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From Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History


Three-time Democratic Presidential Candidate and U.S. Secretary of State

William Jennings Bryan was one of the most prominent politicians bridging the Populist and Progressive eras. Known for his immense oratorical skills, Bryan brought the rhetoric of populism into the mainstream of America's politics. A national leader of the free silver movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Bryan ran three times unsuccessfully for president as the Democratic Party's candidate (1896, 1900, 1908) and served as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson until Bryan's pacifist views led to his resignation in 1915.

Early Life

Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois, on March 19, 1860, to Silas Bryan and Mariah Elizabeth Jennings Bryan. Silas Bryan had migrated from Virginia, bringing with him a deep loyalty to the Democratic Party. His commitment to the Democratic Party was based on a Jeffersonian belief in a republic run by independent artisans and yeoman farmers and the Jacksonian principles of minimal government. The elder Bryan believed that an active government would grant economic favors only to an elite few. These Jeffersonian and Jacksonian ideals would guide William Jennings Bryan throughout his political life. Bryan's father also instilled in his son a deep fundamentalist Christian faith. Bryan graduated from Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, in 1881 and from Union College of Law in Chicago in 1883. After graduation, he practiced law in Jacksonville.

Political Beginnings

From an early age, Bryan had political career ambitions; in Jacksonville, Bryan became active in local Democratic Party politics. Jacksonville, however, was staunchly Republican, thus offering Bryan limited prospects for political advancement. In 1887, Bryan moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, an area growing in population and economic opportunity; he opened a law office with a friend and began pursuing a political career. The district that included Lincoln had recently elected Nebraska's first Democratic U.S. representative, John A. McShane, in 1886, which encouraged Bryan in his political ambitions.

The young Bryan soon rose within the ranks of the state's small Democratic Party. Bryan actively campaigned for Democratic candidates across Nebraska and helped draft the party's state platform in 1889; this platform denounced trusts and Republican-backed high tariffs. While campaigning, Bryan became known as a talented public speaker; as a reward for his efforts and his efficacy, party officials asked Bryan to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1890.

Free Silver and Populism

Bryan's life in the rural Midwest deeply influenced his political and economic outlook, with the needs of agriculture and the plight of farmers becoming foremost in his mind. The rapid expansion of agriculture in the 1870s and 1880s resulted in dramatic drops in crop prices, which, in turn, increased the indebtedness of farmers. Realizing that the traditional parties were not responding to their economic concerns and political needs, farmers formed nonpartisan organizations across the Midwest, South, and West under the banner of the Farmers' Alliance to advocate for reform. The Farmers' Alliance spoke out against monopolies, abusive railroad practices, high tariffs, and land speculation. The rapid growth of the Farmers' Alliance during the 1880s would culminate in the formation of the national People's Party, the Populists, in 1891.

Heading into his 1890 campaign for Congress, Bryan actively courted the Farmers' Alliance. Bryan's Jeffersonian and Jacksonian beliefs in the importance of agriculture and small government merged with the Farmers' Alliance stand against high tariffs and monopolies. Pledging to represent the interests of farmers, Bryan convinced the Alliance to back a weaker independent candidate than it had originally planned, and Bryan won his race.

During the 1890s, the issue of free silver dominated much of the political debate. Many farmers blamed their economic difficulties on currency deflation, arguing that the decline in circulating currency contributed to lower prices for agricultural goods. In 1873, Congress had demonetized silver, making gold the only standard for currency in the United States. To increase the amount of circulating currency, and thus to give special help to those in debt, some had called for the free and unlimited coinage of silver and its remonetization, thus starting the free silver movement. The free silver movement brought into coalition debt-ridden farmers, silver mine owners, and mine workers. Although Bryan's platform had called for the "free coinage of silver on equal terms with gold," Bryan rarely mentioned free silver during the campaign, focusing instead on the tariff issue. However, in preparation for entering Congress, Bryan began to study the currency issue in earnest, becoming a committed free silver advocate in the process. When the 1892 state platform of Nebraska's Democratic Party tied itself to the big business and gold standard policies of former president Grover Cleveland, Bryan campaigned for reelection on his own platform of free silver.

Lacking the support of traditional Democrats, who opposed free silver, Bryan realized that he would need the backing of the area's People's Party to be reelected in 1892. With the People's Party endorsement, he was successful in his bid for reelection. For Democrats, the results were disastrous, with many voting for Populist Party candidates. In 1893, with Bryan's assistance, Populists and Democrats fused to send independent-minded William V. Allen to the Senate.

With the Nebraska Democratic Party split between silverites and goldbugs, Bryan chose not to run for a third term in 1894, focusing instead on capturing the state party for free silver and calling in the Populist debt to him in a bid for the U.S. Senate. Bryan was now nationally known as a leading figure in the free silver movement. In the summer of 1894, Bryan helped create the Nebraska Democratic Free Coinage League and used it to gain control of the state Democratic Party. In addition to adding free silver to the state Democratic platform, the Populist agenda was confirmed with the addition of planks to the party platform that called for an income tax and government ownership of the telegraph system and all railroads currently in bankruptcy. Bryan's run for the U.S. Senate seat failed as Republicans both recaptured the statehouse and sent one of their own to Washington. The Nebraska People's Party, never having obtained the degree of independence that its sister organizations in the South had achieved, was often used by Bryan to gain leverage within the Democratic Party; it rapidly lost itself through its fusion with the larger national party.

Despite his election loss, Bryan was recognized by silver interests as an able champion of their cause. Bryan was given editorship of the Omaha World-Herald, a nationally known pro-silver journal. He also lectured across the country on free silver touting "the money question" as the most important issue for the upcoming 1896 presidential election.

1896 Presidential Election

When Democratic Party delegates gathered for the party's national convention in 1896, a sizeable free silver contingent was in attendance. As the national voice of that movement, Bryan was chosen to be one of the speakers; during the convention, he delivered his "Cross of Gold" speech. Bryan stirred the audience with his oratory and his impassioned proclamation that "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." This speech, one the most famous in U.S. history, won him the Democratic presidential nomination, making him, at age 36, the youngest man ever nominated for the office of president. To demonstrate that the Democratic Party was not entirely hostile to big business, the convention also nominated Arthur Sewall, a conservative banker from Maine, for vice president.

Earlier in 1896, Bryan had contacted the national leadership of the People's Party, recommending a united front of all free silver forces for the presidential election. He suggested that the Populists hold their convention after both the Democratic and Republican conventions, reasoning that if neither convention nominated a silver advocate the People's Party would be the sole standardbearer for free silver. Bryan also believed privately that if the Democratic Party did nominate a silver candidate, then the Populists would be forced to withdraw from the presidential race.

Before the People's Party convention met, the national leadership of the party rigged the delegate selection process to ensure the nomination of Bryan and fusion with the Democrats. The nomination of Bryan enraged many rank-and-file Populists, in particular Southerners who had spent years building their party in the face of the Democrats' voter fraud and violence. The nomination of Sewall for vice president, a man who symbolized everything the Populists opposed, was particularly galling. An attempt at compromise was made when the Populists nominated one of their own, Tom Watson of Georgia, for vice president. Bryan refused to drop Sewall from his ticket and moved into the campaign with only halfhearted support from many Populists.

Bryan campaigned heavily on the issue of silver. Republican nominee William McKinley, in contrast, defended the gold standard, blamed economic problems on Democratic president Grover Cleveland, and campaigned in favor of tariffs. He called the country to unite against the class politics of the Democrats. Bryan lost the election by 6,502,925 to 7,104,779 in the popular vote and 271 to 176 in the Electoral College. This election marked a turning point in American political history—Republicans controlled the White House for 28 of the next 36 years.

Anti-Imperialism, 1900 Presidential Election

Two years after the 1896 election, the issue of imperialism took center stage in U.S. politics with the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. Bryan initially supported U.S. intervention in Cuba and the Philippine Islands, envisioning the United States as a worldwide force for spreading democracy. However, the signing of the Treaty of Paris in December of 1898 ended the war and made clear that the McKinley administration did not share Bryan's democratic vision. The treaty gave the United States control over Spain's former colonies without granting U.S. citizenship to those in the newly acquired territories. Bryan once again took to the lecture circuit to oppose the emergence of the United States as an imperialist power; in so doing, he began to lay the groundwork for another run for the presidency. He also condemned colonization on the grounds that it would add to the "race problem" in the United States. Bryan could easily be seen as a racist. He never condemned white supremacy and opposed attempts to add an anti-Klan plank to the Democratic Party's platform.

When the 1900 Democratic national convention met in Kansas City, Missouri, Bryan again won the nomination for president with an anti-imperialist and pro-silver platform. The 1900 campaign once again pitted Bryan against McKinley, with imperialism replacing silver as the main campaign issue. Bryan again suffered defeat—and by a wider margin. Although tough times continued for American farmers, the growing urban middle class believed that McKinley's expansionist policies would further benefit them economically.

Progressivism, 1908 Presidential Election

Although defeated in two consecutive presidential elections, Bryan did not fade from the political landscape. Shortly after the 1900 election, Bryan started his own newspaper, The Commoner, to promote a number of Progressive-era causes such as woman suffrage, an income tax, and prohibition.

After the Democrats suffered another defeat in the 1904 presidential election, Bryan was again nominated in 1908—his third run for the highest office. Bryan faced Republican opponent William Howard Taft. Both Bryan and Taft presented themselves as progressives fighting against corporate trusts. While Bryan campaigned under the slogan "Shall the People Rule?," Taft rode the popularity of his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt to victory in the general election. Defeated once again, Bryan returned to the lecture circuit and focused on party politics in Nebraska.

Secretary of State, Final Years

After four consecutive presidential election defeats, Democrats were returned to the White House in 1913 with Woodrow Wilson. As a reward for his constant campaigning for the party and because of experience gained during his world travels, Bryan was offered the position of secretary of state. Bryan accepted on the condition that he be allowed to pursue conciliation treaties with other nations. In a dramatic shift from the "Big Stick" policy of Theodore Roosevelt, Bryan negotiated 30 treaties calling for countries to settle their differences through negotiations and outside arbitration before going to war.

International events soon put Bryan's hope of an enduring peace to the test. At the beginning of World War I, both Bryan and Wilson agreed on the importance of U.S. neutrality. However, as German submarine warfare continued to threaten commerce and take American lives, Wilson and Bryan came into conflict over policy. While Bryan felt that the United States should continue to remain neutral and promote peace talks, Wilson decided to warn Germany that further attacks on U.S. shipping and nationals would lead the nation to take whatever actions deemed necessary to protect American lives and property. Bryan, feeling that Wilson was no longer committed to peace, resigned as secretary of state in June of 1915. Following his resignation, Bryan continued to call for peace, though once the United States entered the conflict he supported the war effort by promoting donations to the Red Cross and the purchase of Liberty Bonds.

In his final years, Bryan devoted more of his energy to religious matters, feeling his influence in politics had waned. Of particular concern to Bryan was what he called the "brute theory," referring to evolution. In the summer of 1925, Bryan was invited by the prosecution to participate in the antievolution Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. Five days after the jury returned a guilty verdict against John Scopes for teaching evolution, Bryan died in his sleep.

Bryan's involvement in the Scopes Trial has done much to cloud his legacy. Many liberals, who themselves are direct descendants of Bryan's politics, have portrayed him as an anti-intellectual reactionary. Bryan, though, spent his lifetime speaking in the interest of the poor, railing against a monied elite, and championing a host of progressive causes. His populist rhetoric and brand of politics that reached out to the common people continue to be copied by candidates to this day. Historian Michael Kazin has called Bryan a "Christian liberal"—a label that may seem a contradiction of terms in today's world of politics but would have been clearly understood and accepted in Bryan's time.

Bibliography and Further Reading
  • Cherny, Robert W. A Righteous Cause: The Life of William Jennings Bryan Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.
  • Goodwyn, Lawrence. Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • Harpine, William D. From the Front Porch to the Front Page: McKinley and Bryan in the 1896 Presidential Campaign College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005.
  • Kazin, Michael. A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
  • Koenig, Louis W. Bryan: A Political Biography of William Jennings Bryan New York: Putnam & Sons, 1971.
  • Leinwand, Gerald. William Jennings Bryan: An Uncertain Trumpet New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007.
  • Postel, Charles. The Populist Vision New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Thomas E. Alter II
© 2010 CQ Press, A Division of SAGE

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