William Jennings Bryan was a champion of popular sovereignty, political reform, social morality, and world peace during the Progressive Era. He led the national Democratic Party from 1896 through 1912 and was the personification of Midwest populism for many Americans. Bryan is the only unsuccessful three-time presidential nominee in the history of either major party.
Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois, on March 19, 1860, to parents who instilled in him the religion of Jesus and the politics of Jefferson and Jackson. As a young married man who had begun a law practice, Bryan moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, which remained his home base until the early 1920s, when the Bryans moved to Florida. Nebraskans elected him to the US House of Representatives in 1890.
During his two terms in Congress, he defended the traditional bimetal policy of coinage using both silver and gold against the newer gold-only standard. A lifelong believer in the Jeffersonian maxim “equal rights for all; special privileges for none,” Bryan unsuccessfully opposed repeal of the purchasing clause of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, arguing that repeal represented an attempt by banks and corporations to gain government favors.
Bryan was barely reelected to a second term in the House and later ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate. Largely unknown on a national scale, ex-Representative Bryan was an unlikely candidate for president in 1896. Although the Democratic National Convention was dominated by pro-silverites—in opposition to lame-duck President Grover Cleveland, who led the pro-gold wing of the party—Bryan arrived at the convention as a darkhorse candidate. He led the free-silver forces during the platform debate, with his own speech bringing that debate to an electrifying conclusion. For forty minutes his unamplified voice filled the convention hall, climaxing with biblical language: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!” The next day, in the wake of his successful Cross of Gold speech, Bryan won the nomination on the fifth ballot.
At the age of thirty-six, the “Boy Orator of the Platte” became, and remains, the youngest presidential nominee of a major party. He departed from the usual front-porch strategy of presidential aspirants by going out to campaign throughout the nation. Bryan the Democrat was also supported by the People's (Populist) Party. Denounced as a radical and anarchist, faced with the hostility of almost the entire metropolitan press, and outspent by as much as 30 to 1, Bryan was defeated by Republican nominee William McKinley. Although the electoral vote was more lopsided in favor of McKinley, Bryan lost the popular vote by only four percentage points (47 to 51).
Bryan's natural optimism and gifts as an orator suited him for leadership of a national party. A populist in the Jefferson-Jackson tradition, he became known as “the Great Commoner.” He championed the common people and was an adversary of Wall Street. Although he was despised by many leading Democrats, his popularity among the rank and file was so great that he was virtually unchallenged for the 1900 and 1908 nominations.
The 1900 rematch between McKinley and Bryan partly centered on the question of rising US imperialism. Bryan opposed overseas empire, arguing that it was un-American and un-Christian. In his 1908 contest with William Howard Taft, Bryan continued his emphasis on genuine democracy versus corporate power, using the slogan “Shall the People Rule?” Ultimately, his quest to translate a coalition of small farmers and urban laborers into a winning national campaign was not successful, but it set the stage for victories by Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in later years.
In reaction to corporate abuses, Bryan supported government regulation, if not public ownership, of natural monopolies but wanted this involvement to be consistent with the constitutional system of federalism. For the most part, Bryan's first choice was for restoration of economic competition by dismantling big business through antitrust enforcement rather than regulation of big business by big government.
After leading the Democratic Party for sixteen years, Bryan was instrumental in the nomination of Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Wilson was a conservative, anti-Bryan Democrat, but Bryan was drawn by the candidate's populist rhetoric during the campaign into the Wilson camp at the national convention. Wilson appointed Bryan his secretary of state in 1913. Two years later, when Secretary Bryan publicly broke with the president over Wilson's prowar policies, he became the first and only holder of that high position to resign over a matter of political principle. Despite their differences on the European war, Bryan played a pivotal role in Wilson's reelection in 1916. The following year, Bryan attempted to prevent US entry into World War I.
Although Bryan championed equality of class and gender, he was not egalitarian about race. To his discredit, he absorbed the dominant white racial bias of his day and had a poor record when it came to the social and political inclusion of African Americans.
Despite ridicule by the sophisticated urban press, Bryan was a hero to millions of average Americans as he stood up for orthodox religion and moral values during the Roaring Twenties. His role as a prosecutor in the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in which he argued against the teaching of evolution in public schools, was at the time widely seen as heroic, not embarrassing. Bryan died in his sleep, five days after the conclusion of the trial, on July 26, 1925.
When Bryan is remembered today, it is often an image derived from the 1960 movie Inherit the Wind, a dramatization of the Scopes Trial. The Bryan character is inaccurately presented as an ignorant, rude, and self-righteous fanatic. Given this reputation, the first thing that strikes a reader when approaching the writings of Bryan is his surprising degree of intelligence and knowledge. Bryan opposed the theory of evolution on both theological and sociopolitical grounds. He linked the detrimental social effects of Darwin's survival-of-the-fittest theory to the might-makes-right philosophy of the German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche ( 1844–1900 ).
Historians such as Henry Steele Commager and Michael Kazin ( 2006 ) have identified Bryan as an advocate of big government and a forerunner of Franklin D. Roosevelt. This is a misunderstanding of Bryan and his relationship with the development of twentieth-century federal power. Bryan's theological assumptions, agrarian background, embodiment of populism, preference for the common good over special interests, suspicion of bureaucracy, rejection of monopoly, belief in states' rights, and quasi-pacifism differ substantially from the ideals of modern liberalism.Today, the legacy of Bryan is seen not so much in the statism and secularism of modern Democratic Party leadership but rather in the Jeffersonian progressivism of the Democratic Left and the Christian moralism of the Republican Right.
For thirty years, William Jennings Bryan was the personification of prairie populism within the Democratic Party. His down-to-earth personality, oratorical skills, appealing message, and organizational abilities made him a peerless leader and political trailblazer.
SEE ALSO Populism ; Progressive Movement, 1890 to 1920 .
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Bryan, William Jennings. Speeches of William Jennings Bryan. 2 vols. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1909.
Bryan, William Jennings, and Mary Baird Bryan. The Memoirs of William Jennings Bryan. Chicago: John C. Winston, 1925.
Coletta, Paolo E. William Jennings Bryan. 3 vols. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964–1969.
Gould, Stephen Jay. “William Jennings Bryan's Last Campaign.” Natural History 96, no. 11 (1987): 16–26.
Kazin, Michael. A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. New York: Knopf, 2006.
Koenig, Louis W. Bryan: A Political Biography of William Jennings Bryan. New York: Putnam, 1971.
Levine, Lawrence W. Defender of the Faith: William Jennings Bryan—The Last Decade, 1915–1925. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.
Taylor, Jeff. Where Did the Party Go?: William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey, and the Jeffersonian Legacy. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006.