The Cross of Gold speech: a close reading

Part 3 of our series on William Jennings Bryan’s famous 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech focuses on the text of the speech itself. We’ve looked at the battle over bi-metallism fought by Silverites and Goldbugs that the speech addresses in part 2, and now we’ll see how Bryan lays out his argument for silver.

The text is from History Matters; the following are excerpts, not the entire text (it’s too long for us to consider here). All italics are my own unless noted. So let’s begin:

“I would be presumptuous, indeed, to present myself against the distinguished gentlemen to whom you have listened if this were but a measuring of ability; but this is not a contest among persons. The humblest citizen in all the land when clad in the armor of a righteous cause is stronger than all the whole hosts of error that they can bring. I come to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty—the cause of humanity. When this debate is concluded, a motion will be made to lay upon the table the resolution offered in commendation of the administration and also the resolution in condemnation of the administration. I shall object to bringing this question down to a level of persons. The individual is but an atom; he is born, he acts, he dies; but principles are eternal; and this has been a contest of principle.”

—Remember that Bryan was speaking at the Democratic National Convention, so the distinguished gentlemen his audience have already listened to are the candidates vying to become the party’s presidential nominee, and their supporters. Bryan, while a Democrat, was in spirit a Populist; he was a supporter of the “common man”, the farmer and laborer, as opposed to the big businessman, banker, and machine politician. He immediately begins by positioning himself as a somewhat common man who has every right to speak to such a high-powered convention because he is “clad in the armor of a righteous cause”. He may be but “an atom”, but he speaks in the name of an eternal principle “as holy as the cause of liberty” itself, and, indeed the cause of humanity itself. Anyone who studies rhetoric will see a master practitioner in Bryan. He is in just one paragraph humble yet charged with integrity, a defender of humanity. Anyone who could listen to him and not choose the “resolution in condemnation of the [current president’s] administration”, the resolution against the gold standard, is basically an inhuman criminal.

“Never before in the history of this country has there been witnessed such a contest as that through which we have passed. Never before in the history of American politics has a great issue been fought out as this issue has been by the voters themselves.”

—Never? There’s never been such a great issue as this? Not federalism, states’ rights, or slavery? Technically Bryan is covering himself by saying that this issue will be fully decided by votes, not war or acts of Congress. But all the same it’s a dramatic overstatement.

“On the 4th of March, 1895, a few Democrats, most of them members of Congress, issued an address to the Democrats of the nation asserting that the money question was the paramount issue of the hour; asserting also the right of a majority of the Democratic Party to control the position of the party on this paramount issue; concluding with the request that all believers in free coinage of silver in the Democratic Party should organize and take charge of and control the policy of the Democratic Party. …Our silver Democrats went forth from victory unto victory, until they are assembled now, not to discuss, not to debate, but to enter up the judgment rendered by the plain people of this country. …Old leaders have been cast aside when they refused to give expression to the sentiments of those whom they would lead, and new leaders have sprung up to give direction to this cause of freedom. Thus has the contest been waged, and we have assembled here under as binding and solemn instructions as were ever fastened upon the representatives of a people.”

—This is the important point: the bi-metallist platform of the Democratic party is the result of grass-roots activism; the “common men” of the party, the voters, have sent the clear message that they want the party to support silver coinage. Party leaders who wouldn’t go along with the people were voted out, and new leaders, like Bryan, voted in. Thus, Bryan, and his listeners, are under “binding and solemn instructions” to support silver. This is how Bryan represents the cause of humanity, and liberty: he is truly a representative of the majority of the people of his party, who lives only to do their will.

“The gentleman who just preceded me [Governor Russell] spoke of the old state of Massachusetts. Let me assure him that not one person in all this convention entertains the least hostility to the people of the state of Massachusetts. But we stand here representing people who are the equals before the law of the largest cities in the state of Massachusetts. When you come before us and tell us that we shall disturb your business interests, we reply that you have disturbed our business interests by your action. We say to you that you have made too limited in its application the definition of a businessman. The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer. The attorney in a country town is as much a businessman as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis. The merchant at the crossroads store is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York. The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, begins in the spring and toils all summer, and by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of this country creates wealth, is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain. The miners who go 1,000 feet into the earth or climb 2,000 feet upon the cliffs and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured in the channels of trade are as much businessmen as the few financial magnates who in a backroom corner the money of the world.”

—Bryan claims that farmers, small businessmen, miners, and common laborers are just as important to the U.S. economy as big businessmen, bankers, lawyers, and Wall Street traders because the former does the exact same thing as the latter: they generate wealth. They put money into the economy. They grow the economy. But he goes further: the small businessman and farmer are actually better than the bankers and big bosses because the little guy actually does real work—he “by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of this country creates wealth”. Big guys grow fat off the sweat of the little guy’s brow. Bankers don’t do anything but collect interest, bosses make money off their workers. Miners risk life and limb, while traders sit in nice rooms betting on what the market will do. Does the trader really deserve as much respect and consideration as the miner? Bryan thinks not.

“Ah, my friends, who have made the desert to blossom as the rose—those pioneers away out there, rearing their children near to nature’s heart, where they can mingle their voices with the voices of the birds—out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the education of their children and churches where they praise their Creator, and the cemeteries where sleep the ashes of their dead—are as deserving of the consideration of this party as any people in this country. 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!”

—Here Bryan builds on his theme of the virtue of the laborer and takes it into truly melodramatic realms. The little guys are all pioneers and mystical seers, “rearing their children near to nature’s heart, where they can mingle their voices with the voices of the birds”, and can be found “out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the education of their children and churches where they praise their Creator, and the cemeteries where sleep the ashes of their dead”. Apparently only country people love nature, provide an education for their children, love God, and bury their dead. Since the little guys of the Democratic party voted for silver, Bryan and all the leaders of the party are speaking for these people, but it goes beyond that; suddenly, Bryan and his audience are those people. “They” turns to “we” as Bryan goes on: “We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity… We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!” For someone who started out assuring a Massachusetts Democrat that no one in the room had any hostility toward the east coast, Bryan has quickly turned the east coast into a hideous “them” who the Democrats are not just fighting but defying.

“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.”

—If putting democratically elected government representatives rather than rich, corrupt bankers,  in control of U.S. economic policy was good enough for Thomas Jefferson, it’s good enough for Bryan.

“The gentleman from New York says that he will propose an amendment providing that this change in our law shall not affect contracts which, according to the present laws, are made payable in gold. But if he means to say that we cannot change our monetary system without protecting those who have loaned money before the change was made, I want to ask him where, in law or in morals, he can find authority for not protecting the debtors when the act of 1873 was passed when he now insists that we must protect the creditor.”

—A New Yorker (of course–east coast!) says he’ll go along with bi-metallism, which reduces the value of the dollar, only if contracts that were signed before the bi-metallism law is passed are mandated to be paid in gold. So if I lend someone $10 in gold, I want them to repay that loan with ten valuable, gold-backed dollars, not ten silver-backed dollars that are only worth about $6 in the international markets. This would basically protect banks, the enemy of the farmer and small businessman who have to borrow a lot of money under the gold standard. But Bryan says, You’re very concerned about protecting lenders—why didn’t you care about protecting borrowers during the Crash of 1873, when many were forced into bankruptcies as banks called in loans? The New Yorker, of course, is biased against the little man.

“Now, my friends, let me come to the great paramount issue. If they ask us here why it is we say more on the money question than we say upon the tariff question, I reply that if protection has slain its thousands the gold standard has slain its tens of thousands. If they ask us why we did not embody all these things in our platform which we believe, we reply to them that when we have restored the money of the Constitution, all other necessary reforms will be possible, and that until that is done there is no reform that can be accomplished.”

—Why is the party focusing its entire platform on one issue, bi-metallism? Doesn’t the country have other problems that need to be addressed? Bryan replies that bi-metallism is the source of nearly all the problems in the country: debt, small business failure, monopoly, etc. If silver is restored, “all other necessary reforms will be possible.”

“Why is it that within three months such a change has come over the sentiments of the country? Three months ago, when it was confidently asserted that those who believed in the gold standard would frame our platforms and nominate our candidates, even the advocates of the gold standard did not think that we could elect a President… Mr. McKinley was nominated at St. Louis upon a platform that declared for the maintenance of the gold standard until it should be changed into bimetallism by an international agreement. Mr. McKinley was the most popular man among the Republicans ; and everybody three months ago in the Republican Party prophesied his election… 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…”

—Goldbugs had this 1896 election locked up with their pro-gold Republican candidate McKinley, and were sure bets to steamroll the Democrats into accepting the gold standard as well, but the sheer and pure power of the People, the little guys, won out. McKinley’s “personal popularity, however great”, cannot protect him from “the avenging wrath of an indignant people”. McKinley’s decision to act bilaterally with the United States’ international trading partners and adopt a currency policy that everyone agreed on, was in effect a move to “surrender the right of self-government and place legislative control in the hands of foreign potentates and powers…” Thus the rise of the Democrats, against all odds, in the election.

“If they tell us that the gold standard is the standard of civilization… we can tell them this, that they will search the pages of history in vain to find a single instance in which the common people of any land ever declared themselves in favor of a gold standard. [This] is a struggle between the idle holders of idle capital and the struggling masses who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country; and my friends, it is simply a question that we shall decide upon which side shall the Democratic Party fight. Upon the side of the idle holders of idle capital, or upon the side of the struggling masses? [The] sympathies of the Democratic Party, as described by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses, who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic Party. There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. 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.”

—The only people who want the gold standard are the parasitic, idle, undemocratic rich. There is no trickle-down economics, where legislation that makes the rich richer also benefits the poor (“their prosperity will leak through on those below”). What does exist is poor men working their way up the ladder through their smarts and hard work and democratic principles, which benefits the whole nation.

“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.”

—Immediately after this, Bryan will insist once again that he accuses the east coast of no wrong; it is clear, however, that this is a west v. east battle for him, great cities against small farms, “broad and fertile prairies” against cities. Farms are the backbone of the economy and the virtue of the nation, and it is farms that are irreplaceably important, not cities and banks and smokestacks.

“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.”

—There is power in our union: the battle for silver will be won by the little man, the “producing masses of the nation”, and not the inactive parasites sitting on their golden thrones in New York or Boston. The poor man will not be crucified with a crown of thorns, will not be sacrificed to the gold standard; and since the little guy is humanity, “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

One can only imagine the torrential applause this speech was concluded with. Bryan was elected the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, and newspapers across the country reverberated with the story and the speech, which was reprinted ad infinitum. Next time, we’ll see how it all played out.

Next time: the 1896 election

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