With the SLP smashed and scattered, and the IWW a persecuted band of wanted criminals, what remained of politically minded labor sought a new outlet for the expression of their interests.
Any organization or party explicitly dedicated to socialism, or one that might even plausibly be read as such, would fall afoul of the new laws proscribing radicalism. But a deep consciousness had been awakened among many American workers in the preceding decade, one that could not simply be crushed down and forgotten.
Between 1904 and 1908, there were a number of short-lived parties and associations created with the vague intention of replacing the banned SLP.
In 1906, the recently-released-from-prison Victor Berger attempted to found the ‘American Workers’ Party’ in Niagara, New York. It enjoyed two months of legitimate existence before it was banned by the New York State legislature.
There was also the ‘Western Labor Association’ founded in Carson City the same year, which met a similar fate.
The organizers of such parties were generally not arrested straightaway, but invariably became the subject of BIS surveillance and files stashed away in a Washington cabinet somewhere.
It was not until mid-1907 that this began to change, with the establishment of the LATU.
The Populist and Republican parties had disambiguated once more in the aftermath of the disastrous 1904 election. They rather puddled along in the next four years, forced aside as Frick and the Nationalists bulled through all obstacles to absolute power. But now, they were again ready to contest the highest office in the land, and a number of other offices besides.
Bill Bryan was prepared for another run, if less enthusiastically so than in previous years. Privately, he feared the Populists might suffer the same sort of repression the Socialists had, if they dared to mount a serious challenge to Frick’s reelection. But he pressed on, since to do otherwise would be surrender.’
Bryan announced his bid for the presidency in early 1907, and he would remain the only serious challenger to Frick.
The Republican Party had continued its staggered dissolution since 1904, following its old Democratic rival to the grave, as its members bled away to either the Populists or the Nationalists. The right wing of the GOP melted away faster than the left, attracted as its many partisans were towards the might of Frick’s party. The progressive wing, despite its support of Roosevelt and Bryan’s joint run in 1904, was not as inclined towards the Populists as the conservatives were towards the Nationalists. Thus, the Republicans that remained in 1907-08 were generally to the left of the party that had existed before the crisis.
Some progressive Republicans floated the idea of another fusion ticket with the Populists, and perhaps as a show of deference to Bryan, this time around backing him for president and Roosevelt for his vice president hopeful.
But Roosevelt was so embarrassed by the events of 1904 that he refused. The former governor retired from public life, closing himself off in his Catskills estate.
Despite Roosevelt’s reticence, many Republicans still suggested that the party ought to back the Populist bid for office, as the only reasonable avenue to unseating Frick. However, this line of argument proved unpopular. The panic of 1904 had faded, now that the specter of social revolution was exorcised. Many decided Frick was not as bad as feared (of course, well-to-do Republicans hardly bore the brunt of his policies). It simply did not seem as urgent. Furthermore, with the mass exodus of the party’s conservative faction, the GOP was falling increasingly under the influence of one man: Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge was a proud reformer, a proponent of labor rights and increased commercial oversight. He was also a fierce immigration restrictionist, both for the reason that it ‘debased’ American labor and that it "diluted the nation's founding Anglo-Saxon racial stock". Many of his positions certainly put him at odds with Frick. But Lodge was also a staunch supporter of the gold standard and was a proponent of increased tariff to protect American manufacturing and workers. On top of this, he was an enthusiastic imperialist, pushing for a harder hand in the Philippines and of turning back at all costs encroaching European influence in the Americas. These put him at odds with Bryan, still devoted to his free silver, still an enemy of tariffs, and a convinced anti-imperialist. And Lodge was less willing to compromise than Roosevelt had been in 1904.
Thus, the idea of another joint ticket soon foundered.
In a largely uncontested convention, the GOP nominated Lodge for the presidency, with fellow progressive Albert Beveridge as his running mate.
The Democrats, that small handful of which had not yet deserted to the Nationalists and still steadfastly refused to admit that the party was dead and still contested some regional elections in the deep south, nominated no presidential candidate and instead endorsed Frick again.
Few expected Frick could lose reelection. In his speeches, the President was content to remind voters of the nightmare of 1903-04, and then to point out that it had come to end under his administration, just as he had promised. It was a resounding message.
But he did not want to chance a defeat, either. Nationalist governors and mayors greased the wheels for Frick’s campaigners, and obstructed Republican and Populist activists at every turn. Even Bryan found himself under BIS surveillance. Especially in the south, Bryan supporters were occasionally brought in on trumped up charges of violence and tried under the Red Act.
Despite all this, by and large the campaign season largely went off smoothly. There were no great riots, no shootings. The SLP’s mass base was still demoralized, and the economic upswing meant less political and ideological desperation.
Henry Lodge used his own considerable wealth to fund his campaign, slamming Frick for ‘economic irresponsibility’ and the ‘abominable’ establishment of the ERO. He, like Bryan, pointed to the poverty so many workers still endured, and demanded a redress in the form of anti-trust legislation. He also charged Frick with countenancing the ‘inundation’ of ‘our race’ because the administration had not capped immigration from ‘undesirable’ countries to the extent wished by hardline restrictionists.
But attacks, Lodgist or Bryanite alike, bounced off of Frick. He was likely at the height of his popularity in 1908, even if he owed that popularity almost entirely to the illusory connection between a sitting president and an economic rebound. Many were also glad that the ‘reds’ had been evidently suppressed, and credited this to Frick (though of course, lame duck McKinley had been the one to outlaw the SLP). Most saw a president easily coasting to reelection.
Things changed in July 1908, when Bryan did something unprecedented – he knew, as did his staffers, that running against an incumbent president, and with Lodge splitting the anti-Frick vote, his chances of victory were slim to none. So, that month, he challenged Frick to a public debate, to be held at the venue of the President’s choice.
Frick at first laughed it off and refused to respond to his opponent. But the press got wind of the story.
Bryan had something in mind along the lines of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of the 1850s, an opportunity to deploy his renowned silver tongue in an arena where Frick’s millions would profit him nothing. Even before any official recognition that his down-thrown gauntlet had been accepted, the Great Commoner was preparing for the showdown with regular recitations before a mirror.
An annoyed Frick soon realized he could not back down without appearing a coward. Grudgingly, he accepted Bryan’s challenge.
The debate was held on 7 September 1908, at the Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan. It was heavily publicized by most every newspaper in the nation, and tickets to the show sold out within a few hours. Thousands who could not afford such tickets crowded around outside the building, hoping to get a quick rundown once the thing was through.
The theater was packed, and in attendance were such figures as Supreme Court justice Wendell Holmes, industrialist and prominent Nationalist Henry Ford, congressman Joseph Cannon, journalist Ida Tarbell, socialists Daniel Hoan and Victor Berger, and even an intrigued Henry Lodge.
The format was that of an hour-long statement by each candidate, and then a half-hour response from the other.
Frick got the first word and went on the attack. He accused Bryan and the Populists of ‘inexcusable naivete,’ and charged that their ‘demagoguery’ had paved the way for the Socialists. He further warned that free silver was a ‘dangerous anachronism’ and then pointed out that even most progressives had abandoned it. Finally, he appealed to the accomplishments of his own administration, reminding the audience that ‘revolutionist incendiaries are treated like the criminals that they are.’
Bryan struck back. Most had expected that Frick would use his time to draw connections between the Populists and the SLP, and that Bryan would be kept busy defending himself against such smears. Instead, he did what few, including apparently most of his own campaign staffers, had expected him to, and provisionally defended the socialists. He insisted that even if he personally deplored the "communistic philosophy" of the Socialists, "under the flag I have loved, every man has the right to decide his doctrine for himself," even
Then he dragged into light the egregious violations of civil liberties so far laid at the feet of the Frick administration. Bryan recited a memorized list of twenty men and women who had been, in the last year, detained and held without a writ of habeas corpus. Then he informed the audience that this was only a fraction of the total.
At one particularly heated juncture, Bryan asked his opponent whether he was “President Frick or King Henry?”
According to the New York Times, the barb “left the president for a minute red of face.”
In the end, almost all agreed that Bryan had handily won the debates. Even the actual points of fact aside, Bryan was by far the superior orator. Frick’s icy certitude with which he had sometimes captivated a crowd was entirely unsuited to the heated format of a public dispute.
The men shook hands at the conclusion, but in private Frick was furious that he had been ‘humiliated’ and would not forget it.
So resounding was the perceived defeat that some began to wonder if, even if Frick’s chances were excellent, he might not be in for a rougher fight than anticipated.
The nation went to the polls on 3 November 1908. It was far more orderly than had been the elections of either 1900 or 1904. Only five deaths were reported across the United States in connection with the voting process.
In more than a few precincts, CS men or even state militia stood ‘guard’ at ballot boxes. There seem to have been irregularities in a number of counties, particularly in (as usual) the deep south. But the ultimate outcome was evidently not tilted very far by fraud.
In the end, Frick walked away with 55.3% of the popular vote. Bryan had 25.9% and Lodge took 18.8%.
Frick won with a massive 436 electoral votes, taking every state except Washington, Colorado, Nevada, and (much to his chagrin) his home state of Pennsylvania, all of which went to Bryan, except for Pennsylvania which fell to Lodge’s Republicans. At 90.3% of the electoral college, it was the biggest landslide since Lincoln’s victory over George McClellan in 1864.
As mentioned, fraud and intimidation, though existent, were far from decisive in Frick’s reelection. He had, in the four years since his tumultuous rise to the office, become a genuinely popular president, even if much of that popularity was based in simple relief that the horror of the Crisis had begun to pass.
President Frick celebrated his victory with a great parade in Manhattan, and Bryan coolly congratulated his opponent.
Secretary of the Treasury Mellon gleefully announced to the press that, “the American people have displayed their confidence in the leadership of my friend Mr. Frick.”
The vote of confidence in the Nationalists extended to congress, where the Nationalists expanded their representation in the House to 302, giving them a two-thirds majority, largely boosted by the defections of more sympathetic Republicans. In the Senate the NP soon had its majority, as well, at 52 senators.
Much ink has been spilled in the century since over what might have happened if there had been no split opposition, perhaps a weaker campaign on the incumbent’s part, and Frick had gone down to defeat in 1908. Would he have conceded? It is difficult to say – Frick’s tightening stranglehold on power in later years speaks against the possibility, but as many have rightly pointed out, the Frick of 1908 was not the Frick of 1912, and certainly not the Frick of 1916 or later.
Such questions must, in the end, remain the preserve of fantasists.