When William Jennings Bryan took the podium in July of 1896 to address the Democratic convention in Chicago, the party's nomination was unsettled. At best, Bryan was a dark horse. The front-runner, Rep. Richard Bland, was confident enough to stay on his Missouri farm and harvest hay, while Bryan pulled strings in Chicago to finagle a key speaking slot. The move proved crucial.
Economic concerns preoccupied the country and the delegates. The nation was in the midst of a recession, and memories of the Pullman railroad strike and of unemployed workers marching on Washington in 1894 remained fresh. The Silverites, a faction of the Democratic Party, argued that unlimited coinage of silver would solve the country's problems by injecting more money into the economy. Farmers and small-business men from the West and South tended to agree. The wealthy northeastern industrialists battled to keep the gold standard in place.
Bryan was a talented speaker; his nickname was "Boy Orator of the Platte." Few, however, were prepared for his remarks. Bryan, suggests Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University historian and author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, believed he and his fellow Silverites were battling for freedom, democracy, and the welfare of the human race. While other speakers could hardly be heard in the cavernous hall, Bryan's voice boomed over the transfixed audience. "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," he thundered, stunning the crowd when he stepped back from the podium and stood as if he were nailed to a cross, holding the pose for a full five seconds.
A different speaker, perhaps, would have been accused of blasphemy. But for Bryan, a staunch evangelical, the hall exploded in jubilation. "The floor of the convention seemed to heave up," reported the New York World. "The whole face of the convention was broken by the tumult—hills and valleys of shrieking men and women." The nomination was his. But alas, never the presidency.