St. Louis, MO Speech 1, 1896-10-03

Speech by William Jennings Bryan.

Speech by William Jennings Bryan
Saturday, October 3, 1896 at 9:00pm
Convention Hall, St. Louis, MO

Source: The First Battle: A Story of the Campaign of 1896, 1896; BUT ONE JEFFERSON, Bryan Tells of the Great Statesman Whose Lead He Would Follow., Omaha World-Herald (Sunday Edition), Sunday, October 4, 1896

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen: For just a little while I ask your attention. I do not require a great deal of time to say all that I have to say to you tonight. I desire to address a few remarks to the members of the clubs here assembled.

The clubs can be of more service in this campaign than in any previous campaign, because in this campaign the work is being done by the people themselves. (Applause.) These clubs have adopted a button which presents the likeness of Thomas Jefferson. If you had searched through all history you could not have found a man more worthy to be taken as your ideal statesman, (A voice, "Except Bryan") because in all the history of the human race there has never been but one Thomas Jefferson. (Applause and a voice, "You're another.") Of all the constructive statesmen whom the world has ever seen, Thomas Jefferson, in my judgment, stands first. (A voice, "And Bryan next.")

At a time when representative government was an experiment, he wrote that immortal document which declared that among the self-evident truths were these: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with inalienable rights, that governments are instituted among men to preserve these rights, and that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. In stating those four propositions, he stated the Alpha and the Omega of Democracy. (Applause.) Men may write books, men may fill libraries with volumes, but they can never improve upon that simple statement, recorded in a few sentences and yet comprehending all that there is in a government of the people, by the people and for the people. (Applause.)

In my opinion, no statesman ever lived who more fully understood human nature than Jefferson did—no one who more fully understood the capacity of the people for self-government—no one who more fully understood the dangers to be guarded against. He stated the principles which underlie Democracy, and then he applied those principles to every question which arose during his time. We today are inventing no new principles; we are seeking to discover no new truths; we are simply applying to new conditions those principles which must forever live ii the people still retain their love for our form of government.

Since you have, chosen Jefferson as your ideal, let me read to you the creed, the articles of faith, set forth in his first inaugural address and for years recorded at the platform of the party which he organized. It does us good to re-read these principles and renew our allegiance to them:

'Equal and exact justice to all men of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political.'

That is the first, that is the fundamental principle—'Equal and exact justice to all.' Show me an abuse of government, show me a law which is worthy of criticism, and I will show you a law which violates that principle of equal and exact justice to all.

The greatest danger which government has to avoid is favoritism. Favoritism is the curse of all governments, (applause) least, to be sure, among the governments a government which gives to none, which takes from none, and a government because our government is administered through human beings, and human beings are human.

My friends, if you would have government just, if you would have government fulfill the idea of a perfect government, you must have a government which is no respecter of persons, a government which deals with an equal hand, a government which gives to none, which takes from none, and a government which, in the making of the laws and in the administration of justice, treats all alike, and punishes the great transgressor as it does the petty offender. (Great applause.)

'Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliance with none.'

Our position makes it possible for us to be more independent than any other nation; our position, our situation, our surroundings make it possible for us to have peace and commerce and honest friendship with every nation, without forming entangling alliances with any of them.

'The support of the state governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against anti-republican tendencies.'

Our form of government recognizes the right of the States to do certain things, and the perpetuity of this nation depends as much upon respecting local self-government as it does upon recognizing national supremacy.

If we neglect to preserve the local self-government provided by the Constitution, we encounter the danger which threatens this Government, as it has threatened all others, namely, the concentration of power in the bands of a few and those few remote from the people themselves. If we depart from the idea of local self-government we will lessen the watchful care of the people over the government and place them in a position where they will become the victims of any tyrant who seizes the reins of government and uses force to subdue a people already half subdued by indifference.

'The preservation of the general government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet-anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad.'

That, my friends, is the statement of the other half. Jefferson believed in preserving the rights of the States, and yet he did not abate in the least the power and vigor of the Federal Government which extends over all. And so, today, we who follow him will earnestly preserve those rights which remain with the States, and we will as firmly enforce those rights which belong to the nation.

'A jealous care of the rights of election by the people—a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided.'

My friends, elections by the people are the safety valves in a republic. It is here that all discontent can expend itself, it is here that all criticism can find an outlet. Stop elections by the people, and discontent most express itself in characters of blood. Jefferson did not say to preserve with jealous care elections by corporations; he did not say to preserve with jealous care elections by a few syndicates, few trusts, or even by a few banking corporations. He said "Elections by the people," and he meant by all the people.

'Absolute acquiescence in the decision of the majority—the vital principle of republics from which there is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and the immediate parent of despotism.'

Do our opponents say that we believe in lawlessness? I tell you that the followers of Thomas Jefferson are the best preservers of public order, because they believe in absolute acquiescence in the will of the majority.

'A well-disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace, and for the first moments of war, till the regulars may relieve them.'

Far better this form of protection than an enormous standing army, supported by the taxation of those who toil.

'The supremacy of the civil over the military authority.

'Economy in the public expenses, that labor may be lightly burdened.

'The honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith.'

My friends, the followers of Thomas Jefferson stand as squarely upon that plank of his platform as they do upon any other plank that I have read.

'The honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith.'

That does not mean that after you have contracted a debt you shall lessen the volume of standard money and drive up the value of the dollar and then compel people to pay in larger dollars than they borrowed.

Both houses of Congress, in 1878, declared by resolution that it was not a violation of public faith to pay coin obligations in silver coin as well as gold coin. We have sold coin bonds, and some of those bonds were sold at a lower price than they would have brought had they been payable in gold; and yet, my friends, those who bought those bonds, and who made allowance for the fact that they were payable in coin, now insist that the Government is bound, in good faith, to pay them in gold, so that that allowance can be profit in their pockets. We believe in the payment of our debts according to contract—not according to the wishes of those who hold the contracts.

'Encouragement of agriculture and commerce as its hand-maid.'

Jefferson recognized that agriculture is the great foundation industry in this country. He recognized that without prosperity among those who till the soil and convert a nation's resources into a nation's wealth there can be no permanent prosperity anywhere; and yet, in spite of this fact which every one must recognize, for the last twenty years, instead of encouraging agriculture, we have discouraged it—instead of giving it an equal chance, we have so burdened those who work on the farms that their sons are driven from the old home to become competitors with the mechanics in the shops.

'The diffusion of information and the arraignment of all abuses at the bar of public reason.'

Jefferson was right. He believed that error is harmless when reason is left free to combat it. Far better can we endure whatever injury may come from error than to attempt to suppress free speech and thus risk the suppression of the good along with the evil.

Freedom of religion; freedom of the press; freedom of the person under the protection of habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected.

These, my friends, were the principles which he laid down, and they were sufficient to cover all the conditions which existed then. And then, as an explanation of these principles, he added:

'These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us, and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and the blood of our heroes have been devoted to the attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith—the text of civil instruction—the touch-stone by which to try the service of those whom we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and regain the mad which leads alone to peace, liberty and safety.'

I have read you, thus briefly, from the teachings of Thomas Jefferson. It ought to be the ambition of every member of these clubs to carry our Government back and place it again securely upon the foundation that that immortal statesman laid.

If you ask me what is my highest ambition, I reply that above all offices that human hands can give, above all honors which confidence and esteem can bestow, if I could choose the language by which my public work is to be described, I would have history say of me: He did what he could to make the Government what Jefferson desired it to be.

My friends, our Government has drifted away from the ancient landmarks. (A voice, "We have not.") In times of passion and in times of party strife the instrumentalities of government have been turned to private gain, and Government, instead of meting out equal and exact justice, has been too often the tool of those who, having obtained possession of it, have used it to enrich themselves out of the toil and sweat of their fellow man. (Applause.)

Today we meet in the presence of a mighty conflict—the greatest conflict that this nation has ever seen in time of peace. Upon the other side are arrayed forces of tremendous power. We need not overlook, we need not belittle the importance of the influences which oppose us. Behind the bulwark erected by our opponents has been gathered every public enemy who preys upon the people. (Applause.) They need contribute but a small proportion of the unjust gains that they have wrung from the public through vicious legislation, and yet that small proportion will be a corruption fund the like of which was never collected by any party before. (Applause and cheers; a voice, "If Mark Hanna could only hear that;" laughter.) Against this enemy, armed with all the implements of party warfare—against this enemy, supplied with all the equipments which are supposed to be valuable in such a conflict—against this enemy, confident, arrogant and insolent, we have nothing to oppose except the consciences of seventy millions of people.

My friends, the patriots who live fifty years from now, reading the pages of history, will envy us who live in this day of such wonderful opportunities. I was born after the war. I belong to that generation which has never had an opportunity to prove its love of country upon the battlefield; but, oh, my countrymen, never in the history of this country has there been such an opportunity as there is today for the citizen to prove his love, not only of his country but of all mankind and of his God. (Great applause, cheers.) The battle that we fight is fought upon the hilltop, and our contending armies are visible to all the world. All over this globe, in every civilized nation, the eyes of mankind are turned toward this battlefield. Show me, anywhere, a man oppressed, show me a man who has suffered from injustice, show me a man who has been made the victim of vicious legislation, and I will show you a man from whose heart goes up a silent prayer that we may win. (Applause.) Show me, anywhere, an aristocrat who despises the common people and considers them inferior beings, show me a king who is jealous of the rights his subjects have, show me a man who knows nothing but the thirst for gold, show me any monopolist that lives by the oppression of his fellow men, anywhere, and I will show you a man who is hoping that success may come to those who oppose us. (Great applause.)

One cablegram brings news that a subscription paper has been opened in a foreign banking centre to supply funds for the already overflowing treasury of our opponents; and the same wire flashes from Budapest the news that the farmers of the old world are anxious that bimetallism may be restored here.

Such, my friends, is the opportunity now open before those who desire to make our Government so good that it will deserve the love of every citizen who lives beneath the flag—such is the contest into which circumstances have hurled you, and you cannot evade or avoid your responsibility if you would. You must act. The bible tells us that much shall be required of those to whom much has been given; and to you, the citizens in this, the foremost nation of the world, to you the citizens in this land which must lead in the progress of the race to higher ground—to you is given the opportunity, and that opportunity measures your responsibility. I beg you, members of these clubs, to appreciate the gravity of the situation, and to do your duty as you see it.

Let me suggest an avenue of usefulness. We believe that our cause is just. We believe that, if that cause can be presented to the people, they will appreciate its justice. We believe that, if the arguments which support our position can be laid before the intelligent and the impartial, those arguments must convince. But, my friends, we find it difficult to raise even the amount of money necessary to print and circulate the literature which is asked for by the people. Heretofore we have sent out literature and begged men to have others take it. This year we are not able to supply the demand that comes from those who beg for literature. Let me suggest one thing that these clubs can do. Each club can take up a collection from among its members, and it can purchase literature and circulate that literature in the immediate vicinity of the club; and thus this argument will extend and the circles, ever widening, will at last reach all who desire to study this question.

But there is another thing that you can do. I ask all the clubs, of whatever name, composed of members who believe in the restoration of bimetallism by this nation alone, to meet at the polling places on election morning, and give the entire day to work for their country. More than that; we are not able to furnish the funds necessary to hire carriages to bring in those who are unable to walk. I believe that fewer carriages will be needed this year than ordinarily, because more people will be anxious to go to the polls this year than ever before. But I ask you to furnish conveyances when you meet at the polls. Furnish carriages, or buggies, or wagons, or carts, or anything that you have; if you give what you have, you have given as generously as those who give much.

I beg, too, that each one of you will consider himself appointed a missionary, so that, from now until election day, no moment will be lost; every moment should be employed in bringing our cause to the attention of others.

More than that, I want you, when you leave here, to carry with you the word that we do not want any employer of labor to attempt to interfere with his men or to try to make them vote for our ticket against their will. As the presidential nominee of the triple alliance, I want to say to you, my friends, that I do not desire the involuntary support of any citizen in this nation. We appeal to the people, we submit our cause to the judgment of the people, and if I am elected I want to feel that behind me I have a majority of these people, and then, so help me God, I will carry out that platform to the letter. (Great applause and cheering.)

Be not terrified by abuse, be not discouraged by epithets. No matter what names they may call you, if you are conscious that you are doing your duty, you have more support than you would have if all the world applauded you and your own conscience condemned. Abuse has always been the lot of those who fought against entrenched privilege. If you become annoyed, turn back to the pages of history, and for every name that is applied to you, you will find one equally severe applied to Jefferson—for every name applied to you, you will find one equally severe applied to Jackson. Ah, my friends, I might come nearer than that. That great spirit yonder (pointing to a picture of Lincoln) was as bitterly attacked by the aristocracy of wealth and would be as unpopular today among the financiers of New York or Boston as Jackson or Jefferson was in his day. Any man who believes that the people ought to stand equal before the law will he abused by those who desire favoritism in legislation and special privileges from government.

Be not terrified. Do your duty as you see it. I believe that we shall triumph. I believe, that as surely as tomorrow morning's sun shall rise, the day will come when bimetallism will be restored. Yes, the day will come when the money of the Constitution will again be ours; the day will come when trusts will be exterminated; the day will come when corporations will cease to consider themselves greater than the Government which created them (great applause); the day will come when the people of this country will he content to walk side by side, each one satisfied to enjoy life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, without attempting to deprive his neighbor of equal opportunities and equal rights. (Great applause.)

There is nothing, my friends, which so inspires as truth. Those who fight with the consciousness that they are right, fight on with perfect confidence that, even if they themselves do not see the triumph of their cause, yet it will triumph after they are gone. If they die while the contest is still undecided, they die in the faith expressed by the poet as he wrote of one who fell upon the battlefield:

  • 'Yea, though thou lie upon the dust,
  • When they who helped thee flee in fear,
  • Die full of hope and manly trust
  • Like those who fell in battle here.
  • Another hand thy sword shall wield,
  • Another hand the standard wave,
  • Till from the trumpet's mouth is pealed
  • The blast of triumph o'er thy grave.'

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: 518-524
  • Date: October 3, 1896