The Patronage Battle Between Bryan and Hitchcock

Soon after William Jennings Bryan ‘s arrival in Nebraska from Illinois in the fall of 1887, his attacks upon the purveyors of patronage and the pampered monopolies and his defense of the common man won him the support of Gilbert M. Hitchcock of the Omaha World-Herald, who had been favoring the Independents (Populists). Hitchcock became a close personal friend of the Bryan family, predicted a remarkable career for Bryan and sincerely congratulated him when he became the second Democratic congressman chosen in the rock-ribbed Republican state. From 1894 to 1896, while Bryan was an editor of the World-Herald, his friendship with Hitchcock flourished, and Hitchcock gave him unstinted support in the campaign of 1896 even though he opposed free silver. By 1899, however, a decade of friendship began to wither because of Bryan ‘s opposition to Hitchcock’s desire to become a United States senator.

When Monroe Leland Hayward , Nebraska ‘s junior senator, died on December 5, 1899, the appointment of his successor fell to the Populist governor, William A. Poynter, who asked Bryan’s advice. Bryan said that “good faith” required the appointment of ex-Senator William V. Allen, Populist, and that the two other leading aspirants, Hitchcock and William H. Thompson, both Democrats, would be rewarded “if we win the presidential contest.” Hitchcock, who had been defeated as a Democratic-Populist fusionist candidate for Congress in 1898, became incensed and wired Bryan that ” If you insist on sacrificing me we part company forever.” He felt that Bryan’s saying that “good faith demands the appointment of Allen” branded him as unfaithful and nullified his influence for the future, and the “sting of ingratitude” letter he published upon the appointment of Allen marked a break in his friendship with Bryan which did not heal. Soon he was leading one Nebraska Democratic faction and Bryan another.

A situation similar to that of 1899 developed in 1900 when both Bryan and Allen strenuously fended off Republican redemption of the state. Republicans circulated the rumor that since Bryan’s chances of winning the Presidency were poor he would hedge by saving Nebraska in order to get himself elected to the Senate. The rumor jarred Hitchcock, who demanded that Bryan declare publicly that he would not accept the senatorship “under any circumstances.” Bryan obliged by stating that he would not even if defeated for the Presidency accept a senatorship ” under any circumstances.” Thereupon Hitchcock promised Bryan full support for the rest of the campaign.

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William Jennings Bryan (right front) with Woodrow Wilson and the Wilson Cabinet.

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