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July 9: Bryan’s Cross of Gold

July 8, 2015

1896-wjb-cross-of-goldPopulist politician and frequent presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan made one of the most electrifying political speeches in history on this date in 1896. Speaking at the Democratic National Convention, Bryan railed against maintaining the gold standard for U.S. currency by declaring, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” To the extent that there was anti-Semitism within the Populist movement, Bryan’s speech fed mythologies about Jews, financial power, and Christ-killing. (He had earlier asserted on the floor of Congress that America could not afford “to put ourselves in the hands of the Rothschilds,” and that the U.S. Treasury “shall be administered on behalf of the American people and not on behalf of the Rothschilds and other foreign bankers.”) Yet Bryan would also insist, in a speech to Jewish Democrats in Chicago who were troubled by his “cross of gold” speech, “We are not attacking a race, we are attacking greed and avarice, which know neither race nor religion. I do not know of any class of our people who, by reason of their history, can better sympathize with the struggling masses in this campaign than can the Hebrew race.” In 1920, Bryan signed “The Perils of Racial Prejudice,” a statement (co-signed by President Woodrow Wilson, former Presidents Taft and Roosevelt, W.E.B. DuBois, and Clarence Darrow) decrying Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic screed, The International Jew.

1896-cartoon-2“It would be easy to misstate the character of Populist anti-Semitism or to exaggerate its intensity. For Populist anti-Semitism was entirely verbal. It was a mode of expression, a rhetorical style, not a tactic or program.... [Yet 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.” —Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform