Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
William Jennings Bryan
William Jennings Bryan, (March 19, 1860–July 26, 1925) born in Salem, Illinois, was a gifted orator and three-time United States Democratic nominee for President. Bryan was trained as a lawyer at Northwestern University and received his bachelor's degree at Illinois College. He practiced law in Lincoln, Nebraska, and represented Nebraska in Congress. Bryan, a Populist, held fast to his Midwestern values throughout his life; his deeply-held religious beliefs and his consistent defense of the ordinary American earned him the moniker "the Great Commoner". He was a tireless worker for women's suffrage, and Prohibition, but is probably best known in modern times for his outspoken criticism of evolution which culminated in the Butler Act and the Scopes Trial.
Rise to fame
After serving just two terms in the United States House of Representatives, Bryan reached the pinnacle of his political career. In the presidential election of 1896, Bryan's silver forces defeated conservative "Gold Democrats" supported by incumbent President Grover Cleveland, who did not seek renomination, to win the Democratic Party nomination for President. Just 36, the youngest major-party presidential nominee in U.S. history, Bryan managed to attract the support of mainstream Democrats as well as disaffected third party Populists and Free Silverites. (Bryan actually formally received the Populist Party nomination in 1896 in addition to the Democratic nomination.) His moving "Cross of Gold" speech, delivered prior to his nomination, lambasted Eastern monied classes for supporting the gold standard at the expense of the average worker. Bryan's stance, directly opposing the conservative Cleveland, largely united splintered Democrats and won the handsome "Boy Orator of the Platte" the nomination. Bryan was said to have enjoyed this colorful nickname until opponents ridiculed it, saying it was appropriate thing to call Bryan since the Platte River was narrow, shallow and widest at the mouth.
Bryan logged more than 18,000 miles while visiting 27 states in the campaign of 1896. The unpopularity of the incumbent party combined with the Republican candidate's well-filled war chest, catapulted William McKinley into the White House, by a margin of 271 to 176 in the electoral college. Still, Bryan's following was large enough to result in two additional runs for President. Bryan ran again and lost to McKinley and William Howard Taft in the 1900 and 1908 elections.
Secretary of State and the Scopes Trial
Although Bryan never won an election after 1892, he continued to wield considerable influence. He was deeply opposed to the U.S. annexation of the Philippines as a "Commonwealth" after the Spanish-American War and the resultant Philippine-American War; he is still regarded as something of a hero in some circles in the Philippines for this stance. After helping Woodrow Wilson secure the Democratic nomination in 1912, he served as Secretary of State. A committed pacifist, Bryan resigned on June 9, 1915 over a disagreement regarding his nation's handling of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania and the push toward World War I. He was still physically active, even attempting to join the army when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917.
Although he moved to a large home in Florida, Bryan never retired. Always pious, during the final years of his life he was extremely active in religious organizations and devoted himself to the defense of fundamentalist Christianity. By the 1920s, Bryan was among America's most outspoken critics of the theory of evolution. Echoing his earlier support of Prohibition, Bryan actively supported a constitutional amendment banning public schools from teaching evolution and several state legislatures passed anti-evolution laws after Bryan addressed them. His participation in the famous 1925 Scopes Trial served as a capstone to his career. Bryan was exhausted by the trial, especially his examination at the hands of Clarence Darrow who, in an unusual move, called Bryan to the stand and ridiculed the Great Commoner for his lack of scientific knowledge. Although Bryan prevailed at the trial (although the conviction was eventually set aside on appeal on a technicality), he died on July 26, 1925, just five days after its conclusion, as he was diabetic and insulin had only recently been discovered. Bryan College, named in his honor, was opened in Dayton, Tennessee, site of the Scopes Trial, in 1930 as a memorial to him.
War and Pacifism
Though already a national figure who had run for President, Bryan volunteered to serve in the Spanish-American War in 1898. However, he never saw combat, perhaps because Republican President William McKinley did not want to turn one of his strongest political adversaries into a war hero (Another Republican opponent of Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, would serve in combat and would receive much notoriety for his charge up San Juan Hill.)
After the war, Bryan came to detest it, and the imperialism that resulted from it. Bryan would later become a pacifist, a position that made it politically impossible for him to be elected President. At the time, pacifists were generally regarded as cowards. However, Bryan became committed to pacifism only after he was too old the serve in the army and the position hurt him politically; as such, it could be seen as an act of courage. For this reason those who believe that L. Frank Baum's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is actually a populist allegory consider the Cowardly Lion to represent Bryan (The Scarecrow represents agriculture, the Tin Man represents industry, and Dorothy's slippers were, after all, made of silver in the book).
- "William Jennings Bryan" at The American Experience on PBS
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