Nebraska congressman William Jennings Bryan was a titanic force in American politics in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries. A skilled orator and a fervent populist, Bryan was nicknamed “The Great Commoner.” Bryan was the Democratic Party’s nominee for President in 3 elections: 1896, 1900, and 1908. A devout Protestant, Bryan married his religious convictions to his political ones, supporting Prohibition and arguing against teaching evolution in school. Nowadays Bryan may seem like a relic of a bygone era, but the considerable influence he wielded in America can still be felt to this day.
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THE CROSS OF GOLD SPEECH
Bryan rode to his first presidential nomination on the strength of the Cross of Gold speech, which he delivered at the 1896 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Bryan spoke in favor of instituting the free coinage of silver to increase the nation’s money supply. This bimetallism was opposed by monied interests from major urban centers. In contrast to the speaker who came before him, Massachusetts Governor William Russell, Bryan valorized the common man over the wealthy. He went on to reject compromise between “idle holders of idle capital” and “the struggling masses.” Bryan famously concluded the speech by telling the advocates of the Gold Standard that they would “not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
THE PRINCE OF PEACE Bryan flexed his oratorical muscles on the Chautauqua lecture circuit in between presidential runs. One of Bryan’s most famous lectures was known as the Prince of Peace. In the 1908 speech Bryan critiqued Darwin’s theory of evolution. However, he also advocated for a morality founded in religion, working to generalize the peace of God to the rest of the world.
JOHN W. KERN
Bryan’s last presidential run was in 1908. His running mate was Progressive Illinois Senator John W. Kern. Kern and Bryan’s slogan in that election, “Shall the People Rule?” was a demonstration of their populist bona fides. The Democratic Party platform called for, among other things, stricter railroad regulation, the institution of an income tax, and the direct election of senators, all progressive causes.
SECRETARY OF STATE Although Bryan never won the Presidency, he did serve as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson from 1913-1915. Bryan did have some successes during his term, including negotiation of the 1914 Bryan-Chamorro Treaty. However, Bryan eventually resigned from his post over disagreement with President Wilson’s bellicose response to the sinking of the Lusitania, an action that led the United States into World War I.
THE SCOPES TRIAL Tennessee high school teacher John Scopes was arrested for deliberately violating the Butler Act, a statute forbidding the teaching of evolution in public high schools. The resulting court case pitted Bryan for the prosecution against the legendary defense attorney Clarence Darrow. Darrow famously cross-examined Bryan, subjecting him to intense ridicule in the process. Although Scopes was found guilty, Bryan’s reputation was irreparably damaged, and he died a mere five days after the guilty verdict.
*** Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
The Cross of Gold speech is remembered as one of the finest examples of American oratory.
It may be hard to fathom now, but the gold standard was the hottest of hot-button issues in 1896. Read about the fight over bimetallism here.
What was the Chautauqua Circuit? Visit this website to learn more about the institution Teddy Roosevelt called “The most American thing in America.”
The Scopes Monkey Trial was fictionalized in a 1955 play called Inherit the Wind, itself adopted onto an award-winning film five years later. Here is an excerpt from the film, in which “Drummond” (Darrow) cross-examines “Brady” (Bryan).
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