In 1896, William Jennings Bryan gave a speech that changed the US forever.
Democrats had always claimed to be the party of America’s poor majority, the common (white) man: farmers, urban workers, and immigrants. Its founders — Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson — assumed the wealthy would always dominate politics, abusing government power to exploit the impoverished majority. Thus, they believed the best way to protect the people was to keep taxes low and government small, weak, and passive.
Bryan’s dynamic speech at the 1896 Democratic Convention steered the party and the country in a new direction. He believed the impoverished majority had the votes to end the political domination of monied elites, that a powerful, activist government could reverse the exploitation of the many by the few, ensuring economic justice. His vision set the agenda for Progressives for the next two decades, has guided Democratic platforms since the New Deal, and has influenced Republican policies since the 1950s.
America’s Gilded Age Economic Crisis
Understanding Bryan’s speech requires some historical context.
The 1896 presidential election found the United States mired in the depths of a severe economic depression. One-third of Americans lived in towns and cities wracked by high unemployment. The other two-thirds lived in rural communities where decades of plummeting commodity prices pummeled farmers already reeling from a devastating seven-year drought. Reveling in the chaos, banks squeezed borrowers into foreclosure, while monopolistic juggernauts mercilessly crushed small businesses, farms, and ranches.
Bad federal policy exacerbated the plight of suffering Americans. Since the Civil War, presidents of both parties had limited the money supply to benefit banks, big businesses, and the affluent few.
Governments today routinely restrain inflation to protect the assets of savers, lenders, and investors, but Gilded Age presidents went further: they created deflation — a reverse Robin Hood policy that effectively stole from the poor and gave to the rich.
Deflation — falling prices and wages — increased the value of every dollar saved, invested, or lent. That benefited banks, big businesses, and the rich — the small minority already flush with cash. However, deflation forced the poor majority to work harder for less money. Moreover, debtors (i.e., most farmers) had to repay loans — principal and interest — in dollars more valuable than the dollars they originally borrowed.
Gilded Age presidents rigged deflation by moving the country toward the gold standard: coining mostly gold (which remained scarce), while retiring paper Greenbacks and limiting the coinage of silver (which disappointed western mining states).
Conservative Goldbugs vs. Populist Silverites
By 1896, many Americans blamed President Grover Cleveland, a conservative Wall Street Democrat, for the worsening economic crisis. Cleveland defended the gold standard—government activism to help the rich — but rejected any federal effort to help the poor. In 1887, he had rejected the Texas Seed Bill, passed by Congress to aid drought-stricken farmers in a solidly Democratic state. In his veto message, Cleveland wrote, “Though the people support the government; the government should not support the people.”
Giddy that voters blamed Democrats for the depression, Republicans convened in St. Louis in June to anoint Senator William McKinley of Ohio as their candidate. Dominated by big business since the Civil War, the GOP reiterated its support for the gold standard — despite the protests of western “Silver Republicans,” some of whom walked out in frustration.
A few weeks later, Democrats held their national convention in Chicago. They chose first to debate their platform, and then to select a presidential nominee.
The platform debate proved contentious. Conservatives stubbornly stuck to the gold standard, but Bryan led Populist Democrats in demanding change.
Populists wanted Uncle Sam to stop rigging the economy for the benefit of a few rich people and start rigging it to help the impoverished majority. Three decades of federally-rigged deflation had compounded the misery of farmers struggling with depression, drought, declining commodity prices, and discriminatory railroad freight rates.
Now, Populists urged rapid hyperinflation for fast relief. Higher prices would help farmers, and higher wages would benefit factory workers. Best of all, hyperinflation would let debtors repay loans with dollars cheaper than those they borrowed.
To stoke hyperinflation, Bryan and the Populists proposed radical bimetallism. Until 1873, the US Treasury had coined both gold and silver at market rates. A return to traditional bimetallism would have relieved deflation, but to achieve the desired hyperinflation, Populists demanded the free and unlimited coinage of silver at a rate 50% higher than the metal’s actual market value.
The Populist hyperinflation plan — “free silver” — violated conventional economic wisdom and terrified Wall Steet Democrats.
July 9, 1896: Democrats Debate Free Silver
At the party convention in Chicago, three eminent conservatives — a governor and two Senators — took the stage to urge delegates to reject Populist free silver and affirm President Cleveland’s commitment to the gold standard.
Two Democrats spoke for free silver.
The first, “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, failed utterly. Baited by hecklers, the Senator from South Carolina angrily insulted several northern states by name and personally attacked President Cleveland. Shouted down, he quit in frustration, having forgotten to articulate a rationale for free silver.
Finally, Bryan’s turn came. A relative unknown, he was just 36 years old, a former two-term Congressman from Nebraska. Through eloquent speeches and tireless networking, Bryan had emerged as a leader of the Populist Democrats.
The big crowd had hushed to hear each speaker’s unamplified voice. Others had been hard to hear, but Bryan’s warm, magnificent voice rang out, filling the vast hall:
“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.”
Bryan urged delegates to stop framing the debate as a question of whether to “commend” or “condemn” President Cleveland.
“I shall object to bringing this down to the 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….”
“The gentleman who just preceded me [Governor William Russell] spoke of the old state of Massachusetts. Let me assure him that not one person in all this convention entertains the least hostility to the people of the state of Massachusetts.
“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.
“We come to speak for this broader class of businessmen. Ah. my friends, we say not one word against those who live upon the Atlantic Coast; but those hardy pioneers who braved all the dangers of the wilderness, who have made the desert to blossom as the rose — those pioneers away out there, rearing their children near to nature’s heart, where they can mingle their voices with the voices of the birds — out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the education of their children and churches where they praise their Creator, and the cemeteries where sleep the ashes of their dead — are as deserving of the consideration of this party as any people in this country.
“It is for these that we speak. We do not come as aggressors. Our war is not a war of conquest. We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came.
“We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!
“The gentleman from Wisconsin has said he fears a Robespierre. My friend, in this land of the free you need fear no tyrant who will spring up from among the people. What we need is an Andrew Jackson to stand as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of aggregated wealth….
“They tell us that the income tax ought not to be brought in here…. The income tax is a just law. It simply intends to put the burdens of government justly upon the backs of the people. I am in favor of an income tax. When I find a man who is not willing to pay his share of the burden of the government which protects him, I find a man who is unworthy to enjoy the blessings of a government like ours….
“Mr. Carlisle said in 1878 that this was a struggle between the idle holders of idle capital and the struggling masses who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country; and my friends, it is simply a question that we shall decide upon which side shall the Democratic Party fight. Upon the side of the idle holders of idle capital, or upon the side of the struggling masses?… The sympathies of the Democratic Party, as described by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses, who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic Party.
“There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.
“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….
“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.”
Bryan accompanied the last two lines with rehearsed gestures. He pressed down a phantom crown of thorns on his brow. His fingers traced imaginary rivulets of blood trickling from his temples down his face. Finally, he flung his arms out wide in a pose of crucifixion.
After a few seconds, Bryan dropped his arms and left the stage. As he descended the stairs to the convention floor, the packed coliseum’s quiet stillness struck him as “really painful” evidence that his speech had failed.
Suddenly, the audience erupted into a tumult of cheers and applause. A mob surged forward, seized Bryan, hoisted him on their shoulders, and carried him around and around the roaring coliseum. A reporter wrote, “bedlam broke loose, delirium reigned supreme.” The demonstration continued for half an hour before the convention could return to order.
Later that afternoon, the party rejected the gold standard and embraced free silver. The next day, the convention made Bryan the Democratic presidential nominee.
The Election of 1896
Horrified by Bryan’s nomination, conservative Democrats sat out the election. The party’s traditional donors refused to bankroll a free silver candidate. With unprecedented unanimity, the national press — including many traditionally Democratic newspapers — condemned Bryan as a dangerous fanatic and promoted his Republican opponent as the only responsible choice.
Meanwhile, big business lavished support on McKinley. His campaign manager, Mark Hanna, amassed $4 million to underwrite a brilliant public relations blitzkrieg. This enabled McKinley to run for president in the traditional, dignified style — by staying home. Railroads offered discounted tickets so voters could visit McKinley, who gave several speeches a day from his front porch.
Long odds forced Bryan to defy convention. Small, individual donations eked out a shoestring budget of $300,000. Bryan became the first presidential candidate to tour the country by train, asking voters in person for their support. In four months, he logged 18,000 miles, visited 250 cities and towns in 26 states, and gave more than 600 speeches to about 5 million people.
Bryan’s surging popularity terrified big business; they responded by intimidating impoverished voters. If Bryan won, banks vowed aggressive foreclosures on delinquent mortgages, and industrialists threatened to fire workers and close factories.
Still, on election day, Bryan won a million more votes than anyone who had ever run for president.
But McKinley did even better. He beat Bryan by 600,000 votes, and crushed him in the Electoral College.
Even the greatest orator in American history could not prevail against big business, the national media, and superior GOP campaign strategy.
Bryan received strong rural support, but failed to woo immigrant urban Democrats effectively.
Bryan after 1896
Despite his defeat, Bryan remained a force in national politics. For the next three decades, he led the Progressive branch of the Democratic Party.
He ran for president again in 1900 and 1908, losing both times. However, those campaigns built support for Progressive reforms, and forced the GOP to mount its own whistlestop campaigns, which became a bipartisan tradition.
Two Republican presidents — Theodore Roosevelt and Bill Taft — borrowed or adapted Bryan’s ideas. For example, TR regulated corrupt railroads, while Taft promoted the income tax.
In 1914, Bryan’s ally Woodrow Wilson prevented further deflation by creating the Federal Reserve System. The Fed engineers a stable rate of low inflation, avoiding the ruinous extremes of deflation and hyperinflation.
Bryan played a pivotal role in securing woman suffrage. At the time, Republicans generally favored the reform, but most Democrats opposed it. An outlier, Bryan had long promoted equality for women in his speeches and writings — and in his family. In the 1910s, he and his wife vigorously supported state and national woman suffrage campaigns. This persuaded many rural evangelicals to accept the reform, and helped pressure Wilson and other leading Democrats into belated support for the 19th Amendment.
Sadly, Bryan did not show similar leadership with regard to race relations. A remarkably consistent Christian, he almost never said anything unkind about anyone — a habit he extended to people of color. His rhetoric was refreshingly free of the overt racist and nativist nonsense that mar the speeches and writings of political contemporaries like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Nevertheless, like most whites in his time, Bryan opposed immigration from Asia, and with quiet complicity tolerated the South’s violent Jim Crow system.
In foreign policy, he criticized US imperialism in the Philippines and the Caribbean. As Wilson’s first Secretary of State, he inked bilateral war prevention pacts with 36 countries, including nearly every world power (only Germany and Austria-Hungary refused). When Wilson veered toward involvement in World War I, Bryan quit.
He remained active in Democratic politics, continuing to promote Progressivism even as the the country and both parties turned increasingly conservative.
Many misconstrue Bryan’s educational activism as evidence that he, too, became more conservative. He promoted bans on teaching evolution in public schools, and famously led the prosecution of a teacher who defied Tennessee’s anti-Darwin law. The Scopes Trial attracted national media attention, both in newspapers and via the new medium of radio.
Obviously, Bryan hoped to vindicate the evangelical concept of creation, but he also regarded Darwinism as a threat to Progressivism. For decades, conservative philosophers had cited natural selection to justify income inequality as “survival of the fittest.” Those Social Darwinists opposed programs to help the poor as unwisely delaying Nature’s elimination of the unfit. Bryan feared teaching evolution in schools would perpetuate what he regarded as the heartless political conservatism of the 1920s.
He won the trial, but lost in the court of public opinion. America’s new urban majority mocked him and rural Tennesseans as ignorant hicks. His opponent — Clarence Darrow, the country’s most famous lawyer — memorably called him to the stand as an expert witness on the Bible. Darrow’s questioning exposed the limits of Bryan’s scientific knowledge and mocked the implausibility of tales like Jonah and the whale.
Old and ill, Bryan died a few days after the trial.
His Progressive vision lived on, directly influencing Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which permanently changed the relationship between our people and our government.
Before the New Deal, most Americans were poor, but conservatives in both parties opposed federal relief, agreeing with Grover Cleveland that “the government should not support the people.”
New Deal policies — free trade, progressive taxation, farm programs, welfare, Social Security — promoted most Americans from poverty to the middle class by the ’50s. Not coincidentally, that was when Eisenhower Republicans embraced the essence of the New Deal.
Ever since, both parties generally agree that Congress and the president are responsible for promoting everyone’s prosperity — rural and urban, labor and business, poor and rich. Republicans and Democrats still differ on priorities and methods, but Bryan won the basic argument.
Of course, his legacy remains strongest in his own political party. Like Bryan, Democrats today remain more apt to prefer public programs (like Medicare for All) to private remedies (like medical savings accounts). Liberals unwittingly quote “Cross of Gold” when they condemn “trickle down” economics.
Bryan lived in a time like ours, an era of increasing income inequality dominated by powerful monopolies. People concerned about “plutocracy” — rule by the rich — would benefit by emulating his decency, clarity, and eloquence. As a parting example, consider this passage, which remains as relevant today as it was in 1906:
“Plutocracy is abhorrent to a republic; it is more despotic than monarchy, more heartless than aristocracy, more selfish than bureaucracy. It preys upon the nation in time of peace and conspires against it in the hour of its calamity. Conscienceless, compassionless and devoid of wisdom, it enervates its votaries while it impoverishes its victims. It is already sapping the strength of the nation, vulgarizing social life and making a mockery of morals. The time is ripe for the overthrow of this giant wrong. In the name of the counting-rooms which it has denied; in the name of business honor which it has polluted; in the name of the home which it has despoiled; in the name of religion which it has disgraced; in the name of the people whom it has oppressed, let us make our appeal to the awakened conscience of the nation.”