Money and politics are as American as baseball, apple pie, and corruption.
Of course, baseball was based on the British game of rounders that began in the Tudor era. The first apple pie recipe was published by the Romans. And corruption, well there is some reference to it in Hammurabi’s Code from 1754 B.C. Yes, it turns out history holds more than a few surprises. America, it turns out, is not as exceptional as one might suppose.
In 1896, that election featured a future secretary of state, a populist, a fundamentalist orator, a pacifist, an anti-evolutionist, a campaigner for women’s suffrage, an early proponent of the minimum wage, and William McKinley.
As for money and politics, ask anyone when the most expensive presidential race in history was, and they are likely to think it was Obama vs. Romney in 2012 when the two sides laid out more than $2.6 billion. Some would suspect that, in this post-Citizen’s United era—with unlimited corporate money flowing every which way—the latest Clinton vs. Trump campaign would be the new record. They are mistaken.
In 2012, total campaign spending amounted to just over .01 percent of GDP. Now, that’s a lot when you’re taking about our huge economy. But as a percentage, it is dwarfed by an election that saw spending hit a level five times higher. In 1896, that election featured a future secretary of state, a populist, a fundamentalist orator, a pacifist, an anti-evolutionist, a campaigner for women’s suffrage, an early proponent of the minimum wage, and William McKinley.
Yes, McKinley was outnumbered—outnumbered by one man, the multifaceted Boy Orator of the Platte, Nebraska’s own William Jennings Bryan. Only 36 years old at the time he secured the Democratic nomination, Bryan, the former congressman out of Lincoln, was the youngest man ever to head a national ticket.
The reform-minded man from the Heartland had electrified the Democratic National Convention with his “Cross of Gold” speech (“You shall not crucify this country on a cross of gold!”) decrying the East Coast establishment’s reliance on the gold standard that limited the money supply to currency backed by actual gold reserves. Bryan was a “bi-metalist” who proposed that the amount of money in circulation should be bolstered by backing it with both gold and silver.
Bryan’s proposal would have been inflationary, but that was a good thing—good for farmers and workers and dealers in commodities, that is. Bankers and financiers, however, hate inflation. It lessens the value of their loans and bonds, allowing them to be paid off with money worth less than at the time the cash was laid out.
There were other issues of course, but the money supply was the crunch point. And the Karl Rove of the era, Mark Hanna, used it like a vacuum cleaner—two years before the first gasoline-powered suction device for the home was introduced—to suck up wagonloads of money from J.P. Morgan, the Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Rockefellers. McKinley had a huge war chest totaling as much as $5 million. The Republican nominee stayed on his front porch and doled out the funds as needed along with an occasional stale pronouncement.
Meanwhile, the Boy Orator of the Platte (critics loved to point out that the Platte was a mile wide and six inches deep at the mouth) invented the whistle-stop campaign, speaking to countless crowds big and small across the nation. It was the first modern campaign, though hopelessly outspent. As you might have guessed, Bryan was beaten, and soundly, by almost a hundred electoral votes.
William Jennings Bryan stayed in the American spotlight for the rest of his life: as the Democratic nominee again in 1900 and 1908, as Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state, and famously as the prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial so memorably portrayed in Inherit the Wind.
It is a history rarely remembered, even here in Nebraska. You could look it up. A Democrat from Nebraska carried his home state, but lost the most expensive presidential election of all time.
Douglas Vincent Wesselmann is better known to Omaha as Otis Twelve, the talk-show host who writes the back-page column for Omaha Magazine.