William Jennings Bryan, gifted orator and three-time presidential candidate was born on March 19, 1860, in Salem, Illinois. Trained as a lawyer, Bryan represented the state of Nebraska in the United States Congress, 1891-95. He was known for his deeply held religious beliefs and his popular touch, which earned him the moniker “the Great Commoner.”
…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. “Cross of Gold” Speech, July 9, 1896, Democratic National Convention, Chicago. Extract in The San Francisco call. (San Francisco [Calif.]), July 11, 1896. p3. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers
After serving two terms in the House of Representatives, Bryan reached the pinnacle of his political career. In 1896, he defeated incumbent President Grover Cleveland to win the Democratic party nomination for president. Just thirty-six, Bryan managed to attract the support of mainstream Democrats as well as third party Populists. His historic “Cross of Gold” speech, delivered prior to his nomination, criticized supporters of the gold standard for U.S. currency, which he believed benefited the wealthy at the expense of the average worker. Bryan’s eloquent support of the alternative silver standard, united splintered Democrats and won the “Boy Orator of the Platte” the nomination.
Norwegian immigrant Nils Nilsen Rønning considered himself “an enthusiastic Bryan man”:
The first American politician who captured my imagination was William Jennings Bryan.
I had become intensely interested in the struggle between the gold Democrats and the silver Democrats. I snatched every “extra” about the convention in Chicago in 1896. That was before the radio brought a national convention into the homes.It was a long-drawn out battle of ballots. Then young, handsome, eloquent William Jennings Bryan from Nebraska stepped on the platform and swept the convention off its feet with his crown of gold speech. I doubt if any political speech ever thrilled the American people as did Bryan’s.
Fifty Years in America, by Nils Nilsen Rønning. Minneapolis, Minnesota: The Friend Publishing Company, c1938. p228. Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820 to 1910. General Collections
Scholar, editor, businessman, and diplomat, Rasmus B. Anderson, who was not a Bryan supporter, abandoned the Democratic Party when Bryan received the nomination. Characterizing Bryan as “America’s greatest demagogue” and the “wide-mouthed orator of the Platte-itude” Anderson summed up Bryan’s platform:
The national convention which he captured declared itself in favor of the abolishment of our courts, of free riots, and the unlimited coinage of silver at the ratio of 16 to 1, without regard to what other nations might do. Bryan did not seem to comprehend that the ratio depended on the supply, that is to say, on the commercial value of the two metals. I agreed with the Irishman when he said: ‘It is 16 to 1 now, but after election it will be nothing to ate.’ I repudiated Bryan, with his crown of thorns and cross of gold and the democratic party.
Life Story of Rasmus B. Anderson, by Rasmus B. Anderson with Albert O. Barton. Madison, Wisc., 1915. p602. Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820 to 1910. General Collections
Bryan logged more than 18,000 miles in the campaign of 1896. The unpopularity of the incumbent Democratic Party combined with the well-filled war chest of Republican candidate William McKinley, catapulted McKinley into the White House. Still, Bryan’s following was large enough to result in two additional runs for president. Bryan lost again to McKinley in 1900 and to William Howard Taft in 1908.
Although he never won an election after 1892, Bryan wielded considerable influence. After helping Woodrow Wilson secure the Democratic nomination in 1912, he served as secretary of state. A committed pacifist, Bryan resigned his position in 1915, after the sinking of the Lusitania, as the nation appeared likely to enter World War I.
Towards the end of his career, Bryan was an active speaker on the Chautauqua circuit External. Always pious, during the final years of his life he was extremely active in religious organizations. By the 1920s, Bryan was among America’s most outspoken critics of the theory of evolution, and he was a long-term advocate of Prohibition. His participation in the famous 1925 Scopes Trial served as a capstone to his career.
- Explore personal recollections of Bryan. Search the full text of Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820 to 1910 on William Jennings Bryan for more reminiscences of the important political figure including James Manahan’s autobiography Trials of a Lawyer.
- Read historic newspaper articles covering the election of 1908 in Topics in Chronicling America – The Presidential Election of 1908: Taft vs. Bryan.
- Listen to recordings of two of Bryan’s speeches from 1908 in the Library’s National Jukebox.
- Read historic newspaper articles covering Bryan’s resignation in 1915 as Secretary of State in Topics in Chronicling America – The Resignation of Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan.
- View images and political cartoons depicting Bryan at various stages of his career from the Library’s collection of prints and photographs.