Friends, lend me your ears.
I write today about a speech that was once considered the greatest political speech in American history. Even today, after Reagan, Obama, Eisenhower, and King, it is counted among the very best. And yet this speech has passed from the history we have learned. Its speaker failed in his ambitions and the cause he championed is so archaic that most people wouldn’t even understand it.
I speak of Congressman Will J Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech.
William Jennings Bryan was a congressman from Nebraska, a lawyer, a three-time Democratic candidate for president (1896, 1900, 1908), the 41st Secretary of State, and oddly enough, the lawyer for the prosecution at the Scopes Monkey Trial. He was also a “silver Democrat”, one of the insurgents who rose to challenge Democratic President Grover Cleveland and the Democratic party establishment over their support for gold over a bimetallic (gold plus silver) currency system.
The dispute over bimetallic currency is now more than a hundred years old and has been made entirely moot by the floating US dollar and the post-Bretton Woods international monetary order. Still, it’s worth understanding the debate about bimetallism, because the concerns Bryan’s speech raised are still concerns today. Once you understand why Bryan argued for what he did, this speech transforms from dusty history into still-relevant insights into live issues that our political process still struggles to address.
When Alexander Hamilton was setting up a currency system for the United States, he decided that there would be a bimetallic standard. Both gold and silver currency would be issued by the mint, with the US Dollar specified in terms of both metals. Any citizen could bring gold or silver to the mint and have it struck into coins (for a small fee, which covered operating costs).
Despite congressional attempts to tweak the ratio between the metals, problems often emerged. Whenever gold was worth more by weight than it was as currency, it would be bought using silver and melted down for profit. Whenever the silver dollar was undervalued, the same thing happened to it. By 1847, the silver in coins was so overvalued that silver coinage had virtually disappeared from circulation and many people found themselves unable to complete low-value transactions.
Congress responded by debasing silver coins, which led to an increase in the supply of coins and for a brief time, there was a stable equilibrium where people actually could find and use silver coins. Unfortunately, the equilibrium didn’t last and the discovery of new silver deposits swung things in the opposite direction, leading to fears that people would use silver to buy gold dollars and melt them down outside the country. Since international trade was conducted in gold, it would have been very bad for America had all the gold coins disappeared.
Congress again responded, this time by burying the demonetization of several silver coins (including the silver dollar) in a bill that was meant to modernize the mint. The logic here was that no one would be able to buy up any significant amount of gold if they had to do it in nickels. Unfortunately for congress, a depression happened right after they passed the bill.
Some people blamed the depression on the change in coinage and popular sentiment in some corners became committed to the re-introduction of the silver dollar.
The silver supplies that caused this whole fracas hadn’t gone anywhere. People knew that re-introducing silver would have been an inflationary measure, as the statutory amount of silver in a dollar would have been worth about $0.75 in gold backed currency, but they largely didn’t care – or viewed that as a positive. The people clamouring for silver also didn’t conduct much international trade, so they didn’t mind if silver currency drove out gold and made trade difficult.
There were attempts to remonetize the silver dollar over the next twenty years, but they were largely unsuccessful. A few mine owners found markets for their silver at the mint when law demanded a series of one-off runs of silver coins, but congress never restored bimetallism to the point that there was any significant silver in circulation – or significant inflation. Even these limited silver-minting measures were repealed in 1893, which left the United States on a de facto gold standard.
For many, the need for silver became more urgent after the Panic of 1893, which featured everything a good Gilded Age panic normally did – bank runs, failing railways, declines in trade, credit crunches, a crash in commodity prices, and the inevitable run on the US gold reserves.
The commodity price crash hit farmers especially hard. They were heavily indebted and had no real way to pay it off – unless their debts were reduced by inflation. Since no one had found any large gold deposits anywhere (the Klondike gold rush didn’t actually produce anything until 1898 and the Fairbanks gold rush didn’t occur until 1902), that wasn’t going to happen on the gold standard. The Democrat grassroots quickly embraced bimetallism, while the party apparatus remained supporters of the post-1893 de facto gold standard.
This was the backdrop for Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech, which took place during summer 1896 at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He was already a famed orator and had been petitioning members of the party in secret for the presidential nomination, but his plans weren’t well known. He managed to go almost the entire convention without giving a speech. Then, once the grassroots had voted out the old establishment and began hammering out the platform, he arranged to be the closing speaker representing the delegates (about 66% of the total) who supported official bimetallism.
The convention had been marked by a lack of any effective oratory. In a stunning ten-minute speech (that stretched much longer because of repeated minutes-long interruptions for thunderous applause) Bryan singlehandedly changed that and won the nomination.
And this whole thing, the lobbying before the convention and the carefully crafted surprise moment, all of it makes me think of how effective Aaron Swartz’s Theory of Change idea can be when executed correctly.
Theory of Change says that if there’s something you want to accomplish, you shouldn’t start with what you’re good at and work towards it. You should start with the outcome you want and keep asking yourself how you’ll accomplish it.
Bryan decided that he wanted America to have a bimetallic currency. Unfortunately, there was a political class united in its opposition to this policy. That meant he needed a president that favoured it. Without the president, you need to get 66% of Congress and the Senate onboard and that clearly wasn’t happening with the country’s elites so hostile to silver.
Okay, well how do you get a president who’s in favour of restoring silver as currency? You make sure one of the two major parties nominates a candidate in favour of it, first of all. Since the Republicans (even then the party of big business) weren’t going to do it, it had to be the Democrats.
That means the question facing Bryan became: “how do you get the Democrats to pick a presidential candidate that supports silver?”
And this question certainly wasn’t easy. Bryan on his own couldn’t guarantee it, because it required delegates at least sympathetic to the idea. But there was a national backdrop such that that seemed likely, as long as there was a good candidate all of the “silver men” could unite around.
So, Bryan needed to ensure there was a good candidate and that that candidate got elected. Well, that was a problem, because neither of the two leading silver candidates were very popular. Luckily, Bryan was a Democrat, a former congressman, and kind of popular.
I think this is when the plan must have crystalized. Bryan just needed to deliver a really good speech to an already receptive audience. With the cachet from an excellent speech, he would clearly become the choice of silver supporting Democrats, become the Democratic party presidential candidate, and win the presidency. Once all that was accomplished, silver coins would become money again.
The fantastic thing is that it almost worked. Bryan was nominated on the Democratic ticket, absorbed the Populist party into the Democratic party to prevent a vote split, and came within 600,000 votes of winning the presidency. All because of a plan. All because of a speech.
So, what did he say?
Well, the full speech is available here. I do really recommend it. But I want to highlight three specific parts.
A Too Narrow Definition of “Business”
We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day—who begins in the spring and toils all summer—and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the board of trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak of this broader class of business men.
In some ways, this passage is as much the source of the mythology of the American Dream as the inscription on the statue of liberty. Bryan rejects any definition of businessman that focuses on the richest in the coastal cities and instead substitutes a definition that opens it up to any common man who earns a living. You can see echoes of this paragraph in almost every presidential speech by almost every presidential candidate.
Think of anyone you’ve heard running for president in recent years. Now read the following sentence in their voice: “Small business owners – like Monica in Texas – who are struggling to keep their business running in these tough economic times need all the help we can give them”. It works because “small business owners” has become one of the sacred cows of American rhetoric.
Bryan added this line just days before he delivered the speech. It was the only part of the whole thing that was at all new. And because this speech inspired a generation of future speeches, it passed into the mythology of America.
Trickle Down or Trickle Up
Mr. Carlisle said in 1878 that this was a struggle between “the idle holders of idle capital” and “the struggling masses, who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country”; and, my friends, the question we are to decide is: Upon which side will the Democratic party fight; upon the side of “the idle holders of idle capital” or upon the side of “the struggling masses”? That is the question which the party must answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic party. There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.
Almost a full century before Reagan’s trickle-down economics, Democrats were taking a stand against that entire world-view. Through all its changes – from the party of slavery to the party of civil rights, from the party of the Southern farmers to the party of “coastal elites” – the Democratic party has always viewed itself as hewing to this one simple principle. Indeed, the core difference between the Republican party and the Democratic party may be that the Republican party views the role of government to “get out of the way” of the people, while the Democratic party believes that the job of government is to “make the masses prosperous”.
A Cross of Gold
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.
This is perhaps the best ending to a speech I have ever seen. Apparently at the conclusion of the address, dead silence endured for several seconds and Bryan worried he had failed. Two police officers in the audience were ahead of the curve and rushed Bryan – so that they could protect him from the inevitable crush.
Bryan turned what could have been a dry, dusty, nitty-gritty issue into the overriding moral question of his day. In fact, by co-opting the imagery of the crown of thorns and the cross, he tapped into the most powerful vein of moral imagery that existed in his society. Invoking the cross, the central mystery and miracle of Christianity cannot but help to put (in a thoroughly Christian society) an issue on a moral footing, as opposed to an intellectual one.
This sort of moral rather than intellectual posture is a hallmark of any insurgency against a technocratic order. Technocrats (myself among them!) like to pretend that we can optimize public policy. It is, to us, often a matter of just finding the solution that empirically provides the greatest good to the greatest number of people. Who could be against that?
But by presupposing that the only moral principle is the greatest good for the greatest number, we obviate moral contemplation in favour of tinkering with numbers and variables.
(The most cutting critique of utilitarianism I’ve ever seen delivered was: “[These problems are] seen in the light of a technical or practical difficulty and utilitarianism appeals to a frame of mind in which technical difficulty, even insuperable technical difficulty, is preferable to moral unclarity, no doubt because it is less alarming.”, a snide remark by the great British ethicist Sir Bernard Williams from his half of Utilitarianism for and against.)
This avoiding-the-question-so-we-can-tinker is a policy that can provoke a backlash like Bryan. Leaving aside entirely the difficulty of truly knowing which policies will have “good” results, there’s the uncomfortable truth that not every policy is positive sum. Even positive sum policies can hurt people. Bryan ran for president because questions of monetary policy aren’t politically neutral.
The gold standard, for all the intellectual arguments behind it, was hurting people. Maybe not a majority of people, but people nonetheless. There’s a whole section of the speech where Bryan points out that the established order cannot just say “changes will hurt my business”, because the current situation was hurting other people’s businesses too.
It is very tempting to write that questions of monetary policy “weren’t” politically neutral. After all, there’s a pretty solid consensus on monetary policy these days (well, except for the neo-Fisherians, but there’s a reason no one listens to them). But even (especially) a consensus among experts can be challenged by legitimate political disagreements. When the Fed chose to pull interest rates low as stimulus for the economy after 2008, it put the needs of people trying to find jobs over those of retired people who held their savings in safe bonds.
If you lower speed limits, you make roads safer for law abiding citizens and less safe for people who habitually speed. If you decriminalize drugs, you protect rich techies who microdose on LSD and hurt people who view decriminalization as license to dabble in opiates.
Even the best intentioned or best researched public policy can hurt people. Even if you (like me) believe in the greatest good for the greatest number of people, you have to remember that. You can’t ever let hurting people be easy or unthinking.
Even though it failed in its original aim and even though the cause it promotes is dead, I want people to remember Bryan’s speech. I especially want people who hold power to remember Bryan’s speech. Bryan chose oratory as his vehicle, his way of standing up for people who were hurt by well-intentioned public policy. In 1896, I might have stood against Bryan. But that doesn’t mean I want his speech and the lessons it teaches to be forgotten. Instead, I view it as a call to action, a call to never turn away from the people you hurt, even when you know you are doing right. A call to not forget them. A call to try and help them too.