Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Cross of Gold

On Good Friday my mind wandered down a trail of word associations. Eventually I found myself thinking about William Jennings Bryan, once a widely respected political figure, who in his three unsuccessful attempts to become president invented the modern presidential campaign. His great tragedy was that he wasn't nominated by the Democrats in 1912 when Teddy Roosevelt transformed himself into an independent progressive and split the Republican party. Woodrow Wilson appointed Bryan Secretary of State, but Bryan later resigned as a means to protest Wilson placing the country on a path to war. Finally Bryan's career and life ended in ignominy in 1925 after he prosecuted John Scopes for teaching evolution. Thanks to the play and movie, "Inherit the Wind," Bryan is remembered, if he is at all, as the archetype of the hide-bound, Bible waving fundamentalist. Such a view is simplistic and does not take into account Bryan's populism, his opposition to war and imperialism, and his undeniable appeal to a mass political party.

I found Bryan's recording of his famous "Cross of Gold" speech, and I can't help but wonder what Bryan would've done with Podcasts and Youtube. I'm sure Bryan would've taken advantage of the new media, but the contents of his speech could well baffle a modern audience accustomed to pop culture references.

The "Cross of Gold" speech rouses the listener to defend the Free Silver Democrats and their bi-metallic monetary system. Essentially Bryan advocated an expansion of the money supply without a national bank through the introduction of more silver. The resulting inflation, as he and the audience full well knew, would favor the farmers holding mortgages. Bryan sang praises to the laborers in factories and farm, and he also expected his listener to know who the players of the French Revolution were and the importance of the Catiline conspiracy. Bryan even defended the income tax. It would be strange today to have a presidential candidate speak in favor of inflation and taxes while assuming his audience had a firm grasp of classical and early-modern history. Bryan framed his speech in Marxist rhetoric and Christian symbolism and concluded it by saying:

"Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand 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."

Though undeniably powerful in its emotional eloquence, I still have no idea what in the world Bryan meant, because the supply of silver was still going to be pegged to the supply of gold.

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