Democrat's Fiery Orator Bryan Pushed Party to Left over Gold: Addressed Badly Divided Chicago Convention in 1896

Article excerpt

After a century, the Democratic Party has come full circle ideologically.

On July 9, 1896, a young former congressman from Nebraska named William Jennings Bryan addressed a badly divided Democratic National Convention in Chicago. At issue was whether to continue embracing the gold standard favored by the incumbent conservative Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, or to flood the economy with silver dollars at a ratio to gold of 16 to 1.

Bryan orally threw down the gauntlet before the monied Eastern interests of the day and electrified the delegates with one of the most celebrated speeches in U.S. political history.

"Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests and the toilers everywhere," he said, "we will answer their demand 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 so galvanized the convention that it nominated him for president, at 36 the youngest candidate in U.S. history. Three times he would be the Democratic nominee - he ran again in 1900 and 1908 - and three times he would lose.

But his famous "cross of gold" speech and his subsequent nomination marked a watershed shift in the Democratic Party from center-right to center-left.

"It was the most carefully orchestrated political utterance in the country's history," says David D. Anderson, a retired literature professor at Michigan State University and author of a 1981 biography of Bryan.

"He supposedly said he had a speech in his pocket that would turn the party on its ear, and he did. He had given parts of the speech before, and he knew that every part would have an impact. It marked the coming of the common man into some degree of decency."

Ed Renwick, a political science professor at Loyola University in New Orleans and a specialist on the Long family of Louisiana, agrees that Bryan's speech was a defining moment in the history of the Democratic Party.

"It was a move away from the traditional political conservatism of both parties at the time and toward a much more liberal political philosophy with the emphasis on the common man," he says. …