Crimson Banners Fly: The Rise of the American Left

William J. Bryan Speaking to Supporters, c. 1912 - Source: Wiki Commons

In the wake of the Manhattan Scandal investigations and coinciding accusations that the president acted in an unlawful manner, Democratic Party leaders fretted over their future. As previously indicated, the bulk of the leadership discarded the notion of renominating Hearst once the midterm elections straightforwardly exhibited public disfavor with the administration. His brand was immeasurably toxic, and the only remote shot of retaining Democratic control over the Executive Branch as well as the U.S. Senate necessitated distancing the party from the president. A notable portion of the national committee alternatively preferred redirecting the public narrative in order to exonerate Hearst, likely calculating the pure strategic advantage of a re-election campaign, but they were an extreme minority.

Before Hearst's February announcement, a quiet civil war brewed within the Democratic ranks as its destiny appeared up for grabs. Without a doubt, the largest and most influential faction had been the Bryan Democrats. Pre-dating Hearst and his far more exaggerated and dubious form of populist agitation, the Bryanites were the first in the country to have run a successful, anti-corporate national campaign. They viewed Hearst with a skeptical eye from the start, and had no qualms with launching a challenge to the incumbent. Once stories began to break regarding the Hearst Campaign intimidating delegates at the 1908 Democratic National Convention, Bryan Democrats forever broke with the president. "We, the true enemies of private monopoly and the sinners on Wall Street," pro-Bryan Representative Cyrus Cline (D-IN) remarked in November of 1911, "know of only one man, honest and true, who can restore faith and promise to this land. William Jennings Bryan is the man this country needs."

Former President Bryan continuously prevailed as the nation's single most beloved and requested public speaker in the United States. Always a thorn in the side of corporate America, Bryan spoke out against the new crop of trusts emerging in the period between 1909 and 1912, and implored the people themselves demand federal intervention. He usually avoided criticizing Hearst, even amid the scandal, instead preserving his fiercest remarks for financial interests for sinking the anti-plutocratic Keliher Bill. More so, Bryan commended the Hearst Administration once it passed a reduction of the tariff in 1909, but in no other instance did the orator provide his two cents on the elected leader.

In a move that may have cost him more than originally intended, Bryan emerged in favor of temperance in 1909. He rallied against what he flavored, "the conscious-less, merciless liquor trust," and the "immoral" essence of alcohol consumption. Few Democrats had thus far dared to risk their political fates on affiliating with the overly righteous, prickly Prohibitionists, but Bryan found the issue essential to "purifying [an America] rife with violence and treachery." He evangelized it, joining with groups like the Christian socialists, champions of the Social Gospel, and remnants of the defunct Populist Party. Prohibition laws even began winning passage on the state level with players in the Anti-Saloon League gaining significant steam, especially in the South. Yet, Bryan's support of alcohol prohibition tarnished his reputation among industrial workers and immigrant populations which wholly opposed the proposed ban. As was true with his other policy stances, Bryan was never one to adopt politically expedient positions.

If he intended on seeking the presidential nomination, Bryan also faced one other monumental test, namely that progressivism was no longer limited to he alone. Democratic progressives effectively ran the national organization by 1912. The reorganizers of yore were long since removed from power, and even Southern Democratic conservatism had lost its edge to a company of Southern populists in the vein of Senators James Vardaman and Ben Tillman. Most prospective presidential candidates were indeed far more like William J. Bryan than Grover Cleveland. As described by historian John S. Gardner, "Internal strife over the direction of the post-Hearst Democratic Party threatened to drag them into the wilderness. Scuttling an unpopular incumbent was difficult enough on its own, but the rise of six separate popular candidacies over that year's course meant traversing an intersection with all roads possibly leading to dead-ends."

The above quote highlights the unique shape of the pre-convention turmoil endured by the Democrats. In the case of a typical contested nomination, one or two prominent officials declare an interest in the presidency and, thereafter, fight for the title while a group of minor and/or favorite son candidates fall to the wayside. In 1912, the brawl proved far more intense and was accompanied (just as in the case of the Republicans) by a string of hard-fought presidential primary elections. First, Representative Oscar Underwood, the notorious anti-Hearst House official, displayed the tell-tale signs of a national campaign. He began more publicly, virulently scrutinizing the president for consistent policy failures and blaming his shortcomings for spoiling what could have been a masterful reign by the party. Underwood quickly won over scores of Southern delegates and gained various pledges of support in that time.

Former Governor Judson Harmon did as Underwood had, organizing an apparent presidential campaign, and setting up state-wide operations for the clear purpose of wooing party delegates. He did eventually formally declare his intention to succeed Hearst, the first Democrat to do so, but had some trouble cultivating a base for his Cleveland-esque stances and sensibilities. Additionally, recently elected Governor Woodrow Wilson, who from his election was instantly considered as a plausible contender, followed the will of his supporters and announced a campaign for the White House in mid-February. Wilson acted the part of a trustworthy progressive in office, spurning state bosses and enacting anti-trust laws. Albeit a textbook dark horse candidate, the governor looked to emulate Cleveland's support in the northeast with social moderation and Hearst's on the West Coast with economic reformism. Wilson went on to carry several states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, in the primaries.

Hearst declared his candidacy on February 28th, dramatically shuffling the race and sending all the active and prospective candidates' plans up into smoke. Quiet unrest in the upper echelon of the party rose to a frenzy. Hearst, likely amused by the disarray of the Democratic Party, unveiled an extraordinarily well-funded campaign operation, and confirmed the hiring of his entire 1908 staff. He promptly received the endorsements of Minority Leader William Sulzer, State Secretary and former Speaker John J. Lentz, Governor Lewis Chanler, Boss Charles Murphy, and promising New York State Assemblyman Alfred E. Smith. That aforementioned pro-Hearst minority in the national committee reawakened, feverishly calling upon the other active candidates to suspend their campaigns to better assist the president's re-election. The following morning, in what served as the next chain in a link of perceptively panicked events, Vice President Champ Clark furiously resigned from the administration and declared his wish to challenge Hearst. "Out of pure manic, or perhaps brilliance," wrote Gardner, "Clark undercuts the president along with any upward momentum. Whether by plan or coincidence, Bill Bryan publishes an announcement of his own the very same day. [...] The primaries are split, and no one walks away a clear favorite going into the convention."

Democratic National Convention of 1912 in Session - Source: Wiki Commons

On June 25th, a mere week after the Republican Party formally nominated Thomas Butler for president, leagues of Democratic delegates, officeholders, and supporters gathered at the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore, Maryland. The time had finally arrived to let loose the steam that bubbled beneath the surface, and thereby allow for the party to designate its standard bearer. A dramatic airing of grievances was all but inevitable, and the divided national committee braced for the worst. The 21st Democratic National Convention had begun, and the fight was on.

President Hearst explicitly broke a long-standing tradition and opted to personally attend the convention. Incumbent presidents customarily permitted campaign managers to appear on their behalf, as party traditionalists found the presence of any active candidate during the convention inappropriate and unseemly. Hearst, never one to abide by political customs, balked at that notion and chose to visit the festivities regardless. Just as he accomplished four years earlier, the president knew that this action would award him prolific press coverage and a featured spot above the competition. Unlike in 1908, however, he was not alone in seeking this objective. Bryan and Clark also appeared in-person. Harmon, Underwood, and Wilson preferred to take the established route.

Each camp arrived to Baltimore set on accomplishing their specific agenda, not limited exclusively to nominating their favored candidate. For instance, Bryan contrived of a bigger picture beyond his potential presidential assignment. One of the Nebraskan's greatest struggles as president was constant negotiation with fellow Democrats. The Democratic Party of 1896 did not have a progressive majority, and as a result many of Bryan's proposals, like strict anti-trust regulation and federal assistance for farmers, remained unfulfilled. In 1912, his ideas were, in theory, wholly accepted by the party proper minus unpersuadable Southern conservatives and Northeastern Bourbons. Victory for Bryan involved not simply re-election but completing the transformation of the Democratic Party to unhesitatingly adopt a progressive program ready to pass through a (conjectural) Democratic-majority Congress.

On the opposing end of the spectrum, Hearst failed to outline any novel policy goals for a potential second term and merely upheld the crushed Civic Liability plan. As explored by biographers like John Gardner and Thomas Cohen, Hearst waged the war for re-election for the sheer purpose of embarrassing his foes and verifying his own political philosophy. "[Hearst] on the top of the ticket," Cohen wrote, "absolutely guaranteed an uphill battle in November. The controversies could not be easily scrubbed away. Empirically, this was a permanent stain. [...] Policy was not his purpose for leaping into the fray. Though his committed supporters relentlessly and passionately defended the cause of re-electing the president, Hearst was in it for Hearst." Despite the incumbency advantage, Hearst was unable seat his ally, Representative George Lindsay (D-NY), as convention chairman and keynote speaker. The winner of that vote was anti-corruption advocate Governor John Burke of North Dakota.

Yes, it was certainly a contentious affair, but the Baltimore convention contained all the regular pomp and circumstance. Brass marching bands played Dixie down the aisle. Auditorium walls were plastered in Democratic symbolism and its ceiling adorned with the stars and stripes. Convention staff, fascinatingly enough, nailed down state standards to the floorboards to prevent them from being raised and paraded about. Hearst and Bryan being present did not disturb the atmosphere of the convention, it only served to excite the crowds further. John Burke delivered a rather inconsequential speech that did not take sides, but actually promoted harmony. He didn't disrupt the peace. That honor belonged to Bryan with his famous Sermon on the Mount moment.
Prof. Dominic Stratton, "Interview: Party Conventions Throughout History," The Cambridge Historical Journal, 1995

During the third day of the convention, just before the first ballot was cast, Bryan rushed to the podium and requested of Chairman Burke to introduce a resolution to the floor. Burke agreed to the request. As the erstwhile president relayed, the convention ought to declare, unmistakably, its "opposition to any candidate for president who is a representative of, or under any obligation to, John Pierpont Morgan, Thomas F. Ryan, August Belmont, or any other member of the privilege-hinting and favor-seeking class." Over shouts of disapproval he continued, "Be it further resolved, that we demand the withdrawal from this convention of any delegate or delegates constituting or representing the above-named interests. [...] If thy right hand offends thee, cut it off! The party needs to cut off those corrupting influences to save itself." This proclamation, that was met with antipathy by the non-Bryan delegations and loud jeers by the New York delegates, was a thinly veiled assault on Wall Street and its ties to Tammany Hall. Transportation industrialist Thomas Ryan had been accused of bribing New York City officials for years, and such a bribing network could only have existed with the apt assistance of Boss Murphy. Hearst, knowing this was Bryan's method of enacting revenge, reportedly scowled all the while.


At the conclusion of the initial ballot, Bryan just narrowly excelled over Hearst, 339-338. Clark rang in in third, with Underwood and Wilson sputtering behind. Bryan's figure was hardly enough to win out the fight, but in commanding a higher number of delegates in the first official roll call, he exemplified that Hearst, regardless of his stature as the incumbent president, did not hold the full allegiance of the Democratic Party. Observers accredited this count to Bryan's resolution, which served to remind the convention-goers of the calamity of Hearst's reign and the murky mysteries of the Manhattan Scandal. In the immediate aftermath of the call, the respective candidates' camps scrambled to win over the now uncommitted blocs of delegates. Boss Murphy, the leader of the New York delegates, worked meticulously behind the scenes to stop Bryan and promote Hearst. Simultaneously, Western Democrats condemned Hearst as an unelectable toxin and demanded Bryan be granted a shot at re-election.

The incongruent array of forces could not arrive at a reasonable accommodation as the day went on. A second ballot came and went, with similar results displaying six immovable delegations. Then, a third, and a fourth. By this point, nearly all minor candidates had dropped out and released their delegates, but the count again failed to change. President Hearst, according to Cohen, conveyed to Bryan a mediated settlement on the eve of June 27th. Via telegram, the incumbent "offered Bryan his choice of Secretary of State or Vice President. Knowing he would not be able to swing the stick, Hearst hoped to tempt Bryan with the carrot. Recall, he pulled a comparable stunt four years prior. It worked then, why should he expect any different now?"
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Former President Bryan at the 1912 DNC - Source: Wiki Commons

Vice President Champ Clark entered the Democratic National Convention intent on bringing Hearst down. Once cordial associates, Hearst and Clark drifted apart as the former's presidency dragged on. Their disagreements on policy and strategy were profuse, and the two no longer seemed to get along person-to-person. As incompatible as the arrangement was, Champ acceded to the president out of respect for the office and recognition of his place as second-in-command. He eventually consigned himself to wait out the remainder of his term, planning afterward to support Hearst's eventual successor and run for a position of leadership in the House of Representatives. When Hearst did the unthinkable, however, and declared his ambition for a new term, Clark forcefully switched gears.

The Missourian's record was not quite spotless in terms of political connections and reported dealings, but he had no love for Hearst's ties with Tammany, his eye-rolling demagoguery, and oblivious disdain for Congress. A Hearst ‘Part Two’ epitomized an expansion of everything Clark despised in contemporary politics. It was in this mindset that the vice president formally handed in his resignation and departed Washington. He wished not to collaborate with Bryan out of fear that the former president would end up as paralyzed in office as he was in 1897. More so, Bryan was none too fond of Clark, privately coining the bureaucrat a servant of Wall Street and the Democratic Old Guard. All that remained was to declare a separate candidacy, and Clark did just that.

By mid-June, Clark won his fair share of presidential primaries and managed to cobble together a unyielding coalition of moderate Democrats, veteran party officials, and Midwestern leaders. He won the support of about half of the Californian delegation as well, appealing to them with folksy mannerisms and a guise of anti-corporate reformism. Still, a large swathe of the voting population not only perceived the Missourian as a stale career politician (1912 was Clark's 17th year in Washington), but viewed him as a tainted Hearst Cabinet official. If one was opposed to Hearst's re-election, in all likelihood one would too oppose this ill-suited substitute. Therefore, Clark understood the hurdles of his long-shot candidacy and planned for numerous potential outcomes.


Chairman Burke had just completed the 9th roll call, one that again failed to appoint a nominee. Harmon had conceded by the 7th and released his delegates to "vote as they will," resulting in an equal spread. Now, another candidate announced their concession. Discovering lackluster support and a convention leaning to the top three candidates, Governor Woodrow Wilson dropped out of the race. Wilson's phoned-in memo was read aloud by his campaign manager, Democratic committee member and railroad engineer William Gibbs McAdoo. It stated that the governor's removal from the divided count would move the deadlocked convention closer toward a salvageable conclusion. It begged for peace, exclaiming that a united front was a prerequisite to defeat the Progressive and Republican nominees. He did not go as far as to endorse any one candidate, but, considering Wilson's delegates were all adverse to Hearst, this move strongly benefited Clark, Underwood, Bryan, and, the final candidate in the running, Indiana Governor Thomas Marshall.

When the next call pushed Clark closer to the top while Hearst and Bryan remained hopelessly stunted, the time had arrived for a choice to be made. Two members of the Hearst Camp, most feasibly Representatives Sulzer and Lindsay, visibly approached Bryan and implored he act on the aforementioned negotiation. Bryan was seen thoughtfully listening to the men's words whilst uncharacteristically keeping his mouth shut when he had his attention split. An individual from the Clark camp scrambled to Bryan's side and breathlessly handed him a sealed letter. The former president opened the note, read it, turned to nod at the Clark associate, and slipped the letter deep into his suit-jacket pocket. The above occurred in the span of about ninety seconds.

Burke, after briefly consulting with a Bryan campaign worker, announced that a candidate would be speaking to the delegation prior to the next roll call. The anti-Bryan component of the crowd understandably groaned at the prospect of another bomb-throwing charade by the Great Commoner, but, alas, Burke had not referred at all to Bryan. Champ Clark was the individual who then rose and approached the podium. Up to this moment, Clark had yet to directly speak to the delegates, but as a top-3 competitor, none anticipated what would next take place.

My friends and colleagues, and all good Democrats. He clears his throat. The stage creaks as the crowd observes in silence. In this occasion we confidently offer a promise to the American people as an earnest to what we will do if sworn into power. Our promise is to judge wisely, act for progress, and stand tall as American patriots. In the days of Thomas Jefferson, the work of the Democratic Party accomplished a great deal to bind the nation. We did it by good teamwork. The Democratic Congress did its duty, the Democratic president did his duty. Today we will do the same. We will work together. He pauses and takes a breath. Therefore, I will no longer allow myself to be considered as a candidate for President of the United States. Audience reacts in shock. Some gasp, others leap to their feet. Speaking for myself, and for any of the delegation who may decide to join me, I shall support the nomination of Governor Thomas Marshall for President.
The crowd erupts in a frenzy. A tide of men dart toward the stage frantically yelling over one another. Pan to close-up on Hearst. Music swells as Hearst furrows his brow.
Dir. Walter Hill, W.R.H., Cannon Films, 1998

For Clark, endorsing Marshall was the final option available. First elected in 1908, the witty and mustachioed Hoosier generally identified with the progressive faction of the party, albeit shying away from associating with the Bryan or Hearst sects. He supported a pro-labor, anti-corruption agenda as governor, matter-of-factly opposing the more moderate Indiana Democratic Party leadership and its calls to govern conservatively. Marshall championed the core of Civic Liability on the state level and fought incessantly for the ratification of the 16th and 17th Amendments in addition to the legalization of a state-wide primary system. Having been a popular executive, the Indiana delegation placed Marshall's name in consideration for president despite the governor's absence at the convention and his absent campaign.

In order to secure the future of the party and finally rid it of its Hearst-shaped albatross, Clark made the decision to bow out and endorse the sole candidate left undirtied by intra-party bickering, factionalism, and the rottenness of D.C. One look at Hearst's slack-jawed face explained exactly how unforeseen this event had truly been. He was not especially angered by the ordeal, but more so slumped in disbelief. With their plan set in motion, Bryan took the cue from Clark. He too announced a stunning concession one ballot later, petitioning the delegates cast their votes for Marshall. The momentum catapulted the Hoosier forward, outright collapsing Hearst's strategy for a terminally deadlocked convention and awarding the dark horse candidate the nomination.


Chaos very briefly ensued in the latter part of the 13th ballot. Having been bested by the apparent scheme unleashed by Bryan and Clark working in tandem, a festering President Hearst stood amongst the noise and rabble of the venue, accompanied by roughly two-hundred of his minority delegation, and waltzed out of the Fifth Regiment Army. The incumbent did precisely as he had warned and, in most melodramatic fashion, permanently severed ties with the Democratic Party. The anti-Hearst section of the party cheered as the president strolled down the aisle. When the delegates followed, apart from a recorded fistfight and a notable incident with a thrown chair, far less of an uproar was raised then initially expected. Once the arena settled down, Chairman Burke announced that the final call was unanimous (by the remaining delegates), and Governor Marshall was the choice of the convention.

Somewhat surprised over the effectiveness of the plot, Marshall sent over his hastily written acceptance speech to the national committee and had it read to a mostly relieved audience. He went on to deliver the remarks personally to a crowd in Indianapolis. It swore to uphold a progressive program, deliver to the promises of the Democratic platform, and wipe clean the slate leftover by President Hearst. The speech itself was nothing particularly special, but the sheer fact that it encompassed the core of the Democratic message without being held back by the ingrained drawbacks of Hearst or Bryan led to the speech's reprinting in most mainstream publications. The nominee advised the convention to settle on a more conservative option to balance out the perceived progressive nature of the selection, and to this the convention designated the nemesis of the New York City leadership: Senator George B. McClellan, Jr.

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