William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), the U.S. congressman from Nebraska, three-time presidential nominee and secretary of state, emerged near the end of the 19th century as a leading voice in the Democratic Party and the nation. A devout Protestant, his populist rhetoric and policies earned him the nickname “the Great Commoner.” In his later years, Bryan campaigned against the teaching of evolution in public schools, culminating with his leading role in the Scopes Trial.
Early Life and Political Career
Bryan was born on March 19, 1860 in the small town of Salem, Illinois. His father, Silas, was a dedicated Jacksonian Democrat and a successful lawyer who served in various local elected positions and passed on his politics to his son. After graduating from Illinois College, Bryan earned a law degree from the Union College of Law in Chicago in 1883. He was admitted to the Illinois bar and began practicing law in Jacksonville, marrying Mary Elizabeth Baird in 1884; the couple went on to have three children.
In 1887, Bryan moved to the fast-growing state of Nebraska, where he settled in Lincoln and established a thriving law practice. At the outset of the 1890s, with drought destroying the livelihoods of many American farmers, the People’s Party (also known as the Populist Party) was growing as a force in U.S. politics by appealing to small farmers, shopkeepers and other less wealthy voters. Elected to the House of Representatives in 1890, when he was just 30 years old, Bryan championed populist causes including the direct election of senators, graduated federal income tax and the “free silver” movement, which sought to expand the federal money supply by basing U.S. currency on silver as well as gold.
‘Cross of Gold’ Speech and Election of 1896
Set off by the collapse of the powerful Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, the Panic of 1893 plunged the nation into a deep economic depression. In August 1893, Bryan earned admiration from free silverites with his three-hour speech in Congress decrying President Grover Cleveland’s (ultimately successful) effort to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 and again tie U.S. currency to the gold standard. After running unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1894, Bryan returned to Nebraska and became editor of the Omaha World-Herald.
In 1896, Bryan captivated the audience at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago with a passionate oration urging his countrymen to stand up for the common man against big business interests and support free silver. To those who cling to the gold standard, he declared in closing: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
The day after his “Cross of Gold” speech, Bryan won the Democratic presidential nomination; he also won the support of the Populist and National Silver parties. He campaigned relentlessly, traveling around the country and giving hundreds of speeches to millions of people, while his Republican opponent, Ohio Governor William McKinley, stayed home and gave speeches from his porch. But McKinley’s victory was fueled by a massive influx of campaign cash from Wall Street bankers and other wealthy business interests, all determined to crush Bryan’s radical brand of populism.
Progressivism and Pacifism
Now among the most famous politicians in the country, Bryan would run twice more for president, losing again to McKinley in 1900 and to William Howard Taft in 1908. Rather than continue the free silver battle, he dedicated himself to opposing American imperialism, which he saw as immoral and undemocratic. He also argued in support of a graduated income tax, antitrust laws and other government regulation of business, women’s suffrage and the prohibition of alcohol. Despite his electoral losses, Bryan continued to exert considerable influence through his fervently religious speeches as well as a weekly magazine, the Commoner.
After Bryan helped rally support behind Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 presidential election, Wilson chose the now-elder Democratic statesman as his secretary of state. Bryan’s pacifist stance put him increasingly at odds with the president, however, and he resigned in 1915 in protest after Wilson sent a second note to Germany demanding an end to submarine warfare after the sinking of the Lusitania, an action Bryan felt went too far toward violating American neutrality.
Anti-Evolution Crusade, Scopes Trial and Death
Though he continued to publicly oppose U.S. involvement in World War I after his resignation, Bryan changed course after the nation entered the conflict in 1917 due to extensive popular support for the war effort. For the last decade of his life, he largely dedicated himself to reforming the nation’s moral and religious character. At the center of these efforts was a campaign to end the teaching of evolution in public schools.
As an evangelical Christian and a believer in the literal interpretation of the Bible, Bryan also saw a grave threat in the application of Charles Darwin’s theory to human society. He argued that children being taught the “survival of the fittest” would in time stop caring about the poor and otherwise needier members of the population. Bryan’s inability to differentiate between social Darwinism and the scientific theory of evolution galvanized his more fundamentalist, religious supporters but earned him the disdain of many others who shared his progressive politics.
In 1925, high school biology teacher John Scopes went on trial in Tennessee as a test of the first state law banning the teaching of evolution. Bryan signed on as chief prosecutor, facing off against the criminal defense attorney Clarence Darrow. The Scopes “monkey trial” in Dayton, Ohio, played out under the national spotlight, with journalists, religious leaders and onlookers crowding the courtroom. After the defense called Bryan himself as an expert on the Bible, Darrow subjected him to a brutal examination in the sweltering courtroom, revealing his lack of theological as well as scientific knowledge.
The jury predictably found Scopes guilty, but Bryan’s performance in the trial, and his thrashing in the national press, marked a less than stellar end to his long career as a public figure. On July 26, 1925, five days after the verdict was issued, Bryan died in his sleep after suffering a stroke. His widow accompanied his body in a special train car to Washington, where he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Jill Lepore. These Truths: A History of the United States. (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018)
“William Jennings Bryan, the ‘Great Commoner.’” Constitutional Rights Foundation, Spring 2010 (Volume 25, No. 3)
Biographies of the Secretaries of State: William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925). Department of State: Office of the Historian.
John Nimick. “Great Commoner Bryan dies in sleep, apoplexy given as cause of death.” UPI Archives, July 27, 1925.