Webisode 10. Segment 8
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 So when the Democrats, urged by President Cleveland, repealed the Silver Purchase Act, Bryan refused to go along with his party.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."
These were the days before microphones. You needed a big voice to be heard. William Jennings Bryan had one. He discussed issues intelligently. He smiled and shook hands. When he talked about gold and silver, people understood what he was saying. He was a silver man. The night before he was due to speak at the Democratic presidential convention in Chicago, he watched the delegates cheer another candidate. Then to a friend he said, "These people don't know it, but they will be cheering for me just this way this time tomorrow night."
Few of the delegates had even considered the young man from Nebraska as a candidateuntil he got up to speak about silver. He was clad in the armor of a righteous cause, he said. He led them through the history of the struggle between silver and gold. On Bryan's tongue it became a struggle between good and evil. He was dividing the country between East and West. Between hardy pioneers and financial magnates. Between city and country. At the height of his speech he said: "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."
Willa Cather was there. She wrote: "At Chicago, when Bryan stampeded a convention, appropriated a party, electrified a nation, one of those ragged farmers sat beside me in the gallery, and at the close of that never-to-be-forgotten speech, he leaned over the rail, the tears on his furrowed cheeks, and shouted, 'The sweet singer of Israel.' "
And then Bryan reached the crescendo of his oration: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."
The next day the Democratic and Populist Parties nominated William Jennings Bryan for president of the United States. Not only did he stand for free silver, he was a genuine reformer who wanted to put power back in the hands of the people.
In the meantime, the Republicans chose an Ohioan, William McKinley, as their candidate. His beliefs were extremely different from Bryan's. For one, he supported the gold standard. And he supported high tariffs, which are taxes on goods imported from other places. Those taxes mostly helped eastern manufacturers. McKinley believed the future lay with the new business interests. If business prospered, he thought it would also benefit the poor and the farmers. There were important issues here. The election of 1896 was one of the most important in our country's history.
What a campaign it was. Bryan had little money, but he had his remarkable energy and that mellifluous voice. He crossed the nation by train and in a few months gave more than 600 speeches. Sometimes he spoke thirty times a day. But leading Republicanslike the lawyer Elihu Rootthought Bryan was telling farmers only what they wanted to hear. "What a disgusting, dishonest fakir Bryan is!" Root wrote. "When I see so many Americans running after him, I feel very much as I do when a really lovely woman falls in love with a cad."
More than 120 million Republican pamphlets were distributed that year. They made Bryan sound like a dangerous quack. McKinley articles were sent free to newspapers. McKinley buttons, banners, and posters turned up everywhere. The Republicans spent a total of $4 million; the Democrats spent $300,000. Today we are used to big, costly presidential campaigns. That was new in 1896. Maybe it was the money that made the difference. Maybe not. Railroad executive William McAdoo had this to say: "It has become the custom nowadays, among supercilious people, to depict Bryan as a clown or a fool. He was nothing of the kind. In many respects, he was one of the shrewdest people I have ever known."
The American people had some tough issues to decide. Many wanted the reforms that people like Bryan and the Populists called for. They wanted laws to improve working conditions. They wanted shorter working hours; they wanted laws to prevent employers from hiring children for adult jobs. Many believed the railroads and the big utilities should be owned by the government and run for all people. Most wanted to see farmers helped. But there were some things that were worrisome about Bryan. He was dividing the country into warring groups. He was picking a fight with the money interests. And he was supported by some hate groups. He lost the election. It was the corporation that would dominate the twentieth century. Some say that the American people made that choice in 1896.
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