William Jennings Bryan

Dafato Team | Sep 13, 2022

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William Jennings Bryan (Salem, March 19, 1860 - Dayton, July 26, 1925) was an American politician who was a member of the Democratic Party.

He was his party's candidate three times in presidential elections: to those of 1896, to those of 1900, and to those of 1908, but he was always defeated, by William McKinley the first two times and by William Howard Taft the third time. He was a strong supporter of Prohibition and a great foe of Darwinian evolutionism, against which he distinguished himself in 1925 in the trial of John Scopes, guilty of teaching the theory of evolution in a Tennessee school, a trial much talked about in newspapers and on radio.

Beginning in 1896 Bryan emerged as a dominant personality in the Democratic Party. Before his three runs for the presidency he had been a member of the House of Representatives; after them he was secretary of state under President Woodrow Wilson. He had great faith in the wisdom of the common people, so he was often called "The Great Commoner."

Born and raised in Illinois, Bryan moved to Nebraska in the 1880s. He won election to the House of Representatives in the 1890 election, then was re-elected for a second term; he then ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1894. At the 1896 Democratic National Convention Bryan delivered his famous "golden cross" speech against the gold system and the economic interests of the East, and advocated inflationary policies based on the use of silver to issue currency. Repudiating the incumbent Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, and his conservative "Bourbon" Democrats, the Democratic Convention nominated Bryan for president, making him the youngest major-party presidential candidate in U.S. history. Later Bryan also gained the support of the Populist Party, and many Populists would eventually follow Bryan into the Democratic Party. In the intensely fought 1896 presidential election, Bryan was beaten by Republican candidate William McKinley. At 36 years of age, Bryan remains the youngest person in U.S. history to gain at least one major voter. Bryan later gained fame as a speaker, embarking on a speaking tour throughout the United States in 1896, touching 27 states and an audience of five million people.

Bryan maintained control of the Democratic Party and was again a candidate in the 1900 presidential election. After the Spanish-American War, Bryan had become a fierce opponent of U.S. imperialism and much of his campaign focused on this issue. In the election, however, McKinley defeated Bryan again, winning several Western states that had gone to Bryan in 1896. Bryan's influence in the party weakened after this election the Democrats nominated conservative Alton B. Parker for the 1904 presidential election. Parker, however, was resoundingly defeated by Republican Theodore Roosevelt, and this brought Bryan back into vogue, partly because voters in both parties viewed with more sympathy the progressive reforms he had long advocated. Bryan won his party's nomination in the 1908 presidential election, but was defeated by Roosevelt's chosen successor, William Howard Taft. Bryan and Henry Clay are the only ones never to have won a presidential election despite winning large electorates in three different elections held after the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804.

The Democrats lost all the following presidential elections until the 1912 election, when they won with Woodrow Wilson. Bryan was rewarded for supporting Wilson with the important position of secretary of state. Bryan helped Wilson get several progressive reforms passed by Congress, but he clashed with Wilson over U.S. neutrality in World War I. A staunch neutralist, Bryan resigned his post in 1915 when Wilson sent a note of protest to Germany in response to the sinking of the RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat. After leaving office Bryan retained some of his influence within the Democratic Party but became increasingly involved in religious issues and activism against evolutionism. He opposed Darwinism on religious and humanitarian grounds; the most famous episode occurred in 1925 with the trial of John Scopes, guilty of teaching the theory of evolution in a Tennessee school.

After his death in 1925, Bryan elicited mixed reactions from various commentators, but he is generally considered one of the most influential figures of the Progressive Era.

Early years

He was born in Salem, in the so-called Little Egypt region of southern Illinois; his parents were Silas and Mary Ann Bryan. His father Sylas had been born in Virginia and was of Irish descent; after studying law at Lebanon, he went into high school teaching while preparing for the professional qualifying examination. It was there that he met his future wife, Mary Elizabeth Jennings, with whom he moved to Salem. Sylas was a Democrat loyal to the ideals of President Andrew Jackson and managed to be elected to the Illinois Senate, where he had the opportunity to meet Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. In 1860, the year of little William's birth, Sylas lost his seat to a Republican opponent but won an election for Illinois state judge.

In 1866 the Bryan family moved to a farm north of Salem, living in a large house. While his father continued to serve as a judge while also taking care of the farm activities, young William grew up assimilating the ideals of this environment. In 1872 his father Silas abandoned his professional activities to run for election to the House of Representatives on the Democratic ticket, but he was defeated by Republican opponents and was forced to return to law practice. Both of William's parents were fervent religionists: his mother was a Methodist, while his father was a Baptist. William was also educated in religious practice and began attending the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, at which he was baptized, at the age of 14, in 1874.

In the years to follow William Jennings Bryan would refer to the day of his baptism as the most important day of his entire existence. However, upon reaching the age of majority, William left the Cumberland Presbyterian Church to join the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. From the age of 10 William was educated at home, following not only the religious dictates of the Bible but also the moral precepts contained in the series of childhood education books known as "McGuffey Readers." These ideals remained ingrained in William Jennings Bryan's soul; among them, the precept condemning gambling and the use of alcohol should be highlighted.

In 1874 Bryan was sent to Jacksonville to study at Whipple Academy, a detachment of Illinois College, a major private institution of higher learning, in which he later graduated with the degree of valedictorian in classical studies in 1881. He later transferred to Union Law College in Chicago to study law. After graduation Bryan practiced law in Jacksonville from 1883 to 1887. In 1887 he moved to Lincoln, Nebraska.

Beginning of political career

Bryan successfully took up law practice in Lincoln, having as a partner Adolphus Talbot, a Republican whom Bryan had known in college. Bryan also began to engage in politics, campaigning for Democrats, particularly Grover Cleveland. He became known for the effectiveness of his speeches, and ran for the federal House of Representatives in the 1890 election. Bryan called for a reduction in customs duties, the use of silver to issue currency in an equal ratio to gold, and action to curb cartels. Bryan won the election, defeating the incumbent congressman, Republican William James Connell. It was only the second time a Democrat had been able to win in Nebraska. Nationally, Democrats gained 27 seats in the House, reaching a majority.

Bryan managed to get on the coveted House Fiscal Committee. He quickly gained a reputation as a great orator and sought to achieve a solid grasp of the major economic issues of the day. During the Gilded Age, the Democratic Party had begun to split in two. The conservative "Bourbon Democrats" in the North, with some allies in the South, wanted to limit the extent and weight of the federal government. The other trend, consisting mainly of agrarian interests in the South and West, was in favor of more government intervention to help farmers, regulate railroad construction, and generally limit the power of big business. Bryan adhered to the latter, advocating the use of silver in issuing currency and the establishment of a federal, progressive income tax. He gained sympathy among reformers, but lost some among conservative Nebraska Democrats.

Bryan ran for reelection in 1892, also with the support of many Populists, and he himself endorsed the Populist Party's presidential candidate, James B. Weaver, rather than Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland. Bryan was reelected by only 140 votes, while Cleveland beat Weaver and the incumbent president, Republican Benjamin Harrison, in the 1892 election. Cleveland appointed a cabinet composed largely of conservative Democrats. Shortly after Cleveland took office, a series of bank closures led to the panic of 1893 and a severe economic crisis. In response, Cleveland convened a special session of Congress to call for the repeal of the law known as the Sherman Silver Purchase, 1890, which required the federal government to purchase several million ounces of silver each month. Although Bryan organized a campaign to save the law, it was repealed by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats. Bryan, however, succeeded in passing an amendment to establish the first peacetime federal income tax.

As the economy declined after 1893, the reforms sought by Bryan and the Populists also became palatable to many voters. Rather than run for reelection in 1894, Bryan sought election to the U.S. Senate. Nationally, the Republican Party reported a huge victory in the 1894 election, gaining more than 120 seats in the House. In Nebraska, despite Bryan's popularity, the Republicans elected a majority of the state assemblymen, and Bryan lost the Senate election to Republican John Mellen Thurston. Bryan was pleased with the outcome of the 1894 election, however, as the Cleveland wing of the Democratic Party had been discredited and Bryan's preferred gubernatorial candidate, Silas A. Holcomb, had been elected by a coalition of Democrats and Populists.

After the 1894 election, Bryan embarked on a nationwide speaking tour with the aim of advocating the use of silver, moving his party away from the conservative policies of the Cleveland administration, attracting pro-silver Populists and Republicans to the Democratic Party, and raising visibility before the next election. Bryan's speeches were remunerated, which allowed him to abandon his legal practice and devote himself full-time to oratory.

Presidential nominations

By 1896, the pro-silver current in the issuance of currency was on the rise within the party. Although many Democratic leaders were not as enthusiastic about "free silver" as Bryan was, most recognized that it was best for the party to distance itself from the unpopular policies of the Cleveland administration. At the start of the 1896 Democratic National Convention, Congressman Richard P. Bland, a longtime proponent of "free silver," was seen by many as the leading contender for the party's nomination. Bryan hoped to have the opportunity to run, but his young age and relative inexperience made him appear weak compared to veterans like Bland, Iowa Governor Horace Boies, and Vice President Adlai Stevenson. The current for "free silver" was able to quickly take control of the convention, and Bryan helped draft an election program that repudiated Cleveland, attacked conservative Supreme Court rulings and called the gold system "not only un-American but un-American."

Conservative Democrats called for a debate on the party program, and on the third day of the convention each stream presented a list of speakers to discuss "free silver" and the gold system. Bryan and Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina were chosen as speakers who would support "free silver," but Tillman's speech was poorly received by non-Southern delegates because of its localism and references to the Civil War. Charged with delivering the convention's last speech on the subject of monetary policy, Bryan seized his opportunity to emerge as the nation's most prominent Democrat. In his Golden Cross speech, Bryan argued that the debate over monetary policy was part of a larger struggle for democracy, political independence and the welfare of the "common man." Bryan's speech was greeted with enthusiastic applause and congratulations that lasted more than half an hour.

The next day, the Democratic Party held its nominating ballot. With the important support of Illinois Governor John Altgeld, Bland came out on top in the convention's first ballot, without reaching the required two-thirds. Bryan was second, distanced, but his speech on the Golden Cross had strongly impressed many delegates. Although party leaders like Altgeld did not trust nominating such an inexperienced candidate, votes for Bryan increased over the next four ballots. By the fourth ballot he was leading, and by the fifth he reached the majority needed for the nomination. At 36, Bryan became (and still is) the youngest major-party presidential candidate in U.S. history. The convention nominated Arthur Sewall, a wealthy Maine shipbuilder also in favor of "free silver" and income tax, as Bryan's running mate.

General election

Conservative Democrats known as "Gold Democrats" decided to nominate other candidates for president and vice president. Cleveland itself, while not publicly attacking Bryan, privately preferred him to the Republican candidate, William McKinley. Many newspapers in cities in the Northeast and Midwest that had supported previous Democratic candidates also opposed Bryan's candidacy. Bryan, however, gained the support of the Populist Party, which nominated a pairing consisting of Bryan and Thomas E. Watson of Georgia. Although the Populist leaders feared that supporting the Democratic candidate would hurt the party in the long run, they shared many of Bryan's political views and had developed a productive working relationship with Bryan. The Republican campaign portrayed McKinley as an "advancing agent of prosperity" and social harmony and warned of the supposed dangers of Bryan's election. McKinley and his campaign manager, Mark Hanna, knew that McKinley could not match Bryan's oratorical skills. Instead of embarking on a roving campaign of speeches, the Republican candidate ran a so-called "front porch campaign," making few rallies and moving little. Hanna, meanwhile, raised an unprecedented amount of money, sent other people to hold rallies and organized the distribution of millions of campaign pamphlets.

Far less financially endowed, the Democratic campaign relied largely on Bryan's oratorical skills. Breaking with the tradition of not directly engaging in campaigning, observed by most party candidates, Bryan delivered some 600 speeches, mainly in the very poised Midwest. Bryan invented a type of rally tour whereby he always began them with the same speech; he reached an audience of 5 million in 27 states. He sought to unite the white South, poor northern farmers, industrial workers and silver miners against banks, railroad companies and "money power." "Free silver" was palatable to farmers, as the inflation generated would raise the selling prices of their products, but not to industrial workers, whose wages did not follow inflation, unlike all purchased goods. The industrial cities voted for McKinley, who won in most of the eastern and industrial Midwest and did well along the border and the West Coast. Bryan won all the southern and mountain states and the wheat growing regions of the Midwest. Nostalgic Protestants applauded Bryan's quasi-religious rhetoric. Ethnic minorities voted for McKinley, who promised that they would not be excluded from the new prosperity, and so did wealthier farmers and the rapidly growing middle class.

McKinley won the election by a fairly comfortable margin, garnering 51 percent of the popular vote and 271 large electors. Democrats remained loyal to Bryan after the defeat; many letters urged him to run again in the 1900 presidential election. William's younger brother Charles W. Bryan compiled a list of supporters to whom the two Bryan brothers would send regular messages for the next three decades. The Populist Party disbanded after the election; many Populists, including James Weaver, followed Bryan into the Democratic Party, while others followed Eugene V. Debs into the Socialist Party.

Spanish-American War

Due to better economic conditions for farmers and the effects of the gold rush, "free silver" lost importance as an election issue in the years after 1896. In 1900, President McKinley signed the law known as the Gold Standard Act, which adopted the gold standard system. Bryan remained popular in the Democratic Party and his supporters took control of party organizations across the country, but he initially continued to push for "free silver." Foreign policy became an important issue because of the ongoing Cuban War of Independence against Spain, as many Americans supported Cuban independence. After the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Bay, the United States declared war on Spain in April 1898, beginning the Spanish-American War. Although wary of militarism, Bryan had long been in favor of Cuban independence and thus supported the war. He said that "universal peace cannot come until justice reigns throughout the world. Until justice has triumphed in every land and love reigns in every heart, the government must, as a last resort, appeal to force."

At the request of Governor Silas A. Holcomb, Bryan recruited a regiment of two thousand men for the Nebraska National Guard, and the soldiers of the regiment elected Bryan as their leader. Under Colonel Bryan's command, the regiment was transported to Camp Cuba Libre in Florida, but fighting between Spain and the United States ended before the regiment reached Cuba. Bryan's regiment remained in Florida for months after the war ended, thus preventing Bryan from taking an active role in the 1898 midterm elections. Bryan resigned his commission and left Florida in December 1898, after the United States and Spain had signed the Treaty of Paris. Bryan had supported the war to gain Cuba's independence, but the fact that the Treaty of Paris had granted the United States control over the Philippines outraged him. Many Republicans believed that the United States had an obligation to "civilize" the Philippines, but Bryan strongly opposed what he saw as U.S. imperialism. Nevertheless, Bryan urged his supporters to ratify the Treaty of Paris; he wanted to quickly put an official end to the war and then grant independence to the Philippines as soon as possible. With Bryan's support, the treaty was ratified in Congress with only a few votes to spare. In early 1899, the Philippine-American War broke out when the Philippine government of Emilio Aguinaldo tried to stop the U.S. invasion of the archipelago.

Presidential election of 1900

The 1900 Democratic National Convention was held in Kansas City, Missouri, the westernmost place where either major party had ever held a convention. Some Democratic leaders opposed to Bryan had hoped to nominate Admiral George Dewey for president, but Bryan had no significant opposition at the time of the convention and won his party's nomination unanimously. Bryan did not attend the convention, but controlled the proceedings of the convention by telegraph. As to what the main issue of the campaign should be, many of his most fervent supporters wanted Bryan to continue his crusade for "free silver," while Northeastern Democrats advised Bryan to center his campaign on the growing power of the cartels. Bryan, however, decided that his campaign would focus on anti-imperialism, in part to unite the party's factions and win over some Republicans. The party's electoral program contained parts in support of "free silver" and against cartel power, but imperialism was called the "core issue" of the campaign. The party nominated former Vice President Adlai Stevenson as Bryan's running mate. In his speech accepting the nomination, Bryan argued that the election represented "a contest between democracy and plutocracy." He highly criticized the annexation of the Philippines, comparing it to British rule of the Thirteen Colonies. Bryan argued that the United States should refrain from imperialism and seek to become the "supreme moral factor in the progress of the world and the acknowledged arbiter of world disputes." By 1900, the American Anti-Imperialist League, which included such figures as Benjamin Harrison, Andrew Carnegie, Carl Schurz and Mark Twain, had emerged as the leading national organization opposed to the U.S. occupation of the Philippines. Many of the league's leaders had opposed Bryan in 1896 and continued to distrust him and his followers. Despite this distrust, Bryan's strong stance against imperialism convinced most league leaders to support the Democratic candidate.

Once again, McKinley's campaign enjoyed vastly superior financial resources, while the Democratic campaign relied largely on Bryan's oratory. In a typical day Bryan would give four-hour speeches and shorter speeches, up to six hours of speaking time in total. The better organization and greater resources of the Republican Party strengthened McKinley's candidacy and, as in the previous campaign, most major newspapers preferred McKinley. Bryan also had to contend with the Republican vice presidential candidate, Theodore Roosevelt, who had emerged as a national celebrity in the Spanish-American War and proved to be an excellent public speaker. Bryan's anti-imperialism failed to appeal to many voters, and as the campaign drew to a close, Bryan shifted more and more to attacks on corporate power. Once again he went after the urban worker electorate, telling them to vote against the business interests that had "condemned the boys of this country to a perpetual apprenticeship."

On Election Day, few believed Bryan would win, and McKinley eventually prevailed over Bryan once again. Compared to the 1896 results, McKinley increased his popular vote margin and picked up several western states, including Bryan's home state of Nebraska. The Republican political program in favor of a strong industrial economy proved more important to voters than questions about the morality of annexing the Philippines. The election confirmed the organizational supremacy of the Republican Party outside the South.

Presidential election of 1908

After the election, Bryan turned to journalism and oratory. In January 1901 he published the first issue of his weekly newspaper, The Commoner, which echoed Bryan's long-standing political and religious themes. Bryan was editor and publisher of the paper, and he enlisted the help of family and friends. The Commoner became one of the most widely read newspapers of its era, boasting 145,000 subscribers about five years after its founding. Although the paper's subscriber base overlapped greatly with Bryan's constituency base in the Midwest, the paper's content was often reprinted by major newspapers in the Northeast. In 1902, Bryan, his wife and three children moved to Fairview, a mansion located in Lincoln; Bryan referred to the house as the "Mound of the West" and often invited politicians and diplomats to visit.

Bryan's defeat in 1900 cost him his status as the undisputed leader of the Democratic Party, and conservatives such as David B. Hill and Arthur Pue Gorman scrambled to regain control over the party and return it to the policies of the Cleveland era. Meanwhile, Roosevelt succeeded McKinley as president after the latter was assassinated in September 1901. Roosevelt attacked some cartel cases and implemented other progressive policies, but Bryan argued that Roosevelt did not fully embrace the progressive cause. Bryan called for a package of reforms, including a federal income tax, laws against the adulteration of food and drugs, a ban on campaign financing by corporations, a constitutional amendment providing for the direct election of senators, local ownership of public utilities, and the introduction of the popular initiative and referendum. He was also critical of Roosevelt's foreign policy and attacked him for inviting Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House.

Before the 1904 Democratic National Convention, Alton B. Parker, a New York judge and conservative ally of David Hill, was seen as the favorite for the nomination. Conservatives feared that Bryan would join with publisher William Randolph Hearst to block Parker's nomination. Trying to appease Bryan and other progressives, Hill accepted an election platform that omitted mention of the gold system and criticized the signs. Parker won the Democratic nomination, but Roosevelt won the election by the largest popular vote margin since the Civil War. Parker's crushing defeat was a revenge of sorts for Bryan, who after the election published an edition of The Commoner advising his readers, "Do not compromise with the plutocracy."

Bryan traveled to Europe in 1903, meeting figures such as Lev Tolstoy, who shared some of Bryan's religious and political views. In 1905 Bryan and his family embarked on a trip around the world, visiting eighteen countries in Asia and Europe. Bryan financed the trip by charging for public speaking and publishing a weekly travelogue. Bryan was greeted by large crowds upon his return to the United States in 1906 and was seen by many as the likely Democratic candidate for president in 1908. Voters had become increasingly open to progressive ideas after 1904. President Roosevelt himself had moved to the left, favoring federal regulation of railroad tariffs and meatpacking plants. However, Bryan still favored broader reforms, including federal regulation of banking and securities, protection for labor unionists, and federal investment in highway construction and education. Bryan also briefly expressed support for state and federal ownership of railroads, in a manner similar to Germany, but changed his mind in the face of negative reaction within the party.

Roosevelt, who enjoyed great popularity among voters even though he had alienated the sympathy of some business leaders, unwilling to stand after being president for nearly two terms internally, anointed Secretary of War William Howard Taft as his successor. Meanwhile, Bryan reestablished his control over the Democratic Party, receiving support from many local Democratic organizations. Conservative Democrats again tried to prevent Bryan's nomination, but were unable to unite around an alternative candidate. Bryan was nominated as the presidential candidate on the first ballot of the 1908 Democratic National Convention. He was joined by John W. Kern, an Indiana state senator.

Bryan ran the campaign on the electoral program that reflected his long-standing beliefs, but the Republicans also had a program in favor of progressive policies, so there were relatively few major differences between the two major parties. One point of division was the bank deposit guarantee, as Bryan was in favor of requiring national banks to provide a deposit guarantee. Bryan succeeded in unifying his party's leaders, and his pro-worker policies earned him the first official support for a presidential candidate expressed by the AFL union. As in previous campaigns, Bryan embarked on a public speaking tour to bolster his candidacy; Taft imitated him shortly thereafter.

Bryan was confident in his own victory, but Taft won the 1908 presidential election decisively. Bryan won only a few states outside the South, failing to thoroughly attract big-city workers. Bryan remains the only candidate since the Civil War to lose three separate presidential elections by running for one of the major parties. Since the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment, Bryan and Henry Clay are the only ones to win electoral votes in three separate presidential elections while losing them all.

Bryan remained an influential figure in Democratic politics, and after the Democrats had a majority in the House of Representatives after the 1910 midterm elections, he made an appearance in the House to advocate for tariff reduction. In 1909, Bryan first came out publicly in favor of Prohibition. A lifelong Asthemian, however, Bryan had been unwilling to support Prohibition until then because of the unpopularity of the issue among many Democrats. According to biographer Paul Colletta, Bryan "sincerely believed that prohibition would contribute to the physical health and moral improvement of the individual, stimulating civic progress and ending the notorious abuses associated with the liquor trade."

In 1910 he also advocated for women's suffrage. Bryan also fought for the introduction of the popular legislative initiative and referendum as a means of giving voters a direct voice. Although some observers, including President Taft, speculated that Bryan was aiming for a fourth run for the presidency, Bryan repeatedly denied having any such intention.

Wilson presidency

A growing rift in the Republican Party gave the Democrats a very good chance of winning the election. Although Bryan would not seek the Democratic nomination, his continued influence in the party gave him an important role in choosing the nominee. Bryan was intent on preventing the conservative mainstream from nominating their preferred candidate, as they had done in 1904. He was banking on two possible candidates: New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson and Speaker of the House Champ Clark. The latter could claim the progressive measures passed, including constitutional amendments providing for the direct election of senators and the establishment of a federal income tax, but Bryan did not like the fact that he had failed to lower tariffs, plus he considered him overly friendly to conservative business interests. Wilson had criticized Bryan in the past, but as governor he had a very good progressive record. As the 1912 Democratic National Convention approached, Bryan continued to deny that he would run for office, but many journalists and politicians suspected that Bryan hoped in that the convention could not decide among the outspoken candidates and would turn to him.

After the start of the convention, Bryan worked to pass a resolution stating that the party was "opposed to the nomination of any candidate who is a representative of, or beholden to, J. Pierpont Morgan, Thomas F. Ryan, August Belmont, or any other member of the class of privilege hunters and favor seekers." Clark and Wilson won the support of most delegates in the first ballots for president, but both eluded the necessary two-thirds majority. After Tammany Hall came out in favor of Clark and the New York delegation also gave him its support, Bryan announced that he would support Wilson. Explaining his decision, Bryan stated that he could not "participate in the nomination of anyone (...) who will not, once elected, be absolutely free to implement the anti-Morgan-Ryan-Belmont resolution." Bryan's speech marked the beginning of Clark's steady loss of support; Wilson would finally clinch the presidential nomination after more than 40 ballots. Journalists attributed much of the credit for Wilson's victory to Bryan.

In the 1912 presidential election, Wilson faced President Taft and former President Roosevelt, who had left the Republican Party and was running with his own party, the Progressive Party. Bryan campaigned for Wilson throughout the West, even offering him advice on various issues. Roosevelt's split helped give Wilson the presidency; he won over 400 electoral votes with only 41.8 percent of the popular vote. In the concurrent elections for Congress, the Democrats expanded their majority in the House and won their majority in the Senate, thus having total control of the administration for the first time since the early 1890s.

Once in office, Wilson appointed Bryan as secretary of state. Bryan's extensive travels, popularity in the party, and support for Wilson in the 1912 election made him the obvious choice for what was traditionally the highest position in government. Bryan came to head a State Department that employed 150 officials in Washington and another 400 employees in embassies abroad. Early in Wilson's tenure, the president and secretary of state largely agreed on foreign policy goals, including the rejection of Taft's "dollar diplomacy." They also shared many priorities in domestic affairs, and with Bryan's help, Wilson orchestrated the passage of laws that reduced tariff rates, imposed a progressive income tax, introduced new measures against mergers, and established the Federal Reserve System, acting as a central bank. Bryan proved particularly influential in ensuring that it was the president, not private bankers, who had the power to appoint the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.

Secretary of State Bryan pursued a series of bilateral treaties that required both signatories to submit all disputes to arbitration. He quickly obtained approval from the president and the Senate to proceed: by mid-1913, El Salvador became the first nation to sign one of Bryan's treaties. Twenty-nine other countries, including all the major European powers except Germany and Austria-Hungary, also accepted the treaties. Despite Bryan's aversion to wars, he oversaw U.S. armed interventions in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Mexico.

After the outbreak of World War I in Europe, Bryan consistently advocated U.S. neutrality between the "Triple Entente" and the Central Empires. With Bryan's support, Wilson initially sought to stay out of the conflict, urging Americans to be "impartial in thought as much as in action." For much of 1914, Bryan attempted to end the war through negotiation, but the heads of state of the Entente and central empires were not actually interested in U.S. mediation. While Bryan remained firmly committed to neutrality, Wilson and other members of the administration became increasingly sympathetic to the Entente. The incident in March 1915, in which a German submarine sank a British passenger ship with a U.S. citizen on board, was a major blow to the cause of neutrality. The sinking of the RMS Lusitania in May 1915 by another German submarine further galvanized anti-German sentiment, as 128 Americans died in the incident. Bryan argued that the British blockade of Germany was as aggressive as the German submarine campaign. He also asserted that by traveling on British ships, "an American citizen may, by placing his business above his regard for this country, take unnecessary risks for his own benefit and thereby involve his country in international complications." After Wilson sent an official message of protest to Germany and refused to publicly warn Americans not to travel on British ships, Bryan delivered his letter of resignation to Wilson on June 8, 1915.

Next career

For the 1916 presidential election, some Prohibition Party figures attempted to engage Bryan as their candidate, but he declined the offer by telegram.

Despite their differences on foreign policy, Bryan supported Wilson's 1916 reelection campaign. Although he was not an official delegate, the 1916 Democratic National Convention suspended its rules to allow Bryan to speak; he delivered a well-received speech that strongly defended Wilson's record on domestic issues. Bryan actively campaigned for Wilson, delivering dozens of speeches, mainly west of the Mississippi River. In the end, Wilson narrowly beat the Republican candidate, Charles Evans Hughes. When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Bryan wrote to Wilson, "Believing that it is the duty of the citizen to bear his share of the burden of war and his share of the risk, I offer my services to the government. Please enlist me as a soldier whenever necessary, and assign me to any work I can do. " Wilson refused to appoint Bryan to a federal post, but Bryan accepted Wilson's request to provide public support for the war effort through his speeches and articles. After the war, despite some reservations, Bryan supported Wilson's unsuccessful effort to bring the United States into the League of Nations.

After leaving office, Bryan spent much of his time advocating for the eight-hour workday, a minimum wage, the right to strike for unions, and, increasingly, women's suffrage and prohibition. Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment, banning alcohol nationwide, in 1917. Two years later, Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote. Both amendments were ratified in 1920. During the 1920s, Bryan called for further reforms, including agricultural subsidies, the guarantee of a decent wage, full public funding of political campaigns, and an end to legal gender discrimination.

Some prohibitionists and other Bryan supporters tried to convince the three-time presidential candidate to run in the 1920 presidential election, and a Literary Digest poll conducted in mid-1920 ranked Bryan as the fourth most popular potential Democratic candidate. Bryan, however, declined to run again, writing "if I can help this world banish alcohol and then banish war (...) no office, no presidency, can offer the honors that will be mine." He attended the 1920 Democratic National Convention as a delegate from Nebraska, but was disappointed by the nomination of Governor James M. Cox, who had not supported ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment. Bryan rejected the Prohibition Party's presidential nomination and refused to campaign for Cox, making the 1920 election the first in over thirty years in which he did not actively campaign.

Although increasingly less involved in Democratic politics after 1920, Bryan attended the 1924 Democratic National Convention as a delegate from Florida. He helped defeat a resolution condemning the Ku Klux Klan because he expected the organization would soon disappear; Bryan disliked the Klan but never publicly attacked it. He strongly opposed Al Smith's candidacy because he was hostile to Prohibition. After more than 100 ballots, the Democratic convention nominated John W. Davis, a conservative Wall Street lawyer. To balance with a progressive, the convention nominated Bryan's brother Charles W. Bryan for vice president. William Bryan was disappointed with Davis's nomination, but he strongly endorsed his brother's nomination and gave numerous campaign speeches in support of the Democratic duo. Davis suffered one of the worst defeats in Democratic Party history, taking only 29 percent of the vote against Republican President Calvin Coolidge and Progressive Party candidate Robert M. La Follette.

Anti-evolution activism

In the 1920s Bryan turned his attention away from politics and became one of the country's most prominent religious figures. In Miami, where he had moved in search of a better climate for the health of his wife Mary, who was ill with arthritis, he taught a weekly Bible class; he also published several religious-themed books. He was one of the first people to preach religious faith on the radio, reaching listeners across the country. Bryan welcomed the proliferation of faiths other than Protestant Christianity, but he was deeply concerned about the rejection of a literal reading of the Bible by many Protestants. According to historian Ronald L. Numbers, Bryan was not as fundamentalist as many modern creationists of the 21st century, but was more accurately defined as a "nonliteral creationist." Bradley J. Longfield speculates that Bryan was a "theologically conservative social evangelist."

In the last years of his life, Bryan became the unofficial leader of a movement that sought to prevent public schools from teaching Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Bryan had long expressed skepticism and concern about Darwin's theory; in his famous 1909 Chautauqua lecture, "The Prince of Peace," Bryan warned that the theory of evolution could undermine the foundations of morality. Bryan opposed Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection for two reasons: first, he believed that what he considered a materialistic account of the descent of man (and all life) through evolution was directly contrary to the biblical account of creation. Second, he considered Darwinism applied to society (social Darwinism) to be a great force for evil in the world, promoting hatred and conflict and inhibiting the upward social and economic mobility of the poor and oppressed.

As part of his crusade against Darwinism, Bryan called for state and local laws prohibiting public schools from teaching evolution. He wanted legislators not to put criminal penalties on anti-evolution laws and urged that educators be allowed to teach evolution as a "hypothesis" rather than a fact. Only five states, all in the South, responded to Bryan's call to prevent the teaching of evolution in public schools.

Bryan was concerned that the theory of evolution was gaining ground not only in universities but also within the church. He had long been a Presbyterian elder, and he decided to run for the position of moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, but lost the election, narrowly.

Scopes Process

From July 10 to July 21, 1925, Bryan participated in the so-called "Scopes Trial," also known as the much-publicized Scopes Monkey Trial, which tested Tennessee's law, known as the Butler Act, which banned the teaching of evolution in public schools. The defendant, John T. Scopes, had violated the law while serving as a substitute biology teacher in Dayton, Tennessee. His defense was paid for by the American Civil Liberties Union and led in court by renowned lawyer Clarence Darrow. No one denied that Scopes had violated the Butler Act, but Darrow argued that the statute violated the Freedom of Religion Clause of the Constitution's First Amendment. Bryan defended the right of parents to choose what is taught in school, argued that Darwinism was just a "hypothesis," and claimed that Darrow and other intellectuals were trying to undermine "every moral standard the Bible offers us."

In the end, the judge instructed the jury to return a guilty verdict, and Scopes was fined $100 for violating the Butler Act. The national news media covered the trial in great detail, with H. L. Mencken ridiculing Bryan as a symbol of Southern ignorance and anti-intellectualism. Even many Southern newspapers criticized Bryan's conduct during the trial; the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that "Darrow succeeded in proving that Bryan knows little about the science of the world." Bryan was not granted a final statement at the trial, but then had the speech he planned to make published. In it, Bryan wrote that "science is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morals."

The relationship between Bryan and this process lies in his concluding argument, which, however, was not put on record: "If a force of progression, an eternal drive, existed in nature, chemistry would discover it. But it doesn't exist."


In the days following the Scopes trial, Bryan gave several speeches in Tennessee. On Sunday, July 26, 1925, Bryan died in his sleep of apoplexy Bryan's body was transported by train from Dayton to Washington. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, with an epitaph that reads "Statesman, but friend of truth! Of sincere spirit, loyal in action, and pure in honor" and on the other side "He kept the faith."

Historical reputation and political legacy

Bryan aroused mixed views during his lifetime and his reputation remains mixed. Writer Scott Farris argues that "many fail to understand Bryan because he occupies a rare place in society (...) too progressive for today's religious too religious for today's progressives." Jeff Taylor rejects the idea that Bryan was a "pioneer of the welfare state" and a "forerunner of the New Deal," but argues that Bryan accepted an interventionist federal government more than his Democratic predecessors had. Biographer Michael Kazin, however, believes that.

Bryan was the first leader of a major party to advocate the permanent expansion of federal government intervention to provide assistance to ordinary Americans of the working and middle classes (...) he did more than any other man, between the fall of Grover Cleveland and the election of Woodrow Wilson, to transform his party from a bastion of laissez-faire to that bastion of progressivism that we identify with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his ideological descendants.

Kazin argues that, compared to Bryan, "only Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had a greater impact on politics and political culture during the reform era that began in the mid-1890s and lasted until the early 1920s." Writing in 1931, former Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo asserted that "apart from the occupants of the White House, Bryan (...) has left his mark on the public policy making of the last forty years more than any other." Historian Robert D. Johnston notes that Bryan was "arguably the most influential politician on the Great Plains." In 2015, political scientist Michael G. Miller and historian Ken Owen ranked Bryan as one of the four most influential U.S. politicians who have never been president, along with Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun.

Kazin also points out the limits of Bryan's influence, noting that "for decades after his death , influential scholars and journalists described him as a hypocritical simpleton who wished to preserve an age that had already passed." Writing in 2006, author Richard Lingeman noted that "William Jennings Bryan is remembered primarily as the fanatical old fool Fredric March, a character in the film ...and the man created Satan." Similarly, in 2011, John McDermott wrote that "Bryan is perhaps best known as the gruff, sweaty lawyer who defended Tennessee in the Scopes trial. After his argument in favor of creationism, he became a caricature mocked by all, a plump sweaty man lacking in ostentation." Kazin writes that "scholars became increasingly interested in Bryan's motives, if not his actions" in the Scopes trial because of Bryan's rejection of eugenics, a practice many 1920s evolutionists agreed on.

Kazin also notes the stain Bryan's acceptance of Jim Crow laws places on his reputation, writing:

His one great flaw was endorsing, with a studied lack of reflection, the oppressive Jim Crow system, a view shared, until the late 1930s, by almost all white Democrats. (...) After Bryan's death in 1925, most intellectuals and activists on the broader left rejected the amalgam that had inspired him: a rigid populist morality based on a careful reading of Scripture (...) Progressives and radicals from the age of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the present have tended to despise that creed as naive and bigoted, a remnant of an era of white Protestant supremacy that is, or should be, past.

However, prominent figures from both parties praised Bryan and his legacy. In 1962 former President Harry Truman said that Bryan "was a great, one of the greatest." Truman also stated, "If it were not for old Bill Bryan, there would be no progressivism in the country now. Bryan kept progressivism alive, kept it going."    Tom L. Johnson, the progressive mayor of Cleveland, 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 we would choose the word "sincerity" as the most appropriate for him (...) it was that sincerity that served him so well in his lifelong struggle against falsehood, privilege and wrong. It was that sincerity that made him a positive force in his own generation and kept alive many of the ancient faiths on which we are building today. We can (and that kept the faith.

More recently, conservative Republicans like Ralph Reed have paid tribute to Bryan's legacy; Reed described Bryan as "the most significant evangelical politician of the 20th century." Bryan's career has often been compared to that of Donald Trump.

In popular culture

Inherit the Wind, a 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, is a highly fictionalized account of the Scopes trial written in response to McCarthyism. The 1960 film adaptation was directed by Stanley Kramer and starred Fredric March as Bryan's inspired lawyer and Spencer Tracy as Scopes' lawyer.

It has been suggested by some economists, historians and literary critics that L. Frank Baum portrayed Bryan as the cowardly lion in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. These claims are based in part on Baum's activities as a Republican advocate for William McKinley and his policies.

Bryan's biography appears in "The 42nd Parallel" by John Dos Passos.


  1. William Jennings Bryan
  2. William Jennings Bryan
  3. ^ Asked when his family "dropped the 'O'" from his O'Bryan surname, he replied there had never been one.[6]
  4. ^ The tax would be struck down by the Supreme Court in the 1895 case of Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co..[33]
  5. ^ U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures prior to the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913.
  6. ^ Youngest & Oldest Electoral Vote recipients., su Talk Elections, 7 luglio 2015. URL consultato il 18 aprile 2020.
  7. ^ Kazin, pp. 17–19.
  8. Bryan Williams Jennings: Memoirs of William Jennings Bryan Kessinger, s. 22-26.
  9. Pytany, kiedy jego rodzina „odrzuciła 'O'” z nazwiska, odpowiadał, że nigdy takiego nie było. Bryan Memoirs of William Jennings Bryan; Kessinger s. 22-26.
  10. Palmer 1998 ↓, s. 71.
  11. a b c d e f g h Shin-Ichi, 2013, p. 14.
  12. "William Jennings Bryan: Against Imperialism" American Rhetoric https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/wjbryanimperialism.htm

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