William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold,” 1896
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Brown Bros/AP Photo
When former Rep. William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska addressed the Democratic convention the major issue of the day was whether silver as well as gold should be minted as U.S. currency. Silver coinage would be inflationary and help, for example, debt-impoverished farmers. The 36-year old Bryan was an avowed bimetallist, placed himself in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson against moneyed interests and in favor of “hardy pioneers who braved all the dangers of the wilderness, who have made the desert to blossom as the rose … out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the education of their children and churches where they praise their Creator and the cemeteries where sleep the ashes of their dead.” His peroration has gone down in history: “Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands 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.”[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]
Those words, the New York Times reported the next day, were “the signal for an avalanche of cheers which speedily developed into a measureless outburst.” This 14-minute demonstration, the paper added, was a “perfect Niagara of sound,” and “struck terror to the hearts” of the pro gold forces in the hall.
The Democrats nominated Bryan for the presidency the following day. The Bryan speech has echoed in U.S. history. According to William Safire’s Political Dictionary, it inspired 1930s Louisiana Gov. Huey Long’s “every man a king” slogan, and had the earliest criticism of what is now known as “trickle-down economics,” attacking the belief “that if you just legislate to make the well-to-prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below.”
Next: FDR’s “New Deal,” 1932