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William Jennings Bryan, “Cross of Gold” speech, 1896

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

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After the Civil War ended in 1865, America’s industrial capacity generated large growth for decades. The country’s industrial centers were in the Northeast and the Great Lakes region. As industry boomed, a modern financial sector grew up to supply the nation’s growing business needs. Most of these banks and commercial centers were also in the northeastern states. As a result, western and southern farmers became frustrated with their poor economic position. In addition, their access to specie (i.e., hard currency) to pay their mounting debts from poor commodity prices and high shipping costs was limited by the nation’s adherence to the gold standard. As a result, concerned farmers turned to the federal government for redress and demanded action. In 1892, these farmers supported the Populist (or People’s) Party to achieve their ends, attaining remarkable success for a third party. In the 1896 presidential campaign, Populists supported Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan, a firebrand orator from Nebraska. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, in 1896, Bryan delivered his most famous speech in which he decried the northern monied interests and their suppression of average Americans. In the final line, Bryan exclaimed that the American people would not allow rich industrialists to “crucify mankind upon a cross of gold,” a strong condemnation of the nation’s gold standard. The speech is one of the preeminent addresses in American political history because it illustrated the social, economic, and political tensions endemic to America throughout the Gilded Age.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who wrote this document and when?
  2. Explain the events in the realm of industry and banking in the mid-1890s that provided the context for this speech.
  3. Who was the author’s audience? How might that audience have affected the document’s content?
  4. What do you believe was the author’s point of view or perspective?

Vocabulary Text
presumptuous (adj): overconfident and slightly arrogant

atom (n): part

eternal (adj): never-ending or forever
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. . . . 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.
Never before in the history of this country has there been witnessed such a contest as that through which we have passed. Never before in the history of American politics has a great issue been fought out as this issue has been by the voters themselves. . . .
application (n): function

metropolis (n): city

toil (v): to work

Board of Trade: group responsible for business decisions
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.
Atlantic Coast (n): U.S. east coast

creator (n): Go
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.
posterity (n): future generations

scorn (v): to reject in a contemptuous way

entreat (v): to plead

calamity (n): disaster
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!. . .
They say we passed an unconstitutional law. I deny it. The income tax was not unconstitutional when it was passed. It was not unconstitutional when it went before the Supreme Court for the first time. It did not become unconstitutional until one judge changed his mind; and we cannot be expected to know when a judge will change his mind.
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. . . .
platform (n): statement of political beliefs

sovereignty (n): power or authority

delegate (v): to entrust (a task or responsibility) to another person

penal statute (n): laws defining criminal offenses and prescribing punishments

levy (n): charge
We say in our platform that we believe that the right to coin money and issue money is a function of government. We believe it. We believe it is a part of sovereignty and can no more with safety be delegated to private individuals than can the power to make penal statutes or levy laws for taxation. .
paramount (adj): supreme

tariff (n): tax on foreign goods

slay (v): to kill
Now, my friends, let me come to the great paramount issue. If they ask us here why it is we say more on the money question than we say upon the tariff question, I reply that if protection has slain its thousands the gold standard has slain its tens of thousands. If they ask us why we did not embody all these things in our platform which we believe, we reply to them that when we have restored the money of the Constitution, all other necessary reforms will be possible, and that until that is done there is no reform that can be accomplished. . . .
retention (n): holding onto I want to suggest this truth, that if the gold standard is a good thing we ought to declare in favor of its retention and not in favor of abandoning it; and if the gold standard is a bad thing, why should we wait until some other nations are willing to help us to let it go? . . .
vain (adj): useless More than that, we can tell them this, that they will search the pages of history in vain to find a single instance in which the common people of any land ever declared themselves in favor of a gold standard. They can find where the holders of fixed investments have. . . .
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.
My friends, we shall declare that this nation is able to legislate for its own people on every question without waiting for the aid or consent of any other nation on earth, and upon that issue we expect to carry every single state in the Union. . . .
impotency (n): ineffectiveness

bimetallism (n): use of both gold and silver
I will not slander either one by saying that the people of those states will declare our helpless impotency as a nation to attend to our own business. It is the issue of 1776 over again. Our ancestors, when but 3 million, had the courage to declare their political independence of every other nation upon earth. Shall we, their descendants, when we have grown to 70 million, declare that we are less independent than our forefathers? No, my friends, it will never be the judgment of this people. Therefore, we care not upon what lines the battle is fought. If they say bimetallism is good but we cannot have it till some nation helps us, we reply that, instead of having a gold standard because England has, we shall restore bimetallism, and then let England have bimetallism because the United States have.
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.

Comprehension Questions

  1. Who did Bryan believe can and should decide this important question?
  2. What was Bryan’s argument against those who believed his policies would harm businesses?
  3. What did Bryan mean when he said their “war is not a war of conquest?”
  4. Why did Bryan claim they would no longer beg or entreat for their privileges?
  5. Why did Bryan approve of the income tax?
  6. Why did Bryan believe government was better suited than private individuals to coin and issue money?
  7. Why were the Democrats in general, and Bryan in particular, choosing to focus on the gold standard to such a high degree?
  8. In Bryan’s view, what part of society was in favor of the gold standard?
  9. Did Bryan think cities or farms are more important? Why?
  10. What did Bryan mean when he said that “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold?”

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. What did Bryan’s speech illustrate about the economic, political, and social tensions in the Gilded Age?
  2. Why do you believe the Democrats ultimately selected Bryan as their standard bearer in 1896?

“Cross of Gold” speech