William Jennings Bryan
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....
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 in Lincoln
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.
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.
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