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William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan

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.

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

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 in Lincoln, from Bryan, The First Battle

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.

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.

—Text from Great Leaders and National Issues of 1896

Mrs. Bryan at Home

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

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

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.

© Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press

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Major events of the campaign,
in cartoon and story. (Click date)

  • Feb 27: People’s Advocate: Reading Tillman's Speech
  • Mar 19: People’s Advocate: Pitchfork
  • Apr 4: The Ram’s Horn: Rescued
  • Apr 15: Sound Money: History Repeats Itself
  • Apr 25: The Ram’s Horn: The Stranger at Our Gate
  • May 28: Prohibitionist’s convention, Pittsburgh, PA
  • June 16: Republican convention, St. Louis, MO
  • June 21: Denver New Road: Cleveland's Romance
  • June 28: L.A. Times: Bucking a Wall
  • July 4: Socialist convention, New York, NY
  • July 11: Democratic convention, Chicago, Illinois
  • July 9: Rocky Mountain News: A Soliloquy
  • July 11: Harper’s Weekly: Gold Bugs
  • July 12: L.A. Times: The Old Lady and Her New Wheel
  • July 16: People’s Advocate: McKinley's Evil Sprit
  • July 18: Harper’s Weekly: Altgeld and Bryan
  • July 22: Silver convention, St. Louis, MO
  • July 25: People’s Party convention, St. Louis, MO
  • July 22: Rocky Mountain News: Wall Street's Private Studio
  • July 25: Harper’s Weekly: Farmer McKinley
  • July 25: Judge: The Silver Candle
  • July 27: Chicago Record: Bryan's Tightrope
  • Aug 5: Rocky Mountain News: The Plain English of It
  • Aug 6: Sound Money: Spain and Rothschilds
  • Aug 8: McKinley accepts Republican nomination
  • Aug 9: Denver New Road: Bryan's Romance
  • Aug 12: Bryan accepts Democratic nomination
  • Aug 13: American Non-Conformist: Farmer Hanna
  • Aug 15: Rocky Mountain News: Bryan the Lion
  • Aug 16: L.A. Times: Aesop's Fox
  • Aug 18: Rocky Mountain News: Hanna the Wizard
  • Aug 20: Sound Money: The Cross of Gold
  • Aug 20: L.A. Times: Popocratic Witches
  • Aug 22: The Ram’s Horn: A Double Burden
  • Aug 29: Harper’s Weekly: McKinley the Veteran
  • Aug 29: Labor Advocate: Look at This
  • Aug 30: St. Louis Globe Democrat: Dime Museum
  • Sept 2: National (Gold) Democratic convention, Indianapolis, IN
  • Sept to Nov 1: McKinley front-porch campaign, Canton, OH
  • Sept 3: New York Journal: Li Hung Chang
  • Sept 5: Harper’s Weekly: The Crown of Thorns
  • Sept 5: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Just the Bare Facts
  • Sept 6: L.A. Times: Comrades in Arms
  • Sept 6: St. Paul Pioneer Press: A Bryan Dollar
  • Sept 8: Early election day in Arkansas and Vermont
  • Sept 9: Rocky Mountain News: John Bull
  • Sept 10: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Arkansas and Vermont
  • Sept 11 to Nov 1: Bryan travels 13,000 miles by train, stump-speaking around the nation.
  • Sept 11: St. Paul Pioneer Press: The Divorcee
  • Sept 11: St. Louis Globe Democrat: Uncle Sam Diagnoses
  • Sept 12: Labor Advocate: Their Argument Misses Fire
  • Sept 12: The Ram’s Horn: Building Up His Business
  • Sept 12: Harper’s Weekly: Populist Supreme Court
  • Sept 12: New York Journal: Hanna's Funds
  • Sept 13: Boston Globe: The Silver Dog
  • Sept 13: L.A. Times: Uncle Sam's Circus
  • Sept 14: L.A. Times: Populist Pandora
  • Sept 14: Rocky Mountain News: Playing Upon a Single String
  • Sept 17: Rocky Mountain News: Chinese Immigration
  • Sept 18: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Against Turkey
  • Sept 18: Rocky Mountain News: A Horrible Suspicion
  • Sept 19: Judge: Bryan's Cross
  • Sept 19: Labor Advocate: How They Love The Farmers
  • Sept 19: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Election-Year Friend
  • Sept 20: Boston Globe: Writ of Replevin'
  • Sept 20: L.A. Times: Populist Delilah
  • Sept 20: L’Abeille de Nouvelle Orleans: The Sultan Laughs
  • Sept 20: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: John Bull's Theft
  • Sept 21: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: The Robber And His Victim
  • Sept 24: L.A. Times: Resurrecting Secession
  • Sept 24: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Treachery
  • Sept 25: Daily Inter-Ocean: Democratic Jonah
  • Sept 26: Harper’s Weekly: Silver Bullfight
  • Sept 26: L.A. Times: For Sale
  • Sept 26: National Reflector: Rings On The Hog
  • Sept 26: Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Bicyclist Bryan
  • Sept 29: L.A. Times: Poor Circulation
  • Oct 1: Pioneer Press: Silver Trust Hog
  • Oct 3: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Workingman's Friend
  • Oct 4: Raleigh New and Observer: Hanna and Dixon
  • Oct 6: Election Day in the state of Florida (not all states voted on the first Tuesday in Nov).
  • Oct 6: Chicago Times: X-Ray of Bryan's Brain
  • Oct 6: Pioneer Press: Silver Conversation
  • Oct 6: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Florida's Lifeline
  • Oct 8: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Democratic Florida
  • Oct 8: New York Journal: Confident Hanna
  • Oct 10: Harper’s Weekly: Three Witches
  • Oct 10: The Coming Nation: The Worker's Treadmill
  • Oct 11: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Resurrection
  • Oct 13: New York Journal: Hanna and Workers
  • Oct 13: St. Louis Globe Democrat: Bryan as Jack Cade
  • Oct 13: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: The Gold Balloon
  • Oct 15: Coxey's Sound Money: Uncle Sam Enslaved
  • Oct 15: Rocky Mountain News: Elected McKinley
  • Oct 16: Boston Globe: Bryan the Salesman
  • Oct 17: Coming Nation: Labor Exploitation
  • Oct 20: L.A. Times: Burning Cross of Gold
  • Oct 21: The Coming Nation: Socialism
  • Oct 22: Sound Money: The Old Party Scale
  • Oct 22: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Hanna's Crown of Thorns
  • Oct 24: Harper’s Weekly: Altgeld and Guiteau
  • Oct 25: Daily Inter-Ocean: Bryan's Balloon
  • Oct 25: Omaha World Herald: Getting Women to Register
  • Oct 27: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Hanna, Trusts, and Morgan
  • Oct 28: Puck: A New Civil War
  • Oct 30: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Hanna in Lehigh Valley
  • Oct 31: Republicans announce “Flag Day,” then argue with Democrats and Populists over meaning of the flag
  • Oct 31: Harper’s Weekly: Democratic Wind-Up Toys
  • Oct 31: New York Journal: Buncombe Brigade
  • Oct 31: The Ram’s Horn: Ignorance, Stupidity, and Fraud
  • Nov 2: McKinley wins presidential election
  • Nov 2: L.A. Times: Clown Bryan
  • Nov 4: L’Abeille de Nouvelle Orleans: Knock-Out Punch
  • Nov 4: St. Paul Pioneer Press: Elephant on the Silver Pillow
  • Nov 5: Sound Money: Prediction for 1900
  • Nov 14: Judge: Republican Tam O'Shanter
  • Nov 14: Coming Nation: Our Farmers Situation
  • Dec: Overland Monthly: Uncle Sam Looks Abroad
New Spirits
New Spirits
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