BRIA 25 3 William Jennings Bryan the Great Commoner

Bill of Rights in Action
SPRING 2010 (Volume 25, No. 3)

Revolution and Change

England’s Glorious Revolution  |  John Maynard Keynes and the Revolution in Economic Thought  |  William Jennings Bryan, the “Great Commoner”

 William Jennings Bryan, the ‘Great Commoner’

Born in 1860 in a small town in southern Illinois, William Jennings Bryan had a passion for oratory. According to a neighbor, he was giving “little talks” to his friends at age 4. His skill at public speaking and his ability to connect with the “common man” made him one of the most famous, beloved, and influential Americans of his time.

William Jennings Bryan grew up a regular churchgoer and active in the YMCA. After high school and college, he went to law school and graduated in 1883. In a letter to his wife, he said that as a lawyer his aim would be “to mete out justice to every creature, whether he be rich or poor, bond or free.” His great desire, he wrote, “is to honor God and please mankind.”

Bryan and his wife moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1887 and together started a successful law practice. But politics was in his blood, and within a year he was out on the stump, campaigning for a Democrat running for Congress.

Two years later, Bryan decided to run for Congress himself. 1890 was a bad year for Nebraska’s farmers. A terrible drought had destroyed millions of acres of corn, wheat, and oats. Farmers were forced to mortgage their homes, and businesses were going bankrupt. Many joined the Populist Party, rebelling against a “conspiracy” of the monopolies (or “trusts”) on Wall Street. Bryan campaigned as a leader of the prairie insurgents, quoting the Bible and speaking in a language that small farmers and shopkeepers understood. He spent little money (less than $200), but he won the election, becoming just the second Democratic congressman in Nebraska history. After the victory, a local newspaper predicted that Bryan had the abilities that would make him “a remarkable man in the history of this nation,” a prediction that soon became true.

A Champion for the Common Man

In 1893—while Bryan was serving in Congress—the country fell into a terrible depression. The Panic of 1893 was the worst of that century. Thousands of businesses closed, and dozens of railroads went bankrupt. Ragged armies of unemployed men staged demonstrations, and union members went on strike. Soup kitchens were set up for the unemployed, but the federal government did almost nothing to help.

Many blamed President Cleveland for their hardship. Cleveland had sent government troops to crush the Pullman railway strike. He did not carry through on his campaign promise of reducing the high protective tariffs that raised the cost of materials for farmers and small businesses. And he repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, which had allowed the Treasury to buy a lot of silver for notes that could be redeemed in silver or gold. Repealing that act was popular with bankers and corporate leaders, who believed that having the dollar tied only to gold would help business. But it infuriated the “free silverites.” They believed that a gold standard hurt the working man and that “free silver” would result in more money in circulation and make it easier for farmers and other debtors to pay off their loans.

Bryan strongly opposed repealing the Silver Purchase Act. On August 16, 1893, he spoke before Congress for three hours, portraying the cause of free silver as a defense of the working man. He insisted that there could be no room for compromise: “Just as long as there are people here who would chain the country to a single gold standard, there is war—eternal war.” He sat down to an explosive ovation. It was the first of many speeches that brought him fame and national attention.

The ‘Cross of Gold’ Speech

During his two terms in Congress, the economy continued to get worse. Bryan worked for more reforms to help farmers, miners, and urban workers whose jobs had been lost. He called for a graduated income tax to bring in revenue, for federal insurance of bank deposits, and for the freedom to form a union and to strike. He was already being hailed as a leader, and in the summer of 1895, he decided to run for president.

It was an ambitious goal for a young man of 35 from Nebraska. Most Americans did not know who he was, and he had no money to finance his campaign. But he possessed a great asset: his extraordinary skill for speaking. For 15 months, he traveled across the country, speaking and entrancing audiences with his looks, his voice, and his message. By July 1896, he stood up in front of the delegates at the Democratic convention and was ready to deliver his message.

“I come,” Bryan said, “to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty—the cause of humanity.” He urged his fellow Democrats to stand up for the common man. Our party, he said, should not defer to Wall Street and big business: “The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer . . . the merchant at the crossroads store is as much a businessman as the merchant in New York . . . the farmer who toils all days is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the board of trade and bets upon the price of grain . . . .” After 20 minutes before a rapt audience, Bryan made a final eloquent call for free silver. To those who call for the gold standard, he said, “we will answer their demand . . . 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.”

There was a moment of silence and then the convention hall erupted. Men and women stood up on their chairs and flung off their hats. Others had tears streaming down their cheeks. The crowd cheered for more than half an hour. And the next day, Bryan won the presidential nomination.

During the next three months (from August to November), Bryan set out across the country by train. He traveled 18,000 miles and spoke to more than 5 million people along the way. His Republican rival, William McKinley, sat on his porch in Ohio throughout the campaign. McKinley’s campaign manager, Mark Hanna, raised more than $3.5 million from wealthy Wall Street bankers and spread the word that electing Bryan would bring business down. Hanna’s message to workers was that electing McKinley would bring them “a full dinner pail.” While Bryan tried to win over urban workers, factory owners told their workers to stay home and not to vote. On Election Day, Bryan narrowly lost, and the Republican Party was back in power. But by now, Bryan was perhaps the best known man in America.

The Prince of Peace

Bryan ran for president two more times—in 1900 and 1908. He was defeated both times, and yet his fame did not diminish. He was, and continued to be, a political player who held strong views on many issues and significantly influenced the Democratic Party.

After 1896, Bryan continued to tour the country. He gave up practicing law but made a comfortable living with fees he earned delivering lectures (often $250 per speech). During the summers, he would lecture throughout the country, and huge crowds would come to hear him speak. He toured the world in 1905–06, visiting 18 countries. In 1900, he also began publishing a weekly magazine—the Commoner (based on his nickname, the “Great Commoner”). It soon had a circulation of 145,000 readers.

Between the lecture circuit and the Commoner, Bryan made his views widely known. He continued to argue for a progressive income tax, for regulating railroads, for women’s suffrage, and for strengthening antitrust laws. After 1900, he became a strong champion of anti-imperialism and stopping American expansion in the Philippines, in Cuba, and in Haiti. He also began arguing for outlawing the sale of alcohol. All his speeches contained a strong religious message—a message of the need for a moral awakening, of the need for a conscience to stand against corruption in politics and commerce, and of the need to banish war and tyranny from the earth.

Bryan was able to argue convincingly for peace in his lectures and writings, but he did not fare so well on the political stage. In 1913, newly elected President Woodrow Wilson asked Bryan to serve as secretary of state. Bryan came to office with a plan that he believed would end all wars: to have every nation agree to sign a bilateral treaty with the United States in which each side would agree to submit any dispute to a panel for investigation and defer conflict for a year. Wilson agreed with the plan, and that summer, 30 nations signed the treaties, including all the major European nations except Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Bryan’s passion and commitment to preventing war was not successful and in fact damaged his career and reputation. After World War I began in 1914, Bryan urged America to remain neutral. But Germany’s tactics of submarine warfare undermined Bryan’s policy. In May 1915, a German U-boat in the Atlantic torpedoed a British passenger ship, the Lusitania, killing 128 American passengers. Bryan tried in vain to persuade President Wilson to continue to work toward peace with Germany. When Wilson disagreed, Bryan resigned.

Teaching Evolution in Tennessee

After resigning in 1915, Bryan continued to oppose the United States’ entering the war and to promote policies that would help working-class voters. His main concern was to reverse the erosion of religious faith and bring society closer to God. He believed that “morality is dependent on religion” and that religion “is not only the most practical thing in the world but the most essential.” For at least nine months of each year, Bryan traveled on the lecture circuit, preaching to thousands of devoted admirers.

Many of Bryan’s lectures concerned what he saw as a serious threat to morality—Darwin’s theory of evolution. Bryan believed that if students were taught Darwin’s theory—that only the strongest and fittest survive—they would have little reason to care for the weak and helpless. With other anti-Darwinists, Bryan went to many state capitols to make the case for anti-evolution laws. In 1924, he gave a speech in the state capitol of Tennessee against teaching evolution. Most people, he had concluded, “do not believe in the ape theory.” Anti-evolution laws were the correct solution because “those who pay the taxes have a right to determine what is taught; the hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.”

A year later, on March 23, 1925, Tennessee passed a law that banned teaching any theory that “denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” The American Civil Liberties Union started looking to test the law in court. Business leaders in Dayton thought a trial could bring the town publicity. It was arranged for a case to be filed in Dayton, charging a young teacher, named John Scopes, with violating the law by using a textbook that included material about human evolution.

The prosecutors asked Bryan if he would join their team, and he readily agreed. Bryan saw the case as a “battle royal” in defense of the faith and morality. On the other side, Scopes was defended by the American Civil Liberties Union, which was determined to fight for freedom of speech. “We shall take the Scopes case to the United States Supreme Court if necessary,” said the founder of the ACLU, “to establish that a teacher may tell the truth without being thrown in jail.” Clarence Darrow, one of the most famous trial lawyers in the country, volunteered to represent Scopes.

With two celebrity lawyers facing off, the Scopes trial became a huge public spectacle. More than 100 journalists flooded into Dayton for the “monkey trial,” and a policeman cruised town with a sign “Monkeyville Police” on his motorcycle. Spectators crowded the courtroom as the lawyers argued over whether scientific evidence could be introduced to show that Darwin’s theory was factually correct. The judge ruled that scientific evidence was irrelevant because the law clearly banned any teaching about human evolution, whether or not it conflicted with the Bible and whether or not it was scientifically correct.

The only issue that remained was whether Scopes had violated the law. But Darrow was determined to show that science did not conflict with religion and that the Bible could not be interpreted literally. On the last day of trial, he called Bryan to the stand as an expert on the Bible. Bryan made a terrible mistake and agreed to testify. He did not do well on the stand. Darrow posed numerous questions about events recounted in the Book of Genesis: Did Jonah live inside a whale for three days? How could Joshua lengthen the day by making the sun stand still? Bryan had no good answers to the questions, and the questioning grew nasty. When lawyers tried to stop the questioning Bryan, shouted: “I am simply trying to protect the word of God against the greatest atheist or agnostic in the United States.”

“I object to your statement,” Darrow shouted back. “I am examining your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian in the world believes.”

The next day, the defense conceded that it had nothing more to offer in Scopes’ defense, and the jury, after nine minutes, returned a verdict of guilty. The prosecution had won, but Bryan was widely ridiculed in the national press. Five days later he died in his sleep. He never had a chance to deliver the closing argument he had prepared in defense of religion and the Christian faith, a speech that argued eloquently that while science is a “magnificent force . . . it is not a teacher of morals.” The speech, never heard, was one more statement from a man who throughout his life had undertaken to spread the moral code of the Christian faith in which he fervently believed.

Bryan, the Freelance Politician

In 1931, William Gibbs McAdoo, who had served with Bryan in Wilson’s Cabinet, wrote that William Jennings Bryan had “more to do with the shaping of the public policies of the last 40 years than any other American citizen.” Bryan had led the campaign for three constitutional amendments: for the income tax (16th Amendment), the popular election of U.S. senators (17th Amendment), and for Prohibition (18th Amendment). He campaigned for many other causes ultimately embraced by the country, including the right of women to vote, the right of workers to join unions and to strike, and the strengthening of antitrust laws. He also campaigned for issues still being discussed today, including having the federal government stop the influence of big business on politics by financing all “legitimate” campaign expenses.

Bryan’s accomplishments are quite extraordinary, given that he came from a small rural state that rarely voted for Democrats and lost each of his three runs for president. He was, in the words of a biographer, a “freelance” politician, who was free to say what he believed in and never compromised his beliefs. As Bryan often said of himself, “I kept the faith.”

For Discussion and Writing

1. Bryan had many nicknames: the “Great Commoner,” the “Silver Knight of the West,” the “Boy Orator of the Platte,” the “Peerless Leader of the Democratic Party,” and the “Fundamentalist Pope” (the last nickname was an insult given by journalist H.L. Mencken). Why do you think was he called each of these names?

2. In 1896, the Populist Party, which represented the interests of farmers and laborers, backed Bryan, the Democratic candidate. Why do you think it backed Bryan? How did McKinley appeal to these voters?

3. What were Bryan’s political views? What U.S. politicians today do you think hold similar views? How are they similar? Different?



William Jennings Bryan had many nicknames. In this activity, groups will create nicknames for famous figures that lived during Bryan’s lifetime.

1. Divide into small groups.

2.  Each group should do the following:

a.  Select seven figures from the list below.

b. Research each figure in your history text.

c. Create a clever nickname that captures what each person is famous for. (Do not use an actual nickname.)

d.  Be prepared to report to the class on your nicknames and why they suit the people.

Famous Figures

Jane Addams

Susan B. Anthony

Alexander Graham Bell

Joseph Cannon

Andrew Carnegie

Eugene V. Debs

George Dewey

John Dewey

W.E.B. Du Bois

Thomas A. Edison

Samuel Gompers

Benjamin Harrison

John Hay

William Randolph Hearst

Charles Evans Hughes

Hiram Johnson

Robert La Folette

Henry Cabot Lodge

Alfred Thayer Mahan

Dwight Moody

J. Pierpont Morgan

Samuel Morse

Carry A. Nation

Frederick Law Olmsted

Alice Paul

Joseph Pulitzer

Jeannette Rankin

Jacob Riis

John D. Rockefeller

Upton Sinclair

Lincoln Steffens

William Graham Sumner

Billy Sunday

William Howard Taft

Ida Tarbell

Booker T. Washington

James B. Weaver





Constitutional Rights Foundation
is a member of: 
crn footer


Terms of Use Privacy Notice  |  Donor Privacy Policy  |  Teach Democracy (formerly Constitutional Rights Foundation), 601 S. Kingsley Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90005 | 213.487.5590 | 

© 2024 Teach Democracy®.  All Rights Reserved.

Joomla3 Appliance - Powered by TurnKey Linux