The “Cross of Gold” speech: what is it about?

Welcome to a series on William Jennings Bryan’s famous 1896 Cross of Gold speech. This speech, delivered at the Democratic National Convention, helped win the Bryan, former Representative to Congress for Nebraska, the presidential nomination of the Democratic party. It’s a very famous speech and it was powerfully delivered, and was so popular that for decades after the convention Bryan was asked to deliver the Cross of Gold speech, and did.

But let’s start by being frank: this speech suffers, for the 21st-century reader, from two major drawbacks: first, and foremost, it never makes clear what on Earth the problem is that it’s addressing; and second, it is written in the bombastic 19th-century style that thrives on rhetorical flourishes and long, drawn-out analogies. Thus it’s hard for modern-day readers to make much headway through Cross of Gold. One might read the entire speech and not understand what issue Bryan is addressing. The reason for this is that by the time he gave this speech, the issue of coining silver v. remaining on the gold standard had been a violently contested political, social, and economic issue for decades. Bryan’s audience didn’t need a lesson on what the issue was. Everyone in that convention hall knew what their party’s stand was on silver, and all Bryan had to do was to reinforce the righteousness of that stance by talking about how it would help the farmer and other “common men”. It would be like giving a speech today where you just kept saying “Tea Party ideas”—your audience would know what that shorthand means. You wouldn’t have to explain it. You could just talk about how a) harmful or b) good those ideas were, depending on your political stance.

But today, we know little about the savage war over the coinage of silver, and this has created a terrible vacuum where we continue to study Bryan’s famous speech with almost no background on what it was addressing and no conception of what it means. It has become a ritual with no meaning. Let’s rectify that here.

We’ll move into the background of the speech next time with a history of the battle between Silverites and Goldbugs, as they were called, and the principles they were fighting over. It is actually fascinating, and focuses on themes that are still very much front-and-center in 21st-century U.S. politics, including “class warfare”, business v. individual rights, how much control the federal government should have, financial booms and busts, and more.

Next time: Silverites v. Goldbugs

“The most radical president” – some candidates

We heard someone involved in the campaign of a Republican primary candidate recently state that President Obama is “the most radical president in American history.” One is accustomed to hyperbole during an election season, but this was a particularly arresting case of myth-making. I assume this person meant “radical” as a negative, although radical change can be positive or negative. Whether well- or ill-intentioned, though, the claim that our current president is the most radical ever does not hold water. Even an extremely brief glance over presidential history brings to light many other candidates for that title:

George Washington: Radical in a good way. Encouraged a radically new form of government, one without a monarch, even when offered the post himself. Supported our new democratic system, represented it with honor and dignity to the world, and set crucially important precedents, including stepping down from office after his second four-year term. Tried to prevent political parties from forming—if he had been successful, we’d have a radically different political scene today.

Thomas Jefferson: Radical in mixed ways. It’s hard to picture Americans today admiring a president who supported a violent dictatorship and felt the U.S. should provide military support for it  (as Jefferson did in France). Jefferson also overrode the Constitution to make the Louisiana Purchase (Congress, not the president, should likely have carried out any geographic expansion).

Andrew Jackson: Radical in a bad way. Sponsored intense corruption within his Administration by appointing cronies to high political office, legislated through the veto, and, most importantly and unforgivably, demanded and carried out the removal of the Native Americans of the southeast, even after the Supreme Court found in favor of the Cherokees’ remaining on their land.

Abraham Lincoln: Radical in a good way. He ended slavery in the United States by writing the Emancipation Proclamation, and refused to negotiate an end to the war by agreeing to allow slavery to continue in a restored Union. Pushed the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery through Congress. Planned to move an Amendment giving black men the right to vote through Congress as well. Went from racist to abolitionist in a few short years.

Woodrow Wilson: Radical in mixed ways. Promoted legislation to end child labor, pushed for the creation of the League of Nations and for U.S. membership. On the other hand, an entrenched racist who kept civil rights legislation at bay, helping to ensure that the 1910s extended the nadir of civil rights in this country another decade.

Franklin Roosevelt: Radical in mixed ways. Tried to govern bascially without Congress, tried to tamper with the Supreme Court to make it his tool, pursued a series of economic policies that helped lengthen the Depression. On the other hand, he understood that the government had an obligation to protect vulnerable categories of citizen, such as the elderly, children, and the poor. Provided a reliable federal safety net to these people for the first time in U.S. history.

Lyndon Johnson: Radical in a good way. The series of civil rights acts passed not only during his Administration, but because of his untiring efforts, finally put the nation on the track Lincoln had envisioned for Reconstruction. Education reform, Medicare, urban renewal, conservation, space exploration, and a war on poverty, all pushed forward by Johnson. His failure to see through the advisors who pushed the war in Vietnam is the blot on his record.

Ronald Reagan: Radical in a bad way. Set in motion the anti-government movement amongst conservatives, made cutting taxes and running a federal deficit a battle-cry of the Republican party, was generally unmoved by opportunities to negotiate an end to the Cold War.

George W. Bush: Radical in a bad way. Pursued war with Iraq based on misinformation about Iraqi arms manufacture from advisors, trampled on civil rights in the  name of homeland security, and moved aggressively to stop taxation of the wealthy, immobilize the federal government, remove the federal safety net for vulnerable citizens, and pay for the war through deficit spending.

So there’s a short list of some radical presidents. We could use a few more who are radical in good ways.

American Isolationism: The Mock Trial of Hitler

In our last post on American isolationism before WWII we ended with the promise of an extraordinary demonstration against German fascism that took place in the U.S. in March 1934. That event was a mock trial of Adolf Hitler.

This article depends for its quotations on two good sources: “Publicly Deliberative Drama: The 1934 Mock Trial of Adolf Hitler for ‘Crimes against Civilization'”, Louis Anthes, The American Journal of Legal History , Vol. 42, No. 4 (Oct., 1998), pp. 391-410; and In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, Erik Larson, Crown, NY, 2011.

The trial, which was attended by 20,000 people, was sponsored by many groups; it originated with the American Jewish Congress and included many labor unions–in fact, two months earlier New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and AFL Vice-President Matthew Woll had led what they termed a working-class anti-fascist rally at the same location, Madison Square Garden. Now they joined two dozen other leaders in American society, religion, and politics, including former New York Court of Appeals Judge Samuel Seabury; John Haynes Holmes, Minister of the Community Church of New York City; Raymond Moley, former Under-Secretaryof State under Roosevelt; and Mayor LaGuardia.

The Case of Civilization v. Hitler begain with an indictment against Hitler and his government which, amongst other crimes, “has not only destroyed the foundations of the German Republic, but, under penalty of death, torture, and economic extermination, and by process of progressive strangulation, has reduced and subjugated to abject slavery all sections of its population.” Hours of speeches from the famous men assembled concluded with a decision against the Nazis. [Anthes 392]

The Nazi government was furious. It had protested to the U.S. State Department before the trial, news of which had reached Germany in February, and Hans Luther, the German Ambassador to the U.S. met repeatedly with State Deparment personnel, including Secretary Cordell Hull; each complaint and meeting ended with the Americans repeating that “our constitutional guaranties of freedom of expression” prohibited the federal government from stopping the trial, or any other peaceful public demonstration. The Germans persisted in complaining, and six days after the trial Luther raged to Hull that “such offensive and insulting acts by the people of one country against the Government and its officials of another country” should not be tolerated. Four days later, he appeared in Hull’s office with a list of what Luther described as “abusive and insulting expressions of American citizens toward the Hitler Government.” [Larson 239]

Hull’s reponse was firm: “…America’s relationship with the previous German government had been ‘uniformly agreeable’ and [it] was only during the control of the present government that the troubles complained of had arisen… The whole problem would go away, Hull intimated, if Germany ‘could only bring about a cessation of these reports of personal injuries which had been coming steadily to the Unitd Stats from Germany and arousing bitter resentment among many people here.” [Ibid, 240]

The mock trial of Hitler on March 7, 1934 was followed by a few other trials and many rallies against fascism, culminating in another Madison Square Garden rally in July 1942, led by Rabbi Wise, against Nazi atrocities. By that time, of course, the U.S. was at war with Nazi Germany. There are echoes of the 1934 trial in the Nuremburg Trials after the war, which the U.S. insisted upon over British and Soviet objections (Britain wanted show trials without a defense, if any, and the Soviets wanted to go straight to executions).

This trial and the anti-Nazi demonstrations that preceded and followed it do not, of course, mean that there was no pro-Nazi sentiment in the U.S; there was, and American fascists held their own rallies and marches. The largest was the German American Bund, which also drew 20,000 people to a rally in New York on President’s Day 1939. One feels more certain that many people attending this rally were truly isolationist; by February 1939 war was just months away, Germany had annexed the Sudetenland and Austria, and there was more concrete concern about America entering another war.

But the majority of Americans in the 1930s were not knee-jerk isolationists; they despised Nazism and were willing to oppose it in many ways, from boycotts to signing petitions to working with relief groups to try to help Jewish Germans. They did not want to fight another war, but they did not refuse to acknowledge that a) the Nazis had to be stopped, and b) that war might be the only way to do this. There is always a vocal minority that grabs the national spotlight; here we have two: the 20,000 who rallied against Hitler and the 20,000 who rallied for him. Given the commitment of Americans to the principles of our Constitution, and their willingness to fight once war did come, it is hard to believe that the latter group had more unspoken support amongst Americans than the former.

Were Americans really isolationist before WWII?

There are a few things you will read almost without fail in any history of the U.S., from textbook to blog: the Puritans had a strong work ethic; Americans were the underdogs in the Revolutionary War, Andrew Jackson was a champion of the common man; Mary Todd Lincoln was insane; and Americans were isolationists before each of the World Wars. Generally, the more you read about any “given” subject, the less certain you become of the common knowledge dispensed about it, and sometimes you do a complete 180, realizing that the traditional take on a historical moment is just not true. That’s where Truth v. Myth comes from, and that’s what we’re looking at here.

American isolationism is a tricky topic. Generally, the cult of American isolationism has been built on these cornerstones: the lack of political action taken against Germany by the U.S. government until war was declared; Americans’ over-arching concern with the domestic economy during the Depression, which precluded any real or sustained interest in foreign affairs; and Roosevelt’s struggles to get Congress to authorize material support for Britain from 1940-1941.

The first and last of these concerns official government action; the second addresses the man in the street. They are often connected by saying, The man in the street did not want war with Germany and so the government tried to stay out of it. Only when Pearl Harbor was attacked did Americans rise up and demand war, and so Congress declared it.

But it’s clear when you study the U.S. in the interwar period that there was no single, national opinion on Europe and whether to intervene in German policy. The majority of Americans were concerned about what was happening in Germany; the increasingly oppressive and criminal policies the Nazi government introduced from the start of its rule in March 1933 were fully covered in the U.S. press, and that coverage alarmed and angered many Americans. More Americans had ancestors from Germany than from any other European nation, so millions of German-Americans were outraged at what they considered to be the Nazi destruction of German culture and civilization. Other Americans worried that Germany would provoke another war in Europe—not simply because they didn’t want the U.S. to fight another war, but because the  struggling U.S. economy needed a strong European export market. Communist and Socialist Americans were united with Democrats and Republicans in decrying the rise of fascist dictatorship. And Jewish Americans spread the word of the growing persecution of Jewish Germans through every available outlet.

So we see that there was a great deal of concern and anger about the Reich and its policies, and there was also real activism against Nazi Germany. Jewish Americans led the way, in particular Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress, who organized an anti-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in 1933 that drew 25,000 attendees. In the depths of the Depression, Wise called for an economic boycott against Nazi Germany that was supported by the American Federation of Labor and the International Trade Union Congress as well as the Jewish Labor Committee. The determination to isolate and attack Nazi Germany thus cut across religious lines.

Why didn’t the U.S. government act against the Nazis if so many Americans were against Germany? That is a very complex topic for another post (and has been addressed in many books), but suffice it to say, for here, that there were several factors at play: the government did not want to provoke another war if there was a diplomatic solution; the government did not receive any real support from any European nation for ostracizing Nazi Germany; and, significantly, the government, like most governments in Europe, simply did not believe that a government so oppressive, so cartoonish, so ridiculous and unstable, could possible last very long. Just as the Founders wrote slavery protections into our Constitution because they felt certain that slavery could not possible endure for very long in our democracy, so the U.S. (and Europe) continued to maintain as normal a relationship as possible with Nazi Germany, certain that it would quickly fall apart or be destroyed by an uprising of the German people.

In the meanwhile, Americans who also could not believe the Nazi regime would last did not ignore the growing threat. Local newspapers in big cities and small towns published the criminal actions of the German government. Many people with relatives in Germany worked to get them out of that country. Jewish Americans continually broadcast details of the emerging Holocaust. And, as we’ll see in the next post, there was an extraordinary demonstration against Hitler on March 7, 1934, that infuriated Germany and impacted relations with the U.S.

Next time: Hitler on trial in Manhattan

When did “Puritan New England” die out?

It’s always interesting to me how long a lifespan people assign to “Puritan New England”. Of course, there are two kinds of “Puritan” being described: the days of the Puritan colonies and a set of behaviors that people who were not Puritans describe as “puritanism”. People tend to describe New England society as Puritan from 1620 to about 1950—a much longer span than is warranted by fact. The real lifespan of Puritan New England is 1630 to about 1720.

We say 1630 because the Pilgrims who arrived in North America in 1620 were not Puritans (see here for more on that); it was the group who arrived in 1630 who began Puritan colonization. The colonies founded by these Puritans were based on the religious practice of Congregationalism, and this meant three things that are the main characteristics of Puritan New England: 1) the colonies thrived on and required religious homogeneity; 2) a proto-democratic political system was necessary to protect the unique society created in America; and thus 3) the colonists devoted themselves to evading direct rule from England in order to maintain that political system. For as long as these three characteristics were unchallenged, Puritan New England existed.

How long was that? Not very long. The aftermath of King Philip’s War (1675-6) brought political discord between the Puritan colonies, which brought on direct rule from England, first in the form of the Dominion of New England (1686-9), during which time the Puritan colonies of Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island were restructured into one mega-colony (along with New York and East and West Jersey). It’s important that during the Dominion the Puritans were enraged not just by the promotion of Anglicanism over Congregationalism but also by the destruction of the Puritan legal and political system: legislatures were no longer popularly elected, land titles were revoked, and a royal court with no jury was set up in Boston to enforce the Navigation Acts.

The Dominion was overthrown after the death of King James II, but English direct rule did not end. The Puritans who had overthrown the Dominion immediately pledged their loyalty to the new king and queen, William and Mary, and William opened the Puritan colonies to outsiders. Non-Puritans began settling in New England in large numbers, and their religious practices were protected. By 1691, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s charter was overthrown and it became a royal colony with a royally appointed governer, true Congregationalism was rapidly becoming a blast from the past. Its dominance was certainly at an end, as it became simply one religion amongst many others.

Of course, it took decades to completely unseat the old religious ways. But an important shift was occurring after 1689: much of the fervor originally associated primarily with religion in Puritan New England was being gradually but steadily extended to politics. Note that the Dominion and the charter revocation dealt a fatal blow to pure Congregational practice but strengthened the old Puritan political dogma. What the people of New England held on to was proto-democracy: a popularly elected legislature, juries made up of local citizens, and the right of towns to hold their political town meetings.

So by roughly 1720-30 the shift was fairly complete. New England was no longer Puritan, it was polyglot with a Puritan past and a powerful Puritan legacy that newcomers and non-Puritans were very aware of. Congregationalism remained the majority religion, and people in the Congregational church were very committed to its original principles as codified in 1649. But politics began to supersede religion as the defining characteristic of the region, and New England would lead the way into the age of Revolution.

The echoes of the old way, the true Puritan New England that only existed from 1630-1686, were heard long after the fact, of course, and it may be the very brevity of the actual Puritan moment that made it so powerful an image for later writers, religious leaders, politicians, and historians. But any reference to “Puritan New England” after 1730 at the latest, and 1720 more likely, is mostly inaccurate.