Salem, IL Speech 1, 1896-07-15

Speech by William Jennings Bryan.

Speech by William Jennings Bryan
Wednesday, July 15, 1896
Courthouse Yard, Salem, IL

Source: The First Battle: A Story of the Campaign of 1896, 1896

"Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen: I have no disposition to talk politics today and shall leave the discussion of public questions to those who are to follow me. Returning to the scenes which surround my early home, the memories of early days crowd out all thoughts of the subject upon which we may differ. I remember with such grateful appreciation the kindly feeling which has always been manifested toward me here, regardless of church or party lines, that I shall say nothing to divide upon any subject those who are assembled today. This is the place of my birth, of my boyhood and of my early manhood. Three blocks south of this spot, I first saw the light of day; a little to the northwest, I lived from the age of six until I was twenty- three, and I shall never cease to be grateful to the parents who took me to the farm and there allowed me to acquire during vacation days the physical strength which will be needed in the campaign upon which I am entering. It was in this court house, by the side of which we meet today, that I first conceived the ambition to be a lawyer; it was in this same court house that I afterward made my first political speech; it was at the fair grounds near here that I delivered my first Fourth of July address. It was to the parental roof, then just outside of the limits of the city, that I brought her who had promised to share life's joys and sorrows with me. All these happy associations rise today before me and leave me no desire to think of other things. I cannot forget Salem, nor can I forget those whose kindly faces smiled upon me here before fortune smiled. I cannot forget the spot nearby, the silent city of the dead, where rest the ashes of the father whose uptight life has been an inspiration to me and whose counsels lingered in my ears after he was gone—the spot where rest also the ashes of a mother as tender and as true, as patient, as gentle and as kind as God in His infinite love ever gave to man.

It was in this city that I received my first instructions in democracy—I do not use the word in a party sense, but in the broader sense in which democracy recognizes the brotherhood of man. It was here that I learned the truth expressed by the poet, that "Honor and fame from no condition rise." It was here that I learned that clothes do not make the man; that all who contribute to the nation's greatness and have the good of the country at heart—no matter what their position in life, their ancestry or their surroundings—stand upon a common ground and share in a common citizenship. It was here, too, that I was taught to believe in freedom of conscience—that principle which must go hand in hand with a broad democracy; that every man has a right to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, and that no government like ours can dictate how a man shall serve his God.

There is an ideal plane in politics, and I believe we stand upon it here today. We differ in opinion and we differ in party politics, but we meet today recognizing these differences and yet each charitable toward the other. We are all imbued with the same spirit; we all possess the same ambition; we are all endeavoring to carry out the same great purpose. We all want a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. However we may differ as to the means of securing that kind of government, we can differ as honest citizens—apart in judgment but together in purpose. I thank the Republicans who have assembled here; I thank the Populists; and I thank the Prohibitionists as well as the Democrats, because while we dispute about the questions which rise to the surface from time to time and agitate the people, we all agree in those great fundamental principles which underlie our form of government. We believe that all men are created equal—not that they are equal in talents or in virtue or in merits, but that wherever the government comes into contact with the citizen, all must stand equal before the law. We agree in the belief that the government should be no respecter of persons—that its strength must be used for the protection of the fortunes of the great and the possessions of the poor, and that it must stand as an impartial arbiter between citizens. We agree in the belief that there are certain inalienable rights—rights which government did not give, rights which government should not take away. We agree in the belief that governments are instituted among men to secure and to preserve these rights, and that they derive their just powers from the consent of the govern[ed]. We know no divine right of kings; the people are the sovereign source of all power. These citizens are the substantial foundation upon which our form of government rests. While our citizens appreciate the responsibilities of citizenship, and strive, each in his own way and according to his best judgment, to bring civilization to higher ground and to make the Government each year a more fit expression of the virtue and integrity of the people, differences on minor issues need not disturb them.

I have mentioned the basic principles upon which has been reared this, the greatest nation known to history. I am a believer in the progress of the race. Talk not to me about crises through which we cannot pass; tell me not of dangers that will overthrow us, or of obstacles too great to overcome; we know none such. A brave, a heroic, a patriotic people will be prepared to meet every emergency as it arises. Each generation is capable of sell-government, and I believe that under our institutions each generation will be more capable than the generation which went before. Abraham Lincoln, in the greatest of his speeches, said that we had an unfinished work to perform. Every generation receives from the preceding generation an unfinished work. The works of man are imperfect. Mankind labors from age to age but does not reach perfection. Every generation enjoys the blessings bequeathed from the generations past, and we should strive to leave the world better than it was when we entered it. To such as are gathered here and throughout the land, a nation can look with absolute confidence for the wisdom, intelligence, patriotism, and courage which are necessary in every hour of danger.

But I must not talk longer. Permit me to thank you again and again for the words which you have spoken and for the kindly expression which I see on every face. We know not what may be the result of this campaign; we go forth to do our duty as we see it, but what the verdict will be we cannot know until the votes are counted. No matter whether the campaign results in my election or defeat, it cannot rob me of the delightful recollection of the confidence and love of the citizens of my boyhood home."

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: 233-235
  • Date: July 15, 1896