Why you should care

The downside of accomplishing something larger than life is trying to live in its subsequent shadow.

If you’ve heard of William Jennings Bryan, his name likely summons the image of Spencer Tracy, er, Clarence Darrow, who duked it out with Bryan in the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925. Decades earlier, however, this great American orator delivered a powerful yet enigmatic speech about a “cross of gold” in a remarkable performance at the 1896 Democratic Convention. It was a stunning feat of political oratory, but did Bryan, with his bold rhetorical gambit, effectively crucify himself on a speech of gold?

When Bryan, a 36-year-old former congressman from Nebraska, took the stage at the Chicago Coliseum on July 9, 1896, he was a long shot in a wide open Democratic presidential field. But the largely unknown populist waded confidently into a contentious debate that gripped an economically depressed nation: whether to endorse the free coinage of silver to back the dollar and help boost the amount of money in circulation with the gold supply dwindling. Bryan, a gifted speaker and advocate of the silver cause, just needed a platform — and lucked out when he was offered the convention’s final speaking slot.

For his unforgettable finale, Bryan held out his arms in a Christ-like pose.

Speaking without a microphone to more than 20,000 people, Bryan seized the moment, knowing full well that to many Americans, the gold-versus-silver debate was really rich versus poor — pitting the cash-strapped farmers of the agricultural West and South (whose debts would be alleviated by inflationary silver) against the bankers of the industrial Northeast (whose holdings were safer tied to deflationary gold). “The man who is employed for wages,” Bryan railed, “is as much a business man as his employer.”

Bryan was “almost supernaturally instinctive in his sensing of the emotional rhythms of an audience,” Richard Bensel, professor of government at Cornell University and author of Passion and Preferences: William Jennings Bryan and the 1896 Democratic National Convention, tells OZY. Building to an unforgettable finale, Bryan held out his arms in a Christ-like pose and bellowed the concluding line:

“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

In a single oratorical moment, Bryan had joined with the common man and tied silver’s cause to his magnificent performance. “Deafening cheers rent the air,” the Atlanta Constitution recounted, “and articles of every description were thrown high above the surging sea of humanity.” Bryan was carried on shoulders across the hall, and chosen the party’s presidential nominee the next day.

ca. 1924, New York City, New York State, USA --- William Jennings Bryan sits down to think it all over during 1924 Democratic convention at Madison Square Garden. Bryan was supporting his brother's vice presidential candidacy in that election year, but in

William Jennings Bryan during the 1924 Democratic Convention in New York City.

Source Corbis

According to Bensel, the speech’s “primary purpose — very much intended and anticipated by Bryan — was to win him the nomination.” But when it came to the subsequent trajectory of the election and Bryan’s career, the effect of the speech was far from triumphant. As William D. Harpine discusses in From the Front Porch to the Front Page: McKinley and Bryan in the 1896 Presidential Campaign, the speech’s “radical rhetoric,” pitting different classes and regions of Americans against each other, made it a “divisive speech that was poorly adapted to the national audience.”

Bryan’s rhetoric, which grew more heated over the 600-plus speeches he delivered on the campaign trail, also terrified the U.S. business community, which gave hand over fist to his Republican opponent, William McKinley, who defeated him in that year’s election. Making matters worse, even in 1896, no serious economist could make the argument for silver — most of the nation’s currency was already in paper or bank accounts, and a switch from gold to silver would likely have sent a deluge of capital overseas, exacerbating the economic crisis.

Bryan’s career would include many accomplishments aside from helping to usher in 16 years of Republicans in the White House (he would lose the 1900 and 1908 presidential races as well): his influence on American isolationism in World War I, 20th century liberalism and populism, and the modern political campaign. But, ironically, the speech that was the biggest feather in his cap would also prove to be his personal crown of thorns. As Bensel tells NPR, the speech “was almost a curse, I think, in the end … it basically became the central and defining feature of his whole career,” and then he “spends the rest of his life trying to do it again, and it never happens.”

Of course, the beauty of history and memory is that Bryan’s powerful words and his pseudo-crucifixion before the party faithful in Chicago will continue to shine above the prosaic reality of election politics — and the martyred populist who seemingly could not triumph here on earth may at last inherit a win.

This OZY encore was originally published Dec. 16, 2014.

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