“Cross of Gold” Speech (1896)

The “Cross of Gold” speech of William Jennings Bryan has become one of the seminal documents of American history. Given at the Democratic convention of July 9, 1896, the speech, with its simple, moral appeal, transformed an ordinary American politician into a crusading orator. Born in Illinois, Bryan attended Union Law College in Chicago and practiced law in Jacksonville, Illinois, between 1883 and 1887. As a young lawyer, he moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1887 and joined the Democratic Party. He rose rapidly in the party echelon and was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1890. He was reelected two years later but lost the Senate race in 1894. Bryan, who became editor of the Omaha World-Herald, traveled the countryside as a proponent of free silver, due to the collapse of the silver market, and silver became the issue that would bring him to prominence.

Bryan was an excellent orator, and his powerful and booming voice reverberated to all corners of the convention hall in the days before microphones. He rose to speak and began humbly, saying, “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” (Bryan). Bryan told the gathering that all Americans were equals: a merchant in a store at a crossroads and a merchant in New York, an attorney in a small town and a corporate lawyer, a miner and a financial magnate, and a farmer and a member of the Board of Trade all had the same rights to prosperity. Bryan opined that he was against accumulation of wealth. He criticized vehemently the followers of the gold standard as persons willing to sacrifice the right of American self-government to place power in the hands of wealthier foreign powers. The votaries of free silver were, instead, on the side of the struggling masses. Bryan ended his speech to thundering applause by saying, “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” (Bryan). After the speech, the crowd went into frenzy. The next day, Bryan was nominated as the presidential candidate on the fifth ballot. The 36-year-old Bryan also was nominated by the People's Party.

Bryan became an overnight sensation after the “Cross of Gold” speech. He traveled throughout the United States. He reiterated the cause of free silver during his 18,000-mile trek. The rural population of the South and Midwest generally supported Bryan. However, he lost the election by 271–176 in electoral votes and paved the way for Republican dominance. After the passing of Gold Standard Act of 1900, the silver lobby became redundant. But the irrepressible Bryan did not fade into oblivion. He made his presence felt as secretary of state and remained publicly active. As a Chautauqua speaker, he repeated the “Cross of Gold” speech many times. In 1921, Gennett Records made a recording of Bryan giving the speech. The “Cross of Gold” speech has remained one of the most famous and influential speeches in U.S. political history.

Patit Paban Mishra

See also: Cleveland, Grover (1837–1908) ; Depression of 1893 ; Gold Standard/Free Silver ; People's Party ; Silver Republicans


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