William Jennings Bryan was only thirty-six when he delivered his Cross of Gold speech at the Democratic National Convention on Thursday, July 9, 1896. The issue of free coinage of silver at a ratio of 16 to 1 dominated political debates as much as the tariff issue, especially after passage of the 1890 McKinley Tariff. Farmers and working class Americans, deeply impacted by the Panic of 1890, felt cast aside by the money interests tied to politics. Bryan reminded his audience, “We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity.” The Cross of Gold speech was a drawn sword that heralded the battle between good and evil.
The Morality of William Jennings Bryan
As with many 19th Century speeches, Bryan’s Cross of Gold oration appeals to virtue and justice, using historical and biblical connections to illustrate principles. Bryan grew up in a Baptist family at a time in American history when Protestantism reflected a deep understanding of the Bible. Well educated, he worked briefly for Lyman Trumbull, a giant in Illinois politics but a man with sincere principles.
Much of this is evident in Bryan’s speech. He champions the average American worker such as “the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day,” as well as the man employed for wages and the merchant “at the crossroads store…” Bryan includes the miner who risks his life daily.
Bryan refers to Andrew Jackson several times. “What we need is an Andrew Jackson to stand as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of aggregated wealth.” Referring to Jackson’s veto of the re-chartering of the Nation Bank, Bryan compares him to Cicero, noting that, “He did for Rome what Jackson did when he destroyed the bank conspiracy and saved America.”
The Bible and History in the Cross of Gold Speech
In his first paragraph, Bryan notes that, “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 they [the opposition] can bring.” The “armor of a righteous cause” may refer to Paul’s writings in Ephesians 6:10 which refers to putting on the “full armor of God…”
The symbolism of armor is also found in Romans 13:12 (the “armor of light”) and Jeremiah 46:3-4. In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian is clothed with the “armor” of proof. Pilgrim’s Progress was as popular for Protestants in the 19th Century as the Bible. But Bryan also uses history, comparing the fight for silver as that “which inspired the crusaders who followed Peter the Hermit…” Bryan’s example is clever; Peter the Hermit led what has been called the “People’s Crusade,” comprised of poor peasants compelled to act out of faith.
In contrasting the importance of the silver issue over the protective tariff, Bryan references 1 Samuel 18:6-9 in the Old Testament: “…if protection has slain its thousands the gold standard has slain its tens of thousands.” Despite the inclusion of tariff reciprocity in the 1890 tariff measure, it was ruinous to American farmers.
Conclusion of the Cross of Gold Speech Ends with the Strongest Symbol
The popular Protestant hymn, The Old Rugged Cross had not yet been written, but the symbol of the cross was a fixture in every church. Bryan ends his address boldly, asserting that, “…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.”
Everyone in the audience understood the allusion to the crown of thorns and a cross of gold. The working people of America would not become scapegoats of corruption and greed. The cross of gold was, in fact, a perversion of that old rugged cross and a mockery of Christ’s sacrificial death. The plutocrats of the East were the Pilates and Chief Priests of error and injustice. This was a symbol everyone could see and understand.
American Populism and the Battle of Good Versus Evil
The Cross of Gold speech directed listeners to the looming battle for the very soul of the American people. Bryan reminded his listeners that the United States was not dependent on the policies of other nations, notably Britain. In this, he shared Jackson’s disdain of Britain’s supposed global economic power to dominate financial issues and policies.
Horatio Alger’s “rags to riches” model may have been a myth, but the fact that American freedom and prosperity was intricately tied to everyday working Americans was not. Whether farmer or factory workers, Americans were as much businessmen as the captains of industry that dominated great monopolies, the “trusts” that created wealth for less than one half of one percent of the people. All the more reason Bryan favored an income tax, as noted in his speech.
The Election of 1896 became a national referendum on good versus evil, a theme played to by both major political parties. In the end, the Republicans won decisively, painting the opposition as dangerous socialists and equating populism with all of the civil unrest, including labor strikes, anarchism, and even peaceful marches like Jacob Coxey’s.
Bryan gave his Cross of Gold speech all across the nation, while his Republican opponent, William McKinley, ran a front-porch campaign in Ohio. In the end, voters saw the election as a referendum on the capitalist system. The alternative was unthinkable in many eyes. But Bryan’s Cross of Gold, if nothing else, reminded Americans that government was by the people and of the people.