The American lawyer, editor, and politician William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) was the Democratic party's presidential nominee three times and became secretary of state. Called the "Great Commoner," Bryan advocated an agrarian democracy.
For 30 years William Jennings Bryan was active in American politics, emerging first as a spokesman for those who felt disregarded or slighted by the urban, industrial forces revolutionizing the United States in the period after the Civil War. Giving voice to their values and protests, Bryan advocated measures which he believed would give the people more direct control of the government and would allow the common man more economic advantages. Seeking simple solutions to complex social and economic problems, Bryan talked in pietistic terms: the controversy over coinage was viewed as a struggle between good and evil, not merely between men of conflicting points of view.
Although the increasing industrialization and urbanization of American society and greater United States participation in world affairs made Bryan an anachronism and finally thrust him aside, his attacks helped to focus public attention on serious problems and indirectly led to measures of correction and reform in the early 20th century.
Bryan was born in Salem, Ill. In his middle-class family, great emphasis was placed on religion and morality, not only in one's personal life but in politics and in the conduct of national affairs. After graduating from Illinois College in 1881 and studying for 2 years at Union College of Law in Chicago, he opened a law office in Jacksonville. Shortly afterward he married Mary Baird.
In 1887 Bryan moved to Lincoln, Nebr., practicing law and simultaneously turning toward politics. He won a seat in Congress in 1890 and was reelected in 1892. As a congressman, he was a foe of high tariffs and an exponent of free coinage of silver, both popular positions with Nebraska voters.
In the 1880s and 1890s debtors, farmers, and silver mine owners urged the expansion of the amount of money in circulation in the United States, arguing that more money in circulation would mean better times and that when money was scarce the wealthy benefited at the expense of the less well-to-do. Exponents of silver coinage argued that the Federal government should buy large quantities of silver, issue currency based on silver, and put 16 times as much silver in a silver dollar as the amount of gold in a gold dollar. The movement had a magnetic appeal for those suffering from the agricultural depression of the 1880s and 1890s. Bryan took its rallying cries—"free silver" and "16 to 1"—as his own. A dynamic and dedicated speaker, he toured the country speaking on silver, as well as urging its merits in the Omaha World Herald. Defeated for the Senate in 1894, he had become editor of the paper. Known for his oratory rather than his brilliance or shrewdness, Bryan captured the imagination of small-town and rural people who were bewildered by the changes occurring around them, devastated by the depression of 1893, and angry with President Grover Cleveland's policies toward Coxey's Army and the Homestead strike.
The silver forces, centered chiefly in western and southern states, had virtual control of the Democratic convention of 1896 before it opened in Chicago. Bryan's dramatic "Cross of Gold" speech helped him secure the presidential nomination, and he prosecuted the campaign against former Ohio governor William McKinley with unprecedented vigor. When the Populist party also nominated Bryan, the conservative "Gold Democrats" were alarmed and seceded from their traditional party and nominated another candidate. The campaign was extremely heated. To Bryan the "money men of the East" were agents of evil; to Republicans and conservative Democrats, Bryan was equally abhorrent. Bryan was the first presidential candidate to travel extensively and to use the railroads to take his case to the people.
Bryan lost the election but remained the Democratic party leader and immediately began campaigning for 1900. His activities were varied, designed to keep him before the public eye: he wrote magazine articles, made extensive speaking tours on the Chautauqua circuit, and, with his wife, compiled an account of the 1896 campaign called The First Battle.
When the Spanish-American War began, Bryan enlisted and served briefly, raising a regiment in Nebraska. The paramount issue arising from the war (which the United States won quickly) was whether the country should annex any of the overseas territories Spain had been forced to relinquish—whether the nation should embark on a policy of imperialism, as had most of the other major nations of the world. Bryan, a dedicated anti-imperialist, felt certain that by referendum the people would repudiate any administration that declared for annexation. But he argued for approving the Treaty of Paris ending the war, by which the Spanish would cede Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the United States, saying that the United States should first secure the freedom of the Philippines from Spain and then award them independence when the international situation was more favorable.
Bryan coupled anti-imperialism with free silver as the major issues of the 1900 campaign, in which he again opposed President McKinley and was again defeated. The gradual disappearance of hard times had lessened the appeal of free silver, and the American people were too pleased with the outcome of the Spanish-American War to support anti-imperialism.
Bryan launched a weekly newspaper, the Commoner, in 1901 and kept himself before the public, although many Democratic party leaders considered him a failure as a candidate. Bypassed in 1904 by the Democratic party, Bryan supported the presidential candidacy of conservative Judge Alton B. Parker. Parker and the conservatives did so poorly in the election that Bryan was able to secure the 1908 nomination for himself. Another defeat, this time at the hands of William Howard Taft, ensued, but Bryan remained active in the Democratic party. In 1912 he helped to secure the nomination of Woodrow Wilson for the presidency, and Wilson named the Great Commoner secretary of state in 1913.
Bryan's durability as a political leader stemmed from a number of sources: his control of a party faction, his appeal to the common man and his personification of traditional American values, his identification with a large number of reform issues, his constant and unremitting labor, and the paucity of successful Democratic leaders. In particular, his capacity for pointing out areas of reform turned the public's attention toward problems of trusts and monopolies, paving the way for corrective legislation. Many of the reforms he suggested were carried out, several by President Theodore Roosevelt. Federal income tax, popular election of senators, woman's suffrage, stricter railroad regulation, initiative and referendum provisions, and publicity of campaign contributions were all reforms for which Bryan had worked.
Bryan helped to obtain passage of domestic legislation, most notably the Federal Reserve Act. He strove to master foreign policy, bringing more energy and dedication than insight. He had no experience in foreign policy and had been chosen secretary of state because that was the most important position in the Cabinet. For Latin America he advocated a policy of protection of American business interests, suggesting that more financial intervention by the U.S. government might prevent European influence. He was particularly interested in negotiating arbitration treaties with some 30 countries, for he believed that such treaties would prevent war. He advocated a policy of neutrality in World War I, hoping that the United States might play the role of arbitrator between the opposing sides. Wilson, however, did not follow his advice; in protest over the tone of the President's second note about the sinking of the Lusitania, Bryan resigned in June 1915.
Bryan remained active in politics and also promoted Florida real estate, wrote copiously, and lectured on prohibition. The old-fashioned Protestantism that had made him a hero to many people became more prominent in his thinking even as it became less prevalent in American society; he spoke out for the fundamentalists, even to the point of refusing to condemn the Ku Klux Klan because of their Christian guise. Shortly after he was howled down at the 1924 Democratic convention, he appeared for the prosecution in the Scopes trial in Tennessee, opposing the teaching of theories of evolution in public schools. The naiveté and narrowness of his thinking emerged clearly in this trial, which was Bryan's last appearance in public before his death in 1925.
Books about Bryan, like books by him, are abundant. The most detailed biography is Paolo E. Coletta, William Jennings Bryan: Political Evangelist, 1860-1908 (1964). Louis W. Koenig, Bryan: A Political Biography of William Jennings Bryan (1971), is a useful study. Paul W. Glad, The Trumpet Soundeth: William Jennings Bryan and His Democracy, 1896-1912 (1960), treats the rural context from which Bryan emerged. Glad's McKinley, Bryan and the People (1964) focuses on the election. The last years of Bryan's life are handled skillfully by Lawrence W. Levine, Defender of the Faith: William Jennings Bryan; The Last Decade, 1915-1925 (1965). By far the best brief treatment of Bryan is Richard Hofstadter, "The Democrat as Revivalist," in Paul W. Glad, ed., William Jennings Bryan: A Profile (1968).