Early life and education
Bryan's birthplace in Salem, Illinois
Attorney Mary Baird Bryan, the wife of William Jennings Bryan
William Jennings Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois, on March 19, 1860, to Silas Lillard Bryan and Mariah Elizabeth (Jennings) Bryan. Silas Bryan had been born in 1822 and had established a legal practice in Salem in 1851. He married Mariah, a former student of his at McKendree College, in 1852. Of Scots-Irish and English ancestry,[a] Silas Bryan was an avid Jacksonian Democrat. He won election as a state circuit judge and in 1866 moved his family to a 520-acre (210.4 ha) farm north of Salem, living in a ten-room house that was the envy of Marion County. Silas served in various local positions and sought election to Congress in 1872, but was narrowly defeated by the Republican candidate. An admirer of Andrew Jackson and Stephen A. Douglas, Silas passed on his Democratic affiliation to his son, William, who would remain a life-long Democrat.
Bryan was the fourth child of Silas and Mariah, but all three of his older siblings died during infancy. Bryan also had five younger siblings, four of whom lived to adulthood. Bryan was home-schooled by his mother until the age of ten. Demonstrating a precocious talent for oratory, Byran gave public speeches as early as the age of four. Silas was a Baptist and Mariah was a Methodist, but Bryan's parents allowed him to choose his own church. At age fourteen, Bryan had a conversion experience at a revival. He said it was the most important day of his life. At age fifteen, Bryan was sent to attend Whipple Academy, a private school in Jacksonville, Illinois.
After graduating from Whipple Academy, Bryan entered Illinois College, which was also located in Jacksonville. During his time at Illinois College, Bryan served as chaplain of the Sigma Pi literary society. He also continued to hone his public speaking skills, taking part in numerous debates and oratorical contests. In 1879, while still in college, Bryan met Mary Elizabeth Baird, the daughter of an owner of a nearby general store and began courting her. Bryan and Mary Elizabeth married on October 1, 1884. Mary Elizabeth would emerge as an important part of Bryan's career, managing his correspondence and helping him prepare speeches and articles.
After graduating from college at the top of his class, Bryan studied law at Union Law College (which later became Northwestern University School of Law) in Chicago. While attending law school, Bryan worked for attorney Lyman Trumbull, a former senator and friend of Silas Bryan's who would serve as an important political ally to the younger Bryan until his death in 1896. After graduating from law school, Bryan returned to Jacksonville to take a position with a local law firm. Frustrated by the lack of political and economic opportunities in Jacksonville, in 1887 Bryan and his wife moved west to Lincoln, the capital of the fast-growing state of Nebraska.