Sometimes, a great speech can obscure the larger significance of the man who makes it. On the afternoon of July 9, 1896, William Jennings Bryan stepped up to the podium at the Democratic convention in Chicago and secured his spot in the headlines of 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 declared, before raising his hands to his temples and stretching his fingers out along his forehead for the penultimate phrase, '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.' As he spoke the final words, Bryan stunned the crowd with an inspired gesture of melodrama. He stepped back from the podium, pulled his hands away from his brow, and extended them straight out from his body-and held the Christlike pose for perhaps five seconds.
The speech thrilled the huge crowd packed into the sweltering Chicago Coliseum and helped convince the delegates to award him the presidential nomination. Yet, it was not enough to lift the 36-year-old former congressman from Nebraska into the White House against William McKinley, the well-financed candidate of the GOP. In 1900 and 1908, the Democrats again nominated Bryan for the presidency. He did not come close to victory on either occasion. Republicans dominated the big industrial states which made for a sturdy majority in the Electoral College. The Cross of Gold speech thus looms in popular memory as the high-point of Bryan's political life.
But that oratorical triumph was just the overture to a long and influential career in both national politics and American culture. Bryan helped change U.S. society in three significant ways. First, he was a progressive reformer, the pivotal figure in transforming the Democrats from the more conservative of the two major parties into the more liberal one-particularly on using federal power to (1) aid small farmers and wage-earners and (2) to strictly regulate large corporations.
Second, Bryan was a celebrity politician and a new type of campaigner. He was the first major-party presidential nominee to travel around the country throughout the whole campaign. Further, he kept speaking for the next thirty years before huge audiences at every possible venue and in nations around the world. This oratorical career made Bryan a small fortune and won him the admiration, as well as the love, of millions of Americans.
Finally, Bryan was a grassroots exponent of the Social Gospel. In and out of election campaigns, he preached that progressive politics and altruistic religion should complement one another. For Bryan, the only true Christianity was what he called "applied Christianity," which meant using one's faith in Jesus and in Scripture to denounce the big industrialists and financiers he believed were exploiting the meek. It did not matter to him whether an individual magnate was himself a pious Christian. Commenting on John D. Rockefeller, a devout Baptist who helped finance the building of churches, Bryan wrote, "It is not necessary that all Christian people shall sanction the Rockefeller method of making money merely because Rockefeller prays." Bryan's faith also led him to hate war, and he spoke frequently under the auspices of the peace movement.
Bryan was a national leader of his party until his death in 1925- long after he had stopped running for president. In critical ways, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Bill Clinton all stood on the shoulders of this three-time loser with the resonant voice and inspirational stagecraft.
Bryan in History: Liberal, Celebrity, Social Gospeler,
86 Neb. L. Rev.
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