William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925)
By A. Theodore Kachel
William Jennings Bryan, three-time Presidential nominee of the Democratic Party in 1896, (the youngest ever at thirty-six), 1900, and 1908, is now remembered mostly through a distorted play and movie, Inherit the Wind, based on the Scopes Trial. Yet in his lifetime only Presidents Roosevelt and Wilson were as masterful in American political revolutions as he was.
Two major speeches bracket his public career, one given and the other left unspoken. The first is his famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, which produced such a popular outcry that it won him the nomination for President the next day in July 1896. His theme of “Free Silver” made him the Voice for Colorado and other Western mining and farming interests in their search for fair markets then inhibited by the fixed Eastern money markets of “the Gold Standard.” The second might have kept his reputation as a great public leader intact had he lived to give it after the Scopes Trial in July of 1925. It was his closing argument denouncing Social Darwinism’s harsh ethic of ‘survival of the fittest.’ When Clarence Darrow pled John Scopes guilty he precluded Bryan from having the last word at that trial. Bryan died five days later silencing the Great Commoner’s voice almost twenty-nine years to the day after that first speech in Chicago had propelled him into the forefront of American political life.
In both of these speeches and throughout his many campaigns and crusades one theme is constant—“Let the People Rule!” He fought for a government and laws that would support the common people’s hopes and dreams for a better life for them and their children. He fought against elitism in politics, in economics, and in education. His was not a voice for the “haves” against the “have-nots,” but for the “will-haves,” as he put it. His leadership helped elect the next Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, whom he served as Secretary of State until resigning in protest at America’s entry into WWI. In office then or after he guided many progressive reforms into five Constitutional Amendments: the federal income tax, the direct election of Senators, prohibition of alcoholic beverages, the right of women to vote, and the Presidential Lame Duck date for inauguration. Outside of the Supreme Court itself, Bryan changed the Constitution more than any other single American politician, except-for his democratic hero Thomas Jefferson’s writing of the Bill of Rights.
Still, he remains a paradox as a ‘passionate progressive conservative.’ Bryan believed even when he lost that “in the long run, given enough time, the people will form the questions, they will find the answers, and make the changes that will be best for all.” This was his democratic faith, perhaps as important to him as his evangelical protestant faith in shaping his actions, his ideas, and his hopes for the American future. Bryan bet his life on the will of the majority. “Let the People Rule!”
Cherny, Robert W., A Righteous Cause: the Life of William Jennings Bryan. Paperback ed. Oklahoma University Press, 1994.
Farris, Scott, Almost President: the Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation. Paperback ed. Lyons Press, 2013.
Kazin, Michael, A Godly Hero: the life of William Jennings Bryan. Knopf, 2006.
Larson, Edward J., Summer for the Gods: the Scopes Trial and American’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. Basic Books, 1997.
Wills, Gary, Under God: Religion and American Politics. Simon & Schuster, 1990.
A. Theodore Kachel
After forty years of university teaching, Professor Kachel, retired as Head of the Theatre Program at Tulsa Community College in 1999. He still teaches part-time using his PhD. in Religion and Society from Columbia University (1975), a B.A. from Baylor University, a M.A. from Iowa University both in drama, and a M. Div. from Union Seminary (NYC). Now he performs historical characters such as William Jennings Bryan, Sir Winston Churchill, William Shakespeare, Joseph Mallord William Turner, H.G. Wells and Civil War Generals Robert E. Lee and William Tecumseh Sherman. While working with Watts Wacker, a futurist, he created and present in-character sketches of P.T. Barnum, Thomas A. Edison, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Frank Lloyd Wright for Genworth Insurance, Hasbro Toys, T.B.G. Landscaping, Inc, and R.J. Reynolds American.
“I like learning history from inside out!”
Most like Richard Hofstadter, the American intellectual historian, hearing these sayings used by Bryan in many of his speeches, dismiss him as a simple anti-intellectual. Yet I would argue he is a popular expression of an ancient, if controversial philosophical and theological tradition beginning with Plato, continuing in Anselm, and emergent today in Gestalt thinking that asserts one begins all human thinking from a particular perception of what is Real. Tillich called it the Ground of Being; Einstein saw it as relative to the movement of you in relation to the observed. Anselm caught the paradox in his bit of religious poetry—“faith seeks understanding.” My way like Bryan is to update it into a sound bite:“It’s all fiction; so enjoy!”
“It’s a poor head that cannot find plausible reasons for doing what the heart wants to do.”
“No matter how long our government will endure, the great political questions are in their final analysis great moral questions, and it requires no extended experience in the handling of money to enable a man to tell right from wrong.”
1860 Born March 19 in Salem, Illinois
1874 Leaves Baptist church, becomes a Presbyterian
1878 Enters the Illinois College at Jacksonville
1883 Receives law degree from Union College in Chicago
1884 Marries Mary Baird Bryan October 1
1885 Daughter Ruth born
1887 Moves from Illinois to Lincoln, Nebraska
1890 Son William J., Jr. born; serves on the Committee on Ways and Means
1891 Daughter Grace born
1891 Elected U.S. Congressman from Nebraska
1893 Re-elected U.S. Congressman from Nebraska
1895-96 Editor of The Omaha World-Herald, lecture circuit. Runs for President of the United States, but is defeated by William McKinley
1898 Serves as U.S. Army Colonel in Spanish-American War
1900 Runs for president again, but is defeated again by McKinley
1901 Founds The Commoner (publisher until 1913)
1908 Runs for president for the third time, but is defeated by William Howard Taft
1913 Serves as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson
1915 Resigns as Secretary of State in protest over 'war preparedness'
1919 Supports 18th Amendment (temperance)
1920 Supports 19th Amendment (women's suffrage)
1921 Moves to Florida; The Menace of Darwinism published
1925 Lead prosecuting attorney for the State of Tennessee in the "Scopes Monkey Trial"; dies 26 July, just days after the trial