William Jennings Bryan


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(b. Salem, Illinois, 18 Mar. 1860; d. Dayton, Tennessee, 26 July 1925)

US; member of the US House of Representatives 1891–5, Democratic Presidential nominee 1896, 1900, 1908, Secretary of State 1913–15 Son of a baptist minister, Bryan was educated at Whipple Academy and Illinois College, Jacksonville, graduating ba in 1881 and MA in 1884. After gaining an LLB from University College of Law Chicago in 1883, he was admitted to the Illinois bar and began practising law in Jacksonville. Moving to Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1887, he continued to practice law but developed political aspirations under the tutelage of J. Sterling Morton, the local Democratic political agent. In 1890 he began to realize these ambitions by gaining election to the US House of Representative; 1894, however, brought a temporary setback when the Nebraska legislature failed to elect him US Senator. He turned instead to journalism and became editor of the Omaha World-Herald.

1896 marked Bryan's dramatic debut as a national political figure when as a little-known former Congressman, he succeeded in capturing the Democratic nomination for the presidency. It was a period of economic depression, exacerbated by an appreciating currency linked to gold, and Bryan passionately articulated agrarian discontent. His famous ‘Cross of Gold’ speech, which ended on the much quoted peroration ‘You shall not press down upon the brow of labour this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold’, swept the convention delegates off their feet. Despite a punishing campaign, during which Bryan travelled 18,000 miles and made over 600 speeches, he was defeated by McKinley. But he did secure a position of prominence in the Democratic Party for the next thirty years, gaining his party's nomination for the presidency on two further occasions, 1900 and 1908, and influencing the convention to endorse Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Wilson repaid this political debt by making Bryan his Secretary of State. Bryan, the campaigner and orator, was ill-suited for the post. A pacifist, he felt unable to accept America's drift from neutrality towards support of Britain in the First World War, and resigned in 1915.

Equally at home in religion and politics, Bryan thereafter turned his attention to Prohibition and Fundamentalism. He became a crusader against evolution. As a prosecuting attorney in the famous ‘Scopes Monkey’ trial he gained the conviction of John Thomas Scopes for teaching evolution. Bryan's name also became associated with white supremacy. At the Democratic convention of 1924, he failed to support a resolution denouncing the Ku Klux Klan.

Bryan was famous for his splendid voice, impressive personality, and impassioned oratory. He is remembered as a champion of lost causes, such as bimetallism. But many of the reforms he pressed for were introduced including: income tax; popular election of US senators; women's suffrage; regulation of railroads; and currency reform. He was not an original thinker and had no clearly defined political position but his powerful oratory enabled him to move vast, often hostile, audiences. He was an evangelical politician seeking converts to what he regarded as good causes.


Subjects: Warfare and Defence — Arts and Humanities.

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