A century ago, Democrats gathered in Denver to choose a presidential candidate to challenge Republican nominee William Howard Taft. There, the populist William Jennings Bryan accepted his third Democratic nomination in twelve years–and the measured skepticism of The Nation‘s editors.
It is a sound piece of advice a French statesman gave when he said that we ought to take political events seriously, but not tragically. In that spirit, Bryan’s third nomination should be received. It is, in any aspect, a momentous thing. No discounting of the occurrence in advance can blind thoughtful men to its significance and its gravity. That this man and what he stands for should have so permeated, so drenched, the Democratic party as to make all opposition futile is not a fact to be lightly dismissed. It testifies to pervasive political conditions which it would be folly to ignore. Bryan is not to be disposed of by calling him a charlatan and adventurer. He has not lifted himself by his own bootstraps. He has been borne aloft by a great wave of discontent and desire for radical changes, which has swept over large parts of the country. That is the serious thing. No one can look through Bryan to the political forces which have made him what he is, and not have some troubled moments. Yet it is no time for treating the matter au tragique. The part of sober citizens is to look about them and see what resources they may count upon in resisting the attempt to turn the government over to a flighty and unstable agitator.
No intelligent survey of the nation’s defences against Bryanism can blink the truth that they have been greatly weakened during the past four years. It is not possible today to rally the conservative forces of the country in opposition to Bryan so splendidly as in 1896. Everybody knows the reason why. You cannot revile a man whom you have imitated. A party that has appropriated Bryan’s ideas cannot, with good effect, attack his person. At the very beginning of the Republican campaign, it is the part whether of frankness or sound generalship, to admit that power of resistance to Bryan has been much broken by four years of yielding to him. President Roosevelt’s avowed and deliberate purpose has been to head off, Bryan by stealing his issues. The argument, or threat, which he has constantly used, has been: “If you do not go half way with me, you will have to go the whole way with Bryan.” Well, we see now what comes of the plan of fighting a dangerous enemy by surrendering to him. The Bryan who was to be extinguished is exalted higher than ever.