At the 1896 Democratic convention, William Jennings Bryan delivers a speech for the ages.
Mr. Elliot Danforth, who was chosen to preside over the Bryan notification meeting on Wednesday of last week, was once Treasurer of this State and ex-officio a member of the State Board of Canvassers. While he held these offices, a contested election case in Dutchess County came before the board, consisting of two returns, the Mylod return and the Emans return. The Supreme Court and Court of Appeals successively forbade the board to canvass the former; but when Maynard made his celebrated theft of the latter, they canvassed the illegal return in defiance of the court’s order, excusing themselves by saying there was no other before them. For this offence, which changed the political complexion of the State Legislature, Mr. Danforth and his associates were held guilty of a deliberate contempt of the highest court of New York, and heavily fined. As the opinion of the Court of Appeals puts it, they did “the very thing which the issuance of the writ was intended to absolutely prevent, and thus contemned and defeated the will of the court.” It is singularly fitting that Mr. Danforth should have been dragged forth into conspicuousness once more, to give the sanction of his reputation for defiance of judicial authority to a meeting advocating the degradation of all courts, and the creation of a millennium where no ardent soul shall be cramped and confined by the despotism of “government by injunction.”
We have now had Mr. Bryan in two characters-that of a demagogue and that of a solemn economist. If anything could make us prefer the former role, it would be his performance of the latter. His conception of the demagogue’s part was very poor. All his undignified, slapyou-on-the-back, hired-man style of haranguing the crowds showed him very inexpert in the art. The truly great demagogues never thus vulgarly let themselves down to the level of the mob. Bryan’s coarse and careless joking about the post-offices he was going to distribute next year was a fearful blunder for him to make, such as the stupidest Presidential candidate on record was never capable of making. But all these misconceptions of his role are as nothing compared with the gross, the incredible ignorance he displayed when he essayed the character of profound economist. His references to savings banks and life-insurance companies are alone enough to rank him in the booby class in business. United States Senators could not have displayed crasser ignorance. To meet the objection that, under free silver, life-insurance policies would be worth only half their face value, he asserts that the gold standard, on the other hand, increases the profits of “the companies” at the expense of the policy-holders. Does Mr. Bryan know, or does he not know, that nearly every life-insurance company is a mutual concern, and that all the profits go, and necessarily go, to the benefit of the policy-holders? A wise man from Nebraska delivering himself in this fashion in New York is not merely, as he says, in an “enemy’s country,” but in what is evidently for him an absolute terra incognita. His remark about the savings banks finding it increasingly difficult under the gold standard to “collect their assets,” perhaps means something to his mind, but to others it must remain wholly unintelligible. In all this sad floundering Mr. Bryan shows how much out of his sphere he is as an economist. He would do much better to stick to his crown of thorns and his cross of gold.