"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. 

Summary

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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...

(The entire section contains 962 words.)

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