likely to lead to a repudiation of the pledge made to Cuba. A joint resolution passed by Congress will hardly restrain a party which scoffs at traditions and disregards the limitations of the Constitution.

A government resting upon force instead of consent always needs the support of a large army, and the Republican party cannot long conceal its purpose to permanently increase the military establishment. The President in his message of November 5th, 1898, said:

"The importance of legislation for the permanent increase of the army is therefore manifest, and the recommendation of the Secretary of War for that purpose has my unqualified approval. There can be no question that at this time, and probably for some time in the future, one hundred thousand men will be none too many to meet the necessities of the situation."

A Republican House of Representatives passed a bill carrying out the President's recommendation, and the Republicans in the Senate favored the bill; but they were compelled to accept a compromise, offered by Senator Gorman, limiting the increase to two years. That an. increase in the standing army is intended by Republican leaders is well known, although in the late campaign no one with authority to speak for the party discussed or defended the President's recommendation. Imperialism is an expensive luxury; if the burden of a colonial system is thrown upon the subjects, it will cause an insurrection; if it is thrown upon the American people, it will cause a political revolt.

The ship subsidy bill, which was kept in the background during the campaign, will receive an impetus from the Republican victory, along with other schemes for the expenditure of public money for private advantage.

The pocket nerve, which, at this time, seems to be the most sensitive nerve, is liable to be touched by the extravagance of those who have come to regard the government as a sort of Santa Claus, who turns every day into Christmas.

There remains for consideration the third and, as I believe, most influential cause of the Republican victory, viz., the fear of a change. The fear of a change is merely a political expression of the conservatism which, to a greater or less extent, exists in every person. This fear was increased by the fact that the country, for the last few years, has been experiencing a reaction from the panic which occurred under the last Administration; and this fear was still further aggravated by the threats of the financiers. I have seen letters written by bank officials during the campaign, refusing to loan money for the time being, but promising accommodation in case of Republican success. It is difficult to estimate the influence of the pressure that can be brought by the banks upon their debtors, for most business men are compelled to borrow, and a failure upon the part of the banks to extend loans might mean the closing up of business at a great sacrifice.

Some imagine that this fear of a change is due to the fact that the Democratic party as now organized favors bimetallism, but it is an argument always used to a greater or less extent by the party in power, and it has done service for the Republicans in many campaigns. The protected interests always used that argument against a reduction of the tariff. The party out of power cannot criticise the party in power without proposing a change of policy, and the greater the privileges bestowed upon corporations by the party in power the greater will be the forces arrayed against a change. At present, the interstate commerce law is practically inoperative. The interstate commerce commission, composed of Democrats and Republicans, has repeatedly asked for legislation which will enable the commission to protect individuals and localities from discriminations, and the public at large from excessive rates. The Democratic party advocated an enlargement of the scope of the interstate commerce law, and nearly all the railroads threw their influence to the Republican ticket. The railroads are on the side of conservatism; they have what they want and are opposed to a change. According to present methods of taxation, the poor pay more than their share, and the rich pay less than their share, of the expenses of the federal government. We favor an income tax which will make people contribute according to their possessions, instead of according to their wants. The rich object to an income tax, and most of them threw their influence to the Republican ticket. They are on the conservative side; they have what they want and are opposed to a change. The national banks have secured from the Republican party a law which provides for the gradual retirement of the greenbacks and the substitution of bank notes—a law which contemplates a perpetual debt, and makes it possible for the financiers to force an issue of bonds whenever there is an accumulation of idle money in their vaults. The Democrats are opposed to this system; they prefer a government note to a bank note, favor the payment of the national debt as rapidly as possible, and believe that the Treasury Department should be administered in behalf of all the people, and not in the interests of those who handle money and trade 'in fixed investments. The national banks, therefore, as a rule, supported the Republican ticket. Having secured a large part of what they wanted, they became conservative and opposed a change. But these forces, powerful and influential as they are, would have been impotent but for the fact that they were able to play upon the fears of a multitude of people whose interests were on the Democratic side. For instance, the railroad employees, all over the country, are opposed to government by injunction and to a large standing army; they feel the effects of the trusts, and have no interest in the exploitation of distant islands; but, during the last four years, the crops have been better; and that fact, together with the recovery from the panic, not to speak of the natural increase in population, stimulated railroad traffic. A responsible official of one of the leading railroads threatened to cancel a large order for railway equipment in case of Democratic success, and his threat appealing to the apprehension of his employees doubtless had some effect.

Savings bank officials in some instances attempted to influence their depositors; while many of the Republican leaders, unwilling to openly defend the trusts, and unable to justify colonialism, spent their time in shouting against free silver. When, in 1896, the money question was the paramount issue, the Republicans used the tariff question to alarm those who worked in the factories, just as they, this year, insisted on discussing the money question, when a graver and more important question was to be settled. In 1896, we met and answered the arguments made by the Republicans in favor of their monetary system, and they were compelled to resort to coercion to win; but in this campaign we could not make the money question prominent, because to hare done so would have turned attention away from the question of imperialism, which we regarded as paramount.

To consider this election as decisive of the money question, would be as absurd as to have regarded the election of 1896 as decisive of the tariff question. It would be more reasonable to regard the late election as conclusive upon the question of imperialism, or upon the trust question, both of which were discussed more by our people than the money question. But, as a matter of fact, an election is not necessarily conclusive upon any question. The tariff question was prominent in the campaigns of 1876, 1880, 1884, 1888 and 1892, and entered into the campaigns of 1896 and 1900, and yet no tariff reformer believes the tariff question settled. Prior to 1896, all parties declared in favor of bimetallism, although many of the leaders in the Democratic and Republican parties favored the gold standard. In 1896, all parties were pledged to bimetallism, but the line was drawn between independent and international bimetallism, while the last campaign involved other and more serious questions. If any person is disposed to believe that the campaign of 1900 turned upon the money question, let him watch Republican legislation, and he will see that the party in power construes the result as an endorsement of Republican policies upon several other subjects. The increased production of gold has lessened the strain upon gold, and has to some extent brought the relief which Democrats proposed to bring in a larger measure by the restoration of silver; but there is no assurance whatever that the gold supply, even with the new discoveries, will be sufficient to maintain the level of prices. Favorable conditions have given us an abnormal share of the world's supply of gold, but the scarcity of the yellow metal abroad is already leading to the export of gold, while the increase in the issue of bank notes is evidence that we are still short of money here. The Republicans defend the gold standard, not by logic but by giving it credit for better times. When prosperity fails, the gold standard will lose its charm.

Back of all the questions which have been referred to, lies the deep and lasting struggle between human rights and inhuman greed. If greed triumphs, its victory will transform our government into a plutocracy and our civilization into barbarism.

Those who believe in equal rights before the law, and desire a government which rests upon the consent of the governed and deals justly with all who are under its jurisdiction, must continue the contest in triumph or defeat. Success may be the measure of enjoyment, but it cannot be the measure of duty.


APP Note: This article was published in the December 1900 edition of "The North American Review". The APP dated this essay as "December 1, 1900".

Source: The North American Review (1821-1940); Dec 1900; 171, 529;

William Jennings Bryan, Essay in "The North American Review": The Election of 1900 Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/345993

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