Bryan, William Jennings

views updated May 29 2018

William Jennings Bryan

Born March 19, 1860 (Salem, Illinois)
Died July 26, 1925 (Dayton, Ohio)

Lawyer and politician

"[It is] better to trust in the Rock of Ages [Christianity] than to learn the ages or rocks."

During his long career in law and politics, including three unsuccessful bids for the presidency, William Jennings Bryan gained fame for both his speech-making skills and his passion for social reform. Nicknamed "The Great Commoner" due to his lifelong dedication to ordinary U.S. citizens, Bryan was also a religious fundamentalist (a very conservative kind of Christian who believes that the stories found in the Bible are literally true, not just illustrations or myths). In 1925 Bryan waged the final battle of his life when he took part in the famous Monkey Trial. The case involved Tennessee schoolteacher John Scopes, who had been charged with breaking a law that had prohibited the teaching of the scientific theory of evolution in public schools. As part of the team that prosecuted Scopes, Bryan stood for traditional values in a trial that pitted the ways of the past against the ideas and beliefs of the modern world.

A strict upbringing

Born in Salem, Illinois, in 1860, Bryan was the oldest son of Silas Bryan, a prosperous Illinois farmer and judge, and his wife, Mariah. Like all of the couple's eight children,

Bryan was taught at home by his mother until he turned ten. During his early years he developed strong study habits and the sturdy Christianity of his parents. The elder Bryans were strict about behavior and religion, emphasizing frequent prayer and Bible reading. Young William idolized his father, who told him that a man could do the most good in the world as either a minister or a government leader.

At Illinois College Bryan studied the classics (such as works by the ancient Greek author Homer), mathematics, and U.S. history, nurturing a strong belief in democracy as the best of all possible political systems. He excelled in his studies and especially as a debater. In fact, the handsome and intelligent young man was chosen to be class orator (speech-maker) and served as vice president of his junior class. It was in college that Bryan began to form and express some of the passionate views he would continue to hold on many issues of the period. These included support for Prohibition (a proposed ban on alcoholic beverages that would become law with the 1919 passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) and women's suffrage (the right to vote, which would be granted with the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920).

A promising young lawyer

Bryan graduated in 1881. The year before, he had become engaged to Mary Baird of Jacksonville, Illinois. When his father died, Bryan's future seemed unclear, but his family decided that he should attend law school as planned. He entered Union College of Law in Chicago, where he spent two years. During that time he began to make political speeches. When he finished law school in 1883, Bryan went to work for the law firm of Kirby, Brown & Russell in Jacksonville. Within a year he had become successful enough to marry his fiance´e. After a four-year wait, the couple wed in 1884. Over the next few years, their children Ruth and William Jr. were born.

As a young lawyer, Bryan became involved in many community activities, including playing softball with a team of attorneys, attending church and temperance meetings (the movement to get people to stop drinking alcohol), and working on local elections. Busy and absorbed in his work, Bryan paid little attention to his health and developed poor eating habits. He was eventually diagnosed with diabetes (a serious disease in which the body does not produce enough insulin, which is necessary for processing sugar, starch, and other carbohydrates).

In 1887 Bryan decided to move to Lincoln, Nebraska. He saw Nebraska, which had been a state for only twenty years, as a land of opportunity. Opening a law firm with an old friend, Bryan was soon prospering as an attorney. In three years he won all but one of his cases. He also took advantage of the chance to get involved in politics. Even though Bryan was a member of the Democratic political party and Nebraska had always been dominated by Republicans, Bryan managed in 1890 to win election to the U.S. House of Representatives. He moved his family to Washington, D.C., in 1892.

A progressive member of Congress

As a member of Congress, Bryan became a champion of the poor, farmers, the working class, and small-business owners, whose interests were often overlooked, he felt, in favor of the more privileged members of society. Bryan would become one of the leaders of the Progressive Era (which lasted from about 1900 to about 1914), during which a variety of reformers, people who believe that society needs improvement, spoke out on a number of proposed reforms. For Bryan, these included Prohibition, women's suffrage, the popular election of senators, the establishment of the Department of Labor, and consumer protection and child labor laws. Through his extraordinary ability to capture and hold listeners' attention, despite his relative youth, he earned the nickname "the Boy Orator of the Platte" (the Platte is a major river in Nebraska).

An issue that was of special importance to Bryan was that of the gold standard. The United States guaranteed its paper money with reserves of gold, but most of the other governments of the world used both gold and silver. This made trade between nations more complicated. While U.S. gold-mine owners and other business leaders fought to keep the gold standard, Bryan argued that there was not enough gold available to support all of the world's money. He felt that if the United States switched to the same combined gold and silver standard used elsewhere, trade would improve and the economy would be strengthened. One of Bryan's crowning moments came when, at the Democratic National Convention in 1896, he made his famous "cross of gold" speech, which ended on a dramatic note: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

Presidential candidate and cabinet member

Bryan won a second term in Congress but was defeated when he ran for a third term. He then became editor of an Omaha, Nebraska, newspaper, the World Herald. In 1896, however, Bryan was nominated as the Democratic candidate in the presidential election. Running against the Republican nominee, William McKinley (1843–1901), Bryan campaigned vigorously. He made six hundred speeches in twenty-nine states, but the Republicans succeeded in portraying him as a radical with revolutionary ideas. Although he won 6.5 million votes out of a total of 14 million cast, Bryan lost the election. He ran for president again in 1900 and 1908 but was defeated each time.

For the next few years, Bryan remained active in Democratic Party activities, often voicing his populist (those who try to represent the views of ordinary people) opposition to special favors for the wealthy and powerful. He founded a newspaper called The Commoner, in which many of the concerns of the Progressive Era were highlighted. Bryan soon gained a new nickname: "The Great Commoner."

In 1913 another Progressive Era leader, Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21), was elected president. The threat of war loomed in Europe, where Germany was seeking to gain territory, but Wilson vowed to keep the United States out of the conflict. Wilson appointed Bryan—who shared many of his ideals, including an antiwar stance—secretary of state, the member of the president's cabinet (made up of heads of various government departments) who is in charge of foreign relations.

Then, in April 1917, the British merchant ship Lusitania was struck by German missiles, killing more than one hundred U.S. citizens. Wilson felt he had to respond with protests to Germany. It gradually became clear that the United States was going to enter World War I, and Bryan wanted no part of it. He resigned his position, although he did support the U.S. war effort once the country became involved in the conflict. Bryan moved to Florida in 1920 and, though he was no longer involved in politics, remained active in the Democratic Party.

Religious and scientific beliefs clash

The year 1859 saw the publication of a controversial book that would cause a cultural divide, especially in the United States. In On the Origin of Species, naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882) proposed the scientific theory of evolution, which traced the development of human beings and other living things over millions of years. Darwin's suggestion that human beings shared some common origins with other primates (a category that includes monkeys, apes, and humans) was wrongly interpreted as meaning that people were directly descended from monkeys.

Like other scientific discoveries and theories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Darwin's ideas were embraced by some and rejected by others. Religious fundamentalists were especially offended at the proposal of any other origin for human beings than the one described in the Bible, in which God made the world and all of its creatures in seven days, and in which Adam and Eve were the first humans. Those who believed in this story of the so-called "Divine Creation" were known as creationists, and Bryan was one of them.

In fact, Bryan was a major voice for the creationist movement, whose followers wanted to safeguard the values they believed formed the basis of U.S. civilization. They feared that the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools would cause young people to abandon the religion that had always guided the nation's people, and that society would soon fall into moral decay. Bryan became heavily involved in the effort to uphold the value of faith over science by passing laws to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools.

The teaching of evolution is outlawed in Tennessee

In 1920 Bryan published a widely distributed pamphlet titled The Menace of Darwinism, in which he attacked evolutionary theory as a threat to the religious foundations of U.S. society and education. Two years later he declared in a speech as quoted in L. Sprague DeCamp's The Great Monkey Case that it was "better to trust in the Rock of Ages [Christianity] than to learn the ages of rocks." Bryan's fundamentalist fervor struck a chord with those who shared his discomfort with the new ideas and values that were transforming society.

Creationism Still Attracts Believers

In the decades following the Scopes trial, the debate over evolution theory versus creationism died down somewhat. A new book published in 1961, however, created a ripple of controversy for its strict creationist account of humanity's origin. In The Genesis Flood, John Whitcomb and Henry Morris asserted that the Earth was just ten thousand years old and that after its formation, God had taken six days to create all plants, animals, and human beings. They claimed that humans and dinosaurs had lived on Earth at the same time, and that fossil remains may be explained as resulting from mass deaths caused by the great flood described in the Bible.

About a decade later, a small group of fundamentalists convinced the California Board of Education that creationism should be taught in public schools along with evolution theory, on the grounds that students had a right to hear alternative arguments about the subject. This victory was particularly significant in that California's school system, the largest in the nation, had a major impact on the textbook publishing industry. In 1972 the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, groups that had not previously considered creationism worth commenting on, issued statements denouncing it.

More recently, the theory of intelligent design has gained ground as a version of creationism adapted to the contemporary world. Proponents of this idea hold that the very complexity of the universe is proof that it must have been designed by some divine, guiding force. They continue to actively push for public schools to teach the Biblical version of creation along with the scientific one.

In early 1925 the state of Tennessee passed the Butler Act, which made it illegal to teach any theory of human origin that went against the biblical story of creation. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) immediately offered to assist any Tennessee teacher who wished to challenge the law. A group of citizens in Dayton, who disagreed with the law—and also wanted to bring some attention to their small town, recruited a high school biology teacher named John Scopes—who agreed to get himself arrested so that the law could be tested and perhaps overturned.

The Monkey Trial begins

In April Scopes delivered a lesson on evolution to his students and was arrested and charged with violating the Butler Act. The trial was set to begin on July 10. Now sixtyfive years old, Bryan quickly offered to help prosecute Scopes, convinced that his status as a lawyer and fundamentalist crusader would help achieve a guilty verdict. Hearing of Bryan's involvement, defense attorney Clarence Darrow (1857–1938; see entry), himself nationally famous for his successful defense of underdog clients, offered to lead the defense team.

Darrow no doubt sensed the importance of this trial. He believed that its central issue was the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech, which had been violated by the Tennessee law. Ironically, Darrow had previously worked on many of the same reform causes as Bryan, and he had supported Bryan in his bids for the presidency.

The case drew national attention, especially since the trial was attended by print reporters from all over the country; it was also the first court case to be broadcast on the new medium of radio. As the court date approached, Dayton was overrun by a carnival-like atmosphere, with food and drink vendors setting up stands, souvenir sellers hawking stuffed monkeys (the event had already been nicknamed the "Monkey Trial"), and streetcorner preachers shouting to passersby.

Bryan added further excitement to the scene with his dramatic arrival, stepping down from his train to cheers from a crowd of several hundred admirers. For several days he was often seen wandering around town, munching on radishes (one of his favorite foods) and making speeches wherever and whenever he could. Early in the trial, Bryan delivered a seventyminute attack on evolutionary theory that, while full of his usual passion, seemed somewhat vague and intellectually shallow to some observers. One of these was H.L. Mencken (1880–1956; see entry), the famously acid-tongued journalist from the Baltimore Sun, who was on hand to cover the trial.

Bryan called as a witness

From the beginning there was no doubt that Scopes had broken the law. Darrow's plan was to expose the law

as unconstitutional. He intended to present expert witnesses (such as scientists who were also Christians) to show that religious faith was not necessarily incompatible with a belief in the theory of evolution. Eventually, though, the judge ruled that this testimony was irrelevant, because it had nothing to with whether Scopes had violated the Butler Act.

In desperation, Darrow made a bold move: He called Bryan himself to the witness stand. Bryan's fellow prosecutors urged him to refuse, but Bryan readily agreed to take the stand. This was probably a mistake, for what followed was a confrontation that left Bryan looking foolish.

For ninety minutes, Darrow grilled Bryan on his religious beliefs. He asked whether biblical stories like that of Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale and survived in its stomach for three days, could be literally true. Bryan replied that they could, but then Darrow asked if it was true that God had made the world in only seven days. Bryan said that these may not have been twenty-four-hour days, but rather periods of time. It was this admission that proved most damaging to the fundamentalist cause, which had always centered on the belief that everything in the Bible was literally true.

The exchange ended with Bryan objecting to what he considered Darrow's slurs against the Bible. Darrow replied with his own objection, stating: "I am examining you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes."

The battle ends

It seemed that Bryan had lost some ground after testifying, but he nevertheless prepared to make a grand closing statement. He intended to use his considerable powers of persuasion to dazzle his listeners and convince any doubters of the wisdom of his stance. Bryan, however, never got a chance to make his speech. The defense team had no intention of allowing Bryan such an opportunity, so they declined to make a closing statement; under Tennessee law, this prevented the prosecution from making a closing statement as well. Further, Darrow asked the jury to find Scopes guilty so that the defense could appeal the case to a higher court. The judge agreed, pronouncing Scopes guilty and fining him one hundred dollars for violating the law. The trial was over.

Despite the court decision, it was generally agreed that Darrow had won a moral victory, making a strong case for the right of educators to share new ideas with their students and exposing the fundamentalists as backward. The creationist cause, on the other hand, had been damaged by Bryan's rather befuddled testimony. The debate over the religious and scientific views of the evolution of human beings was not over, however, and in fact still continues in the twenty-first century.

Having lost the opportunity to deliver what could have been the speech of his life, Bryan spent the two days following the trial dictating his statement to his secretary, with plans to get it published. On July 25, five days after the trial had ended, Bryan attended church, had lunch with his wife, and lay down for a nap. He never awoke. His doctor said that the cause of death was diabetes, no doubt made worse by the fatigue brought on by the stress of the trial. The inscription on Bryan's tombstone characterized well the final battle of his life: "He Kept the Faith."

For More Information


Anderson, David D. William Jennings Bryan. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Cheney, Robert W. A Righteous Cause: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985.

Coletta, Paolo E. William Jennings Bryan—Political Evangelist, 1860–1908. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964.

De Camp, L. Sprague. The Great Monkey Trial. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968.

Dumenil, Lynn. The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.

Ginger, Ray. Six Days or Forever: Tennessee Versus John Thomas Scopes. Chicago, IL: Quadrangle Books, 1969.

Hanson, Erica. The 1920s. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1999.

Larson, Edward J. Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Creation and Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Levine, Lawrence W. Defender of the Faith. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Miller, Nathan. New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America. New York: Scribner, 2003.

Perret, Geoffrey. America in the Twenties. New York: Touchstone, 1982.

Tompkins, Jerry R., ed. D-Days at Dayton: Reflections on the Scopes Trial. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965.

Web Sites

"Famous Trials in American History: Tennessee Versus John Scopes, the Monkey Trial." Famous Trials by Doug Linder Available online at Accessed on June 21, 2005.

Bryan, William Jennings

views updated May 09 2018

William Jennings Bryan

Undelivered Closing Statement from the Scopes Trial
Published in 1925

The 1920s was a period of great change in the United States, and the changes made some people uncomfortable. The clash between traditional values, especially religious fundamentalism (a strict form of Christianity based on the belief that the events in the Bible are true, rather than stories told to illustrate moral lessons), and modern trends was perhaps never more apparent than during the Scopes trial. This widely publicized, much discussed courtroom drama took place in the summer of 1925. It featured two figures already famous in public life: Chicago defense attorney Clarence Darrow (1857–1938) and longtime political leader William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925). In fact, the man who gave his name to the trial, defendant John Scopes, seemed to play only a minor role.

The Scopes trial began with the passage of Tennessee's Butler Act in January 1925. People who disapproved of the theory of evolution passed the law. This idea was closely associated with the work of naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882), who outlined the progressive development of human beings and other species over millions of years. The Butler Act made it

illegal to teach in public schools any theory that contradicted the story of divine creation found in the Bible. This is the theory of human origin upheld by creationists (people who believe that all living things were created by God and not through evolution). Between 1921 and 1929, thirty-seven bills similar to the Butler Act were introduced in twenty states.

Soon after the passage of the Butler Act, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered to assist any Tennessee teacher willing to go to court to test the constitutionality of the act (that is, whether it would be found acceptable under the rules set down in the U.S. Constitution). Urged on by several friends, who disapproved of the law and wanted to bring some attention to their small town, high school science teacher John Scopes accepted the ACLU's offer. Scopes was not even his high school's regular biology teacher; in the spring of 1925, he was substituting for another teacher. In any case, using the same textbook that had been used by the school district before the passage of the new law, Scopes gave his students a lesson on Darwin's theory of evolution. Two weeks later he was arrested and charged with violating the Butler Act.

The case almost immediately attracted nationwide attention, as many people realized its social and legal importance. The prosecutors accepted an offer of assistance from William Jennings Bryan, a former Nebraska congressman, secretary of state, three-time unsuccessful presidential candidate, and devoted fundamentalist (a person who believes the Bible is a complete and accurate historical record). Hearing that Bryan would be involved, the well-known attorney Clarence Darrow volunteered his own services to the defense team. Along with a host of reporters from newspapers around the country, the key players gathered in Dayton during a week of sweltering July heat.

The courtroom proceeding that would come to be known as the "Monkey Trial" (in reference to Darwin's theory about the common ancestors of primates and humans) opened on July 12. Rather than defending Scopes, who openly admitted to violating the law, Darrow planned to prove that the Butler Act was unconstitutional. He never got a chance, failing in his attempt to bring in scientists as expert witnesses to show that there need be no contradiction between religious faith and belief in scientific truths. On July 17 the judge ruled that the expert opinions were not relevant to the question at hand, whether Scopes had broken the law, and were thus inadmissible.

Disappointed and desperate, Darrow decided to put Bryan himself on the witness stand as an expert on the Bible. Despite the objections of the other prosecutors, Bryan readily agreed. Darrow then spent an hour and a half grilling Bryan about his religious beliefs. The exchange made Bryan look foolish, confused, and intellectually shallow.

The following excerpt is from a closing statement that Bryan hoped to make. He was denied the opportunity because Darrow's team chose not to make a closing statement. In the end, in fact, the defense asked the jury to find Scopes guilty so that they could appeal the case to a higher court. The jury obliged, taking only nine minutes to reach a guilty verdict. Scopes was fined one hundred dollars.

Things to remember while reading this excerpt from Bryan's closing statement …

The Scopes trial highlighted the 1920s conflict between old and new, between traditional beliefs and values and the modern world, where science seemed to be more influential than religion. Ironically, the man who represented the fundamentalist viewpoint had spent his whole career as a champion of progressivism (the belief that society can and should be changed for the better). William Jennings Bryan had long fought for such liberal reforms as outlawing child labor, regulating businesses, and giving women the right to vote.

According to historian Lynn Dumenil in The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s, the Scopes trial was significant because, "despite the image of the roaring twenties and the media hype surrounding the trial, it suggests that religion was a deeply contested issue that mattered to millions of Americans."

The struggle between creationism and evolution continues to this day. In recent decades, defenders of the biblical approach to humanity's origins have argued that creationism should be given equal status with evolutionary theory in the

Charles Darwin's Controversial Theory of Evolution

The conflict between traditional and modern beliefs about the origin of the human species may have come to a head in the Scopes trial, but it began long before the Roaring Twenties. An influential nineteenth-century book by a British scientist provided the original spark for the controversy.

Born in 1809, Charles Darwin studied medicine as a young man but had a passion for collecting plant, animal, and geological specimens, or samples. Offered a position as a biologist on a surveying mission aboard the British navy ship HMS Beagle, Darwin spent the years 1831 to 1836 traveling South America and the islands of the South Pacific. His job was to take samples and study new plants, animals, and geological formations that the mission came across. The materials he collected provided him with the foundation for his life's work.

In 1858 Darwin published a paper and, the next year, a bestselling book titled On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection. In it Darwin detailed his theory that different animals could have descended, or evolved, from common ancestors. He proposed that changes in species took place over millions of years and were the result of what Darwin called "natural selection," also known as survival of the fittest. For example, a chameleon has the ability to change its skin coloring to blend into its environment, making it less visible to predators. Darwin believed that survival traits like these developed gradually and were passed on to succeeding generations.

In a later work, The Descent of Man, and the Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Darwin proposed that human beings had evolved from an animal closely related to the ancestors of such primates as the chimpanzee and the gorilla. This came to be referred to as the theory of evolution. Some people incorrectly interpreted this to mean that human beings were directly descended from monkeys or apes.

Darwin's theories generated much controversy, particularly in religious communities. Religious leaders condemned the theories as heretical. Christians believe that the stories told in the Bible, such as that of Adam and Eve being made by God as the first human beings, are true. Darwin's proposal that humans evolved over millions of years challenged many religions' faith that God created man. This belief came to be called Creationism. Religious leaders also feared that acceptance of Darwin's theories would result in people's denial of God.

Many scientists, though at first skeptical, gradually came to accept Darwin's theories. But the Scopes trial, which took place at a time when traditional values seemed in danger of extinction, demonstrated lingering resistance to the scientific explanation of evolution. The debate over evolution and Creationism continues into the twenty-first century, with some schools demanding that evolution be removed from classroom teachings or insisting that Creationism be taught alongside Darwin's theory.

classroom. Opponents assert that creationism has no place in public education because it is a religious belief, while evolution is a science.

Excerpt from undelivered closing statement from the Scopes trial

Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moralrudders for the control of storm tossed human vessel. It not only fails to supply the spiritual element needed but some of its unprovenhypotheses rob the ship of its compass and thus endangers its cargo. In war, science has proven itself an evil genius; it has made war more terrible than it ever was before. Man used to be content to slaughter his fellowmen on a single plane—the earth's surface. Science has taught him to go down into the water and shoot up from below and to go up into the clouds and shoot down from above, thus making the battlefield three times a bloody as it was before; but science does not teach brotherly love. Science has made war so hellish that civilization was about to commit suicide; and now we are told that newly discovered instruments of destruction will make the cruelties of the late war seem trivial in comparison with the cruelties of wars that may come in the future. If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowlyNazarene . His teachings, and His teachings, alone, can solve the problems thatvex heart and perplex the world.

It is for the jury to determine whether this attack upon the Christian religion shall be permitted in the public schools of Tennessee by teachers employed by the state and paid out of the public treasury. This case is no longer local, the defendant ceases to play an important part. The case has assumed the proportions of a battle-royal between unbelief that attempts to speak through so-called science and the defenders of the Christian faith, speaking through the legislators of Tennessee. It is again a choice between God andBaal ; it is also a renewal of the issue in Pilate 's court.

Again force and love meet face to face, and the question, "What shall I do with Jesus?" must be answered. A bloody, brutal doctrine—Evolution—demands, as therabble did nineteen hundred years ago, that He be crucified. That cannot be the answer of this jury representing a Christian state and sworn to uphold the laws of Tennessee. Your answer will be heard throughout the world; it is eagerly awaited by a prayingmultitude . If the law isnullified , there will be rejoice wherever God isrepudiated , the saviorscoffed at and the Bible ridiculed. Every unbeliever of every kind and degree will be happy. If, on the other hand, the law is upheld and the religion of the school children protected, millions of Christians will call you blessed and, with hearts full of gratitude to God, will sing again that grand old song of triumph: "Faith of our fathers, living still, In spite of dungeon, fire and sword;O how our hearts beat high with joy Whene'er we hear that glorious word—Faith of our fathers—Holy faith; We will be true to thee till death!"

What happened next …

Despite the guilty verdict, public opinion declared Darrow the trial's winner. Bryan died in his sleep only five days after the end of the trial, suggesting to many that the stress of the event and especially his ordeal on the witness stand had taken a heavy toll on his health. Darrow went on to achieve more courtroom victories before his death in 1938. Scopes left Tennessee to attend graduate school and, after becoming a geologist, never returned. In 1927 the Tennessee State Supreme Court overturned the Scopes verdict on a legal technicality (the lower court judge had not had the authority to impose a fine). The Supreme Court did not, however, find the Butler Act unconstitutional, and it remained in effect in Tennessee until 1967.

Did you know …

  • The Scopes trial was the first to be broadcast on the new medium of the radio. Print reporters also brought the U.S. public the news from Dayton. Foremost among them was H.L. Mencken (1880–1956), a Baltimore, Maryland, journalist known for his biting social commentary. He took a strong interest in the trial and its outcome—his newspaper paid both Scopes's bail and the fine he eventually received—and he is credited with coining the term "Monkey Trial."
  • The small town of Dayton, Tennessee, was turned into a carnival during the trial, complete with street-corner preachers and prophets, hot dog and soft drink vendors, gospel singers, and monkeys both real and stuffed. One souvenir seller offered buttons that read, "Your Old Man's a Monkey."

  • Despite his reputation as a great orator, Bryan's simple religious faith proved no match for Darrow's relentless questioning. At the end of their exchange, Bryan asked the judge to censure, or reprimand, Darrow for his slurs against the Bible. Darrow responded, "I object to your statement. I am examining you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes."

Consider the following …

  • How does the Scopes trial contradict the image of the Roaring Twenties as a sunny, fun-filled period in U.S. history?
  • Journalist H.L. Mencken was on hand for most of the trial and wrote a series of articles describing it. Read these articles and give your impression of Mencken's views of the event.
  • Do you think that creationism should be taught in the public schools along with the theory of evolution? Write an editorial defending your views.

For More Information


Anderson, David D. William Jennings Bryan. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

De Camp, L. Sprague. The Great Monkey Trial. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968.

Dumenil, Lynn. The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.

Ginger, Ray. Six Days or Forever: Tennessee Versus John Thomas Scopes. Chicago, IL: Quadrangle Books, 1969.

Hanson, Erica. The 1920s. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1999.

Larson, Edward J. Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Creation and Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Miller, Nathan. New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America. New York: Scribner, 2003.

Perret, Geoffrey. America in the Twenties. New York: Touchstone, 1982.

Scopes, John Thomas, and James Pressley. Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc., 1967.

Tompkins, Jerry R., ed. D-Days at Dayton: Reflections on the Scopes Trial. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965.

Web Sites

"Famous Trials in American History: Tennessee versus John Scopes, the Monkey Trial." Famous Trials by Doug Linder. Available online at Accessed on June 20, 2005.

Rudders: Guides.

Hypotheses: Theories.

Consecrated: Made sacred or holy.

Nazarene: Jesus Christ.

Vex: Make worried.

Baal: False god or idol.

Pilate: The Roman official who condemned Jesus to death.

Rabble: The mob that called for 'Jesus' death.

Multitude: Large number of people.

Nullified: Struck down.

Repudiated: Denied the truth of.

Scoffed: Made fun of.

Bryan, William Jennings

views updated May 23 2018


William Jennings Bryan (18601925) was a great populist orator who unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. presidency three times. He was born and brought up in Illinois. Following graduation from law school he practiced law in Jacksonville, Illinois, from 1883 to 1887, but his heart was never in his work. In 1887 he moved his family to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he ran for Congress in 1890. Bryan won his Congressional seat as a Democrat by 7,713 votes, a substantial margin in a strongly Republican district.

During his first term in the House of Representatives, Bryan attracted wide attention when he gave a masterful three-hour speech in defense of the "free silver cause." In the late 19th century the United States was in the throes of depression. Unemployment and farm failures were common. The country was divided over the hard money vs. the so-called question of bimetallism. Advocates of free silver were mainly southern and western farmers. They argued that the gold standard resulted in an unfavorable economic bias against the common man. Free silver partisans believed they were being exploited. They favored the circulation of silver currency and other inflationary policies that would cheapen the value of money in order to ease personal and business debts. Bryan's simplistic solution for the depressed economy that followed the Panic of 1893 was the unlimited coinage of silver at a ratio to gold of 16 to 1. He claimed lawmakers had to decide between a policy supported by financiers and wealthy industrialists and the justified demands of the downtrodden masses.

Bryan's two Congressional terms and his growing reputation as a dynamic public speaker helped make his name as "the boy orator from the Platte." His national renown did not help him back home in Nebraska, however, and he failed in his bid to become a U.S. senator in 1894. Bryan spent the next two years as an editor of the Omaha World-Herald and conducted a vigorous public campaign in favor of the free silver cause.

At the 1896 Democratic presidential convention in Chicago 36 year-old Bryan dazzled the assembled delegates, newspaper reporters, and the public with a famous address known today as the "Cross of Gold" speech. Delivering a carefully planned and rehearsed text as if it were a spontaneous outpouring, he said, "We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned; we have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded; we have begged, and they have mocked us when our calamity came. We beg no longer, we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them." Bryan went on to declare the farms could survive without the cities, but cities could not survive without the farms. He summed up his defiance of gold standard supporters: "Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the laboring interests and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold."

The next day Bryan was nominated as the Democratic Party's presidential candidate. He also received the nomination of the Populist Party and the National Silver Party and was supported by those Republicans who favored free silver. The Republican candidate was the affable and well-financed William McKinley (18971901). Bryan embarked on a campaign that covered more than 18,000 miles in 27 states. For some of the spectators his oratory bordered on demagoguery, but to many of his listeners Bryan was a hero. He inspired listeners with his wonderful voice and dramatic delivery. However, Bryan ultimately failed to convert eastern workers to the free silver cause. Industrialists convinced their employees that Bryan was a radical, even a revolutionary. McKinley narrowly won the popular vote (51 percent to 46 percent) but dominated in the electoral college (271 to 176 votes), which is the deciding vehicle in an election.

The 1896 campaign was the high point of Bryan's political career. Though he ran for president in 1900 and in 1908, he was unsuccessful. He did succeed in seeing many of his central ideas enacted into law. This included the popular election of senators, the income tax, the creation of the Department of Labor, prohibition, and women's right to vote. In 1912 President Woodrow Wilson (19131921) appointed Bryan to be his Secretary of State. Bryan had earlier helped Wilson win the Democratic nomination and the presidency. Bryan was a pacifist at heart, and he was effective in spearheading several treaties designed to forestall the coming war in Europe. He resigned when Wilson used stronger language than Bryan thought acceptable after Germany sank the British liner Lusitania and 128 U.S. citizens were killed. He nevertheless loyally supported the United States when war was finally declared and the country entered World War I (19141918).

Following the war Bryan championed Prohibition and served as the president of the National Dry Federation in 1918. He was known for serving grape juice rather than wine at diplomatic functions while he was Secretary of State. Bryan continued to advocate Prohibition until it was ratified in 1919 when the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed.

Bryan's last great crusade was against the Darwinian theory of evolution. He was a prosecutor of John T. Scopes in what has become known as the "Monkey Trial." The case brought Bryan head-to-head with renowned Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow. The trial was great theater and attracted worldwide notoriety as a duel between fundamentalism and the theory of the evolutionary origin of man. Scopes was eventually found guilty, but the trial took a great toll on Bryan. He died in 1925, five days after its conclusion.

See also: Free Silver, Cross of Gold Speech, Gold Standard, Gold Standard Act, Prohibition,


Ashby, LeRoy. William Jennings Bryan: Champion of Democracy. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Cherny, Robert W. A Righteous Cause: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985.

Coletta, Paolo E. William Jennings Bryan: I. Political Evangelist, 18601908; II. Progressive Politician and Moral Statesman, 19091915; III. Political Puritan, 19151925. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 196469.

Koenig, Louis W. Bryan: A Political Biography of William Jennings Bryan. New York: Putnam, 1971.

Ranson, Edward. "Electing a President, 1896." History Today, October, 1996.

Springen, Donald K. William Jennings Bryan: Orator of Small-Town America. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

we have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned; we have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded; we have begged, and they have mocked us when our calamity came. we beg no longer, we entreat no more; we petition no more. we defy them.

william jennings bryan, cross of gold speech, 1896

William Jennings Bryan

views updated May 21 2018

William Jennings Bryan

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.

Early Career

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.

Presidential Candidate and Political Leader

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.

Secretary of State

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.

Last Decade

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.

Further Reading

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). □

Bryan, William Jennings

views updated May 29 2018


William Jennings Bryan was a prominent figure in U.S. politics during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and is perhaps best known for his role as assistant to the prosecution in the famous scopes monkey trial of 1925.

Bryan was born March 19, 1860, in Salem, Illinois. His was a devoutly religious family that prayed together three times a day and stressed strict adherence to a literal interpretation of the Bible. His parents, Silas Lilliard Bryan and Mariah Elizabeth Jennings Bryan, were firm believers in education. His mother schooled Bryan and his siblings in their home until they were old enough to be sent away to school. Bryan was an obedient and well disciplined child who was also idealistic. His favorite subject was math because of its orderly reason and logic. He showed early interest in politics and public speaking, and at the age of twelve delivered a campaign speech for his father, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress. It was the beginning of a distinguished career as an orator for Bryan.

In 1875, Bryan was sent to live in Jacksonville, Illinois, to attend the Whipple Academy and Illinois College. During college, he participated in debate and declamation and excelled at long jumping. He graduated from college in 1881 and went on to Union College of Law, in Chicago. In 1883 he returned to Jacksonville and on July 4 opened a law practice. He married his sweetheart of five years, Mary Elizabeth Baird, on October 1, 1884. Bryan's young wife proved to be an intellectual match for her husband. After the couple settled in Jacksonville, she took classes at Illinois College, a practice unheard of for a married woman at the time. She later studied law under Bryan's instruction, and was admitted to the bar in Nebraska in 1888.

"The humblest citizen of all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error."
William Jennings Bryan

Bryan had always yearned to go west, to test himself against the frontier. In 1887, he and his wife moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he entered a law partnership with a friend. The Bryans became active in civic affairs, and started separate discussion groups for men and women where the subject was often politics. Bryan also began lecturing on religious topics. In 1890, he succumbed to his interest in politics and entered his first campaign for public office. He was the

Democratic candidate for Congress from a staunchly Republican district in Nebraska, but he won the election by a comfortable margin and was reelected in 1892. He made a bid for the Senate in 1894 but was defeated. He then turned to journalism and became editor in chief of the Omaha World-Herald. By this time, he had developed a reputation as a compelling speaker and was in demand for the popular Chautauqua lecture circuit. (The Chautauqua movement combined education with entertainment, often offered outdoors or in a tent; it took its name from the Chautauqua Lake region in New York, where it originated.)

During his campaign for the Senate, Bryan took up the free silver cause, a political movement that advocated the free coinage of silver. Free silver advocates, mainly indebted farmers in the West and South, wanted the government to issue more money, backed by silver, to ease the debts they were unable to repay because of declining farm prices. The money interests in the East favored sound money and the gold standard. These opposing forces clashed in the 1896 presidential campaign. Bryan emerged as the nominee of four parties: the Democratic, Populist, Silver Republican, and National Silver parties. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he made his famous "Cross of Gold" speech, in which he cast himself as a champion of the common person against the forces of the powerful and privileged. He passionately declared that those he referred to as the idle holders of money in Wall Street were responsible for the United States' financial woes.

Bryan campaigned tirelessly, traveling over eighteen thousand miles to deliver his electrifying speeches. In the end, he lost to william mckinley by less than five percent of the popular vote. But the foundation had been laid for his lifelong themes: the people versus the power of wealth, the workers versus the powerful money holders, the farmers versus the industrial interests. These themes echoed throughout his later attempts to win the presidency.

After serving as a colonel in a noncombat position during the spanish-american war, Bryan ran for president again in 1900, this time on an anti-expansion theme that was rejected by voters. By 1904, he was falling out of favor with Democrats. He waged a long and exhausting fight to be nominated for president that year,

but in the end was content that he had at least influenced the party platform enough so that it included nothing he found objectionable. Then the party nominated Alton B. Parker, who promptly announced that he was in favor of a gold standard. Parker lost the election to theodore roosevelt. Bryan was bruised by the party's renunciation of his free silver position, but he rebounded and was nominated for president a third time, in 1908. He ran a strong campaign but lost to william howard taft.

After the 1908 election, Bryan realized he would never be president. Neverthess, he continued to influence democratic party policies, and in 1912 he supported Woodrow Wilson's candidacy for president. After Wilson was elected, he selected Bryan as his secretary of state, a position Bryan resigned after two years when his pacifist ideas conflicted with Wilson's policies on U.S. involvement in world war i. After Bryan left the cabinet, his political influence declined rapidly.

During his later years Bryan continued his work in the newspaper business and was a popular lecturer on the Chautauqua circuit. He helped gain passage of the eighteenth amendment, which ushered in prohibition, and helped the suffragette movement win the vote for women with passage of the nineteenth amendment.

During the last few years of his life, Bryan wrote numerous articles on religious topics. He felt that World War I was at least partly caused by a pervasive "godlessness" sweeping the world. To Bryan, this godlessness was nowhere more clearly reflected than in Darwin's theory of the evolution of the species. Bryan traveled around the United States preaching a literal interpretation of the Bible and campaigning for laws that banned the teaching of evolution. One such law, passed in Tennessee, prohibited teachers in state-supported schools and universities from teaching any theory of the origin of human life other than the creation story contained in the Bible. In 1925, a science teacher named John Thomas Scopes violated the law and was brought to trial. Hoping for publicity, the state asked Bryan to join the prosecution. He agreed, and found himself facing clarence darrow, a famous defense attorney who was a self-proclaimed atheist, an opponent of capital punishment, and a defender of unpopular causes. The trial quickly took on the air of a circus, with reporters and photographers from all over the world and the first live radio coverage of such an event broadcast by WGN in Chicago. The media cast the proceeding as a contest between science and the Bible. The defense tried to frame the issue as tolerance for new ideas. Ultimately, however, the prosecution persuaded the judge to confine the case to a question of the state's right to control public education.

Sensing that he was losing control of the trial, Darrow decided to try to unravel the state's case by calling Bryan as a witness. He intended to lead Bryan away from the prosecution's carefully framed issue into a defense of fundamental biblical interpretation. Bryan, whose trial experience had been limited, and who was feeling tired and ill, fell into Darrow's trap and was ridiculed and humiliated by the flamboyant attorney's searing and skillful questions. After Bryan's testimony, the trial was abruptly ended, depriving Bryan of the opportunity to answer Darrow's stinging offense. Nevertheless, the jury deliberated a mere eight minutes before returning a guilty verdict.

The Scopes trial was a victory for Bryan and his supporters, but he had been devastated by Darrow. He stayed in Tennessee to finalize and print the speech he had planned to use in closing argument before the court. Five days after the trial ended, on July 26, 1925, while still in Tennessee, Bryan died in his sleep. As a train bearing his body passed through the countryside on its way to Washington, D.C., thousands of the "common people" Bryan had championed gathered to pay their respects. The nation's capital was in official mourning as Bryan lay in state. At his request, he was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, an ironic footnote to the life of a fervent pacifist.

Although Bryan never won the country's top office, he exerted a strong influence during his long career in public service. Many of the reforms he advocated were eventually adopted, such as income tax, prohibition, women's suffrage, public disclosure of newspaper ownership, and the election of Senators by popular rather than electoral vote. Although he is most often associated with the Scopes trial, his diligent devotion to the causes in which he believed is his most significant legacy.

further readings

Anderson, David D. 1981. William Jennings Bryan. Boston: Twayne.

Cherny, Robert W. 1994. A Righteous Cause: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.

Koenig, Louis W. 1971. Bryan: A Political Biography of William Jennings Bryan. New York: Putnam.


Scopes Monkey Trial.

Cross of Gold Speech

views updated May 14 2018


William Jennings Bryan (18601925), a populist firebrand, delivered his famous "Cross of Gold" speech at the Democratic Party's national convention held in Chicago in1896. The convention went on to nominate Bryan as the Democratic candidate for president. Bryan's speech, in which he declared that advocates of hard money should not be allowed to "crucify mankind upon a cross of gold," was a dramatic expression of one of the central battles in the political history of the United States. The confrontation between hard and soft money proponents reached back to the American Revolution (17751783) and followed in large measure regional and class lines. By 1896, the clash over monetary policy had become one of the central issues in the presidential campaign.

Hard money proponents believed U.S. currency should be backed by the gold standard in the interest of economic security and stability. For this group, government debt and inflationary policies debased the currency and undermined confidence in the economy, leading to the flight of capital. The gold standard, which theoretically limited the amount of money in circulation to the supply of gold, restrained the power of government and of banks to trigger inflation with excessive emissions of paper money.

Bryan and other advocates of the free coinage of silver, or a "soft money" policy, believed that moderate inflation was not an economic evil but a vital boost to economic development. Indeed, in the context of 1896, Bryan and his followers argued that an increase in the supply of money, based on the unlimited coinage of silver at a ratio to gold of 16 to 1, was necessary medicine for the depressed economy after the Panic of 1893.

On the presidential stump in 1896, Bryan continually hammered at the monetary issue, portraying eastern stockbrokers, industrialists, and bankers as dangerous opponents of farming and labor interests. Bryan's brand of class warfare created a split in the Democratic Party. Although western and southern Democrats believed an increase in the money supply would eliminate the scourge of low agricultural prices, eastern "gold" Democrats were appalled by Bryan's rhetoric and position on silver. Many Democrats, including former president Grover Cleveland (18851897), refused to campaign on behalf of Bryan.

Although Bryan campaigned tirelessly and effectively, his Republican opponent, William McKinley (18971901), carried the day, with 7,036,000 popular votes to Bryan's 6,468,000 votes. Bryan's loss was not completely due to business and financial interests lining up solidly against him. Farming interests also voted for McKinley in large numbers, particularly in those states not severely affected by the agricultural depression, such as Michigan and Wisconsin. Most of the labor vote also voted Republican, impressed by McKinley's honesty and his long record of supporting the rights of industrial workers. While governor of Ohio, McKinley supported the arbitration of industrial disputes and upheld a law fining employers who prevented their workers from joining unions.

With their defeat in the election of 1896, the advocates of free silver faded in significance. Ironically, new gold discoveries in Alaska and South Africa, as well as new extraction techniques, led to a dramatic expansion of the money supply in the United States.

Topic overview

Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

william jennings bryan, democratic presidential

candidate, "cross of gold" speech, 1896


Ashby, LeRoy. William Jennings Bryan: Champion of Democracy. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.

Cherny, Robert. A Righteous Cause: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. Tulsa: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

Glad, Paul W. William Jennings Bryan and His Democracy, 18961912. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1960.

Koenig, Louis. A Political Biography of William Jennings Bryan. New York: Putnam, 1971.

Werner, M. R. William Jennings Bryan. New York: Chelsea House, 1983.

Bryan, William Jennings (1860-1925)

views updated May 14 2018

William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925)

Democratic presidential candidate, 1896, 1900, 1908


The Great Commoner. Known as the Boy Orator of the Platte for his stirring oratory and as the Great Commoner for his representation of the poor, the working class, and the farmer, William Jennings Bryan based his political strength in the South and West of the United States. Yet his wide-spread appeal showed that national politics at the end of the nineteenth century had begun to move away from a focus on regional interests and toward representing class interests and developing a national economic and monetary policy.

Background. Born in Salem, Illinois, on 19 March 1860, William Jennings Bryan earned an A.B. (1881) and A.M. (1884) from Illinois College and a law degree (1884) at Union Law School in Chicago. After practicing law and becoming active in Democratic Party politics in Illinois, he moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, and opened a law office in 1888. In 1890 he ran for Congress as a Democrat, winning in a normally Republican district. In 1892 and again in 1895 he sought election to the Senate, but failed to win enough support in the Nebraska legislature, which was controlled by the Republicans. In the House of Representatives Bryan spoke out against high tariffs and in favor of the free coinage of silver, winning a reputation as a spellbinding orator. After his second term ended in March 1896, Bryan, who had already decided to run for president, became editor of the Omaha World Herald.

Presidential Candidate. As a delegate to the 1896 Democratic National Convention, he took an active part in the free-silver movement, causing a sensation with his Cross of Gold speech. The Democrats chose him as their presidential candidate, despite the opposition of the New York wing of the party, which remained conservative and probusiness. His opponents and some of his supporters began to call him the Boy Orator of the Platte. Bryan conducted a vigorous speaking campaign, arguing for bimetallismthe free coinage of silver and goldand fighting for the working man against big business and financial interests. He also received the nomination of the Populist Party. Breaking with the tradition holding that presidential candidates should say little and be seen even less, Bryan made more than six hundred speeches in twenty-nine states, covering more than thirteen thousand miles in a hard campaign. The Republicans, who had nominated William McKinley, depicted Bryan as an anarchist and revolutionist. In the end Bryan won almost 6.5 million votes of the nearly 14 million cast, but lost to McKinley. Perhaps more than any other election in the period, the election of 1896 demonstrated the national division that pitted the poor, the debtors, and the farmers of the South and Westwho supported Bryanagainst the industrialists, much of the middle class, professionals, and the rich of the Northeastwho supported McKinley.

Later Career. Bryan served briefly as colonel of the Third Nebraska Regiment, which became known as the Silver Regiment, during the Spanish-American War, but he became ill and received a medical discharge before the regiment was shipped out for occupation duty in Cuba. He won the Democratic presidential nomination again in 1900 and 1908, each time losing by a wider margin than he had in 1896. As secretary of state under President Woodrow Wilson in 1913-1915, Bryan opposed American involvement in World War I, resigning in protest when it became clear that Wilson was moving away from neutrality. Bryans final time in the public spotlight carne in 1925, when he served as attorney for the prosecution in the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial, opposing the teaching of Charles Darwins theory of evolution. The aging Bryan was no match for defense attorney Clarence Darrow, and the Great Commoner died on 25 July 1925, soon after the conclusion of the trial.


David D. Anderson, William Jennings Bryan (Boston: Twayne, 1981);

Robert W. Cheney, A Righteous Cause: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (Boston: Little, Brown, 1985);

Lawrence W. Levine, Defender of the Faith (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965).

Bryan, William Jennings

views updated May 23 2018

Bryan, William Jennings (1860–1925), politician and secretary of state.Reared in Illinois, Bryan attended Illinois College and Chicago's Union College of Law. In 1887 he moved to Nebraska, entering Democratic politics as a champion of agrarian reform. Elected to Congress in 1890, defeated in a Senate bid four years later, he won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1896 but lost to Republican William McKinley. He ran again in 1900 and 1908—both times unsuccessfully.

Having supported Woodrow Wilson in 1912, Bryan became his secretary of state. A pacifist and anti‐imperialist with no diplomatic experience, Bryan negotiated conciliation treaties with some thirty nations providing for the submission of disputes to investigative commissions.

The outbreak of war in 1914 tested Bryan's pacifism. Embracing Wilson's call for U.S. neutrality, he opposed loans to the Allies and travel on belligerent ships by U.S. citizens; he also called on U.S. vessels to observe Germany's U‐boat blockade of Great Britain. President Wilson, by contrast, saw the German blockade as a violation of neutral rights.

In May 1915, a German U‐boat sank the British liner Lusitania (heavily loaded with munitions), killing 1,198 people, including 128 Americans. Wilson repeatedly demanded that Germany pay reparations, disavow U‐boat warfare, and accept his interpretation of neutral rights. Bryan resigned, believing Wilson was treating the German and British maritime blockades unequally; he also deplored the president's preempting of his role. He was succeeded by the colorless Robert Lansing, who proved highly favorable to the Allies.

Out of office, Bryan opposed the militaristic “Preparedness” campaign but endorsed Wilson in 1916. Personally opposed to U.S. entry into the war in 1917, he refused to speak out.

As a diplomat, Bryan shared Wilson's moralistic approach to world affairs, but the two men's basic principles differed: Bryan valued peace above all; Wilson insisted that Germany accept his view of neutral rights. Bryan's resignation reflected the conflict of wills that often ensues when a president seeks to conduct his own foreign policy—a conflict that has more than once upset the course of U.S. diplomacy.
[See also Lusitania, Sinking of the; World War I: Causes.]


Merle Curti , Bryan and World Peace, 1931; repr. 1969.
Paolo E. Coletta , Bryan: A Political Biography, 1971.
Kendrick A. Clements , William Jennings Bryan: Missionary Isolationist, 1982.

Paul S. Boyer

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