William Jennings Bryan was an American Democratic politician and lawyer, a member of the US House of Representatives from the state of Nebraska, who served as the United States Secretary of State from 1913-15, under the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. His speech, “Cross of Gold”, criticizing the use of the gold standard as the primary medium of exchange, is commonly considered to be one of the greatest political speeches in the history of the United States, and was delivered at the Democratic National Convention, Chicago, on July 9th, 1896. The success of the speech had far-reaching consequences in Bryan’s political career, earning him the nomination for president in the 1896 presidential elections. While his nomination was ultimately unsuccessful as he lost to William McKinley, Bryan’s fame shot far and wide following the speech, earning him two more unsuccessful presidential nominations, as well as lifelong fame as an orator and a populist.
Cross of Gold | Summary
As is customary for speeches, it uses the first-person narrative voice to address the audience directly, creating a semi-theatrical impact and the ability to move the audience easily. Bryan begins with a traditionally humble admission of his inferiority as a speaker as compared to all those who have spoken before him. However, he shifts his stance of humility quickly, asserting that ‘the armour of’a righteous cause can make even the humblest of citizens appear formidable. He introduces the area of focus in his speech i.e., the discontinuation of the informal gold standard and the adoption of bimetallism, as a cause that favors ‘liberty’ and ‘humanity’.
He alludes to the American Civil War, asserting that the division that it created in the country is unprecedented in the history of the nation. Comparing the victory of Democrats in the recent-most Presidential elections to the crusader’s army led by Peter the Hermit, he asserts that today they are all gathered to pass a judgment on an issue that has already been judged by the common people of America, implying the discontinuation of the gold standard.
His speech now takes the form of a rebuttal in a debate, when he indirectly addresses the Massachusetts Governor, William E. Russell, a defendant of the gold standard, who spoke immediately before Bryan. Countering Russell’s claim of the citizens of Massachusetts’ desire for upholding the gold standard, he posits the citizens of all other states as equals before the law to those of Massachusetts, whose interests are equally worthy of protection. Addressing the ‘gold-delegates’ (advocators of the gold standard) directly now, he challenges the claim that business interests will be hampered in the absence of the gold standard, asserting that the interests of ‘businessmen’ have already been hampered by the very same. He continues with a thought-provoking and inclusive definition of the concept of ‘businessman’, including farmers, workers, attorneys, small-town merchants, and other members of different economic substrata who are not usually denoted by the term, asserting that the existing system is already hampering their interests.
Alluding to the immense support in favor of bimetallism in the West Coast, Bryan argues that the demands of these Westerners are as important as those of people from any other parts of the country, declaring that now that their petitions and entreaties have failed, they are here to ‘defy’, assuming the collective pronoun, ‘we’. He follows up with a deliberate invocation of Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States and the founder of the Democratic Party, displaying his thorough understanding of his audience and their inspirations. He decries the electoral politics of merely collecting votes, reminding his audience of the ideological principles that are the cornerstones of democracy. He also raises the Income Tax question, which is a revolutionary concept in world politics and economy at the time and declares his support for it. He also raises the question of National Bank Currency, a system of currency issued by non-governmental National Banks sanctioned by the government, that was discontinued in the 1930s. Bryan declares his opposition to the National Banks’ functioning as issuers and circulators of currency, asserting that it ought to be a function of the government. He also brings up the issue of life tenure in important governmental positions, which he opposes for its elitist exclusivism.
Next, he tackles the question of the gold standard vs bimetallism head-on, assuring that if a formal change to bimetallism is adopted, it will not affect contracts that were made before the passing of the law. He reminds, however, that this does not mean that there would not be a change in loaning and borrowing conditions, stating that the interests of debtors were also ignored during the adoption of the gold standard in 1873, upon being questioned about the interest of creditors. Bryan also tackles the issue of democratic answerability with political intelligence and suave, asserting that his advocacy of the success of the silver legislation is not a guarantee that the legislation will be as successful as hoped, ridiculing the idea that he and the silver-faction should be answerable in case it does not by asserting that this remains true and should be implemented in all kinds of political assertions while campaigning. He also declares that the question of the currency standard is more important than all other economic issues being raised currently, and should be prioritized accordingly.
Bryan continues by criticizing the Republican Presidential Candidate, William McKinley, by asserting that his insistence on formalizing the gold standard compromises the sovereignty of the country, making the USA vulnerable to economic dominance by countries like Britain who also follow the gold standard, and in the interest of preserving trade benefits with such countries the elite, wealthy section of Americans is demanding the gold standard, compromising the needs of humbler citizens. He alludes to the increasing support for bimetallism among sections of the party who were avid supporters of the gold standard until recently, asserting that if it is harmful to the prosperity of the country, they ought not to wait for other countries to discontinue it, and instead creating an example through their own action. The gold standard only benefits ‘the holders of fixed investments’ and the ‘idle holders of idle capital’, and never the masses, using a rhetorical question to urge the party to choose its side. He further affirms that a country whose cities are burnt while its villages are left undisturbed can hope to rebuild those cities, but the destruction of villages which symbolize agriculture and trade among the masses, will inevitably result in the economic collapse of the entire nation. He ends with his famous line – ‘you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.’, to thundering applause and support.
Cross of Gold | Analysis
Bryan shows effective use of language and rhetoric, as well as an acute understanding of his audience while delivering the speech, which contributed towards its success. His allusions to Andrew Jackson and Peter the Hermit establish ideological parallels that are bound to capture his audience’s attention, all of whom are Christian Democrats. His populist appeals also allude to the foundational principles of the party as well as of a democratic government, reminding his audience constantly where their loyalties should lie. His action of directly addressing the gold faction in the convention, already in a minority, to begin with, serve to further isolate and pressurize them, separating them from the majority of those present, a psychological tactic that is useful in persuasion and intimidation.
Structurally, Bryan checks all the required boxes when he systematically begins by first declaring his identity and position, gaining the audience’s trust with his initial humility, and soon turning it into a fiery speech of righteousness. He then targets the audiences’ self-perception, likening them to crusaders who fight for a Christian idea of ‘good’ against ‘evil’, solidly situating his idea and his audience inside a religious ideological cannon. As he directly raises the issue of the gold standard, he systematically problematizes it, addressing why this is a more important and pressing issue than others. The mockery of his republican rival, McKinley, and his gold position also serves to alienate the gold faction within the Democratic Party, pressurizing them to assimilate within the mainstream democratic thought.
Towards the conclusion, his appeal by reminding the audience about the foundational role that the masses play in the economy, prosperity, and well-being of the nation serves as an important incentive for furthering his cross, while his final sentence paralleling the crucifixion of Christ with that of American masses in a ‘cross of gold’ is a rhetorical strategy that directs the audience towards the ‘right’ side of this debate – that of bimetallism.