William Jennings Bryan and the Cross of Gold


William Jennings Bryan -
Source: Wikipedia


William Jennings Bryan was an American politician who ran—and lost—three times as the Democratic candidate for President of the United States in 1896, 1900, and 1908. He also was a Representative from Nebraska, served as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson from 1913-15, and represented the World Christian Fundamentals Association in the 1925 Scopes Trial. One of the leaders of the Free Silver Movement in the 1890s, Bryan campaigned on this issue in the 1896 presidential election, where at the National Democratic Convention in Chicago he delivered his "Cross of Gold" speech.

Since the enactment of the Coinage Act of 1873, when the United States resumed the gold standard following the Civil War, Americans were bitterly divided over the nation’s monetary standard. Although adopting the gold standard eased trade with other nations already on the gold standard, some Americans, known as the Silverites, believed that a bi-metallic standard was necessary for the nation’s economic health. In response to this political pressure, the United States passed the Bland-Allison Act in 1877 and the Sherman Silver Purchasing Act in 1890 which reintroduced silver to back U.S. currency. The economic Panic of 1893 intensified these debates as the United States entered into an economic depression.

The debate about the gold standard dominated both parties during the 1896 conventions, but only the Democrats supported a bi-metallic monetary standard in their formal platform. Having lost control of both the House and the Senate in the 1894 congressional elections, the Democratic Party was fragmented and disoriented, allowing pro-silver forces to take over their political machinery. By 1896 there were several leading pro-silver candidates for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, such as former Senator William B. Allison, promoter of the Bland-Allison Act; Horace Boies, former governor of Iowa; Vice President Adlai Stevenson of Illinois; Senator Joseph C. Blackburn of Kentucky; Senator Henry M. Teller of Colorado; and William Jennings Bryan.

Bryan believed that his support of silver would not only unite disaffected Democratics but also lead him to win the nomination and ultimately win the presidency itself. His strategy was to remain inconspicuous until the last possible moment. Although Bryan had sent letters to delegates, urging them to support silver with copies of his photograph and speeches, Bryan did not declare his intention of vying for the nomination before the convention started. Selected to close the debate on the Party’s platform in support of silver, Bryan delivered the speech that would make him famous.

Until that point, those who defended silver were ineffective against their pro-gold counterparts. Although silver-supporting delegates controlled the outcome of the platform, they needed someone to explain to them and to their gold opponents why silver should be adopted as part of the Party’s platform. Although Bryan did not say anything new from his previous political speeches, he was able to articulate the feelings of Americans from the South and West who believed that the gold standard had harmed their financial interests and cultural values. Bryan and others thought that under a bimetallic system, the economic ills that afflicted farmers, miners, and industrial workers could be alleviated.

In “defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty – the cause of humanity,” Bryan opened his speech about the history of the silver movement and defended it against its critics. Addressing gold-supporting delegates, Bryan pointed out that the gold standard only helped a narrow class of people, specifically the financial interests of the East Coast:

We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, who begins in spring and toils all summer, and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak of this broader class of business men.

Ah, my friends, we say not one word against those who live upon the Atlantic coast, but the hardy pioneers who have braved all the dangers of the wilderness, who have made the desert to blossom as the rose, the pioneers away out there who rear their children near to Nature's heart where they can mingle their voices with the voices of the birds, out there where they have erected school houses for the education of their young, churches where they praise their Creator, and cemeteries where rest the ashes of their dead, these people, we say, are as deserving of the consideration of our party as any people in this country.

With this contrast between the common man and the urban elite, Bryan revealed his sympathies with the hardworking, ordinary American against the financial speculator who was cast as a gambler. In defense of the common man, Bryan rejected any compromise with those delegates who supported the gold standard:

It is for these that we speak. We do not come as aggressors. Our war is not a war of conquest; we are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned; we have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded; we have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them.

That is the question which the party must answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic party. There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.

You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.

After attacking the Democratic delegates who supported gold, Bryan pivoted his criticism to the Republican Party and contrasted their platform with the Democrats’ document:

And now, my friends, let me come to the paramount issue. If they ask us why it is that we say more on the money question than we say upon the tariff question, I reply that, if protection has slain its thousands, the gold standard has slain its tens of thousands. If they ask us why we do not embody in our platform all the things that we believe in, we reply that when we have restored the money of the constitution all other necessary reforms will be possible; but that until this is done there is no other reform that can be accomplished.

Why is it that within three months such a change has come over the country? Three months ago, when it was confidently asserted that those who believe in the gold standard would frame our platform and nominate our candidates, even the advocates of the gold standard did not think that we could elect a president. And they had good reason for their doubt, because there is scarcely a state here to-day asking for the gold standard which is not in the absolute control of the republican party. But note the change Mr. McKinley was nominated at St. Louis upon a platform which declared for the maintenance of the gold standard until it can be changed into bimetallism by international agreement.

Mr. McKinley was the most popular man among the republicans, and three months ago everybody in the republican party prophesied his election. How is to-day? Why, the man who was once pleased to think that he looked like Napoleon -- that man shudders to-day when he remembers that he was nominated on the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. Not only that, but, as the listens, he can hear with ever-increasing distinctness the sound of the waves as they beat upon the lonely shores of St. Helena.

Why this change? Ah, my friends, is not the reason for the change evident to any one who will look at the matter? No private character, however pure, no personal popularity, however great, can protect from the avenging wrath of an indignant people a man who will declare that he is in favor of fastening the gold standard upon this country or who is willing to surrender the right of self government and place the legislative control of our affairs in the hands of foreign potentates and powers.

We go forth confident that we shall win. Why? Because upon the paramount issue of this campaign there is not a spot of ground upon which the enemy will dare to challenge battle. If they tell us that the gold standard is a good thing, we shall point to their platform and tell them that their platform pledges the party to get rid of the gold standard and substitute bimetallism. If the gold standard is a good thing, why try to get rid of it?

Reaching back to 1776, Bryan compared the current national debate about the gold standard with the American Revolution:

It is the issue of 1776 over again. Our ancestors, when but three millions in number, had the courage to declare their political independence of every other nation; shall we, their descendants, when we have grown to seventy millions, declare that we are less independent than our forefathers? No, my friends, that will never be the verdict of our people. Therefore, we care not upon what lines the battle is fought. If they say bimetallism is good, but that we cannot have it until other nations help us, we reply that, instead of having a gold standard because England has, we will restore bimetallism, and then let England have bimetallism because the United States has it. If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost.”

In his conclusion, Bryan evoked the crucifixion of Jesus. With his arms extended, straightened to his sides, and holding this pose for about five seconds, he offered himself as a sacrifice for the cause of silver:

Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: ‘You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.’

The reaction to the speech was a moment of silence followed by pandemonium with delegates raising Bryan to their shoulders and carrying him around the floor. Although he was not nominated that day, Bryan won the Democratic presidential nomination the following day on the fifth ballot on the strength of the “Cross of Gold” speech. However, none of the pro-gold delegates voted for Bryan. Even with support from the Populist Party and Silver Republicans, the defections of the Democratic gold-supporting delegates divided and weakened the Democratic Party for the general election contest between Bryan and McKinley.

Bryan campaigned on silver, winning the South and the West, but McKinley’s victories in the Northeast and Midwest carried him to the presidency. Besides being outspent, Bryan was unable to secure a majority of the labor vote; German-Americans, specifically, were suspicious of a bi-metallic currency. After McKinley’s inauguration, there were new discoveries of gold that led to an increase in the money supply and the passage of the 1900 Gold Standard Act that officially returned the United States to the gold standard.

Despite his defeat, Bryan’s speech is considered one of the most famous political addresses in American history. Uncompromising in his beliefs and appealing to laborers, miners, and farmers, Bryan’s speech would solidify these voters in the Democratic Party and inspire subsequent politicians—including Huey Long, whose “Every Man a King” speech which was modeled after Bryan’s, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt whose New Deal program advocated government welfare for the masses. Although the adoption of the silver plank in the Democratic platform was an unrealistic monetary program—the expectation that people simply could will silver and gold to be traded in the financial markets at a ratio of sixteen to one—it provided a golden opportunity for Bryan to become the nominee for his party in the 1896 presidential campaign.

Next Week: McKinley

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