A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan

James Morone writes:

A mob of divided, disgruntled Democrats packed the Chicago Coliseum in July 1896 as William Jennings Bryan rose to the platform and delivered a roaring speech – still the speech for part of the American left – about an economic chimera. Bryan demanded that the United States peg its currency not to gold but to silver – the equivalent of treating cancer with grape seeds. No matter. The poor farmers and small merchants from the nation’s heartland grasped the essential point: Bryan was challenging a rich, powerful, Eastern establishment in their name. Before the age of microphones, Bryan’s voice reached every cranny of the great hall as his speech boomed into its grand finale. ‘We will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: you shall not press down upon the brow of labour this crown of thorns.’ Bryan grabbed at his temples and buckled his knees under the agony of the imagined thorns and from this pained crouch launched his most famous line. ‘You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.’ He slowly raised himself up, stepped back from the podium, pulled his hands off his brow, and threw them out into a crucifixion pose. Silence gripped the hall for five ticks at this inspired blasphemy. Then pandemonium. ‘The floor of the convention seemed to heave up,’ one New York newspaper reported, as men swept Bryan onto their shoulders and into national legend. The speech marks the high-water moment of the Populist movement, which had crashed out of the American plains and confronted corporate capitalism. Its memory would inspire the Democratic Party from Woodrow Wilson (elected in 1912) to Franklin Roosevelt (1932) and Lyndon Johnson (1964). More than a century later, Democratic candidates still criss-cross the country trying to rekindle the lost Populist magic. In fact, the present campaign season has seen even some Republicans groping for the prairie Democrat’s standards.

(LRB 21 February 2008)