In 1896, a politician gave a fiery speech in Chicago about dollars and debts that, by comparison, makes the rhetorical barrages exchanged recently in Washington seem like after-dinner remarks at a morticians' convention.
The nation was in a prolonged depression, and when the
met in the Coliseum auditorium on 63rd Street, William Jennings Bryan made an impassioned plea for those who saw themselves headed for the poorhouse:
"We have petitioned and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!"
Some hard-hit Americans — including Midwestern farmers and Western ranchers — thought salvation lay in weakening the dollar. Backing the currency by silver, not just gold, would enable them to pay creditors with cheaper dollars than they'd borrowed. Others feared that would take the economy over a cliff.
Bryan, a former
congressman, proclaimed which side he was on, with a biblical allusion:
"You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."
The Tribune described the ensuing pandemonium of "half wild" delegates: "Three-fourths of the delegates stood upon their chairs and waved handkerchiefs, hats, umbrellas and canes."
Nominated for president, Bryan made 525 speeches by Election Day, railing against "those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below."
But not all of his party fell in line, much as
activists refuse to defer to Republican leaders. Hard-money Democrats ran a separate ticket. Others backed Republican
, the candidate backed by Eastern financial interests.
Bryan's supporters were labeled a mongrel combination of Populists and Democrats. The Tribune reported a Chicago appearance under a headline: "Popocrats Turn Out To Welcome Their Chief."
The other side turned out the winning vote in a turning-point election. Bryan was twice more the presidential candidate of the Democrats — who became the more liberal of the two parties. Arguments over money and debts continued through debates over an income tax, the New Deal and the debt-ceiling — with, undoubtedly more to come.