William Jennings Bryan is one of the most famous politicians to have never been elected president, and the only person in U.S. history to have lost three elections. Despite his obvious failures in presidential campaigns, Bryan’s ideas were widely practiced by his opponents. His mixture of Progressive and Democratic ideas was far ahead of its time and would later come to define the party. In addition, Bryan is remembered as one of the greatest orators in the country’s history and took part in the notorious Scopes Monkey Trial.
William Jennings Bryan was born on March 19, 1860, in Salem, Illinois, the son of a local lawyer and politician. His parents, Silas and Mariah, were both fervently religious and would help to shape Bryan’s faith that would become so influential later in his life. The loss of two of Bryan’s three older siblings would also bring him closer to God. Silas would teach two main things to his son as he was growing up: religion and politics. Thanks to his father’s influence, Bryan would use these two tools to work his way to the top of the worlds of both politics and law.
From very early on, Bryan showed promise in the field of politics. When he was only 12, he started a popular school petition in support of the temperance movement and calling for the ban of alcohol. After receiving his grade school education at Whipple Academy, Bryan left for Illinois College. In 1883, after an uneventful four years and graduation, he enrolled in the Union College of Law in Chicago, while simultaneously working in the office of Lyman Trumbull, a U.S. Senator. Shortly after enrolling in law school, Bryan began his own practice in Jacksonville, Illinois. He kept this business, successfully, until his graduation from law school. Immediately afterwards he moved to Nebraska, which he called “a land of opportunity.”
Bryan soon earned a reputation as one of Nebraska’s top lawyers, in addition to gaining nationwide recognition as an orator. In 1890, only a short while after graduating from law school, Bryan was elected to Congress. Even more amazing is that Bryan was the first democrat ever to be elected to Congress in Nebraska’s twenty-year state history. He used many of the ideas of the Populists, although he was not a Populist himself, to appeal to a people in desperate financial times. Ideas of graduated income tax, labor regulations, and women’s suffrage all contributed to his victory.
Free Silver and Early Politics
Bryan became the first and second Democrat to win a Congressional election in Nebraska when he won again in 1894. He decided against a third run, though, and instead opted to run for Senator. This time he was not as successful; with the Republicans in control of the Nebraska State Legislature, a young railroad attorney named John M. Thurston took the spot. Although heartbreaking at the time, the defeat gave Bryan time to build his reputation even more. He became the editor of the Omaha World-Herald and made a living as a traveling lecturer. It was during these years that the term “Free Silver” would become Bryan’s signature platform and one of the most popular political phrases in the country.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued paper money, instead of gold coins, for the first time in U.S. history. The obvious advantage of this is that it is much easier to print paper money than to buy gold for coins, meaning there would be more money in circulation. At the end of the Civil War, an inevitable inflation occurred because of the abundance of money in print. Republicans began to make sure that all the paper money around was backed with gold. When the depression hit in the 1890’s, farmers now had much more difficulty paying back loans to eastern banks. It was because of this that the idea of free silver was created; backing money with silver instead of gold would make it easier to debtors to pay off their loans.
Leaning on the popularity he had recently acquired through his whirlwind oratory and free silver platform, Bryan obtained a job speaking at the Democratic National Convention of 1896. He was not originally a strong candidate for the party, but ideas soon changed. Bryan gave his breathtaking cross of gold speech in some of the most hell-raising oratory in the history of the country. Quotes from this speech would become commonplace throughout the country afterwards, including "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." The applause went on for over thirty minutes.
Although in actuality the free silver program was probably not a good idea for the nation, Bryan’s mesmerizing speech alone gained him enough notoriety to earn the spot as the Democratic candidate for the election of 1896. At 36, he was the youngest presidential candidate in the country’s history. His opponent was the unexciting William McKinley. The two candidates could not be more different; while McKinley mostly stayed at home and let the press come to him, Bryan traveled 18,000 miles and made over 600 speeches. It was this tour that would prove his undoing. Bryan was caught on many contradictory statements as he appealed personally to each state. The rich Republicans also outspent the Democrats at a ratio of over 20 to 1. He lost 271-176 to McKinley in electoral votes, but only 51% to 47% in the popular vote.
Shortly after his defeat, Bryan joined the Third Nebraska Volunteer Infantry to fight in the Spanish-American War and was quickly promoted to colonel. McKinley, reluctant to give Bryan anymore glory, stationed his corps at Camp Cuba Libre near Jacksonville, Florida. The regiment never went into battle, but lost almost half of its enrollment to malaria and typhoid fever. His involvement in the fight for Cuba, however, would come back to haunt him later on after taking his stance against imperialism.
Upon his return, Bryan joined the Anti-Imperialist League. He most strongly protested United States annexation of the Philippines. Therefore many political contemporaries were shocked when Bryan supported the Treaty of Paris, which called did just that. He justified his support by declaring that the Philippines had a greater chance of becoming free if they were taken under the American wing. The treaty was passed, largely because of Bryan’s assistance, and soon people were charging Bryan of being a hypocrite and a traitor.
Despite the bad exposure, Bryan remained a public favorite. When 1900 rolled around, he found himself hailed as the leader of both the Democratic and Populist parties. This time Bryan ran on a strong anti-imperialist platform, believing that the The 1900 U.S. Presidential election would be won on foreign policy. In reality, domestic and economic issues proved to be the deciding factors. By 1900 the depression had gone, and free silver began looking like lunacy. Fearful of what Bryan may do to the economy, voters flocked back to McKinley, who won by a much larger margin the second time around. The fact that Bryan had also fought in the Spanish-American War and supported the Treaty of Paris while running an anti-imperialism campaign also made voters apprehensive.
Secretary of State
After two defeats, most political figures would fade away. Bryan continued to be a strong presence, though, through his paper The Commoner, based in Lincoln, Nebraska. The Commoner became one of the most prevalent Progressive newspapers in the country and Bryan kept giving his speeches. In The U.S. Presidential Election of 1904, the Democratic Party lost in a landslide to Theodore Roosevelt after abandoning Bryan. Ironically, Roosevelt supported many of the same Progressive policies that Bryan had been preaching for years.
Democrats reluctantly nominated Bryan again in the presidential election of 1908, lacking a better candidate. After having a wildly successful president in Roosevelt, the Republican successor had little need for any campaigning. Like the election of 1896, Taft sat at home while Bryan tore through the county convincing the public that he was a better successor to Roosevelt. His campaign was going extremely well until late in the election, when he called for government ownership of railroads. This was too socialistic for even the Progressives, and a fearful nation once again decided to avoid a gamble with Bryan.
Three defeats, more than any other presidential candidate in history, was enough for Bryan. Instead of trying to run for president, he spent his time spreading Progressive and Democratic ideas through his newspaper and speeches. He glorified all Democratic candidates, Woodrow Wilson in particular. Through Bryan’s support, Wilson earned the Democratic nomination in 1912 and went on to defeat a divided Republican Party. In compensation for his efforts, Wilson appointed Bryan as Secretary of State.
Bryan became the foremost spokesperson for Wilson’s “New Freedom” plans. In less than two years, Bryan negotiated peace treaties with twenty-nine countries. He was incredibly successful as Secretary of State, one of the most effective ever. When Wilson began to take measures that could result in joining World War I, though, Bryan resigned after two productive years. He disagreed mostly with the way Wilson handled the sinking of the Lusitania; Bryan urged Wilson to tell the public that they rode at their own risk. Still, when the United States joined the war in 1917, Bryan pledged his full support.
During the 1920’s, Bryan became one of the top speakers and writers of reform. He preached the three great reformations, peace, prohibition, and women’s suffrage, and was instrumental in securing the latter two. For a man that had lost three presidential elections and publicly resigned from politics, Bryan still carried a large influence on the laws of the time. In addition to running his paper, Bryan decided to reopen a law firm in Nebraska, where he spent the rest of his life. Besides dealing with reformation, he became known as a staunch religious defender.
Bryan rose to national prominence for the final time in his life in 1925, after a few relatively quiet years. He prosecuted John Scopes in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial of Dayton, Tennessee. Scopes was charged with breaking the law by teaching the theory of Darwinian evolution. The battle between Bryan and Clarence Darrow, Scopes’ attorney, became an ideological battle between religion versus science. Bryan, who believed in literal interpretation of the Bible, triumphed, and the decision was later upheld by the Supreme Court. He again became one of the most controversial figures in America.
On July 26, 1925, five days after the Scopes Monkey Trial had ended, Bryan died in his sleep at the age of 65.