06 March 2008

I feel like I've seen this before

I'm reading Ray Ginger's 1949 biography of Eugene V. Debs, The Bending Cross, which got a reissue from Haymarket Books last year, and you never know quite who you'll bump into at the turn of the 20th century.

Here's Ginger describing a scene at the 1896 Democratic convention. Debs and Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld were trying to upend the party from the pro-corporate Grover Cleveland era, but were upended by an upstart congressman from Nebraska.

Although Altgeld had dictated the platform, he was unable to dictate the Presidential candidate. Ineligible because of his foreign birth, Altgeld tried to win the nomination for Senator Richard Bland of Missouri, a lifelong advocate of silver coinage. But a young, ex-Congressman from Nebraska, William Jennings Bryan, with a rich, beautiful voice and a true orator's stance, upset the plan. Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech voiced in unforgettable prose the inchoate thoughts of the delegates. When Bryan finished, the revolting workers and farmers went crazy with enthusiasm. They marched in snake dances about the hall, through their hats high in the air, pummeled each other and screamed "Bryan, Bryan, Cross of Gold!" The Boy Orator of the Platte had just won a chance at the nation's top office. And John Peter Altgeld, realizing that he had lost, turned "his weary face and quizzical smile" to Clarance Darrow and said: "It takes more than speeches to win real victories. Applause lasts a little while. The road to justice is not a path of glory; it is stony and long and lonely, filled with pain and martyrdom. I have been thinking over Bryan's speech. What did he say, anyhow?"
This would not be the last time Bryan and Darrow would be seen together, of course, they are unfortunately more famous to modern audiences as the legal combatants in the Scopes trial. During this tine, though, Darrow was a key labor lawyer who had defended Debs and other leaders of the American Railway Union in the aftermath of the Pullman strike.