In 1896, Democrats and Populists joined to support William Jennings Bryan for the presidency. A thirty-six-year-old congressman from Nebraska, Bryan won the Democratic nomination after delivering to the national convention an electrifying speech that crystallized the farmers’ pride and grievances. “Burn down your cities and leave our farms,” Bryan proclaimed, “and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” Bryan called for the “free coinage” of silver—the unrestricted minting of silver money. In language ringing with biblical imagery, Bryan condemned the gold standard: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

At various points in the nineteenth century, from debates over “hard” versus “soft” money in the Jacksonian era to the greenback movement after the Civil War, the “money question” had played a central role in American politics. Bryan’s demand for “free silver” was the latest expression of the view that increasing the amount of currency in circulation would raise the prices farmers received for their crops and make it easier to pay off their debts. His nomination wrested control of the Democratic Party from long-dominant leaders like President Grover Cleveland, who were closely tied to eastern businessmen.

There was more to Bryan’s appeal, however, than simply free silver. A devoutly religious man, he was strongly influenced by the Social Gospel movement (discussed in the previous chapter) and tried to apply the teachings of Jesus Christ to uplifting the “little people” of the United States. He championed a vision of the government helping ordinary Americans that anticipated provisions of the New Deal of the 1930s, including a progressive income tax, banking regulation, and the right of workers to form unions.

Many Populists were initially cool to Bryan’s campaign. Their party had been defrauded time and again by Democrats in the South. Veteran Populists feared that their broad program was in danger of being reduced to “free silver.” But realizing that they could not secure victory alone, the party’s leaders endorsed Bryan’s candidacy. Bryan broke with tradition and embarked on a nationwide speaking tour, seeking to rally farmers and workers to his cause.

A cartoon from the magazine Judge, September 14, 1896, condemns William Jennings Bryan and his “cross of gold” speech for defiling the symbols of Christianity. Bryan tramples on the Bible while holding his golden cross; a vandalized church is visible in the background.

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