The presidential election of 1900 was the Republicans’ to lose. Incumbent William McKinley wrapped himself in the mantle of prosperity at home and victory abroad following the Panic of 1893 and the Spanish-American War of 1898, and in Teddy Roosevelt, his running mate, he had a force of nature on his side.
Most of Princeton’s students were firmly in McKinley’s camp. According to The Nassau Herald, Republicans outnumbered Democrats by more than five to one in the Class of 1900, and many belonged to the East Coast establishment against which the Democratic standard-bearer, Nebraskan populist William Jennings Bryan, pitted himself.
As if to affirm its numerical advantage, the University’s Republican Club organized three mass meetings in the fall of 1900. The last, in Alexander Hall, was preceded by a torch-lit parade through the streets of Princeton, accompanied by three marching bands and a “detachment of twenty-five mounted men.”
Not to be outdone, Princeton’s Democratic Club prevailed on its party’s nominee to stop in Princeton Junction en route from Wilmington to Jersey City, despite the prospect of a largely unreceptive audience. It was feared that things would not go well in the wake of Bryan’s unfriendly reception in Ann Arbor and Ithaca, prompting the Daily Princetonian to warn its readers that the visitor deserved “a fair hearing from any audience, no matter how partisan its character.”
But when, on Oct. 25, Bryan alighted from his train and prepared to address some 1,500 students and townspeople, he was greeted with a locomotive cheer, and his 12-minute speech on the danger to American democracy of monopolies and colonies was not once interrupted. Bryan departed to the sound of cheers, telling a group of students who had clambered onto the platform of his railroad car, “Boys, I want to say to you that I have addressed a great many crowds of college boys, but I never had a nicer audience than I addressed here today.”
Bryan would lose New Jersey — and 27 other states — but that day Princeton won his heart.
John S. Weeren is founding director of Princeton Writes and a former assistant University archivist.