He practiced law at Jacksonville, Ill., and in 1887 he moved to Lincoln, Nebr. Bryan was a U.S. Representative from 1891 to 1895 but was defeated for the U.S. Senate in 1894. The next two years he spent as editor in chief of the Omaha World-Herald. Having ardently identified himself with the free silver forces in Congress, he became their most popular speaker in a preconvention drive to control the Democratic national convention at Chicago in 1896.
At the convention his famous "Cross of Gold" speech so swayed the delegates that his nomination for President was assured, even though he was only 36 years old. The Populist party also nominated him, but the conservative gold Democrats ran John M. Palmer. The chief issue of the campaign was Bryan's proposal for free and unlimited coinage of silver, which he thought would remedy the economic ills then plaguing farmers and industrial workers. He lost the bitterly fought contest to Republican William McKinley, whose campaign was skillfully managed by Marcus A. Hanna.
Bryan controlled the Democratic convention in 1900 and saved the silver plank from removal by Eastern gold factions, but he agreed to put the campaign emphasis on anti-imperialism. Defeated again by McKinley, Bryan in 1901 started the Commoner, a widely read weekly that kept him in the public eye. His reduced party power in 1904 resulted in the compromise nomination of Alton B. Parker, a conservative New Yorker, upon a platform dictated by Bryan. Parker, however, disavowed the silver plank, and Bryan unwillingly acquiesced. Parker's overwhelming defeat by Theodore Roosevelt turned the Democrats again to Bryan, who in 1908 was nominated a third time. Roosevelt's candidate, William H. Taft, defeated him.
The last Democratic convention in which Bryan played an important role was that of 1912, where his switch to Woodrow Wilson helped gain Wilson the nomination. Upon his election Wilson named Bryan secretary of state. Bryan was influential in holding the Democrats together during the first 18 months of Wilson's administration, when unity was essential to the enactment of the president's reform legislation. He had little previous experience in foreign affairs but studied international questions conscientiously. With some 30 nations he negotiated treaties providing for investigation of all disputes. Antiwar leanings made Bryan more conciliatory than Wilson toward Germany. His Latin American policies, particularly those involving Nicaragua, caused a good deal of friction. Disliking the strong language of the second Lusitania note drafted by Wilson, in which he felt the president had abandoned America's neutral position, Bryan resigned on June 9, 1915, rather than sign it. However, he supported Wilson in the 1916 election and after war was declared.
In the 1920 Democratic convention at San Francisco he fought in vain for a prohibition plank, and in 1924 at New York City he supported William G. McAdoo against Alfred E. Smith, but he was no longer the party's leader. In his later years Bryan, a Presbyterian, devoted himself to the defense of fundamentalism. He addressed legislatures urging measures against teaching evolution and appeared for the prosecution in the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee. Although he won the case in the trial court, Bryan's beliefs were subjected to severe ridicule in a searching examination by opposing counsel, Clarence Darrow. Five days after the trial, Bryan died in his sleep.
See the memoirs (1925, repr. 1971), begun by Bryan and finished by his widow; biographies by W. C. Williams (1936), P. W. Glad (1960), P. E. Coletta (3 vol., 1964-69), L. W. Koenig (1971), and W. Kazin (2006); studies by L. W. Levine (1965) and P. W. Glad, ed. (1968).
William Jennings Bryan's brother, Charles Wayland Bryan, 1867-1945, b. Salem, Ill., was for many years W. J. Bryan's political secretary and business agent. He was publisher and associate editor of the Commoner, mayor of Lincoln, Nebr., and governor of Nebraska.
William Jennings Bryan, circa 1908.
Learn more about Bryan, William Jennings with a free trial on Britannica.com.
William Jennings Bryan (March 19, 1860 – July 26, 1925) was the Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States in 1896, 1900 and 1908, a lawyer, and the 41st United States Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson. One of the most popular speakers in American history, he was noted for a deep, commanding voice. Bryan was a devout Presbyterian, a supporter of popular democracy, a critic of banks and railroads, a leader of the silverite movement in the 1890s, a leading figure in the Democratic Party, a peace advocate, a prohibitionist, an opponent of Social Darwinism, and one of the most prominent leaders of Populism in late 19th- and early 20th century. Because of his faith in the goodness and rightness of the common people, he was called "The Great Commoner." In the intensely fought 1896 election and 1900 election, he was defeated by William McKinley but retained control of the Democratic Party. For presidential candidates, Bryan invented the national stumping tour. In his three presidential bids, he promoted Free Silver in 1896, anti-imperialism in 1900, and trust-busting in 1908, calling on Democrats, in cases where corporations are protected, to renounce states rights to fight the trusts and big banks, and embrace populist ideas. President Woodrow Wilson appointed him Secretary of State in 1913, but Wilson's handling of the Lusitania crisis in 1915 caused Bryan to resign in protest. He was a strong supporter of Prohibition in the 1920s, but is probably best known for his crusade against Darwinism, which culminated in the Scopes Trial in 1925. Five days after the case was decided, he died in his sleep.
Bryan's mother was a Methodist born of English heritage . Mary Bryan joined the Salem Baptists in 1872, so Bryan attended Methodist services on Sunday morning, and in the afternoon, Baptist services. At this point, William began spending his Sunday afternoons at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. At age fourteen in 1874, Bryan attended a revival, was baptized, and joined the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. In later life, Bryan said the day of his baptism was the most important day in his life, but, at the time it caused little change in his daily routine. In favor of the larger Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Bryan left the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
His father Silas was born of Protestant-Irish and English stock in Virginia. (Asked when his family "dropped the 'O'" from his surname, he responded there never had been one.) As a Jacksonian Democrat, Silas won election to the Illinois State Senate, where he worked among Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. The year of his birth, Bryan's father lost his seat, but shortly won election as a state circuit judge.
The family moved to a farm north of Salem in 1866, living in a ten-room house that was the envy of Marion County.
Until age ten, Bryan was home-schooled, finding in the Bible and McGuffey Readers the views gambling and liquor were evil and sinful. To attend Whipple Academy, which was attached to Illinois College, 14-year-old Bryan was sent to Jacksonville in 1874.
Following high school, he entered Illinois College and studied classics, graduating as valedictorian in 1881. During his time at Illinois College, Bryan was a member of the Sigma Pi literary society. To study law at Union Law College, he moved to Chicago. While preparing for the bar exam, he taught high school. While teaching, he eventually married pupil Mary Elizabeth Baird in 1884. They settled in Salem, Illinois, a young town with a population of two thousand.
In the Democratic landslide of 1890, Bryan was elected to Congress and reelected by 140 votes in 1892. He ran for the Senate in 1894, but was overwhelmed in the Republican landslide.
In Bryan's first years in Lincoln, he traveled to Valentine, Nebraska on business where he met an aspiring young cattleman named James Dahlman. Over the next forty years they remained friends, with Dahlman carrying Nebraska for Bryan twice while he was state Democratic Party chairman. Even when Dahlman became closely associated with Omaha's vice elements, including the breweries, as the city's eight-term mayor, he and Bryan maintained a collegial relationship.
At the 1896 Democratic National Convention, Bryan delivered a famous speech lambasting Eastern monied classes for supporting the gold standard at the expense of the average worker. The speech is known as the "Cross of Gold" speech.
Over the Bourbon Democrats who long controlled the party and supported incumbent conservative President Grover Cleveland, the party's agrarian and silver factions voted for Bryan, giving him the nomination of the Democratic Party. At thirty six, Bryan was the youngest presidential nominee ever.
In addition, Bryan formally received the nominations of the Populist Party and the Silver Republican Party. Without crossing party lines, voters from any party could vote for him. The Populists nominated him only once (in 1896); they refused to do so in previous and later elections mostly due to an incident that occurred during the 1896 election.
Along with nominating Bryan for president, for the vice presidency, the Populists nominated Georgia Representative Thomas E. Watson in hope Bryan would choose Watson to be his Democratic running mate. However, Bryan chose Maine industrialist and politician Arthur Sewall. The Populist Party was greatly disappointed and thereafter paid little attention to him.
On a program of prosperity through industrial growth, high tariffs and sound money (that is, gold.), the Republicans nominated William McKinley. 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 staunch Democrat throughout the Populist period.
Republicans discovered, by August, Bryan was solidly ahead in the South and West, but far behind in the Northeast. He appeared to be ahead in the Midwest, so the Republicans concentrated their efforts there. They said Bryan 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 all Americans. McKinley scored solid gains among the middle classes, factory and railroad workers, prosperous farmers and among the German Americans who rejected free silver. Bryan gave five hundred speeches in twenty seven states. William McKinley won by a margin of 271 to 176 in the electoral college.
Bryan volunteered for combat in the Spanish-American War in 1898, arguing, "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." Bryan became colonel of a Nebraska militia regiment; he spent the war in Florida and never saw combat. After the war, Bryan opposed the annexation of the Philippines (though he did support the Treaty of Paris that ended the war).
Bryan 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.
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 once made 12 speeches in 15 hours. 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.
Following his presidential bid, the forty-year-old Bryan said he was letting politics obscure his calling as a Christian.
For the next twenty-five years, Bryan was the most popular Chautauqua speaker, delivering thousands of speeches, even while serving as secretary of state. He mostly spoke about religion but covered a wide variety of topics. His most popular lecture (and his personal favorite) was a lecture entitled "The Prince of Peace": in it, Bryan stressed religion was the solid foundation of morality, and individual and group morality was the foundation for peace and equality. Another famous lecture from this period, "The Value of an Ideal", was a stirring call to public service.
In 1905 speech, Bryan warned: "The Darwinian theory represents man reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate - the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak. If this is the law of our development then, if there is any logic that can bind the human mind, we shall turn backward to the beast in proportion as we substitute the law of love. I choose to believe that love rather than hatred is the law of development."
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.
Bryan founded a weekly magazine, The Commoner, calling on Democrats to dissolve the trusts, regulate the railroads more tightly and support the Progressive Movement. He 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 bug Alton B. Parker in 1904, but Bryan was back in 1908, losing this time to William Howard Taft.
For supporting Woodrow Wilson for the presidency in 1912, he was appointed as Secretary of State. However, Wilson only nominally consulted Bryan and made all the major foreign policy decisions. Bryan negotiated twenty eight treaties that promised arbitration of disputes before war broke out between countries and the United States; onto which Germany never signed. In the civil war in Mexico in 1914, he supported American military intervention.
Bryan resigned in June 1915 over Wilson's strong notes demanding "strict accountability for any infringement of [American] rights, intentional or incidental." He campaigned for Wilson's reelection in 1916. When war 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. Wilson, however, did not allow Bryan to rejoin the military and did not offer him any wartime role, so Bryan campaigned for the later adopted Constitutional amendments on prohibition and women's suffrage.
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.
Bryan's national campaigning helped Congress pass the 18th Amendment in 1918, which shut down all saloons as of 1920. While prohibition was in effect, however, Bryan did not work to secure better enforcement. He ignored the Ku Klux Klan, expecting it would soon fold. For the nomination in 1924, he opposed the wet Al Smith and his brother, Nebraska Governor Charles W. Bryan, was put on the ticket with John W. Davis as candidate for vice president to keep the Bryanites in line. Bryan was very close to his younger brother Charles and endorsed him for the vice presidency.
Bryan was the chief proponent of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, the precursor to our modern War on Drugs. However, he argued for the act's passage more as an international obligation than on moral grounds.
In his famous Chautauqua lecture, "The Prince of Peace," Bryan warned the theory of evolution could undermine the foundations of morality. However, he concluded, "While I do not accept the Darwinian theory I shall not quarrel with you about it."
However, the First World War convinced Bryan that Darwinism undermined morality and moral progress had ground to a complete halt.
Bryan was heavily influenced by Vernon Kellogg's 1917 book, Headquarters Nights: A Record of Conversations and Experiences at the Headquarters of the German Army in Belgium and France, which forwarned that most German military leaders were committed Darwinists skeptical of Christianity, and The Science of Power by Benjamin Kidd (1918), which attributed the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche to German nationalism, materialism, and militarism which in turn was the outworking of the Darwinian hypothesis.
In 1920, Bryan told the World Brotherhood Congress Darwinism was "the most paralyzing influence with which civilization has had to deal in the last century" and that Nietzsche, in carrying Darwinism to its logical conclusion, "promulgated a philosophy that condemned democracy... denounced Christianity... denied the existence of God, overturned all concepts of morality... and endeavored to substitute the worship of the superhuman for the worship of Jehovah."
However, it was not until 1921 that Bryan saw Darwinism as a major internal threat to the US. The major study which seemed to convince Bryan of this was James H. Leuba's The Belief in God and Immortality, a Psychological, Anthropological and Statistical Study (1916). In this study, Leuba shows during four years of college a considerable number of college students lost their faith. Bryan was horrified that the next generation of American leaders might have the degraded sense of morality which he believed had prevailed in Germany and caused the Great War. Bryan then launched an anti-evolution campaign.
When Union Theological Seminary in Virginia invited Bryan to deliver the James Sprunt Lectures, the campaign kicked off in October 1921. The heart of the lectures was a lecture entitled "The Origin of Man", in which Bryan asked, "what is the role of man in the universe and what is the purpose of man?" For Bryan, the Bible was absolutely central to answering this question, and moral responsibility and the spirit of brotherhood could only rest on belief in God.
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.
Bryan was worried that Darwinism was making grounds not only in the universities, but also within the church itself. Many colleges were still church-affiliated at this point. The developments of 19th century liberal theology, and higher criticism in particular, had left the door open to the point where many clergymen were willing to embrace Darwinism and claimed that it was not contradictory with their being Christians. Determined to put an end to this, Bryan, who had long served as a Presbyterian elder, decided to run for the position of Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, which was at the time embroiled in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. (Under presbyterian church governance, clergy and laymen are equally represented in the General Assembly, and the post of Moderator is open to any member of General Assembly.) Bryan's main competition in the race was the Rev. Charles F. Wishart, president of the College of Wooster, who had loudly endorsed the teaching of Darwinism in the college. Bryan lost to Wishart by a vote of 451-427. Bryan then failed in a proposal to cut off funds to schools where Darwinism was taught. Instead the General Assembly announced disapproval of materialistic (as opposed to theistic) evolution.
In addition to his unsuccessful advocacy of banning the teaching of evolution in church-run universities, Bryan also actively lobbied in favor of state laws banning public schools from teaching evolution. The legislatures of several southern states proved more receptive to his anti-evolution message than the Presbyterian Church had, and consequently passed laws banning the teaching of evolution in public schools after Bryan addressed them. A prominent example was the Butler Act of 1925, making it unlawful in Tennessee to teach that mankind evolved from lower life forms.
Bryan's participation in the highly publicized 1925 Scopes Trial served as a capstone to his career. He was asked by William Bell Riley to represent the World Christian Fundamentals Association as counsel at the trial. During the trial Bryan took the stand and was questioned by defense lawyer Clarence Darrow about his views on the Bible. He was asked questions with no known answers, such as the population of China 5000 years ago. The questions were designed to force him to admit he didn't know, or to guess wildly, or to add questionable explanations to things of the Bible. By clever casuistic reply, Bryan outmaneuvered Darrow in about seventy percent of the cross examination. But the media played up the twenty percent were he was made to look ignorant and the ten percent where he and Darrow came out even. Biologist Stephen Jay Gould has speculated that Bryan's anti-evolution views were a result of his Populist idealism and suggests that Bryan's fight was really against Social Darwinism. Others, such as biographer Michael Kazin, reject that conclusion based on Bryan's failure during the trial to attack the eugenics in the textbook, Civic Biology. The national media reported the trial in great detail, with H. L. Mencken using Bryan as a symbol of Southern ignorance and anti-intellectualism. In a more humorous vein, satirist Richard Armour stated in It All Started With Columbus that Darrow had "made a monkey out of" Bryan.
The trial concluded with a directed verdict of guilty, which the defense encouraged, as their aim was to take the law itself to a higher court in order to challenge its constitutionality.
Immediately after the trial, Bryan continued to edit and deliver speeches, traveling hundreds of miles that week. On Sunday, July 26 1925, he drove from Chattanooga to Dayton to attend a church service, ate a meal and died in his sleep that afternoon--five days after the trial ended. School Superintendent Walter White proposed that Dayton should create a Christian college as a lasting memorial to Bryan; fund raising was successful and Bryan College opened in 1930. Bryan is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His tombstone reads "He kept the Faith." He was survived by among others, a daughter, Congresswoman Ruth Bryan Owen.
Bryan also appears as a character in Douglas Moore's 1956 opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe and is briefly mentioned in John Steinbeck's East of Eden. His death is referred to in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Bryan was also mentioned on the May 23, 2007 episode of The Daily Show when fictional comedian Geoffrey Foxworthington (an early 20th century parody of Jeff Foxworthy) quotes, "If your dream Vice President is William Jennings Bryan, you might be a puzzlewit." In Robert A. Heinlein's Job: A Comedy of Justice, Bryan's unsuccessful or successful runs for the presidency are seen as the 'splitting off' events of the alternate histories through which the protagonists travel.
Kazin (2006) considers him the first of the 20th century "celebrity politicians" better known for their personalities and communications skills than their political views. Shannon Jones (2006) writes that one of the few topics touched on by historians is Bryan's apparent support of American racism, pointing that Bryan never took a principled stand against white supremacy in the Southern United States. Jones explains that "the ruling elite in the South, the remnants of the old southern slaveholding oligarchy, formed a critical base of the Democratic Party. This Party had defended slavery and secession and had led the struggle against post-Civil War Reconstruction. It had opposed granting suffrage to freed slaves and generally opposed all progressive reforms aimed at alleviating the oppression of blacks and poor whites. No politician could hope for national leadership in the Democratic Party, let alone expect to win the presidency, by attacking the system of racial oppression in the South."
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 was a romantic invocation of the American past, a populist insistence on the wisdom of ordinary folk, and a faith-based insistence on sincerity and character.
In "They Also Ran", Irving Stone criticized Bryan as a person who was egocentric and never admitted wrong. Stone mentioned how Bryan lived a sheltered life and therefore could not feel the suffering of the common man. He speculated that Bryan merely acted as a champion of the common man in order to get their votes. Irving Stone mentioned that none of his ideas were original and that he did not have the brains to be an effective president. Stone personally believed Bryan to be one of the nation's worst Secretaries of State. He also feared that Bryan would have supported many radical religious blue laws. Stone felt that Bryan had one of the most undisciplined minds of the 19th century and that McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft all made better presidents.
However, a number of prominent personalities have also defended Bryan and his legacy. In 1962 the journalist Merle Miller interviewed former President Harry Truman. When asked about Bryan, Truman replied that he [Bryan] "was a great one - one of the greatest". Truman also claimed that, in his opinion, "if it wasn't for old Bill Bryan there wouldn't be any liberalism at all in the country now. Bryan kept liberalism alive, he kept it going." In 1900 Truman, then just sixteen, had served as a page to the Democratic National Convention in Kansas City, there he had heard Bryan give his acceptance speech. In his biography of Truman, the historian David McCullough wrote that in 1900 Truman and his father "declared themselves thorough 'Bryan men'...Bryan remained an idol for Harry, as the voice of the common man." Tom Johnson, the famed progressive mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, referred to Bryan's campaign in 1896 as "the first great struggle of the masses in our country against the privileged classes." In a 1934 speech dedicating a memorial to Bryan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said "I think that we would choose the word 'sincerity' as fitting him [Bryan] most of all...it was that sincerity that served him so well in his life-long fight against sham and privilege and wrong. It was that sincerity which made him a force for good in his own generation and kept alive many of the ancient faiths on which we are building today. We...can well agree that he fought the good fight; that he finished the course; and that he kept the faith."
Bryan County, Oklahoma was named after him. Bryan Memorial Hospital (now BryanLGH Medical Center) of Lincoln, Nebraska, and Bryan College located in Dayton, Tennessee, are also named for William Jennings Bryan. The William Jennings Bryan House in Nebraska was named a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1963.