William Jennings Bryan

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William Jennings Bryan bigraphy, stories - United States Secretary of State

William Jennings Bryan : biography

March 19, 1860 – July 26, 1925

William Jennings Bryan (March 19, 1860 – July 26, 1925) was a leading American politician from the 1890s until his death. He was a dominant force in the populist wing of the Democratic Party, standing three times as its candidate for President of the United States (1896, 1900 and 1908). He served two terms as a member of the United States House of Representatives from Nebraska 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 McKinley but 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 Germany after 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.Jeffrey P. Moran, The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents (2002)

First campaign for the White House: 1896

Bryan had an innate talent in oratory. He gave speeches, organized meetings, and adopted resounding resolutions that eventually culminated in the founding of the American Bimetallic League, which then evolved into the National Bimetallic Union, and finally the National Silver Committee.Paulo E. Colletta, William Jennings Bryan: Volume I, Political Evangelist, 1860-1908, p. 107. At the time many farmers’ groups believed that by increasing the amount of currency in circulation, commodities would receive higher prices. They were opposed by banks and bond holders who feared the effects of inflation. The ultimate goal of the league was to garner support on a national level for the reinstatement of the coinage of silver.Paxton Hibben, The Peerless Leader, William Jennings Bryan (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, incorporated, 1929), 175. With others, he made certain that the Democratic platform reflected the now strengthening spirit of Midwestern populism. With his support, Charles H. Jones of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was put on the platform committee and Bryan’s "sixteen-to-one" plank for free silver was adopted and silently added to the platform for the 1896 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, in order to avoid controversy.Paxton Hibben, The Peerless Leader, William Jennings Bryan (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, incorporated, 1929),184. As a minority member of the resolutions committee, Bryan was able to push the Democratic Party from its laissez-faire and small-government roots towards its modern, liberal character. Through these measures, the public and influential Democrats became convinced of his capacity to lead and bring change, resulting in his being mentioned as a possible chairman for the Chicago convention.Paxton Hibben, The Peerless Leader, William Jennings Bryan (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, incorporated, 1929),177.

In 1893, the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act had resulted in the collapse of the silver market. Bryan delivered speeches across the country for free silver from 1894 to 1896, building a grass-roots reputation as a powerful champion of the cause.