Milwaukee, WI Speech 3, 1896-09-05

Speech by William Jennings Bryan.

Speech by William Jennings Bryan
Saturday, September 5, 1896
Schlitz's Park, Milwaukee, WI

Source: The First Battle: A Story of the Campaign of 1896, 1896; BRYAN’S SPEECH AT MILWAUKEE, Omaha World-Herald (Sunday Edition), Monday, September 7, 1896

"Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen: I learned early in life that a public officer was but a public servant, and I think that it is an idea which we ought always to bear in mind. It is well for the officer himself to remember it, and equally important for the people to remember it. A public officer is simply a hired man employed at a fixed salary for a certain time to do certain work. He is not in office merely because he wants to be; his only reason for being there ought to be that those whom he serves want him to be there. In other words, the officer is merely chosen by the people to do work which they must have done, and they have no reason for choosing him except that they believe that he can do that work for them. Officers are not elected to think for the people; people are supposed to think for themselves. They are elected to act for the people, simply because the people are so numerous that they cannot act for themselves. An officer, I might say, is a necessary evil. It would be better for the people if they could act for themselves, but that being impossible, they must do the next best thing and act through some one else; and the beauty of our form of government is that, instead of acting through somebody who rules by right divine, our people act through representatives whom they themselves choose and whom they can turn out of office whenever they so desire.

Since the public officer is elected to carry out your ideas, it is important that you should know, first, for what policies a candidate stands, and second, whether he will carry out those policies, if elected. You can find from reading the platform upon which a candidate runs for what policy he stands, and then you have to judge from what you know of him whether he can be relied upon to carry out the policies which are presented in his platform. There is no way of telling absolutely except by trial. I come to you standing upon a platform. While you may not agree to everything in that platform, it is only fair that any man who stands upon a platform should himself believe in the platform. I believe in the platform, not because I stand upon it—I believe in it because it presents doctrines which I believed in before they were written in that platform, and I have reasons for the faith which is in me. Every platform embraces a large number of subjects, because at all times government covers various questions, but it is also true that in every election there is generally one issue which rises above all other issues and which, more than any other, engrosses the thoughts of the people. In selecting the party which he will support in any campaign, the citizen takes the paramount issue, that thing which he thinks is more important than other things, and by that paramount issue determines his allegiance. In this campaign we have suffered some desertions. Why? Because our platform, departing from what has sometimes been the custom, is straight, clear and emphatic on the leading questions. It is easy to hold all the members of the party together if your platform means nothing and the people are willing to submit to platforms which may mean anything or nothing according to construction; but whenever a party takes a firm position on any great question, it must expect that those who do not believe with the party will feel justified in leaving it, provided they can find somewhere else an expression of their ideas. I say, this must be expected.

But, my friends, we reached a time when decided action was necessary. This money question which today overshadows all other questions has been thrust upon the American people, not so much by the advocates of free coinage as by the opponents of free coinage. What has brought it to the attention of the American people? As soon as the last campaign closed, the monied interests of this country made a combined attack on what was known as the Sherman law. They demanded the repeal of the purchasing clause of the Sherman law, and they based their attack upon the platform of the Democratic party of 1892; but instead of enforcing that platform as a whole, they picked out a part of a sentence and insisted upon enforcing it, while they ignored the rest of the platform. (Applause.)

The Democratic party denounced the Sherman law as a makeshift. What is a makeshift? Why, it is a temporary expedient. It is a thing used until some better thing can be secured. And the very plank in the platform that declared in favor of the repeal of the makeshift, asserted that we held to the use of gold and silver as the standard money of the country, and not that only, but that platform added, 'The coinage of both gold and silver, without discrimination against either metal or charge for mintage.'"


"This declaration was followed by certain qualifying words, but these qualifying words did not destroy the declaration of the Democratic party for the coinage of gold and silver upon equal terms, and yet the monied interests of this country combined to attack the Sherman law, secure its repeal and leave nothing in its place to furnish the money which the people need. They said that gold was going abroad and that if they repealed the Sherman law gold would stop going abroad. After a struggle that has seldom been equaled, they succeeded in repealing the Sherman law without condition, and then what? Did gold stop going abroad? No, gold went abroad faster than before; and then what? Then they began to issue bonds to get enough gold to supply those who wanted to send it abroad, or who wanted to put it away in their vaults, or wanted to create an excuse for the issue of more bonds. (Applause.) They issued fifty million dollars' worth of bonds, and then fifty million dollars more of bonds, and then the administration entered into what is known as the Rothschild contract.

My friends, let me dwell just a moment upon that contract. I call your attention to the fact that while that contract was made by a Democratic administration, it was supported by all the leading members of the Republican party, and more than that, the Republican party in convention assembled did not denounce or criticise that contract. Why? Because the men who wrote the Republican platform have always justified the President's conduct."


"Now, I want to say to you that, in my judgment, that was the most infamous contract that was ever entered into by this nation. That contract at an enormous price employed certain financiers in New York and London, to do what? To look after the Treasury and protect it. Do you know what it means to employ a man to protect your treasury? When you purchase his good will you confess that if you did not purchase it you would not get it, and when you buy it at a high price, you admit that his good will is very valuable to you. I want you to remember, my friends, that if this nation is dependent upon the good will of one banking firm in New York and one banking firm in London, the very moment you confess it you put it in the power of those two firms to charge whatever they please for their good will towards this Government, and I am not willing to admit that this Government exists by sufferance. (Great applause.)

I am not willing to admit that we have reached an extremity where it becomes necessary for us to purchase the good will of any syndicate, foreign or domestic. More than that, I assert that 70,000,000 people, in their majesty and strength, have a government, or should have a government, which can not only live without the aid of these syndicates, but can live in spite of anything that these syndicates may do. I am not surprised that members of that syndicate are opposed to the Democratic party. I am not surprised at all, because the Democratic party believes that this Government can get along without them; and more than that, the Democratic party believes that, if they imagine they can injure this Government and dare to try it, they ought to be treated like any other conspirator. (Great applause.)

Cicero, it is related, once said to his son: 'Do not go into the retail business; the retail business is a small and vulgar business. Go into the wholesale business; that is a respectable business.'

My friends, this doctrine seems to be applied to those who would injure the Government. If a man attempts to do the Government a small injury, he is a contemptible man and ought to be punished, but if he attempts to do the Government a great injury, he goes into the wholesale business and becomes respectable, and then the Government must negotiate with him. When our Constitution was based upon the theory that all men were created equal and stood equal before the law, there was no provision in there making an exception in behalf of financiers and asserting that they are greater than anybody else.

I warn you, fellow citizens, against entertaining the opinion of government that our opponents seem to entertain. To say that anything less than a majority has the right to dictate the financial policy of this country is to abandon the theory upon which our Government is founded. Either the majority must rule, or the minority; and if a few people insist upon making the laws of this country on any question, then upon that question we have minority rule instead of majority rule."


"Now, we may differ as to what kind of financial legislation is best, but there is one question upon which we must agree, if we believe that our people are capable of self government and that our institutions deserve to be perpetuated. There is one question upon which we must agree, and that is, that the American people, acting through their Constitution and their laws, are the only power to determine what is good for the American people and what the American people shall have in the way of legislation.

I have called your attention to the Rothschild contract. Do you know why that contract was entered into? There was a reason given and the only reasonable one—I do not mean reasonable to those who believe in bimetallism—but reasonable enough for those who believe in the gold standard.

When the Government sold bonds at home, the officials in charge of the Treasury saw that people went to the Treasury and drew out a part of the gold to pay for the bonds; therefore the Treasury officials thought that they would try to sell the bonds abroad in order to avoid the necessity of furnishing the gold to pay for the bonds.

I believe that if our people understood what was possible—what is not only possible, but what is the actual practice under the present financial system as practiced by the present administration—they would rise in a unanimous revolt against that policy."


"Let me show you what has been done. The Government decided to issue $50,000,000 of bonds to buy gold. Now suppose you want to buy bonds. You go to the Secretary of the Treasury and he says that he has some bonds to sell, and you hand him a thousand dollars in greenbacks and Treasury notes. He says, 'I cannot accept these notes;' and you say, 'Why not? Are not these greenbacks and Treasury notes good?' He says, 'Yes, they are good for most things, but these bonds are sold to obtain gold; therefore, we must demand gold for the bonds.' You say to him, 'All right, Mr. Secretary, if you will not give me the bonds for these greenbacks and Treasury notes, I will just deposit them and demand their redemption in gold.' The Secretary says, 'That is all right; that is what we are here for,' (laughter) and he hands out the gold. Then you say to him, 'Do I not understand that you have some bonds for sale for which you want gold?' and he says, 'Yes,' and you hand him the gold and say to him, 'Here, Mr. Secretary, is the gold, now give me the bonds.' (Great applause.)

Do you believe that that is possible? It is possible under the present policy. Do you believe that anybody in this country has done it? It has been done under the present administration of the Treasury. When the Treasurer issued the first fifty millions of dollars of bonds, the amount of gold drawn out during the time between the publication of the notice and the issue of the bonds was something like eighteen million dollars. In other words, to the extent of the money withdrawn for the purpose of buying bonds the Government simply allowed the gold to pass out of the Treasury, and then sold bonds to buy it back. When they issued the next fifty million, a still larger amount of gold was withdrawn to pay for the bonds."


"Then they made the Rothschild contract. They simply enlarged the circle a little, that was all; and before the time was up, during which this syndicate agreed to protect the Treasury, bonds which had been sent to Europe and sold at $1.04½ had been brought back from Europe and sold in the New York market for more than $1.20 and the gold taken back to Europe again. (Applause.)

This is financiering as it is taught in New York. (Great laughter.)

Now, my friends, they issued the next hundred million, and I want to call your attention to that issue. It was first suggested that the bonds be issued at private sale, and a syndicate was formed for the purpose of purchasing the bonds. It was stated in the paper at the time that that syndicate would give about $1.05 for the bonds. Finally it was decided to issue the bonds at public auction, and J. Pierpont Morgan, the head of the syndicate that started out to buy the bonds at $1.05, within a few minutes of the time for the opening of the bids, handed in another bid for $1.10 and a fraction, raising the bid formerly made by about five millions of dollars on the purchase of a hundred millions of dollars of bonds. What does that mean? It means that these financiers, when they thought they had the Government at their mercy, were going to let it have gold at $1.05, but when others came in and offered to bid, they raised their bid more than five millions of dollars. What does that mean? It means that these people who pose as guardians of the Treasury—these people who are the self-appointed custodians of public credit and national honor—would have bled the taxpayers of this country to the extent of five millions of dollars on a single transaction, if they had been permitted to do so." (Great applause.)


"But that did not excite the indignation of those who were standing in official positions. (Applause.) Not only did it not excite their indignation, but the very man who stood at the head of the syndicate and tried to beat the people of the United States out of five millions of dollars was an honored guest at a banquet at which the Secretary of the Treasury Was the chief guest. (Applause.)

Now, my friends, if we believe in the principles upon which this Government is founded—if we believe in equality before the law—then I assert that we cannot treat a man who wants to beat the people out of $5,000,000 with more consideration than we do the man who tries to beat the people out of one hundred dollars or out of five dollars. (Great applause.)

When is this going to end? They tell us that it is necessary to maintain the honor of the country. My friends, I may be in error, but I believe that the honor of this nation can be better maintained by intrusting its affairs to the seventy millions of people who constitute our nation than by bartering away its credit to a handful of millionaires. The Republican party does not protest against this kind of administration of the Treasury Department. The Democratic party does protest against it, and what is the result? Every man who has been profiting out of the extremities of the Government, and using the instrumentalities of the Government for public plunder, has left our party to find a congenial home elsewhere. (Great applause.) They have left our party to find a home in the party which offers them a continuation of that sort of a policy.

When will this policy end? There is but one end to it; there is only one way to stop this constant issue of bonds, and that is to return to the principle of bimetallism and allow the Government to exercise the option of redeeming its coin obligations in either gold or silver. When I have seen how they go to the Treasury and draw out the gold and then demand bonds, and then draw out gold to pay for the bonds, and so on without limit, I have been reminded of a trick that a mother played upon her boy. He was taking some medicine and the following dialogue took place between him and a visitor: 'Do you like that medicine?' 'No sir.' 'Well, you seem to take it very nicely.' 'Mamma gives me five cents every time I take a dose of it.' 'What do you do with the money?' 'I put it in the bank.' 'And what do you do with the money in the bank?' 'Oh, mamma uses that to buy more medicine with.'


Our opponents tell us that, if we will retire the greenbacks and Treasury notes, this drain on the Treasury will stop. I ask them how it will stop. Why, they say that the banks will issue paper money and assume the obligation of furnishing whatever gold is needed for export.

There is one thing that has always bothered me in this proposition. If these banks are in earnest in their desire to relieve the Treasury Department of the burden of furnishing gold for export, they need not change the law. All they need to do is to save up all the gold they can and stand ready to help the Treasury by furnishing it with that gold. (Applause.)

It does not need any statute, my friends, to give to these people, who seem to be longing to help their country, an opportunity to do so. They can do it now without any change in the law. Nothing illustrates their manner of dealing with the Government better than their recent conduct. After increasing the bonded debt of this country and bleeding the Treasury at every opportunity, they have suddenly come to the conclusion that another bond issue before election would have disastrous consequences, and, therefore, they are trying to bolster up the Treasury by the importation of a few million dollars of gold until after the election is passed. (Great applause.)

But what is going to be the result after the election is over? The gold which they now furnish in exchange for Treasury notes and greenbacks can be withdrawn the next day after the election by the presentation of greenbacks and Treasury notes. Having blinded the people during the election period, they will then bleed them for another four years until there is another election. (Applause.)

I want to call your attention to the fact that the retirement of greenbacks and Treasury notes will not remedy this condition. The only reason for retiring the greenbacks and Treasury notes is to permit the banks to issue notes upon bonds and thus collect the interest which the people now save. It is simply a question whether the national banks shall have this interest or whether the people shall save it. If there is anybody who feels that he does not pay taxes enough—if his conscience troubles him because he has contributed too little to the support of the Government, let him make a voluntary contribution to the Treasury of the United States and thus relieve his conscience of the strain that is put upon it. Suppose you wipe out all the greenbacks and Treasury notes and have the banks issue paper money; they are allowed under the law to pay out either gold or silver, just as the Government can now. If the banks should refuse to furnish gold without charging a premium, would you not have the same condition which you have now?


Do you believe the banks would always furnish the kind of money which the people, wanted when they presented their notes? If you think so, refresh your memories by going back to the time of the war. The national bank notes are payable in lawful money, and a bank at any time during the war could redeem its notes either in gold, silver or greenbacks.

Which did the banks use? Did they use any gold? Oh, no, for gold was at a premium then. Did they use any silver? No, for silver was at a higher premium than gold. What did they issue? They used the cheapest money they could get. The greenbacks were the money used to redeem the bank notes. The greenback has always been as good as the bank note, because the greenback always stood behind the bank note; and if the greenback is good enough to stand behind a bank note, it is good enough to stand in the open without any bank note in front of it. But suppose we wipe out the greenbacks and Treasury notes, then what? I venture the assertion that the very people who today say that the Government cannot keep every dollar as good as every other dollar except by redeeming all the greenbacks and Treasury notes in gold, if gold is demanded—those very people, if greenbacks and Treasury notes are taken out of the way, will insist that the Government cannot keep every dollar as good as every other dollar unless it stands ready to redeem every silver dollar and every silver certificate in gold, if gold is demanded; and if they do that then they start another endless chain. My friends, the fault is not with the greenback or with the Treasury note; the fault is in the construction place upon the law and in the policy of those who are in charge of the administration of the Government, and who are surrendering the choice of the coin to be used in payment. We must either have two kinds of money which are equally a legal tender and can be used by the Government at its option, or we must have only one. If we are going to have two kinds of legal tender money which the people can use to pay the debts which they owe to the Government, that money must be used by the Government in paying the debts which it owes to the people.

I have pointed out the plan by which we propose to relieve the Government of its difficulties. Let me leave you with one other thought for your consideration. The Republican party in its platform expressly states that the financial policy of this nation must be determined by foreign nations rather than ours. The platform says that the Republican party pledges itself to secure international bimetallism as soon as possible, but that, until that can be secured, we must maintain the gold standard, What does that mean? It means that bimetallism is better than a gold standard, but that we cannot have that better thing until the leading commercial nations of Europe shall consent to its adoption. Does it say that we must bear the affliction of a gold standard for a year? No, it does not limit to a year, For four years? No, it does not limit it to four years. How long? According to the Republican platform, we must bear the affliction of a gold standard forever, if foreign nations insist upon it.

I want to call your attention to what some one has said about the influence of foreign nations and foreign personages in the affairs of our nation. Be silent while I read these words:

'Against the insidious wiles of foreign nations (I conjure you to believe me, fellow citizens), the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of Ole most baneful foes of republican government.'

There is the language which I desire to press upon your memories. It is not my language. Whose language do you suppose that it? What man, 'trying to stir up the passions of our people against foreigners;' what demagogue 'appealing to the mob to justify his course;' what anarchist do you suppose used those words? Those are the words of George Washington. If George Washington could warn his countrymen against the evil effects of foreign influence, if George Washington could say to his countrymen that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes to republican government, may I not repeat what he said almost one hundred years after the date of its first utterance? If it was true then, it is true now. My friends, I warn you against entrusting the destinies of this nation to legislative bodies which are beyond your control. How can you reach your own Government? How can you change your own laws? You can do it at the ballot box. If the law is bad you can repeal it. If you want a good law enacted you can write it upon the statute books when the majority concur. But suppose you turn over to other nations the power to determine when you shall have bimetallism. How can you get them to act? Can you vote men into office in foreign nations? No, it is not within your power, either to elect or discard. How can you get at them? Send them a petition; that is the way to do it.

If the Republican party is going to carry out this policy it ought to have at every public meeting a blank petition, to be signed by the people present, asking foreign nations to please give us bimetallism, what is your chance by petition? Why, my friends, for twenty years and more the people of this nation, the producers of wealth, the toiling masses have petitioned all parties to give them bimetallism, and when the Republican party met in St. Louis the wail of distress arising from our people was loud enough to have been heard by anybody whose ears were not entirely occupied with the sounds that come from Wall street. Did they hear your petitions? No, they disregarded them. I ask you, Republicans, if the Republican party, which you helped to make, was deaf to your entreaties, what hope have you of making an impression upon foreign legislative bodies? I ask you, Republicans, who have been the bone and sinew of the Republican party since the time it elected Lincoln, if the Republican party does not have mercy when you cry, how can you expect to find pity in a nation from which your forefathers wrested the empire in which we live? There are people who honestly believe that this nation is not strong enough to contend against the money centers of the world. Well, if a man believes it, we cannot criticise him for expressing his belief at the ballot box, but I want to ask you, who, of the people who are opposed to the free coinage of silver, would be willing to print upon a card, 'I do not think my nation is big enough to take care of itself,' and put it in his hat and wear it front now until election day? And yet that is what every man says who says that we ought to get rid of the gold standard and have bimetallism, but that we cannot do it until some other nations help.

I want to leave to you this parting word: I am not here for your votes. I have too much respect for the sovereignty of the citizen to appeal to him to present to me his vote as a gift. It is his own, not to part with by begging or by selling. It is his own, not to surrender under threat or coercion; it is his own to do with what he pleases. But when I surrender all claim to the votes of those who believe that the restoration of the free coinage of silver by this nation alone would be injurious, I assert my claims to the votes of those who believe in the immediate restoration of the free and unlimited coinage of gold and silver at the present legal ratio of 16 to 1, without waiting for the aid or consent of any other nation."

About this Document

  • Source: The First Battle: A Story of the Campaign of 1896
  • Author: William Jennings Bryan
  • Publisher: W.B. Conkey Company
  • Published: Chicago, Illinois
  • Citation: 366-374
  • Date: September 5, 1896