Jeremy C. Young is an Assistant Professor of History at Dixie State University and the author of The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2017). This essay first appeared as a paper delivered at the Society for U.S. Intellectual History Conference on October 27, 2017.
“Why do I vote for you?” Fred Clerihew asked. It was a good question. The Jersey City resident was writing to Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan on October 30, 1896, pledging his vote to the young Nebraskan – but it was far from clear why he had chosen to support Bryan over Republican William McKinley. Bryan was famous for his eloquence, but Clerihew had never heard him speak. “I…have read all you had to say to the public,” Clerihew continued, but the text of Bryan’s speeches and writings hadn’t been convincing, either. “[I] considered you no better than the average office seeker,” he declared. Besides, Clerihew explained, “Inasmuch as I have always been a Republican I had no use for you.” So why did Clerihew, underwhelmed by Bryan’s speeches, writings, and entire political platform, support the Democrat anyway? Because of a chance encounter with Bryan on a riverboat during the campaign. “I carefully studied your face,” Clerihew explained, “and then decided for myself that you were sincere in your declarations and meant every word you said.” After examining Bryan’s visage, Clerihew was convinced the Nebraskan would make an “honest simple loving President…willing to sacrifice all for the right.” “As ‘Men’ trusted Christ in his utterances,” Clerihew concluded, “so I trust you with my ballot.”
What’s interesting about Fred Clerihew’s letter is that it illustrates something all of us already know: many voters, both in the Gilded Age and today, choose candidates for reasons that appear random, strange, or irrational to the scholars who study voting patterns. Here are two more letters that illustrate the same point. “Yesterday the 26th,” Jamestown, New York resident Laura Weeks wrote to Bryan, “Our doorbell rang terably [sic] I admitted a lady neighbor who is of as much account as the common run of people, in the church and daily walk of life.” The neighbor issued a startling proclamation: ““Bryan is going to be elected. As sure as I am living Bryan is going [to be elected] I know it.” “What is the matter of you?” asked Weeks. “I thought you had got to be a Republican.” “I’ll tell you,” responded the neighbor. “I had a dream last night. I always dream so it happens. I thought Frank [the neighbor’s husband]…came home and tossed down such a heap of Silver enough for every body. … I know there is going to be free Silver Bryan is going to be elected I know it.” Four days later, S. B. Morris, a forty-five-year-old traveling salesman from Homer, New York, wrote to Bryan describing a very different experience. “I have always cast my ballot for the Republican nominee for president,” Morris explained. “Up to August 2d I was for McKinley. But on the night of August 2d while in my room in the city of Schenectady N.Y. a convicting Power fell on and I was brought to believe that you were advocating a Righteous cause. … So from that night (Aug 2) until now I have done all I could to help your election.”
Historians have long recognized that Americans of the late 1800s began to engage in the public sphere in new and surprising ways. Voter turnout was the highest in American history, new parties and movements appeared, and Americans became newly invested in politics and public life. But if we take these three letters seriously – and I think we should – they complicate the notion that politicians’ intentional deployment of political narratives was responsible for this enrichment of the Gilded Age public sphere. Indeed, it would be a stretch to argue that any of these people were responding to any sort of narrative Bryan had put forward during his campaign. Fred Clerihew was dismissive of the candidate’s speeches and platform; S. B. Morris didn’t even consider them. Laura Weeks’ neighbor at least mentioned the Nebraskan’s signature campaign issue of free silver, but her dream of the candidate handing out bags of cash had little to do with the actual policies Bryan was promoting. Instead, these voters were won over by emotional considerations that seem, at first glance, beyond the control of any politician: an honest face, a fanciful dream, a “convicting Power.” The fervor of these letters demonstrates that their authors had forged a deep and substantial commitment to Bryan – but when they tried to explain why, their reasons seemed to evaporate into thin air.
As scholars, we tend to assume that voters make choices based on the things we ourselves care about: issues, policies, ideas. Voters such as Clerihew, Weeks, and Morris, swayed by ineffable experiences they cannot easily put into words, are largely invisible to us. Few scholarly interpretations of Gilded Age politics take such people seriously. Yet anyone who has looked through the papers of Gilded Age political figures knows that letters of this type are surprisingly common. It’s true that many correspondents penned treatises debating the finer points of silver coinage, tariff reduction, or civil service reform. Many more, however, wrote to politicians such as Bryan, Eugene Debs, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson using strikingly sacralized language devoid of any obvious political content. They described Bryan and others as “Messiahs” and compared them with Moses or Jesus Christ. They recounted specific details of their direct encounters with political candidates, giving permanence to their transient memories: the feel of a handshake, their exact location in a receiving line. They presented themselves as radically transformed by such encounters – “different,” “changed,” “shook up,” with “new” or “awakened hearts” filled with “joy and love.” This religious language of followership appeared with remarkable consistency through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it suggests something unique about the relationship between Gilded Age politicians and their followers. Bryan and his colleagues were clearly conveying something new and meaningful to voters, but if it wasn’t a political platform or a coherent narrative, then what exactly was it?
To answer this question, let me suggest that we try thinking less about what politicians such as Bryan were saying and more about how they were saying it. It turns out that many late nineteenth-century leaders, including Bryan, had undergone a unique elocutionary training regimen that enabled them to connect with voters in a way unheard of before the Civil War. James Rush, a medical doctor and the son of Benjamin Rush, had developed this elocutionary model in his 1827 treatise The Philosophy of the Human Voice. Working alone in his study over a period of several years, Rush developed a system of vocal techniques that would, he argued, enable a speaker in any language to trigger emotional responses in their audiences essentially at will. The speaking style Rush promoted contained several key features: an expanded pitch range, with higher highs and lower lows than in normal conversational speech; a poetic, singsong quality; and something Rush called the “orotund voice,” which involved expanding the vocal cavity in the manner of an opera singer to create a round, rich tone. Notwithstanding the dubious nature of Rush’s scientific claims, his style, paired with a similarly doctrinaire English gestural system, came to dominate elocutionary instruction throughout the nineteenth century. Orators such as Wendell Phillips, Henry Ward Beecher, Billy Sunday, and Bryan himself studied some version of the Rush system in college and used it to great effect later in their careers.
Though Rush’s style was decades old by the time most of its practitioners achieved prominence, its effect on listeners was profound. “It was a new kind of oratory,” remarked one awestruck audience member after hearing Henry Ward Beecher speak; “it was the speech of the soul finding by unerring instinct its way to the deepest springs of life and thought in his hearers.” With few exceptions, the politicians who received letters comparing them with Moses and Jesus were Rush students or Rush imitators, while those who eschewed the style received no such missives. Most of the mass political movements of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era were helmed by Rush practitioners, including such figures as Frances Willard and Booker T. Washington. This really is an extraordinary thing. Gilded Age politics was the site of a titanic conflict between farmers and businessmen over the future of industrial capitalism; important substantive issues, such as the inelasticity of American currency and the neverending battle over the tariff, hung in the balance. Yet many Americans, living in a world suffused with political substance, seem nevertheless to have determined their political allegiances based on political style. Their growing interest in politics had less to do with the issues at hand than with the fact that national politicians were interacting with them on an emotional level for the first time in American history.
Moreover, somewhere along the way, nearly everyone seems to have lost track of what was happening. Bryan was dismissive of the role his oratorical education played in his later political success, noting only that “I received the usual training in public speaking” from an elocutionist at Illinois College “and I presume that his instructions were beneficial to me.” A series of photographs taken in 1908 showing Bryan utilizing the gestures taught in the Rush system, right down to the exact placement of his feet, demonstrates what an understatement this was. Nevertheless, cultural commentators, too, misunderstood the origins of the Rush style, erroneously attributing it to some innate “personal magnetism” on the part of the speakers. As late as the 1960s, schoolteachers urged their pupils to memorize Bryan’s ponderous “Cross of Gold” speech, unaware that it owed much of its magnetic effect to the long-forgotten gestures and elocutionary techniques with which “the Boy Orator of the Platte” had brought it to life. As for Gilded Age voters, their letters betray no suspicion that they were listening to a form of carefully cultivated artifice; they believed, as Fred Clerihew put it, that magnetic orators were merely “honest simple loving” figures “willing to sacrifice all for the right.”
What did voters such as Clerihew, S. B. Morris, and Laura Weeks’ imaginative neighbor get from of their emotional connections to politicians? Here we must contend with a common interpretation of the period that would answer: not very much. From a Gramscian or Marxian perspective, very little changed for the better in the Gilded Age; politics remained in the hands of industrialists, farmers and workers failed to unite to overthrow the bourgeoisie, and the hegemonic culture successfully absorbed the challenges it faced from outsider movements such as Populism and Progressivism. However, just as I disagree with the notion that Gilded Age voters were conscious consumers of political narrative or intentional promoters of ideology and policy, I reject the idea that their lack of interest in such topics kept them from influencing political outcomes. On the contrary, despite such voters’ relative apathy toward the issues of the day, their actions shaped American politics in profound ways. By flocking to leaders with whom they connected emotionally, they altered the outcome of elections whose policy consequences they may not have fully grasped. Put another way, we may be inclined to laugh at the foolishness of people such as Clerihew, Morris, and the neighbor of Laura Weeks, but their visions and dreams lent Bryan crucial support of a type which did not accrue to William McKinley – and which helped to offset McKinley’s enormous financial and organizational advantage.
At this point, I should acknowledge that my solution to the problem of the Gilded Age public sphere is deeply unsatisfying. An elocutionary system invented in 1827, I argue, shaped the speaking style of Gilded Age politicians without them realizing it. This new style, in turn, stimulated powerful emotional responses from voters and caused them to line up behind reformist politicians suddenly made powerful by their support. Everyone in my narrative of the Gilded Age was doing something influential, but no one meant to. Moments of clarity, such as an 1886 speech in which Henry Ward Beecher advocates universal elocutionary training as an enhancement to democracy, are vanishingly rare; for the most part, everyone seems to have been blundering about aimlessly, shaping the direction of history without fully realizing what they were doing. Agency, I seem to suggest, is decoupled from intention. William Jennings Bryan came within a hair’s breadth of the presidency because a man from Jersey City quite literally liked the cut of his jib.
I believe, however, that this is how history works more often than we care to admit. As intellectual and political historians, we want to believe in we can trace the lineage of ideas and narratives from person to person, from inspiration through implementation. But humans are only inconsistently rational animals; lacking a panoramic context for their lives and experiences, they often make decisions based on vague feelings they cannot quite explain. Acting collectively, people wield agency without intention; they change society without fully understanding how or why. The power of unintentional acts is a key both to history’s complexities and to its apparent randomness. To truly chart the relationship between historical cause and effect, we must try to understand how ordinary people’s experience of the world shapes their actions within it – and how a face on a riverboat, a vision in a hotel room, and a dream in the night could, through some strange alchemy of meaning, help to conjure up a political movement that shook the foundations of the Gilded Age.
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