Montana’s Love Affair with William Jennings Bryan
"Were Montanans right when they endorsed Bryan twice, or were they right to change their minds and oppose him the third time?"
In the 33 presidential elections since Montana’s first in 1892, no candidate rolled up a bigger victory margin than Democrat William Jennings Bryan in 1896. He swept the state—every county but Custer and Dawson in the southeast—by a whopping 79.9 percent. He was only 36 years old. The nationwide winner, Republican William McKinley, walked away with a paltry 19.2 percent of Treasure State voters.
Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 margin over Alf Landon in Montana ranks as the state’s second largest blowout, 69-28 percent. It’s hard to imagine a Democrat winning Montana today by such huge majorities as Bryan and FDR did; indeed, the state has gone for the GOP candidate in 13 of the last 14 presidential contests.
Even though he lost the race nationally in 1896, Bryan’s Montana landslide assured him of a hearty welcome when he visited Monida, Lima, Dillon, and Butte in August 1897. Raucous, adoring crowds thronged his speeches and in Butte, bands composed of 63 instruments played “Hail to the Chief,” according to Richard I. Gibson in The Montana Standard.
Bryan ran again as the Democratic nominee in 1900. He carried Montana a second time, though only with 58.4 percent, a twenty-point plunge from four years earlier. When, in 1908, he set a record as his party’s presidential standard bearer for a third time, he lost the state to Republican William Howard Taft, 47-43 percent.
Were Montanans right when they endorsed Bryan twice, or were they right to change their minds and oppose him the third time? Personally, I wouldn’t have voted for him even once, so now you know where I stand.
The Nebraska populist catered to the silver interests in the West from the very day he delivered his mesmerizing “Cross of Gold” speech that won him his first Democratic presidential nomination in 1896. But his view on “the money question” amounted to little more than subsidies for silver and inflationary paper money. The country did the right thing under McKinley and solidified a gold standard instead, in 1900.
Perhaps Montanans saw in Bryan a man who, though often wrong, was sincere and incorruptible. If so, they were right. His reputation was never tainted by graft or dishonesty.
In 1915, while serving as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, he resigned when he determined that Wilson was set on getting America into World War I. I give him high marks for that, but low marks for supporting America’s misguided venture into alcohol prohibition.
To his credit, Bryan was right on the tariff question. The system of protective tariffs, he argued, was “held together by the cohesive power of plunder,” benefiting the interests of the protected at the expense of most working people and consumers.
He called for raw materials to be completely tariff-free because, in his words, “You can impose no tax for the benefit of the producer of raw material which does not…press with accumulated weight upon the person who uses the finished product.” I cut loose with an Amen! when I read this Bryan remark: “I do not believe we should make a manufacturer or anyone else an agent to collect money from one man and pay it into the pocket of another man.”
Bryan became one of the earliest supporters of a federally mandated minimum wage. Though still a popular idea, it’s lousy economics. As a wiser man once said, “You cannot make a man worth a certain amount by making it illegal to pay him any less.” Minimum wage laws simply price out of the labor market the folks who most desperately need to be in it—the unskilled, the young, and disadvantaged minorities. If it really made sense, we should raise it to $50/hour and enrich millions by mere act of Congress.
William Jennings Bryan was liked by Montanans but being right or wrong isn’t determined by likeability.
Lawrence W. Reed writes a monthly column for the Frontier Institute in Helena, on whose board he serves. He is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education and blogs at www.lawrencewreed.com.