William Jennings Bryan: The Great Commoner

Personal Belief, Bimetallism, and Baltimore

William Jennings Bryan was a phenom in American history: a three-time major-party candidate for President (and three-time loser), an attorney, an orator, a journalist, Secretary of State, and prosecuting attorney at the Scopes trial.

Like Lincoln and Reagan, Bryan was a Midwesterner, born before the Civil War, 19 March 1860, in Salem, Illinois. That is southern Illinois, for you who are unacquainted with the state, about 50 miles east of St Louis, Missouri. His dad was a minister, an Illinois state senator, and a state circuit-court judge, who, in 1866, moved his family to a 520-acre farm with a beautiful ten-room house that was the envy of the county.

As a child, Bryan attended both Methodist and Baptist Sunday services, later Cumberland Presbyterian. At age fourteen, he was saved and baptized in a Cumberland Presbyterian revival and joined that church. Later he switched to the Presbyterian Church, US, the same denomination as L Nelson Bell. Like Bell, Bryan was a Bible-believing Fundamentalist. “If the Bible had said that Jonah swallowed the whale, I would believe it.”

Bryan graduated valedictorian of his class from Illinois College, was a member of Sigma Pi literary society, attended law school—today Northwestern University—in Chicago, where he earned his LLB degree in 1883, and was admitted to the Bar. This was quite an accomplishment as not every attorney was academically trained. Even in my lifetime persons could still gain admittance to the Bar simply by serving an apprenticeship and passing a test. Such was Lincoln.

For four years (1883-87) Bryan practiced law in Illinois. During this time he married Mary Elizabeth Baird, also an attorney, who helped him write his speeches. In 1887 he moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he took up politics. For four years (1891-95) he served as US Congressman in the House of Representatives. One wonders at this feat because Bryan, like Lincoln, was good at losing political races. When he lost his bid for the US Senate in 1894, he took up journalism and became editor of the Omaha World-Herald.

Living in farm country, like Illinois and Nebraska, Bryan, a populist, was naturally the friend of the working man; he was for minting silver coins, which classified him as a bimetallist. Blue-collar workers (farmers, miners, industrial employees, common labourers) were hurting because of debt; they wanted the free coinage of silver, and inflation, so they could pay their bills. White-collar lenders (rich Republicans) were against it because it would hurt their pockets: debts made with “sound money” would be paid back with cheap.

It was at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, 8 July 1896, that Bryan, only 36 at the time, gave his famous “Cross of Gold” speech in denunciation of the gold standard (which enabled the rich, at the expense of the poor). His voice has been described as “splendid,” “deep,” and “commanding.” T DeWitt Talmage, who spent long hours with Bryan on the train, testified that their conversation was enhanced by Bryan’s wonderful voice, that he had never heard so exquisite a speaking voice in a man as Bryan’s. Theodore Roosevelt said Bryan had missed his calling: he should’ve been a Baptist preacher. Added to the excellency of his voice was his dramatization of outstretched arms, as if he were on the cross. In response, the party gave him the nod and made him its banner-bearer.

Before Bryan, Presidential candidates did not campaign for themselves. It was probably considered in poor taste. During his re-election bid in 1872, US Grant stayed out of sight at the White House. In the 1880 election James A Garfield conducted a “front-porch” campaign, where he addressed crowds assembled on his front lawn. In the 1896 election, however, Bryan was innovative. He invented the stumping tour: he traveled to 27 states and spoke over 500 times. Opposed by the wealthy, including newspaper owners and German Americans who rejected silver coins, he still lost the election to William McKinley.

Bryan ran again in 1900, again against McKinley, and again he lost. What else could he do but go back home and continue his career as a journalist? In 1901 he founded the newspaper The Commoner and became known himself as “the Great Commoner.” This was savvy salesmanship. He may have been from rural Illinois and the prairie of Nebraska, but Bryan was anything but common.

He ran again in 1908, against William Howard Taft, and again he lost. If I were him, I would have given up, wouldn’t you? He did. He helped Woodrow Wilson win the 1912 Presidential election. In return, Wilson made him Secretary of State—sound like anyone else you know?—but Wilson kept control of the office. Bryan was expected to rubber stamp anything Wilson placed on his desk. I don’t know about you, but I imagine that was difficult for Bryan, and maybe he was secretly fuming.

When the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania of the Cunard line was torpedoed by a German U-boat, 7 May 1915, and over 1,200 lives were lost, including 128 Americans, Wilson assumed the real target was the United States: that the Germans wanted to draw the US into World War I (1914-18). Though America had not yet entered the war, and would not until it was nearly over, Wilson prepared a strongly-worded response to the Germans. Wilson said the sinking was illegal and “Germany must cease unrestricted submarine warfare against unarmed merchantmen” [italics mine].

When the document reached his desk, Bryan refused to sign. Some historians say the reason was that he was a pacifist and did not want to provoke hostilities with the Germans, but I think otherwise.

There were munitions on board, and the Germans were within their rights to take the ship. Wilson already knew the British were trafficking in arms, using human shields, but he wanted to deny it. He wanted to pretend that the Germans had sunk an unarmed passenger ship. When Wilson would not back down, scarcely a month after the incident, 9 June 1915, Bryan resigned, rather than sign his name to a lie. How many politicans do you know who would refuse to sacrifice principle on the altar of expediency?

Again, Bryan went back home and took up his newspaper. Again, he helped Wilson campaign, in the 1916 Presidential election, and again Wilson won. Bryan began turning his attention to Darwinian evolution. In 1921 he published The Menace of Darwin and The Bible and Its Enemies; in 1922, In His Image. In a Chautauqua speech, “The Prince of Peace,” Bryan warned that evolution would undermine the morals of the nation.

In speaking against evolution he remarked: “It is better to trust in the Rock of Ages than to know the ages of rock” … “There is no more reason to believe that man descended from some inferior animal than there is to believe that a stately mansion has descended from a small cottage” …. “Parents have a right to say that no teacher paid by their money shall rob their children of faith in God and send them back to their homes skeptical, or infidels, or agnostics, or atheists” … “Evolution seems to close the heart to some of the plainest spiritual truths while it opens the mind to the wildest guesses advanced in the name of science” … “When I want to read fiction, I don’t turn to Arabian Nights: I turn to works of biology—I like my fiction wild” … “All the ills [in society stem] from … evolution. It would be better to destroy every other book ever written, and save just the first three verses of Genesis” … “If we have to give up either religion or education, we should give up education.”

No doubt, it was Bryan’s work combating Darwinianism that brought him to the Scopes trial, Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. Bryan had campaigned for and won the keeping of evolution out of some Christian universities and out of some public schools. Tennessee had recently banned such teaching and had jailed a young schoolteacher, 24-year-old John T Scopes, for teaching evolution, which breached state law.

The verdict had to turn on law, not public opinion, but there was plenty of that to go round. The defense attorney was Clarence Darrow, a member of the ACLU; he had never graduated college or law school, but had been admitted to the Bar in Ohio. To add to the controversy, a young whippersnapper, twenty years Bryan’s junior, H L Mencken, with the Baltimore Sun, showed up and ridiculed Bryan (a Midwesterner) as an ignorant Southerner. Now, what a defense attorney with the ACLU and a reporter from Maryland were doing in Tennessee made no sense, except someone wanted to make this a national headline. I have often wondered what would have happened if a Christian reporter had told the story instead of an atheist. After all, public opinion often depends on nothing more than who controls the conversation.

H L Mencken had nowhere near the credentials of Bryan, but he went out of his way to make “the Great Commoner”—thanks to his Evangelical Fundamentalism—look backward. Mencken had never been to college—Bryan had graduated law school—up North—Chicago. Mencken’s only post-secondary education was a single correspondence course in journalism. A voracious reader, a homespun chemist, a classicial pianist, and a German by blood, Mencken, the son of a cigar manufacturer, admired Neitzsche—and, one can assume, admired German Higher Criticism, which questioned the authority of Scripture.

Mencken believed in cultural elitism or natural aristocracy—Aryanism (that some persons were naturally superior to others). He disliked representative democracy; was critical of populism, creationism, Fundamentalism, the existence of God, marriage, Southerners, and chiropractic medicine; and hung out at bars. Already perhaps the FBI was building a dossier on him.

A devout infidel, characterized by cynicism and satire, he was called “the sage of Baltimore,” for who knows what reason, except he had lived there all his life and had a groundless arrogance to match his godless acidity. It was Mencken who dubbed the events going on at the Rhea County Courthouse the “monkey trial.”

Actually, Mencken came by his puffed self-assessment honestly. All Marylanders consider themselves “the Chosen.” Even in recent years this bigoted idea has shown up in local newspapers in and around Baltimore and DC. It has been reported that if you are from Maryland, your proven chances for success in life are statistically far above average.

Satirist Richard Armour said that Darrow had “made a monkey out of” Bryan by demonstrating his ignorance of the Bible. Bryan was 65 years old. Probably not as intellectually nimble as he once was. If he was unable to answer Darrow astutely—as the young, rude-mouthed Mencken might have done—perhaps it was due to weariness from the summer heat, for Bryan knew Scripture. He challenged the resultant mockery with “The Bible is not going to be driven out of this court by ‘experts.'”

The verdict came on Tuesday, 21 July 1925. The jury found in Bryan’s favor. Later, an appeals court overturned the verdict on a technicality—which leaves you wondering who was sitting on the court. But the real damage had been done in the court of public opinion—thanks to an ACLU untrained lawyer and a bigoted ink slinger from Baltimore.

That next week Bryan traveled and gave speeches. Sunday, 26 July, he drove into Dayton to go to church, ate dinner, lay down to rest, and died. One can imagine that the trial had worn him out, but he had lived to see it to its finish, assuring us that “We are immortal till our work is done.”

Copyright © 2011 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit


About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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3 Responses to William Jennings Bryan: The Great Commoner

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