This cartoon from Judge argues that Democrat William Jennings Bryan is a self-promoter on the make, who will have plenty of cash for his presidential run. He presses the key of financier Thomas Fortune Ryan, and has other sources of wealth, including lecture fees and his magazine, The Commoner. Although Bryan had gained wealth over the years, he failed to raise sufficient funds during the 1908 presidential contest.
The Democratic nominee made a major issue of campaign contributions. He insisted that convention delegates approve a plank endorsing federal legislation that required the publication of campaign contributions, limited the amount individuals could donate, and banned contributions from business executives in the name of their corporations. Bryan refused to accept corporate money and, instead, solicited dollar donations from ordinary citizens in order to highlight that he was a candidate of “the People.” The ploy did not work. By early October, only 50,000 people had contributed less than $250,000 dollars ($4.84 million in 2002 dollars). On October 15, Bryan published a list of those contributing $100 or more to his election effort, and challenged William Howard Taft to do the same. The Republican presidential nominee declined during the campaign, but followed New York State law and declared the donations after the election.
The bag of “Widow Benefits” in the left foreground of the cartoon refers to the estate of Philo S. Bennett, a Democratic delegate-at-large from Connecticut who had befriended Bryan during his first campaign in 1896. When Bennett died in 1903, the bulk of his estate passed to his wife, but money was awarded in trust for Bryan and his wife, Mary, to disseminate to various charities. Even though Bryan was a legatee, he drafted the will and a sealed letter from Bennett requesting that Mrs. Bennett give the politician $50,000 for his personal use. The probate and appeals courts rejected the legal validity of the letter. For some political observers, the episode represented Bryan’s greed and unethical behavior, characteristics at odds with the populist, moral reputation he cultivated.