Woodrow Wilson ’79. From a classmate’s album in that pre-yearbook era.
Princeton University Archives

Arthur S. Link received his A.B. and Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina. In 1960 he returned to Princeton’s History Department, of which he had been a member earlier, as Professor and Director of the projected 40-volume Woodrow Wilson Papers. In 1947 the first volume of his biography of Wilson was published by Princeton University Press, which will soon bring out the fifth volume – Campaigns for Progressivism and Peace, 1916-1917 – from which the below is excerpted. Two other volumes in that series have won Bancroft Prizes. Mr. Link’s sources for this account of the 1916 convention were Official Report of the Proceedings, and on-the-spot coverage of The New York Times.

The Democrats gathered at the huge flag-draped Coliseum in St. Louis at noon on June 14, 1916, for the opening session of their national convention. President Woodrow Wilson, determined that his followers should outdo Republicans in their display of patriotism, had sent personal instructions that “Americanism” should be the keynote of the Democratic conclave. The convention would open by singing verses of “America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” to be followed at other sessions by “The Red, White, and Blue” and other patriotic songs. “Dixie” might be sung in moderation, but not as often as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Loud cheers should follow mention of America and the flag, and the sergeant at arms should bring the convention to its feet at appropriate climaxes.

The delegates sang verses of “America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” without any enthusiasm, stood uncomfortably during a long prayer, and applauded dutifully when William F. McCombs, retiring chairman of the National Committee, made the somewhat obscure observation in his address opening the convention that the Democratic party’s “chief tenet of faith is that America is Americanism, and Americans are American.” Then former New York Governor Glynn began his keynote address. He, too, began by playing upon the patriotic theme. Democrats, he said, stood for “the Americanism of the Fathers…which under the magic spell of citizenship and the mystic influence of the Stars and Stripes converts men of every country into men of one country, and that country our country.” The great audience responded indifferently until Glynn declared that the paramount issue of the campaign was President Wilson’s foreign policy. Delegates thundered applause when Glynn shouted the “self-evident truths” that the United States should stay out of the war, maintain strict neutrality, and defend its neutral rights against every belligerent.

President Wilson returns to the campus of Princeton from which he had graduated in ’79 and whose President he had been from 1902 to 1910.
Princeton University Archives.
Glynn then began a long and matter of fact recital of precedents to prove that neutrality, patience, and refusal to go to war under provocation had places of honor in American annals. When he reached the settlement of the Alabama claims, he indicated that he would pass over the rest of his historical account. “And so goes our history,” he said. “I don’t want to take too much time to enumerate it all, but the - ” The entire convention rose to its feet in protest. There were loud cries of “Go on, go on,” “Hit him again,” “Hit him again,” “Give it to them.” Glynn, thinking that the delegates were merely being kind, responded with a deprecating smile. He suddenly realized as he studied the sea of faces before him that his listeners were passionately eager to hear further proof that all great leaders in American history had been against war, and that neutrality had been the cornerstone of American foreign policy.

“All right,” he said, “I’ll hit them again, and I’ll hit them fair, and I’ll hit them hard.”

“Eat ’em up,” someone shouted.

“Now you want some more of it do you,” Glynn said.

“Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes,” voices replied.

“All right,” Glynn said.

Glynn went on citing precedents, backtracking to Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. Then he came to the Chesapeake affair. He hesitated, wondering how the audience would react to this most humiliating assault on American sovereignty and Jefferson’s refusal to seek redress by appeal to arms. The delegates approved with a great roar. As Glynn cited one case after another in which the United States had refused under provocation to go to war, the throng would chant, “What did we do? What did we do?” And Glynn would shout back, “We didn’t go to war.”

Bryan, who had been defeated for election as a delegate in Nebraska, was sitting in the press box as a correspondent. He wept with emotion. Other Democratic leaders were not so happy. Senator John Walter Smith of Maryland came running to the platform in wild agitation to tell McCombs that something had to be done to stop the stampede. Otherwise, he said, it would appear that Democrats were for peace at any price. McCombs wrote “But we are willing to fight if necessary” on a slip of paper and passed it to Glynn. The speaker nodded and called back, “I’ll take care of that.” But the crowd would not let him stop his paean of peace. He went on:

“This policy does not satisfy those who revel in destruction and find pleasure in despair. It may not satisfy the fire-eater or the swashbuckler. [Laughter and applause.] But it does satisfy those who worship at the altar of the God of Peace. It does satisfy the mothers of the land [applause], for whom [great applause] – But, my friends, this policy does satisfy the mothers of the land, at whose hearth and fireside no jingoistic war has placed an empty chair. It does satisfy the daughters of this land, from whom brag and bluster have sent no husband, no sweetheart and no brother to the mouldering dissolution of the grave. It does satisfy the fathers of this land, and the songs of this land, who will fight for our flag, and die for our flag, when Reason primes the rifle – [Long continued applause.]

“A VOICE: ‘Say it again.’ ‘Repeat it.’ Cries of ‘Repeat it.’ ‘Repeat it.’ ‘Say it again.’ ‘Say it again.’

“MR. GLYNN: All right. Give me a chance. I shall repeat. You want to repeat it. All right. (Repeating): But this policy does satisfy the mothers of the land, at whose hearth and fireside no jingoistic war has placed an empty chair. It does satisfy the mothers of this land, form whom brag and bluster have sent no husband, no sweetheart and no brother to the mouldering dissolution of the grave. It does satisfy the fathers of this land, and the songs of this land, who will fight for our flag, and die for our flag, when Reason primes the rifle – [Great applause.]

“[Cries of ‘Say it again.’]

“MR. GLYNN (Continuing): -- when Reason primes the rifle, when Honor draws the sword, when Justice breathes a blessing on the standards they uphold. [Great applause. Cries of ‘Say it again.’]

“MR. FRANK DAVIS, of Texas: And, Mr. Speaker, don’t forget that this policy also satisfies William Jennings Bryan.”

The delegates were finally exhausted, and Glynn passed on to preparedness and other domestic issues. The storm had passed; the mood of exaltation was gone. Glynn droned on until the end; then he tried to revive enthusiasm with a climactic tribute to Wilson. The weary delegates cheered for one minute; then there was dead silence. Alfred E. Smith of New York read the President’s Flag Day proclamation, and Glynn and others on the platform tried to start a demonstration. They failed, and the convention adjourned.

A dramatic, unexpected event, which occurred soon after the second session was called to order at a few minutes before noon on June 15 revealed that the delegates were entirely and permanently out of control. The convention rose and cheered with obvious affection when Bryan entered the press box. The credentials committee made its long report, and Senator Ollie M. James of Kentucky then began his address as permanent chairman. He was a huge man, with a face like a prize fighter, but his gestures were supple, and his strong voice had the virtuosity of a fine pipe organ. He was also a veteran campaigner who knew how to handle a crowd. Thus he did not begin with his climax, as Glynn had done accidentally, but with a careful review of the Democratic party’s achievements under Woodrow Wilson. The delegates were friendly but restrained, and James knew that they were waiting for the only subject that excited them. He tested reactions by a brief excursion into foreign problems. “There are happily two kinds of courage,” he suddenly roared, “the courage of the man who is willing to undertake the danger himself, and the courage of the man that sends others to the conflict. The courage of the man who wishes himself to enter the conflict may be rash, for he alone is to suffer, but the courage to take a nation into war, where millions of lives may be sacrificed, is another kind of courage. [Applause.] It is a courage that must be able to stand bitter abuse; a courage that moves slowly, acts coolly, and strikes no blow as long as diplomacy may be employed, the honor of the country upheld, the flag respected and the lives of Americans protected. [Applause.]”

The convention roared approval, and James, not yet ready for the climax, changed the subject and talked about Mexico, the shipping bill, and other matters equally unexciting. Suddenly he changed from conversational tone to crescendo as he began to tell about Wilson’s diplomatic triumphs. “Without orphaning a single American child,” he said, “without widowing a single American mother, without firing a single gun, without the shedding of a single drop of blood, he wrung from the most militant spirit that ever brooded above a battlefield an acknowledgement of American rights and an agreement to American demands.” Most delegates did not hear the last part of this sentence, although James bellowed it at the top of his voice, for a sound like the rush of a storm began in the Coliseum before he uttered the word “spirit,” and a crashing wave of sound broke over the platform as he finished the sentence. Then the crowd checked itself, and there were cries of “Repeat it!” “Repeat it!” James was stunned and stood at the podium with mouth open, lips motionless. “Repeat it!” “Repeat it!” they shouted again, and James stepped to the edge of the platform and sent the sentence rolling over the heads of the great audience. The delegates listened in intense silence to every syllable. Then they leaped to their feet, waving hats, fans, and flags, and cheered. The Virginia delegation began a procession through the aisles. They were joined by the delegations from Indiana, Tennessee, Texas, and many other states. The roar and pandemonium were mounting all the time.

The demonstration subsided after twenty-one minutes, and James resumed his tribute. Republicans, he said, accused the President of being “evil and vacillating” because he had not gone to war when Belgium was invaded. Democrats were willing to submit that issue to the American people. “When the last great day shall come,” he went on, building to another climax, “and before the Court of God the nations of this earth shall march in judgment review, the monarchs of the Old World shall have to answer for this awful carnage…, and on that last day I can see our President holding in his hand the accusing picture of Henri Danger, of Christ upon the battlefield, with the dead and dying all about him, with the roar of cannon, the screaming of shrapnel, the wail of the dying, and above his head written these words; ‘And He said unto them, love one another.’ [Applause.] When that day shall come, who is it that would have our President exchange places with the blood-spattered monarchs of the Old World? [Applause.] I can see him with the white light streaming upon his head and hear the Master say, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.’ [Applause.]” Delegates cheered this intended climax lustily, but they were too exhausted to demonstrate for long, and the convention adjourned at 1:28 p.m. in order not to miss the hospitality being offered by the city of St. Louis.

They came back that evening at nine o’clock feeling much enlivened. There were shouts of “Bryan!” “Bryan!” soon after James called the convention to order, and the rules were suspended to permit the Commoner to speak. It was, next to the occasion of his Cross of Gold speech in 1896, the greatest moment in his life. He had been rejected, scorned, and despised since his resignation as Secretary of State. Now he stood before his Democracy, vindicated and rewarded, once more the cornerstone of his party. All doubt, resentment, and bitterness were gone from his capacious heart and mind. He reviewed the reform legislation of the past three years, giving unstinted credit to the leader who had made it possible. He saved his warmest praise for Wilson’s labors for peace. “My friends,” he said, “I have differed with our President on some of the methods employed, but I join with the American people in thanking God that we have a President who does not want this nation plunged into this war.”

James called for nominations for a candidate for the office of President of the United States at 10:14 p.m. Alabama, the first state called, yielded to New Jersey, and Judge Wescott went ponderously to the podium. “Prophecy is fulfilled,” he began, “…The nation is at work. The nation is at peace. The nation is accomplishing the destiny of Democracy.” He went on for thirty minutes apotheosizing the man of peace, not mentioning his name until the grand conclusion: “Therefore, my fellow-countrymen, not I, but his deeds and achievements; not I, but the spirit and purposes of America; not I, but civilization itself, nominates to succeed himself to the Presidency of the United States, to the Presidency of one hundred million free people, bound in impregnable union, the scholar, the statesman, the financier, the emancipator, the pacificator, the moral leader of Democracy, Woodrow Wilson.” The crowd, breaking into its first heart-felt demonstration for the President, marched, sang, and shouted for forty-five minutes. Seconding speeches followed, and Wilson was nominated by acclamation (by a vote of 1092 to 1) at 11:53. Vice President Thomas R. Marshall was nominated by acclamation two minutes later.

Delegates met the next day, June 16, to consider the platform. It had been changed significantly following Glynn’s address, by whom and whether with Wilson’s approval we do not know. To the sentence commending Wilson and Marshall for faithful performance of duties had been added the words: “In particular, we commend to the American people the splendid diplomatic victories of our great President, who has preserved the vital interests of our Government and its citizens, and kept us out of war.” It was the first time that the phrase “He kept us out of war” had been used. It would not be the last. As soon as the platform was read, Martin M. Lomasney of Massachusetts moved adoption of a plank affirming the Democratic party’s “profound sympathy with the aspirations of the people of Ireland for the complete independence of their country.” His resolution was discreetly and quickly referred to the resolutions committee. Then Governor James E. Ferguson of Texas, speaking for a minority of the resolutions committee, moved to strike the plank recommending the cause of woman suffrage to the states. It was defeated by an overwhelming majority, and the convention approved the unamended platform by voice and adjourned sine die a few minutes later.

It was the eve of battle, and it found the Democracy strong and confident and united by passion for peace. Wilson left no record of his immediate reactions to the remarkable events that had produced their unexpected culmination at St. Louis. Would he yield to the tide, perhaps even seize leadership of the pacifistic movement? He gave some indication of intention in the letters that he wrote to Glynn, James, and Wescott on June 22 and June 23, thanking them for their “wonderful” speeches. “The extraordinary and deserved success of your remarkable speech at the convention,” he wrote, for example, to Glynn, “has already received the most unusual acknowledgment from the convention itself and from the Press of the country, but I want to add my word of appreciation and gratitude. It was and I am sure will remain one of the most notable things of a campaign which, before we get through with it, should stir to the very bottom the conscience and thought of the United States.”

This was originally published in the September 21, 1965 issue of PAW.