William Jennings Bryan was a three-time, unsuccessful Democratic presidential nominee (1896, 1900, and 1908), a two-term congressman (1891-1895), and U. S. secretary of state (1913-1915). He was born in Salem, Illinois, to Mariah Jennings Bryan and Silas Bryan, a lawyer and judge. With devoutly religious parents, a Baptist father and Methodist mother, 13-year-old William joined the Presbyterian Church during a revival meeting. He attended public school and Whipple Academy (Jacksonville, Illinois) before graduating as valedictorian from Illinois College (Jacksonville) in 1881. He graduated from Union College of Law (Chicago) in 1883, and opened a practice in Jacksonville the next year. In 1884, he married Mary Baird; the couple later had three children. In 1887, the Bryans moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he became active in local Democratic politics and she completed her law degree.
Bryan was elected to Congress in 1890 after campaigning against protective tariffs and in favor of some Populist proposals, such as increased silver coinage and the direct election of U.S. senators. He joined the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, and won reelection narrowly in 1892 by courting Populist votes in his congressional district. In early 1893, he helped influence Nebraska Democratic state legislators to elect Populist William Allen to the U.S. senate. Bryan quickly became a recognized leader in the silver movement and worked diligently, though unsuccessfully, against repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893. Support for the inflationary policy of free silver coinage was popular in the debt-ridden rural South and Plains States as well as in silver mining regions of the West.
In 1894, Bryan convinced the Nebraska Democratic Party to fuse with the Populist Party, which had become the chief rival to the state’s Republicans. He decided not to run for another House term that year, but to seek election from the Nebraska state legislature to the U.S. senate. However, Republican victory in the state elections ended his chance for a senate seat. After completion of his congressional term in March 1895, Bryan wrote letters and articles and delivered speeches across the country for the free-silver cause. In spring 1896, Bryan began asking delegates to the upcoming Democratic National Convention for their support in his presidential bid. He arrived at the convention in early July with some support, but the nomination was wide open. Delegates drafted a free-silver plank, and Bryan maneuvered so that he addressed the assembly last during the platform debate. In an impassioned oration, he identified the gold standard with impoverishing Americans and warned its supporters that, “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
The next day, Congressman Richard Bland of Missouri led on the first three presidential ballots, with Bryan gaining strength until he won the nomination on the fifth ballot. Only 36 years old, he was the youngest person nominated for president by a major party. Arthur Sewall, a free-silver businessman from Maine, was named the vice-presidential nominee. Bryan followed the example set by Grover Cleveland in 1892 by officially accepting the nomination in an address before supporters at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The “Boy Orator of the Platte” then broke precedent by spending the rest of the campaign on a national speaking tour, traveling 18,000 miles through 27 states and making his case before millions of Americans. He spoke against high tariffs and court injunctions during labor strikes, and argued in favor of a graduated income tax, but his main theme was promoting free silver.
Although Bryan’s energetic personal campaigning aroused great enthusiasm, he lost the general election on November 3, 1896, to Republican William McKinley, who had stood firmly for high tariffs and against free silver. McKinley’s margin of victory—276-176 in the Electoral College and 51%-46% in the popular vote—was the largest since 1872. Bryan had captured the South and the most of the Trans-Mississippi West, but lost California, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Oregon. The decisive result and the return of economic prosperity in 1897 after a long depression spelled the end of free silver as an effective issue, though Bryan continued to tout its virtues.
When the Spanish-American War began in April 1898, Bryan was appointed colonel of the third Nebraska Volunteer Regiment, but never made it out of Florida, where his regiment was hit hard by typhoid fever and other maladies. Despite his support of the war, he vigorously protested the McKinley administration’s assumption of an overseas empire in Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. However, the strength of Bryan’s anti-imperialist message was diluted by his acceptance of territorial expansion in principle, while opposing the current situation, and by his endorsement of the peace settlement ending the war even though it included the annexation of the Philippines and Puerto Rico.
In 1900, Bryan ran unopposed for the Democratic presidential nomination. For vice president, delegates chose Adlai Stevenson, the former vice president in Grover Cleveland’s second term (1893-1897). To the dismay of party leaders, Bryan insisted that the platform include a free-silver plank. That tactical error was compounded by making anti-imperialism the cornerstone of his campaign. It was not effective because areas of Bryan’s electoral strength in 1896—the South and West—had been at the forefront of popular support for the Spanish-American War. In the November 1900 rematch, McKinley’s margin of victory—292-155 in the Electoral College and 52%-46% in the popular vote—was even larger than in the previous contest. Bryan lost most of the West, including his home state of Nebraska.
When not running for president, Bryan spent his time lecturing and writing on political, social, and religious topics. In 1901, he established a weekly newspaper, the Commoner, the title of which reflected his own nickname, “the Great Commoner.” The publication espoused Bryan’s political agenda: business regulation; government reforms, such as citizens’ ballot initiatives and referenda, primary nomination system, one-term presidency, and the popular election of U.S. senators; and, in foreign policy, a more forceful application of the Monroe Doctrine combined with greater self-government for America’s foreign dependencies. He also devoted more time to religion by preaching at evangelical revivals and speaking against the materialism of the age.
Bryan remained the most visible national leader of Democrats in the early-twentieth century, but the party turned in 1904 to Alton B. Parker, a little-known New York judge with sound money, pro-business views, as its candidate. After President Theodore Roosevelt’s landslide victory over Parker, Bryan resumed the mantle of party leader. From September 1905 through August 1906, Bryan traveled throughout the Far East, Middle East, and Europe. In his absence, Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton University, and publisher William Randolph Hearst failed to gain significant backing for their presidential ambitions, opening the way for Bryan’s third nomination. At the 1908 Democratic National Convention, he won a first ballot victory with only token opposition. John Kern, a state politician from Indiana, was nominated for vice president.
As he had done in 1896 and 1900, Bryan brought his message directly to the voters in a national campaign tour. Unlike the previous contests, though, he did not focus on one dominant issue (like silver in 1896 or anti-imperialism in 1900), but spoke on many issues. On November 3, 1908, Bryan went down to his third presidential defeat, losing to Republican William Howard Taft 321-162 in the Electoral College. Taft replicated McKinley’s percentage win in 1900 by attracting 52% of the vote, but Bryan’s lower total in 1908, 43% as opposed to 46% in 1900, reflected the 3% gained by the Socialist presidential nominee, Eugene Debs.
In 1912, Bryan initially backed Congressman James “Champ” Clark of Missouri for the Democratic presidential nomination. When no candidate received the requisite two-thirds majority through nine ballots, Tammany Hall, the notorious New York political machine, threw its support to Clark. Bryan checked the Missourian’s momentum by declaring in the 14th round for Wilson, who finally won on the 45th ballot. After Wilson defeated Taft, the new Democratic president appointed Bryan as his secretary of state.
In his new position, Bryan negotiated bilateral conciliation treaties with 30 nations. The agreements triggered fact-finding missions if hostile relations flared between the signatories. Despite the secretary’s anti-imperialist principles, the Wilson administration intervened frequently in Latin American domestic affairs. When World War I began in Europe in 1914, Bryan advocated strict neutrality by the United States. In 1915, Germans sunk a British passenger ship, the Lusitania, with many Americans among those killed. Bryan thought President Wilson’s diplomatic protest to Germany was too bellicose, so he resigned as secretary of state. He continued to speak on political issues and campaigned for Wilson’s reelection in 1916. In seeming contradiction to his previous stance, Bryan supported America’s entry into the war in 1917 as the best way to achieve peace quickly.
Out of office, Bryan spoke widely for the prohibition of alcohol and women’s suffrage. In 1921, he and his wife moved to Florida for health reasons, and he represented the state as a delegate to the 1924 Democratic National Convention. There, he was on the winning side in convincing the party not to condemn the Ku Klux Klan. Bryan’s brother, Charles, who had been elected governor of Nebraska in 1922, was selected as John Davis’s vice presidential running mate. (They lost to the Republican ticket of Calvin Coolidge and Charles Dawes.)
In his later years, Bryan concentrated publicly on fighting the teaching of evolution in public schools. He assisted the Tennessee government in its prosecution of John Scopes for violating the state ban on teaching evolution. Defense lawyer Clarence Darrow called Bryan as an expert witness on the Bible, but the questioning revealed the Great Commoner’s ignorance of the scientific evidence. Scopes was convicted, but the state supreme court later overturned the decision. Bryan died in Dayton, Ohio, on July 26, 1925, a few days after the trial ended; he was 65.
Sources consulted: Robert W. Cherny, “Bryan, William Jennings,” American National Biography Online, Feb. 2000; “Bryan, William Jennings,” Encyclopedia Britannica from Encyclopedia Britannica Premium Service; Congressional Biographical Guide online; and, William DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents (Random House, 1993).