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William Jennings BryanWilliam Jennings Bryan

U.S. Congressman who advocated for the free coinage of silver, one-time candidate for President, Secretary of State who worked hard to keep the U.S. out of World War I, and die-hard opponent of the teaching of evolution

William Jennings Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois, on March 19, 1860. His father, Silas L. Bryan, was a prominent and respected lawyer, and a former two-term State Senator. He initially wanted to be a minister, but decided to follow in his father's footsteps instead. To that end, he attended Illinois College at Jacksonville from 1878 to 1881, from which he graduated with honors. In 1887, after graduating from the Union College of Law in Chicago, he established a law practice in Lincoln, Nebraska.

U.S. Congressman

In 1888, Bryan was an active supporter of J. Sterling Morton for U.S. Congress, but Morton was ultimately defeated by a fairly large majority.

In 1890, Bryan decided to run for Congress himself, against the same Republican who had beaten Morton; he won by a majority of over 6,700 votes. His oratorical skills during the campaign earned him an appointment to the House Ways and Means Committee, an appointment rarely awarded to a freshman Congressman. In Congress he was a vocal advocate for the free coinage of silver at a fixed rate with gold. An 1891 reapportionment of Congressional districts in Illinois divided Bryan's district in such a way as to create a Republican majority, but Bryan was re-elected anyway. He left Congress after losing his 1894 bid for the U.S. Senate.

After leaving Congress, Bryan became editor-in-chief of the Omaha World. He also traveled widely and lectured on the money question whenever and wherever the opportunity arose.

Presidential Candidate

Already a powerful figure within the Democratic Party, Bryan's star rose even higher at the 1896 National Convention. Still an advocate for the free coinage of silver, he delivered what has become known as his "Cross of Gold" speech, in which he said: "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 the working man upon a cross of gold!" Despite great misgivings from incumbent President Grover Cleveland, Bryan was nominated by both the Democratic and People's parties.

Bryan campaigning from the back of a trainThe campaign of 1896 pitted Bryan against Republican William McKinley, who was as staunch an advocate of the gold standard as Bryan was of the silver standard. Knowing that he had an uphill battle to fight, Bryan took his campaign directly to the people by speaking around the country, often from the backs of railroad cars. By the time the campaign ended he had delivered more than 600 speeches in 27 states. Unfortunately for Bryan, McKinley's campaign was able to raise far more money than his, and was able to persuade voters that dropping the gold standard would lead to inflation. McKinley ultimately won the election by a vote of 7.1 million to 6.5 million.

left: Bryan campaigning from the back of a train

cartoon depicting Bryan 'blowing up' McKinleyIn 1900, Bryan again ran for President against McKinley, this time basing his campaign on opposition to the American annexation of the Philippines. He lost again, by an even larger majority than he had in 1896. Bryan made one last bid for the presidency in 1908, but lost that election to William Howard Taft.

right: cartoon depicting Bryan 'blowing up' McKinley

Despite having lost three presidential elections, Bryan continued to be a force in politics. In 1901, he founded The Commoner, a weekly paper in which he expressed his views. The paper kept him in the public eye, as well as in a position of power in the Democratic Party.

Secretary of State

In 1912, Bryan's influence in the Democratic Party helped get Woodrow Wilson nominated for the presidency. As a reward for his hard work, President Wilson subsequently named him Secretary of State. During his tenure, Bryan worked hard to achieve world peace. To that end, he negotiated 30 treaties with nations in which they agreed to investigate all disputes with other nations rather than go to war; the United States ultimately ratified all but two of those treaties. Despite all his work, however, Europe still found itself engulfed by the First World War. Although Wilson and Bryan initially agreed that the United States should remain neutral, that position was challenged in 1915, when a German submarine sank the liner Lusitania, killing over a hundred Americans. President Wilson drafted a letter to Germany condemning the attack, but Bryan was afraid that such a letter would provoke Germany into declaring war on the United States. Rather than sign the letter, Bryan resigned.

After leaving office, Bryan tried to use his influence to keep the United States out of the war. He became an ardent supporter of America's military effort after war was finally declared in 1917, however.

Later Career

Bryan in the courtroomIn 1921, Bryan began an active campaign to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools. That campaign ultimately led to what would prove to be his last major battle. In 1925, Dayton, Tennessee, high school teacher John Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution. Bryan agreed to prosecute the case on behalf of the State of Tennessee, and famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow agreed to represent Scopes. During what became known as the "Scopes Monkey Trial," both men focused more on giving speeches than actually trying the case. But the most striking moment came when Darrow called Bryan as an expert witness on the Bible. The press had a field day as Darrow interrogated Bryan about Biblical details and his beliefs, during which Bryan often came across as almost ludicrous. Although he ultimately won a conviction against Scopes, the experience left Bryan emotionally and physically broken. He died five days after the trial ended, on July 26, 1925.

right: Bryan in the Dayton, Tennessee, courtroom

Other Information

In addition to being a champion of free silver, Bryan was also an advocate of women's suffrage, the popular election of Senators, the creation of a Department of Labor, and for Prohibition, as well as a tireless worker on behalf of farmers and laborers.

While in college, Bryan met and married Mary E. Baird, the daughter of a prosperous merchant in Perry, Illinois. Rather than settling for the life of a basic housewife, Mary decided to study law, which she did with her husband's blessing, as well as his tutelage. She was admitted to the bar in 1888, but never took up the practice, preferring instead to use her knowledge to help her husband any way she could. The couple ultimately had three children.

Bryan was the author of several books, including:
The First Battle: A Story of the Campaign of 1896 (1896)
The Second Battle or The New Declaration of Independence, 1776-1900 (1900)
A Tale of Two Conventions (1912)

In 1930, the first class graduated from Bryan College, a private institution founded Dayton, Tennessee, in his honor. The college now accepts students from all over the world.

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Late 19th Century, 1865-1900 >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on April 11, 2017.