Bryan, one of America’s most charismatic and gifted orators, made the speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago on July 9, 1896. (For some reason, many books and websites, including normally credible sources like Britannica.com, give the date as July 8, 1896. I triple-checked it. The correct date is July 9.)
Bryan’s address that day is called the “Cross of Gold Speech” because of his fiery, oft-cited closing lines:
“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 speech contains another line about the importance of agriculture to society that also appears in many books of quotations:
“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.”
The meaning of Bryan’s words about farms is easy to grasp: their existence and an adequate food supply is crucial to civilization.
The meaning and context of the “cross of gold” quote is more complicated.
So were the political views of William Jennings Bryan.
He was something like a cross between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Like them, he was a populist politician.
He was a member of the Democratic Party and served as a Democratic Congressman for Nebraska from 1891 to 1895. But his primary allegiance was to his own moral principles and beliefs and his own hard core supporters, the majority of whom were low-income farmers and working people in rural areas of the country.
Bryan was known (and portrayed himself) as a strong advocate for the “common man” against wealthy businessmen and corporations. But Black Americans and immigrants were not among the common people Bryan cared about.
During the 2016 presidential campaign in an interesting article titled “Is Bernie Sanders Our William Jennings Bryan?” historian Michael Kazin noted: “Bryan and nearly all other Democrats in his day were unabashed defenders of Jim Crow. Their populism halted abruptly and cruelly at the color line. Neither did the eloquent Bryan, widely known as the Great Commoner, say much to defend the millions of common Jewish and Catholic immigrants who suffered from discrimination at the hands of his fellow native-born white Protestants.”
On the other hand, Bryan was an early supporter of the Women’s Suffrage movement and helped push for passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right vote.
He was also a fundamentalist Christian who became one of the most high-profile critics of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Most notably, Bryan defended the state of Tennessee’s ban on teaching evolution in schools in the infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial.”
Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech focused on the debate over “bimetallism,” one of the biggest, most controversial monetary policy issues in the late 1800s. It’s an arcane, now outdated issue that’s a bit hard to grasp and summarize. Here’s my layman’s attempt…
From the end of the Revolutionary War until 1873, money in the United States was “backed” by deposits of both silver and gold and the U.S. government minted both gold and silver coins. This “bimetallic standard” required the government to buy significant quantities of both metals.
During the mid-1800s, as more and more silver was mined in the U.S., that artificially propped up silver prices and benefitted owners of silver mines, which were primarily located in Western states.
It also caused creeping inflation in the costs of certain basic goods, such as agricultural products. That benefitted Midwestern and Western farmers but tended to increase living costs for most other working people. In addition, monetary inflation hurt banks and other lenders, by eroding the value of their loans.
Midwestern and Western states opposed the change and pushed for a return to bimetallism, especially after the U.S. was hit by a severe economic depression in 1893.
William Jennings Bryan became a prominent leader of their “Free Silver” movement, which wanted the government to go back to bimetallism and mint an unlimited amount of silver-backed money on demand.
In his convention speech on July 9, 1896, Bryan framed the issue as a battle between “prosperous” people in big cities and “the struggling masses.” It was sort of a rural-based “trickle up” theory.
“The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it,” he said. “You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard. I tell you that the great cities rest upon these 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.”
Bryan also took a shot at the idea that the U.S. should care about other countries’ monetary policy, much like some modern politicians attack free trade, globalism and the Paris climate change agreement.
“Our ancestors, when but three million, had the courage to declare their political independence of every other nation upon earth,” he opined. “Shall we, their descendants, when we have grown to seventy million, declare that we are less independent than our forefathers? No, my friends…instead of having a gold standard because England has, we shall restore bimetallism, and then let England have bimetallism because the United States have.”
Here’s the full final paragraph of his speech, showing the context of his famous “cross of gold” line:
“If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands 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.”
Bryan had used versions of the crown of thorns/cross of gold lines in previous speeches. But no speech he’d ever made generated so much attention or had such an effect.
At the end of his address, the convention delegates cheered and applauded Bryan wildly and carried him on their shoulders.
Reports of his speech and its reception were published in newspapers throughout the country. It made him a national celebrity and earned him the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in the 1896 election.
His campaign slogan was “No Crown of Thorns, No Cross of Gold.”
Republicans and Republican-leaning editors viewed Bryan as a dangerous demagogue, whose “free silver” proposal would make America’s economic problems even worse.
The majority of “the struggling masses” were also leery of Bryan’s call for a return to bimetallism. That November, Bryan was soundly defeated by Republican candidate William McKinley.
Nevertheless, he remained a Democratic superstar. He received the party’s nomination for president again in 1900 – and lost again to McKinley.
Bryan ran for president a third time in 1908, but lost in a landslide to Republican nominee William Howard Taft.
However, in the realm of famous quotations, Bryan ultimately beat both of them. Neither McKinley nor Taft ever said anything cited by thousands of books and websites like Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” quotes are.
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