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William Jennings Bryan: Biography, Accomplishments & Scopes Trial

Instructor: James Moeller
Nebraska's most successful politician, William Jennings Bryan, will be the topic of this lesson. It will include a brief biography, with emphasis on his political career & his role in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial.

The Great Commoner: William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan (called, 'The Great Commoner' due to his support of farmers and common laborers) grew up with a strong faith, became a lawyer and embarked on a political career that would propel him to high office and embroil him in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial.

Early Years & Education

William Jennings Bryan was born on March 16,1860 in Salem, IL. His mother, Mary Bryan, was a devout Baptist and raised her child in a Christ-centered home. This religious fervor would follow Bryan and be the guiding principle of his life. His father, Silas Bryan, was a Jacksonian Democrat and instilled in his son an admiration for the Democratic Party.

Due, in part, to their religious values, young Bryan was home-schooled up to age 10. After graduation from Illinois College in 1874, he attended Union Law College (modern-day Northwestern University Law School) in Chicago.

While preparing for the Bar Exam, he taught high school, where he met and married Mary Elizabeth Baird in October 1884. The newlyweds lived in Jacksonville, IL where Bryan practiced law. Due to limited political prospects, the couple moved to Lincoln, NE where a new movement & party emerged.

William Jennings Bryan, 1896 Presidential Campaign

Political Career

In 1891, the Populist Party originated and spread to Nebraska. Populists were rural in origin and had at the center of their agenda relief for farmers & governmental reform. The Populists emphasized the common man and disparaged the wealthy class. Bryan's agenda was similar, and he became a leader of the movement, winning election to Congress in 1890. Re-elected in 1894, he won largely because he persuaded the Nebraska Democratic Party to support the Populists and his re-election bid.

Have you ever watched a Republican or Democratic Party Convention during a presidential election year? Keynote speakers can gain national prominence and even become their party's nominee for president. Ronald Reagan's speech at the 1964 Republican Party National Convention electrified the audience and propelled him to the governorship of California and later, the Republican Party's Presidential Nominee in 1980.

Bryan had similar success at the 1896 Democratic Party National Convention. After Silverite Democrats repudiated President Grover Cleveland (Democrat) for his support of the gold standard, they turned to Bryan (it is considered improper for a political party's leadership to nominate someone other than the incumbent president). Bryan, who supported the coinage of silver, won them over with his famous, Cross of Gold speech, considered to this day to be one of the greatest political speeches ever given. To the enormous hushed crowd, Bryan, in his thunderous voice, stretched out his arms in a crucifix like manner and said:

'We will answer their demands 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'

The thunderous applause strongly indicated their support of William Jennings Bryan, The Boy Orator of the Platte - in references to the Platte River, which is the main river that runs through the entire length of Nebraska - was nominated for president on the fifth ballot the next day.

Political cartoon of the Cross of Gold Speech

Later Political Career & Scopes Monkey Trial

Unfortunately for Bryan, the wealthy industrialists feared Bryan's penchant for silver coinage. They spread fear among corporations that a Bryan presidency would mean economic ruin for them. These moneyed industrialists even went to the point of withholding contracts, pending a victory by the Republican candidate, William McKinley, a strong supporter of the gold standard.

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