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Bryan, William Jennings


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.

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William Jennings Bryan

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). □

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Bryan, William Jennings


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

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Bryan, William Jennings

William Jennings Bryan (brī´ən), 1860–1925, American political leader, b. Salem, Ill. Although the nation consistently rejected him for the presidency, it eventually adopted many of the reforms he urged—the graduated federal income tax, popular election of senators, woman suffrage, public knowledge of newspaper ownership, prohibition, federally insured bank deposits, regulation of the stock market, pure food and drug laws, and several others.

Presidential Hopeful

He practiced law at Jacksonville, Ill., and in 1887 he moved to Lincoln, Nebr. Bryan was a U.S. Representative from 1891 to 1895 but was defeated for the U.S. Senate in 1894. The next two years he spent as editor in chief of the Omaha World-Herald. Having ardently identified himself with the free silver forces in Congress, he became their most popular speaker in a preconvention drive to control the Democratic national convention at Chicago in 1896.

At the convention his famous "Cross of Gold" speech so swayed the delegates that his nomination for President was assured, even though he was only 36 years old. The Populist party also nominated him, but the conservative gold Democrats ran John M. Palmer. The chief issue of the campaign was Bryan's proposal for free and unlimited coinage of silver, which he thought would remedy the economic ills then plaguing farmers and industrial workers. He lost the bitterly fought contest to Republican William McKinley, whose campaign was skillfully managed by Marcus A. Hanna.

Bryan controlled the Democratic convention in 1900 and saved the silver plank from removal by Eastern gold factions, but he agreed to put the campaign emphasis on anti-imperialism. Defeated again by McKinley, Bryan in 1901 started the Commoner, a widely read weekly that kept him in the public eye. His reduced party power in 1904 resulted in the compromise nomination of Alton B. Parker, a conservative New Yorker, upon a platform dictated by Bryan. Parker, however, disavowed the silver plank, and Bryan unwillingly acquiesced. Parker's overwhelming defeat by Theodore Roosevelt turned the Democrats again to Bryan, who in 1908 was nominated a third time. Roosevelt's candidate, William H. Taft, defeated him.

Secretary of State

The last Democratic convention in which Bryan played an important role was that of 1912, where his switch to Woodrow Wilson helped gain Wilson the nomination. Upon his election Wilson named Bryan secretary of state. Bryan was influential in holding the Democrats together during the first 18 months of Wilson's administration, when unity was essential to the enactment of the president's reform legislation. He had little previous experience in foreign affairs but studied international questions conscientiously. With some 30 nations he negotiated treaties providing for investigation of all disputes. Antiwar leanings made Bryan more conciliatory than Wilson toward Germany. His Latin American policies, particularly those involving Nicaragua, caused a good deal of friction. Disliking the strong language of the second Lusitania note drafted by Wilson, in which he felt the president had abandoned America's neutral position, Bryan resigned on June 9, 1915, rather than sign it. However, he supported Wilson in the 1916 election and after war was declared.

Later Years and the Scopes Trial

In the 1920 Democratic convention at San Francisco he fought in vain for a prohibition plank, and in 1924 at New York City he supported William G. McAdoo against Alfred E. Smith, but he was no longer the party's leader. In his later years Bryan, a Presbyterian, devoted himself to the defense of fundamentalism. He addressed legislatures urging measures against teaching evolution and appeared for the prosecution in the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee. Although he won the case in the trial court, Bryan's beliefs were subjected to severe ridicule in a searching examination by opposing counsel, Clarence Darrow. Five days after the trial, Bryan died in his sleep.


See the memoirs (1925, repr. 1971), begun by Bryan and finished by his widow; biographies by W. C. Williams (1936), P. W. Glad (1960), P. E. Coletta (3 vol., 1964–69), L. W. Koenig (1971), and W. Kazin (2006); studies by L. W. Levine (1965) and P. W. Glad, ed. (1968).

William Jennings Bryan's brother, Charles Wayland Bryan, 1867–1945, b. Salem, Ill., was for many years W. J. Bryan's political secretary and business agent. He was publisher and associate editor of the Commoner, mayor of Lincoln, Nebr., and governor of Nebraska.

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Cross of Gold Speech


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.

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Bryan, William Jennings (1860-1925)

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).

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Bryan, William Jennings

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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