Bryan, William Jennings (1860–1925)

William Jennings Bryan, political leader, secretary of state, and Populist icon, was born to Silas L. Bryan and Mariah Elizabeth Bryan on March 19, 1860. Silas Bryan was a reputable lawyer and a state senator. His son William then studied at Union Law College in Chicago and afterwards practiced law in Jacksonville from 1883 to 1887. After shifting to Lincoln, Nebraska, he was attracted to politics. In 1890, Bryan was elected to Congress as part of a Democratic tidal wave. He was reelected two years afterwards and began to make his presence felt in national politics, especially after the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893 had caused a collapse of the silver market. Bryan advocated for Populist causes such as free silver and the removal of high tariffs. From 1894 to 1896, he was editor in chief of the Omaha World-Herald. Bryan traveled a lot in the United States, becoming popular as a politician who understood the needs of the countryside while most politicians were focusing on those of urban areas.

The Democratic National Convention at Chicago in 1896 catapulted him to national prominence. At the age of 36, he became the presidential candidate after the famous “Cross of Gold” speech of July 9, 1896. The People's Party also

William Jennings Bryan, Democratic party presidential candidate, 1896.

William Jennings Bryan, Democratic party presidential candidate, 1896. (Library of Congress)

nominated him. He espoused the free and unlimited coinage of silver as a panacea for the economic woes affecting farmers and industrial workers. Bryan vehemently criticized supporters of the gold standard. The speech won him the Democratic nomination for president in 1896. However, he lost the tough contest to the Republican candidate, William McKinley. The Republican Party controlled the presidency for 28 of 36 years from 1896 to 1932. Although Bryan was defeated, he had a solid base in the South and Plains states.

During the Spanish-American War of 1898, Bryan became a colonel in the Nebraska regiment but did not go to the front because of contracting typhoid fever. Afterward, he became vocal as an anti-imperialist crusader. He strongly opposed the annexation of the Philippines, arguing that the United States did not have any moral authority to incorporate another country. Bryan received the Democratic Party nomination in 1900, and his adversary was again McKinley. The agenda of the Democrats was anti-imperialism and the silver issue. The former did not appeal to the electorate. The latter had lost its luster after the passing of the Gold Standard Act of 1900. Bryan criticized potential U.S. foreign domination, like that of the European empires, in a speech, “The Paralyzing Influence of Imperialism,” at the Democratic National Convention held in Kansas City. In spite of hectic campaigning, he lost the election for the second time, receiving 155 Electoral College votes compared to the 292 that McKinley received. Even after losing two presidential elections, Bryan was undaunted, keeping up his lecture program and reiterating his opinion regarding popular issues. In 1901, Bryan founded a weekly newspaper, The Commoner. It harped on various topics such as consumer protection, regulation of trusts, and anti-imperialism.

Bryan remained active in the public arena. During the Progressive Era, Bryan espoused reform issues such as woman suffrage, prohibition, graduated federal income tax, popular election of American senators, peace, and Christian fundamentalism. Although he failed to achieve many of these objectives during his lifetime, some of these were enacted into law. A dedicated public servant and a guardian of the interest of workers, farmers, and religious Americans as well as ethnic minorities, Bryan died on July 26, 1925.

Patit Paban Mishra

See also: “Cross of Gold” Speech (1896) ; Democratic Party ; Gold Standard/Free Silver ; McKinley, William, Jr. (1843–1901) ; Progressivism


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Coletta, Paolo E. William Jennings Bryan. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969.

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