The Cross of Gold, the 1896 presidential election, Scopes, and beyond
Part the last of our series on William Jennings Bryan’s famous 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech brings us to the 1896 election, for which Bryan was the Democratic candidate. He ran against Goldbug William McKinley who, like most Republicans, blamed the Democrats and their bi-metallism platform for the economic Panic of 93. The McKinley campaign issued fake dollar bills that read “IN GOD WE TRUST…FOR THE OTHER 53 CENTS” to illustrate the Republicans’ belief that a dollar backed by silver instead of gold would only be worth 47 cents. McKinley looked for support not only from the big businessmen, financiers, and bankers Bryan decried in his Cross of Gold speech, but also from rich farmers, skilled workers, and small businessmen who had more to gain from reducing the flow of currency and curbing inflation.
McKinley was successful in winning this portion of the electorate, which included the wealthy farming states of the Great Lakes region and gold-mining California. McKinley’s alliance with stable, wealthy sections of the populace seemed more promising for the nation’s economic future than Bryan’s rag-tag army of small farmers, coal miners, and social reformers. The 176 electoral votes won in the poor southern and midwestern states that went to Bryan in the election could not match the 271 electoral votes of the wealthy northern and eastern states, and California that went to McKinley.
President McKinley was blessed by incredible good luck: shortly after his election, word of the gold finds in the Klondike reached the continental U.S. California’s gold had pretty much dried up, and McKinley had been faced with the problem of getting enough gold to replace the silver he was going to remove from the currency. That problem was solved by the Klondike, and McKinley was credited at the time with restoring the boom economy.
Bryan ran against McKinley once again in 1900, still pushing for bi-metallism and the little guy, and accusing McKinley of imperialism because of the Spanish-American War of 1898. McKinley won easily, as gold and the war were both very popular with the average American. 1908 saw Bryan run once again, and once again advocating silver while attacking the Republicans for trust-busting that helped big business and hurt small business. His slogan was “Shall the People Rule?” Their response was to elect William Howard Taft in a landslide.
After 1908, Bryan gave up his attempts on the presidency and became a much sought-after public speaker. He was asked to deliver his Cross of Gold speech hundreds of times, and he did so, never tiring of its populist message, and taking heart from its continued popularity. He was made Secretary of State in 1913 by President Wilson but resigned after Wilson declared war on Germany in 1915. Bryan continued to promote reform politics, supporting both Prohibition and women’s suffrage.
But his most famous second act was acting as the prosecution counsel in the famous 1925 Scopes Trial (the Scopes “Monkey Trial”) in which Tennessee teacher John Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution. Bryan’s reputation made him a seemingly knockout choice, but he was humiliated and outwitted by defense counsel Clarence Darrow, and while the jury returned the guilty verdict everyone had expected they would, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling on a technicality. If you have ever seen a cartoon or show that has a southern lawyer facing a big-time lawyer, and the southern lawyer says “Now, I’m just a country lawyer, but…” then tells a folksy anecdote, then goes in for the kill on the uppity, smug lawyer, that is a reference to Darrow’s skewering of Bryan. It’s unfair in that the big-time lawyer is usually represented as a rich, big-city, corporate lawyer, which is a 180 from who Bryan was, but that is the image that has gone down to posterity. Bryan’s reputation was shattered by the daily newspaper accounts of his humiliations in court at the hands of Darrow; fortunately for him, Bryan did not live long with the embarrassment. He died from complications from diabetes five days after the trial ended.
Thus the curtain closes on Bryan and the Cross of Gold. He recorded the still-popular speech in 1921, and you can hear it here. It’s worth our while to understand this speech and its importance, and to see that while Bryan never won the presidential office he sought, his ideas and reforms were in large part successful, and part of our lives today.