Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan

Is your surname Bryan?

Research the Bryan family

Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan's Geni Profile

Share your family tree and photos with the people you know and love

  • Build your family tree online
  • Share photos and videos
  • Smart Matching™ technology
  • Free!

Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan

Birthplace: Salem, Marion County, Illinois, United States
Death: July 26, 1925 (65)
Dayton, Rhea County, Tennessee, United States
Place of Burial: Arlington, Arlington County, Virginia, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Judge Silas Lillard Bryan and Maria Jennings Bryan
Husband of Mary Elizabeth Bryan
Father of Rep. Ruth Baird Rhode; William Jennings Bryan, Jr. and Grace Dexter Hargreaves
Brother of Gov. Charles Wayland Bryan and Mary Elizabeth Allen

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan

Member of the U.S. House of Representatives (two terms), U.S. Secretary of State, Democratic Party's three-time U.S. Presidential Candidate; Scopes Trial, anti-evolutionist litigant vs.Clarence Darrow.

William Jennings Bryan was an American politician in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. He was a dominant force in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, standing three times as its candidate for President of the United States (1896, 1900 and 1908). He served in the United States Congress briefly as a Representative from Nebraska and was the 41st United States Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson, 1913-1916.

Because of his faith in the goodness and rightness of the common people, he was called "The Great Commoner."

His presidental platforms included items that were later enacted like the 40-hour work week and child labor laws.

He was known as a great orator. His famous "Cross of Gold" speech at the Democratic Convention in 1896 launched his political career at the age of 36.

"You shall not press down a crown of thorns on the brow of labor. You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold." (Note: Bryan favored a "silver" standard versus a "gold" standard to back the national currency)

He energetically attacked Darwinism and evolution, most famously at the Scopes "Monkey" Trial in 1925. Five days after winning the case, he died in his sleep. The famous American lawyer, Clarence Darrow, defended teacher John T. Scopes.

Bryan was a devout Presbyterian, a supporter of popular democracy, an enemy of gold, banks and railroads, a leader of the silverite movement in the 1890s, a peace advocate, a prohibitionist, and an opponent of Darwinism on religious grounds. With his deep, commanding voice and wide travels, he was one of the best known orators and lecturers of the era.

In the intensely fought 1896 and 1900 elections, he was defeated by William McKinley but retained control of the Democratic Party. With over 500 speeches in 1896, Bryan invented the national stumping tour, in an era when other presidential candidates stayed home. In his three presidential bids, he promoted Free Silver in 1896, anti-imperialism in 1900, and trust-busting in 1908, calling on Democrats to fight the trusts (big corporations) and big banks, and embrace anti-elitist ideals of republicanism. President Wilson appointed him Secretary of State in 1913, but Wilson's strong demands on Germany after the Lusitania was torpedoed in 1915 caused Bryan to resign in protest.

Member of the U.S. House of Representatives

from Nebraska's 1st district

In office

March 4, 1891 – March 3, 1895

William Jennings Bryan was the Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States in 1896, 1900 and 1908, a lawyer, and the 41st United States Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson. One of the most popular speakers in American history, he was noted for a deep, commanding voice. Bryan was a devout Presbyterian, a supporter of popular democracy, a critic of banks and railroads, a leader of the silverite movement in the 1890s, a leading figure in the Democratic Party, a peace advocate, a prohibitionist, an opponent of Darwinism, and one of the most prominent leaders of populism in the late 19th - and early 20th century. Because of his faith in the goodness and rightness of the common people, he was called "The Great Commoner."

In the intensely fought 1896 and 1900 elections, he was defeated by William McKinley but retained control of the Democratic Party. For presidential candidates, Bryan invented the national stumping tour. In his three presidential bids, he promoted Free Silver in 1896, anti-imperialism in 1900, and trust-busting in 1908, calling on Democrats, in cases where corporations are protected, to abandon states' rights, to fight the trusts and big banks, and embrace populist ideas. President Woodrow Wilson appointed him Secretary of State in 1913, but Wilson's handling of the Lusitania crisis in 1915 caused Bryan to resign in protest.

He was a strong supporter of Prohibition in the 1920s, and energetically attacked Darwinism and evolution, most famously at the Scopes Trial in 1925. Five days after winning the case but getting bad press, he died in his sleep.

The son of Silas and Mariah Elizabeth Bryan, Bryan was born in the Little Egypt region of southern Illinois on March 19, 1860.

Bryan's mother was born of English heritage. Mary Bryan joined the Salem Baptists in 1872, so Bryan attended Methodist services on Sunday morning, and in the afternoon, Baptist services. At this point, William began spending his Sunday afternoons at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. At age 14 in 1874, Bryan attended a revival, was baptized, and joined the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. In later life, Bryan said the day of his baptism was the most important day in his life, but, at the time it caused little change in his daily routine. He left the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and joined the larger Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. His father Silas was born of Scots-Irish and English stock in St.Croix.[3] As a Jacksonian Democrat, Silas won election as a Democrat to the Illinois State Senate. The year of Bryan's birth, his father lost his seat, but shortly won election as a state circuit judge.

The family moved to a 520-acre farm north of Salem in 1866, living in a ten-room house that was the envy of Marion County.

Until age ten, Bryan was home-schooled, finding in the Bible and McGuffey Readers support for his views that gambling and liquor were evil and sinful. To attend Whipple Academy, which was attached to Illinois College, 14-year-old Bryan was sent to Jacksonville in 1874.

Following high school, he entered Illinois College and studied classics, graduating as valedictorian in 1881. During his time at Illinois College, Bryan was a member of the Sigma Pi literary society, and later initiated the Nebraska Chapter of the Acacia Fraternity. To study law at Union Law College (which later became Northwestern University School of Law), he moved to Chicago. While preparing for the bar exam, he taught high school. While teaching, he eventually married pupil Mary Elizabeth Baird in 1884. They settled in Salem, Illinois, a town with a population of two thousand.

Mary became a lawyer and collaborated with him on all his speeches and writings. He practiced law in Jacksonville (1883–87), then moved to the boom city of Lincoln, Nebraska.

In the Democratic landslide of 1890, Bryan was elected to Congress and reelected by 140 votes in 1892. He ran for the Senate in 1894, but was overwhelmed in the Republican landslide.

In Bryan's first years in Lincoln, he traveled to Valentine, Nebraska on business where he met an aspiring young cattleman named James Dahlman. Over the next forty years they remained friends, with Dahlman carrying Nebraska for Bryan twice while he was state Democratic Party chairman. Even when Dahlman became closely associated with Omaha's vice elements, including the breweries, as the city's eight-term mayor, he and Bryan maintained a collegial relationship.[5]

First campaign for the White House: 1896 -

In 1893, the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act resulted in the collapse of the silver market. Bryan stumped the country for free silver in 1894-96, building a grass roots reputation as a powerful champion of the cause.

At the 1896 Democratic National Convention, Bryan lambasted Eastern monied classes for supporting the gold standard at the expense of the average worker. His "Cross of Gold" speech made him a sensational new face in the Democratic party.

The Bourbon Democrats who supported incumbent conservative President Grover Cleveland were defeated and the party's agrarian and silver factions voted for Bryan, giving him the nomination of the Democratic Party. At the age of 36, Bryan remains the youngest presidential nominee of a major party in American history.

Disappointed with the direction of their party, Gold Democrats invited Cleveland to run as a third-party candidate, but he declined this offer. Cleveland did, however, support John M. Palmer, nominee of the Gold Democrats, rather than Bryan.[6]

In addition, Bryan formally received the nominations of the Populist Party and the Silver Republican Party. Without crossing party lines, voters from any party could vote for him.[7] In 1896 the Populists rejected Bryan's Democratic running mate Maine banker Arthur Sewall and named as his running mate Georgia Representative Thomas E. Watson. People could vote for Bryan and Sewell or for Bryan and Watson.

The Republicans nominated William McKinley on a platform calling for prosperity for everyone through industrial growth, high tariffs and sound money (gold). Republicans ridiculed Bryan as a Populist. However, "Bryan's reform program was so similar to that of the Populists that he has often been mistaken for a Populist, but he remained a staunch Democrat throughout the Populist period."[8] This is because, despite having used many of the Populist ideas, Bryan kept all of his Democratic views while simply adding the Populist views to gain their votes.

Bryan demanded Bimetallism and "Free Silver" at a ratio of 16:1. Most leading Democratic newspapers rejected his candidacy. However, despite this rejection by the newspapers, Bryan won the Democratic vote.

Republicans discovered in August that Bryan was solidly ahead in the South and West, but far behind in the Northeast. He appeared to be ahead in the Midwest, so the Republicans concentrated their efforts there. They said Bryan was a madman—a religious fanatic surrounded by anarchists—who would wreck the economy.[9] By late September, the Republicans felt they were ahead in the decisive Midwest and began emphasizing that McKinley would bring prosperity to all Americans. McKinley scored solid gains among the middle classes, factory and railroad workers, prosperous farmers and among the German Americans who rejected free silver. Bryan gave 500 speeches in 27 states. McKinley won by a margin of 271 to 176 in the electoral college.

Bryan volunteered for combat in the Spanish-American War in 1898, arguing, "Universal peace cannot come until justice is enthroned throughout the world. Until the right has triumphed in every land and love reigns in every heart, government must, as a last resort, appeal to force." Bryan became colonel of a Nebraska militia regiment; he spent the war in Florida and never saw combat. After the war, Bryan opposed the annexation of the Philippines (though he did support the Treaty of Paris that ended the war). Bryan gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1900 called "The Paralyzing Influence of Imperialism." In this speech he discusses his views against the annexation of the Philippines, asking what gives the United States the right to overpower people of another country just for a military base. He mentions, at the beginning of the speech, that the United States should not try to be like the Imperialistic British and other European countries.

Presidential election of 1900:

He ran as an anti-imperialist, finding himself in alliance with Andrew Carnegie and other millionaires. Republicans mocked Bryan as indecisive, or a coward, a point spoofed by the Bryan-like Cowardly Lion in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in spring 1900.

Bryan combined anti-imperialism with free silver, saying:

The nation is of age and it can do what it pleases; it can spurn the traditions of the past; it can repudiate the principles upon which the nation rests; it can employ force instead of reason; it can substitute might for right; it can conquer weaker people; it can exploit their lands, appropriate their property and kill their people; but it cannot repeal the moral law or escape the punishment decreed for the violation of human rights.

In a typical day he gave four hourlong speeches and shorter talks that added up to six hours of speaking. At an average rate of 175 words a minute, he turned out 63,000 words, enough to fill 52 columns of a newspaper. In Wisconsin, he once made 12 speeches in 15 hours. Before Bryan held any political office there remained a need for income; public speaking would not become any less of a passion as it also became a source of income for Bryan and his family. Bryan held an estate in Nebraska as well as a 240-acre ranch in Texas, of which both were paid for with earnings from publications of The Commoner as well as speaking fees. Bryan's rates were noted as $500.00 per speech in addition to a percentage of the ticket sales profit. He held his base in the South, but lost part of the West as McKinley retained the Northeast and Midwest and rolled up a landslide. McKinley won the electoral college with a count of 292 votes compared to Bryan's 155. This means that Bryan actually lost more states than he had in 1896.

Presidential election of 1908:

The 1908 election was Bryan’s third attempt at gaining the presidency. The Democrats nominated Bryan by wide margin at the Democratic convention held in Denver and decided on John Kern, a politician from Indiana, to be his running mate. Bryan ran against the Republicans, and Theodore Roosevelt’s hand-picked nominee William Howard Taft.

The GOP ran its campaign on the benefits of the Roosevelt administration, creation of a postal service, continuation of “Sound Currency”, citizenship for Puerto Rico inhabitants, regulation on big business, and tariff revision in protectionist mode.

Bryan and the Democrats’ platform denounced the wrongs done by the Republican party: Congress spent too much money; Roosevelt hand picked Taft in undemocratic fashion; Republicans wanted centralization; Republicans favored monopolies. In response, Bryan unleashed the slogan, “Shall the People Rule?” In a time of peace and prosperity, and Republican trust-busting, Bryan fared poorly among the voters. He lost the electoral collage 321 to 162, his worst defeat yet, and did not carry any of the states in the Northeast.

For the next 25 years, Bryan was the most popular Chautauqua speaker, delivering thousands of paid speeches in towns across the land, even while serving as secretary of state. He mostly spoke about religion but covered a wide variety of topics. His most popular lecture (and his personal favorite) was a lecture entitled "The Prince of Peace" which stressed that religion was the solid foundation of morality, and individual and group morality was the foundation for peace and equality. Another famous lecture from this period, "The Value of an Ideal", was a stirring call to public service.

In 1905 speech, Bryan warned: "The Darwinian theory represents man reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate — the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak. If this is the law of our development then, if there is any logic that can bind the human mind, we shall turn backward to the beast in proportion as we substitute the law of love. I choose to believe that love rather than hatred is the law of development."

Bryan threw himself into the work of the Social Gospel. Bryan served on organizations containing a large number of theological liberals: he sat on the temperance committee of the Federal Council of Churches and on the general committee of the short-lived Interchurch World Movement.

Bryan founded a weekly magazine, The Commoner, calling on Democrats to dissolve the trusts, regulate the railroads more tightly and support the Progressive Movement. He regarded prohibition as a "local" issue and did not endorse it until 1910. In London in 1906, he presented a plan to the Inter-Parliamentary Peace Conference for arbitration of disputes that he hoped would avert warfare. He tentatively called for nationalization of the railroads, then backtracked and called only for more regulation. His party nominated Bourbon Democrat Alton B. Parker in 1904, who lost to Roosevelt. For two years following this defeat, Bryan would pursue his public speaking ventures on an international stage. From 1904-1906, Bryan travelled globally; spreading the Word of God, sightseeing with his wife Mary, lecturing, and all while escaping the political upheaval in Washington, D.C.

For supporting Woodrow Wilson for the presidency in 1912, he was appointed as Secretary of State. However, Wilson only nominally consulted Bryan and made all the major foreign policy decisions. Bryan negotiated 28 treaties that promised arbitration of disputes before war broke out between the signatory countries and the United States. Bryan had made several attempts to negotiate a treaty with Germany but ultimately was never able to succeed. In the civil war in Mexico in 1914, Bryan supported American military intervention.

Wilson's desire to enter the war in Europe brought him to odds with Bryan and eventually led to Bryan's resignation in June 1915 over Wilson's demands for "strict accountability for any infringement of [American] rights, intentional or incidental."

Despite their differences, Bryan campaigned as a private citizen for Wilson's reelection in 1916. When war was declared in April 1917, Bryan wrote Wilson, "Believing it to be the duty of the citizen to bear his part of the burden of war and his share of the peril, I hereby tender my services to the Government. Please enroll me as a private whenever I am needed and assign me to any work that I can do." Wilson, however, did not allow 57-year-old Bryan to rejoin the military and did not offer him any wartime role.

Bryan campaigned for the Constitutional amendments on prohibition and women's suffrage. Partly to avoid Nebraska ethnics such as the German-Americans who were "wet" and opposed to prohibition, Bryan moved to Coconut Grove in Miami, Florida. Bryan filled lucrative speaking engagements, including playing the part of spokesman for George E. Merrick's new planned community Coral Gables, addressing large crowds across a Venetian pool for an annual salary of over $100,000. He was also extremely active in Christian organizations. Bryan refused to support the party's presidential nominee James M. Cox in 1920, because he deemed Cox not dry enough. As one biographer explains,

“ Bryan epitomized the prohibitionist viewpoint: Protestant and nativist, hostile to the corporation and the evils of urban civilization, devoted to personal regeneration and the social gospel, he sincerely believed that prohibition would contribute to the physical health and moral improvement of the individual, stimulate civic progress, and end the notorious abuses connected with the liquor traffic. Hence he became interested when its devotees in Nebraska viewed direct legislation as

Bryan's national campaigning helped Congress pass the 18th Amendment in 1918, which shut down all saloons as of 1920. But while prohibition was in effect, Bryan did not work to secure better enforcement. He opposed a highly controversial resolution at the 1924 convention condemning the Ku Klux Klan, expecting it would soon fold. Bryan disliked the KKK but never publicly attacked it. For the nomination in 1924, he opposed the wet Al Smith; Bryan's brother, Nebraska Governor Charles W. Bryan, was put on the ticket with John W. Davis as candidate for vice president to keep the Bryanites in line. Bryan was very close to his younger brother Charles and endorsed him for the vice presidency.

Bryan was the chief proponent of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, the precursor to our modern War on Drugs. However, he argued for the act's passage more as an international obligation than on moral grounds.

Before World War I, Bryan believed moral progress could achieve equality at home and, in the international field, peace between all the world's nations.

Bryan opposed Darwinism for two reasons. First he believed that what he considered a materialistic account of the descent of man through evolution undermined the Bible. Second, he saw neo-Darwinism or Social Darwinism as a great evil force in the world promoting hatreds and conflicts, especially the World War.

In his famous Chautauqua lecture, "The Prince of Peace," Bryan warned the theory of evolution could undermine the foundations of morality. However, he concluded, "While I do not accept the Darwinian theory I shall not quarrel with you about it."

One book Bryan read at this time convinced him that neo-Darwinism (emphasizing the struggle of the races) had undermined morality in Germany. Bryan was heavily influenced by Vernon Kellogg's 1917 book, Headquarters Nights: A Record of Conversations and Experiences at the Headquarters of the German Army in Belgium and France, which asserted (on the basis of a conversation with a reserve officer named Professor von Flussen) that German intellectuals were social Darwinists totally committed to might-makes-right.

Bryan also read The Science of Power (1918) by British social theorist Benjamin Kidd, which attributed the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche to German nationalism, materialism, and militarism which in turn was the outworking of the social Darwinian hypothesis.[24]

In 1920, Bryan told the World Brotherhood Congress the theory of evolution was "the most paralyzing influence with which civilization has had to deal in the last century" and that Nietzsche, in carrying the theory of evolution to its logical conclusion, "promulgated a philosophy that condemned democracy... denounced Christianity... denied the existence of God, overturned all concepts of morality... and endeavored to substitute the worship of the superhuman for the worship of Jehovah."

By 1921, Bryan saw Darwinism as a major internal threat to the US. The major study which seemed to convince Bryan of this was James H. Leuba's The Belief in God and Immortality, a Psychological, Anthropological and Statistical Study (1916). In this study, Leuba shows that during four years of college a considerable number of college students lost their faith. Bryan was horrified that the next generation of American leaders might have the degraded sense of morality which he believed had prevailed in Germany and caused the Great War. Bryan then launched an anti-evolution campaign.

The campaign kicked off in October 1921, when Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia invited Bryan to deliver the James Sprunt Lectures. The heart of the lectures was a lecture entitled "The Origin of Man", in which Bryan asked, "what is the role of man in the universe and what is the purpose of man?" For Bryan, the Bible was absolutely central to answering this question, and moral responsibility and the spirit of brotherhood could only rest on belief in God.

The Sprunt lectures were published as In His Image, and sold over 100,000 copies, while "The Origin of Man" was published separately as The Menace of the theory of evolution and also sold very well.

Bryan was worried that the theory of evolution was making grounds not only in the universities, but also within the church itself. Many colleges were still church-affiliated at this point. The developments of 19th century liberal theology, and higher criticism in particular, had left the door open to the point where many clergymen were willing to embrace the theory of evolution and claimed that it was not contradictory with their being Christians. Determined to put an end to this, Bryan, who had long served as a Presbyterian elder, decided to run for the position of Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, which was at the time embroiled in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. (Under Presbyterian church governance, clergy and laymen are equally represented in the General Assembly, and the post of Moderator is open to any member of General Assembly.) Bryan's main competition in the race was the Rev. Charles F. Wishart, president of the College of Wooster, who had loudly endorsed the teaching of the theory of evolution in the college. Bryan lost to Wishart by a vote of 451-427. Bryan then failed in a proposal to cut off funds to schools where the theory of evolution was taught. Instead, the General Assembly announced disapproval of materialistic (as opposed to theistic) evolution.

According to author Ronald L. Numbers, Bryan was not nearly as much of a fundamentalist as many modern-day creationists, and is more accurately described as a "day-age creationist":

William Jennings Bryan, the much misunderstood leader of the post–World War I antievolution crusade, not only read the Mosaic “days” as geological “ages” but allowed for the possibility of organic evolution— so long as it did not impinge on the supernatural origin of Adam and Eve.

In addition to his unsuccessful advocacy of banning the teaching of evolution in church-run universities, Bryan also actively lobbied for state laws banning public schools from teaching evolution. The legislatures of several southern states proved more receptive to his anti-evolution message than the Presbyterian Church had, and passed laws banning the teaching of evolution in public schools after Bryan addressed them. A prominent example was the Butler Act of 1925, making it unlawful in Tennessee to teach that mankind evolved from lower life forms.

Bryan's participation in the highly publicized 1925 Scopes Trial served as a capstone to his career. He was asked by William Bell Riley to represent the World Christian Fundamentals Association as counsel at the trial. During the trial, Bryan took the stand and was questioned by defense lawyer Clarence Darrow about his views on the Bible. He was asked questions with no known answers, such as the population of China 5000 years ago (which the Bible does not address) and if the fish in the sea were drowned in the flood. The questions were designed to force him to admit that he did not know, or to guess wildly, or to add questionable explanations to things of the Bible.

The national media reported the trial in great detail, with H. L. Mencken using Bryan as a symbol of Southern ignorance (despite his not being from the South) and anti-intellectualism. In a more humorous vein, satirist Richard Armour stated in It All Started With Columbus that Darrow had "made a monkey out of" Bryan due to Bryan's ignorance of the Bible.

After the judge retroactively expunged all of Bryan's answers to Darrow's questions, both sides closed without summation. The jury quickly returned a guilty verdict with the defense's encouragement, as their aim was to take the law itself to a higher court in order to challenge its constitutionality. However, the state supreme court reversed the verdict on a technicality and Scopes went free.

Biologist Stephen Jay Gould has speculated that Bryan's anti-evolution views were a result of his Populist idealism and suggests that Bryan's fight was really against eugenics. However, the biographers, especially Michael Kazin, reject that conclusion, based on Bryan's failure during the trial or at any other time to attack eugenics; Kazin notes that there is a section on eugenics in Civic Biology, which was the biology textbook Scopes was in trouble for using.

Immediately after the trial, Bryan continued to edit and deliver speeches, traveling hundreds of miles that week. On Sunday, July 26, 1925, he drove from Chattanooga to Dayton to attend a church service, ate a meal and died (the result of diabetes and fatigue) in his sleep that afternoon — just five days after the Scopes trial ended. School Superintendent Walter White proposed that Dayton should create a Christian college as a lasting memorial to Bryan; fund raising was successful and Bryan College opened in 1930. Bryan is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His tombstone reads "He kept the Faith." He was survived by among others, a daughter, Congresswoman Ruth Bryan Owen and her son (by artist William Homer Leavitt) John Bryan Leavitt and daughter Ruth Leavitt, as well as two children by her second husband, Royal British Engineers officer Reginald A. Owen.

Inherit the Wind, a 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, is a fictionalized account of the Scopes Trial written in response to McCarthyism. A populist thrice-defeated Presidential candidate from Nebraska named Matthew Harrison Brady comes to a small town named Hillsboro in the Deep South to help prosecute a young teacher for teaching Darwin to his schoolchildren. He is opposed by a famous trial lawyer, Henry Drummond, and chastised by a cynical newspaperman as the trial assumes a national profile. Critics of the play charge that it mischaracterizes Bryan and the trial.

Bryan also appears as a character in Douglas Moore's 1956 opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe and is briefly mentioned in John Steinbeck's East of Eden. His death is referred to in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Bryan was also mentioned on the May 23, 2007 episode of The Daily Show when fictional comedian Geoffrey Foxworthington (an early 20th century parody of Jeff Foxworthy) quotes, "If your dream Vice President is William Jennings Bryan, you might be a puzzlewit." In Robert A. Heinlein's Job: A Comedy of Justice, Bryan's unsuccessful or successful runs for the presidency are seen as the 'splitting off' events of the alternate histories through which the protagonists travel.

The sheer volume of political propaganda cartoons featuring Bryan is a testament to the amusement and fear he caused among conservatives. Bryan campaigned tirelessly championing the ideas of the farmers and workers, using his skills as a famed orator to ultimately reshape the Democratic Party into a more progressive one. These political cartoons attacked just about every facet of Bryan’s character and policy. They mocked his religious fervor, his campaign slogans, and even his ability to unify parties for a common cause. As Keen puts it, “The art of propaganda is to create a portrait that incarnates the idea of what we wish to destroy so we will react rather than think, and automatically focus our free-floating hostility, indistinct frustrations, and unnamed fears”.[33] Bryan embodied these fears of the Republican Party which is clearly evident in the lengths they went to deface his character in these cartoons.

The most notable cartoons are of Bryan illustrated as a snake, representing Populism, swallowing a donkey, symbolizing the Democratic Party. Another notable Bryan cartoon is one where he is standing atop a Bible, marketing the sales of a "crown of thorns" and a "cross of gold" both referencing "The Cross of Gold" his most popular speech. Other cartoons can analyze overall judgments of Bryan’s continuous failure to win the Presidential Election and Bryan can be seen as some sort of puppet or smaller figure in comparison to other presidential elect opponents.

Bryan had an unusually high number of nicknames given to him in his lifetime; most of these were given by his loyal admirers in the Democratic Party. In addition to his best-known nickname, "The Great Commoner", he was also called "The Silver Knight of the West" (due to his support of the free silver issue) and the "Boy Orator of the Platte" (a reference to his oratorical skills and his home near the Platte River in Nebraska). A derisive nickname given by journalist H.L. Mencken, a prominent Bryan critic, was "The Fundamentalist Pope", a reference to Bryan's devout religious views.

Statue of Bryan on the lawn of the Rhea County, Tennessee courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee.Kazin (2006) considers Bryan the first of the 20th century "celebrity politicians" better known for their personalities and communications skills than their political views. Shannon Jones (2006) on a Socialist website claims Bryan never took a principled stand against white supremacy in the Southern United States. Alan Wolfe has concluded that Bryan's "legacy remains complicated". Form and content mix uneasily in Bryan's politics. The content of his speeches leads in a direct line to the progressive reforms adopted by 20th century Democrats. But the form his actions took was a romantic invocation of the American past, a populist insistence on the wisdom of ordinary folk, and a faith-based insistence on sincerity and character.

In "They Also Ran", Irving Stone criticized Bryan as a person who was egocentric and never admitted wrong. Stone mentioned how Bryan lived a sheltered life and therefore could not feel the suffering of the common man. He speculated that Bryan merely acted as a champion of common men in order to get their votes. Stone mentioned that none of Bryan's ideas were original and that he did not have the brains to be an effective president. Stone personally believed Bryan to be one of the nation's worst Secretaries of State. He also feared that Bryan would have supported many radical religious blue laws. Stone felt that Bryan had one of the most undisciplined minds of the 19th century and that McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft all made better presidents.

However, a number of prominent personalities have also defended Bryan and his legacy. In 1962 the journalist Merle Miller interviewed former President Harry Truman. When asked about Bryan, Truman replied that he [Bryan] "was a great one — one of the greatest". Truman also claimed that, in his opinion, "if it wasn't for old Bill Bryan there wouldn't be any liberalism at all in the country now. Bryan kept liberalism alive, he kept it going." In 1900 Truman, then aged 16, had served as a page to the Democratic National Convention in Kansas City. There he had heard Bryan give a speech to the convention's delegates and was deeply impressed. In his biography of Truman, the historian David McCullough wrote that in 1900 Truman and his father "declared themselves thorough 'Bryan men'...Bryan remained an idol for Harry, as the voice of the common man". Tom L. Johnson, the famed progressive mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, referred to Bryan's campaign in 1896 as "the first great struggle of the masses in our country against the privileged classes". In a 1934 speech dedicating a memorial to Bryan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said "I think that we would choose the word 'sincerity' as fitting him [Bryan] most of was that sincerity that served him so well in his life-long fight against sham and privilege and wrong. It was that sincerity which made him a force for good in his own generation and kept alive many of the ancient faiths on which we are building today. We...can well agree that he fought the good fight; that he finished the course; and that he kept the faith."

Bryan was truly one of the greatest speakers of his time, and he became a fixture of the Democratic party and a hero to the common man. He is normally not credited enough for bringing the Democratic party together to make it into the strongest it could be. Even though he only advocated for the rights of white men, he still could not stop his message from reaching all common people of the nation. Starting with his Cross of Gold speech, Bryan brought the populist party into the Democratic, and with his common man message he would inevitably draw the African-American and feminist vote into the party. Bryan became the bridge that brought different factions into the party, and paved for liberal democrats like Franklin D. Roosevelt with his New Deal legislation. He changed the tide of the party, and arguably the party might not be a party of the common people without him.

Bryan has been criticized and credited for many things throughout his life. One action that earned Bryan credit and criticism is “saving” or turning the Democratic Party around; thus paving the way for the party in the future. He achieved this by taking populist view points and incorporated them into the already established Democratic beliefs. He was highly criticized for doing this by some, and was even accused of (and still is by some scholars) not have any original thoughts; however ironically he had the “original” thought to take the already established views and make them his own, ultimately “re-vamping” a dying party. Bryan took ideas from the Populist Rebellion, such as the notions of unlimited coinage of gold and silver, public ownership of the railroad, and government control of debt and credit; and infused them into the already established Democratic Party. He argued that he was a “common” man and worked for the laborers, with a main goal of protection of the majority from the oppression of the minority. One minority that he at times he supported and at other times ignored were the African Americans of the time. During his presidential campaigns of 1896 and 1900 he said little if anything about the “cruel and unequal treatment of black Americans, even when it was a vital matter for his audiences”. While he publicly condemned lynchings and quietly courted African Americans in the North, he at the same time defended his Southern allies who supported “suffrage qualifications” that were designed to favor whites over African Americans. Perhaps his reasoning for this “fence hopping” could be credited to the fact that most of his supporters came from densely white populated areas, who held negative views about African Americans. Despite Bryan’s many criticisms, he is credited with turning around an entire political party, something that does not happen often.

Bryan County, Oklahoma was named after him. Bryan Memorial Hospital (now BryanLGH Medical Center) of Lincoln, Nebraska, and Bryan College located in Dayton, Tennessee, are also named for William Jennings Bryan. The William Jennings Bryan House in Nebraska was named a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1963. The Bryan Home Museum is a by-appointment only museum at his birthplace in Salem, Illinois. Salem is also home to Bryan Park and a large statue of Bryan. The full name of Baseball Hall of Famer Billy Herman was William Jennings Bryan Herman.

In 1986, the United States Postal Service issued a $2 postage stamp in his honor, as part of the Great Americans series

view all

Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan's Timeline

March 19, 1860
Salem, Marion County, Illinois, United States
October 2, 1885
Jacksonville, IL, United States
June 24, 1889
Lincoln, Lancaster County, Nebraska, United States
February 17, 1891
Lincoln, Lancaster County, Nebraska, United States
July 26, 1925
Age 65
Dayton, Rhea County, Tennessee, United States
ANC, Arlington, Arlington County, Virginia, United States