William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan
WilliamJBryan1902.png
41st United States Secretary of State
In office
March 5, 1913 – June 9, 1915
PresidentWoodrow Wilson
Preceded byPhilander C. Knox
Succeeded byRobert Lansing
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Nebraska's 1st district
In office
March 4, 1891 – March 3, 1895
Preceded byWilliam James Connell
Succeeded byJesse Burr Strode
Personal details
Born(1860-03-19)March 19, 1860
Salem, Illinois, U.S.
DiedJuly 26, 1925(1925-07-26) (aged 65)
Dayton, Tennessee, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Spouse(s)
Mary Baird Bryan (m. 1884–1925)
Children3, including Ruth
EducationIllinois College (BA)
Northwestern University (LLB)
Signature

William Jennings Bryan (March 19, 1860 – July 26, 1925) was an American orator and politician from Nebraska. Beginning in 1896, he emerged as a dominant force in the Democratic Party, standing three times as the party's nominee for President of the United States. He also served in the United States House of Representatives and as the United States Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. Just before his death he gained national attention for attacking the teaching of evolution in the Scopes Trial. Because of his faith in the wisdom of the common people, he was often called "The Great Commoner".[1]

Born and raised in Illinois, Bryan moved to Nebraska in the 1880s. He won election to the House of Representatives in the 1890 elections, serving two terms before making an unsuccessful run for the Senate in 1894. At the 1896 Democratic National Convention, Bryan delivered his "Cross of Gold speech" which attacked the gold standard and the eastern moneyed interests and crusaded for inflationary policies built around the expanded coinage of silver coins. In a repudiation of incumbent President Grover Cleveland and his conservative Bourbon Democrats, the Democratic convention nominated Bryan for president, making Bryan the youngest major party presidential nominee in U.S. history. Subsequently, Bryan was also nominated for president by the left-wing Populist Party, and many Populists would eventually follow Bryan into the Democratic Party. In the intensely fought 1896 presidential election, Republican nominee William McKinley emerged triumphant. Bryan gained fame as an orator as he invented the national stumping tour when he reached an audience of 5 million people in 27 states in 1896.

Bryan retained control of the Democratic Party and won the presidential nomination again in 1900. In the aftermath of the Spanish–American War, Bryan became a fierce opponent of American imperialism, and much of the campaign centered on that issue. In the election, McKinley again defeated Bryan, winning several Western states that Bryan had won in 1896. Bryan's influence in the party weakened after the 1900 election, and the Democrats nominated the conservative Alton B. Parker in the 1904 presidential election. Bryan regained his stature in the party after Parker's resounding defeat by Theodore Roosevelt, and voters from both parties increasingly embraced the progressive reforms that had long been championed by Bryan. Bryan won his party's nomination in the 1908 presidential election, but he was defeated by Roosevelt's chosen successor, William Howard Taft. Along with Henry Clay, Bryan is one of the two individuals since 1804 who received electoral votes in three separate presidential elections but never won a presidential election. The 493 cumulative electoral votes cast for Bryan in those three elections are the most received by a presidential candidate never elected.

After the Democrats won the presidency in the 1912 election, Woodrow Wilson rewarded Bryan's support with the important cabinet position of Secretary of State. Bryan helped Wilson pass several progressive reforms through Congress, but he and Wilson clashed over U.S. neutrality in World War I. Bryan resigned from his post in 1915 after Wilson sent Germany a note of protest in response to the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-Boat. After leaving office, Bryan retained some of his influence within the Democratic Party, but he increasingly devoted himself to religious matters and anti-evolution activism. He opposed Darwinism on religious and humanitarian grounds, most famously in the 1925 Scopes Trial. Since his death in 1925, Bryan has elicited mixed reactions from various commentators, but he is widely considered to have been one of the most influential figures of the Progressive Era.

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[5] Silas served in various local positions and sought election to Congress in 1872, but was narrowly defeated by the Republican candidate.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8] Bryan was home-schooled by his mother until the age of ten. 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.[9] Bryan also devoted himself to oratory, giving public speeches as early as the age of four.[10] At age fifteen, Bryan was sent to attend Whipple Academy, a private school in Jacksonville, Illinois.[11]

A young Bryan

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.[12] He also continued to hone his public speaking skills, taking part in numerous debates and oratorical contests.[13] 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.[14] Bryan and Mary Elizabeth married on October 1, 1884.[15] Mary Elizabeth would emerge as an important part of Bryan's career, managing his correspondence and helping him prepare speeches and articles.[14]

After graduating from college at the top of his class,[12] Bryan studied law at Union Law College (which later became Northwestern University School of Law) in Chicago.[16] 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.[17] After graduating from law school, Bryan returned to Jacksonville to take a position with 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.[18]

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