Populist politicians often found responsive audiences in the Tri-State District. One such politician was William Jennings Bryan. This three-time presidential candidate whose oratory stirred Democrats was no stranger to the area.
Bryan was born in Illinois in 1860. Upon graduation from college he took a law degree from Union Law College in 1883. He wrote that his desire was “to mete out justice to every creature, whether he be rich or poor, bond or free.” He desired “to honor God and please mankind.” Politics seemed a logical next step. He moved to Nebraska, set up a law practice and became involved in Democratic politics. In 1890, he ran for Congress and won, spending less than $200. His message supporting the common man sprinkled with Biblical quotations struck a chord with Nebraska voters.
While serving in Congress, the Panic of 1893 hit. It devastated businesses and farmers alike. In Joplin, lead and zinc prices collapsed, putting miners out of work. Conditions were ripe for a politician who spoke to their needs. Bryan was that man.
He championed the Free Silver movement that favored unlimited coinage of silver to increase the money supply, making it easier for debts to be repaid, but business leaders wanted the dollar tied only to gold. Bryan became famous for a Congressional speech describing free silver as the common man’s defense. As the depression continued, he also advocated more populist ideas such as a graduated income tax, federal insurance of bank deposits, and freedom to form a union and strike.
In 1895, he set his sights on the presidency and at the Democratic convention brought the house down with a rousing speech ending with this challenge to gold-standard supporters: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Delegates roared support, cheering, tossing hats in the air for a full half-hour. He won the nomination the next day.
Bryan’s candidacy caught the imagination of Joplin printers L.C. McCarn, Frank Tew and O.P. Meloy. The Joplin Daily Herald, while a Democratic paper, supported the gold standard. The three decided Joplin needed a paper that wholeheartedly supported Bryan. On Aug. 9, 1896, the first edition of the Joplin Daily Globe hit the streets. “Let all friends of free silver, and all who wish a breezy local newspaper, rally at once to the support of the Joplin Daily Globe.”
Complete election returns arrived on Nov. 7, 1896, which showed William McKinley had defeated Bryan. Yet Bryan continued to champion his causes. The next year he was the featured speaker at the Inter State Chautauqua in Carthage. Despite a torrential thunderstorm midweek, Bryan drew an estimated 20,000 people. It was said that he was promised half the gate on the day he spoke, which was reported to be $4,000. He did not limit himself to politics alone — as a staunch Presbyterian, Biblical topics and temperance were other popular lectures.
In March 1899, Bryan came to Joplin in his campaign for the 1900 Democratic presidential nomination. The Globe devoted three columns on the front page to his visit and printed the entire text, though it took four editions to do so. He lost, but in September 1902, when the Democrats held their state convention at Cox Park at 16th and Main streets in Joplin, Bryan, the national leader of the party, was the featured speaker. The Globe said 20,000 Democrats filled the city to hear him and other party luminaries.
Bryan ran a third time in 1908 but lost to William Howard Taft. Still, he continued to crisscross the country on speaking tours. In 1909, he revisited Carthage’s Chautauqua. But by then the man known as the Great Commoner was losing some luster with locals. When Democrats met in Joplin in September 1910, the News Herald, a Republican paper, noted Bryan had arrived to a little group of partisans with a band “to drum up enthusiasm to the shouting but there was none of the old time fervor to the ‘ovation.’” He stayed at the Connor and drew little attention. The News Herald took glee in reporting comments from fellow diners in the hotel. “‘Looks kinder seedy,’ said one citizen. ‘Gettin’ fatter,’ said another.”
Democratic party political boss Gilbert Barbee’s Joplin Morning Tribune lauded Bryan with superlatives each time he was mentioned in news accounts during that paper’s two year run from 1911-1913, naming him, “Greatest Man in any Party,” “Boy Orator of the Platte,” “Prince among men and Friend of the people.”
Bryan’s last national public appearance was as a special prosecutor in the Scopes trail in July 1925. When he was called to the stand as a Bible expert by Clarence Darrow, Darrow exasperated Bryan with his questions. When Scopes was convicted the next day, Bryan was prevented from giving his prepared response. Five days later he died in his sleep.
Former Congressman Perl Decker spoke at a local memorial service on July 31. Said Decker, “He was rightly called the Great Commoner because it was for the rights of the common people that he waged his battles and it was to their welfare that he devoted his life.”
Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you’d like him to research, send an email to email@example.com or leave a message at 417-627-7261.