MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block. Now, a presidential contender whose rhetoric on the economy made him famous but did not win him the White House. We're going back to 1896 in our series called The Contenders, about ground-breaking presidential candidates who lost the race.
Back then, the United States was in a midst of a depression that had begun with a series of bank failures and a run on gold, the basis for the dollar. The hot election issue that year was whether to ditch the gold standard. Among those in favor was a young man named William Jennings Bryan. At the Democratic convention, he delivered one of the most famous speeches in American history - the Cross of Gold speech. Here's the story of William Jennings Bryan, produced by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries.
Mr. MICHAEL KAZIN (Author, "A Godly Hero"): My name is Michael Kazin. I wrote a biography of William Jennings Bryan, entitled "A Godly Hero."
Mr. RICHARD BENSEL (Author, "Passion and Preferences: William Jennings Bryan and the 1896 Democratic National Convention"): My name is Richard Bensel. I wrote the book "Passion and Preferences: William Jennings Bryan and the 1896 Democratic National Convention."
Unidentified Man: (Singing) What we want is honest money, good as gold and pure as honey. Every dollar sound and true.
Mr. BENSEL: In 1896, the major question was a choice between silver and gold as backing for the American dollar.
Mr. KAZIN: At that time, Americans could actually take a paper dollar to the Treasury and redeem it for its value in gold.
Mr. BENSEL: But the supply of gold was decreasing, which meant that it was deflationary. And that was good for creditors. It was good for the wealthy. It was good for the banks, but it was very bad for farmers and miners and the small people of the United States. And that's where William Jennings Bryan came in. The Democratic National Convention was in early July in 1896.
Mr. KAZIN: Bryan was known as the most eloquent speaker for the silver cause, and so his role was going to be giving the most important speech for the silver plank at the convention.
Mr. BENSEL: He was very young. He was 36 years old. He'd served a couple of terms in Congress, been defeated. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the Senate from Nebraska, and that was it.
Mr. KAZIN: Bryan was not expected to be a leading candidate for president in 1896.
Mr. BENSEL: He was not even a long shot at the beginning of the convention, but Bryan's Cross of Gold speech changed people's minds. We will never know how Bryan's speech sounded to the spectators in Chicago in July 1896. We can only take what he recorded after the fact and try to imagine just how it would have sounded before 20,000 people.
(Soundbite of 1921 recording)
Mr. WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN (Former Democratic Presidential Candidate): Mr. Chairman and gentlemen of the convention...
Mr. KAZIN: There were no microphones. So you stood on a platform before four and a half acres of people. If they were not quiet, they could not hear you.
Mr. BRYAN: I come to speak to you in the defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty, the cause of humanity.
Mr. KAZIN: This is a revival. This is a revival of plain folk's democracy. To say we really are the ones who deserve to win, not those who are winning.
Mr. BRYAN: The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer. The attorney in a countrytown is as much a businessman as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis.
Mr. KAZIN: Bryan had a talent to read the reactions of thousand and thousands of people and almost imperceptibly to cue them.
Mr. BRYAN: We petition no more. We defy them.
Mr. BENSEL: Now, when he gave that line, we defy them, he moved almost imperceptibly back a step. And the spectators exploded. They threw things in the air. They stomped their feet, doing anything else that would make noise. And then, we he moved forward, they'd stop. And then he'd deliver the next phrases.
Mr. BRYAN: We will answer the demand for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns.
Mr. BENSEL: And here, he extends his arms out on either side and just stands there with his arms outstretched.
Mr. BRYAN: You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.
Mr. BENSEL: First, there's silence. But then there's a little bit of clapping in various parts of the convention hall. That clapping turns into people standing on their chairs and throwing things and yelling and then the stomping, and then there's just pandemonium.
Unidentified Man #1: Atlanta Constitution, July 10, 1896. Nearly all the silver states and some of the gold states joined in the procession and marched into triumph around the floor. Hundreds of umbrellas were opened by the apparently crazed people. Everybody stood up, shouted, waved handkerchiefs, hats, flags, canes, and anything else conspicuous and portable.
Mr. KAZIN: He had stated so well a case for silver, a case for the little guy that had not been made better, really, by anybody.
Mr. BENSEL: On the next day Bryan won the nomination for the presidency.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. KAZIN: Republican nominee in 1896 was William McKinley, former governor of Ohio and former congressman from Ohio. William McKinley ran what was called a front porch campaign. He stayed on his front porch in Canton, Ohio and had voters come to him. They'd come and be given food and drink, and McKinley would give him a little speech from his front porch, and they would go home. And then the next group would come in. But Bryan was different. Bryan traveled 18,000 miles by train, gave as many as 600 - 600 speeches in three months. He basically was campaigning 12 hours a day, and I think, in many ways, he was a forerunner of every campaign in the 20th century.
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) When he gets to Washington...
Mr. BENSEL: The election was really close, but William McKinley, much better financed, won by a little less than five percent of the popular vote.
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Shout McKinley as we go...
Mr. KAZIN: And William McKinley was inaugurated on March 4th, 1897.
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Do not falter or be slow on a country to bestow all the aid to gain protection that we know.
Mr. BENSEL: Bryan's Cross of Gold speech is known historically now as one of the most effective speeches in all of American politics. But it was almost a curse, I think, in the end. I think it dominated his life. I mean, it basically became the central and defining feature of his whole career. If you can imagine a politician who can do something this well, has this incredibly splendid moment, has it at the age of 36, and then basically spends the rest of his life trying to do it again. And it never happens...
Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) He was a natural-born (unintelligible)... his voice was rich and grand.
Mr. BENSEL: Bryan was nominated two other times for president by the Democrats, 1900, 1928, losing both times.
Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Three times he ran for president.
Mr. KAZIN: But at the same time, Bryan's platform of really believing that you need to make the masses more prosperous and that prosperity will work its way up to the rich rather than trickle down. His support for more government intervention in the economy to help the have-nots, that really became the core of modern liberalism. I mean, he changed his party. You can say in many ways that Bryan was one of the most important losers in American political history.
(Soundbite of music)
BLOCK: Our series, Contenders, is produced by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries with help from Ben Shapiro and Deborah George. Tomorrow, we'll hear about Adlai Stevenson. At our website, you can hear more of William Jennings Bryan's Cross of Gold speech. He recreated it for a recording in 1921. That's at npr.org.