The Democratic National Convention, July 1896 - Source: Wiki Commons
The 1896 Democratic National Convention, held at the famous, three-story Chicago Coliseum in Illinois, opened its doors on July 7th as scheduled. It was indisputable that the overwhelming majority of delegates arrived at the convention ready to enshrine the cause of Free Silver into the party platform. Over the course of the past several months, Silver Democrats and Populists triumphed over stagnant Bourbon Democrats in delegate-appropriating votes across the country. Representing the interests of their pro-silver constituencies, prominent politicians from the South and West poured into Chicago with an explicit aim to free the party from its aged establishment stranglehold and remake the Democratic Party as contemporaries knew it.
Once the festivities began, the reality of the situation made itself apparent to the Bourbonites. In sheer vote count, the Populist-allied faction of the party far outmatched the minority Cleveland Democrats.
The war in the Democratic Party had already been decided by the time of the Chicago convention. In any case, witnessing the proposal of the party's most radical platform in its history must have been a shocking sight to [Former Navy Secretary William] Whitney. It lambasted and renounced every last one of Grover Cleveland's policies and actions as president. [...] [The platform] named the gold standard an "anti-American" policy, ridiculed the Supreme Court for its ruling nullifying the income tax, supported strict railroad and trust regulations, opposed utilizing injunctions against striking workers, called for admission of New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma into the Union as states, offered sympathy for Cuban independence, and shunned the concept of a presidential third term.
Thomas O'Conner, A Radical History of American Politics: Vol. 4, 2014
Bourbonites, as one may imagine, sternly objected to the proposed platform and demanded a floor debate to determine the merits of its adoption. The majority complied and designated Senator Benjamin Tilman (D-SC), the "favorite son" candidate of South Carolina, and former Representative William Jennings Bryan to speak on their behalf. Tillman was an avid segregationist and white supremacist known for his harsh language laced with a populist tonality. In other words, he may not have been the best choice to represent the cause of Free Silver, but the delegation nevertheless insisted. The South Carolinian then delivered a biting, albeit incredibly divisive, speech framing coinage as a sectional matter between Northeastern moneyed interests and "white slaves" who required "emancipation". Tillman's speech as a whole proved disastrous and garnered a distinctly negative reception from Silver Democrats who hastily denounced the senator's attempts at morphing a cordial debate into one more at home in the Antebellum Democratic Party.
Three Gold Democrats spoke at the conclusion of Tillman's remarks and offered a flimsy defense of President Cleveland's financial policies, receiving uninterested and scattered applause. The convention chairman called next for the Nebraskan representative to end the then-drawn out debate. Bryan shot up from his seat, arrived at the podium and proceeded to deliver one of the single most captivating and influential speeches in political history. Opposite to that of Ben Tillman, Bryan conceptualized the coinage issue, as he said, not as "...a contest between persons. The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error. I come to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty -- the cause of humanity."
It is the issue of 1776 over again. Our ancestors, when but three million, had the courage to declare their political independence of every other nation upon earth. Shall we, their descendants, when we have grown to 70 million, declare that we are less independent than our forefathers? No, my friends, it will never be the judgment of this people. Therefore, we care not upon what lines the battle is fought. If they say bimetallism is good but we cannot have it till some nation helps us, we reply that, instead of having a gold standard because England has, we shall restore bimetallism, and then let England have bimetallism because the United States have.
If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands 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, Democratic Convention Speech, 1896
What followed Bryan's conclusion was a celebration the likes of which neither major party had ever seen. Men flung their hats and coats in the air and waved their canes. The convention band played an interpretation of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." A swathe of delegates, swayed by Bryan's words, cried tears of astonishment and joined with the Nebraska delegation. All in all, the impromptu frenzy went on for over thirty minutes before the party chairman had an opportunity to regain control of the crowd. Needless to say, the program offered by the Silver Democrats passed.
Representative Richard P. Bland (D-MO), a bimetallist Democrat famed with coordinating the pro-silver Bland-Allison act in 1878, was the party frontrunner leading into the July convention. He checked off all of the necessary boxes for Democrats and Populists alike. Bryan hoped, in fact, that Bland would end up the nominee. He knew that, in the midst of a depression, most Americans were far more likely to vote for a supposed "sure bet" over someone espousing comforting rhetoric. Bryan himself held no political office at the time of the convention and only served in Congress for four years while Bland, and other candidates under consideration for the nomination, recorded multiple decades of service. That notwithstanding, the Nebraskan was a known presence in Democratic circles from his aggressive nationwide romp and the above "Cross of Gold" speech made him an absolute sensation.
When the first roll call reached its end, Bryan rocketed past all but Richard Bland (who failed to reach the two-thirds threshold for nomination). In the second and third ballots, Bryan steadily increased his total to 197, then 219. By the fourth, he surpassed Bland. Finally, to the extreme resentment of the Gold Democrats, the fifth and final ballot provided the Democratic nomination to the electrifying man from Nebraska.
Having made its selection of Representative Bryan for the presidency, the party delegates shifted then to the question of vice president. The nominee faced a tough decision. A wide assortment of names were presented to the Nebraskan, all from governors and senators to businessmen and railroad directors. Bryan initially considered Democratic committee member and shipbuilder Arthur Sewall (D-ME) in order to attract New England to his candidacy and as well as former Governor Sylvester Pennoyer (D-OR) to do the same on the West coast, but he instead moved to capitalize specifically on the drawbacks of the Republican ticket. The Bryan team believed that in spurning McKinley and his home state of Ohio, the Republican Party may have dampened its support in the Buckeye State and thereby allowed for the possibility of a Democratic win.
Bryan himself is said to have corresponded with his running mate of choice and personally communicated his interest in harmonizing a worthwhile campaign together. The individual turned out to be Ohio publisher John R. McLean, owner of The Cincinnati Enquirer, and although it did take a fair amount of convincing, Bryan made the deal. Following a grueling five ballots, the convention complied.