The Greatest Political Speech Ever Delivered At a Presidential Convention
Political Oratory is now a dead art. Occasionally a President says something memorable, but it usually is off the cuff and casual. The last two Presidents who made memorable speeches were Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, both of whom sensed their strengths as speakers. But (except for an occasional phrase, like Eisenhower's last speech about the "military-industrial complex") the best I can think of (although I'm sure people will think of other examples I forgot) is Nixon's ridiculous "Chequers" speech, and his later comments, "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore!" (1962) and "I am not a crook!" (also, "But that would be wrong!"). Johnson's Texas slow drawl was a political liability. Reagan had good delivery (his radio, movie, and television work stood him to good stead). Clinton can speak - but he tends to overdue it.
But the 19th Century and earlier were different. Great oratory was great entertainment and educated the public. I discussed the career of 18th Century speaker, lawyer, and politician Patrick Henry of Virginia
the subject of an episode of the series of YOU ARE THERE. Lincoln's
legend was helped by his brilliant speeches, such as the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address. Some years after YOU ARE THERE did a show on Henry that series did a similar episode on William Jennings Bryan at his great entryway to historical significance: his "Cross of Gold" Speech delivered at the 1896 Democratic Convention.
Bryan had been born in Nebraska in 1860, so he was the first person to run for the Presidency who did not serve or live through the American Civil War as an adult. His outlook was dictated by the agricultural world of the Midwest (and later the south), which in 1896 still was quite large and important in national affairs. He had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Nebraska in 1892, but his election was somehow connected to the Populist Party Revolt of that time. He only served a single term, and was defeated for re-election.
Bryan spent the next two years going around the country speaking on the economic situation: the need of the farmers and Westerners and Southerners to have "Free Silver" (unlimited coinage of Silver money) instead of just sticking to the Gold standard supported by fiscal conservatives like President Cleveland and most of the Republicans.
While doing these trips, Bryan would do sections of what became known as the "Cross of Gold" speech - testing out various tropes and phrases to see if they worked. So, when he went to the 1896 Chicago convention as a delegate and candidate for the nomination, Bryan had perfected the speech.
Basically it attacked the banks and trusts of the Eastern States for dictating economic policy that was detrimental to the farmers, and the poor. It culminates in the following great phrase - "Thou shalt not push down upon the brow of labor a crown of thorns! Thou shalt not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!" The speech became so popular Bryan would later make wax cylinder recordings of it.
It electrified the convention with it's heavy Christian imagery (an early example of Bryan's real Christian feelings). Yet it also met with some disbelief: Governor John Peter Altgeld, listening to the speech applauded, but an hour later asked, "What exactly did Bryan say?" Had the constitution been different (and allowed for foreign born Presidential candidates) Altgeld would have been the choice. Instead, it narrowed to a handful of candidates including Bryan. The speech won him the nomination.
Bryan campaigned more vigorously than any other candidate since Stephen Douglas in 1860. The Republicans were better organized by Marcus Hanna (a wealthy Cleveland, Ohio industrialist), and Hanna's friend William McKinley was the candidate. McKinley had a dignified front porch campaign, with people coming to see him. But Hanna made sure that the message of the Republican Party ("Prosperity and the Full Dinner Pail") spread. The result was McKinley carried the urban centers around the country, and the election, but Bryan did better than any other WINNING candidate of either party (including Lincoln) in terms of his popular vote up to that time.
Bryan would have two other chances at the Presidency as the Democratic Candidate in 1900 (he campaigned against imperialism in the wake of the Spanish-American War), and in 1908. He lost those attempts too, but his liberal ideas (direct election of U.S. Senators, controls over the trust, graduated federal income tax, spreading Jeffersonian ideals of democracy) were not rejected. Many reforms of the Progressive Era were supported and pushed by him, and with Altgeld he re-directed the Democrats so that in 1912 they elected Woodrow Wilson President for two terms.
Bryan never held elected office again, but he would (under Wilson) be Secretary of State until he resigned on a point of principle in the wake of the Lusitania disaster. He remained a potent public figure until his death in 1925, a week after the end of the Scopes "Monkey" Trial, when he won the case but was humiliated in Clarence Darrow's clever cross-examination as a "biblical expert"!
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