The most famous speech in American political history was delivered by William Jennings Bryan on July 9, 1896, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, but it was preceded by two other significant speeches. The subject under debate was the currency plank in the Democratic platform. The majority of members of the resolutions committee had endorsed the free coinage of silver at a ratio of silver to gold of 16 to 1. (This inflationary measure would have increased the amount of money in circulation and aided cash-poor and debt-burdened farmers.) In the ensuing debate, Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina spoke for the majority, framing the silver issue as a sectional one. His disastrous performance dashed his hopes to be the silverite candidate for the U.S. presidency. The speakers for the minority position, including Senator David Bennett Hill of New York—whose speech is excerpted here—defended President Cleveland and the gold standard.
I am a Democrat, but I am not a revolutionist. My mission here today is to unite, not to divide—to build up, not to destroy—to plan for victory, not to plot for defeat. The question which this convention is to decide is: What is the best position to take at this time on the financial question? In a word, the question presented is between international bimetallism and local bimetallism. If there are any different points in it, they are not represented either in the majority or in the minority report. I therefore start out with this proposition, that the Democratic Party stands today in favor of gold and silver as the money of the country; that it stands in favor neither of a silver standard nor of a gold standard, but that we differ as to the means to bring about the result. Those whom I represent and for whom I speak—the sixteen minority members of the committee—insist that we should not attempt the experiment of the free and unlimited coinage of silver without cooperation of other great nations. It is not a question of patriotism, it is not a question of courage, it is not a question of loyalty, as the majority platform speaks of it. The minority has thought it was simply a question as to whether we were able to enter on this experiment. It is a question of business. It is a question of finance. It is a question of economics. It is not a question which men, ever so brave, can solve. I think, Mr. President, that the safest and best course for this convention to have pursued was to take the first step forward in the great cause of monetary reform by declaring in favor of international bimetallism. I know that it is said by enthusiastic friends that America can mark out a course for herself. I know that that idea appeals to the pride of the average American, but I beg to remind you that if that suggestion be carried out to its legitimate conclusion, you might as well do away with our international treaties.
[Senator Hill continued at considerable length, criticizing in great detail the platform reported by the majority, and stating the attitude of the minority. He said that the platform had been loaded with irrelevant issues, and that it was ill considered. He closed with the following words:]
I oppose this platform because I think it makes our success more difficult. I want the grand old party with which I have been associated from boyhood to live. And I have looked forward to the time when it shall be securely intrenched in the affections of the American people. I dislike the Republican party. I dislike all their tenets. I have no sympathy with their general principles, but I do think that we are here to-day making a mistake in the venture which we are about to make. Be not deceived. Do not attempt to drive those Democrats out of the party who have grown gray in its service, in order to make room for a lot of Republicans and Populists who will not vote your ticket at all. My friends, I speak more in sorrow than in anger. You know what this platform means to the East. But bad as it may be to us, it will be more calamitous to you if, after taking all these risks, you do not win the fight. My friends we want the Democratic party to live. We want to build it up, not to tear it down. We want the principles of Jefferson and Jackson to win. We want no greenback currency on our pledges. We want no paper currency issued by the government. We want to stand by the principles to which we have clung during the history of the country. If we keep in the good old paths of the party we shall win, but if we depart from them we shall be lost.
[As Senator Hill concluded there was a demonstration of enthusiasm exceeding any previous outbreak.]
Source: Public Opinion, Vol. 21 (16 July 1896): 70.
See Also:Bryan's "Cross of Gold" Speech: Mesmerizing the Masses
"Pitchfork Ben" Tillman Addresses the 1896 Democratic Convention