By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
In 1896, the Democrats suffered a split between the “gold bugs” and the “free silver” Democrats. The leader of the “free silver” Democrats was William Jennings Bryan, who, growing up in midwestern farm country, recognized that the Populist farmers’ complaints were real. And, so, he ran for the 1896 presidential election.
Bryan’s ‘Cross of Gold’ Speech
In his acceptance speech of the Democratic nomination, Bryan made what became one of the most famous speeches in the whole of American history: The “Cross of Gold” speech.
Here’s what Bryan said as he accepted the Democratic nomination for president. “I come to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty: The cause of humanity.” He declared that he spoke for the poor farmer, the poor miner and the industrial laborer, and not for the “plutocrats”, in other words, not for the men of great wealth.
Bryan said, “It is for these we speak. We do not come as aggressors. Ours is not a war of conquest. We are fighting in defense of our homes, our families, and our posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer. We entreat no more. We petition no more. We defy them. We shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, ‘You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.’”
In other words, he was using evangelical rhetoric and the very vivid imagery of Jesus’s crucifixion to say that the gold standard for the currency is like the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Bryan himself was an evangelical Christian, and a very effective one.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Divide among the Populists
For the Populists, the fact that the Democrats had adopted one of their key issues brought on a crisis. When their convention in the summer of 1896, there was a split in the Populist ranks as well.
Some of them took the view now that the Democrats favor a free silver policy, they should put their electoral weight behind them, so that Bryan can win. Others, though, continued to believe that because silver is only one of the many issues that they have got to be concerned about, and for them to vote Democratic would mean that most of their issues will be swept away by the other components of the Democratic Party.
Bryan: Democratic as well as Populist Candidate
A long deadlock ensued at the Populists’ convention. In the end, they made a very awkward compromise position. They did choose William Jennings Bryan as their presidential candidate, but they chose a different running mate for him, Tom Watson of Georgia, the man who’d been trying to bridge the racial divide inside southern farm politics.
The election of 1896 was, therefore, an extremely anomalous one, because voters had the opportunity to vote either for William McKinley of the Republican Party, or William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic candidate, or William Jennings Bryan, the Populist candidate. However, votes cast for him as a Democrat wouldn’t be tallied up along with votes cast for him as a Populist; they were separate.
The Anomalous Election of 1896
Another thing that made it so anomalous was that Bryan himself, even though he was the Populists’ presidential candidate, disavowed the nomination. He did not want it, because he was running on behalf of the Democratic Party. Well, a foreseeable outcome to the election was this—the farmers’ vote was split between Democrats and Populists, and the Republican candidate, William McKinley, won the election on behalf of a “sound money” policy.
Populism really failed because it was never able to overcome the great gulf between the farmers—who would have benefited from an inflationary policy—and the industrial workers; that is, the consumers’ dependence on wages, who benefited from falling prices and didn’t want inflation that would have hurt them.
The Wizard of Oz: Allegory on the 1896 Election
Just after the election of 1896, a novel was written and published at the very end of the century that became a great American classic—Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. It’s an allegory of what had happened in the election of 1896. It’s a gray, bleak, miserable landscape—the harshness of the farmer’s lot. It isn’t until Dorothy, the farm girl, goes to the land of Oz that the film breaks into color.
The prose of the novel is the same way. The Tin Man is the industrial worker who lacks a heart. The Scarecrow is a representation of the farmer. The Lion—with lots of roar, lots of great rhetoric, but no real bravery—is William Jennings Bryan. The Wizard of Oz himself—who seems mighty at first, but is actually just a little guy behind the scenes—is McKinley himself, the man who’d won the election.
Therefore, The Wizard of Oz—although now most of its admirers don’t know anything at all about the Populist politics of the 1890s—began as an allegory of what had happened in that election.
Common Questions about William J. Bryan’s Run at the 1896 Presidential Election
Some of the Populists took the view that the Democrats favor a free silver policy, they should put their electoral weight behind them, so that William J. Bryan could win. Others, though, continued to believe that because silver is only one of the many issues that they have got to be concerned about, and for them to vote Democratic would mean that most of their issues will be swept away by the other components of the Democratic Party. This eventually led to a split.
Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz is an allegory of what had happened in the election of 1896.
William McKinley won the election of 1896.