"Cross of Gold" Speech Summary

The "Cross of Gold" speech by William Jennings Bryan was an address to the 1896 Democratic National Convention arguing for a return to bimetallism.

  • William Jennings Bryan traces the political divide over the gold standard. Republicans support the relatively new gold standard, whereas Democrats increasingly support a return to a system of both silver and gold.
  • Bryan criticizes Republican nominee William McKinley for waiting to see if other countries will move to bimetallism, proposing that the United States take the initiative.
  • Bryan discusses how the gold standard favors east coast businessmen over small-business owners and farmers, pioneering Americans who deserve support. 

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Last Updated on September 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 962

William Jennings Bryan delivered his “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic National Convention in July of 1896 as part of his bid for the party’s presidential nomination. Bryan begins the speech by esteeming his political colleagues, noting that regardless of their view, they are eloquent speakers and great thinkers. However, he states that these qualities do not hold bearing on the matter at hand: the question of returning to gold and silver to back American currency. As he frames it, the matter is one of righteousness, rather than eloquence or intellect.

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Bryan explains that there has been a philosophical divide among those in congress. Some believe in returning to a policy of bimetallism, while others believe that the gold standard is more appropriate for the nation. However, many congressional democrats have campaigned for free silver, and the public—“the plain people of this country”—have agreed that this is the best policy. Despite a general agreement that the United States must return to bimetallism, Bryan notes that this issue has caused a rift between those who should otherwise get along. In fact, even New York Senator David Hill and Massachusetts Governor William Russell have argued that the gold standard is the best policy for the nation. Bryan acknowledges that he respects these men and admires their personalities, but personalities are not the issue here—principles are.

One of the arguments against bimetallism is that it will hurt businesses. However, Bryan argues that business has already been hurt. While the gold standard may help those rich businessmen with access to gold, there are other kinds of businessmen as well: farmers, miners, general store owners, and small-town lawyers, for instance. These people are “hardy pioneers” who have moved out of the cities on the east coast of the United States to try to make a life for themselves in the midwestern and western regions, living a life different from the businessmen of New York or Boston. Bryan claims that he speaks for these pioneers and that returning to bimetallism is a step towards defending these peoples’ homes and liberties.

Bryan then turns his attention to the idea that controlling money in this way is potentially an overreach of government. He states first that the United States is overly vigilant about the prospect of tyranny. Further, governments need to be adaptable to changing times. Such monetary adaptation is neither tyranny nor overreaching; sometimes, laws simply need to change to protect those whom they are designed to defend. Keeping with the idea of overreach, he further criticizes the idea of a national bank and suggests that banks issuing currency are overstepping their bounds. Currency, he suggests, should be a government issue. He states that a national bank would destroy America, and he expresses gratitude to individuals like Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson for fighting against the establishment of a national bank. While some state that “government ought to go out of the banking business,” Bryan’s retort is that “banks should go out of the governing business.”

Moving on, Bryan looks at what he terms the “paramount issue,” the reason he is primarily focused on the “money question” rather than other concerns. He suggests that the gold standard has been one of the most damaging policies in the United States and that all other issues should be set aside until it is dealt with. This leads him to the larger issue of presidency; it has thus far been Republicans who have advocated for the gold standard, despite so many recently coming to the opinion that it is a bad policy. Bryan explains that the Republican presidential nominee, William McKinley, has advocated for the gold standard and would only be willing to consider bimetallism if other countries adopt a policy of bimetallism. This, Bryan suggests, places foreign affairs over domestic concerns—McKinley has, in effect, sold out his people by supporting the gold standard.

Although Bryan acknowledges that McKinley was once popular, he sees McKinley’s popularity dwindling and hopes that, like Napoleon, he will eventually be forgotten by his people. McKinley further criticizes other Republicans who only months before had claimed that the gold standard was the only policy the United States could feasibly adopt. To align themselves with McKinley, they have shifted their position to claim that they are in favor of bimetallism if the rest of the world also makes this shift. Similar to Bryan’s criticism of McKinley, this places foreign policy over the good of the American people. Bryan further suggests that this wavering shows weakness in the Republican platform. If the gold standard is so good, he argues, the policies adopted by the rest of the world should have no bearing on their support of it. He calls for both parties, Republican and Democratic, to abandon the gold standard on the grounds that the United States has historically favored bimetallism and through this policy has become the greatest nation on earth.

Bryan closes his speech by considering the ideals of the Democratic party. Democrats have never been on the side of business moguls; rather, they have always supported the “struggling masses.” He argues that American businesses and cities rest on the backs of common laborers, especially farmers. Indeed, if the farms in the country were destroyed, the cities would soon perish. The United States, he asserts, has always been an independent nation, and there is no reason it should wait for the rest of the world to adopt bimetallism. Instead, America should adopt bimetallism, and the rest of the world should follow. He finishes by stating that the Democratic party must support the laborers of the United States. To do any less would be to place upon them a crown of thorns and crucify them upon a cross of gold.

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