People & Events|
William Jennings Bryan
Despite a long and distinguished political career, William Jennings Bryan is best known for the decisive defeats that he endured. He was nominated three times to represent the Democratic party as their presidential candidate. Three times he was defeated. Known for his quick wit and mastery of spoken language, Bryan was a stirring speaker. In 1896, he railed in support of the coinage of free silver and the end of the gold standard: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor a crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." Bryan looked upon the wealthy with great suspicion and warned against the unchecked powers of the trusts. Responding to the plight of striking coal miners in Pennsylvania, Bryan said "Whether a man is a laboring man, a farmer or a merchant, he must see that the opportunities are constantly narrowing under this trust system." His campaign against William McKinley in 1900 centered largely on his opposition to McKinley's conduct regarding the war in the Philippines. Condemning what he termed US imperialism, Bryan asserted, "If we steal a man's purse we are thieves. If we steal twelve hundred islands we are patriots. If you steal a man's money you will be sent to the penitentiary. If you steal his liberty you will be sent to the White House." Political observers noted that Bryan was sometimes too forceful a speaker; he ended up scaring, rather than converting, large numbers of voters. Andrew Carnegie, who sided with Bryan on the Philippines issue, decided, "Mr. Bryan is much too earnest, too sincere and true to be entrusted with power, filled as he is with ideas subversive of economic laws."
Following another failed presidential bid in 1908, Bryan was named Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State in 1913. He resigned from that post, however, in 1915 to devote himself full-time to the cause of American neutrality during World War I. In 1925, Bryan led the prosecution of John T. Scopes, a young biology teacher charged with breaking Tennessee law by teaching Darwin's theory of evolution. Squaring off against noted defense attorney Clarence Darrow, Bryan attempted in vain to defend his literal interpretation of the bible under Darrow's wilting cross examination. Humiliated and weakened by the stress of the trial, Bryan died one week after its conclusion.