The Cross of Gold Speech: Beginning Rhetorical Analysis
Putting the Speech in Context
William Jennings Bryan delivered his "Cross of Gold" speech for the first time in 1896. It was one of those rare orations that ended with a speaker literally borne away on the shoulders of electrified listeners. The speech had such enduring popularity that Bryan delivered it to attentive audiences many times in the years after.
More than 100 years later, the "Cross of Gold" speech moves people -- sometimes. Truth be told, it has been known to bore students. The speech just isn't as exciting without Bryan here to deliver it, and the modern reader isn't apt to know or care as much about the issues. It's doubtful that anyone fell asleep the first time the speech was delivered, yet it's probable that many modern students read it no more than half awake!
What is the point of the speech, and how does the speaker drive it home? I'll provide some analysis of the speech below. However, the purpose is not so much to explicate this particular speech as to explicate the process of approaching difficult text. How do you go from "What is this thing about?" to ready to write a paper or answer questions?
Images: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)
Determining the Speaker's Purpose
Rhetorical analysis involves analyzing the choices that writers make to achieve their purposes. The first step is figuring out what that purpose is.
There are two ways to get at author's purpose: to examine what's on the page and to examine what's off. If you have the opportunity, you may want to learn about the historical period and the social milieu before you tackle the text. (Gold standard? Bimetallism?)
If you're stuck with what's on the page, there are things that you can do besides start at the beginning and plow your way through -- at least when you're dealing with expository or argumentative writing that's written in a traditional form.
There are some typical places that writers "hide" their thesis. One is at the end of the introduction. In a relatively short piece this is often the end of the first paragraph.
Another is at the end of the piece. Even if there's a thesis somewhere at the beginning, it's apt to be repeated somewhere at the end. (Speech writers, particularly, like to pack those punches at the end.)
Let's take a look at two parts of Bryan's speech: the end of the first paragraph and the conclusion.
Here are the last two sentences of the first paragraph:
I shall object to bringing this question down to a level of persons. The individual is but an atom; he is born, he acts, he dies; but principles are eternal; and this has been a contest of principle.
Now that, I think, is pretty interesting. We get a sense of the tone and how Bryan will appeal to his listeners. Is there a thesis, though? No, not in that paragraph. There is a reference to principles and to a contest of some sort, but we don't know yet what principles are being contested.
Here's the conclusion:
If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.
Let's consider the language.
We shall answer...
You shall not demand...
Those phrases are signals that we're about to hear what the author wants or doesn't want. What is his call to action? That his listeners oppose anyone who holds "the gold standard as a good thing".
You shall not crucify mankind...
Now those are some strong words! We get a sense that opposing the gold standard is not just a part of Bryan's platform; it's the main tenet of his platform -- and the main idea of his speech.
We can read the speech looking for something particular in the onslaught of words: subpoints that support this main idea.
And that's a good thing! If we know what to expect, that keeps us from getting bogged down with details.
Repetition: Driving Home a Point
The following passage is from the 6th paragraph of Cross of Gold:
The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer. The attorney in a country town is as much a businessman as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis. The merchant at the crossroads store is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York. The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, begins in the spring and toils all summer, and by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of this country creates wealth, is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain...
A frequent rhetorical device is to offer multiple examples, parallel in idea and parallel in structure. In the above excerpt, Bryan gives many examples of laborers and small town workers, noting that each is "as much a businessman" as his wealthy, big city counterpart. The middle portion of the sentence serves to connect the two people being described and emphasize their parity. And Bryan repeats that middle portion: four times word for word, a fifth time with slight variance.
Repetition of a group of words in the middle of a sentence is mesodiplosis. It's less important to know the term, though, than to recognize that some point is so important that the speaker needs to make it five times -- and with a special artistry to drive it home.
Being able to quickly recognize the structure that "as much a businessman" gives... that can be a bit like having an organizer in one's head. The reader can give attention to the most important elements and gloss over some of the other details.
What about the extra verbiage? "Begins in the spring and toils all summer, and by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of this country creates wealth" paints a positive image of the farmer and appeals to our emotions, but it can feel excessive and hard to follow if we haven't recognized the basic structure. The essential thing is that we have a farmer; he is being compared to a man who "bets on the price of grain".
If we focus on their essential attributes and skim over the extra verbiage, we'll more easily see the main idea of the paragraph: Bryan is for micro-business and labor; it's for the sake of these workers that he opposes the gold standard.
Thinking Like Bryan
Don't read any more of Bryan's speech -- yet. Instead put yourself in his shoes. He is opposed to gold being the sole monetary standard. This is the biggest part of his political platform.
What does it make sense that he might argue? What strategies might he take?
Which one, out of those in the following list, wouldn't make sense?
An Answer... and an Assignment
All of the above make sense except the allusion to Heaven's gold streets. Bryan is arguing against the gold standard and so he isn't apt to paint gold in those idyllic terms. He does use the word gold in a religious allusion, but it's given quite a different meaning. He says that mankind won't be crucified on a cross of gold.
Can you find the other strategies in his speech? Where does Bryan employ an ethos (character) appeal by suggesting that he is small and insignificant compared to the cause he champions? What great moment(s) in U.S. history does he allude to? Which paragraphs sound like he is responding to, and countering, claims made by the other side?
In order to complete the exercise, you'll need the full text. The "Cross of Gold" speech is public domain and appears many places on the internet. I am linking to the full text version on History Matters.
This gold cross (seen at Seattle's Value Village) has a pseudo gilded frame. Hmmm, cross of gold... gilded age...
Does the picture make an apt illustration for Bryan's speech, or does it project a contrasting image?
The latter. It presents a jarring contrast. Bryan imbued "cross of gold" with a very negative connotation. At the end of the speech, he stretched his arms out as if he were nailed to a cross of gold -- but not the likes of this bejeweled one!
Bryan Speaks - An Excerpt from Bryan's 1920 Recording
There came a time when Bryan was able to record the speech, though he was no longer the "boy orator" of 36. He was a 60 year old man nearing the end of his career. He still had that compelling voice. Here he is.
Ethos: The Appeal to Character
Not all of Bryan's paragraphs provide support for his financial argument. They still fit into the grand design, however. What else is he doing in the speech?
He's making himself appear credible.
A Modern Perspective on Bryan
Bryan ran for president three times. He didn't make that goal, but he left a monumental legacy for his party and for his country. Below is a discussion of that legacy.
Bryan is remembered not just for his famous speech, but his role as witness in the Scopes trial (not long before his death). The speaker here argues that Bryan was more afraid of social Darwinism than true Darwinism and that he was, throughout his life, a deeper man than we might imagine if our image of him comes from Inherit the Wind.
More Cross of Gold Resources
If you need more background...
Rhetorical Devices: Further Resources
- Rhetorical Terms
Short definitions for rhetorical terms.