William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan (brī´ən), 1860–1925, American political leader, b. Salem, Ill. Although the nation consistently rejected him for the presidency, it eventually adopted many of the reforms he urged—the graduated federal income tax, popular election of senators, woman suffrage, public knowledge of newspaper ownership, prohibition, federally insured bank deposits, regulation of the stock market, pure food and drug laws, and several others.

Presidential Hopeful

He practiced law at Jacksonville, Ill., and in 1887 he moved to Lincoln, Nebr. Bryan was a U.S. Representative from 1891 to 1895 but was defeated for the U.S. Senate in 1894. The next two years he spent as editor in chief of the Omaha World-Herald. Having ardently identified himself with the free silver forces in Congress, he became their most popular speaker in a preconvention drive to control the Democratic national convention at Chicago in 1896.

At the convention his famous "Cross of Gold" speech so swayed the delegates that his nomination for President was assured, even though he was only 36 years old. The Populist party also nominated him, but the conservative gold Democrats ran John M. Palmer. The chief issue of the campaign was Bryan's proposal for free and unlimited coinage of silver, which he thought would remedy the economic ills then plaguing farmers and industrial workers. He lost the bitterly fought contest to Republican William McKinley, whose campaign was skillfully managed by Marcus A. Hanna.

Bryan controlled the Democratic convention in 1900 and saved the silver plank from removal by Eastern gold factions, but he agreed to put the campaign emphasis on anti-imperialism. Defeated again by McKinley, Bryan in 1901 started the Commoner, a widely read weekly that kept him in the public eye. His reduced party power in 1904 resulted in the compromise nomination of Alton B. Parker, a conservative New Yorker, upon a platform dictated by Bryan. Parker, however, disavowed the silver plank, and Bryan unwillingly acquiesced. Parker's overwhelming defeat by Theodore Roosevelt turned the Democrats again to Bryan, who in 1908 was nominated a third time. Roosevelt's candidate, William H. Taft, defeated him.

Secretary of State

The last Democratic convention in which Bryan played an important role was that of 1912, where his switch to Woodrow Wilson helped gain Wilson the nomination. Upon his election Wilson named Bryan secretary of state. Bryan was influential in holding the Democrats together during the first 18 months of Wilson's administration, when unity was essential to the enactment of the president's reform legislation. He had little previous experience in foreign affairs but studied international questions conscientiously. With some 30 nations he negotiated treaties providing for investigation of all disputes. Antiwar leanings made Bryan more conciliatory than Wilson toward Germany. His Latin American policies, particularly those involving Nicaragua, caused a good deal of friction. Disliking the strong language of the second Lusitania note drafted by Wilson, in which he felt the president had abandoned America's neutral position, Bryan resigned on June 9, 1915, rather than sign it. However, he supported Wilson in the 1916 election and after war was declared.

Later Years and the Scopes Trial

In the 1920 Democratic convention at San Francisco he fought in vain for a prohibition plank, and in 1924 at New York City he supported William G. McAdoo against Alfred E. Smith, but he was no longer the party's leader. In his later years Bryan, a Presbyterian, devoted himself to the defense of fundamentalism. He addressed legislatures urging measures against teaching evolution and appeared for the prosecution in the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee. Although he won the case in the trial court, Bryan's beliefs were subjected to severe ridicule in a searching examination by opposing counsel, Clarence Darrow. Five days after the trial, Bryan died in his sleep.


See the memoirs (1925, repr. 1971), begun by Bryan and finished by his widow; biographies by W. C. Williams (1936), P. W. Glad (1960), P. E. Coletta (3 vol., 1964–69), L. W. Koenig (1971), and W. Kazin (2006); studies by L. W. Levine (1965) and P. W. Glad, ed. (1968).

William Jennings Bryan's brother, Charles Wayland Bryan, 1867–1945, b. Salem, Ill., was for many years W. J. Bryan's political secretary and business agent. He was publisher and associate editor of the Commoner, mayor of Lincoln, Nebr., and governor of Nebraska.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

William Jennings Bryan: Selected full-text books and articles

William Jennings Bryan: Orator of Small-Town America
Donald K. Springen.
Greenwood Press, 1991
William Jennings Bryan
Paolo E. Coletta.
University of Nebraska Press, vol.1, 1964
William Jennings Bryan
Paolo E. Coletta.
University of Nebraska Press, vol.2, 1964
William Jennings Bryan and the Campaign of 1896
George F. Whicher.
Heath, 1953
The Memoirs of William Jennings Bryan
Mary Baird Bryan; William Jennings Bryan.
John C. Winston, 1925
The Cross of Gold: Speech Delivered before the National Democratic Convention at Chicago, July 9, 1896
William Jennings Bryan; Robert W. Cherny.
University of Nebraska Press, 1996
Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion
Edward J. Larson.
Basic Books, 1997
The Creation/Evolution Controversy: A Battle for Cultural Power
Kary Doyle Smout.
Praeger, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Bryan and the Scopes 'Monkey' Trial"
Law and the Great Plains: Essays on the Legal History of the Heartland
John R. Wunder.
Greenwood Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "William Jennings Bryan, Attorney before the Nebraska Supreme Court"
Presidential Campaigns
Paul F. Boller Jr.
Oxford University Press, 1996 (Revised edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Twenty-Eight "1896: Mckinley, Bryan, and Free Silver" and Chap. Thirty-One "1908: Taft's Big Victory over Bryan"
FREE! The World's Famous Orations
William Jennings Bryan; Francis W. Halsey.
Funk and Wagnalls, vol.1, 1906
FREE! The World's Famous Orations
William Jennings Bryan; Francis W. Halsey.
Funk & Wagnalls, vol.2, 1906
FREE! The World's Famous Orations
William Jennings Bryan; Francis W. Halsey.
Funk & Wagnalls, vol.3, 1906
FREE! The World's Famous Orations
William Jennings Bryan; Francis W. Halsey.
Funk & Wagnalls, vol.6, 1906
FREE! The World's Famous Orations
William Jennings Bryan; Francis W. Halsey.
Funk & Wagnalls, vol.8, 1906
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