In one of the epochal orations in United States history, William Jennings Bryan won himself the 1896 Democratic nomination for president in a spellbinding performance castigating the gold standard. The speech came to be known as the “Cross of Gold” speech because of a reference to crucifying humanity on a “cross of gold.” Bryan made unsuccessful bids for the presidency in 1896, 1900, and 1908, mounting a serious challenge to well-financed Eastern money interests with his populist message, which struck a cord with debtors, farmers, and workers.
Bryan’s answer to the depression of the 1890s was the free coinage of silver, replacing the gold standard with a bimetallic standard. To the charge that the gold standard was necessary for the prosperity of the business interests, Bryan answered in rhetoric that was music to the ears of hard-pressed farmers and manual laborers. Here are a few select morsels from his 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech:
[T]he farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, who begins in the spring and toils all summer, and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country created wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world.
After setting the mood, Bryan took up the “paramount issue”:
[I]f [tariff] protection has slain its thousands, the gold standard has slain its tens of thousands. No private character, however pure, no personal popularity, however great, can protect from the avenging wrath of an indignant people a man who will declare that he is in favor of fastening the gold standard upon this country, search the pages of history in vain to find a single instance where the common people of any land have ever declared themselves in favor of the gold standard. There are those who believe that if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through to those below.
Bryan closed his speech in a rising crescendo of oratory that would lift him from an unknown member of Congress to the leadership of the Democratic Party at the age of 36:
If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand 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.
(Birley, 1943, emphasis added)
The Eastern establishment saw Bryan as a reckless demagogue, spreading a message—abandonment of the gold standard—that held no charm to respectable financiers during the heyday of the gold standard from 1875 to 1914. Nevertheless, Bryan’s message was in step with the forces of history, and most of the world abandoned the gold standard in the 1930s. Although Bryan was ahead of his time on many economic issues, his stances on other social issues have received a less clear verdict from history. He ended his public career prosecuting a schoolteacher charged with teaching the theory of evolution against state law in the famous Scopes trial in 1925.