The First Battle/Chapter 5

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The First Battle by William Jennings Bryan
Chapter 5: : Pioneer Work in Nebraska

One evening in May, 1894, a few Nebraska Democrats assembled at the Paxton Hotel in Omaha, the following persons being present: Judge Joseph E. Ong of Geneva, Hon. J. B. Kitchen of Omaha, Hon. C. J. Smyth of Omaha, Judge J. H. Broady of Lincoln, Hon. William H. Thompson of Grand Island, Hon. James C. Dahlman of Chadron, Hon. John Thomsen of Fremont, Hon. G. A. Luikart of Norfolk, Hon. John C. Van Housen of Schuyler, Hon. C. V. Casper of David City, Hon. Edward Falloon of Falls City, Hon. W. H. Kelligar of Auburn, Frank J. Morgan, Esq., of Plattsmouth, and Richard L. Metcalfe of the editorial staff of the Omaha World-Herald.

I have given the names of these gentlemen because they were pioneers in a great movement and originated a plan which was afterward successfully applied to national politics. They were all men of standing in the State and most of them men of considerable property. Messrs. Thomsen, Luikart, Van Housen and Casper were members of the State Legislature; Judge Broady had been upon the district bench. (He was a candidate for Congress in 1896 and came within three hundred votes of election.) Mr. Smyth had been a member of the Legislature and has since been elected attorney general of the State. Mr. Thompson (of Grand Island) is the present Democratic national committeeman for the State of Nebraska and Mr. Dahlman is the present chairman of the Democratic State Committee. Mr. Metcalfe is now editor-in-chief of the World-Herald. I cannot say with whom the idea first originated, but these congenial spirits, on the evening mentioned, decided to call a conference of silver Democrats to be held at Omaha on the 21st of June, 1894. While I had discussed with some of the gentlemen the necessity of making a fight for the control of the party organization in the State, I knew nothing of this plan until the conference had been called. Upon invitation, I visited Nebraska and addressed this conference. A few days before leaving Washington, I received a letter from a Nebraska friend who suggested that a few silver Democrats had expressed themelves in favor of a demand for bimetallism without naming any ratio. Believing it necessary to make a bold and emphatic declaration, I at once telegraphed that the subject of my address would be:

We favor the immediate restoration of the free and unlimited coinage of gold and silver at the present ratio, without waiting for the aid or consent of any other nation on earth.

I found upon my arrival that the Committee on Resolutions had decided to embody my subject in the platform, but before the platform was ready to report some one asked me whether the words "present ratio" meant the present legal ratio or the present bullion ratio, and, to avoid ambiguity, the declaration was to amended as to read:

We favor the immediate restoration of the free and unlimited coinage of gold and silver at the present ratio of 16 to 1, without waiting for the aid or consent of any other nation on earth.

The platform also announced to the Democrats of the State that the silver question would be submitted to the primaries for the decision of the voters. The conference resulted in a complete organization among the silver Democrats, reaching from a State executive committee down to a committeeman in each County and, where possible, in each precinct. The Democratic State Committee was asked to set an early date for the convention, but, being controlled by the gold element, refused this request and delayed the State Convention until September. This delay, however, instead of injuring, really benefited the silver Democrats and enabled them to make a more complete canvass of the State. When the convention met, the silver Democrats were in control by a vote of nearly three to one. Mr. Euclid Martin, the chairman of the State committee, called the convention to order and, at the request of the committee, suggested a temporary chairman. The silver Democrats had asked for the selection of one of their number and when their request was refused moved to substitute the name of their candidate, Hon. Ed. P. Smith, for the one suggested by the committee. After some debate, the candidate suggested by the committee withdrew his name and Mr. Smith was elected without further opposition. I wrote the money plank adopted by the convention; it reads as follows:

We indorse the language used by Hon. John G. Carlisle in 1878, when he denounced the "conspiracy" to destroy silver money as "the most gigantic crime of this or any other age," and we agree with him that "the consummation of such a scheme would ultimately entail more misery upon the human race than all the wars, pestilences and famines that ever occurred in the history of the world." We are not willing to be parties to such a crime, and in order to undo the wrong already done, and to prevent the further appreciation of money, we favor the immediate restoration of the free and unlimited coinage of gold and silver at the present ratio of 16 to 1, without waiting for the aid or consent of any other nation on earth.

We regard the right to issue money as an attribute of sovereignty and believe that all money needed to supplement the gold and silver coinage of the Constitution, and to make the dollar so stable in its purchasing power that it will defraud neither debtor nor creditor, should be issued by the general Government, as the greenbacks were issued; that such money should be redeemable in coin, the Government to exercise the option by redeeming in gold or silver, whichever is most convenient for the Government. We believe that all money issued by the Government, whether gold, silver, or paper, should be made a full legal tender for all debts, public and private, and that no citizen should be permitted to demonetize by contract that which the Government makes money by law.

The platform also declared in favor of the income tax, arbitration and the foreclosure of the Pacific liens. In fact, in 1894 the Democrats of Nebraska contended for substantially the same policies which were embodied in the Democratic National Platform of 1896. To carry the parallel a little further, it may be remarked that the Republicans won in Nebraska in 1894; in 1896, however, they lost. In 1894 they secured a two-thirds majority in the Legislature and elected all the State officers except governor; in 1896 the fusionists secured a two-thirds majority in the Legislature and elected every State official.

But to return to the convention. After the adoption of the platform and the nomination of a candidate for the United States Senate, the convention proceeded to nominations for State officers. Hon. Silas A. Holcomb, who had been previously nominated by the Populists, was, by a large majority, made our nominee for Governor and several other Populist nominees were placed upon our ticket. A few of the gold Democrats, after taking part in the convention during its temporary organization, during the adoption of the platform, during the nomination of a candidate for the United States Senate and during the selection of the State committee, left the hall as soon as Mr. Holcomb was nominated. These, together with a few who had, at the primaries, failed of election as delegates, assembled in a room of the Paxton Hotel and organized a new party. They called themselves "straight Democrats" and their candidates for State offices were placed upon the official ballot by petition.

It is interesting to note that the course pursued by the gold Democrats of Nebraska was the same as that pursued two years later by the gold Democrats of the United States and, it may be added, that in Nebraska, as later in the United States, they sought to secure the election of the Republican candidates. The following year the Democrats met in convention, readopted the platform of 1894, and nominated candidates for supreme judge and regents of the university, these being the only officers voted for at that election.

The bolting Democrats continued their organization and placed a ticket in the field. This year they dropped the word "straight" and, taking advantage of a court decision, placed their candidates on the official ballot as "Democrats." According to our ballot law, the names of candidates are arranged in alphabetical order and it so happened that their candidates came before ours on the ballot and since both their candidates and ours were marked "Democrat" with nothing further to distinguish between them, and as there was no State campaign to bring the matter before the voters, their candidates received more votes than ours.

In the following spring, our State committee sent a letter to the State committee of the bolting Democrats, proposing to submit the silver question to the Democratic voters at a primary election with the agreement that the delegates to the National Convention should represent the sentiment which prevailed at the primaries. This proposition was refused by the bolters and two delegations sought admission to the Chicago Convention. Our State convention, held in the spring of 1896 to select delegates to the National Convention, adopted a platform substantially like the one in 1894. As will appear later, the bolters occupied seats in the National Convention during the temporary organization, while the regular delegation (the one advocating free coinage at 16 to 1) was afterwards seated by the convention.


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