July 9 marks the 120th anniversary of Populist leader William Jennings Bryan’s address to the 1896 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Bryan defined the mission of the convention as forcing the party to decide whether it would fight “upon the side of the idle holders of idle capital, or upon the side of the struggling masses.” For decades historians have rated this as one of the most powerful and enduring speeches in America’s history; in the year that Bernie Sanders ran a spirited and unexpectedly strong presidential campaign as the declared enemy of Wall Street’s influence, it has lost little of its relevance. The speech is best remembered for its final lines defying the financial fat cats of his day and his own party: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
The speech transformed Bryan into a dominant figure in American life. The protracted economic slumps of the last decades of the 19th century had created an irrepressible political movement in the South and the West, which focused its energy on restoring silver as a legal form of money. Agrarian Populists blamed a single gold standard for the depressed economy and believed that silver—which was abundant in Western states—could restore their prosperity and provide relief if it were reintroduced into the currency system. The Democratic Party remade itself in opposition to the gold standard under Bryan’s leadership, though it did not win the White House in the three times he ran as its nominee. Bryan later became Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State, and his Populist party—despite its limited electoral success—influenced public debate as much as any third party in U.S. history has since the Republican-Democratic duopoly took hold.
Nonetheless, the legacy of the speech has long been tainted by charges of nativism and anti-Semitism. Without question, many of Bryan’s fans had been primed by pamphlets and widely popular mythologies about the role of Jewish bankers, at home and abroad, who supposedly oppressed farmers and laborers with their control of the world’s gold. For that reason, many have been inclined to imagine the scene at the 1896 convention as one seething with bigotry. A journey into some old footnotes, however, suggests that such renderings have been much exaggerated.
The degree and influence of anti-Semitism in the Populist movement have been hotly debated for decades. In his classic 1955 work The Age of Reform, Richard Hofstadter asserted that “it is not too much to say that the Greenback-Populist tradition activated most of what we have of modern popular anti-Semitism in the United States.” He cited frequent references to “Rothschilds” and “Shylocks” in Populist pamphlets, for example, and asserted that at the Populist convention in 1896 attendees exhibited “extraordinary hatred of the Jewish race.” Others have taken a different view. Norman Pollack has concluded that anti-Semitism in the movement was “infinitesimal,” while others have argued that Populists were no more anti-Semitic than other Americans at the time.
Some historians (notably Oscar Handlin and Leonard Dinnerstein) have tied Bryan’s speech itself to anti-Semitic prejudices. “The antisemitism evoked by the metaphor of the crucifixion was powerful and appealed to rural Protestants who possessed a similar religious and cultural heritage with other Americans in the South and the West,” wrote Dinnerstein. And regardless of Bryan’s individual opinions—few if any have argued that he was personally anti-Semitic—the speech’s crucifixion symbolism could suggest an updated version of the blood-libel charge; that is, the same people who “killed Christ” are now trying to kill us with a gold standard.
This dark reading of the speech was enhanced by Paolo Coletta’s well-respected three-volume biography of Bryan, published in 1964. In Coletta’s account of the Chicago speech, the 20,000 mostly pro-silver attendees are frenzied with delight just after Bryan delivers his final line, which he punctuated by stretching out his arms to imitate crucifixion. One of the cheers heard as a coda to the speech, according to Coletta, could hardly have been more anti-Semitic: “Down with the hooked-nosed Shylocks of Wall Street! Down with the Christ-killing gold bugs!”
It is not surprising that many writers after Coletta have repeated this in their accounts of Bryan’s speech. The anti-Semitic chants reappear, for example, in Gerald Leinwand’s 2006 book William Jennings Bryan: An Uncertain Trumpet. After all, it is a vivid detail. So striking, in fact, that it would be odd for such an obviously damning tidbit to have eluded so many writers who chronicled that convention in the decades before Coletta’s book was published. Examining Coletta’s footnotes, the oddness of this only becomes more obvious. While most of the quotations in this section of his book are from newspaper stories filed in July, on or near the day of Bryan’s speech, the footnote for the vile anti-Semitic quotation is from the New York Sun, September 16, 1896—more than two months after Bryan’s speech.
Indeed, the Sun story in question—headline “Jewbaiter is for Bryan”—is not at all a dispatch from the convention floor. It is instead a profile of a decidedly anti-Semitic publisher, Hermann Ahlwardt, who had chosen to endorse Bryan from his perch in Germany. In an offhanded manner, the article refers to “the long-whiskered Populists who swarmed through the corridors of the Chicago hotels during the sessions of the Popocratic Convention, screaming ‘Down with gold! Down with the hook-nosed Shylocks of Wall Street! Down with the Christ-killing goldbugs!” As written, it is not clear whether the material in quotation marks was directly overheard or even whether the anonymous author was in Chicago at all. It may well have been a fictionalization or a parody of what might have been said.
The Sun was not a politically neutral chronicler of Bryan. Like most New York papers, it was pro McKinley and pro gold standard, and was for months after the Chicago convention filled with swipes at Bryan and the new Democratic Party he represented. On that same day, September 16, the Sun featured headlines such as “Bryan Cheered as an Anarchist” and “Popocrats Still at Sea.” Naturally the paper relished the chance to portray Bryan as anti-Semitic.
There’s no reason to think that Coletta was out to portray Bryan unfairly; even the best historians make mistakes, and it is entirely possible that Coletta or his editor inadvertently confused the—real or imagined—anti-Semitic chants from the Sun commentary with the contemporaneous newspaper accounts. But the result has been that for a half-century, Coletta’s account has given an undue advantage to those who want to wrap Bryan’s speech into an uglier package. Of course, the extent to which anti-Semitism and other dark tendencies pervaded 19th-century Populism doesn’t depend solely on what was or wasn’t said in Chicago. But such issues are hard enough to adjudicate without the repeated circulation of possibly imaginary hate speech.