William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan2018-11-28T09:55:23+00:00
William Jennings Bryan APUSH

About the Author: Warren Hierl taught Advanced Placement U.S. History for twenty-eight years. He has conducted 250+ AP US History workshops for teachers. He was a member of the committee that wrote the original Advanced Placement Social Studies Vertical Teams Guide and the Advanced Placement U.S. History Teachers Guide. He has been a reader, a table leader, and, for the past eight years, the question leader on the DBQ at the AP U.S. History reading.

In other words- Mr. Hierl grades the essays you will write for the APUSH exam.

William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan (nicknamed the “Boy Orator of the Platte” and “The Great Commoner”) was a Nebraska politician and orator who rose to fame in 1896 when he secured the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. He would subsequently win the Democratic nomination for president in 1900 and again in 1908.  After supporting Woodrow Wilson in the election of 1912, he was named Secretary of State but resigned as U.S. entry into World War I began to look more certain.  Following his resignation he worked for progressive policies, particularly for the democratization of the American political process and the empowerment of the “common man”.  In 1925 he aided the prosecution in the famous “Monkey Trial” of John Scopes who was accused of illegally teaching the theory of evolution in Tennessee.  A three-time loser for the presidency of the United States, and ridiculed by many for his staunchly fundamentalist views on evolution, he nevertheless gave vivid expression to the views of the Populist wing of the Democratic Party.

William Jennings Bryan gave vivid expression to the views of the Populist wing of the Democratic Party.

Nebraska’s Stupendous Boy

The Populist Party became a significant player on the national political scene as it advocated government ownership of utilities, a graduated income tax, and direct election of senators

William Jennings Bryan’s residence in Nebraska gave him a first-hand look at the hardships facing the agrarian sector of the nation near the end of the nineteenth century.  The Populist Party became a significant player on the national political scene as it advocated government ownership of utilities, a graduated income tax, and direct election of senators.  Bryan, though being a Democrat, adopted many of the tenets of Populist philosophy in speaking to the needs of farmers of the Midwest and Great Plains.  Particularly, debtor classes favored an increase in the money supply by calling for the Federal Government to begin the “free and unlimited coinage of silver.” Farmers reasoned that with more money in circulation, prices for agricultural commodities would increase making it easier for them to pay off debts.  In 1890, Bryan, a “Free Silver” Democrat, became only the second Democrat elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Nebraska.

In 1890, Bryan, a “Free Silver” Democrat, became only the second Democrat elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Nebraska.

Breakthrough Convention

Bryan’s rise to national prominence occurred at the 1896 Democratic National Convention in Chicago where he gave a keynote address known as the “Cross of Gold” speech.  At the convention Democrats adopted many of the planks of the Omaha Platform (the Populist platform of the election of 1892) but were divided into “Free Silverites”, like Bryan, and “Gold Bugs” on the issue of the expansion of the money supply.  Bryan’s speech enthralled the audience and led to his nomination for president of the fifth ballot.  In part it read:

You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country…
You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

Subsequently, Bryan was defeated by William McKinley.

Presidential Sorrow

The issue of imperialism took center-stage during the Election of 1896.

The McKinley administration saw the return of prosperity to the United States after the Panic of 1893, and the issue of the free and unlimited coinage of silver took a back seat to other political issues.  Particularly, with the conclusion of the Spanish-American War (that “splendid little war” as Secretary of State John Hay referred to it), the issue of imperialism took center stage.  At the conclusion of the war, the United States gained Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam, while promising Cuba its freedom.  Whether or not to annex the Philippines was a particularly troubling concern.  Imperialists and strong navy advocates, like Teddy Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan, favored retaining the islands so that they wouldn’t fall into the hands of European competitors.  The Philippines also provided an excellent geographic position to aid the expansion of Far Eastern trade. However, anti-imperialists, like Bryan, Mark Twain, and Andrew Carnegie, favored granting the Philippines their independence for a variety of different reasons, particularly that it conflicted with the founding principle of the consent of the governed.

Anti-imperialists, like Bryan, Mark Twain, and Andrew Carnegie, favored granting the Philippines their independence for a variety of different reasons.

Bryan was again the Democratic nominee for president in 1900 and he was determined to make imperialism a major issue.  To his own detriment, Bryan insisted on continuing the cry for free silver, but in the era of prosperity, with the nation awash in the patriotic spirit that easy victory in a war brings, the Bryan message was a little passé.  Passed over for a significantly more conservative Democrat in the election of 1904, Bryan again resurfaced as the Democratic nominee in 1908.  In the election Bryan faced Teddy Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft.  By 1908, both parties boasted strong progressive wings and Republicans had co-opted many of the progressive ideas which had once been the exclusive providence of Democrats, and Bryan ended up losing the election.  However, that did not end Bryan’s political influence.

By 1908, both parties boasted strong progressive wings and Republicans had co-opted many of the progressive ideas which had once been the exclusive providence of Democrats, and Bryan ended up losing the election.

A Secretarial Compromise

The election of 1912 saw the Republican Party badly divided between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, which greatly enhanced the prospect of a Democratic victory.  Nevertheless, at the Democratic National Convention, the nomination process bogged down with neither Champ Clark (Democratic Speaker of the House) nor Woodrow Wilson (progressive governor of New Jersey) able to gain the nomination.  In the end, William Jennings Bryan threw his considerable support to Woodrow Wilson, and Wilson was nominated on the 46th ballot.  In return for his support, Wilson named Bryan Secretary of State. As Secretary of State, Bryan concluded more than thirty “conciliatory treaties” designed to lessen the likelihood of war.  However, Bryan, a staunch pacifist, resigned two years after his appointment fearing that Wilson’s more aggressive measures toward Germany would lead to U.S. involvement in World War I.

A Secretarial Resignation

Following his resignation, Bryan continued to be an advocate of and a speaker for peace, prohibition, and women’s suffrage, partially through the publication of The Commoner”  For all his notoriety on the political stage, Bryan is probably best noted for his assistance to the prosecution in the “Scopes Monkey Trial.”  In 1925, Bryan, a strident fundamentalist and a staunch opponent of the theory of evolution, was called to the stand by Defense Attorney Clarence Darrow as an expert witness on the Bible.  There, Darrow grilled Bryan incessantly on the literal interpretation of the Bible and, in the eyes of many, exposed him to ridicule and scorn.  Bryan died a few days later.

For all his notoriety on the political stage, Bryan is probably best noted for his assistance to the prosecution in the “Scopes Monkey Trial.”

Bryan’s Legacy

Bryan and progressive Democrats believed that the government needed to be strengthened to protect the common man from exploitation by big business.

Bryan, considered by many a great mouth rather than a great brain (detractors said that the “boy orator of the Platte” was a correct nickname because at its mouth, the Platte was only six inches deep but six miles wide), was not an original thinker but an effective mouthpiece for promoting the progressive ideas of others.  His nomination for president from the Democratic Party, and subsequent influence on that party, resulted in a dramatic change in the Democratic Party’s ideology.  Traditionally, the Democratic Party had espoused the belief that “that government is best which governs least.”  Bryan and progressive Democrats believed that the government needed to be strengthened to protect the common man from exploitation by big business.  At times his own worst enemy, Bryan nevertheless advanced democratic ideals and principles.

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