Nebraska Authors

William Jennings Bryan

Born 1860-03-19 Salem, IL (USA)

Died 1925-07-26
Dayton, TN (USA)

Buried
Washington, DC (USA)
Arlington National Cemetary

William Jennings Bryan was considered the greatest political orator of his time, a time before public address systems, radio, and television, when political speeches were long and expected to be more thought-provoking and entertaining than they are today. Bryan (a Democrat) became a leading figure in the populist movement and the Populist Party. He is remembered by his contemporary nickname "The Great Commoner," and for his "Cross of Gold" speech that shocked and reshaped the Democratic Presidential Convention of 1896. Bryan received the Democratic Party's nomination for President three times, in 1896, in 1900, and in 1908. He remained very influential at the Democratic convention in 1912 and in the election that followed, when his support for Woodrow Wilson appeared to be a deciding factor in Wilson's nomination and narrow presidential victory. Bryan served as Wilson’s Secretary of State until his vehement opposition to the possibility of America entering World War I forced his resignation. Despite public humiliations, including, most memorably, those connected to his role as prosecutor in the Scopes trial in 1925, Bryan remained an influential figure in American politics and religion until his death that same year.

The late 19th and early 20th century populist era and Bryan himself have now been forgotten, with relief, by the usual commentators on American politics. Since Bryan’s death, it has grown ever more difficult to understand his appeal, his political influence, and the extent of his celebrity in his own lifetime. No one could now be taken so seriously through three unsuccessful campaigns for the presidency, or lose three such campaigns and sustain a great political following and influence. Many of the reforms Bryan advocated from populist and Christian concern were adopted, piecemeal, either by President Theodore Roosevelt or by Woodrow Wilson, in Bryan’s own lifetime. Those reforms were easiest to adopt in ways that belied an original intent to democratize American institutions, but reform being reform, Bryan generally supported them.

Bryan moved his family from Illinois to Lincoln, Nebraska in 1887, and entered law practice here with law school friend and Republican Adophus Talbot. The two men's differences complemented one another. Talbot welcomed legal work for railroads and various corporations, while Bryan refused to work for the railroads and was uncomfortable with corporate work. Bryan represented individuals and small businessmen and had some notable successes representing persons harmed by government corruption or corporate malfeasance. The practice prospered sufficiently to give Bryan the opportunity to enter politics.

Whatever their judgments of Bryan in larger contexts, Bryan's biographers look at the seven years that followed Bryan's arrival in Nebraska with something approaching awe. He began his political career here by meeting with J. Sterling Morton, the grand old man of Nebraska politics, a true Bourbon Democrat (a rich man's Democrat), an anti-monopoly, but profoundly laissez-faire politician, who would complete his fourth unsuccessful run for Nebraska Governor while Bryan was building himself into a force in local and national politics, and go off, by then Bryan's mortal enemy, to become Grover Cleveland's Secretary of Agriculture in 1893. But at first the two men admired one another, and Bryan got his start in Nebraska politics giving speeches in support of Morton and other old school Democrats.

Then, in two successful congressional campaigns of his own, Bryan, recognizing the importance of the protesting Farmer's Alliance (later to become populists), allied himself with populists and undermined the old Democratic Party elite, including J. Sterling Morton. Morton was a bitter opponent in Bryan's unsuccessful senate run. Bryan attracted support from socially concerned journalists, and accepted the titular editorship of the Omaha World Herald. His second campaign for the Presidency led to the founding, in Lincoln, of The Commoner newspaper, a great success that supported Bryan financially and helped transform Democratic politics across the United States into the early 1920s. The Commoner also brought several distinguished Nebraska journalists to Lincoln.

In 1900, when Bryan was nominated again as the Democratic party's presidential candidate, Willa Cather, writing under a pseudonym, wrote an article about "the personal side of William Jennings Bryan." The article remains notable for insight into the partnership between Mary Bryan and her husband (still undervalued in biographies of the man), and to librarians, for remarks on the couple's reading habits. Cather's article is also striking in its at first subtle, and then not so subtle deprecating judgment of Bryan and his partner. "His everlasting high seriousness makes one want to play marbles," Cather says. "Though he is in politics, Mr. Bryan is not a politician." His power, she found, rested on personality, bringing forth "neither an invincible principle nor an unassailable logic, only melodious phrases, a convincing voice and a hypnotic sincerity." Cather marveled that "the most practical, the most prosaic, and purely commercial people on the planet should be dazzled and half convinced by a purely picturesque figure--a knight on horseback."

There is no doubt that Bryan, a prodigious reader and studier, had few original thoughts. His cheerful Christian evangelism, and the emotion and sentimentality of his public performances powerfully irritated critical intellectuals. Long after Cather, John Reed, the American journalist finally buried in the Kremlin wall, and the great scholar and critic H.L. Mencken were appalled by Bryan's popularity and both composed vicious portraits of Bryan and his admirers. What they tended to overlook was the genuine anger with which impoverished farmers and others confronted the railroads and large corporations that had emerged from the Gilded Age, and the growing cultural divide between ordinary people of small towns and cities and the upper middle classes and elites. Throughout Bryan's career "his" people would tell him that he was their only true spokesman.

Michael Kazin’s A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, 2006, a recent, widely admired scholarly biography, reminds us of his influence:

Bryan's opposition to American entry into World War I, and his criticisms of Wilson's domestic inflexibility on the Peace Treaty, which kept the United States out of the League of Nations, look wiser in hindsight. The killing fields of the war nursed the poisons of Nazism, fascism and Bolshevism. Wilson's failure to bend in the Senate handed victory to American isolationists and weakened the peace that followed the war.

Bryan had made his grand entry into American politics in 1896 in opposition to the Gold standard--"the Cross of Gold" of which he spoke--and as an advocate of "Free Silver", meaning, essentially, a less restricted money supply. The call for easier money crippled his appeal to more prosperous workers in large cities, who had reason to fear inflation, but appealed to indebted farmers and tradesmen on the Great Plains. As economic debates grew more sophisticated, Bryan voiced bitter criticism of monetary reform led by Republicans under the Aldrich-Vreeland Act, which left control of the money supply in the private hands of bankers. He was then a crucial voice supporting the 1913 Federal Reserve Act, which transferred control of the Fed's Board of Directors to the government through a public board. His faith in a public board may have been naive, but he was not absent from the fray, and the weak linkage of the Federal Reserve Board to public interest evolved in practice, as is the case with all regulatory captures.

Bryan's populist concerns and advocacy of public transparency and government regulation of the economy transformed the Democratic Party, which once supported slavery, from a patrician party, by far more conservative and laissez-faire in the late 19th century than the Republican Party, into a party that accepted government regulation and economic intervention. The Democratic Party of the New Deal is inconceivable without him.

Bryan's long advocacy of Women's Suffrage is now unexceptionable. His equally strong advocacy of Prohibition is known to have greatly damaged his political popularity among Catholics and in large cities. The best that can be said is that his faith in Prohibition was sincere, more suited to the sensibilities of the Midwest in those times than it was to other parts of the country.

Bryan's modern reputation is clouded, above all, by his prosecution of John Scopes in the great Tennessee trial pitting the teaching of Darwin against religion in 1925. He seemed terribly aged, out of his depth and hobbled by religious views that sophisticates of that day regarded as childish. Even here, Bryan looks a little wiser than he once did. His biographer Kazin helps us to understand that some of Bryan's anti-Darwinism was motivated by distaste for the crude ideology of Social Darwinism made respectable by public acceptance of the science of evolution. He seemed, for a moment, to foresee the crude celebrations of eugenics and disdain for ethics and community that followed in Social Darwinism's wake. That Social Darwinism remains the unofficial social ethic of contemporary meritocracy and neo-liberal economics does not help us see Bryan more clearly today.

Bryan knew the American people well. His true political home was not Fairview in Nebraska (or in later years, the house in Florida) but the tent halls of county fairs and annual Chautauqua gatherings around the country. When he took summer leave of his duties as President Wilson's Secretary of State to travel the Chautauqua circuit and reconnect with his followers, he was pilloried by the eastern press establishment, but welcomed everywhere he traveled. Michael Kazin (he credits his son) has found a wonderful literary line to sum up Bryan's popularity: As a great crowd gathers for the trial in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, a character remarks on the size of it: "Um, um, um. Look at all those folks--you'd think William Jennings Bryan was speakin'."

Robert W. Cherny, A Righteous Cause: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. 1985. Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. 2006 Louis Koenig, Bryan: A Political Biography of William Jennings Bryan. 1971 Willa Cather, "The Personal Side of William Jennings Bryan," The Library, July 14, 1900, reprinted in William M. Curtin, ed. The World and the Parish: Willa Cather's Articles and Reviews, Vol. 2 (1970) pp. 782-789.

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Places Lived

Salem, IL
Jacksonville, IL
Chicago, IL
Lincoln, NE (1887-1892 and 1900-1916)
Washington, D.C.
Mission, TX
Miami, FL

Author Of

  • Nonfiction

Keywords

Politics; Public Policy Questions; Religion; Law

Education

Bachelor of Arts Degree, 1881, Illinois College, Jacksonville, IL
Master of Arts Degree, 1884, Union College of Law, Chicago, IL
LL.B., 1883, Union College of Law, Chicago, IL
LL.D. (Honorary) from the Universities of Nebraska, Lincoln, Maryland and Arizona

Occupation

Lawyer
Politician
United States Congressman
Presidential Candidate
United States Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson
Orator
Editor

Places Worked

Admitted to the Illinois Bar, 1883
Law practice, Jacksonville, IL
Law practice, Lincoln, NE
Omaha World-Herald, Omaha, NE
The Commoner, Lincoln, NE
United States Government

Honors

“150 Notable Nebraskans”, Number 5 on the Journal Star Sesquicentennial List of Significant Nebraskans
Democratic party nominee in 1896, 1900 and 1908 (He lost to William McKinley in 1986 and 1900 and to William Howard Taft in 1908. He is the only three-time loser in presidential electoral history.)
Nebraska Journalism Hall of Fame
Nebraska Hall of Fame, 1971
Bryan Memorial Hospital, Lincoln, NE, named in his honor
Bryan High School, Omaha, NE, named in his honor
S.S. William J. Bryan named in his honor

Associations

Bibliography

The First Battle: A Story of the Campaign of 1896. 1896.
Republic or Empire? The Philippine Question. 1899.
Under Other Flags: Travels, Lectures, Speeches. 1904.
The Old World and Its Ways. 1907.
Letters to a Chinese Official. 1907.
The Real Bryan, Being Extracts. 1908.
Shall the People Rule?. 1908.
Speeches of William Jennings Bryan. 1909.
The Fruits of the Tree. 1910.
A Tale of Two Conventions. 1912.
Man. 1914.
The People's Law. 1914.
The Value of an Ideal. 1914.
Heart to Heart Appeals. 1917.
The Bible and Its Enemies. 1921.
In His Image. 1922.
Seven Questions in Dispute. 1924.
Christ and His Companions: Famous Figures of the New Testament. 1925.
Prince of Peace. 1925.
Memoirs of Wm. Jennings Bryan. 1925.
Last Message of Wm. Jennings Bryan. 1925.

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