William Jennings Bryan Essay - Critical Essays

Bryan, William Jennings


William Jennings Bryan 1860-1925

American orator and politician.

Known as the “Great Commoner” because of his moral and political stance in favor of the rights of farmers and laborers, Bryan is remembered as one of the most respected orators in American politics. His dramatic style of delivery and his ability to give speeches without using notes or cues, as well as his stand against big business and in favor of political reform, captivated audiences throughout his career, which included three runs for president on the Democratic ticket.

Biographical Information

Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois, in 1860. Both his mother—who educated Bryan at home—and his father—a prominent Illinois circuit judge—impressed upon him the importance of public speaking in community life. Bryan graduated from Illinois College in 1881 and Union College of Law in Chicago in 1883. He practiced law in Jacksonville, Illinois, until 1888, when he moved with his wife Mary Baird—herself a lawyer and Bryan's most trusted advisor throughout his career—to Lincoln, Nebraska. Although Nebraska was traditionally a strong Republican seat, Bryan campaigned as a Democrat to represent the First Congressional District, winning the election in 1891. Bryan's victory was due largely to his strong support of farmers and laborers in the Midwest, who, as early as the late nineteenth century, had felt the negative effects of growing corporate wealth in urban areas. Bryan's first campaign focused on his belief in returning to the free coinage of silver, which, it was believed, would help stabilize the economy by expanding the money supply with a relatively cheap metal. This, along with his other proposals for increasing the social and economic stability of the working classes, established Bryan's reputation as a Jeffersonian-style reformer. He was re-elected in 1892 on a platform that continued to include the free silver issue, but he lost his bid for the Senate seat two years later, becoming instead editor-in-chief of the Omaha World Herald. At the 1896 Democratic convention Bryan delivered his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, which propelled him ahead of the front-runner Richard Bland as the Democrats' favorite presidential candidate. While some Democrats refused to embrace Bryan as their candidate, he did receive endorsements from the Populist party, the Prohibition party, the Christian Socialist party, and the National Silver party because of his reformist goals. During the campaign, Bryan set a precedent for all subsequent presidential campaigns: he traveled over 18,000 miles across the United States crusading for his causes. By contrast, his Republican opponent William McKinley remained vague on the issues and spent a great deal of money to have influential delegates brought to his home rather than traveling. Predictably, business leaders rallied against Bryan, warning their employees that companies would close down if Bryan were elected president. Bryan lost the election, 47 percent to McKinley's 51 percent, but his passion for issues and capacity for rallying supporters he had demonstrated during the campaign cemented for him an influential place in the Democratic party and the U.S. government as a whole.

In 1900 Bryan was again nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate and again he was defeated by McKinley, in large part because his focus on free silver was out of step with public concerns. In 1904 the Democrats nominated Alton B. Parker, who was defeated by Theodore Roosevelt. In the following election Bryan was again his party's candidate, but he lost to the Republican candidate William Howard Taft. By the election of 1912 Bryan had given up pursuing the presidency, deciding instead to influence his party's platform from the bottom up. He campaigned heavily for the nomination of Woodrow Wilson, then governor of New Jersey. Wilson won the election and appointed Bryan secretary of state in 1913. Bryan experienced mixed success in his post, trying to reconcile his pacifist beliefs with his official duties. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Bryan encouraged a policy of neutrality. But when Wilson asked Bryan to dispatch a note denouncing Germany's sinking of the ship Lusitania in 1915, Bryan resigned rather than risk exclusively siding with the Allies, with whom he did not always agree, and involving the United States in the war. After his resignation, Bryan changed his stance to support the American war effort, giving speeches in which he maintained that the war could serve to make the world a better place. The rest of Bryan's career was marred by his inability to adapt to changing social circumstances and his growing disillusionment with politics. He continued campaigning for progressive reform, particularly woman suffrage, but his proclivity for moralizing led him to support many unpopular issues, such as Prohibition; additionally, Bryan argued in favor of allowing the Ku Klux Klan a voice at the Democratic national convention of 1924, which alienated his early proponents and led many to question his alliances. In 1925 Bryan, then a practicing attorney, engaged in the most controversial battle of his career: prosecuting John T. Scopes, a Tennessee schoolteacher accused of violating the state law against teaching the theory of evolution. The case, widely known as the “Monkey Trial,” pitted Bryan against defense attorney Clarence Darrow and was covered by the scathing journalist H. L. Mencken, who painted Bryan's fundamentalism as backwards fanaticism. Bryan won the case, but his reputation as a progressive reformer was permanently damaged; he died of heart failure shortly after the trial.

Major Works

Bryan's speaking abilities were evident almost immediately when he entered politics. In 1892 he delivered his first important address on tariff reform, which was a phenomenal success; the speech was published, and 100,000 copies were distributed. Throughout his career as a congressman, Bryan spoke and debated more than eighty times, each time impressing both his colleagues and the public and earning him the moniker “Great Commoner.” Often his speeches were published after he delivered them, but Bryan was known for speaking without using notes, as well as for his powerful speaking voice, which did not need amplification. After he lost his congressional seat, he began to lecture professionally on the issues most important to him, especially free silver. On July 9, 1896, Bryan delivered what many consider the most important speech of his career, the “Cross of Gold” speech. Bryan spoke before a crowd of 20,000 at the Democratic national convention, imploring the people of the American West to “beg no longer” to be heard in Washington, D.C. Emphasizing the importance of expanding economic prosperity to the working classes, Bryan used strong Christian imagery: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold,” he said, stretching his arms out to his sides to recall the image of the crucified Christ. The audience cheered in approval for twenty-five minutes, and Bryan was nominated the next day. Bryan often infused his speeches with Christian and Biblical imagery, which appealed to his mostly Midwestern Protestant audiences, most significantly in speeches such as “Shall the People Rule?” and “Prince of Peace.” Toward the end of his life, this Christian strain became more strident, as Bryan became a strong proponent of Christian fundamentalism. In addition to his speeches, Bryan wrote with his wife Mary Baird The Memoirs of William Jennings Bryan, published in 1925, several volumes on theological issues, and worked as a journalist and newspaper editor.

Critical Reception

While Bryan won a tremendous amount of popular support from the citizenry, especially people in Midwestern and Western states, he was often criticized for using dramatic imagery to obscure his policies, which many believed he could not clearly delineate. Additionally, Bryan was sometimes accused of tailoring his values to meet those of the public rather than providing leadership with his own values. Branded a regressive reactionary in his later years, largely because of his vocal involvement in the Scopes trial, Bryan is nonetheless credited with having molded the modern Democratic party with his early reform measures, which at the time had marked him as a radical. Without question, he remains one of the most dynamic and influential orators in American political history.

Principal Works

“Cross of Gold” (speech) 1896

The First Battle: A Story of the Campaign of 1896 (nonfiction) 1897

“The Value of an Ideal” (speech) 1901

“The Prince of Peace” (speech) 1904

“Shall the People Rule?” (speech) 1908

“Lincoln as an Orator” (speech) 1909

The Prince of Peace (nonfiction) 1909

“The Causeless War and Its Lessons for Us” (speech) 1916

“A People's Constitution” (speech) 1920

The Bible and Its Enemies (nonfiction) 1921

“The Menace of Darwinism” (speech) 1921

In His Image (nonfiction) 1922

Orthodox Christianity versus Modernism (nonfiction) 1923

Christ and His Companions (nonfiction) 1925

“Last Message” (speech) 1925

The Memoirs of William Jennings Bryan [with Mary Baird Bryan] (memoirs) 1925


Willa Cather (essay date 1900)

SOURCE: “The Personal Side of William Jennings Bryan,” in Prairie Schooner, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, Winter, 1949, pp. 331-7.

[In the following essay, originally published in the July 14, 1900 issue of the periodical Library, Cather records her personal impressions of Bryan.]

When I first knew William Jennings Bryan he was the Democratic nominee for the First Congressional district of Nebraska, a district in which the Republican majority had never fallen below 3,000. I was a student at the State University when Mr. Bryan was stumping the State, which he had stumped two years before for J. Sterling Morton, now his bitterest political enemy. My first meeting with...

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Edwin Wildman (essay date 1922)

SOURCE: “William Jennings Bryan: A Crusader of Advanced Ideals,” in Famous Leaders of Character: in America from the Latter Half of Nineteenth Century,The Page Company, 1922, pp. 239-50.

[In the following essay, Wildman examines Bryan's early career.]

Judge Bryan's farm, about a mile outside of Salem, Illinois, was the show-farm of that section in 1866. It entended for five hundred acres, and included a garden and a private park where fine deer were kept. In this spacious environment William Jennings Bryan, born in Salem, started his career at the age of six. This disposes of some fiction about his being the son of a poor farmer. His father was, on the contrary, a...

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Edgar Lee Masters (essay date 1924)

SOURCE: “The Christian Statesman,” in Odell Shepard: Essays of 1925, Edwin Valentine Mitchell, 1926, pp. 77-104.

[In the following essay, originally published in the American Mercury magazine in 1924, Masters discusses the political climate in the United States during Bryan's career and Bryan's development of his Christian platform in response.]

With a triumphant centralization, and with the robber tariff and banks of issue, arose the Grangers, the Greenbackers and other sharked-up resolutes, bent on restoring justice in the land. These rebels against the established order were idealists, dreamers, cranks; but they were also brave and good men, men of ideas...

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H. L. Mencken (essay date 1926)

SOURCE: “In Memoriam: W. J. B.,” in Prejudices, Fifth Series, Alfred A. Knopf, 1926, pp. 64-74.

[In the following essay, Mencken sarcastically eulogizes Bryan.]

Has it been duly marked by historians that the late William Jennings Bryan's last secular act on this globe of sin was to catch flies? A curious detail, and not without its sardonic overtones. He was the most sedulous fly-catcher in American history, and in many ways the most successful. His quarry, of course, was not Musca domestica but Homo neandertalensis. For forty years he tracked it with coo and bellow, up and down the rustic backways of the Republic. Wherever the flambeaux of Chautauqua...

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Charles Edward Merriam (essay date 1926)

SOURCE: “William Jennings Bryan,” in Four American Party Leaders, Books for Libraries Press, Inc., 1926, pp. 63-74.

[In the following essay, Merriam discusses Bryan's role as a major American political leader despite personal and professional setbacks.]

William Jennings Bryan is a different type of leader from any of those thus far considered. Here was a man who maintained himself in a position of very great political power for a generation, without a political organization, without wealth except his own earnings, without professional position, without holding office except for a brief period. Four years in Congress as a young man and two years as Secretary of...

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Walter Lippmann (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: “H. L. Mencken,” in Men of Destiny, The Macmillan Company, 1927, pp. 45-60.

[In the following essay, Lippmann refutes Bryan's notions regarding the teaching of evolution.]

During the Dayton trial there was much discussion about what had happened to Mr. Bryan. How had a progressive democrat become so illiberal? How did it happen that the leader of the hosts of progress in 1896 was the leader of the hosts of darkness in 1925?

It was said that he had grown old. It was said that he was running for President. It was said that he had the ambition to lead an uprising of fundamentalists and prohibitionists. It was said that he was a beaten orator...

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Don C. Seitz (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: “William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925),” in The “Also Rans”: Great Men Who Missed Making the Presidential Goal, Books for Libraries Press, 1928, pp. 320-38.

[In the following essay, Seitz considers Bryan's political career.]

From the days of Continental currency to the founding of the Federal Reserve Bank in 1915, the United States had been a fertile field for financial heresies. A fast growing country, with slow communications, limited credit, and a shortage of circulating medium, made it easily subject to financial distress. Of the “hard money” stock, silver was relatively scarcer than gold, with a varying value affected by the supply, which finally...

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William Allen White (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: “The Boy Orator of the Platte,” in Masks in a Pageant, The Macmillan Company, 1928, pp. 233-79.

[In the following essay, White traces Bryan's entire career, including his religious convictions.]


William Jennings Bryan was a dramatic and powerful figure in American politics from 1896, when he became the Democratic presidential candidate, until 1925, when he died. His place in history will be comparable to that of Blaine or Clay; each led America for a generation. Both Clay and Blaine, striving for the Presidency, dramatized important causes. Bryan, in seeking the high office, often had the smoke of...

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Gerald W. Johnson (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: “Bryan, Thou Shouldst Be Living,” in These United States, edited by Louis W. Jones, William Huse, Jr. and Harvey Eagleson, Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, 1931, pp. 266-77.

[In the following essay, Johnson laments the absence of a great liberal leader like Bryan.]


Bryan should be living at this hour. Or if not Bryan, then Lord George Gordon, or Cagliostro, or John Brown of Ossawatomie—some first-class faker who believes in his own bunk.

It has been advanced that the decay of liberalism and the lack of a great liberal leader are to be attributed less to the apathy than to the bewilderment of this generation....

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Edgar Dewitt Jones (essay date 1937)

SOURCE: “William Jennings Bryan,” in Lords of Speech: Portraits of Fifteen American Orators, Willett, Clark & Company, 1937, pp. 215-29.

[In the following essay, Jones discusses Bryan's career as an orator.]

In July, 1925, Bryan died in his sleep at Dayton, Tennessee, but the music of his voice still haunts our memories. It was my privilege to be acquainted with the Commoner. I heard him speak thirty-two times, and all the way from Los Angeles to Edinburgh, Scotland. On three occasions he spoke for me at Central Christian Church, Detroit. No one will dispute Mr. Bryan's oratorical ability. In some respects his speaking career was unprecedented in our history....

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Selig Adler (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: “Bryan and Wilsonian Caribbean Penetration,” in The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. XX, No. 2, May, 1940, pp. 198-226.

[In the following essay, Adler examines Bryan's role in American expansion into the Caribbean.]

The rehabilitation of William Jennings Bryan is a marked example of the influence of the New Deal Zeitgeist on American historiography. When the Commoner died in the midst of the golden twenties, only a remnant of the Bryan wing of the Democratic party still took Bryanism seriously. Free silver, government ownership of railroads, and Philippine independence were, along with Bryan's memory, treated with scant courtesy and much...

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Hamilton Basso (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: “Henry Adams and William Jennings Bryan: The American Turns the Century,” in Mainstream, Reynal & Hitchcock, 1943, pp. 131-49.

[In the following essay, Basso examines similarities and differences between Bryan and his contemporary Henry Adams regarding cultural, social, and scientific forces in America at beginning of the twentieth century.]

In 1893, when Grover Cleveland was in the White House for his second term, the world's Fair in Chicago was opened—all the earth's peoples were invited to come and bear witness to the brawn and bustle of the strapping young giant of the West.

John Applegate was then only a boy of nine, but...

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Paul W. Glad (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: “Bryan and the Progressive Movement,” in The Trumpet Soundeth: William Jennings Bryan and his Democracy, 1896-1912, University of Nebraska Press, 1960, pp. 110-39.

[In the following essay, Glad discusses Bryan's role in the American progressive movement, from the early years of the twentieth century to 1917.]

The years between the turn of the century and 1917 have come to be known in American history as the progressive era. This was a period when the nation seemed to awaken from slumber as a new dawn chased away shadows of venality and selfishness from political and economic life. He who does what is true, reasoned Americans, comes to the light, and they...

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Boyce House (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: “Bryan the Orator,” in Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. LIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1960, pp. 266-82.

[In the following essay, House praises Bryan's talents for oratory.]

How great an orator was William Jennings Bryan?1

He was probably the greatest the nation has ever seen. No other ever drew such crowds. Probably no other made so many speeches. And he stirred his hearers not on one or two occasions but times almost without number.

His most famous speech was delivered in Chicago in 1896, the “Cross of Gold” oration which stampeded the convention and made him the Democratic presidential nominee...

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Richard Challener (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: “William Jennings Bryan (1913-1915),” in An Uncertain Tradition: American Secretaries of State in the Twentieth Century, edited by Norman A. Graebner, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1961, pp. 79-100.

[In the following essay, Challener examines and evaluates Bryan's years as Secretary of State in the Wilson administration.]

The passage of time has been unkind to the reputation of William Jennings Bryan. Few can call to mind the image of the young crusader who voiced the protest of the prairie farmer and who thrilled huge audiences with his impassioned demands for social justice; instead, there has emerged the picture of a stubborn, often obtuse defender of...

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Roger Daniels (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “William Jennings Bryan and the Japanese,” in Southern California Quarterly, Vol. XLVIII, No. 3, Sepember, 1966, pp. 227-40.

[In the following essay, Daniels discusses Bryan's ideas about Asian immigration, particularly Japanese, into America.]

A little more than a year before he died, William Jennings Bryan wrote out a three point statement of his political principles for the journalist, Mark Sullivan. His first point was that “in Government, people have a right to what they want.”1 That most of Bryan's career was consistent with this and his other principles, goes almost without saying. The modern view of Bryan doubts his wisdom rather than...

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Willard H. Smith (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “William Jennings Bryan and the Social Gospel,” in The Journal of American History, Vol. LIII, No. 1, June, 1966, pp. 41-60.

[In the following essay, Smith examines Bryan's religious conservatism and his ideas about the proper application of Christian beliefs to social concerns.]

One of the important leaders of the Progressive era who until recently has fared rather poorly at the hands of historians is William Jennings Bryan. Most of the writing about him, including the biographical, has been unsatisfactory. An occasional scholarly article has been the exception. In the last few years, however, the story is different, and one can expect a new Bryan image to...

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Willard H. Smith (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: “William Jennings Bryan and Racism,” in Journal of Negro History, Vol. 54, No. 2, April, 1969, pp. 127-49.

[In the following essay, Smith contends that, although Bryan purported to believe unexceptionably in democratic rule by the people, his thoughts on race relations were “inconsistent” and paradoxical.]

“‘Let the people rule’ is a slogan for which our people can afford to stand—those who advocate this doctrine are traveling toward the dawn.” So wrote William Jennings Bryan in January, 1918.1 This was one of the central ideas of the Great Commoner which he stressed not only during the “war to make the world safe for democracy”...

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Edward H. Worthen (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “The Mexican Journeys of William Jennings Bryan, A Good Neighbor,” in Nebraska History and Record of Pioneer Days, Vol. 59, No. 4, Winter, 1978, pp. 485-500.

[In the following essay, Worthen traces Bryan's trips to Mexico with his wife, which he believes illuminate Bryan's stance on U.S.-Mexico relations during his time as Secretary of State.]

In 1897 William Jennings Bryan toured Mexico. In 1904 the by-then twice-chosen presidential standard bearer of the Democratic Party and future secretary of state again ventured south of the border. He visited Mexico for the third and last time in 1922. Bryan's biographers are silent concerning these excursions or at...

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Arthur Bud Ogle (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Above the World: William Jennings Bryan's View of the American Nation,” in International Affairs, in Nebraska History, Vol. 61, No. 2, Summer, 1980, pp. 153-71.

[In the following essay, Ogle attempts to explain Bryan's “Americanism”—his belief in the uniqueness of the United States as a purely Christian and democratic nation—and his political philosophy.]

Twenty-nine years and one day after his tumultuous “Cross of Gold” speech, William Jennings Bryan took his place with the counsel for the prosecution in Dayton, Tennessee. There, as on that scorching day in Chicago three presidential candidacies and three long decades earlier, Bryan engaged in...

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Kendrick A. Clements (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “The Development of a Christian Statesman,” in William Jennings Bryan: Missionary Isolationist, The University of Tennessee Press, No. 2, 1982, pp. 3-22.

[In the following essay, Clements discusses the roots and outgrowth of Bryan's Christian-based politics and social beliefs.]

When William Jennings Bryan was born, on March 19, 1860, in Salem, Illinois, nearly all Americans were preoccupied by the sectional crisis. Although the Civil War and its aftermath had little direct impact on the Bryan family, the crowding events of those years pushed aside all political issues except those having to do with the internal state of the country. Few Americans, including...

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LeRoy Ashby (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “America's Don Quixote (1920-1925),” in William Jennings Bryan: Champion of Democracy, Twayne Publishers, No. 2, 1987, pp. 175-203.

[In the following essay, Ashby examines Bryan's career in the 1920s, a time of tumultuous change in American culture, economy, and politics, maintaining that Bryan remained more dedicated than ever to the ideals of democracy and rule by the people.]

“The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts,” wrote novelist Willa Cather, a contemporary of William Jennings Bryan. Although her choice of the year 1922 was purely symbolic, she correctly sensed that American culture was undergoing a profoundly significant transformation,...

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John G. Geer and Thomas R. Rochon (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “William Jennings Bryan on the Yellow Brick Road,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 16 No. 4, Winter, 1993, pp. 59-64.

[In the following essay, Geer and Rochon argue that L. Frank Baum's children's fantasy The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has political undertones that serve as an allegory for the ideals of the Populist movement, including Bryan's stance on free silver.]

Literary allegory can be a useful tool for investigating the ways in which contemporaries frame the political conflicts of their day. L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written in 1899 as the first of a highly popular series of children's books, was, we shall argue, an...

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Further Reading


Cherny, Robert W. A Righteous Cause: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. Edited by Oscar Handlin. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1985, 225 p.

Biography that focuses on Bryan as a crusader for progressive and humanitarian causes.

Coletta, Paolo E. William Jennings Bryan. 3 vols. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964, 1200 p.

Comprehensive biography covering Bryan's life, career, and influence.

Hibben, Paxton. The Peerless Leader: William Jennings Bryan. Introduction by Charles A. Beard. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1929, 446 p.


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