William Jennings Bryan Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.