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

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