Bryan, William Jennings

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Bryan, William Jennings

William Jennings Bryan. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
William Jennings Bryan.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

William Jennings Bryan was a prominent figure in U.S. politics during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and is perhaps best known for his role as assistant to the prosecution in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925.

Bryan was born March 19, 1860, in Salem, Illinois. His was a devoutly religious family that prayed together three times a day and stressed strict adherence to a literal interpretation of the Bible. His parents, Silas Lilliard Bryan and Mariah Elizabeth Jennings Bryan, were firm believers in education. His mother schooled Bryan and his siblings in their home until they were old enough to be sent away to school. Bryan was an obedient and well disciplined child who was also idealistic. His favorite subject was math because of its orderly reason and logic. He showed early interest in politics and public speaking, and at the age of twelve delivered a campaign speech for his father, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress. It was the beginning of a distinguished career as an orator for Bryan.

In 1875, Bryan was sent to live in Jacksonville, Illinois, to attend the Whipple Academy and Illinois College. During college, he participated in debate and declamation and excelled at long jumping. He graduated from college in 1881 and went on to Union College of Law, in Chicago. In 1883 he returned to Jacksonville and on July 4 opened a law practice. He married his sweetheart of five years, Mary Elizabeth Baird, on October 1, 1884. Bryan's young wife proved to be an intellectual match for her husband. After the couple settled in Jacksonville, she took classes at Illinois College, a practice unheard of for a married woman at the time. She later studied law under Bryan's instruction, and was admitted to the bar in Nebraska in 1888.

"The humblest citizen of all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error."
—William Jennings Bryan

Bryan had always yearned to go west, to test himself against the frontier. In 1887, he and his wife moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he entered a law partnership with a friend. The Bryans became active in civic affairs, and started separate discussion groups for men and women where the subject was often politics. Bryan also began lecturing on religious topics. In 1890, he succumbed to his interest in politics and entered his first campaign for public office. He was the Democratic candidate for Congress from a staunchly Republican district in Nebraska, but he won the election by a comfortable margin and was reelected in 1892. He made a bid for the Senate in 1894 but was defeated. He then turned to journalism and became editor in chief of the Omaha World-Herald. By this time, he had developed a reputation as a compelling speaker and was in demand for the popular Chautauqua lecture circuit. (The Chautauqua movement combined education with entertainment, often offered outdoors or in a tent; it took its name from the Chautauqua Lake region in New York, where it originated.)

During his campaign for the Senate, Bryan took up the free silver cause, a political movement that advocated the free coinage of silver. Free silver advocates, mainly indebted farmers in the West and South, wanted the government to issue more money, backed by silver, to ease the debts they were unable to repay because of declining farm prices. The money interests in the East favored sound money and the gold standard. These opposing forces clashed in the 1896 presidential campaign. Bryan emerged as the nominee of four parties: the Democratic, Populist, Silver Republican, and National Silver parties. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he made his famous "Cross of Gold" speech, in which he cast himself as a champion of the common person against the forces of the powerful and privileged. He passionately declared that those he referred to as the idle holders of money in Wall Street were responsible for the United States' financial woes.

Bryan campaigned tirelessly, traveling over eighteen thousand miles to deliver his electrifying speeches. In the end, he lost to William McKinley by less than five percent of the popular vote. But the foundation had been laid for his lifelong themes: the people versus the power of wealth, the workers versus the powerful money holders, the farmers versus the industrial interests. These themes echoed throughout his later attempts to win the presidency.

After serving as a colonel in a noncombat position during the Spanish-American War, Bryan ran for president again in 1900, this time on an anti-expansion theme that was rejected by voters. By 1904, he was falling out of favor with Democrats. He waged a long and exhausting fight to be nominated for president that year, but in the end was content that he had at least influenced the party platform enough so that it included nothing he found objectionable. Then the party nominated Alton B. Parker, who promptly announced that he was in favor of a gold standard. Parker lost the election to Theodore Roosevelt. Bryan was bruised by the party's renunciation of his free silver position, but he rebounded and was nominated for president a third time, in 1908. He ran a strong campaign but lost to William Howard Taft.

After the 1908 election, Bryan realized he would never be president. Neverthess, he continued to influence Democratic Party policies, and in 1912 he supported Woodrow Wilson's candidacy for president. After Wilson was elected, he selected Bryan as his Secretary of State, a position Bryan resigned after two years when his pacifist ideas conflicted with Wilson's policies on U.S. involvement in World War I. After Bryan left the cabinet, his political influence declined rapidly.

During his later years Bryan continued his work in the newspaper business and was a popular lecturer on the Chautauqua circuit. He helped gain passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, which ushered in Prohibition, and helped the suffragette movement win the vote for women with passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

During the last few years of his life, Bryan wrote numerous articles on religious topics. He felt that World War I was at least partly caused by a pervasive "godlessness" sweeping the world. To Bryan, this godlessness was nowhere more clearly reflected than in Darwin's theory of the evolution of the species. Bryan traveled around the United States preaching a literal interpretation of the Bible and campaigning for laws that banned the teaching of evolution. One such law, passed in Tennessee, prohibited teachers in state-supported schools and universities from teaching any theory of the origin of human life other than the creation story contained in the Bible. In 1925, a science teacher named John Thomas Scopes violated the law and was brought to trial. Hoping for publicity, the state asked Bryan to join the prosecution. He agreed, and found himself facing clarence darrow, a famous defense attorney who was a self-proclaimed atheist, an opponent of Capital Punishment, and a defender of unpopular causes. The trial quickly took on the air of a circus, with reporters and photographers from all over the world and the first live radio coverage of such an event broadcast by WGN in Chicago. The media cast the proceeding as a contest between science and the Bible. The defense tried to frame the issue as tolerance for new ideas. Ultimately, however, the prosecution persuaded the judge to confine the case to a question of the state's right to control public education.

Sensing that he was losing control of the trial, Darrow decided to try to unravel the state's case by calling Bryan as a witness. He intended to lead Bryan away from the prosecution's carefully framed issue into a defense of fundamental biblical interpretation. Bryan, whose trial experience had been limited, and who was feeling tired and ill, fell into Darrow's trap and was ridiculed and humiliated by the flamboyant attorney's searing and skillful questions. After Bryan's testimony, the trial was abruptly ended, depriving Bryan of the opportunity to answer Darrow's stinging offense. Nevertheless, the jury deliberated a mere eight minutes before returning a guilty verdict.

The Scopes trial was a victory for Bryan and his supporters, but he had been devastated by Darrow. He stayed in Tennessee to finalize and print the speech he had planned to use in closing argument before the court. Five days after the trial ended, on July 26, 1925, while still in Tennessee, Bryan died in his sleep. As a train bearing his body passed through the countryside on its way to Washington, D.C., thousands of the "common people" Bryan had championed gathered to pay their respects. The nation's capital was in official mourning as Bryan lay in state. At his request, he was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, an ironic footnote to the life of a fervent pacifist.

Although Bryan never won the country's top office, he exerted a strong influence during his long career in public service. Many of the reforms he advocated were eventually adopted, such as Income Tax, prohibition, women's suffrage, public disclosure of newspaper ownership, and the election of Senators by popular rather than electoral vote. Although he is most often associated with the Scopes trial, his diligent devotion to the causes in which he believed is his most significant legacy.

Further readings

Anderson, David D. 1981. William Jennings Bryan. Boston: Twayne.

Cherny, Robert W. 1994. A Righteous Cause: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.Koenig, Louis W. 1971. Bryan: A Political Biography of William Jennings Bryan. New York: Putnam.

Cross-references

Scopes Monkey Trial.

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