Who was William Jennings Bryan? (March 19, 1860 – July 26, 1925)


William Jennings Bryan (March 19, 1860 – July 26, 1925), American political leader, editor, and lecturer, known for his spellbinding oratory. William Jennings Bryan won fame as a persuasive lawyer, orator, and statesman. Three times an unsuccessful presidential candidate, Bryan served as secretary of state under President Woodrow Wilson from 1913 to 1915. A religious fundamentalist, Bryan argued for the prosecution in the famous Scopes trial, asserting that a teacher violated state law by teaching evolution in a Tennessee public school.

Bryan was born on March 19, 1860, in Salem, Illinois, and educated at Illinois College, Jacksonville, and at Union College of Law, Chicago. He began to practice law in Illinois in 1883 and served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Nebraska from 1891 to 1895. During this period he became a leader of the movement for the unlimited coinage of silver. At the Democratic National Convention of 1896, Bryan, who had become celebrated as an orator, delivered his most famous talk, generally known as the “cross of gold” speech, in behalf of the bimetallic theory, and received the presidential nomination; he was defeated in the election of that year by the Republican governor of Ohio, William McKinley. During his subsequent career he twice again (1900 and 1908) received the Democratic nomination for president, but on both occasions he was defeated at the polls.

In 1901 Bryan founded the Commoner, an influential weekly paper, in Lincoln, Nebraska. The nomination of the Democratic governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, for the presidency in 1912 was due in part to Bryan’s efforts in his behalf. As secretary of state (1913-15) in the Wilson administration, Bryan negotiated 30 treaties of arbitration with foreign countries. He resigned his office in 1915 in protest against the administration’s hostile attitude toward Germany. Although his political career had come to an end, he retained recognition as an eminent national figure. Many of the reforms for which he worked were eventually adopted. Among the most notable of these were woman suffrage, the national income tax, popular election of U.S. senators, and prohibition.

Bryan’s last years were devoted largely to activities in behalf of the American religious movement known as fundamentalism. In 1925, at Dayton, Tennessee, he acted as an associate prosecutor in the trial of a schoolteacher, John Thomas Scopes, who had taught the biological theory of evolution to his pupils in defiance of a state law prohibiting the teaching of doctrines contrary to the Bible. The chief defense attorney was the famous American lawyer Clarence Darrow, who also had strong personal convictions about the principles involved.

The case attracted considerable attention throughout the U.S. Bryan won the case, and Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, but the humiliating cross-examination to which Bryan was subjected by Darrow, revealing his ignorance of scientific discoveries, probably hurt the fundamentalist cause and may have been a contributing factor in Bryan’s sudden death on July 26, only five days after the conclusion of the trial. Bryan’s writings include Heart to Heart Appeals (1917) and The Bible and Its Enemies (1921).

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