Blogs > Liberty and Power > ANTI-IMPERIALIST DILEMMAS, 1900 AND 2004

Dec 27, 2003 12:22 pm


Sam Koritz points out that nineteenth century classical liberals, like modern antiwar libertarians and conservatives, had intense debates about the comparative advantages of third party and major party strategies. This was certainly true in the 1900 when anti-imperialist gold democrats pondered whether to support William Jennings Bryan over McKinley.

Because of their hatred of Bryan’s views in 1896, many had bolted to the National Democrats, some had stayed home, and some had supported McKinley. Now, they were faced with an every greater dilemma. Their old nemesis, Bryan, had endorsed anti-imperialism but refused to tone his inflationist support for free silver, thus directly attacking the gold standard they had long championed. What would they do?

The gold democrats split into four camps. As Koritz notes, many held their noses and voted for Bryan. Others stayed home. A few backed McKinley because of his continuing defense of the gold standard. Some, including Oswald Garrison Villard, Senator Carl Schurz, and Moorfield Storey, made plans for a third ticket.

Villard even made a personal visit to Grover Cleveland to try to persuade him to run as a third party candidate in 1900, possibly under the National Democratic banner. Cleveland, believing that the voters had no interest in what he had to say anymore, politely turned down the offer. But Villard, Storey, and their allies were not quite ready to give up yet. They organized the National Party to run Senator Donelson Caffery, a pro-gold/anti-imperialist Democrat from Louisiana. The campaign collapsed, however, when Caffery (without explanation) pulled out of the race. McKinley went on to defeat Bryan yet again and a new classical liberal/anti-imperialist party was stillborn.

Koritz properly cites the parallels to 2004…but the differences are also significant. Many classical liberals had at least one good reason to vote for McKinley. For all his faults, he had upheld the gold standard. In 2004, by contrast, Bush does not offer any similar temptation. Because of his unrelenting big-government approach, most recently with the Medicare bill, he has not only abandoned free market conservatives and libertarians in domestic policy but thumbed his nose at them. Does this mean that libertarians and anti-war conservatives should consider voting for Dean much like their ideological ancestors who backed Bryan? I do not think so….but will save that for a later blog.

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