William Jennings Bryan
William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold Speech
High inflation during the American civil war benefited farmers who were debtors and who received high prices for farm products. After the war, the U.S. went back to the gold standard causing general deflation. Various rural-based inflation movements developed. By the early 1890’s, the Populist Party and figures within the Democratic and Republican Parties advocated “free silver” (a silver-standard currency at a high price for silver that would bring inflation). The Populists represented an alliance of rural interests and silver mining interests. Free silver advocate William Jennings Bryan became the Democratic presidential candidate of 1896, delivering the famous “Cross of Gold” speech denouncing the gold standard. This is a radio broadcast on the 100th anniversary of the speech which includes a 1923 phonograph recording of excepts from the speech by Bryan. (Bryan ran for president 4 times. He was Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson for a time. And he became the prosecutor in the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee, convicting Scopes for teaching evolution in the public schools).
He was a leading American politician from the 1890s until his death. He was a dominant force in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, standing three times as its candidate for President of the United States (1896, 1900 and 1908). He served in Congress briefly as a Representative fromNebraska and was the 41st United States Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson (1913–1915), taking a pacifist position on the World War. Bryan was a devout Christian, a supporter of popular democracy, and an enemy of the gold standard as well as banks and railroads. He was a leader of the silverite movement in the 1890s, a peace advocate, a prohibitionist, and an opponent of Darwinism on religious and humanitarian grounds. With his deep, commanding voice and wide travels, he was one of the best known orators and lecturers of the era. Because of his faith in the wisdom of the common people, he was called “The Great Commoner.”
In the intensely fought 1896 and 1900 elections, he was defeated by William McKinleybut retained control of the Democratic Party. With over 500 speeches in 1896, Bryan invented the national stumping tour, in an era when other presidential candidates stayed home. In his three presidential bids, he promoted Free Silver in 1896, anti-imperialism in 1900, and trust-busting in 1908, calling on Democrats to fight the trusts (big corporations) and big banks, and embrace anti-elitist ideals of republicanism. President Wilson appointed him Secretary of State in 1913, but Wilson’s strong demands on Germanyafter the Lusitania was torpedoed in 1915 caused Bryan to resign in protest. After 1920 he was a strong supporter of Prohibition and energetically attacked Darwinism and evolution, most famously at the Scopes Trial in 1925. Five days after the end of the case, he died in his sleep.
Background and early career: 1860–1896
Bryan’s mother was of English heritage. Mary Bryan joined the Salem Baptists in 1872, so Bryan attended Methodist services on Sunday morning, and in the afternoon, Baptist services. At this point, William began spending his Sunday afternoons at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. At age 14, Bryan attended arevival, was baptized, and joined the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. In later life, Bryan said the day of his baptism was the most important day in his life, but at the time it caused little change in his daily routine. He left the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and joined the larger Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.
His father Silas, of Scots-Irish and English descent, was an avid Jacksonian Democrat. Silas won election to the Illinois State Senate, but was defeated for re-election in 1860. He did win election as a state circuit judge, and moved to a 520-acre (210.4 ha) farm north of Salem in 1866, living in a ten-room house that was the envy of Marion County.
Until age ten, Bryan was home-schooled, finding in the Bible and McGuffey Readers support for his views that gambling and liquor were evil and sinful. To attend Whipple Academy, which was attached to Illinois College, Bryan was sent to Jacksonville, Illinois in 1874.
Following high school, he entered Illinois College, graduating as valedictorian in 1881. During his time at Illinois College, Bryan was a member of the Sigma Pi literary society. He studied law at Union Law College in Chicago (which later became Northwestern University School of Law). While preparing for thebar exam, he taught high school and met Mary Elizabeth Baird, a cousin of William Sherman Jennings. He married her on October 1, 1884, and they settled in Salem, which at the time had a population of two thousand.
Mary became a lawyer and collaborated with him on all his speeches and writings. He practiced law in Jacksonville from 1883 to 1887, then moved to the boom city of Lincoln, Nebraska. In Lincoln, Bryan met James Dahlman and they became lifelong friends. As chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, Dahlman would help carry Nebraska for Bryan in two presidential campaigns. Even when Dahlman became closely associated with Omaha’s vice elements, including the breweries as the city’s eight-term mayor, he and Bryan maintained a collegial relationship.
In the Democratic landslide of 1890, Bryan was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, from Nebraska’s First Congressional District. The growing prohibitionist movement entered the election of 1890 with its own slate of candidates. In the three-way race in the First Congressional District, Bryan received 6,713 more votes than his nearest opponent. This was a plurality of the vote and was 8,000 votes short of a majority of the vote. Nonetheless, Bryan was elected and was only the second Democrat to be elected to Congress in the history of Nebraska. However in his re-election race in 1892, Bryan was re-elected by a 140-vote majority in a two person race. He ran for the Senate in 1894, but a Republican landslide led to the state Legislature’s choice of a Republican for the Senate seat.