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!
— William Jennings Bryan, the conclusion of The Cross Of Gold speech
It was 115 years ago today, 9 July 1896, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, that the relatively unknown former Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan stepped to the platform to deliver one of the most deeply moving political speeches in American History. Though Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech is little noted nor long remembered these days, for more than a generation it was this country’s premiere example of political oratory. Moreover, Bryan’s speech was so well received at the time that it was delivered that it changed the course of his party’s policies and platform, and resulted in his nomination for the Presidency at the age of 36! Never before nor since has someone so young been nominated, nor has any candidate been nominated under such circumstances: after the second ballot at the convention, Bryan was nominated by acclamation.
Bryan’s rise was possible in part because in that age before television and radio, oratory was a highly refined and widely appreciate art and entertainment, and Bryan was a great orator. He possessed a voice which author Edmund Morris likened to the great ranks of a pipe organ, and which he used to great effect during his amazingly energetic campaign. Bryan’s leap to the top was abetted by a divisive split within the Democratic Party. The party was split on the question of “bimetallism,” the use of a dual gold standard and silver standard for monetary policy. In our world of today where neither gold nor silver (nor aught but faith and credit) back our dollars, it is hard to understand the emotional and inflammatory nature of this question.
Alexander Hamilton had started the infant United States upon a bimetallic policy whereby the gold standard would be used in conjunction with silver to back United States Dollars. This standard valued gold at sixteen times silver. If the market caused gold to increase above this ratio, making it unprofitable to mint gold coinage, then silver would be the defacto standard. This flexible scheme helped to keep the money supply responsive and elastic. Financial historian Ron Chernow notes that bimetallism “was to become the curse of American financial history.” It did have inflationary potential, as the Federal Government had great reserves of silver and could coin it fairly freely (this was not quite the same as simply “print more dollars” but the impact was similar.) All the same, except for the Civil War years, this two-metal scheme was used from 1792 until 1873.
In 1873, Congress, acting for Eastern financial interests, demonetized silver and established a one-metal gold standard. This was considered both more modern (most Western European powers were taking similar steps about that time) and anti-inflationary. It had the immediate impact of tightening the money supply. In the commercial East, the impact was negligible, and the South was still so ravaged by the destruction wrought in the Civil War that the money supply itself was of small moment. But the West and Midwest, newly expanding in the post-Civil War era, were seriously and negatively impacted by the policy change. Populist Politicians of the 1870’s and later referred to the demonetization of silver as “The Crime of 1873.”
For the next 23 years, the Democratic party would be divided into those who favored the gold standard, such as President Cleveland, and those who favored bimetallism. During this time, the gold standard proved anti-inflationary; indeed, it was deflationary! During the years between 1875 and 1895, prices declined at a rate of about 1% per annum, while production in the United States was booming along at a rate of increase nearing 6% per annum. With production increasing and the money supply decreasing, prices fell sharply and 1892 saw the start of a depression so great that unemployment between 1892 and 1896 reached a high of nearly 20%. (This decade would have been remembered as “The Great Depression” but for an even greater one that started in 1929.)
In this context, Bryan’s impassioned plea for a return to Hamilton’s bimetallic scheme was of pressing importance to a great segment of American society. Bryan, dubbed “The Great Commoner,” represented the hopes and aspirations of the everyday working American. Though he was defeated in November of 1896 by William McKinley, he remained a potent enough political force to run twice more for president. His progressive views were so influential that both McKinley and Roosevelt took action to address concerns that were raised in Bryan’s campaigns. Bryan also served as Secretary of State under Woodrow wilson, resigning over Wilson’s handling of the Lusitania sinking.
It is profoundly ironic that Bryan is most remembered today for acting as prosecutor in the famed “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925, the trial testing Tennessee’s law prohibiting the teaching of the Theory of Evolution. It is hard for us today to conceive of how a man who was very nearly a social radical — he favored women’s suffrage, prohibition of child labor, the forty-hour work week, and prohibition, as well as bimetallism — could become so closely associated with Fundamentalism. But it was no contradiction as Bryan perceived it; he was being consistent and sticking to his principles and his lifelong commitment to helping the common man.
Flower Mound, Texas
When an international financier is confronted by a holdup man with a gun, he automatically hands over not only his money and jewelry, but also his shirt and pants, because it doesn’t occur to him that a robber might draw the line somewhere.
— Nero Wolfe
There are a number of books devoted to Bryan and to the election of 1896, however, since Bryan was the loser, most of what I have read about him comes from references in books about related people or times.
“The Populist Moment: A Short History Of The Agrarian Revolt In America,” Lawrence Goodwyn; Oxford University Press, 1978: ISBN: 0195024176
An immensely dry account of Populist politics of the 1890’s, but an excellent source of information on a much-neglected aspect of American History. Recommended for the extremely interested.
“The Rise Of Theodore Roosevelt,” Edmund Morris; Modern Library Paperbacks, 2001: ISBN: 0375756787
This is the first part of Morris’ planned three-volume work about Teddy Roosevelt, and as such is also a worthwhile account of the political and social aspects of America in the 1890’s. Bryan is just a minor mention among all the goings-on about Roosevelt, but this book is an enjoyable and informative read.
“1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft, & Debs – The Election That Changed The Country,” James Chace; Simon & Schuster, 2004: ISBN: 0743203941
This is a fairly light, easily readable treatment of another little-known era in American History, and is worth reading to gain a greater insight to how the ivory-tower, academically-minded president of Princeton became President Of The United States. In covering the background of Woodrow Wilson’s election, Chace examines the Populists and Debs. The book’s major drawback is lack of a bibliography.
“Alexander Hamilton,” Ron Chernow; Penguin Press, 2004: ISBN: 1594200092
Nothing about Bryan in this book, but a must read all the same. Chernow’s discussion of bimetallism amounts to less than one page in this more than 700 page book. But so what? This is one of the best, most comprehensive, and highly entertaining biographies I have ever read. It represents not only an authoritative account of one of our most unappreciated founders, but also a marvellous course in the early years of Our Republic.