William Jennings Bryan’s family lived in Mason County, (West) Virginia in the early and mid 1800s, as did my family of Bryans. His grandfather is buried in what is now Cabell County, West Virginia. William Jennings Bryan is perhaps the greatest orator in American history. Many consider the “Cross of Gold” speech, given by him before the Democratic National Convention in 1896, to be the greatest political speech of all time. While we can’t hear that actual speech, since the technology didn’t yet exist to record the entire convention, we can listen to Bryan repeating it in a recording studio a few decades later.
The circumstances, combined with the text of the speech, combined with the manner in which it was given, was epic. Politics and policy aside, it’s a poetic masterpiece. Historical accounts of the crowd’s reaction indicate that it must have been masterfully delivered.
He concluded the speech with this line:
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.”
The reaction of the crowd:
As Bryan spoke his final sentence, recalling the Crucifixion of Jesus, he placed his hands to his temples, fingers extended; with the final words, he extended his arms to his sides straight out to his body and held that pose for about five seconds as if offering himself as sacrifice for the cause, as the audience watched in dead silence. He then lowered them, descended from the podium, and began to head back to his seat as the stillness held.
The immediate aftermath:
Bryan later described the silence as “really painful” and momentarily thought he had failed. As he moved towards his seat, the Coliseum burst into pandemonium. Delegates threw hats, coats, and handkerchiefs into the air. Others took up the standards with the state names on them with each delegation, and planted them by Nebraska’s. Two alert police officers had joined Bryan as he left the podium, anticipating the crush. The policemen were swept away by the flood of delegates, who raised Bryan to their shoulders and carried him around the floor. The Washington Post newspaper recorded, “bedlam broke loose, delirium reigned supreme.”
It took about 25 minutes to restore order, and according to Bensel, “somewhere in the mass demonstration that was convulsing the convention hall, the transfer of sentiment from silver as a policy to Bryan as a presidential candidate took place”. Newspaper accounts of the convention leave little doubt but that, had a vote been taken at that moment (as many were shouting to do), Bryan would have been nominated.
The following day, William Jennings Bryan was nominated as the Democrat Nominee for President by the delegates at the convention. At age 36, Bryan was the youngest presidential nominee in American history, only one year older than the constitutional minimum. He ended up losing the election to William McKinley. Later in life, Bryan repeated the speech numerous times for crowds who wanted to hear it, as well as in the recording studio which recorded the speech for posterity.
You can read the entire speech at this link. These are some of my favorite excerpts:
I would be presumptuous, indeed, to present myself against the distinguished gentlemen to whom you have listened if this were but a measuring of ability; but this is not a contest among persons. The humblest citizen in all the land when clad in the armor of a righteous cause is stronger than all the whole hosts of error that they can bring. I come to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty—the cause of humanity. When this debate is concluded, a motion will be made to lay upon the table the resolution offered in commendation of the administration and also the resolution in condemnation of the administration. I shall object to bringing this question down to a level of persons. The individual is but an atom; he is born, he acts, he dies; but principles are eternal; and this has been a contest of principle…..
A lot of this sounds familiar, though not on this level of prose…. Urban vs. rural; Red vs. Blue….
But we stand here representing people who are the equals before the law of the largest cities in the state of Massachusetts. When you come before us and tell us that we shall disturb your business interests, we reply that you have disturbed our business interests by your action. We say to you that you have made too limited in its application the definition of a businessman. The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer. The attorney in a country town is as much a businessman as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis. The merchant at the crossroads store is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York. The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, begins in the spring and toils all summer, and by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of this country creates wealth, is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain. The miners who go 1,000 feet into the earth or climb 2,000 feet upon the cliffs and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured in the channels of trade are as much businessmen as the few financial magnates who in a backroom corner the money of the world.
How far our public discourse has fallen. This debate, mind you, was taking place at one party’s convention. There was actual substantive debate taking place, with the purpose of utilizing oration to persuade the listeners – party delegates – to choose one policy path over others.
You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard. I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. 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.
My friends, we shall declare that this nation is able to legislate for its own people on every question without waiting for the aid or consent of any other nation on earth, and upon that issue we expect to carry every single state in the Union.
I shall not slander the fair state of Massachusetts nor the state of New York by saying that when citizens are confronted with the proposition, “Is this nation able to attend to its own business?”—I will not slander either one by saying that the people of those states will declare our helpless impotency as a nation to attend to our own business. It is the issue of 1776 over again. Our ancestors, when but 3 million, had the courage to declare their political independence of every other nation upon earth. Shall we, their descendants, when we have grown to 70 million, declare that we are less independent than our forefathers? No, my friends, it will never be the judgment of this people. Therefore, we care not upon what lines the battle is fought. If they say bimetallism is good but we cannot have it till some nation helps us, we reply that, instead of having a gold standard because England has, we shall restore bimetallism, and then let England have bimetallism because the United States have.
If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. 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.
Now we’ve degraded ourselves to an extremely base level of tribalism, extreme partisanship, and some sort of self-loathing as a country. It’s not about the policies themselves, it’s about the lack of interest or debate in the policies, and the resulting vacuum of political debate and exchange of ideas. That’s where we’re at.