Bryan, William Jennings (1860–1925), a United States orator and political leader. He first attracted attention as a brilliant speaker, and was called the “Boy Orator of the Platte,” after the Platte River near his home in Nebraska. He rose to national prominence by making speeches against the powerful business corporations and won the title of the “Great Commoner.” Bryan reached the height of his career as the “Peerless Leader” of the Democratic party, 1896–1912. He was three times Democratic candidate for President, but lost each time.
Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois. He graduated from Illinois College, Jacksonville, and from a law school in Chicago. After practicing law, he moved in 1887 to Lincoln, Nebraska.
From 1891 to 1895 Bryan was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He ran for the Senate in 1894, but was defeated. He was then editorial writer for the Omaha World-Herald for two years.
During the economic depression of the 1890's Bryan became a spokesman for the nation's discontented farmers. The solution he advocated was free coinage of silver.
At the Democratic convention of 1896 Bryan gave his eloquent “Cross of Gold” speech. He warned supporters of the gold standard: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Electrified, the delegates nominated Bryan for the Presidency. He waged a brilliant campaign, but despite support of Populists and Free Silver Republicans, he lost to the Republican nominee, William McKinley, 271 electoral votes to 176.
During the Spanish-American War, Bryan raised a regiment of volunteers in Nebraska. He was colonel of the regiment, but saw no service in the fighting zone.
In 1900 the Democrats nominated Bryan a second time, but again he was defeated by McKinley. He then founded a political newspaper, The Commoner. In 1908 Bryan gained his third nomination but was defeated by William Howard Taft, the Republican nominee.
In 1912 Bryan helped win the Democratic Presidential nomination for Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey. After Wilson's victory Bryan became secretary of state. He negotiated treaties with 30 nations to promote the peaceful settlement of disputes. When World War I broke out in 1914 Bryan favored neutrality. He resigned in 1915 when President Wilson wanted a strong note sent to Germany protesting the sinking of the Lusitania. Although a pacifist, Bryan supported the war effort when the United States declared war.
During his last years Bryan was occupied chiefly with moral and religious issues. He strongly supported the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the sale of liquor. Bryan insisted that the Bible should be believed and followed literally. In Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, he helped prosecute John T. Scopes, a teacher accused of teaching evolution in violation of state law. The questioning of Bryan by chief defense counsel Clarence Darrow exposed Bryan's rigid fundamentalism to ridicule. Bryan died five days after the trial ended.
Bryan's books include The First Battle (1897), Speeches (2 volumes, 1909), Memoirs (finished by his widow, 1925), and several political and religious books.