Biography of William Jennings Bryan

How He Shaped American Politics

William Jennings Bryan
William Jennings Bryan, circa 1908. Education Images/UIG

William Jennings Bryan, born on March 19, 1860 in Salem, Illinois, was the dominant politician in the Democratic Party from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. He was nominated for the presidency three times, and his populist leanings and tireless stumping transformed political campaigning in this country. In 1925 he led the successful prosecution in the Scopes Monkey Trial, although his involvement ironically solidified his reputation in some areas as a relic from a prior age.

Early years

Bryan grew up in Illinois. Although originally a Baptist, he became a Presbyterian after attending a revival at age 14; Bryan later described his conversion as the most important day of his life.

Like many children in Illinois at the time, Bryan was home-schooled until he was old enough to attend high school at Whipple Academy, and then college at Illinois College in Jacksonville where he graduated as valedictorian. He moved on to Chicago to attend Union Law College (the precursor of Northwestern University School of Law), where he met his first cousin, Mary Elizabeth Baird, whom he married in 1884 when Bryan was 24.

House of Representatives

Bryan had political ambitions from an early age, and chose to move to Lincoln, Nebraska in 1887 because he saw little opportunity to run for office in his native Illinois. In Nebraska he won election as a Representative—only the second Democrat elected to Congress by Nebraskans at the time.

This was where Bryan flourished and began making a name for himself. Assisted by his wife, Bryan quickly gained a reputation as both a masterful orator and a populist, a man who believed firmly in the wisdom of the common people.

Cross of Gold

In the late 19th century, one of the key issues facing the United States was the question of the Gold Standard, which pegged the dollar to a finite supply of gold. During his time in Congress, Bryan became a staunch opponent of the Gold Standard, and at the 1896 Democratic Convention he delivered a legendary speech that came to be known as the Cross of Gold Speech (due to its concluding line, “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!”) As a result of Bryan’s fiery speech, he was nominated to be the Democratic candidate for president in the 1896 election, the youngest man to achieve this honor.

The Stump

Bryan launched what was for the time an unusual campaign for the presidency. While Republican William McKinley ran a “front porch” campaign from his home, rarely traveling, Bryan hit the road and traveled 18,000 miles, making hundreds of speeches.

Despite his incredible feats of oratory, Bryan lost the election with 46.7% of the popular vote and 176 electoral votes. The campaign had established Bryan as the undisputed leader of the Democratic Party, however. Despite the loss, Bryan had received more votes than previous recent Democratic candidates and seemed to have reversed a decades-long decline in the fortunes of the party. The party shifted under his leadership, moving away from the model of Andrew Jackson, which favored extremely limited government. When the next election came around, Bryan was nominated once again.

The 1900 Presidential Race

Bryan was the automatic choice to run against McKinley again in 1900, but while times had changed over the previous four years, Bryan's platform had not. Still raging against the Gold Standard, Bryan found the country—experiencing a prosperous time under McKinley’s business-friendly administration—less receptive to his message. Although Bryan’s percentage of the popular vote (45.5%) was close to his 1896 total, he won fewer electoral votes (155). McKinley picked up several states he’d won in the prior round.

Bryan’s hold over the Democratic Party frayed after this defeat, and he was not nominated in 1904. However, Bryan’s liberal agenda and opposition to big business interests kept him popular with large sections of the Democratic Party, and in 1908, he was nominated for president for the third time. His slogan for the campaign was “Shall the People Rule?” but he lost by a wide margin to William Howard Taft, winning just 43% of the vote.

Secretary of State

After the 1908 election, Bryan remained influential in the Democratic Party and extremely popular as a speaker, often charging extremely high rates for an appearance. In the 1912 election, Bryan threw his support to Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson won the presidency, he rewarded Bryan by naming him Secretary of State. This was to be the only high-level political office that Bryan ever held.

Bryan, however, was a committed isolationist who believed the United States should stay neutral during World War I, even after German U-boats sank the Lusitania, killing nearly 1,200 people, 128 of them Americans. When Wilson moved forcibly towards entering the war, Bryan resigned from his cabinet post in protest. He remained, however, a dutiful member of the party and campaigned for Wilson in 1916 despite their differences.

Prohibition and Anti-Evolution

Later in life, Bryan turned his energies to the Prohibition movement, which sought to make alcohol illegal. Bryan is credited to some extent in helping to make the 18th Amendment to the Constitution a reality in 1917, as he dedicated much of his energies after resigning as Secretary of State to the subject. Bryan was believed sincerely that ridding the country of alcohol would have a positive effect on the country’s health and vigor.

Bryan was naturally opposed to the Theory of Evolution, formally presented by both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858, sparking a heated debate that is ongoing today. Bryan regarded evolution not simply as a scientific theory he did not agree with or even solely as a religious or spiritual issue regarding the divine nature of man, but as a danger to society itself. He believed that Darwinism, when applied to society itself, resulted in conflict and violence. By 1925 Bryan was a well-established opponent of evolution, making his involvement with the 1925 Scopes Trial almost inevitable.

The Monkey Trial

The final act of Bryan’s life was his role leading the prosecution in the Scopes Trial. John Thomas Scopes was a substitute teacher in Tennessee who willfully violated a state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in state-funded schools. The defense was led by Clarence Darrow, at the time perhaps the most famous defense attorney in the country. The trial attracted national attention.

The trial’s climax came when Bryan, in an unusual move, agreed to take the stand, going toe to toe with Darrow for hours as the two argued their points. Although the trial went Bryan’s way, Darrow was widely perceived as the intellectual victor in their confrontation, and the fundamentalist religious movement that Bryan had represented at the trial lost much of its momentum in the aftermath, while evolution was more widely accepted every year (even the Catholic Church declared there was no conflict between faith and acceptance of evolutionary science in 1950).

In the 1955 play "Inherit the Wind" by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, the Scopes Trial is fictionalized, and the character of Matthew Harrison Brady is a stand-in for Bryan, and portrayed as a shrunken giant, a once-great man who collapses under the assault of modern science-based thought, muttering inauguration speeches never given as he dies.


Bryan, however, saw the trail as a victory and immediately launched a speaking tour to capitalize on the publicity. Five days after the trial, Bryan died in his sleep on July 26, 1925 after attending church and eating a heavy meal.


Despite his immense influence during his life and political career, Bryan’s adherence to principles and issues that have largely been forgotten means his profile has diminished over the years—so much so that his main claim to fame in the modern day is his three failed presidential campaigns. Yet Bryan is now being reconsidered in light of Donald Trump’s 2016 election as a template for the populist candidate, as there are many parallels between the two. In that sense Bryan is being reevaluated as a pioneer in modern campaigning as well as a fascinating subject for political scientists.

Famous Quotes

“... we will answer their demand 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.” -- Cross of Gold Speech, Democratic National Convention, Chicago, Illinois, 1896.

“The first objection to Darwinism is that it is only a guess and was never anything more. It is called a ‛hypothesis,’ but the word ‛hypothesis,’ though euphonious, dignified and high-sounding, is merely a scientific synonym for the old-fashioned word ‛guess.’” -- God and Evolution, The New York Times, February 26, 1922

“I have been so satisfied with the Christian religion that I have spent no time trying to find arguments against it. I am not afraid now that you will show me any. I feel that I have enough information to live and die by.” -- Scopes Trial Statement

Suggested Reading

Inherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, 1955.

A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, by Michael Kazin, 2006 Alfred A. Knopf.

“Cross of Gold Speech”

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Somers, Jeffrey. "Biography of William Jennings Bryan." ThoughtCo, Feb. 17, 2021, Somers, Jeffrey. (2021, February 17). Biography of William Jennings Bryan. Retrieved from Somers, Jeffrey. "Biography of William Jennings Bryan." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).