“You come to us and tell that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard. I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country” (Bryan’s ‘Cross of Gold’ Speech: Mesmerizing the Masses).
This quote by William Jennings Bryan exemplifies the strife between the class divisions in society during the Gilded Age because it shows the disregard that those in the industrialized, urbanized life had for the socially, economically poor farmers in the South and the West. Yet, the gap between the rich and the poor would be unignored as the development of the Populist Party would come about to assist in bettering the life of farmers. Specifically, to help farmers through legislation, this political party would focus on the “money problem” in the U.S. economy that was increasingly becoming worse in the 1890s.
With the silver and gold issue being the most debated issue in the 1896 presidential election, the Populist party would be represented by William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was not randomly chosen to represent them, though, he gained the Democratic presidential nomination by delivering an exhilarating speech in which he mirrored the people’s party goals. This speech became known as the “Cross of Gold.” The Populist party, otherwise known as the people’s party, was forged directly because of the rising class divisions in the American economy. Class divisions, however, were formed from one outlying idea. That idea is big business. In “America: A Narrative History,” it is stated that “the urban-industrial revolution and the gigantic new corporations it created transformed the size, scope, and power of the American economy, for good and for ill. As the twentieth century dawned, an unregulated capitalist economy had grown corrupt and recklessly out of balance — and only government intervention could restore economic fairness and social stability”. Simply put, there were very few wealthy and many that were struggling merely to put food on the table. With the fairness of the economy being nonexistent, the farmers, one of the more prominent groups of the poor, would establish the Farmer’s Alliance in the 1870s to solve their hardships caused by “big business”. A few of the hardships that the farmers endured included crop price reduction, rising railroad rates, and mortgages that further put them in debt. Unfortunately, none of the farmers’ complaints would be solved by the government in the 1870s or 1880s from the advocation of the Alliance and other groups.
Heading into the 1892 presidential election, the leaders of the Farmer’s Alliance would establish the Populist party in an effort to “wrest control of the political and economic system from the powerful East and return it the ‘plan’ folk”. In establishing the Populist party as a legit third-party contender for the election, their goals would include: unlimited coinage of silver, low tariffs, regulation of railroads, a federal income tax, direct election of senators, and government warehouses to hold crops for higher prices. The most controversial goal would turn out to be the unlimited coinage of silver as it would become a national issue. With the controversy over the “money problem” being at the forefront of the 1896 presidential election, it would solely dictate each party’s presidential nominee and the winner of the election. However, before going any further, recognizing what the Republicans and Democrats advocated is important. The Republican party would want gold coinage over silver coinage since they were pro-business.
On the other hand, much of the Democratic party would want silver coinage over gold coinage since they started adopting most of the Populist party’s agenda. Therefore, it is apparent that the Democrats represented more of the poor, working class of society, whereas the Republicans represented the middle and upper class of society. But why was there such a difference in beliefs in the first place? Well, during the Gilded Age, “the nation’s money supply had not grown along with the expanding economy”. This, in turn, would cause many to go into debt because of currency deflation, which is why the Populist Party was partly created. Those who believed in unlimited silver coinage thought that it would result in more income and steer them out of debt because of the inflation of goods from an influx of silver. Contrarily, the gold coinage supporters were typically doing well for themselves because of industrialization and urbanization; thence, they had no reason to support something that did not benefit them. With this understanding of each parties’ position, there is no surprise that the Republicans would choose William McKinley as their presidential candidate, a known gold coinage advocate. As stated in the introduction, William Jennings Bryan, a silver coinage and Populist Party advocate, represented the Democrats in the 1896 presidential election; but in doing so, the Democratic party would become split from Bryan’s pro-silver perspective and Bryan would lose the presidency.
Fortunately, Bryan’s reflection of Populism in his speech would influence progressive movements of the future. Instead of focusing on how Bryan mirrored the individual Populist goals in his speech, though, focusing on the collective, intended outcome of the goals shows the true reflection of Populism. By advocating for unlimited silver coinage, as well as other Populist ideas, what was Bryan doing? He was simply advocating for legislation “to make the masses prosperous,” not just the already prosperous elite of society (Bryan’s ‘Cross of Gold’ Speech: Mesmerizing the Masses). Populism, essentially, is the pursuit of supporting the ordinary people of society through politics. Therefore, Bryan was certainly reflecting Populism by advocating for the masses and the Populist party’s goals because he thought “the gold standard was so detrimental to the welfare of the working people of the nation that he compared the burden to the crucifixion of Christ”. Ironically, the gold standard brought back economic prosperity to America in 1897 after William McKinley became president and the Populist movement started to fade. Either way, though, the idea of Populism was to help the working-class. That idea alone would lead to the development of the “progressives” in the coming decades.
In that essence, then, it is reasonable to argue that Bryan was successful in advocating for the oppressed class in 1896 since the Populist movement would inspire others down the line to shorten the length between class divisions. However, it is also fair to argue that Bryan and the Populist movement would not have had as much recognition without the “money problem” being so prominent in the 1890s, which turned out to be a ridiculous cause. So, without supporting such a radical stance for silver in his “Cross of Gold” speech, what differently might have happened to Bryan and the Populist movement? Well, I believe Bryan would not have been nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate and that the progressive movements that followed would have taken an extended time to develop. Thankfully, though, the “money problem” did exist so that Bryan and his speech could benefit populism greatly.