The Rise Of An American Statesman: William Jennings Bryan and his Cross of Gold
by Richard Ravarino
This is part two, of a three part series
William Jennings Bryan was but a boy in 1873 when the “Crime Of 1873” took place, but despite years of growth in the post civil war United States, it was a period of stagnation for the average middle class family. While there was no abject poverty in Bryan’s life, he definitely understood the plight of the American farmer and the middle class merchant, growing up in very middle class Salem, Illinois.
Mr. Bryan attended Illinois College and law school at Union College (later to be named Northwestern University) and graduated valedictorian of the former in 1881, and the latter in 1883. After only five years of law practice Mr. Bryan became interested in a life in politics, after meeting life-long friend James Dahlman, in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he moved after graduation.
Dahlman (the Chairman of the Democratic Party, in Lincoln) helped propel Mr. Bryan to the first ever Democratic win in the state of Nebraska. A landslide victory propelled by both Mr. Bryan’s prohibitionist views (he was a devout Presbyterian) and of course, his support of a return to bi-metallism and free silver.
Mr. Bryan was considered the first “celebrity politician” of the 20th century, better known for his personality and communications skills than his political views. His detractors criticisms range from his never having taken a hard stance on white supremacy (hardly a mystery as he later became Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President), his hardline stance against early attempts at social security and although decidedly liberal for his age, he was not a fan of early 20th century progressivism.
He also left a muddled record on U.S. foreign policy, at first being an outspoken supporter of the Spanish-American war, but later standing with Andrew Carnegie against the annexation of The Philippines. Republicans mocked Mr. Bryan as indecisive and Harper’s Weekly magazine lampooned Mr. Bryan as L. Frank Baum’s “Cowardly Lion” from the Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, (which we will come back to tomorrow).
A number of prominent personalities, however, have also defended Mr. Bryan and his legacy, including President Harry S. Truman. Truman, who declared he and his father were “Bryan men from the beginning”. Mr. Bryan remained an idol for Harry, “As the voice of the common man”. Cleveland Mayor Tom L. Johnson referred to Mr. Bryan’s 1896 campaign “the first great struggle of the masses in our country, against the privileged classes”.
In a 1934 speech, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said “I think that we would choose the word ‘sincerity’ as fitting him [Bryan] most of all…it was that sincerity that served him so well in his life-long fight against sham and privilege and wrong. It was that sincerity which made him a force for good in his own generation and kept alive many of the ancient faiths on which we are building today. We…can well agree that he fought the good fight; that he finished the course; and that he kept the faith.”
It was no mistake that Mr. Bryan became the champion of the people, not only winning over lifelong Republicans in his home state of Nebraska, but despite his firm adherence to the Democratic party, he was also the favorite of the “Bourbon” Republicans (a prohibitionist conservative group) and the “Silver Republicans”, but most importantly (or infamously) the Populist movement.
Populism was the third party movement of the generation. It was party of the every man, as it was the party of the movement to restore ‘bi-metallism”. It was the middle and lower classes that were decimated by “The Crime Of 1873” and as the populist organization grew, Mr. Bryan became the best chance they had ever had to accomplish their political desires.
Mr. Bryan became the scourge of the Republican party, picking up widespread support of the middle classes, factory and railway workers, farmers and even the German and Italian minority vote. The Republicans derided him as a populist stooge, who was making a mockery of the “once great Democratic opposition”, but the name calling would do them no good as Mr. Bryan’s “Free Silver” democrats roared towards the 1896 Democratic convention.
The Cross Of Gold Speech
As the 1896 Democratic Convention convened, Mr. Bryan was deemed the under-dog, despite his popular support in the Midwest, big city Democrat Grover Cleveland was expected to get the nomination with support of the “Gold” Democrats and the “Bourbon” Democrats, Bryan was seen as a longshot.
That is, until he gave the most famous speech of his oratory career.
As William Jennings Bryan rose to give his speech, the pump was more than primed as former Massachusetts governor William D. Russell had just spoke of staying the course with President Grover Cleveland and he defended the gold position, but he swayed few delegates as this was the moment that the “free silver” movement had waited for for a generation.
Mr. Bryan began softly, “I would be presumptuous, indeed, to present myself against the distinguished gentlemen to whom you have listened, if this were a mere measuring of abilities; but this is not a contest between persons. The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error. I come to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty—the cause of humanity.”
Mr. Bryan recounted the history of the silver movement, the audience which had loudly greeted Bryan with approval at his opening remarks, soon quieted, they were eating from the palm of his hand as he concluded his historical statements, he reminded the silver delegates that he had come to crown their victory, “not to discuss, not to debate, but to enter up the judgment already rendered “by the plain people of this country”. The audience cheered as if on cue.
Mr. Bryan continued with an passage evoking images of The Civil War, telling the audience that, “in this contest brother has been arrayed against brother, father against son”. He spoke in a sincere tone and with no predjudice against gold standard supporters, listening intently; but giving them no harbor either as he incited the “free silver” crowd against them.
“We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application”, Bryan continued.
“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!”
With this the crowd erupted. One man was noted to have snapped his hat up into the air at these remarks and grabbed the chair in front of him, clutching it to his chest, smiling ear to ear, shouting “My God! My God! My God!”
As Mr. Bryan continued, having established the Silver supporters right to petition, he explained why that petition was not to be denied, stating emphatically now, “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!”
In this call to action he abandoned any sense of compromise, revealing finally there was no common ground between the silver and gold forces. He descended into more historical rhetoric about Napoleon, noting that this nomination was occurring on the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, but his diatribe was a loosely veiled comparison to Republican challenger William McKinley and the gold standard delegation:
“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.”
Once again, this statement drew a huge cheer from the masses of the convention as Bryan turned rhetorical, to demolish the compromised position of the criminals of 1873 and the destruction of “bi-metallism”.
Mr. Bryan stated firmly, “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.”
Mr. Bryan sighed and hung his head momentarily, while he waited one final time for the crowd to quiet and then he delivered the words which would place him in the headlines of history.
“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 this cross of gold.’”, he concluded.
As he delivered his final lines, he drew his hands to his forehead, fingers extended and wrapped his hands over his head to signify the crown of thorns, then he drew his hands straight out to his side, bowing his head to the side and holding the position for approximately five seconds, offering himself as a sacrifice to the cause. As he held himself in the pose, a hush fell over the audience in a silence far more deafening than any boisterous applause that had preceded it.
Mr. Bryan later described the silence as “really painful” and momentarily he thought he had failed. But as moved towards his seat the entire coliseum burst into pandemonium.
Two policeman saw what was about to unfold, moved to protect Bryan, but were dispatched by the crowd, who brought him to their shoulders and carried him about the crowd. The Washington Post noted, “Bedlam broke loose and delirium reigned supreme”. As state delegates picked up their state banners and placed them next to Nebraska’s it was fully 25 minutes before order was restored.
William Jennings Bryan was one of the best known orators of his time, and he became a fixture of the Democratic party, eventually being named as the Democratic Candidate at the 1896 Convention.
In one startling speech he united the Democrats with the populists, the feminists, the geographic minorites and the former “slave” vote. Bryan became the bridge that brought former “warring” factions together under the Democratic banner and some would argue, he paved the way from 20th century Democrats like F.D.R. and John F. Kennedy.
Although his move to restore “bi-metallism” and “free silver” ultimately failed, as William McKinley went on to become the President of the United States. William Jennings Bryan remained a constant champion of the people. He reminded us not to give in to the powers that be. That ultimately, it was up to the people to change their destiny.
Ultimately, not only did “bi-metallism” fail, but the gold standard was to fail as well, and as Ron Paul has become the populist choice of American’s today, this writer was reminded of Bryan, as Dr. Paul’s ascendancy has also been more about ending the monopoly of the current monied class and restoring sound money to the people, than it has ever been about political power.
Dr. Paul’s flaws are the same as Mr. Bryan’s. He is far more ideological than political. Represented by the mainstream media as far more about “Cult of personality”, than serious issues, Dr. Paul, like Mr. Bryan of a century ago, represent the same, “Champion of the People”. Only today Dr. Paul calls himself the “Champion of the Constitution”, as leaders of the past 10 years, have eviscerated our founding documents.
Looking back on the arguments of Mr. Bryan and the crime of 1873, one almost wonders if the Paul campaign shouldn’t have campaigned from the beginning and restored the cause of “Bi-metallism” to the table, not just a return to the gold standard. Dr. Paul does talk of constitutional money, which includes both gold and silver, but one is left to wonder.
Tomorrow, I will conclude this series with a discussion of L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its hidden meanings.