William Jennings Bryan

by R.M. Cornelius

 

Personal Life

William Jennings Bryan lived a full and busy personal life. Born in Salem, Illinois, March 19, 1860, he graduated from Illinois College and Union College of Law. As a boy he attended both a Baptist and a Methodist Sunday School, received Jesus Christ as his Savior in a Presbyterian church, and was active in the Presbyterian church the rest of his life, rising to become Vice-Moderator of the General Assembly.

After marrying Mary Baird, Bryan moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the three Bryan children grew up. The Bryans moved to Miami, Florida, in 1920, and they also had a summer home in Asheville, North Carolina.

In personality, Bryan was hard-working, courageous, and noble in moral principles as well as friendly, charming, and optimistic. On the one hand he spoke for the common man, was called "The Great Commoner," and was very popular with the average person. On the other hand, he was friends with or at least met such notables as Leo Tolstoy, Billy Sunday, Buffalo Bill Cody, Prime Minister Balfour, the kings of England and Norway, Czar Nicholas II, Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Willa Cather, Edgar Lee Masters, Dr. James M. Gray, Justice Louis Brandeis, Bernard Baruch, John Sargent, Dr. William Bell Riley, and the following U.S. presidents: Cleveland, McKinley, T. Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Harding, and Coolidge.


Politics

In his political life, Bryan viewed his role as doing God's work. He was U.S. Representative from Nebraska to Congress in 1891-95. At thirty-six he was nominated for president in 1896 by the Democrats and seven other parties. Although he received forty-seven percent of the vote and won in more states and territories than William McKinley, voting fraud stole six states from Bryan, and he lost this election and those of 1900 and 1908.

In 1912 Bryan helped Woodrow Wilson get elected, and Wilson named Bryan his Secretary of State. While in this office for three years, Bryan negotiated peace treaties with thirty nations and helped promote Wilson's progressive policies and strengthen the U.S. position in the Caribbean. During the fifteen years he was the leader of the Democratic Party, Bryan also acted as the watchdog of Congress and the conscience of the country.


Policies and Programs

William Jennings Bryan was a progressive in his policies and programs, but first and last he was a man of principle. "I believe in speaking well of any policy that is good, regardless of which party is supporting it," he said. Had he been president, he probably could not have enacted more ideas and programs than the many he promoted, which became realities when enough of the country caught up with his far-sighted thinking. These measures include the following:

  • The 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th Amendments to the Constitution (graduated income tax, direct election of senators, prohibition of liquor, woman suffrage)
  • Direct primaries and legislation
  • Extensive changes in the operation of the House of Representatives
  • Alterations in the powers of the Supreme Court
  • Federal Reserve Act
  • Federal Trade Commission
  • Federal Farm Loan Act
  • Government regulations of railroad and telegraph/telephone as well as safety devices and pure food processing
  • Government control of currency and banking
  • Regulations regarding trusts and corporate monopolies
  • Establishment of departments of health and education and labor
  • Public regulation of political campaign contributions
  • Voting reform, the initiative, the referendum
  • Reform to make the Constitution more easily amendable
  • Influence on the revision of state constitutions
  • Public disclosure of newspaper ownership and the signing of editorials
  • An array of labor laws and reforms (workers' compensation, the minimum wage, the eight-hour day, improved conditions for seamen and railroad employees, prohibition of injunctions in labor disputes)
  • Tariff reform
  • Promotion of public parks
  • Defense of rights of minorities
  • Anti-imperialism
  • Home rule for the Philippines and Puerto Rico
  • Settling of international differences through peaceful arbitration
  • Protection of the Panama Canal
  • Strengthening of Latin American relations (through advocating courses in Spanish and Latin American affairs, scholarships, exchanges of professors, helping to found the University of Miami)
  • Support of education (including African American education)
  • Legislation to provide for truly liberal equal-time consideration of Darwinian evolution and Biblical creationism in the public schools.
The eventual general acceptance of Bryan's policies and programs is a testimony to the accuracy of historian Henry Commanger's observation that though victimized at the polls, Bryan has been "vindicated by history."


Publications and Orations

As a communicator, William Jennings Bryan was without peer in his use of the mass media. He was editor-in-chief of the Omaha World-Herald and founded and edited The Commoner, a weekly paper of sixteen pages which ran for 23 years and had a circulation of 285,000. He also wrote some fifteen books, edited two collections of orations, and produced numerous pamphlets. His Sunday School lessons were syndicated in over a hundred newspapers with an estimated readership of fifteen million.  See Library of Congress's digital collection of The Commoner »

For the 1908 campaign, Bryan made a movie with a recording of his speech and thus was the first presidential candidate shown in motion pictures and anticipated the first talking motion picture by many years. In 1922, his first radio address is estimated to have had an audience of sixty million.

It was as a speaker that Bryan excelled. Called "the silver-tongued orator," William Jennings Bryan is usually considered to be one of the world's greatest orators. He could speak without shouting to thousands in the out-of-doors without any means of amplification and be heard clearly. In the 1896 presidential campaign, he traveled 18,000 miles, made over 2,500 speeches, and sometimes spoke as many as twenty-five times in a single day.

Bryan was interested in religious and moral topics even more than politics. His memorable phrases, witty remarks, serious topics, and clear explanations made him a favorite of the Chautauqua circuit. As a result, for some thirty years Bryan accepted about two hundred invitations a year to speak at colleges (such as Harvard and Princeton), civic meetings, and various groups of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. His weekly Bible class in Miami grew to 5,000 people and had to meet in a park. The titles of his orations and books (some of which he did not copyright in order to provide wider distribution) are reflective of his Christian concern: "The Value of an Ideal," "The Prince of Peace," "Faith," "The Price of a Soul," Christ and His Companions, Orthodox Christianity Versus Modernism, Famous Figures of the Old Testament.


Religion

When asked how he could be a progressive in politics and a fundamentalist in religion, Bryan replied, "Government is man-made and therefore imperfect. It can always be improved. But religion is not a man-made affair. . .I am satisfied with the God we have, with the Bible and with Christ." As the best-known spokesman for the fundamentalist movement of his day, Bryan believed in the divine verbal inspiration of the Bible; the deity, virgin birth, resurrection and miracles of Christ; and the sufficiency of Christ's substitutionary death on the cross for the sins of all who believe in Christ as their personal savior.


Scopes Trial

"Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved." William Jennings Bryan practiced this pronouncement all of his adult life, including his closing years, when he crusaded against Darwinian evolution being taught as truth in the public schools.

In 1924 he lectured in Nashville on "Is the Bible True?" a year before the Tennessee legislature debated and passed the Butler bill, which made it "unlawful for any teacher in any of the. . . public schools. . .to teach 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 Scopes Evolution Trial, July 10-21, 1925, (discussed below under an analysis of Inherit the Wind), which resulted from the passage of this law, was one of the top news stories of the year, involving William Jennings Bryan, Attorney General A.T. Stewart, Clarence Darrow, Dudley Field Malone, Arthur Garfield Hays, and other lawyers. In addition, the trial was covered by some two hundred journalists, including H. L. Mencken, Joseph Wood Krutch, and Westbrook Pegler; radio men from WGN, who produced the first national broadcast of an American trial; sixty-five telegraph operators, who sent more copy to Europe and Australia than had ever been cabled about any other American event.

The issues were crucial, controversial, and complicated: academic freedom of teachers vs. that of students, free speech vs. parental rights, governmental authority vs. individual rights, separation of church and state, and the roles of religion and science. Eight days and two million words of news stories later, the defense requested that its client be found guilty, the court obliged, and John Thomas Scopes was fined $100. The Tennessee Supreme Court later reversed Scopes' conviction on a legal technicality.


Inherit the Wind

In spite of the hundreds of journalists who visited the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee, during the Scopes Trial and in the years since, very few accurate accounts of the event have been published, including the famous play Inherit the Wind (written as a parable attacking the anti-communistic investigations of the 1950's led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities). Authors Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee state the following in their Preface: "Inherit the Wind is not history. . . . Only a handful of phrases have been taken from the actual transcript of the famous Scopes Trial. Some of the characters of the play are related to the colorful figures in that battle of giants; but they have life and language of their own--and, therefore, names of their own. . . . So Inherit the Wind does not pretend to be journalism. It is theatre. It is not 1925."

In brief, Inherit the Wind may be viewed as arresting theatre, but it should not be considered accurate history. Here are some of the instances where Inherit the Wind differs from the historical facts of the trial record and the events surrounding it. (For convenience, the names of the historical characters which the play supposedly involves are used.)

  • The trial originated not in Dayton but in the New York offices of the American Civil Liberties Union, for it was this organization that ran an announcement in Tennessee newspapers, offering to pay the expenses of any teacher willing to test the new Tennessee anti-evolution law. When a group of Dayton leaders decided to take advantage of this offer, their main reason was not so much defense of religion as it was economics, for they saw the trial as a great means of publicity that would attract business and industry to Dayton.
  • Others responsible for the trial were the media, who worked hard to persuade Bryan and Darrow to participate in the trial.
  • John T. Scopes was not a martyr for academic freedom. Primarily a coach of three sports, he also taught mathematics, physics, chemistry, and general science. He agreed to help test the law even though he could not remember ever teaching evolution, having only briefly substituted in biology. He was never jailed, nor did he ever take the witness stand in the trial. The people of Dayton liked him, and he cooperated with them in making a test case of the trial.
  • William Jennings Bryan was not out to get Scopes. Bryan thought the Tennessee law a poor one because it involved fining an educator, and he offered to pay Scopes' fine if he needed the money.
  • Bryan was familiar with Darwin's works, and he was not against teaching evolution–if it were presented as a theory, and if other major options, such as creationism, were taught.
  • The trial record discloses that Bryan handled himself well and when put on the stand unexpectedly by Darrow, defined terms carefully, stuck to the facts, made distinctions between literal and figurative language when interpreting the Bible, and questioned the reliability of scientific evidence when it contradicted the Bible. Some scientific experts at the trial referred to such "evidence" of evolution as the Piltdown man (now dismissed as a hoax).
  • Bryan and his wife were on good terms, and she did not admire Clarence Darrow.
  • Scopes dated some girls in Dayton but did not have a steady girlfriend.
  • The defense's scientific experts did not testify at the trial because their testimony was irrelevant to the central question of whether a law had been broken, because Darrow refused to let Bryan cross-examine the experts, and because Darrow did not call on them to testify. But twelve scientists and theologians were allowed to make statements as part of the record presented by the defense.
  • The topic of sex and sin did not come up in the trial. Neither did Bryan believe that the world was created in 4004 B.C. at 9 a.m.
  • Instead of Bryan being mothered by his wife, he took care of her, for she was an invalid.
  • The people of Dayton in general and fundamentalist Christians in particular were not the ignorant, frenzied, uncouth persons the play pictures them as being. Scopes was found guilty partly by the request of Darrow, his defense lawyer, in the hope that the case could be appealed to a higher court.
  • Bryan did not have a fit while delivering his last speech and die in the courtroom.


Legacy

In the five days following the trial, Bryan wrote a 15,000-word speech he had hoped to give at the trial before the proceedings were cut short, inspected sites for a school the people of Dayton were interested in building, traveled several hundred miles to deliver speeches in various cities and speak to crowds totaling 50,000, was hit by a car, consulted with doctors about his diabetic condition, and conferred with printers about his last message. On Sunday, July 26, he drove from Chattanooga to Dayton, participated in a church service, and died quietly in his sleep that afternoon. Because he had served as a volunteer colonel in the Spanish-American War, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery beneath the inscription, "He Kept the Faith."

In addition to his mark on the Rhea County Courthouse–now a National Historic Landmark housing a Scopes Trial museum–Bryan has left the world a rich legacy: the many legislative programs he championed; his famous orations; Bryan-Bennett Library in Salem, Illinois; Bryan Memorial Hospital in Lincoln, Nebraska; eleven elementary, middle, and high schools named for him in Florida, Idaho, Missouri, Nebraska, and Texas; and Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee. These enduring monuments illustrate Bryan's statements in "The Prince of Peace": "The human measure of a human life is its income; the divine measure of a life is its outgo, its overflow -- its contribution to the welfare of all. . . . If every word spoken in behalf of truth has its influence and every deed done for the right weighs in the final account, it is immaterial to the Christian whether his eyes behold victory or whether he dies in the midst of conflict."