OTD in History… July 9, 1896, William Jennings Bryan delivers his Cross of Gold speech at the Democratic National Convention
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history, July 9, 1896, William Jennings Bryan delivers his stirring Cross of Gold speech at the Democratic National Convention supporting bimetallism, which capitulated him to the Democratic Presidential nomination. Bryan’s was a leader in the free silver movement revered by the Populists and free silver Democrats, with his oratory skills he delivered one of the greatest speeches in American history at the convention as he advocated for free silver to be part of the Democratic platform. Bryan preached, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Until Bryan delivered his speech, he was not considered the frontrunner, but a dark horse for the nomination. Bryan won the nomination but lost the election to Republican William McKinley and the Battle of Standards. Bryan was ahead of his time, introducing widespread stumping to presidential campaigning with his rousing oratory, the Democratic Party would go back to Bryan as their nominee in 1900, and in 1908.
The Battle of the Standards, the gold standard or bimetallism using both silver and gold backing the currency was the major issue of 1896 campaign. After the Panic of 1893, the depression hit which bankrupted thousands of businesses and hundreds of banks. Republicans supported the Gold Standard while Democrats mostly supported the “coinage of silver.” Eastern Republicans supported high tariffs and protectionism as the primary way back to an economic recovery. While Agrarian populists in the South and West believed increasing the money in circulation would solve the country’s economic woes. Bryan was elected to Congress in Nebraska in 1890 as part of the Populist Party wave. Bryan’s oratory led him to become the leader of the Silver Democrats in Congress and convinced Nebraska Democrats to support the Populist Party in the 1894 midterm elections.
The Battle of standards became the primary issue of the 1896 presidential campaign. The battle also splintered the Democratic and Republican Parties, both of whom walked out of their respective conventions to form other parties. Silver Republicans formed the National Silver Party, and Gold Democrats formed under the National Democratic banner. At the Republican National Convention on June 16, in St. Louis, Missouri, the party declared in their platform “the existing gold standard must be preserved.” The Republicans nominated McKinley, a “Goldbug” convert, who staunchly supported the gold standard and called himself a “Tariff man.”
At the Democratic National Convention from July 7 to 11, in Chicago, Illinois, Bryan served as a delegate was determined that a silver plank is included in the party’s platform. Bryan delivered the electrifying “Cross of Gold” speech as part the debate, which is considered the most memorable address at a political convention.
Bryan rousing conclusion is remembered most:
“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 . . . ! 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. 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 delegates could not stop cheering for an hour after Bryan’s speech and raising impromptu banners that read, “NO CROWN OF THORNS! NO CROSS OF GOLD!” The speech helped Bryan secure the nomination, and he was nominated on the fifth ballot, becoming at 36-years-old the youngest Presidential nominee in American history. Bryan refused to choose a Vice Presidential running mate, and let the delegates make the decision. Sixteen candidates vied for the position on the first ballot, eventually, Arthur Sewell of Maine won the Vice Presidential nomination the fifth ballot. The Populist Party decided to support Bryan’s nomination, endorsed the Democratic ticket, and fused with the Democratic Party.
Bryan took to the stump replicating his oratory skills, according to Paul F. Boller in his book Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush, “Before the campaign was over Bryan had traveled 18,000 miles by train, made more than 600 speeches (sometimes ten or twenty a day), addressed five million people.” (Boller, 170) Bryan’s speeches resembled his Cross of Gold, with their “religious imagery and evangelical fervor.” Republicans backed by banks and industry took Bryan’s supposed lack of dignity in campaigning and attacked him personally and threatened farmers and workers of foreclosures and closed plants. McKinley with Mark Hanna’s direction mounted a vigorous front-porch campaign, where he delivered short speeches, while emissaries did the stumping.
Bryan’s Democrats surged in August only to fall by October with an economic rebound. A record number, 14 million Americans went out to the polls on November 5, giving 7,111,607 or 50.88 percent of the vote to McKinley and to 6,509,052 or 46.77 percent to Bryan, the difference in electoral votes was more glaring and decisive 271 to 176. There were geographical and economic differences in voter support. The Republicans garnered the “industrial North and Middle West as well as several states in the Far West,” “urban middle and upper middle classes,” and “urban laborers and the most prosperous farmers.” Bryan had the support of the “Solid South and the Plains and Mountain states,” “mostly poverty-stricken farmers” but also progressive minded reformers. (Boller, 170) McKinley would declare gold the monetary standard in 1900 but Bryan won with his new progressive vision of the Democratic Party using government to help the people, a vision that remains central to the Democrats’ core philosophy.
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Boller, Paul F. Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004.
Glad, Paul W. Mckinley, Bryan, and the People. Chicago: I.R. Dee, Publisher, 1991.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.