Elia Peattie, an Uncommon Woman

 

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William Jennings Bryan and The Cross of Gold

William Jennings Bryan was one of the truly memorable figures of American politics around the turn of the twentieth century. He received the Democratic nomination for the presidency three times during a fifteen-year period, the first time when he was only thirty-six years old. Although he never attained the presidency, he served the country as Secretary of State in Woodrow Wilson's cabinet from 1913 to 1917. Throughout his career, Bryan was known for his sincere interest in the wellbeing of the common man; one of his nicknames was, in fact," The Great Commoner." [1] Elia Peattie, who knew Bryan personally from her interaction with him at the Omaha World-Herald, was one of his "earliest and staunchest supporters" [2] and once wrote that he was "one of the most magnetic orators this country has ever produced, though it has been rich in orators." [3] Bryan himself had given her a volume of the poetry of William Cullen Bryant in appreciation for her friendship and support. He had inscribed the flyleaf, "To my friend Elia W. Peattie, the first Bryan man, with the warm regards of William Jennings Bryan." [4]

Bryan was born in 1860 in Salem, Illinois. His mother, Marianne, and father, Silas, raised their children to be diligent and religious. The family prayed together three times a day and also studied the Bible. [5] Bryan was educated at home by his mother until the age of fifteen when he entered boarding school. His father was a well-known lawyer who represented his district for eight years in the State Senate. [6] One of Bryan's first triumphs in public speaking occurred when, at the age of twelve, he delivered a campaign speech for his father during a run for Congress. Because of his remarkable verbal talents, he was given the nickname, "The Boy Orator of the Platte." [7]

Although not a native Nebraskan, Bryan devoted himself wholeheartedly to issues relating to the wellbeing of the plains farmer. He served for two terms as senator to Nebraska and was one of the first politicians to travel to the small towns he represented and mingle with his constituents. Bryan sometimes gave speeches from the backs of train cars, a practice uncommon to the era as most politicians had others deliver their speeches on their behalves. [8]

Bryan was working as the editor of the Omaha World-Herald in 1896 when he attended the Democratic National Convention and received that party's nomination for the Presidency. He was thirty-six, the youngest nominee in U.S. history. To be precise, he was nominated that year by two other parties as well: the Populist Party and the Silver Republican Party. But regardless of party lines, Bryan's actions while in office clearly evidenced that his main goal lay in protecting the interests of his constituents, agriculturalists, and other members of the rural working class.

American farming, an element of the economy crucial to supporting the rapidly growing country, began to flail during the early 1880s. Although post-Civil War advertising circulars and government reports had long encouraged citizens to "head out West" and take advantage of the 1862 Homestead Act, the availability of land proved no panacea for the country's agricultural growing pains. In the words of historian Henry Nash Smith, "On the contrary, the three decades following [the Homestead Act's] passage were marked by the most bitter and widespread labor trouble that had yet been seen in the United States." [9] Indeed, between 1870 and 1900 the conflict between labor and capital emerged as a broadly polarizing conflict in American politics.

Homesteaders usually had to borrow money from the banks in order to make their farms and ranches initially profitable. As Boston University historian Dr. Howard Zinn succinctly described the plight of agriculturalists of those decades:

Farmers had to borrow, hoping that the price of their harvests would stay high, so they could pay the bank for the loan, the railroad for the transportation, the grain merchant for handling the grain, the storage elevator for storing it. But they found the prices for their produce going down, and the prices of transportation and loans going up, because the individual farmer could not control the price of his train, while the monopolist railroad and the monopolist banker could charge what they liked. [10]

Rainfall, which began to decline in the early 1880s, also seriously blighted production well into the 1890s, amplifying farmers' anxieties over their debts. "By 1890, twenty-five percent of all farms were rented by tenants, and the number kept rising. Many did not even have money to rent and became farm laborers. . . . it was a fate that awaited every farmer who couldn't pay his debts." [11]

As their spokesperson, Bryan found himself squarely in the middle of economic questions relating to the wellbeing of the farmer. One of them was "bimetallism." In 1873 Congress had illegalized silver as a unit of currency, advocating an exclusive "gold standard." Western farmers and miners would refer to this act as the "Crime of 1873," as it devalued their property while concurrently making it increasingly difficult for them to repay their growing debts. [12] Although in 1892 Bryan admitted that he knew little about "free silver," he stated, "the people of Nebraska are for free silver and I am for free silver." [13] After studying the issues, the thirty-six year old politician composed a speech in defense of the farmers–and in favor of a dual gold and silver standard–that would be immortalized in the American political canon. On July 9, 1896, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Bryan delivered his "Cross of Gold" speech, which historian Richard Hofstadter has referred to as "the most effective speech in the history of American party politics." [14]

In his address, Bryan argued that the dollar should be backed by "more plentiful silver rather than gold." Referring to exploitive "big business" of the East, he stated, "If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of throngs. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." [15]

The words of Bryan's speech, combined with his powerful method of delivery, so impressed those at the Convention that he was named the Democratic nominee. One who had attended the convention wrote, "We who watched saw a man march relatively unknown to the platform, and march down again the leader of a national party. When he sat down . . . the convention went wild." [16] Applause thundered through the center after he concluded and lasted for thirty minutes without pause. Just a few days after his speech, Peattie made the following comments about the art of oratory in her column:

"No nation responds more quickly to eloquence than the American. Oratory is our one great art. The greatest of painters, sculptors, writers, and makers of music we have not. We have the greatest of orators. Oratory is indigenous to our soil . . . and when it is used, as it was by Mr. Bryan, to complete a historic debate, it wins instant fame for him who has had the genius to recognize the opportunity and rise to it. To be among the greatest orators of a country is almost as fine, if not quite, as to be its ruler." [17]

Although Bryan never became president, and Populism would eventually disappear within "a sea of Democratic politics," he remained a spokesman for agricultural labor as he advocated brotherhood and pacifism. His words, lauded by Peattie in an editorial she wrote just days after the Convention, are still quoted and remembered today.


Read Peattie's Writings


References

Bloomfield, Susanne George. Impertinences: Selected Writings of Elia Peattie, a Journalist of the Gilded Age. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Hofstadter, Richard. "The Crime of 1873, the Cross of Gold Speech." Website accessed: 2 February 2008. http://www.michaeloud.com/FXM/MH/Crime/crossof.htm.

Lindenmeyer, Kriste. "100 Years Ago Today: Cross of Gold." Website accessed: 9 July 1996. http://www.tntech.edu/history/crossgold.html.

Linder, Doug. "William Jennings Bryan," (1860-1925). Website accessed: 3 February 2008. http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/bryanw.htm.

Peattie, Elia. "A Word with the Women." Omaha World-Herald. 12 July 1896. "Williams Jennings Bryan: 1896." Website accessed: 2 February 2008. http://projects.vassar.edu/1896/bryan.html.

Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper Collins, 1999.


Illustrations

"William Jennings Bryan in his office." Early Office Museums: Historical Office Interior Photographs 1895-1889. Courtesy www.earlyofficemuseum.com

"Group of Mr. Bryan." Bryan, William J. The First Battle: A Story of the Campaign of 1896. Chicago: W.B. Conkey Company, 1896.

"William Jennings Bryan Speaking." Bernice Slote Papers, RG 12-10-16. Courtesy Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


Notes

2 Bloomfield, 192.   [back to text]
3 Bloomfield, 12.   [back to text]
4 Bloomfield, 12.   [back to text]
5 "William Jennings Bryan: 1896."   [back to text]
6 "William Jennings Bryan: 1896."   [back to text]
7 "William Jennings Bryan: 1896."   [back to text]
8 Zinn, 282.   [back to text]
9 Zinn, 283.   [back to text]
10 Zinn, 283.   [back to text]
11 Zinn, 284.   [back to text]
12 "William Jenning Bryan: 1860-1925."   [back to text]
13 Goodwyn, 217.   [back to text]
14 "The Crime of 1873."   [back to text]
15 Lindenmeyer.   [back to text]
16 Hofstadter.   [back to text]
17 Peattie.   [back to text]

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