In 1908, campaign finance law was in its infancy. The Tillman Act had just passed, banning direct corporate contributions to campaigns. But enforcement was non-existent. William Jennings Bryan, running for president a third unsuccessful time as the Democratic nominee, made donor disclosure a major plank in his populist campaign’s platform.
Thanks to the Library of Congress you can hear Bryan give a speech promising to publish all his contributions over $100 and accept no more than $10,000 from any individual. (Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $2,440 and $244,000 in 2010 dollars, respectively.) He then challenges the Republican Party of retiring President Teddy Roosevelt and nominee William Howard Taft to do the same.
“There is no sound reason for secrecy in regard to campaign methods; and publicity will in itself prove a purifying influence in politics,” he declares. By the end, his oratory boldness comes out: “If there are any who love darkness rather than light, the excuse must be found in holy writ — it is because their deeds are evil.”
An election is a public affair. It is held for the benefit of the public and it is the means through which the people select their officials and give directions as to the policies to be adopted. There is no sound reason for secrecy in regard to campaign methods; and publicity will in itself prove a purifying influence in politics.
The necessity for publicity has increased with the growth of favor-seeking corporations. These combinations of capital have gradually extended their power over the government through contributions to the campaign funds and the officials elected by them have, in return for contributions, sold immunity to offenders. Public opinion has at last compelled a reluctant Congress to prohibit contributions from corporations. But in many cases, individual stockholders in the big corporations have so large a personal interest, that they can afford to subscribe the funds necessary for the purchase of an election.
The recent national convention of the Republican party, by an overwhelming majority, voted down the publicity plank proposed by Senator Lafollete’s friends. But the Republican leaders already see that it was a serious mistake. The Democratic party has declared in its platform not only against receiving contributions from corporations, but against receiving from individuals contributions unreasonably large. And, what it is even more important, our platform declares in favor of the publication, before election, of all contributions above a reasonable minimum.
At the first meeting of the National Democratic Committee, I joined with Mr. Kerr candidate for Vice President, in requesting the committee to interpret and apply this plank to the present campaign. We suggested that $10,000 be fixed as the maximum for individual contributions, and that all individual contributions above $100 be made public before the election. All such contributions made before the 15th of October, to be made public on or before that date, all contributions received after the 15th of October to be made public as received. No contributions to be received within three days of the election, and all expenditures to be made public immediately after the election. The Democratic committee unanimously adopted these suggestions and will apply the doctrine of publicity.
It is to be hoped that the action taken by the Democratic committee will compel the Republican committee to do likewise. For the people ought to know what influences are at work in the campaign, that they may better decide whether either party has so obligated itself to the great corporations as to make it impossible for it to protect the rights of the people.
Let there be light, is the demand of the voters, and more and more emphasis is being placed upon this demand. If there are any who love darkness rather than light, the excuse must be found in holy writ — it is because their deeds are evil.