Born in Illinois, William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) became a Nebraska congressman in 1890. He starred at the 1896 Democratic convention with his Cross of Gold speech that favored free silver, but was defeated in his bid to become U.S. president by William McKinley. Bryan lost his subsequent bids for the presidency in 1900 and 1908, using the years between to run a newspaper and tour as a public speaker. After helping Woodrow Wilson secure the Democratic presidential nomination for 1912, he served as Wilson’s secretary of state until 1914. In his later years, Bryan campaigned for peace, prohibition and suffrage, and increasingly criticized the teaching of evolution.
Born in Illinois, Bryan inherited from his parents an intense commitment to the Democratic party and a fervent Protestant faith. After graduating from Illinois College and Union Law School, he married and, seeing no political future in Illinois, moved to Nebraska in 1887. In 1890, when the new Populist party disrupted Nebraska politics, Bryan won election to Congress; he was reelected in 1892. In Congress, he earned respect for his oratory and became a leader among free-silver Democrats. In 1894 he led Nebraska’s Democrats to support the state Populist party.
Bryan electrified the 1896 Democratic convention with his stirring Cross of Gold speech favoring free silver and thereby captured the presidential nomination. Also nominated by the Populists, Bryan agreed with their view that government should protect individuals and the democratic process against monopolistic corporations. ‘The Boy Orator of the Platte’ traveled eighteen thousand miles and spoke to thousands of voters, but lost; William McKinley’s victory initiated a generation of Republican dominance in national politics. Bryan’s 1896 campaign, however, marked a long-term shift within the Democratic party from a Jacksonian commitment to minimal government toward a positive view of government.
During the Spanish-American War, Bryan served as a colonel in a Nebraska regiment, but after the war, he condemned McKinley’s Philippine policy as imperialism. Nominated again by the Democrats in 1900, Bryan hoped to make the election a referendum on imperialism, but other issues intervened, including his own insistence on free silver and attacks on monopolies. McKinley won again.
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After his defeat, Bryan launched a newspaper, the Commoner (based on his nickname ‘the Great Commoner’) and made frequent speaking tours. Although he was a superb orator, he was neither a deep nor an original thinker. He used the Commoner and the lecture circuit to affirm equality, to advocate greater popular participation in governmental decision making, to oppose monopolies, and to proclaim the importance of faith in God. ‘Shall the People Rule?’ became the watchword of his third campaign for president, in 1908, when he lost to William Howard Taft.
In 1912, Bryan worked to secure the Democratic presidential nomination for Woodrow Wilson, and when Wilson won, he named Bryan secretary of state. As secretary, Bryan promoted conciliation, or cooling-off, treaties, in which the parties agreed that, if they could not resolve a dispute, they would wait a year before going to war and would seek outside fact-finding. Thirty such treaties were drafted.
When the European war broke out in 1914, Bryan, like Wilson, was committed to neutrality. But he went beyond Wilson in advocating restrictions on American citizens and companies to prevent them from drawing the nation into war. When Wilson strongly protested Germany’s sinking of the Lusitania, Bryan resigned rather than approve a message he feared would lead to war.
Thereafter, Bryan worked for peace, prohibition, and woman suffrage, and he increasingly criticized the teaching of evolution. In 1925, he joined the prosecution in the trial of John Scopes, a Tennessee schoolteacher charged with violating state law by teaching evolution. In a famous exchange, Clarence Darrow, defending Scopes, put Bryan on the witness stand and revealed his shallowness and ignorance of science and archaeology. Bryan died soon after the trial ended.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.