Galesburg's Oratory Contest of 1880

When the great Addams and Bryan lost to Jimmie -- who?

by Lynn McKeown

The oratorical contest that took place in Galesburg in October of 1880 was not so unusual in some respects. In an age when public speaking was a highly valued skill, students from nine Illinois colleges had come to town to compete against each other, with the winner to represent the state in a later interstate contest.

It was only in retrospect that this particular contest appears unusual. Among the participants were William Jennings Bryan and Jane Addams, who later became two of the most influential citizens of early 20th Century America. But neither won the contest.

Jane Addams, sitting and William Jennings Bryan, standing, fourth from left, at Knox College.

That is especially surprising in the case of Bryan, who would become one of the great public speakers of his time. Bryan was born and grew up in Salem in south-central Illinois (not to be confused with New Salem). At the time of the contest he was a 20-year-old student at Illinois College in Jacksonville. He would later move to Nebraska, where he was elected to the U.S. Congress.

After his dramatic ''Cross of Gold'' speech gained him fame, Bryan was nominated as Democratic Presidential candidate in 1896 but was defeated by McKinley. He was nominated twice more for the Presidency, in 1900 and 1908, but lost both times. He gained popularity as a champion of the common man but now is perhaps best remembered, somewhat unfortunately, for his part in the Scopes trial as a defender of religious fundamentalism.

Jane Addams had been born at Cedarville, in northern Illinois. At the time of the contest she was a student at Rockford Seminary, which later changed its name to Rockford College. After leaving Rockford, she studied for a time at a medical school and travelled in Europe, then became committed to social work and co-founded the famous Hull House in Chicago, a pioneer agency in providing social services for the poor.

Addams later became involved in the struggle against unfair labor practices, for women's suffrage (which Bryan also favored) and against the many social problems associated with poverty and slums. She was also an advocate for world peace (as was Bryan), and by the time she received the Nobel Peace prize in 1931 she was probably the most prominent woman in public life in America.

Addams' performance at the 1880 Inter-Collegiate Oratorical Contest in Galesburg, however, was not auspicious. She apparently didn't make the cut for the final round held at the Opera House on a Wednesday evening, October 13. (She is not mentioned at all in the newspaper accounts.) The occasion was reported in considerable detail on the front page of the Galesburg Republican Register of October 16th. It must have been a big event, even if no-one knew how famous some of the contestants would later become. 2000 people were in attendance to hear the speechifying, interspersed with several musical interludes. The judges were President Peck of Hedding College in Abingdon, Judge Black of Danville and Rev. Robert Allyn of Carbondale.

Bryan was next to last of the apparent six finalists, who represented the University of Chicago, Monmouth College, Illinois Industrial University (later to become the University of Illinois), Wesleyan University, Illinois College and Knox College. The reporter, after noting that W.S. Bryan of Illinois College spoke on the subject ''Justice,'' continued, ''Mr. Bryan is a fine orator, and although he has not a strong voice, has a clear enunciation, and did his subject such justice that all felt that justice had been done when he was awarded the second prize.'' (Puns were popular in the reportorial style of the time.)

The Knox College speaker was John Y. Ewart, whose oration, ''Utility, the Universal Test,'' was considered ''one of great power and deep thought'' by the reporter, but slightly over-long.

First prize went to James S.E. Erskine of Monmouth College for his oration ''The People in History,'' on the idea that the common people are more important in historic events than famous leaders. (Strangely enough, this idea of the virtue of the common man was an idea later associated with Bryan, candidate of both the Democratic and Populist Parties. Did he get it from Monmouth College's Erskine or, more likely, was it an idea that was in the air at the time?)

First prize was $75 and second prize (the only other prize given) was $50. A picture of the participants shows all posing stiffly and somberly, as usual for the time, several of the men with hand in coat like Napoleon and Civil War generals.

Bryan used his prize money to buy a wedding ring. Later in his career he used his speaking skills to earn much more on the Chautauqua circuit, appearing at least twice (1901 and 1909) in Galesburg. He also was in Galesburg at least twice while campaigning for President.

One biographer of Jane Addams (Gioia Diliberto, A Useful Woman, 1999) says that some Knox College male students ''tried to block'' Addams and other females from participating in the contest, though she doesn't give evidence for the charge except a statement by one of the Knox men, Henry W. Read, who in a letter to Addams in 1917 said they were ''scared...for fear the judges would award you the prize 'just because you were a girl'!''

But the winner of the oratorical contest in Iowa that year was a woman, and a woman from McKendee College had received a first rating from one Illinois judge the previous year. Whether Addams' gender worked against her in this contest is hard to tell. She, herself, felt that her speaking ability at this time was somewhat lacking. There is no mention whatever in local accounts of the contest of any attempt to "block" women from participating.

The Monmouth College Courier (November, 1880) was, understandably, happy about Erskine's triumph but had a negative reaction to a Champaign publication, the Illini, which apparently had commented that both their man, J.A. Allen, and Bryan should have been rated higher.

The Knox Student (October, 1880) published both Erskine's and Ewart's orations and seemed generally happy with the whole event, in spite of their loss, commenting, ''We have met the enemy and -- we are theirs.... On the diamond, however, Knox sustains her reputation, defeating Illinois College and in turn suffering defeat at the hands of the Champaign boys.'' (Baseball seems to have been an accompanying activity to these oratorical contests.)

In an interesting sidelight, the group who administered the contest met to choose the judges for next year, and the name of Robert Ingersol of Peoria was suggested. Ingersol, a highly respected public speaker but controversial for his agnostic views, was narrowly voted down.

Erskine, the winner of the contest went on to compete the following spring in the Interstate Contest at Illinois College in Jacksonville. It was won by a man from Indiana, with second place going to one from Minnesota. William Jennings Bryan gave the welcoming address to the group but, of course, couldn't compete.

James Erskine in later life became a Presbyterian minister in New York State. A Monmouth College publication noted, at the time of his death in 1915, that ''Jimmie'' Erskine was the man who defeated the great William Jennings Bryan in an oratorical contest in Galesburg in 1880.

Much assistance was given in the research for this article by the library staffs of Knox and Monmouth Colleges.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online September 19, 2001

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