Many writers have suggested that L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an allegory for late 19th-century American Populism. (For a deep dive into that allegory and its criticisms, check out Peter Liebhold's recent post.) In a world where Dorothy's silver slippers on the yellow-brick road represent the debate between the gold and silver standards, and the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman are American farmers and factory workers, the Cowardly Lion is a single man—William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential nominee, three-time loser, and the most spellbinding speaker of his day.
Known for his speaking skill from the age of 12, Bryan delivered an oration at the 1896 Democratic National Convention that author Michael A. Cohen has called "the single most influential and electrifying campaign speech in American political history." Although Bryan had hoped to be his party's standard-bearer that year, his chances were slim until he delivered the final speech of the convention's platform debate. Newspapers across the country described it as "magnetic," "hypnotic," "remarkable," and "inspiring." His rousing conclusion about the silver standard and the common people brought the "shrieking" audience to its feet and gave the speech its name:
Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand 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.
Rarely can a single speech, especially a campaign speech, be said to have produced a specific result but "Cross of Gold" unquestionably made Bryan, only 36 years old, the youngest major party nominee in American history.
So why was William Jennings Bryan the Cowardly Lion? Well, for starters, "Bryan" rhymes with "lion." More significantly, Bryan was physically imposing and his oratory powerful. In many ways he personified the Cowardly Lion's self-description: "I learned that if I roared very loudly every living thing was frightened and got out of my way." Why Bryan was "cowardly" is less obvious. By the time The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900, Bryan was accused of downplaying free silver and focusing on his anti-imperialist opposition to the Spanish-American War, two actions seen by some as cowardly. Of course, the Cowardly Lion had never really been cowardly at all. Throughout their journeys he fought bravely to protect his friends, even postponing his own plans because Dorothy needed protection. Similarly, Bryan courageously stuck to positions he believed were in the best interest of his loyal supporters even though this approach led to his repetitive defeats.
Bryan's 1896 campaign was groundbreaking for more than his oratorical skill. One of the first candidates to appear widely on his own behalf, he was the original whistle-stop campaigner. Bryan traveled 18,000 miles by train to give over 600 speeches (36 in one day) to about five million people. In addition, because of improvements in technology, especially the invention of celluloid, thousands of new items were produced promoting Bryan and his Republican opponent William McKinley.
Finally, one can argue that Bryan's famous speech was a rhetorical role model for future young candidates who, with a single speech, overcame potentially career-ending attacks. In 1952, 39-year-old Richard Nixon, who would later be compared to the charlatan Wizard of Oz, used his "Checkers" speech to defend his campaign finances and save his job as Eisenhower's running mate. At the age of 43, John F. Kennedy put the "Catholic question" to rest with his 1960 address to the Houston Ministerial Association.
William Jennings Bryan may have been, in the words of historian Michael Kazin, "the first celebrity politician," but Nixon and Kennedy succeeded where he failed. (Even the Cowardly Lion eventually became King of the Beasts.) Although he holds the record for winning the most Electoral College votes without ever winning an election, Bryan unintentionally fulfilled the wish his political opponent Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld made after hearing the "Cross of Gold"—"I had rather be able to make a speech like that than be president of the United States."
Claire Jerry is a curator in the Division of Political History.