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The Democratic Nomination
After the second defeat of Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan in 1900, conservative leaders quickly regained ascendancy in the party.  The “reorganizers” wanted to move the Democratic Party away from the dead issue of free silver and return it to the pro-business philosophy and urban-North/rural-South base of former president Grover Cleveland.  In the process, they alienated many of Bryan’s supporters.  Although the “Great Commoner” rejected a third consecutive run for the White House, he continued to play a leadership role in the party.  In speeches and editorials, he advanced his populist agenda and relentlessly criticized the party’s conservatives.  The result of the conservative-populist struggle was a bitterly divided party headed for electoral defeat in 1904, leaving Bryan poised to reclaim the nomination four years later.

The major flaw in the conservative reorganization effort was failure to cultivate a candidate of national stature.  In 1903, the politician of choice was Senator Arthur Pue Gorman of Maryland.  His pro-business and anti-imperialist views made him an attractive candidate, even though his trade-protectionist record was at odds with the majority of Democrats.  White southerners appreciatively remembered Gorman’s opposition to the Federal Elections Bill (“Force Bill”) of 1890.  Democratic financiers George Gould and Thomas Fortune Ryan promised to contribute generously to his campaign.  Gorman’s candidacy, however, was ended by his vocal condemnation of President Roosevelt’s Panama policy.  The Maryland senator miscalculated his ability to influence his party on the issue and the intensity of support for a Panamanian Canal in the American South.  When the Senate ratified the Panama Canal treaty on February 23, 1904, nearly half the Democrats joined the Republicans to vote in the affirmative.  Gorman ended his presidential bid shortly afterward.

As Gorman’s candidacy sank, a boom arose for Grover Cleveland.  On the issues, the former two-term president (1885-1889, 1893-1897) was the ideal candidate for conservative Democrats, favoring the gold standard and tariff reform and opposing an expansionist foreign policy and federal protection of voting rights. However, the 67-year-old Cleveland preferred his active retirement as a trustee of Princeton University and so declined to enter the race.  Richard Olney, attorney general and secretary of state in Cleveland’s second administration, also turned down entreaties from conservatives to launch a candidacy, as he had in 1896 and 1900.

With Gorman, Cleveland, and Olney out of the race, and faced with almost certain defeat by the popular Roosevelt, no nationally known Democratic candidate emerged.  Instead, Democrats coalesced around a state judge from New York, Alton B. Parker.  In 1885, Parker had managed David B. Hill’s successful gubernatorial campaign, and was rewarded by Governor Hill with an appointment as judge on the New York State Supreme Court (a lower state court).  Parker soon gained a reputation among lawyers and fellow judges for fairness, competence, and courtesy, and quickly climbed New York’s judicial ladder.  In 1897, he won a landslide victory as chief justice of the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.  Ambitious for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, he turned down offers over the years to run for governor or senator. 

Nevertheless, in 1903, Hill convinced Parker to test the presidential waters with a speaking tour of the South.  The judge played to the Democratic Party’s white base, expressing no criticism of anti-black voting rights violations and lynchings.  Instead, in a speech before the Georgia Bar Association, he argued that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was not originally understood as having granted Congress or the Supreme Court the authority to restrict states rights.  After the trip, he allowed Hill to organize a presidential campaign for him.  Parker fit the conservative Democratic profile of a presidential candidate:  he supported the gold standard and tariff reform, opposed an expansionist foreign policy and federal protection of voting rights, and his judicial record evidenced both deference to legislative acts and recognition of labor rights.  Unlike other pro-gold standard Democrats, he had loyally supported Bryan in 1896 and had not been involved in intraparty skirmishes.

After his Southern trip and before the Democratic National Convention in July 1904, Parker refused to comment on the issues.  His silence, plus backing from the Democratic business community, spurred Bryan to label him “the muzzled candidate of Wall Street.”  Opposition from the temporarily discarded Great Commoner only enhanced Parker’s candidacy among conservatives.  The populist/progressive wing, however, also had difficulty finding a rival candidate of national stature.  Early hopes were pinned on Tom Johnson, the reform mayor of Cleveland, until he lost the Ohio gubernatorial race in 1903.  Bryan promoted several possible candidates—ridiculed by the conservative Democratic press as “Bryan’s Little Unknowns from Nowhere”—before settling on Senator Francis Cockrell of Missouri, a 69-year-old former Confederate general.

Taking up Bryan’s mantle, without the Great Commoner’s support, was William Randolph Hearst, the wealthy publisher of the San Francisco Examiner and New York Journal and a Democratic congressman (1903-1907) from New York.  Hearst advocated government-ownership of railroads and public utilities, a graduated income tax, an eight-hour workday, antitrust legislation, and the rights of labor unions.  His presidential candidacy gained momentum in the winter of 1903-1904, so that he had over 200 newspaper endorsements by his 41st birthday in April 1904.  However, his views were contrary to the general direction of the party that year, his arrogance alienated other politicians, and his morals offended many of Bryan’s supporters.  Therefore, his personal expenditure of $1.4 million ($28.1 million in 2002 dollars) resulted in less than a third of the delegates needed to win the nomination.

The Democratic National Convention met in St. Louis on July 6-9, with Congressman John Sharp Williams of Mississippi as the temporary chairman and Congressman Champ Clark of Missouri as the permanent chairman.  The stark division in the party became obvious on the first day when the mention of Grover Cleveland provoked such raucous jeers and cheers that a police squad was called to prevent possible violence.  The loud volume continued throughout the proceedings.  Conservatives controlled the platform committee and intended to “bury Bryan.”  The Great Commoner arrived at the convention criticizing Parker’s silence and the candidate’s alleged dominance by campaign manager Hill and financier August Belmont Jr. 

The Democratic Party Platform called for reduced federal spending (singling out military expenditures), ample funding to improve national waterways, tariff reform, a thorough investigation of public corruption, direct election of U.S. senators (rather than by state legislatures), arbitration of labor disputes, and an eight-hour workday for federal employees.  The document condemned Republican “imperialism” in foreign policy and President Roosevelt’s unconstitutional “executive usurpation” of legislative and judicial powers.  It endorsed construction of “the Panama Canal speedily, honestly, and economically.”  To assuage the party’s silverites, a plank endorsing the gold standard was omitted and, in return, Bryan’s plank for a progressive income tax was left out to placate conservatives.  The Great Commoner won a partial victory when the antitrust plank listed some specifics:  denouncing rebates and favoring a grant of authority to courts to determine if a business corporation was an illegal monopoly. 

On July 8, delegates nominated Parker on the first ballot with 679 votes to 181 for Hearst and 42 for Cockrell.  For vice president, delegates nominated Henry G. Davis, a wealthy railroad owner and former senator from West Virginia.  At 80 years of age, he was the oldest person ever nominated for that office by a major party.  Davis had been staunchly pro-Union during the Civil War, and his West Virginia residency brought geographic balance to the ticket.  His trade protectionist view was a counterweight to Parker’s tariff-reform stance, but it was the former senator’s deep pockets that were most attractive to delegates.  During the campaign, he contributed $185,000 ($3.7 million in 2002 dollars), which was over a third of the very small election fund. 

The biggest news of the convention was Parker’s “Gold Telegram.”  New York newspapers headlined the platform’s omission of a gold-standard plank and urged Parker’s intervention.  The judge sent a telegram to the convention stating that the gold standard was “firmly and irrevocably established” and that he would act “accordingly.”  He bluntly asserted that if delegates found his opinion on the issue unsatisfactory, then he would not accept the nomination.  The telegram angered conservatives as well as populists and provoked such a furor that Convention Chairman Clark called a recess to prevent a possible riot.  A carefully worded response was cabled to Parker justifying the omission on the grounds that the money question would not be an issue in the campaign.  Some newspapers praised Parker’s ultimatum, while others compared it to Bryan’s insistence on a free-silver plank before he would accept the nomination in 1900.

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