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 the candidate of his party for three times in the presidential elections: in those of 1896, 1900 and 1908, but was always defeated, by William McKinley the first two times and William Howard Taft the third. He was a strong supporter of prohibitionism and a great enemy of Darwinian evolutionism, against which he distinguished himself in 1925 in the trial against John Scopes, guilty of having taught the theory of evolution in a school in Tennessee, a trial of which newspapers and radios talked a lot.
Beginning in 1896 Bryan emerged as a dominant personality in the Democratic Party. Before his three bids for the presidency he had been a member of the House of Representatives; after them he served as 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 Eastern economic interests, 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 presidential election of 1896, Bryan was beaten by Republican candidate William McKinley. At 36 years of age, Bryan remains the youngest person in U.S. history to win at least one major election. Bryan later gained fame as a speaker, embarking on a lecture 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, in part because voters in both parties viewed the progressive reforms he had long advocated with more sympathy. 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 alone in never having won a presidential election despite obtaining large electoral votes 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 his support of Wilson with the important position of Secretary of State. Bryan helped Wilson get Congress to pass several progressive reforms, but he clashed with Wilson over U.S. neutrality in World War I. A staunch neutralist, Bryan resigned from 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 for religious and humanitarian reasons; the most famous episode occurred in 1925 with the trial against John Scopes, guilty of teaching the theory of evolution in a school in Tennessee.
After his death in 1925, Bryan drew mixed reactions from various commentators, but he is generally considered one of the most influential figures of the Progressive Era.
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 was born in Virginia and was of Irish descent; after studying law at Lebanon, he went into high school teaching while preparing for the professional qualification 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 and take care of the farm activities, young William grew up absorbing the ideals of this environment. In 1872, his father Silas abandoned his professional activity to run for the House of Representatives on the Democratic ticket, but was defeated by Republican opponents and was forced to return to the law. Both of William”s parents were fervently religious: 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 later years 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 of 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 the McGuffey Readers. These ideals remained ingrained in William Jennings Bryan”s soul, including the precept that condemned gambling and the use of alcohol.
In 1874 Bryan was sent to Jacksonville to study at Whipple Academy, a detachment of Illinois College, a major private institution of higher learning, from 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 undertook his law practice in Lincoln, having as a partner Adolphus Talbot, a Republican whom Bryan had met 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 tariffs, the use of silver for issuing currency in an equal ratio to gold, and action to limit 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, achieving a majority.
Bryan was able to get on the coveted House Tax Committee. He quickly gained a reputation for being a great speaker and sought to achieve a solid understanding 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 scope and weight of the federal government. The other tendency, 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 the issuance of 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 re-election in 1892, with the support of many Populists as well, and he endorsed the Populist Party”s presidential candidate, James B. Weaver, instead of Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland. Bryan was re-elected 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 of 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, was able to pass 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 re-election in 1894, Bryan sought election to the U.S. Senate. Nationally, the Republican Party reported a huge victory in the 1894 election, winning over 120 House seats. In Nebraska, despite Bryan”s popularity, the Republicans elected a majority of the state”s congressmen, 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 purpose of advocating for 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 paid for, which allowed him to abandon his legal practice and devote himself full-time to oratory.
By 1896, the pro-silver current in the currency issue 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 platform 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”s 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. Assigned to deliver the Convention”s final 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 met with enthusiastic applause and congratulations that lasted more than half an hour.
The next day, the Democratic Party held nominating votes. With the important support of Illinois Governor John Altgeld, Bland came out on top on the first convention 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 him to nominate such an inexperienced candidate, the 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 the income tax, as Bryan”s running mate.
The conservative Democrats known as the “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 nominee 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 “advance agent for 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,” doing 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 coalesce 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. Industrial cities voted for McKinley, who won in most of the eastern and industrial Midwest and did well along the border and west coast. Bryan won all of 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.
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 following 1896. In 1900, President McKinley signed into law what was 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 USS Maine exploded 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 the 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, 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 independence for Cuba, 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 elections of 1900
The 1900 Democratic National Convention was held in Kansas City, Missouri, the westernmost place 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 monitored the proceedings of the convention by telegraph. As to what the main issue of the campaign should be, many of his most ardent 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 election platform 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 recognized arbiter of world controversies.” 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 stand against imperialism convinced most of the league”s 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. On a typical day Bryan gave four-hour speeches and shorter speeches, up to six hours of talk 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 toward attacks on corporate power. He once again went after the urban worker electorate, telling them to vote against the business interests that had “condemned the boys of this country to 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 agenda 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.
Between the presidential campaigns, 1901-1907
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 longstanding political and religious themes. Bryan was publisher and editor 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 within about five years of its founding. Although the paper”s subscriber base overlapped greatly with Bryan”s Midwestern voting base, 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 of 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 corporate campaign financing, a constitutional amendment providing for the direct election of senators, local ownership of public utilities, and the introduction of the citizens” 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.
Prior to 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. Seeking 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 kind of revenge for Bryan, who after the election published an edition of The Commoner advising his readers, “Don”t 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 continued to favor broader reforms, including federal regulation of banking and securities, protection for 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 internal party reaction.
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 platform that reflected his longstanding beliefs, but the Republicans also had a platform 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 endorsement of 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 outright. Bryan won only a few states outside of the South, failing to thoroughly attract workers from the big cities. 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 duty reduction. In 1909, Bryan first came out publicly in favor of prohibition. A lifelong abstemious, however, Bryan had been unwilling to support Prohibition until then because of the issue”s unpopularity among many Democrats. According to biographer Paul Colletta, Bryan “sincerely believed that prohibition would contribute to the physical health and moral betterment of the individual, stimulate civic progress, and put an end to 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.
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 House Speaker 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 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, but many journalists and politicians suspected that Bryan hoped in that the Convention could not decide between the outspoken candidates and would turn to him.
After the convention began, Bryan worked to pass a resolution stating that the party was “opposed to the nomination of any candidate who is a representative of, or has an obligation 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 few 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 provided 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 a steady loss of support for Clark: Wilson would finally clinch the presidential nomination after more than 40 ballots. Journalists attributed much of the credit for Wilson”s victory to Bryan.
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 arrived at the head of 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 legislation 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 was 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 March 1915 incident, in which a German submarine sank a British passenger ship with a U.S. citizen aboard, provided 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.
For the 1916 presidential election, some Prohibition Party figures attempted to engage Bryan as their candidate, but he declined the offer via 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 own 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, primarily 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 it to be 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 agreed to 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 an eight-hour workday, a minimum wage, the right to strike for unions, and, increasingly, women”s suffrage and prohibition. Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment, which included a nationwide ban on alcohol, in 1917. Two years later, Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Both amendments were ratified in 1920. During the 1920s, Bryan called for further reforms, including agricultural subsidies, a 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 liquor 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.
In the 1920s Bryan turned his attention away from politics and became one of the most prominent religious figures in the country. In Miami, where he had moved in search of a better climate for the health of his wife Mary, who was suffering from arthritis, he taught a weekly Bible class; he also published several religiously 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 “non-literal 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 that would prohibit 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 traction not only in universities, but also within the church. He had long been a Presbyterian elder, and 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.
From July 10 to July 21, 1925, Bryan participated in the highly publicized so-called “Scopes trial,” which tested Tennessee”s law, known as the Butler Act, which prohibited 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 famed attorney 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 First Amendment of the Constitution. Bryan defended the right of parents to choose what is taught in school, argued that Darwinism was only a “hypothesis,” and asserted that Darrow and other intellectuals were trying to undermine “every moral standard the Bible offers us.”
Eventually, the judge instructed the jury to return a guilty verdict, and Scopes was fined $100 for violating the Butler Act. The national 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 has succeeded in showing 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.”
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 a sincere soul, loyal in action, and pure in honor” and on the other side “He kept the faith.”
Historical Reputation and Political Legacy
Bryan elicited 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 people too religious for today”s progressives.” Jeff Taylor rejects the notion 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 support the permanent expansion of federal government intervention to provide assistance to ordinary working and middle class Americans (…) 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 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 anyone else.” 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 never served as 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 the death of , 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 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 chubby sweaty man devoid of 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 with.
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 broad 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 wrongness. 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 did) keep 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 Donald Trump”s.
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 the lawyer inspired by Bryan 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 John Dos Passos” The 42nd Parallel.