In 1896 Bryan was only 36. “The Democratic nominee for President is a magnificent specimen of virile manhood, with the physique of an athlete,” wrote John Wesley Hanson in The Parties and the Men, or, Political Issues of 1896 (1896). “His complexion is swarthy, his eyes are dark, his hair is jet black and slightly worn away in front. His nose is aquiline and his mouth extraordinarily large, but handsome, strong and sensitive. His chin is broad, square and immense, while his head is poised like that of a Grecian statue… An indefatigable worker, his labor goes on twelve, fourteen, eighteen hours, if necessary, and he never tires. His stock of vitality is inexhaustible.
“He is the youngest candidate that was ever named for the Presidency by any party in all United States history, being little more than one year past the constitutional age.”
At the 1896 Democratic Convention in Chicago, free silverite Rep. Richard Parks Bland of Missouri was initially the frontrunner, winning 235 votes for the nomination to 137 for Bryan on the first ballot, but Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech, one of the most famous in US political history, turned things in favor of the Great Commoner, who won the nomination on the fifth ballot.
“Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech touched off a demonstration lasting close to an hour, during which delegates shouted, cheered, and wept, carried Bryan around on their shoulders in triumph, and waved banners on which were scribbled the words NO CROWN OF THORNS! NO CROSS OF GOLD!,” wrote Paul F. Boller Jr. in Presidential Campaigns (1984). It’s a little hard for us to grasp how the issue of the gold standard vs. the free coinage of silver could resonate so strongly during an election, but it clearly did for Americans of the Gilded Age. Bryan’s speech, a long one indeed, is transcribed here, along with a recording of it he made as a much older man, though it’s clearly without the vim that the original must have had.
On the stump in ’96, Bryan was indefatigable indeed, traveling some 18,000 miles by train and making about 600 speeches, setting the tone for modern always-in-motion presidential campaigns. In the end, however, it wasn’t enough to undo the harm done by the Panic of 1893 and the hard times it caused while a Democrat, Grover Cleveland, was in office. Bryan lost to McKinley by 600,000 popular votes and 95 electoral votes.