William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan books and biography


William Jennings Bryan

41st United States Secretary of State
In office
March 5, 1913 – June 9, 1915
Preceded by Philander C. Knox
Succeeded by Robert Lansing
Born March 19, 1860
Salem, Illinois, USA
Died July 26, 1925
Dayton, Tennessee, USA
Political party Democratic
Spouse Mary Baird
Profession Lawyer, Politician

William Jennings Bryan (March 19, 1860 – July 26, 1925) was an American lawyer, statesman, and politician. He was a three-time 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. 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, a dominant figure in the Democratic Party, a peace advocate, a prohibitionist, an opponent of Darwinism, and one of the most prominent leaders of the Progressive Movement. 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 Secretary of State in 1913, but Bryan resigned in protest against what he viewed as Wilson's provocative language in dealing with the Lusitania crisis. In the 1920s, he was a strong supporter of Prohibition, but is probably best known today for his crusade against Darwinism, which culminated in the Scopes Trial in 1925.


Background and early career

William Jennings Bryan as a young man.
William Jennings Bryan as a young man.

Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois, in the Little Egypt region of southern Illinois, on March 19, 1860, the son of Silas and Mariah Bryan.

Silas Bryan was born in 1822. Virginia, of Irish stock. He attended McKendree College in Lebanon, Illinois in 1849 and taught high school while preparing for the bar exam. While teaching there, he met, and eventually married, one of his students, 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 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 a ten-room house that was the envy of Marion County. 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 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 1872, Mariah Bryan joined the Salem Baptists and the family now worshiped with the Baptists in the morning - at this point, William began spending his Sunday afternoons at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. In 1874, at age 14, Bryan attended a revival and was baptized and joined the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. In later life, Bryan would refer to the day of his baptism as the most important day in his life, but, being raised in a devout family, at the time it caused little change in his daily routine. As an adult, Bryan left the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in favor of the 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 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. During his time at Illinois College, Bryan was a proud member of the Sigma Pi Literary Society. 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, delivered prior to voting for the presidential nominee, lambasted Eastern monied classes for supporting the gold standard at the expense of the average worker. Bryan's stance, directly opposing the conservative Cleveland and the Bourbon Democrats, united the agrarian and silver factions and won the nomination. Just 36, the youngest presidential nominee ever, Bryan formally received 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."[1] 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 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. Most leading Democratic newspapers rejected his candidacy, so he took 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. William McKinley won by a margin of 271 to 176 in the electoral college.

Conservatives in 1900 ridiculed Bryan's eclectic platform
Conservatives in 1900 ridiculed Bryan's eclectic platform

War and Peace: 1898-1900

Although Bryan never won an election after 1892, he continued to dominate the Democratic party. He strongly supported going to war with Spain in 1898, and volunteered for combat, arguing 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." Bryan volunteered and became a colonel of a Nebraska militia regiment; he spent the war in Florida and never saw combat.

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.[2]

His 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. [3]. 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

Following his failed presidential bid in 1900, the 40-year-old Bryan re-examined his life and concluded that he had let his passion for politics obscure his calling as a Christian. He now prepared a number of speeches in defense of the Christian faith and hit the lecture circuit, especially the Chautauqua circuit. For the next 25+ years, Bryan would be 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.

As early as 1905, Bryan was warning Chautauquans of the dangers of Darwinism: "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 also now 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.

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. 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.

Secretary of State: 1913-1915

Cartoon depicting Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan reading news from the war fronts, 1914.
Cartoon depicting Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan reading news from the war fronts, 1914.

After supporting Wilson in 1912, he was rewarded with the top job as Secretary of State. 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."[4] 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. (Coletta 3:116). 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,

William Jennings Bryan
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.[5]
William Jennings Bryan

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 to keep the Bryanites in line.

Fighting Darwinism: 1918-1924

In his famous Chautauqua lecture, "The Prince of Peace," Bryan had warned of the possibility that the theory of evolution could undermine the foundations of morality. However, at this point, he concluded "While I do not accept the Darwinian theory I shall not quarrel with you about it."

This attitude changed when 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 confirmed that most German military leaders were committed Darwinists who were sceptical 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.

In 1920, Bryan told the World Brotherhood Congress that 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, had "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 the threat to morality posed by Darwinism as a major internal threat to the US. The major study which seemed to convince 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. Bryan decided it was time to act and launched his massive anti-evolution campaign.

The campaign kicked off when Union Theological Seminary in Virginia invited Bryan to deliver the James Sprunt Lectures in October 1921. The heart of the lectures was a lecture entitled "The Origin of Man", in which Bryan addressed what he saw as the question foundational to all other moral and political questions: 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.

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. (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.

However, Bryan continued his fight from the floor of the General Assembly. He convinced the Assembly to pass a resolution endorsing total abstinence from alcoholic beverages before turning his guns on Darwinism. He 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.
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 J. 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. 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. [6] 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 died on July 26, 1925, only 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.

Popular Image

The 1950s play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, Inherit the Wind, is very heavily based on the Scopes Trial. Though the names are changed, Matthew Harrison Brady (played by Frederic March) represents that of William Jennings Bryan: a populist thrice-defeated Presidential candidate from Nebraska named Matthew Harrison Brady comes to a small town in the deep south to help prosecute a young teacher for teaching Darwin to his schoolchildren. He is opposed by the equally famous liberal lawyer, Henry Drummond (played by Spencer Tracy) who is the equivalent to Clarence Darrow, and chastised by a cynical newspaperman as the trial assumes a national profile. In the famous MGM film version, directed by Stanley Kramer and released in 1960, the Brady character (who dies at the end of the trial) is played by the actor Frederic March, who received great critical acclaim for what is a very dramatic - and clearly affectionate - portrayal of William Jennings Bryan.


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."[7]

Secondary sources


  • Cherny, Robert W. A Righteous Cause: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (1994).
  • Coletta; Paolo E. William Jennings Bryan 3 vols. (1964), the most detailed biography
  • Glad, Paul W. The Trumpet Soundeth: William Jennings Bryan and His Democracy 1896-1912 (1966).
  • Hibben; Paxton. The Peerless Leader, William Jennings Bryan (1929).
  • Kazin, Michael. A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (2006).
  • Koenig, Louis W. Bryan: A Political Biography of William Jennings Bryan (1971)
  • Werner; M. R. Bryan (1929).

Specialized studies

  • Barnes, James A. "Myths of the Bryan Campaign," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 34 (Dec. 1947) on 1896 campaign; online in JSTOR
  • Cherny, Robert W. "William Jennings Bryan and the Historians." Nebraska History 1996 77(3-4): 184-193. Issn: 0028-1859. analysis of the historiography
  • Edwards, Mark. "Rethinking the Failure of Fundamentalist Political Antievolutionism after 1925" Fides et Historia 2000 32(2): 89-106. Issn: 0884-5379 Argues that fundamentalists thought they had won Scopes trial but death of Bryan shook their confdence.
  • Glad, Paul W. McKinley, Bryan and the People (1991), on 1896.
  • Hohenstein, Kurt. "William Jennings Bryan and the Income Tax: Economic Statism and Judicial Usurpation in the Election of 1896" Journal of Law & Politics 2000 16(1): 163-192. Issn: 0749-2227
  • Jeansonne, Glen. "Goldbugs, Silverites, and Satirists: Caricature and Humor in the Presidential Election of 1896." Journal of American Culture 1988 11(2): 1-8. Issn: 0191-1813
  • Larson, Edward. Summer for the Gods (1997), on the Scopes Trial.
  • Longfield, Bradley J. "For Church and Country: the Fundamentalist-modernist Conflict in the Presbyterian Church." Journal of Presbyterian History 2000 78(1): 34-50. Issn: 0022-3883 Puts Scopes in larger religious context
  • Mahan, Russell L. "William Jennings Bryan and the Presidential Campaign of 1896" White House Studies 2003 3(2): 215-227. Issn: 1535-4738
  • Murphy, Troy A. "William Jennings Bryan: Boy Orator, Broken Man, and the 'Evolution' of America's Public Philosophy." Great Plains Quarterly 2002 22(2): 83-98. Issn: 0275-7664
  • Willard H. Smith. "William Jennings Bryan and the Social Gospel," The Journal of American History, Vol. 53, No. 1. (Jun., 1966), pp. 41-60. in JSTOR
  • Taylor, Jeff. Where Did the Party Go?: William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey, and the Jeffersonian Legacy (2006), on Bryan's place in Democratic Party history and ideology.
  • Wood, L. Maren. "The Monkey Trial Myth: Popular Culture Representations of the Scopes Trial" Canadian Review of American Studies 2002 32(2): 147-164. Issn: 0007-7720

Primary sources

  • Bryan, Mary Baird, ed. The Memoirs of William Jennings Bryan (1925).
  • Bryan, William Jennings. First Battle (1897), speeches from 1896 campaign.
  • Ginger, Ray, ed. William Jennings Bryan; Selections (1967).
  • Whicher, George F., ed. William Jennings Bryan and the Campaign of 1896 (1953), primary and secondary sources.

See also

  • Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy
  • Political interpretations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
  • History of the United States Democratic Party
  • Progressive Movement
  • U.S. presidential elections of 1896, 1900, 1908.

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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