The imaginary fear (“bugaboo”) being carted out by William Jennings Bryan is imperialism, which is a front (literally here, a straw man) for the Democratic presidential nominee’s supposed actual goal of imposing unlimited coinage of silver on the country. Dressed as a farmer, Bryan pushes a wheelbarrow with a broken, “bunco” (sham) silver dollar on which the Populist Ostrich appears. In an accompanying commentary by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, “The Results of a Bryan Victory,” the Republican spokesman warned, “free silver is just as real and dangerous now as it was four years ago…” when Bryan first ran for president.
Nevertheless, in early July, the Democratic National Platform had declared that “the burning issue of imperialism growing out of the Spanish war… [is] the paramount issue of the campaign.” For a while, Democrats treated it as such. In early August, Bryan began his energetic campaign tour by attacking Republican President William McKinley’s expansionist foreign policy. The Democratic nominee announced that if elected president he would call Congress into special session in order to ensure by legislation that the Philippines had a stable administration, independence, and an American protectorate.
The speech persuaded some major Democratic donors to contribute to the campaign and the Anti-Imperialist League to endorse Bryan, but the anti-expansionist focus was a political liability. The area of Bryan’s electoral strength in 1896—the Trans-Mississippi West—was the region most favorable in 1900 to continuing America’s presence in the former Spanish colonies.
In addition, the force of the anti-imperial message was lessened by several factors. Bryan had supported the treaty ceding the territories to the United States, recognized the need for military pacification of the Philippines, urged tougher enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine in Latin America, and endorsed expansion into “desirable territory” whose people were “willing and fit to become American citizens.” He further declared that his party should lead the way in peacefully spreading American values across the globe.
On September 18, in his official letter of acceptance, Bryan switched from anti-imperialism to an emphasis on the antitrust issue. He never backed away from free silver, but the money question did not play the central role that it had in 1896.