The election of 1896 was just as much a partisan battle over the future of American economic policy as this year’s election. On this day in 1896, William Jennings Bryan delivered his rousing speech as a delegate to the Democratic convention declaring that mankind would not be “crucified on a cross of gold.” In the speech, Bryan, who was from the western farming state of Nebraska, advocated the inclusion of a silver standard for U.S. currency, which rallied the populist base of the Democratic Party and helped Bryan win the nomination for the presidency.
To take a step back in history, the source of the issue began with the Gold Rush in 1849, which altered the bi-metallism status quo. For decades, both gold and silver backed U.S. currency and both silver and gold specie could be turned into a Sub-Treasury Mint for dollars. The government valued silver at a ratio of 16:1 to gold in ounces. With the flood of gold to the market following the Gold Rush, people could sell their silver privately and to foreign markets at a lower ratio, thus making more money. However, when silver was discovered in Nevada in the 1860s, the ratio of silver to gold sold privately or abroad increased, but the government continued to offer the 16:1 ratio. In short, the government policy increased currency circulation, benefitting westerners, rural farmers, and the poor who could more easily pay off debts or make purchases. Meanwhile, Wall Street and banks in the East mobilized against the government’s policy because they would not receive as much profit on loans to farmers and the poor.
However, by 1873, the flood of silver into government coffers created an economic crisis. Congress responded by passing the Coinage Act of 1873, which effectively ended bi-metallism by eliminating the silver dollar and by making gold the only metallic standard (though the U.S. did not accept the Gold Standard de jure until 1900). Western miners and farmers termed it the “Crime of 1873.” Their “Free Silver” movement became a core constituency of the Democratic Party, represented by William Jennings Bryan.
A clear partisan divide in the elections of 1896 and 1900 centered on the bi-metallism debate. Republican candidate William McKinley blamed the Democrats and their platform of bi-metallism for the Panic of 1893, while Republicans and Eastern banking interests called the gold standard “sound money” policy. In the “Cross of Gold” speech, Bryan argued that the Democratic Party’s focus on bi-metallism in its platform was justified because a gold standard alone could not solve the country’s problems at the time, including debt, small business failure, and monopolies.