"YOU SHALL NOT press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns! You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!"
With these words, spoken 100 years ago today, William Jennings Bryan sent the Democratic National Convention into a frenzy over an issue -- goldbugs versus silverites -- now relegated to history books. This newspaper commented it was "the first time. . . a delegate to a presidential convention has captured a presidential nomination by a single speech."
And so it was. And so it is. There have been exciting convention moments since but nothing to compare with Bryan's oratory and passion. His supporters idolized him as "the Great Commoner," but to William Allen White, a famed editor in neighboring Kansas, Bryan was "the incarnation of demagogy, the apotheosis of riot, destruction and carnage." The Sun fretted that he was running on a platform of "fiat money, socialism and anarchism."
Perhaps the only current issue that arouses emotions as strong is abortion. True, we have politicians today who always want low interest rates and easy money. But their words resonate feebly in a system depending on arcane monetary manipulations by the Federal Reserve.
In Bryan's day, his demand for "the free and unlimited coinage of silver at the ratio of 16 ounces of silver to one ounce of gold" was a rallying cry for the rural West and South against the industrial East and Midwest, for farmers and union labor against Wall Street -- most especially, for debtors versus creditors.
The conflict went on boil in 1893 when a Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, opted for a strict gold standard just as a devastating depression sent unemployment to 20 percent, wiped out tens of thousands of farmers and had "tramps" roaming the countryside. Bryan had an issue even more potent than high tariffs.
The Chicago convention repudiated Cleveland and the Eastern money interests. With Democrats split and their candidate talking "rot" (in the opinion of Republican winner William McKinley) the GOP defeated Bryan in 1896, 1900 and 1908. He became the only three-time loser in the annals of either major party. At the time of his death in 1925, he had taken up creationism at the Scopes trial in Tennessee.
There are no silverites today since the Fed can add to the money supply by a quiet order hardly noticed by the multitude. But there are goldbugs -- pols who consider the gold standard a panacea on a par with the bimetallism worshiped by Bryan. The latest was a fellow named Steve Forbes. Remember him?
Pub Date: 7/09/96