Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Politician Wm Jennings Bryan as Author

"The First Battle" by William Jennings Bryan, pub. 1896
Our small hometown is very fortunate to have a wonderful public library.  During an Open House at the library, I noticed a shelf of books the library was selling to raise funds.  The title, "The First Battle," caught my eye, along with the author's name of W.J. Bryan.  I opened the cover to find a yellowed check-out form with not a single stamp to show that the book had ever been checked out since its acquisition by the library.  Handling it carefully because of its fragile condition, I was amazed to discover a book written by the 1896 presidential candidate of both the Democrats and the People's Party, William Jennings Bryan, and published the same year of that  failed candidacy.  I bought it to add to my research materials of the late 1800s.
Preface to Bryan's Book, p. 11
Preface to Bryan's Book, p. 12  

                      In an unusual Preface to the book, Bryan's words are presented in his own handwriting.  In part, they read:  "The campaign of 1896 was a remarkable one whether we measure it by the magnitude of the issues involved or by the depth of interest aroused.  I have been led to undertake the present work by a desire, felt by myself and expressed by others, to have the more important incidents of the campaign put into permanent form for the convenience of those who have taken part in the contest and for the use of those who shall hereafter desire to review the struggle.  The amount of work done by the advocates of free coinage is beyond computation and the number of those who took an active part in the contest to [sic] great for enumeration..."  Included in the book are not only texts of speeches and other documents by Bryan but also documents of other men instrumental to the Silver issue, the primary theme of Bryan's 1896 candidacy. 
                      In another rather unusual decision, Bryan chose his wife to serve as his biographer, inserting her brief genealogy of his family and following that with her personal biography of her husband's life.  She recorded his birthday of March 19, 1860 and his family's move from Salem, Illinois, to a 500 acre farm outside of town when Bryan was five.  He entered public school at the age of ten and attended there for five years before entering Whipple Academy, the prep school for Illinois College at Jacksonville, IL, where he remained for eight years, acquiring a classical education.  He met his wife, Mary Baird, in September 1879, while they were both students in Jacksonville, (she attending a school for young ladies), and having graduated from college, he entered Union College of Law in Chicago in the fall of 1881.  He began his legal practice on July 4, 1883, and he and Mary wed on October 1, 1884.
As for his political biography, he first became interested in politics during his father's Congressional political campaign of 1872, and according to Mary, "...from that time on he always cherished the thoughts of entering public life."  It was the summer of 1887 when legal business took him to Kansas and Iowa, that he made a side trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, and was so impressed with the prairie town that he decided to move to Lincoln and begin a legal practice with a former classmate from law school.  That practice commenced on October 1, 1887, and Bryan immediately became active in Democratic politics in Nebraska.
William & Mary's Home
 With his handwritten Preface and his wife's biography having opened the book, Bryan begins his own text with this title to Chapter 1:  "My Connection with the Silver Question Begins."  There is no question that Bryan's political career was built on identifiable issues and skills.  Perhaps foremost was his formidable skill as an orator; without question his principal political issue was Free Silver; and underpinning his reputation was his strong reputation as a Christian man.  His career is bookended by the "Cross of Gold" speech at the Democratic convention of 1896 that probably led to his selection as the party's presidential candidate (See my blog "The People's Party Urged Silver, July 18, 2013) and it essentially closed with the so-called "Scopes Monkey Trial" of 1925.
Bryan was well known for lacing his oratory with frequent Biblical references and quotations, just as he did in his stirring challenge to the Republicans not to "press down upon the brow of labor a crown of thorns" nor "crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

Darrow, left, & Bryan, right, at Scopes trial 
It was surely that reputation that influenced his selection as attorney for the state in The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes in which Clarence Darrow, the famous defense attorney, was hired to defend school teacher, John Thomas Scopes.  The highly publicized trial became a contest between those who believed the Bible took priority over all human knowledge and those who believed evolution could be reconciled with matters of faith.  The Tennessee law made it illegal for any state-funded school to teach evolution, and with two such famous lawyers representing opposing sides, the trial was covered by newspapers far beyond Dayton, Tennessee.  Bryan won, with Scopes found guilty and fined $100, (although the verdict was overturned); however, Darrow took the unusual tactic of putting Bryan on the witness stand as an expert on the Bible, and Bryan's testimony left him feeling humiliated and exhausted.

Images of Bryan selected for his book

While those two events probably bookend his reputation today, in his own lifetime he was well known for  many distinguished achievements.  Not only was he chosen in 1896 as the presidential candidate of both the Democratic and the People's parties, he was chosen as the Democratic presidential candidate again in both 1900 and 1908.  He was the Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1915), and people were willing to pay to hear him speak to the extent that he supported his family from speaking engagements for many years.  Despite his achievements, Bryan's star was never again so high as during the 1896 presidential election, and many believe that L. Frank Baum's depiction of the Cowardly Lion in the Oz book published in 1900 was intended to caricature and ridicule Bryan.

By the time of the 1896 Presidential election in which Bryan first ran, Isaac was no longer living; however, the Silver issue was the controlling question for the People's Party even before Isaac's death, and there was no greater champion of that issue that William Jennings Bryan.

Remember, you can enlarge the images by clicking on them.


Monday, July 15, 2013

The People's Party Urged Silver

1890 Political Cartoon from the County Capital
During the People's Party movement of the late 1800s one of the most politically divisive issues was bimetallism.  Many members of the People's Party supported bimetallism, in which silver as well as gold would support our currency.
Initially, both gold and silver were legal tender of the United States, first with a floating exchange rate that was fixed at a 15:1 ratio in 1792 by Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury.  During the Civil War money was needed to pay soldiers, and "Greenbacks" were issued, but the bonds to pay for the War were redeemable in gold.  This was pointed to by the People's Party as an example of the wealthy getting their bonds repaid in valuable gold while the soldiers were left with the deflated paper money.  It was in 1873 that the free and unlimited coinage of silver ended, putting the country on a gold standard.  When the Panic of 1893 struck the nation, the schism between the wealthy and the working classes intensified, particularly regarding the continuance of the gold standard.
1890s Political Cartoon from the County Capital
Membership in the People's Party consisted largely of farmers, laborers, and miners, and the majority believed that a return to silver would inflate the money supply, giving more cash to everybody.  Farmers especially saw a double benefit from inflation--higher prices for their crops and repayment of their outstanding loans with deflated dollars.  Bankers and other investors obviously opposed the idea of accepting deflated dollars in payment of the notes they held.  Politically, this translated into Republicans supporting candidates and policies that adhered to the gold standard while Democrats and the People's Party supported candidates and policies that supported bimetallism.
The political cartoon at the start of his blog shows rich men in top hats, holding government bonds as they cheer for President Cleveland, who is struggling to compete on a unicycle representing the single metal gold standard.  The common man, on a 2-wheeled bicycle representing bimetallism, stays in the lead.  The political cartoon just above uses a one-wheeled bicycle, showing how impossible it is for Uncle Sam to make any progress toward prosperity when the rear wheel, labeled "silver" has been removed.
Abandoned silver mines near Creede, Colorado
The prosperity of  silver mines declined as an oversupply of the metal caused the market to fall.  In an effort to prop up the market and appease those calling for a return to bimetallism, the government agreed to buy a certain amount of silver each month at a fixed price.  Naturally, this caused silver mines to reopen and increase operations, driving the silver market below the government price to the extent that the government program was ended.  When we visited Creed, Colorado, we saw the evidence of that tumultuous period for miners in the form of abandoned mines.
In 1896 the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan, and the People's Party also nominated Bryan, believing that the combined votes of the two parties would defeat the Republican candidate and put a "Free Silver" president in the White House.  Bryan's focus on the silver issue was apparent at the Democratic Convention, where he delivered his famous "Cross of Gold" speech, declaring:  "The gold standard has slain tens of thousands."  He contrasted "idle holders of idle capital" with "the struggling masses, who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country."  
Regional voting in 1896 Election
 Bryan's speech takes its familiar title from his rallying challenge to the Republicans:  "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."  (To read the full text of this speech you may go to http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5354.)
Disagreements about the silver question resulted in groups splintering off from both of the major parties, but on election day Bryan swept the rural South, the heartland states, and the upper Northwest, areas where farming, mining, and lumbering were dominant.  However, McKinley held the banking, railroading, and manufacturing states and gained the presidency with 51 % of the vote.
The push by the People's Party to join with Democrats to gain the White House and put a Free Silver President in office failed.  (For a good explanation of the 1896 Currency Question you may visit http://projects.vassar.edu/1896/currency.html.) 

Next week's blog will share more about William Jennings Bryan from his own book published immediately after the 1896 campaign and titled "The First Battle."

Thursday, July 11, 2013

If Isaac Could Only Imagine

Isaac's arm stabilizer

The margins of Isaac's journal contain many sketches of his ideas for improving or inventing machines.  As a young druggist he designed and built an apparatus to stabilize a man's sore elbow enough to allow it to heal.  As a farmer in Kansas he designed and built a 3-horse cultivator, the first of its kind, for which he sought a patent.  He rarely bought a piece of equipment without modifying it in some way to improve its performance.  With his inventive mind, how he would have loved to attend the exhibition we know as The Chicago World's Fair!
The proper name was the World's Fair:  Columbian Exposition, organized to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the New World.  When it opened to the public on May 1, 1893, it covered 600 acres, with about 200 buildings and pavilions containing exhibits from around the world.  Isaac would have loved all of it, but the single thing that might have impressed him the most was the amazing invention of George Ferris.
George Ferris
Born on Valentine's Day 1859 in Galesburg, IL, Ferris attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, and earned a degree in civil engineering.  By the late 1880s he had opened G.W.G. Ferris & Co. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with their principle business being building tunnels and rail lines.
Although Ferris made a good living from what he was doing, he was ambitious, and the construction of the Eiffel Tower for the Paris Exhibition of 1889 inspired him to consider what he might build that would exceed the famous Paris landmark.  He imagined an observation wheel, and when plans were announced for the Chicago World's Fair, he believed he had found the perfect venue for his invention.
Unfortunately, when he presented his idea to the committee in charge of accepting or rejecting entries to the Fair, some regarded it as impossible to build, some saw it as too dangerous for riders, and some even called him a "crackpot."  Ferris enlisted endorsements from other engineers, and the committee changed its mind and accepted the concept of George Ferris for a giant observation wheel.  Their delayed approval resulted in the Ferris Wheel being incomplete when the fair opened, but when it was finished and open to customers, people lined up in great numbers to ride the new invention.  In fact, ticket sales for the Ferris Wheel are credited with keeping the fair from indebtedness.
The Ferris Wheel at the Chicago Fair
Imagine a bicycle wheel with the axle of the wheel set on two steel pyramids, with the wheel spokes consisting of heavy steel beams.  Now, consider the engineering genius of the construction.  The axle was the largest piece of steel that had ever been forged in the United States, weighing 46 1/2 tons!  The wheel itself was 264 feet high, and the towers supporting the wheel were 140 feet high.  There were 36 passenger cars outfitted to impress Victorian tastes and capable of carrying 40 seated passengers or 60 standing.  Two 1,000 horsepower steam engines turned the wheel, and a huge air brake stopped it.  George Ferris had indeed created a marvel to equal or exceed the Eiffel Tower!
Sadly, the Chicago World's Fair was only a temporary site, and the location to which the Wheel was moved was not successful.  In addition, when others attempted to use Ferris's ideas, he became involved in many patent infringement lawsuits.  He gained his fame but died in 1896 at the young age of thirty-seven.
The above image of the Ferris Wheel was taken from a wonderful book of photographs of the Chicago World's Fair published in 1893 that is now part of the archives of the Stafford County Historical Museum.  In the background of the photograph may be seen some of the buildings said to have inspired L. Frank Baum in his depiction of the Emerald City.  If you happen to be in Stafford, KS, on a weekday, stop by and ask Director Michael Hathaway to see the wonderful book of photographs from the Chicago World's Fair.  
Today there are taller Ferris Wheels in the world.  The London Eye towers 400 feet above the River Thames, dominating a fairly flat city and altering the lovely, traditional skyline.  The tallest Ferris Wheel, however, is the Singapore Flyer, that pierces the sky at 541 feet!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Isaac and the Sunflowers--Part 2

Roadside Kansas Sunflower
Having shared the information about commercially grown sunflowers and their history in last week's blog, I must admit the fact that most farmers, like Isaac, regard the common sunflower as a weed.  Although the sunflower is the state flower of Kansas, and visitors admire the golden blossoms growing along roadsides, the plants are a nuisance in corn, wheat, and soybean fields, having the potential to reduce crop yields.
Since its introduction to the Old World, the popularity of the sunflower has spread.  Germans make a popular bread called Sonnenblumenkernbrot (literally, sunflower whole seed bread) by combining the seeds with rye flour.  During the 18th century the popularity of sunflower oil expanded in Russia because it was one of the few oils allowed by the Russian Orthodox Church during Lent.  Using data compiled by Monfreda, C.N. Ramankutty, and J.A. Foley from 2000 production figures, the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment compiled the map below showing how far the production of sunflowers has spread across the world, far beyond its native American roots.  Indicative of its popularity and importance, the sunflower is the national flower of Ukraine.
The sunflower is a popular symbol.  In the late 1800s, during Isaac's lifetime, the sunflower was used as the symbol of the Aesthetic Movement.  Artists and writers of the Aesthetic style believed that art should be appreciated for itself, without any association with morality, sentimentality, or usefulness.  The purpose of art was beauty, not utility.  Perhaps the best known among its practitioners are Oscar Wilde, A.C. Swinburne, James McNeill Whistler, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  When Oscar Wilde made his American tour during Isaac's lifetime, he was often lampooned by cartoonists who drew Wilde wearing a sunflower as a boutonniere or carry a sunflower as a bouquet.
The flower is also a common symbol for green ideology, as well as for the Vegan Society.  It was chosen as the symbol of the Spiritualist Church because "Spiritualism turns toward the light of truth" and the sunflower turns toward the sun.  Spiritualism has its origins in the mid-1800s and while the societies and churches vary in their practices and beliefs, in general they are described as believing that when humans die it is the physical life that ends, but the personality or mind survives on a spirit plane.  Mediumship is the method through which spiritualists seek to reach these spirits.  As for their choice of the sunflower as their symbol because it follows the sun, science offers a less spiritual explanation.
Worldwide sunflower production


Scientists have concluded that the alignment of sunflowers is the result of heliotropism, and their movement is a circadian rhythm, synchronized by the sun.  Tests have shown that turning the sunflower 180 degrees will cause it to turn away from the sun until resynchronization by the sun over the period of a few days realigns the movement.  Whether one accepts the Spiritual or the Scientific explanation, seeing a large field of sunflowers identically aligned to face the sun is an awesome sight. 
One summer we had three urban, non-farming couples visiting our farm, and we hosted a supper on the lawn, inviting several of our farming neighbors.  As I worked that afternoon getting things ready for the meal, my city guests asked if I had containers they could use for wild flower bouquets for the table.  I gathered some interesting antique containers to use as vases, and they went in search of wild flowers.  That evening the tables looked lovely with the old dishes and tins holding the charmingly arranged flowers.  As the meal concluded and we lingered around the long table to visit, one of the farmers leaned back in his chair and studied the floral arrangements.  "You know, those weeds are kinda pretty," he said.
I cannot help but wonder if one evening after chopping sandburs and sunflowers with his hoe in the hot prairie sun all afternoon, Isaac didn't reach down and pick up a few of the slaughtered blossoms to take back to his house and put in a vase to decorate his kitchen table that evening.