Cross of Gold Speech by William Jennings Bryan

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  • 0:04 Who Was William…
  • 0:57 Gold vs. Silver
  • 1:57 Cross of Gold Speech
  • 3:41 Impact of the Speech
  • 5:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Matthew Hill
William Jennings Bryan's Cross of Gold speech is often considered one of the most famous speeches in American political history. It was delivered at the 1896 Democratic National Convention.

Who Was William Jennings Bryan?

William Jennings Bryan gave what many consider one of the most memorable speeches in American political history. It was, ironically, a speech on monetary policy that many today would consider of little importance. But at the time, it focused on two things that were of the utmost importance: silver and gold.

William Jennings Bryan was born in March 1860 in Salem, Illinois. He practiced law in Jacksonville, Illinois, and later got involved in politics. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1890 but lost his Senate bid in 1894. He championed many populist causes, such as the direct election of senators, the free coinage of silver, a federal income tax, tighter labor laws, and women's suffrage. He ran for the presidency in three elections (1896, 1900, and 1908) but was unsuccessful in each bid.

Gold vs. Silver

The history behind Bryan's speech requires a basic understanding of the gold vs. silver monetary debate in 19th century America. President Abraham Lincoln issued greenbacks, or paper money, during the Civil War. However, many distrusted paper money unless it was backed by metal reserves, such as gold or silver. The argument was that this policy helped bankers and lenders rather than the public because it made cash more difficult to acquire. On the flip side, paper currency had little value if unsecured by precious metal.

In general, Democrats, like Bryan, supported silver and Republicans supported gold-based currency. President Grant had previously devalued silver, which elevated the value of gold. But silver strikes in the 1870s suddenly made silver more plentiful, and those invested in the silver market demanded that silver be reestablished as part of the monetary system. Though this argument seems mundane to modern ears, it was a major political grievance at the time.

Cross of Gold Speech

The occasion for Bryan's famous Cross of Gold speech was the Democratic National Convention in Chicago on July 8, 1896. Bryan, who was seeking the Democratic nomination, was a gifted orator, but his cross of gold analogy is what really won the day.

Bryan began his speech by noting that it was 'not a contest among persons' but rather 'the cause of humanity.' Reminiscent of Civil War rhetoric, he stated that 'in this contest, brother has been arrayed against brother, and father against son. The warmest ties of love and acquaintance and association have been disregarded.' In egalitarian terms, he equated the worker and manager as equals. He argued in favor of a federal income tax, which eventually became official in 1913 with the 16th Amendment.

Bryan next turned his attention to monetary questions. Referring to tariffs, he argued that 'if protection has slain its thousands the gold standard has slain its tens of thousands.' Bryan was clear that he felt his party and platform was on behalf of the masses. He wrote, '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.' Though some argued that wealth flowed from top down, he argued that wealth should flow from the bottom up, originating with the masses.

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