America's Silver Era, The Story of William Jennings Bryan

Hello! This is my second attempt at a TL about William Jennings Bryan. I started the other one while over four years ago and I know a lot more about history now than I did then.

For me, William Jennings Bryan is one the most fascinating figures in American history and I'm surprised he isn't explored in depth on this website. He had some ideas that I think were good, and others that I think were bad. With this timeline I hope to explore what might have been if the election of 1896 had gone differently. While the POD is 1896, most of this timeline will take place during the 20th century, and therefore I am posting this in the After 1900 forum.


Hello! This is my second attempt at a TL about William Jennings Bryan. I started the other one while over four years ago and I know a lot more about history now than I did then.

For me, William Jennings Bryan is one the most fascinating figures in American history and I'm surprised he isn't explored in depth on this website. He had some ideas that I think were good, and others that I think were bad. With this timeline I hope to explore what might have been if the election of 1896 had gone differently. While the POD is 1896, most of this timeline will take place during the 20th century, and therefore I am posting this in the After 1900 forum.
Karl Rove called him Bernie Sanders at 37 years old
See my post at


We had a somewhat extended discussion of a Bryan administration at

Here I'll just make a few points:

(1) Assuming that Bryan does succeed in instituting free silver (whether a
narrowly elected Bryan could get it through Congress is an open question)
the best discussion of the likely economic effects is by Noel Maurer (now
of Harvard Business School--one of the few economists who has ever
contributed to this newsgroup) at

He agrees with me that Bryan would be introducing free silver at the wrong
time (as I put it, "There was a case for it throughout the long, generally
deflationary period between the 'Crime of 1873' and 1896. But now with
the cyanide process and the discovery of gold in South Africa, the
Klondike, etc., gold production was increasing, and free silver would only
add to inflation.") but thinks it would be only mildly inflationary, and
probably would not harm the economy (though he acknowledges that there is
some danger of loss of investor confidence). So I doubt *very* much that
Bryan is going to extend the depression "all the way to 1903." And that
puts the idea that he will be a one-term president in some doubt--he may
be able to claim some credit for the recovery: even though *we* know it
would have happened without him, all the voters of 1900 would know was
that there was a depression under the conservative gold-standard Cleveland
and there was a recovery under the "radical" Bryan.

(2) The notion that Bryan would have objected to the Spanish-American War
as "imperialism" is a confusion between the war itself and one of its OTL
results--the acquisition of the Philippines. Many people (in the
Bryanite silver camp and elsewhere) favored the former--regarding it as a
just war for the liberation of Cuba--and opposed the latter. Bryan would
have favored an independent Philippine republic--though of course he could
support US naval bases there (and in Cuba). As Bryan's career as
Secretary of State after 1913 showed, his opposition to a formal colonial
empire for the US didn't necessarily mean that he opposed all US
intervention in places like the Caribbean.

(3) Not enough attention is usually given to Bryan's likely domestic
policy in areas other than free silver. As I noted at

"[W]hile it is certainly true that Bryan and the Democrats concentrated on
free silver in the 1896 campaign, one should not forget that the
Democratic platform--while of course not as radical as the Populists'--was
by no means restricted to free silver. It called for an income tax and for
'the enlargement of the powers of the Inter-State Commerce Commission and
such restrictions and guarantees in the control of railroads as will
protect the people from robbery and oppression,' and denounced high
tariffs, 'government by injunction,' and "[t]he absorption of wealth by
the few, the consolidation of our leading railroad systems and the
formation of trusts and pools.'

"Some comments on the Chicago platform from conservatives:

"'No wild-eyed and rattle-brained horde of the red flag ever proclaimed
such a specific defiance of law, precedent, order, and government' was the
comment of the *New York Mail*...'Considering the platform,' declared C.
Ellery Anderson of New York, 'it may be as well that a revolutionist like
Bryan stands upon it. We want them with red flags so there will be
provocation for shooting them down.' (*Literary Digest,* Vol. XIII, July
18, 1896, p. 357.)" Philip Foner, *History of the Labor Movement in the
United States, Volume II* (1955), p. 336. Foner, a Communist, gives the
Chicago Platform the Red Seal of Approval, proclaiming it 'progressive.'
(p. 333).

"It's important to remember this because it goes against the widespread
belief that the Populist support for Bryan was put over by 'conservative'
Populists who believed in free silver as *the* panacea. And it may help
to explain the enthusiastic support for Bryan by what some might consider
an unlikely source--Eugene V. Debs (although, interestingly, even Debs, in
his campaign tour for Bryan, put a heavy emphasis on free silver)."

Of course, once again, the question is to what extent Bryan could get
these "radical" measures through Congress. Perhaps more railroad
regulation and some procedural safeguards in the use of labor injunctions
in federal courts would pass. There might be some strengthening of the
Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The Democratic platform pretty much acknowledged
that the tariff couldn't be lowered as long as the Supreme Court decision
invalidating the income tax stood, but the death of Stephen J. Field would eventually give
Bryan a chance to make the Court a bit less conservative. In any event,
presumably the *increases* in the tariff in OTL with the Dingley Act would
not have been enacted.

It is true, though, that while both Bryan and the Democrats were in
principle in favor of many reforms other than free silver, they
concentrated heavily on that last issue in 1896, and Bryan might have
spent a disproportionate amount of his energy as President to getting it
enacted, to the detriment of other reforms.

(4) Bryan is notorious for sharing the white South's attitudes toward
African Americans, though as I note at he
wasn't as racist in 1896 as he would be later. But in any event it is
hard to see how African Americans (other than some federal patronage
employees) would fare much worse under him than under McKinley. The
southern states would have continued with segregation, disfranchisement,
lynchings, etc., no matter who was in the White House.
Chapter I, A Cross of Gold

My friends, we declare that this nation is able to legislate for its own people on every question, without waiting for the aid or consent of any other nation on earth; and upon that issue we expect to carry every State in the Union. I shall not slander the inhabitants of the fair State of Massachusetts nor the inhabitants of the State of New York by saying that, when they are confronted with the proposition, they will declare that this nation is not able to attend to its own business. It is the issue of 1776 over again. Our ancestors, when but three millions in number, had the courage to declare their political independence of every other nation; shall we, their descendants, when we have grown to seventy millions, declare that we are less independent than our forefathers? No, my friends, that will never be the verdict of our people. Therefore, we care not upon what lines the battle is fought. If they say bimetallism is good, but that we cannot have it until other nations help us, we reply that, instead of having a gold standard because England has, we will restore bimetallism, and then let England have bimetallism because the United States has it. If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

-William Jennings Bryan, in his speech to the Democratic Convention, July 9th, 1896.


(Republican cartoon criticizing Bryan's speech)

The Presidential Election of 1896 was, without a doubt, the greatest upset of American electoral history. William Jennings Bryan had a massive funding disadvantage and ran as the incumbent Democratic president presided over a poor economy. To make matters worse, Conservative Bourbon Democrats who supported the Gold Standard formed a third party ticket, dividing William McKinley’s opposition. On paper, the election should have been the biggest landslide since the Era of Good Feelings. And with any other Democrat, it likely would have been. However, two factors contributed to Bryan’s upset victory. One was Bryan’s great oratory skills and his decision to actively campaign for himself. In order to assuage fears that Bryan was a radical, he denounced radical elements within the labor movement in speeches in New York and Chicago. While this tactic certainly made him competitive despite all the disadvantages he had against McKinley, it was not what ultimately gave him victory. Many historians now believe that Bryan won the election because of a critical error made by the McKinley campaign. William McKinley decided to make an appeal to Democrats alienated by Bryan’s populist rhetoric. He believed that an army of Bourbon Democrats, including many Southerners, would carry him safely to victory on Election Day. In doing this, the tariff issue was greatly downplayed for fear that protectionism would scare away potentially sympathetic voters. This proved to be a great miscalculation as his support for protectionism was well-known and he didn’t use it to his advantage as much as he could. McKinley’s inability to effectively counter Bryan’s appeal to the working class led to the Republican Party’s defeat in November.

The election was very close, and that must have added to the pain felt by McKinley and his supporters. McKinley also lost his home state of Ohio by less than 2,000 votes. Had he won Ohio, he would have won the election. In addition, the McKinley/Hobart ticket actually won more votes than the Bryan/Sewall ticket. It is one of history’s great ironies that “The Great Commoner” won the election without winning the popular vote. This showed that not everyone in the working class supported Bryan and the cause of free silver. Many industrial laborers voted Republican as they feared that his monetary policies would only benefit the farmer. Indeed, the election of 1896 was not simply labor against business, rich against poor. While business generally fell behind McKinley, they by no means were a monolith. Bryan’s running mate, Arthur Sewall, was a shipping magnate, and the silver mine owners were more than happy to see an enemy of the Gold Standard in the Executive Mansion[1]. Nonetheless, Bryan entered office determined to enact policies that benefited the farmer and the laborer rather than the businessman.

-Excerpt from Silver vs. Gold, the Election of 1896, Sumner Sewall[2], Howard Publishing Co., 1946.


William Jennings Bryan (D-NE)/Arthur Sewall (D-ME): 6,735,052 votes (48.3%)/244 Electoral Votes
William McKinley (R-OH)/Garret Hobart (R-NJ): 6,885,607 votes (49.4%)/203 Electoral Votes

Others[3]: 320,465 votes (2.3%)/0 Electoral Votes

Bryan’s inauguration was compared to that of Andrew Jackson in 1828. Hordes of rural Westerners flooded into DC to hear their young energetic champion speak. The Eastern elites were horrified just as they were then. His speech was full of the same passion and oratory eloquence that his supporters were used to. He praised America’s system of government and the opportunities it gave for peaceful transition of power. He called for national unity; between Republicans and Democrats, between North and South, and between East and West. He stated that America was entering a new era, an era in which the farmer and the worker would fully enjoy the privileges of living in the American Republic. His supporters loved every word; they had high hopes for the man from Nebraska. Meanwhile, those who voted against him feared that he would destroy the country. Many urban workers feared that they would lose their jobs if Bryan won. While these prophecies of doom never came true, neither did the hopes of many that Bryan’s Presidency would bring great prosperity to all. For most Americans, 1897 was no different than 1896, life went on.

Bryan began his presidency with a Democratic House and a Republican Senate. However, this does not tell the whole story, as there were Conservative Bourbon Democrats and pro-Silver Republicans. Some politicians, sensing the winds of change, opportunistically switched from supporting gold to supporting silver. Bryan’s cabinet appointments were dominated by Southerners and Westerners, the regions that supported him. He also appointed two Republicans to his cabinet. America, for better or worse, had entered a new age. It was an age that continued beyond Bryan’s Presidency. It wasn’t a golden age by any definition, but it had some moments of greatness. Rather, in consideration of William Jennings Bryan’s favorite metal, these years should be referred to as America’s Silver Age.

-Excerpt from America's Silver Age, Edward S. Scott, Patriot Publishers, 2017.

On March 4, 1897 William Jennings Bryan, Mary Baird Bryan (the new First Lady), and their three children; Ruth, William Jr, and Grace moved into the Executive Mansion, their new residence. Vice President Arthur Sewell was a common guest of the Bryans. Sewell was somewhat an oddity in politics. He was a New England businessman who was not only a Democrat, but also a supporter of silver. His presence was very useful during Bryan’s early presidency. Sewell met with business leaders to reassure them that Bryan was not anti-business, that he only opposed bad businesses and bad business leaders. This had mixed results. The titans of industry still largely opposed Bryan, but some businessmen, like oil baron Thomas L. Hisgen, would support the President.

Other guests of the Bryan’s included the members of his cabinet. For Secretary of State Bryan chose Senator Henry Moore Teller of Colorado. Henry Teller was a prominent Silver Republican who supported Bryan’s campaign. He was also Secretary of the Interior under President Chester Arthur. Teller, like Bryan, was an opponent of American Imperialism. Teller also was a proponent of Native American rights. For Secretary of the Treasury Bryan chose Alexander del Mar, a member of the Silver Party from New York. Del Mar was an outspoken opponent of the Gold Standard. Bryan’s most controversial cabinet nomination was undoubtedly John Tyler Morgan of Alabama for Secretary of War. Bryan wanted to bring a former Confederate into his cabinet to promote national unity. Senator Morgan had been among the Democrats who opposed Grover Cleveland and the Gold Standard. He was also an extreme racist and a former slave owner. He was happy to be appointed to Bryan’s cabinet and hoped to steer him away from his pacifist leanings. John T. Morgan and Henry Teller would often clash during the Bryan administration.

US Representative Benton McMillan of Tennessee was chosen as Attorney General. He was known for supporting progressive causes such as the income tax and child labor laws. Populist Alabama Representative Milford W. Howard[4], who gained fame challenging corruption in Congress and was even younger than the President, was chosen as Postmaster General. For Secretary of the Navy, William C. Whitney of Massachusetts, who was given that position during Cleveland’s first term, was chosen. Bryan chose Idaho Republican Senator Fred Dubois as his Secretary of the Interior. Dubois was a supporter of Silver, environmental conservation, and an anti-Mormon. Finally, for Secretary of Agriculture, Bryan chose Representative Joseph C. Sibley of Pennsylvania, who was a farmer and opponent of the Gold Standard.

-Excerpt from The Guide to the Executive Mansion, an in Depth Look at America's Presidents by Benjamin Buckley, Harvard Press, 1999.

1: What the White House was called before Theodore Roosevelt gave it that name.
2: Sumner Sewall was the Grandson of Arthur Sewall and governor of Maine during the 1940s IOTL.
3: Gold Democrats, Prohibition, Socialist Labor, and National Prohibition Parties.
4: In my original Bryan TL, Howard served as Vice President for most of Bryan's Presidency. This man would later go on to support Fascism, something I did not know at the time. Howard Publishers ITTL is named after him.
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Bryan's Cabinet

(President William Jennings Bryan and Vice President Arthur Sewall)


(Left to Right, Top to Bottom):
Secretary of State: Henry M. Teller (R-CO)

Secretary of the Treasury: Alexander del Mar (S-NY)

Secretary of War: John T. Morgan (D-AL)

Attorney General: Benton McMillin (D-TN)

Postmaster General: Milford W. Howard (P-AL)

Secretary of the Navy: William C. Whitney (D-MA)

Secretary of the Interior: Fred Dubois (R-ID)

Secretary of Agriculture: Joseph C. Sibley (D-PA)
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Chapter II, Settling In
The Twenty-fifth President of the United States of America was quite unlike the previous twenty-four. He was the youngest, his home state was the furthest west of any President up to that point, and the platform that got him into the Executive Mansion was unlike any other. There would also be no alcohol in the Executive Mansion during the Bryan administration, which set him apart from most Presidents but not all. Young was a polite way to describe the new President, who entered the office shortly before his 37th birthday. His opponents used the word "inexperienced" to describe him. And indeed, he was not completely prepared for his new job. The Great Commoner had to grow into the Presidency, learning as he went along. Fortunately he was surrounded by men more experienced than he in the art of statecraft. Bryan believed that he could use his oratory skills and force of personality to bend congress to his will. He would soon figure out that this was not to be and that change would have to come gradually.

-Excerpt from America's Silver Age, Edward S. Scott, Patriot Publishers, 2017.


(Bryan in his thirties)

The battles in Congress were just beginning. Democrats made massive gains in the 1896 House elections, coupled with a few Republican defections, the Democrats had 180 Representatives, Conservative Democrats still held considerable sway in the party, though their influence was certainly weakened. And they were able to maneuver their man, Joseph Weldon Bailey of Texas into the position of Speaker of the House. Bailey and Bryan disagreed on almost every issue, with tariffs being an exception. He blocked several progressive bills, infuriating many of the newly elected members of his party. Bailey would hold his position for only a few months before the overwhelming pressure forced him to resign, stating that he was unable to lead his party at this time. While there was disagreement over who should replace Bailey as Speaker of the House, eventually Tom L. Johnson of Ohio was selected. Johnson was a committed progressive and opponent of monopolies, he would get along well with the President. With Johnson as speaker, laws protecting the right to join a union were passed along with anti-trust legislation. However, the Senate defeated the income tax.


(Left: Joseph W. Bailey, Right: Tom L. Johnson)

Of course, while those issues were important, what everyone anticipated was the battle over the repeal of the Coinage Act of 1873, called the "Crime of '73" by silver supporters. This law effectively put the US on the Gold Standard. Bryan had campaigned for Free Silver and his Presidency would be a failure if it didn't pass. The debate was lengthy in the House, but the repeal was passed in that chamber 183-174 on July 15, 1897. Then the Senate debated the bill. President Bryan personally spoke to the Senate, as did Secretary of the Treasury Alexander del Mar. While the Senate had a Republican majority, several of these Republicans were pro-Silver. Short attempts at filibuster were made by supporters of the Gold Standard. After over a week of consideration, The Senate was deadlocked 45-45 on the repeal. Vice President Arthur Sewall broke the tie and on July 25, 1897, the so called "Crime of '73" was gone. When news spread to the Western States, there was great celebration. Some say that the revelries rivaled that of the Union victory in 1865. Gold Standard supporters were disheartened, but were convinced that they would regain power once Free silver ushered in an age of financial ruin. The Republicans were planning a comeback.

Postmaster General Milford Howard was interested in a lot more than letters and mail. In fact, very few people today would even associate him with such. Howard believed in the power of the motion picture to influence public opinion, even when the technology was in its infancy. He invited people to the Executive Mansion to film the President (and himself). Shortly after the Repeal of the Coinage Act of 1873, William Jennings Bryan invited James Naismith to meet the President and his cabinet at a gymnasium in Washington DC. Bryan was curious about the new game of Basketball that Naismith had invented. Naismith explained the game to the President and did a demonstration with the players he brought with him. Mr. Howard had cameramen ready to record parts of the meeting. Then, the ball was handed to the President. William Jennings Bryan decided to walk halfway down the court, and proceeded to shoot the ball into the hoop on his first try. At least that was the official story, it may have been on his hundredth attempt that he finally pulled it off. Some experts even claim the film was edited. Nonetheless, copies of the short grainy film were distributed across the country, and it endeared Bryan to much of the public. It is uncertain whether Basketball would ever have attained the popularity it has today if it were not for Bryan.

-Excerpt from The Guide to the Executive Mansion, an in Depth Look at America's Presidents by Benjamin Buckley, Harvard Press, 1999.


(James Naismith)

Bryan's success on the Basketball court, even if exaggerated, came along with his recent domestic policy successes. While domestic events dominated the Spring, Summer, and Fall, the Winter of 1897 and 1898 would be dominated by foreign events. His response to these events would have a great impact on the nation's future.
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To make matters worse, Conservative Bourbon Democrats who supported the Gold Standard formed a third party ticket


William Jennings Bryan (D-NE)/Arthur Sewall (D-ME): 6,735,052 votes (48.3%)/244 Electoral Votes
William McKinley (R-OH)/Garret Hobart (R-NJ): 6,885,607 votes (49.4%)/203 Electoral Votes

Others[3]: 320,465 votes (2.3%)/0 Electoral Votes

Where is the Bourbon Democrat third party candidate?