William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan (1860 – 1925)

William Jennings Bryan
The boisterous Chicago crowd of the 1896 Democratic National Convention went utterly silent as William Jennings Bryan, a former member of the House of Representatives from Nebraska, came to the end of his speech. From the height of his podium, flanked by the leaders of the party of Jefferson, Bryan surveyed the assembly and found their silence worrying. He lifted his hands, raised his arms up slowly, and spread them wide. He struck a martyr’s stance, before delivering the iconic lines of one of the most famous speeches in the history of the American Republic:

“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 stand 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 audience met Bryan’s passionate oratory with deafening silence. He waited for a reaction, but nothing came so he lowered his arms. They watched him leave the stage, and he walked down the stairs toward his seat below. Then, as if waking from a trance woven by his words, the crowd erupted in thunderous cheers. Looking up, Bryan saw the conventioneers rushing the stage. They seized him, hoisted him on their shoulders, and paraded him around the floor. At the age of 36, Bryan became the youngest Democratic nominee for President, and his speech established him as one of the most important political voices of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Born in March of 1860, Bryan grew up a devout Presbyterian and an ardent Democrat during a period known as the “Gilded Age.” The term had been coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, who viewed the tremendous economic growth and industrial wealth of the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s as thin gold veneer covering a core of American social, political, and economic rot. Bryan went to study law at Chicago, started a family, and moved west to Lincoln, Nebraska, where his political career began in 1890. With three parties campaigning for a single seat in the House of Representatives, Bryan won a plurality and went to Washington D. C. He won again in 1892, but lost his bid for a Senate seat, and became the editor of the Omaha World-Herald instead.

During this period, Nebraska was a hotbed of growing unrest, especially among American farmers, who experienced crippling price collapses and economic depression. In the 1890s, farmers, miners, and even laborers began coalescing into parties, demanding the abolition of national banks, lower interest rates, monetary reform, the direct election of Senators, and the introduction of a graduated income tax. Their demands represented a radical, agrarian, and progressive call for action. Bryan championed their cause.

The Democratic Party met in Chicago three years after the Panic of 1893 and just two years after the bitter Pullman Railroad Strike. The American economy was the key issue of the convention, and Bryan traveled to Chicago in support of “free silver” and a bimetal monetary policy, which, if ever adopted, he and many others hoped, would deposit large quantities of silver coins into circulation, and lead to a period of profound inflation. It would cause purchasing power to go down; prices would go up; and farmers who had watched the value of their crops decline year after year would now see them rise again.

During his rousing speech, Bryan had framed the debate over free silver as an enduring conflict between “the idle holders of idle capital” who preferred a fixed gold standard and those would support “the struggling masses.” He helped carry the day, and free silver became part of the Democratic platform. He would secure the nomination but would lose the election to Republican William McKinley. He came close to winning, but, in the end, he could not overcome a divided party and a depression that had begun under a Democratic president.

Bryan would run for president two more times and lose both elections. He served as Secretary of State for President Woodrow Wilson, but he resigned before World War I. He fought for Prohibition, and against the teaching of evolution, viewing both drunkenness and “Darwinism” as profound attacks on the moral qualities that defined successful democracies.

In 1921, four years before his death at the age of 65, William Jennings Bryan traveled to Richmond, Indiana, a prosperous community of nearly 30,000 citizens, to record excerpts of his “Cross of Gold Speech” at the newly established recording studio of Gennett Records. It had been 25 years since he first delivered the speech in Chicago, and he had delivered it hundreds of times since, traveling across the United States from Chautauqua to Chautauqua. Only in Richmond, though, did he record it for posterity. A long time had passed, and now, an old man sat down to record it. He had lost his hair, and what was left had grayed considerably. He looked weathered and worn, and continuously ruffled.

Yet from the crackling record, something of Bryan’s youth and passion remained still to be heard; his voice calls out from the past, providing subsequent generations of citizens immutable and tangible access to one of the great statesmen of the American Republic. Preserved on shellac is a record of Bryan’s deep moral core and his sincere belief in popular democracy; the principles that helped him fight for the consideration and dignity of the common American: “the man who is employed for wages,” “the attorney in a country town,” “the merchant at the crossroads store,” the farmer who…toils all day,” and “the miners who go…into the earth…or upon
the cliffs.”

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