Legends & Legacies: A crowd-pleasing different political era | AspenTimes.com

Legends & Legacies: A crowd-pleasing different political era

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
William Jennings Bryan and his wife making a railroad stop campaign appearance in the 1896 presidential election.
Library of Congress photo

The 2022 election is not far away, and turnout is the party mantra. Getting out the message involves grabbing voter attention. 1890s Aspen was a different era and a different level of voter enthusiasm and engagement.

The 2020 election had the highest voter turnout since 1900 with 66.8%. The turnout in 1896, the highest in U.S. history, totaled 79.6% and was 90% in many places. Turnout in the 60% to 65% range has been the norm since then with it dropping below 50% in 1920.

There were many factors for the stellar 1896 turnout, and one was simply entertainment. Today, we might go to a movie or a play, but few go to lectures or to hear political speeches. There were many political gatherings in the 1890s at the Wheeler. Congressman Bell spoke at the Pitkin County Populist Central Committee gathering. His talk was reported as, “his entire address was characterized by patriotic utterances for silver.” Five hundred turned out to hear keynote speaker B. Clark Wheeler, at the time a state senator as well as owner of The Aspen Times, who argued that all major parties (three at the time) had to put politics aside and just work to elect a pro-silver president. The National Silver Party held an event to introduce its local candidates, including Julie Webber for superintendent of schools; women had gained the right to run and vote for some offices in Colorado.

National politicians also attracted crowds in Aspen. Gen. James B. Weaver, the first populist presidential candidate, came in 1892, and he returned in 1895. In 1895, he pushed his three planks — land, money and transportation — but was asking Aspen to unite for just one issue: silver. He also thanked Aspen for the vote in 1892, saying he got the highest vote relative to population in Aspen.

William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic candidate for president in 1896, went on an 18,000-mile railroad campaign trip speaking about 30 times a day. He attracted 70,000 in Louisville, 50,000 Columbus and 30,000 in Toledo. 

At 36, he was the youngest ever to run for president. He was energetic and considered one of the great orators of his time. This was the height of the Gilded Age, and his message that government had been taken over by the wealthy resonated. He packed the Wheeler when he came to Aspen. There was urgency nationally, as this was the worst recession up to that time. Bryan made his argument that stopping the coinage of silver had reduced the availability of money and was worsening the deflation, especially for farm products. He was Aspen’s dream free-silver candidate.

There is a continuous mythology that the Panic of 1892 killed mining in Aspen. Actually, by 1894, Aspen was back to full — actually greater — production. Miner’s wages had been reduced, and the number of miners reduced, but the mines made up for the drop in price by producing more ore.

But, nationally, it was a different story. In 1894, New York City had 80,000 unemployed, Detroit 25,000. In Chicago, 1,500 people were sleeping in City Hall while police patrolled train depots baring unemployed ‘tramps’ from getting off.

By 1896, nearly every state had the secret ballot, so it was harder to threaten voters. But, businesses still made it clear, like Connecticut General Insurance informing customers that, if Bryan won, their policies would lose value, and another insurance company telling farmers in Ohio and Indiana their policies would be cancelled.

Bryan was outspent 25 to 1 by McKinley. Banks donated one quarter of one percent of their capital holdings to defeat Bryan. Standard Oil chipped in $250,000 ($7,300,000 in today’s dollars).

Modern economists debate whether coining more silver would have ended deflation and invigorated the economy. What is known is that Yukon gold between 1897 and 1914 increased the money supply by 7.5% and raised prices 2%/year.

Presidential candidates come to Aspen today but to raise money. Maybe voter turnout would go up if they spoke at the Wheeler to a crowd of all political persuasions, like in the 1890s.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.

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