No Cross of Gold~Thoughts from 1896

Chicago Coliseum~site of 1896 Democratic Convention

In Chicago on July 10, 1896, the Democratic National Convention nominated a thirty-six-year-old former Congressman from Nebraska named William Jennings Bryan as their candidate for President of the United States. In part, it was the result of skilled political maneuvering by Bryan. In part it was in enthusiastic response to the convention speech which he had given the day before, a speech known to history as “the Cross of Gold” speech. In this election year the man and the speech are worth a serious reconsideration.

There has become commonly accepted a view of Bryan as a narrow-minded religious conservative because of his stand in favor of a literal seven day creation as told in the Book of Genesis. However, like so many other famous Americans, William Jennings Bryan was a much more complex figure. Consider these parts of his personality: In the election campaign of 1896 the Republicans accused Bryan of consorting with anarchists. While a biblical literalist and a temperance advocate he believed in the Social Gospel, a view that Christians need to bear witness by reaching out to the poor and needy, and he was an early advocate of what would later be called ecumenism, desirous of Christians affirming what unites them rather than divides them. He carried genuine concern for industrial workers, the urban poor and struggling farmers. He supported woman suffrage when it was vasdtly unpopular with many politicians. He believed in building international peace through arms reduction and treaties of arbitration. When war erupted in Europe in 1914, Bryan was serving as Secretary of State to President Woodrow Wilson. Of the European war, Bryan wrote, “It is not likely that either side will win so complete a victory as to be able to dictate terms, and if either side does win such a victory it will probably mean preparation for another war. It would seem better to look for a more rational basis for peace.” He left Wilson’s Cabinet early in 1915, feeling that Wilson was not working hard enough for peace. In a 1962 interview former President Harry Truman declared, “if it wasn’t for old Bill Bryan there wouldn’t be any liberalism at all in the country now. Bryan kept liberalism alive, he kept it going.”

Bryan being carried around the convention floor after his speech~July 9th

As for that famous speech, consider some of the key parts~

Bryan’s criticism of the Supreme Court:

“They criticize us for our criticism of the Supreme Court of the United States. My friends, we have made no criticism. We have simply called attention to what you know. If you want criticisms, read the dissenting opinions of the Court. That will give you criticisms.”

On Republican accusations that Bryan encouraged class warfare:

“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!The gentleman from Wisconsin has said he fears a Robespierre. My friend, in this land of the free you need fear no tyrant who will spring up from among the people. What we need is an Andrew Jackson to stand as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of aggregated wealth.”

1896 Democratic campaign poster

On the Republican candidate, William McKinley:

“How is it today? Why, that man who used to boast that he looked like Napoleon, that man shudders today when he thinks that he was nominated on the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Not only that, but as he 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 change evident to anyone who will look at the matter? It is because no private character, however pure, no personal popularity, however great, can protect from the avenging wrath of an indignant people the man who will either declare that he is in favor of fastening the gold standard upon this people, or who is willing to surrender the right of self-government and place legislative control in the hands of foreign potentates and powers.”

On the power of the banks:

“Mr. Jefferson, who was once regarded as good Democratic authority, seems to have a different opinion from the gentleman who has addressed us on the part of the minority. Those who are opposed to this proposition tell us that the issue of paper money is a function of the bank and that the government ought to go out of the banking business. I stand with Jefferson rather than with them, and tell them, as he did, that the issue of money is a function of the government and that the banks should go out of the governing business.”

And on advocacy of the free coinage of silver at a ratio of silver to gold of 16 to 1, a measure which would have increased the amount of money in circulation and aided cash-poor and debt-burdened farmers, that famous concluding paragraph:

“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 thebrow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”


Bryan on the campaign trail

Thought-provoking in this election year, 116 years later.



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