A Cross of Gold
If you were in school at the end of the nineteenth century, and you wanted to impress your friends, you worked hard at oratory. Good speakers were heroes. School kids memorized Daniel Webster's speeches, and Abraham Lincoln's, too. They learned long poems and recited them at school assemblies. Even with all that competition, William Jennings Bryan was the outstanding speaker in his grade school, high school, and college. He was a farm boy and a devout Protestant who believed in the absolute truth of the words of the Bible. Something else was central to his being: it was a belief in the Constitution and American democracy. Bryan believed in democracy with the same intensity he brought to his religion, as the lawyer Clarence Darrow came to know.
Darrow wrote: "When it most needed to be said, when it took real courage, he spoke the meaning of America in words of fire. He kept insisting that America is not really America unless the lowliest man feels sure in his bones that he has free and equal opportunity to get ahead."
Bryan became a lawyer and moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, impressing people there with his honesty and sincerity. When he was just thirty years old, in 1890, he got elected to Congress. It was money and its distribution that concerned him and his constituents. Why do some people who work hard have lots of money, and others, who also work hard, have little? Bryan thought it had something to do with gold and silver. Gold was the rich man's metal, he said; whereas silver purchases by the government helped farmers and miners. So when the Democrats, urged by President Cleveland, repealed the Silver Purchase Act, Bryan refused to go along with his party. He ran for senator and lost. It didn't seem to discourage him. He decided to run for president. That seemed laughable. He was good-looking and he spoke well, but he was mostly unknown and he was only in his thirties. He got a job as an editor of the Omaha World Herald and wrote editorials. They were widely read. Then he went on a speaking tour. When he spoke it was electrifying, as the writer Willa Cather recalled: "Surely that was eloquence of the old stamp that was accounted divine, eloquence that reached through the callus of ignorance and toil and found and awoke the stunted souls of men."