William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925)

2012-01-11 10:49:10

Perhaps best known for his famous ‘‘Cross of Gold’’ speech, William Jennings Bryan had a public career lasting some thirty years. He served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, ran for president three times, served as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson, and had a successful career as a public speaker and attorney. He championed the causes of middle America, even when it cost him politically to do so. Yet one of his legacies is tied inextricably with the Scopes trial in 1925, and he is misunderstood and remembered as a knee-jerk fundamentalist for his role in prosecuting John Scopes for teaching evolution in Tennessee.

A believer in social contract theory, which stated that governments existed essentially to do for people what they could not do for themselves, Bryan became associated with free silver as a political issue. He preached constantly for the adoption of silver as circulating currency, making him a populist hero for much of Midwest America. Indeed, silver became a primary issue in the 1896 election, during which Bryan ran on both the Populist and Democratic tickets and lost to William McKinley. He sought to have the gold standard repealed and replaced with silver, but many contemporary observers believed that Bryan held onto the issue far too long, even after gold supplies increased enough to make circulation of silver irrelevant.

Partly because of his devotion to temperance as a social issue, Bryan also became an outspoken supporter of women’s suffrage. He, like many other suffrage activists, believed that women’s votes were critical to ensure the elimination of alcoholism and its various societal problems.

Despite his having served as a soldier in the Spanish-American War, Bryan became opposed to imperialism; he had particular problems with McKinley’s Philippine policies. He believed that the Philippines had the right to outright independence, as Cuba had received, rather than status as possessions of the United States. It cost the United States too much money, he argued, and led to poor relationships between the United States and Asian nations.

Bryan was also committed to reform, both economic and constitutional. He sought consumer protection against corporate excess and monopoly. He supported electoral-college reform and favored a constitutional amendment for the direct election of U.S. senators, declaring that if citizens were intelligent enough to elect representatives and the president, then they were surely smart enough to elect their senators. Nearly one hundred years before it became an issue in the 2000 and 2004 elections, Bryan called for public disclosure of campaign fundraising and spending.

The twilight of Bryan’s life saw his involvement as a prosecutor in Tennessee’s Scopes trial. When John Scopes was charged with violating state law, which forbade teaching evolution, Bryan found himself opposed by Scopes’s attorney, Clarence Darrow (provided by the American Civil Liberties Union). The trial climaxed with Bryan himself taking the witness stand to be cross-examined by Darrow. By all accounts, Bryan was a poor witness; Darrow made Bryan admit that he believed literally in the stories from the Bible, and made it seem as if Bryan were uneducated and ignorant of scientific teachings. Bryan’s team won the case, but Bryan died barely a week after it was over.

The truth about Bryan, though, was hardly that simple. Bryan’s writings indicate that he supported Scopes’s prosecution, not because he thought evolution had no place in schools, but because he thought that parents, not state legislatures, should decide what their children were taught in school.

Often remembered without sufficient nuance, Bryan deserves to be remembered as a defender of American civil liberties. He championed several reforms that were only accomplished after his death, and he represented the under-franchised in America.


References and Further Reading