William Jennings Bryan
Article abstract: With his crusader’s zeal for righteousness and a determination to champion the cause of the common man, Bryan used his dramatic oratorical skills to gain the leadership of the Democratic Party from 1896 to 1912. Three times he won the Democratic nomination for president, but he lost all three elections.
William Jennings Bryan was born March 19, 1860, in Salem, Illinois. His mother, née Mariah Elizabeth Jennings, was reared as a Methodist; his father, Silas Lillard Bryan, of Scotch-Irish descent, was a devout Baptist and became a frontier lawyer, judge, and politician in south central Illinois. As a trial lawyer, Silas was known for his habit of quoting Scripture to the jury. William Jennings Bryan grew up on a large farm which his father had purchased. The nearby town of Salem had an economy based primarily on agriculture, and Bryan’s roots were in an agrarian environment that valued hard work, individualism, and religious faith. Especially influential in the Salem area were those churches stressing the necessity of a conversion experience. The revivalistic emphasis of the evangelicals in southern Illinois had a profound effect on young Bryan. Indeed, in later years, he would become what one historian has described as a “political evangelist,” a politician whose oratory resembled that of a revival preacher and whose political faith contained a strong moralistic tone. Bryan the politician saw himself as God’s warrior sent to destroy the Philistines, and he tended to see his own political concepts as baptized in light while those of his opponents as covered with darkness.
Bryan’s father sent him to Whipple Academy for two years and then to Illinois College in Jacksonville for four years, where he was graduated in 1881. During his college days, Bryan showed little interest in physical exercise or athletics, but he did demonstrate at least modest ability as a debater. For two years, he studied law in Chicago, graduating from the Union College of Law in 1883. He then returned to Jacksonville, where he practiced law from 1883 to 1887. While still a struggling young lawyer, Bryan married Mary Baird on October 1, 1884. During the first month of marriage, he gave a major share of his time to the campaign to elect Grover Cleveland as president. Mary Baird Bryan defied the conventions of her time by studying law and gaining admission to the bar in 1888.
In his early years, Bryan had an excellent physique and a handsome appearance. He was six feet tall, with a strong muscular frame. His clear baritone voice was resonant and pleasing. Age, lack of exercise, and gluttonous eating habits would in later life create a more corpulent figure.
In 1887, Bryan moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, and sought to establish a law practice there, but he quickly became involved in politics. Lincoln was a rapidly growing town that could afford opportunities for a young lawyer. The staunch Republican district that included Lincoln had recently sent a Democrat to Congress. Perhaps Bryan’s decision to move to Nebraska was motivated in part by hopes of getting in on the ground floor of the growing Democratic structure in Nebraska.
In 1890, although he lived in a normally Republican district, Bryan won election to Congress as a Democrat. His district reelected him in 1892, but in 1894, when he sought a United States Senate seat, the Nebraska legislature chose his opponent. During his congressional years, Bryan gradually espoused the Free Silver movement. Those who favored the gold standard, he believed, would force debtors to pay back their debts with a dollar more valuable than the one they borrowed. The Populist Party, silver-mining interests, farmers, and silver state Republican senators were forming a coalition to fight for a bimetallic standard. In Congress, Bryan voted against repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, and he began vociferously condemning his own Democratic president, Cleveland, who sided with the “goldbugs.” After his congressional career’s sudden end, Bryan intensified his prosilver lecture campaign and became the most popular orator for the cause. The silver advocates were gaining control of the Democratic Party and were turning out Cleveland’s supporters.
In 1896, Bryan managed to secure an opportunity to speak before the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In his deeply moving and moralistic “Cross of Gold” speech, he mesmerized the delegates. Speaking to the “sound money” men he laid down the challenge, ”You shall not press upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” When Bryan used this closing metaphor, he dramatized the crucifixion scene by holding his fingers to his head so that his hearers actually visualized the thorns piercing the brow of the working man. When he spoke of the cross, he held his arms extended horizontally for a full five seconds as the audience sat in a transfixed and reverent silence. The hush continued until he walked off the platform: Then came a wild outburst of enthusiasm as state banners were carried to the Nebraska delegation. The next day, the convention nominated him for the presidency. The more radical agrarian People’s Party (the Populists) also took him up as their presidential candidate: For them to reject Bryan would have split up the prosilver advocates in the nation and possibly ensured defeat.
During the 1896 campaign, Bryan’s opponent William McKinley conducted a quiet, dignified campaign, staying at his home...
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