Nebraska Moments

By Donald R. Hickey; Susan A. Wunder et al. | Go to book overview

17. William Jennings Bryan and Agrarian Protest

In the summer of 1896, a young two-term Democratic congressman from Nebraska who had managed to win election from a Republican district strode to the podium at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. William Jennings Bryan, an extremely talented speaker, had been invited to address the party multitude. Given the chance to speak, Bryan delivered his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, a stirring plea on behalf of farmers and workers urging the United States to make credit and money easier to obtain by coining silver freely. “Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world,” 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.”

It was an electrifying speech. The entire nation took note. The governor of Illinois called it “the greatest speech I have ever listened to,” and it had a profound effect upon the convention. Despite being only thirty-six years old, the “Boy Orator of the Platte” was nominated for the presidency after several ballots. Because of his commitment to agrarian causes, Bryan was also nominated by the Populist Party as their 1896 presidential candidate that same year. He was the very first Nebraskan to run for the presidency.

William Jennings Bryan’s meteoric political career corresponded to the extreme agony being felt in the farming communities of the Great Plains. By 1890, when he was first elected to Congress, Nebraska farmers had had it. They had contended not only with sagging commodity prices but also with drought and grasshoppers, high taxes and tariffs, and excessive freight charges and interest rates. Most believed that they were being victimized by banks, railroad operators, and implement

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