Willoughby: Aspen’s Ed Compton trips up past presidential candidate
Legends & Legacies
I talked to Ed Compton, editor of Aspen Today, into letting me write a history column. We called it Aspen Yesterday. I wrote it during the early 1980s in return for his lessons in newspaper writing.
Bigger-than-life in physical stature and opinions, Compton alone wrote and edited the newspaper and staffed the office. Wearing baggy shirts and suspendered pants, he resembled the stereotypical newsmen depicted in movies of the 1940s. If you couldn’t find him at the newspaper office, you’d look for him at Aspen’s community garden.
I would hand in my column in person and he would pull out his red pencil and mark it up during a running commentary. He taught me the first sentence had to grab the reader’s interest, that newspaper readers had attention spans that maxed out at 500 words, and that newspaper paragraphs were not groups of sentences linked by logic, but periodic places to insert an indentation in a column, to allow multitasking readers to quickly find where their eyes had left the page.
I turned in a column about The Great Commoner William Jennings Bryan, and his popularity in Aspen as a champion for silver. Ed dismissed Bryan, and rejected all I had written about him. He told me about a confrontation with the elderly Bryan when Compton was a teenager.
Besides running for president three times, for decades Bryan was one of the country’s most popular orators. He traveled from city to city and earned his income through 200 speeches each year. People listened longer in the days before radio and television. Bryan could enthrall an audience for two hours.
Scarcely mentioned in history books, Bryan is not positively remembered. Although he fathered the progressive Democratic Party, he is better known from the play and movie about the Scopes Trial. In that proceeding, he argued that to teach evolution was a blasphemous act.
The movie and media versions distorted the case. The ACLU set up the trial to push First Amendment rights, rather than species’ origins. For religious reasons Bryan objected to Darwinism, because the theory was used to justify the robber barons’ wealth. And due to German’s belief in survival of the fittest, Bryan thought Darwinism caused World War I. The Scopes trial took place in 1925, and five days after it ended, Bryan died.
At that time Compton would have been a teenager. He told me he attended a Bryan speech and hung around afterward to express his disagreement regarding evolution. Compton stood in front of the stage when Bryan came out, alone. Compton launched into his distaste for Bryan. Bryan walked to the edge of the stage and replied. Ed responded. Bryan tried to kick Compton, missed, lost his balance and fell over.
Bryan had garnered Aspen’s support during the 1896 presidential election when he campaigned against the gold standard. Instead, he advocated for free coinage of silver. During the height of the Panic of 1893, with national unemployment second only to that of the Great Depression, Bryan received the nomination to run for president. At 36, he holds the record for the youngest person ever nominated. Although he did not win, he ran again in 1900 and 1908.
Ahead of his time, Bryan pushed a progressive agenda. After two recessions, The Panic of 1893 foretold yet another recession that hit just before his 1908 run. In response, Bryan took on the banks as strongly as Elizabeth Warren did, more recently. He fought high tariffs, a misguided solution employed to end recessions by his rival William McKinley. Bryan championed the direct election of senators, women’s right to vote, federal spending for highways, and banning corporations from funding political campaigns. He helped Woodrow Wilson create the Federal Reserve to aid with money supply, and he insisted that the board of governors be appointed by the president, rather than the banks.
Wilson appointed him Secretary of State. Bryan did not want America to enter World War I, and resigned.
Aspen had largely voted Republican, but residents turned out for Bryan due to silver policy. He spoke to an enthusiastic audience at the Wheeler during his 1896 campaign. You can imagine the applause when he said, “the miners who go a thousand feet into the earth … bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured in the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who in a back room corner the money of the world.”
Had Compton attended that speech, he and Bryan may have reached a more balanced view of one another and the world.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.