William Jennings Bryan

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William Jennings Bryan (March 19, 1860 – July 26, 1925) was an American orator and politician who moved the Democratic Party (United States) toward liberalism and opposition to overseas imperialism. In 1896, 1900 and 1908 he was the Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States. One of the most popular speakers in American history, he was noted for his deep, commanding voice and his extensive travels. Bryan was a devout Presbyterian, a strong proponent of popular democracy, an outspoken critic of banks and railroads, a leader of the silverite movement in the 1890s demanding free silver, a dominant figure in the Democratic Party, a peace advocate, a prohibitionist, an opponent of evolution (which he called Darwinism), and one of the most prominent leaders of the Progressive Era. He was called "The Great Commoner" because of his total faith in the goodness and rightness of the common people.

Bryan was one of the most energetic campaigners in American history, inventing the national stumping tour for presidential candidates. In his three failed presidential bids, he promoted Free Silver in 1896, anti-imperialism in 1900, and trust-busting in 1908, calling on all Democrats to renounce conservatism, fight the trusts and big banks, and embrace progressive ideas. President Woodrow Wilson appointed him U.S. Secretary of State in 1913, where he played a minor role; Bryan resigned in 1915 in protest against Wilson's tough stand against German atrocities. In the 1920s he was a strong supporter of Prohibition, and a crusader against Darwinism, which culminated in the Scopes Trial in 1925.

Bryan picked Wilson as the Democratic candidate in 1912

Background and early career

Bryan was born in Salem, in southern Illinois, the son of Silas and Mariah Bryan. Silas Bryan was born in 1822 in Virginia, of Irish stock. He attended McKendree College in Lebanon, Illinois, in 1849 and taught high school while preparing for the bar exam. He married met Mariah Elizabeth Jennings; they settled in Salem, Illinois, a young town with a population of approximately 2000. Silas Bryan, a Jacksonian Democrat, won election to the Illinois State Senate, where he knew Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Silas lost his seat to a Republican in 1860, the year of William Jennings Bryan's birth, but quickly rebounded by winning election as a state circuit judge.

In 1866, the family moved to a 520-acre farm north of Salem, living in comfort. Silas served as a sort of "gentleman farmer" and William Jennings Bryan grew up in this agricultural setting. In 1872, Silas left the bench to run for the U.S. House of Representatives, with the backing of the Democratic and Greenback parties, but lost to a Republican. He returned to his law practice.

Both of Bryan's parents were devout Christians. Since his father was a Baptist and his mother was a Methodist, Bryan grew up attending Methodist services on Sunday mornings and Baptist services in the afternoon. In 1874, at age 14, Bryan attended a revival and was baptized and joined the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. As an adult, Bryan left the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in favor of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.

Bryan was homeschooled until age 10, finding in the Bible and McGuffey Readers the truths he adhered to all his life, such as that gambling and liquor were evil and sinful. In 1874, 14-year-old Bryan was sent to Jacksonville, Illinois, to attend Whipple Academy, the academy attached to Illinois College. Following high school, he entered Illinois College and studied classics, graduating as valedictorian in 1881. He then moved to Chicago to study law at Union Law College.

He married Mary Baird in 1884; she became a lawyer and collaborated with him on all his speeches and writings. He practiced law in Jacksonville (1883–87), then moved to the boom city of Lincoln, Nebraska. He was elected to Congress in the Democratic landslide of 1890 and reelected by 140 votes in 1892. In 1894 he ran for the Senate but was overwhelmed in the Republican landslide.

First Battle: 1896

At the 1896 Democratic National Convention, Bryan galvanized the silver forces to defeat the Bourbon Democrats who supported incumbent President Grover Cleveland, and who had long controlled the party. His famous "Cross of Gold" speech[1] lambasted Eastern monied classes for supporting the gold standard at the expense of the honest workers and farmers. Bryan's stance united the agrarian and silver factions and won the nomination. Just 36, the youngest presidential nominee ever, Bryan added as well the nominations of Populist Party nomination and the Silver Republican Party in addition to the Democratic nomination. Thus voters from any party could vote for him without crossing party lines, an important advantage in an era of intense party loyalty. Republicans ridiculed Bryan as a Populist. However, "Bryan's reform program was so similar to that of the Populists that he has often been mistaken for a Populist, but he remained a stanch Democrat throughout the Populist period."[2] The Populists nominated him only once (in 1896); they refused to do so in previous and later elections.

Bryan as Populist swallowing the Democratic party; 1896 cartoon from the Republican magazine Judge.

Bryan crusaded against the gold standard and the money interests, demanding Bimetallism and "Free Silver" at a ratio of 16:1. That is, the large output of western silver mines would be turned into legal tender with a face value double the current value of silver. This would flood the economy with money, lower prices, and encourage spending, said Bryan. Most leading Democratic newspapers rejected his candidacy, and his chief newspaper supporter was William Randolph Hearst, whose family fortune was based on silver mines. Bryan his cause directly to several million men, women and children who flocked to hear one of his 500 speeches given in 27 states.

The Republicans nominated William McKinley on a program of prosperity through industrial growth, high tariffs, and sound money (that is, gold.) Republicans discovered that, by August, Bryan was solidly ahead in the South and West, and far behind in the Northeast. But he also appeared to be ahead in the Midwest, so the Republicans concentrated their efforts there. They counter-crusaded against Bryan, warning that he was a madman--a religious fanatic surrounded by anarchists--who would wreck the economy. By late September the Republicans felt they were ahead in the decisive Midwest, and began emphasizing that McKinley would bring prosperity to every group of Americans. McKinley scored solid gains among the middle classes, factory and railroad workers, prosperous farmers, and among the German Americans who rejected free silver. McKinley won by a landslide in the popular vote and (271 to 176) in the electoral college.

War and Peace: 1898-1900

President McKinley raises the American flag in the Philippines, and Bryan chops it down. U.S. flags fly over Puerto Rico and Cuba as Uncle Sam watches

Although Bryan never won an election after 1892, he continued to dominate the Democratic party. Much more a war hawk than McKinley, Bryan strongly urged going to war with Spain in 1898, and volunteered for combat and became a colonel of a Nebraska militia regiment; he spent the war in Florida and never saw combat. He argued that:

"Universal peace cannot come until justice is enthroned throughout the world. Until the right has triumphed in every land and love reigns in every heart, government must, as a last resort, appeal to force."

After the war, Bryan came to denounce the imperialism that resulted from it. He strongly opposed the annexation of the Philippines (though he did support the Treaty of Paris that ended the war). He ran as an anti-imperialist in 1900, finding himself in an awkward alliance with Andrew Carnegie and other millionaire anti-imperialists. Republicans mocked Bryan as indecisive, or even a coward, a theme echoed in the portrayal of the Cowardly Lion in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). In 1900, he combined anti-imperialism with free silver, saying:

The nation is of age and it can do what it pleases; it can spurn the traditions of the past; it can repudiate the principles upon which the nation rests; it can employ force instead of reason; it can substitute might for right; it can conquer weaker people; it can exploit their lands, appropriate their property and kill their people; but it cannot repeal the moral law or escape the punishment decreed for the violation of human rights.[3]

Bryan's stamina was evident from his schedule. In a typical day he gave four hour-long speeches and shorter talks that added up to six hours of speaking. At an average rate of 175 words a minute, he turned out 63,000 words, enough to fill 52 columns of a newspaper. (No paper printed more than a column or two.) In Wisconsin, he made 12 speeches in 15 hours. [4]. He held his base in the South, but lost part of the West as McKinley retained the Northeast and Midwest and rolled up a landslide.

1900-1912: on the Chautauqua circuit

For the next 25 years, Bryan was the most popular Chautauqua speaker, delivering thousands of speeches, even while serving as secretary of state. He spoke on a wide variety of topics, but he preferred religious topics. His most popular lecture (and his personal favorite) was a lecture entitled "The Prince of Peace": in it, Bryan stressed that religion was the only solid foundation of morality, and that individual and group morality was the only foundation for peace and equality. Another famous lecture from this period, "The Value of an Ideal", was a stirring call to public service.

Bryan speaking in 1908
Bryan attacks the trusts as greedy pigs and undemocratic royalty

Bryan threw himself into the work of the Social Gospel. Bryan served on organizations containing a large number of theological liberals: he sat on the temperance committee of the Federal Council of Churches and on the general committee of the short-lived Interchurch World Movement.

National Politics: 1900-1912

In the years following his 1900 presidential loss, Bryan founded a weekly magazine , The Commoner, calling on Democrats to dissolve the trusts, regulate the railroads more tightly and support the Progressive Movement.

Bryan's 1908 platform destroyed by Taft

Bryan at this time regarded prohibition as a "local" issue and did not endorse it until 1910. In London in 1906, he presented a plan to the Inter-Parliamentary Peace Conference for arbitration of disputes that he hoped would avert warfare. He tentatively called for nationalization of the railroads, then backtracked and called only for more regulation. His party nominated Gold Democrat Alton B. Parker in 1904, but Bryan was back in 1908, losing this time to William Howard Taft.

Bryan helps GOP insurgents 1910

The GOP had serious internal troubles in 1910-12, with the insurgents battling Taft. Theodore Roosevelt joined the insurgents but was outmaneuvered by Taft for the 1912 nomination, and started his own party. Historians are undecided whether Taft would have been reelected without the split. In any case Bryan played a key role in choosing New Jersey reform governor Woodrow Wilson as the 1912 Democratic nominee. His reward was appointment as Secretary of State.

Secretary of State: 1913-1916

Bryan as Secretary of State in Wilson's cabinet

Wilson made all the major foreign policy decisions himself, only nominally consulting Bryan. Dedicated to peace (though not a pacifist), Bryan negotiated 28 treaties that promised arbitration of disputes before war broke out between that country and the United States; Germany never signed on. He supported American military intervention in the civil war in Mexico in 1914. Bryan resigned in June 1915 over Wilson's strong notes demanding "strict accountability for any infringement of [American] rights, intentional or incidental." He campaigned energetically for Wilson's reelection in 1916. When war finally was declared in April 1917, Bryan wrote Wilson, "Believing it to be the duty of the citizen to bear his part of the burden of war and his share of the peril, I hereby tender my services to the Government. Please enroll me as a private whenever I am needed and assign me to any work that I can do."[5] Wilson, however, did not allow Bryan to rejoin the military and did not offer him any wartime role, so he threw his energies into successful campaigns for Constitutional amendments on prohibition and women's suffrage.

Prohibition Battles 1916-1925

Bryan moved to Florida in part to avoid the Nebraska ethnics (especially the German Americans) who were "wet" and opposed to prohibition.[6] He remained as busy as ever, often filling lucrative speaking engagements. Always pious, during the final years of his life, he was extremely active in religious organizations and devoted himself to the defense of fundamentalist Christianity. After leaving the State Department, he shifted focus to social and moral issues, and to world disarmament. He refused to support the party nominee in 1920 because he was not dry enough. As one biographer explains,

Bryan epitomized the prohibitionist viewpoint: Protestant and nativist, hostile to the corporation and the evils of urban civilization, devoted to personal regeneration and the social gospel, he sincerely believed that prohibition would contribute to the physical health and moral improvement of the individual, stimulate civic progress, and end the notorious abuses connected with the liquor traffic. Hence, he became interested when its devotees in Nebraska viewed direct legislation as a means of obtaining antisaloon laws. [7]

He was thus primarily interested in destroying the liquor interest, which controlled politics in many inner-city wards and seemed to be on the other side of every issue. His national campaigning helped Congress pass the 18th Amendment in 1918, which shut down all saloons starting in 1920. While prohibition was in effect, however, he did not work to secure better enforcement. He ignored the Ku Klux Klan, expecting it would soon fold. He strongly opposed wet Al Smith for the nomination in 1924; his brother Charles Bryan was put on the ticket as candidate for vice president in 1924 to keep the Bryanites in line.

Fighting Darwinism: 1918-1924

The horrors of the First World War convinced Bryan that Darwinism was not only a potential threat, but had in fact undermined morality. Before World War I, Bryan had been an optimist who believed that moral progress could achieve equality at home and, in the international field, peace between all the nations of the world. World War I convinced him that this optimism was misplaced and that moral progress seemed to have ground to a complete halt.

In concluding that Darwinism was responsible for the immorality of the present age, Bryan was heavily influenced by two books: the first was Headquarters Nights: A Record of Conversations and Experiences at the Headquarters of the German Army in Belgium and France by Vernon Kellogg (1917), which alleged that most German military leaders were committed Darwinists who were skeptical of Christianity. The second was The Science of Power by Benjamin Kidd (1918), which argued that German nationalism, materialism, and militarism could be attributed to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, which in turn was the logical outworking of the Darwinian hypothesis of evolution.

By 1921 Bryan saw the threat to morality posed by Darwinism as a major internal threat to the US. The book which apparently convinced Bryan of this was James Henry Leuba's The Belief in God and Immortality, a Psychological, Anthropological and Statistical Study (1916). In this study, Leuba showed that a considerable number of college students lost their faith during the four years they spent in college. Bryan was horrified that the next generation of American leaders might have the degraded sense of morality which had prevailed in Germany and caused the Great War; he decided it was time to act and launched his massive anti-evolution campaign.

The campaign kicked off in lectures at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia October 1921. He asked, what is the role of man in the universe and what is the purpose of man? For Bryan, religion was absolutely central to answering this question, and moral responsibility and the spirit of brotherhood could only rest on belief in God. The Darwinists, however, in calling into question religion, had laid the foundation for the bloodiest war in human history; had removed sympathy and brotherhood from the economic realm, replacing it with competition and survival of the fittest; and offered no program for improving life except for "scientific breeding" which would take hundreds of years to achieve.[8]

Bryan was worried that Darwinism was making grounds not only in the universities, but also within the church itself. The developments of 19th-century theology, and higher criticism in particular, had left the door open to the point where nearly all leading Protestant theologians accepted Darwinism, claiming that it was not contradictory with their being Christians. Determined to put an end to this, Bryan, who had never studied biology or theology, ran for Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. He was narrowly defeated by the Rev. Charles F. Wishart, president of the College of Wooster, who had loudly endorsed the teaching of Darwinism in the college. Bryan put forth a motion that no denominational funds should be spent at any university, college, or school where Darwinism was taught. However, the General Assembly opted instead for a milder motion, saying they disapproved of materialistic (as opposed to theistic) evolution, but refusing to cut off funds.

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan chat in court during the Scopes Trial.

Scopes Trial 1925

Bryan actively supported state laws banning public schools from teaching evolution, and several southern states passed such laws after Bryan addressed them. His participation in the highly publicized 1925 Scopes Trial served as a capstone to his career. Bryan was asked by William Bell Riley to represent as counsel the World Christian Fundamentals Association at the trial. During the trial Bryan took the stand and was questioned by defense lawyer Clarence Darrow about his views on the Bible.

Biologist Stephen Jay Gould has speculated that Bryan's antievolution views were a result of his Populist idealism and suggests that Bryan's fight was really against Social Darwinism. However the leading biographer Michael Kazin, reject that conclusion based on Bryan's failure during the trial to attack the eugenics and white supremacy in the textbook, Civic Biology. [9] The national media reported the trial in great detail, with H. L. Mencken using Bryan as a foil for Southern ignorance and anti-intellectualism. Bryan publicly denounced evolution but confided to correspondents shortly before the trial that he accepted it entirely as an explanation for the development of animal and plant species, though not for the human soul. Nevertheless the trial was a humiliation for creationists and fundamentalists nationwide, and they withdrew from public debate for decades, until they resurged after 1960.[10]

Bryan died on July 26, 1925, only five days after the trial ended. The local school superintendent proposed that Dayton should create a Christian college as a lasting memorial to Bryan; fund raising was successful and Bryan College opened in 1930.


Kazin (2006) considers him the first of the 20th-century "celebrity politicians" better known for their personalities and communications skills than their political views. Alan Wolfe has concluded that Bryan's "legacy remains complicated. Form and content mix uneasily in Bryan's politics. The content of his speeches . . . leads in a direct line to the progressive reforms adopted by 20th-century Democrats. But the form his actions took—-a romantic invocation of the American past, a populist insistence on the wisdom of ordinary folk, a faith-based insistence on sincerity and character—lead just as directly to the Republican Party of Karl Rove and George W. Bush."[11]


  1. See full text in William Jennings Bryan/Documents
  2. Coletta vol.1, pg. 40
  3. Hibben, Peerless Leader 220
  4. Coletta 1:272
  5. Hibben, Peerless Leader, p 356
  6. Coletta 3:116
  7. Coletta vol 2 p. 8
  8. The Sprunt lectures were published as In His Image, and sold over 100,000 copies, while "The Origin of Man was published separately as The Menace of Darwinism and also sold very well.
  9. Kazin p 289]
  10. Michael Lienesch, "The Scopes Trial" Ideas" v6 #2 (1999) at [1] and Lienesch, In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, the Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Antievolution Movement (2007)
  11. Washington Post February 5, 2006; Book World p 6