Because of this post and P.M. Prescott’s comments on it, I was reading again about the populists and William Jennings Bryan when I came across this page, which not only has the text of Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech, but also an audio recording of Bryan himself giving excerpts from it.  The recording is from 1921, 25 years after he first gave the speech at the Democratic convention. Apparently, it was such a big hit, he gave it many times.  His performances of it are even mentioned in the book East of Eden by John Steinbeck, which I recently read.

It’s funny; I’ve studied the Populists and WJB a fair amount, and considered myself pretty familiar with the Populist party and the issues of the time.  But there is something about actually hearing him speak–even if it was a recording made much later–that really brings the reality of it home to me.  Makes it seem more real, in a visceral way.  That sounds corny, but it’s true.

As for the speech itself–can you imagine a politician today giving such a speech?  It’s brilliant rhetoric, but it uses so many big words and complex concepts. I bet a lot of people would tune out.

in the comments on the previous post, Patrick Prescott made a good point about the Populist party, and how they influenced Federal government policy.  He’s right that the Populist party’s big moment was William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech in 1896, but it was first created in 1892.  They laid out the Party’s aims in something called “the Omaha Platform“.  they did not get a lot of what they wanted, but there are two major things in it that stand out (Numbers from the original):

3. “We demand a graduated income tax.”

And in the section titled “Expression of Sentiments”:

8. RESOLVED, That we favor a constitutional provision limiting the office of President and Vice-President to one term, and providing for the election of Senators of the United States by a direct vote of the people.

They would get both the income tax and the direct election of Senators. It has been about a century since both were enacted via the Sixteenth and Seventeenth amendments to the Constitution.  This would have been a few years after the Populist party had disbanded–or, perhaps more accurately, consumed by the Democratic party.

Now, granted; they didn’t get everything they wanted.  Like:

9. RESOLVED, That we oppose any subsidy or national aid to any private corporation for any purpose.

Good luck getting rid of that.

But the point is, some of the demands of a third party composed largely of impoverished farmers were implemented 20 years later, and not merely as laws, but as Constitutional amendments.  Constitutional amendments are not easy to get.

Just as a successful small start-up company gets bought out by a larger corporation, a successful third party gets taken over by one of the major parties.  But it’s still a victory for their ideas–so what if there was no Populist party as such, if the Democrats were accomplishing what the Populists wanted? The Populists set the stage for many of the reforms made in the first half of the 20th Century.