William Jennings Bryan

See Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech to the Chicago Democratic Convention

William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) was a Congressman from Nebraska, three-time presidential candidate (1896, 1900, and 1908), and later Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson.

In 1896, Bryan faced an uphill battle as the Democratic and Populist nominee. Democrats had held the White House for the previous four years and were widely blamed for the severe economic depression of 1893. Furthermore, sitting President Grover Cleveland disapproved of Bryan's nomination; many Democrats abandoned the party to form the Gold Democrats, or to vote for McKinley. Bryan--who barely acknowledged his nomination by the Populists--decided the best strategy for Democratic victory was to bring his message to the people by speaking around the country, often from the backs of railroad cars. This was a new tactic, since presidential candidates traditionally stayed home and let others speak on their behalf. It won Bryan both criticism and fame.

The text below is from Great Leaders and National Issues of 1896, published during the campaign. Such biographies were popular, both to introduce candidates to the voters (though socialist and other supposedly "minor" candidates were often ignored) and to offer a model of manly achievement for America's youth. On all sides, such laudatory pieces appeared in newspapers, sometimes side-by-side with bitter editorial attacks and exaggerated caricatures directed against the same men.

Life and Public Services of William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan, of Lincoln, Neb., who is sometimes known as "the Boy Orator of the Platte," is a native of Illinois. He was born in Salem, Marion County, in that State, Muarch 19, 1860. His father, Silas L. Bryan, a native of Culpepper County, Virginia, was a prominent and respected lawyer, who represented his district for eight years in the State Senate....

Early Life

The son entered the Illinois College at Jacksonville in 1878, and completed the classical course, graduating with honors in 1881. He later attended a law school in Chicago, working in the late Lyman Trumbull's law office in order to pay his way through college. He began the practice of his profession at Jacksonville, Ill., but in 1887 he removed to Lincoln, Neb., establishing a law partnership with one of his college classmates. From his earliest years he had a fancy for public speaking, which developed his oratorical powers. In 1880 he won second prize as the representative of Illinois College in the State collegiate oratorical contest. He was valedictorian of his college class, and came within one vote of being elected to the same position in the Law School. From 1880 on he spoke in political campaigns.

His First Political Effort

Bryan supported J. Sterling Morton for Congress in 1888, but the man who was later to be Mr. Cleveland's Secretary of Agriculture was defeated.... Next time, in 1890, Bryan took the nomination and ran against the same Republican who had so badly defeated Mr. Morton. Bryan had much better luck. He challenged his adversary to a series of joint debates, and made so brilliant a showing that he carried the district, which had given the Republicans 3,500 majority two years before, by a majority of 6,700 votes. The fame he gained in the joint debates, of which the tariff was the theme, induced Speaker Crisp to appoint Bryan on the Ways and Means Committee, an honor which few Congressmen have ever won during their first term in the House. On March 12, 1892, he scored his first great oratorical success with a speech on free wool. This deliverance led Mr. Kilgore to declare it the best speech made on the floor of the House for ten years, and Mr. Culberson to remark that it was one of the ablest addresses he had ever listened to, and Mr. Lane to say that it stamped its author as one of the brightest and ablest men in Congress.

[The Bryans' Home]

The Bryans' Home in Lincoln
from Bryan, The First Battle

The reapportionment of 1891 divided Bryan's Congressional District in such a way that it made his canvass in 1892 very difficult. The district was admittedly Republican by a majority of more than 3,000. Bryan went into the work heart and soul, however, and turned the Republican majority into a Democratic plurality of 146.... In August, 1893, when the bill to repeal the Silver Purchase Act was before Congress, Bryan again distinguished himself as a speech-maker. It was said at the time that he made the best showing in the debate of any of the free-silver leaders.... During the past two years, since his defeat for the Senate, Bryan has been lecturing on financial topics in all parts of the country.

William Jennings Bryan
Democratic Candidate for President

from Great Leaders and Issues of 1896

His Personality

He is a man of considerable personal magnetism and fine presence.... He is about 5 feet 10 inches in height, weighs 180 pounds, and has dark hair and dark eyes. His jaw is heavy and square, and he is smooth shaven. His cheekbones are prominent and his forehead square.

He is an exceedingly pleasant talker, and is fond of dealing in well-rounded phrases. His speeches abound with poetry. He is of Irish extraction, but his people have lived in this country for more than a hundred years. In religion he is a Presbyterian, but believes in an entire separation of Church and State. He steadfastly opposes bringing religion into politics or politics into religion. He is a teetotaler.

Mr. Bryan lives well in a commodious dwelling in the fashionable part of Lincoln. The study in which both Mr. and Mrs. Bryan have desks is a very attractive room. It is filled with books, statuary and mementoes of campaigns. There are busts or portraits of noted men....

Bryan in personal appearance is the picture of health, mental, moral, and physical. He is a pronounced brunette, has a massive head, a clean-shaven face, an aquiline nose, square chin, a broad chest, large lustrous dark eyes, a mouth extending almost from ear to ear, teeth as white as chalk, and hair--what there is left of it--black as midnight. Beneath his eyes is the protuberant flesh which physiognomists say is indicative of fluency in language and which was one of the most striking features in the face of James G. Blaine.

[Mrs. Bryan]
The New Road, 26 July, 1896

Mr. and Mrs. Bryan at Home.

Mr. Bryan's wife, who has been a close figure in all his public life, cannot go unmentioned. She was Miss Mary E. Baird, and was the only daughter of a prosperous merchant in Perry, Ill. She has a pure, handsome, thoroughbred face, and is withal a woman of rare mental endowments.

After the birth of her first child Mrs. Bryan began the study of law, with her husband as instructor, taking one course prescribed by the college from which he graduated. She was admitted to the bar in 1888. She never thought to practice. Her only motive was to aid her husband in his life work, and she might be safely credited with at least half of all there is good and honest and successful in the Nebraska man.

Mrs. Bryan has a great liking for politics, and accompanies her husband on many of his Nebraska jaunts. Her tastes are essentially literary and she has written much for various causes. She is a charming woman, and is as great a favorite in Lincoln as her husband. She was one of the organizers of Sorosis, the leading woman's club of Lincoln, and is also a member of the W.C.T.U. and other societies. Mr. Bryan says she is invaluable to him in suggestions and the preparation of material and in advice as to points and methods. His family consists, besides Mrs. Bryan, of Ruth, aged eleven; William J., Jr., aged six, and Grace, aged five. The children are very bright, pretty and well-bred.

Text from Great Leaders and National Issues of 1896

[Bryan Family]
The Bryan Family.
The New Road, 9 August, 1896.

After 1896

Bryan ran for the presidency again in 1900 and 1908; while he stressed many of the same themes, U.S. foreign relations became more important, and Bryan became a leading 'anti-imperialist.' He never won the presidency, but when Woodrow Wilson was elected president in 1912 (after a convention battle blocking Bryan's fourth nomination), Bryan was appointed Secretary of State. He resigned in protest over 'war preparedness,' as Wilson carried the nation into World War I.

In 1925 Bryan faced off in the courtroom against Clarence Darrow in the famous 'Scopes Trial,' held in Dayton, Tennessee. The trial tested whether evolution could be taught in schools, and Bryan represented the views of creationists who supported a literal interpretation of the Biblical creation story. Though Bryan won, the conviction of John Scopes--a Tennessee teacher who had purposely broken the law--was later overturned. Bryan died a week after the trial, still a controversial figure, but now seen as a religious conservative rather than an economic radical.


© 2000, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College