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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 315

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This is the grave of William Jennings Bryan.

One of the most complicated and fascinating figures in American history, Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois in 1860 to a locally prominent political family and a father who loved Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party. His father was the Democratic nominee for Congress but 1872 but lost to the Republican. So politics was the lifeblood of the Bryan family and this was passed down to young William. Bryan himself showed great skill. In an era where oratory was valued as a form of entertainment, young Bryan showed immediate promise, giving little speeches even as a child. He also converted to evangelical Christianity at a revival when he was 14. These two experiences defined his life.

Bryan graduated from Illinois College and then Union Law College, which later became Northwestern’s law school. He married Mary Baird, who became a lawyer herself and who basically managed her husband’s long and very public career. Wanting more opportunities to establish himself in law and politics than small-town Illinois offered, the young couple moved to Nebraska. He started a law firm in Lincoln and became involved in local Democratic politics. The late 1880s was a period of great political upheaval on the Plains, with the post-Civil War order of extreme partisanship based on Democrats being seen as the party of treason in defense of slavery was giving way because of the massive corruption and corporate control that defined both parties. All sorts of little third party movements were popping up and nowhere more than in the Midwest–greenbackers, the Farmers Alliance, etc. There were many questions about whether these reformers should work within the established parties or outside of them. In 1890, Bryan, who had gained a reputation for his excellent political speeches, pulled off a big upset in this Republican state, defending the incumbent congressman while running on a platform of monetary reform, a lower tariff, and legislation to rein in corporate behavior.

The Democratic Party was in the throes of turmoil (Dems in Disarray!) when Bryan entered Congress in 1891 between these reform forces and the old school southern Bourbons. Bryan was definitely with the former and he did not support his own party’s presidential candidate, Grover Cleveland, in 1892. Instead, he backed the Populist James Weaver and was reelected himself with significant Populist support. He spent his time in Congress fighting unsuccessfully to save the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and for the first peacetime federal income tax. In 1894, he ran for the Senate, but this was a banner year for Republicans in response to the Cleveland administration’s complete failure to deal with the Panic of 1893 and Bryan was defeated by his Republican rival when Nebraska voters elected a Republican majority to the state legislature.

By 1896, the Populist movement had reached its height and was also ascendant within the Democratic Party. The Panic of 1893 and discredited the DINOism of Cleveland and the party’s financial wing. Bryan became a leading candidate to be nominated in 1896, to the horror of the Cleveland supporters. He traveled the country giving his famed speeches and raising his profile. The 1896 Democratic National Convention was a mess. There were many prominent candidates and the civil war in the party meant it was very difficult for anyone to win a majority. The financial conservatives decided to throw a wrench into the proceedings when they demanded a floor debate on monetary policy. Giving speeches for the free silver side were Pitchfork Ben Tillman and Bryan. Tillman totally bombed, littering his speech with romantic references to the Civil War. Bryan, seeing his chance, launched into what became his iconic speech–the Cross of Gold. One of the most important speeches in American history, Bryan would later give it hundreds if not thousands of times, just to entertain the masses even after it was no longer politically relevant. He galvanized the convention and became the nominee, even though he was only 36 years old.

Bryan later recorded the Cross of Gold speech. You can listen to the whole thing here:

Bryan was able to co-opt the Populists, who never recovered. They felt he was a sellout and free silver was not their top priority, but it didn’t matter. On the other hand, Cleveland actually supported the Republican William McKinley over Bryan and the party elites were disgusted by the newcomer and his populist policies that favored farmers and everyday workers over financiers and capitalists. Bryan knew there was no way he could out fundraise McKinley. Republican kingmaker Mark Hanna was horrified at the idea of what he considered a wide-eyed radical taking power and he launched an unprecedented fundraising campaign to crush Bryan. The Democrat on the other hand took the road, taking a long train tour where he gave the Cross the Gold speech and rallied people around the nation. In many ways, 1896 was the first modern presidential campaign. Bryan did OK, but did not win the election. He swept the white South, won much of the Midwest, and nearly all the West. But these were small states. Moreover, Bryan’s vision of America was definitely one of white Protestant farmers and so he had very little to say to the immigrants in American cities that were gaining citizenship and thus the vote. Even though Tammany and most, though not all, the urban political machines were run for Democrats, Bryan did poorly among the non-Protestant ethnic minorities and thus couldn’t win the big states such as New York that he needed to defeat McKinley.

Bryan again won the nomination in 1900 and again lost. In the meantime, he became a leader against American imperialism, which had dominated McKinley’s first term. He actually supported the Spanish-American War because he was a big believer in Cuban independence, but he was outraged when the U.S. took colonies, especially the Philippines. As the grave above points out, he even tried to fight in Cuba, having raised a regiment of militia, although they were still in Florida when the war ended. He became one of the leading anti-imperialist voices in the following years. But even though Bryan gained the votes for some of the anti-imperialists, he lost a lot more and did significantly worse than he had in 1896, winning only four states that did not have slavery in 1860.

In the aftermath of his defeat, Bryan was no longer the de facto leader of the Democratic Party, but he remained influential. The conservatives took back over, but were badly outflanked by Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressivism. Although he and Bryan shared some policy goals, Bryan thought TR’s Progressive platform to be weak and half-hearted. When the Democrats were eviscerated by TR in 1904, Bryan again became the party’s leader and was the 1908 Democratic nominee against William Howard Taft. Again, he did poorly. Bryan was calling for policies farther to the left, but this was simply an era where, despite the problems within both parties and despite the upheaval in society at large, when it came to general elections, Republicans usually won based on the old loyalties. Waving the bloody shirt could still be effective and while Bryan was hardly Ben Tillman, he also most certainly did not repudiate the racial and cultural conservatism of the white South.

There was plenty of speculation that Bryan would run yet again in 1912, but he denied this. What he did do was refuse to support most of the leading candidates. In the end, it came down to Woodrow Wilson or Champ Clark of Missouri. But Bryan and Clark had battled in the past and while he was not close to Wilson either, he felt better about that. He did lead the convention to pass a resolution reading that the party was “opposed to the nomination of any candidate who is a representative of, or under any obligation to, J. Pierpont Morgan, Thomas F. Ryan, August Belmont, or any other member of the privilege-hunting and favor-seeking class.” If nothing else, Bryan was going to make sure that another Grover Cleveland not rise. And of course, it was Wilson who became the nominee with his support.

After Wilson defeated the split Republican Party, he paid Bryan off big time–naming him Secretary of State. This was not a good position for him. He was very well-traveled and extremely popular, yes. But he didn’t have a clue about foreign policy. In the end, he was one of the worst choices to ever hold the position, although a good bit better than Rex Tillerson! A pacifist, Bryan engineered a bunch of dispute arbitration treaties, but we saw pretty quickly with the outbreak of World War I how effective this would be. Meanwhile, Bryan was still basically fine with the U.S. invading Latin America all the time, and the Wilson administration would do more than its share, sending the Marines into Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and, most famously, Mexico. Yet, when we think of Wilsonian foreign policy, we can easily forget about Bryan, and that’s for good reason. He urged Wilson to stay out of World War I but as Wilson started to move toward British support and began condemning German U-boats, Bryan resigned in protest.

Now in the political wilderness, a sort of senior figure (who wasn’t that old!), Bryan turned to his pet causes–supporting Prohibition, women’s suffrage, labor rights, agricultural subsidies, fights against gender discrimination throughout society, and public financing of political campaigns. In 1924, Bryan was still powerful enough that he led the opposition to Al Smith winning the nomination because Smith was a Wet, even though that led to the conservative John Davis winning instead. But banning alcohol meant more to Bryan now than financial issues. Plus Davis named Bryan’s brother as his VP candidate. However, Coolidge drubbed the bland Davis that fall. Bryan was living in Florida by this time because of his wife’s health, one of the first snowbirds.

This leads us to the most famous incident of Bryan’s life, at least to us today, his defense of the state of Tennessee in the Scopes Trial in 1925. If it isn’t for the Scopes Trial, we remember Bryan as a good man–someone who stood up against corporations and for everyday people. He had his issues for sure–racism included and he very much supported Jim Crow. But he was a man who dedicated his life to help everyday people, or at least everyday white people, which still made him better than most politicians of the era.

Instead, we remember Bryan as an aging bumbling idiot with a backward religion. And sure, Bryan was a biblical literalist, one whose blind belief meant it was pretty easy for a genius like Clarence Darrow to pick him apart and make him look like an idiot. The sad thing was that Darrow and Bryan had long been allies in many causes. And even though the state of Tennessee won the famous case, Bryan and his evangelical allies became jokes in American culture and evangelicalism did not return to a position of political prominence for several decades. And then Bryan dropped dead right after the trial, having not even left Dayton, Tennessee.

William Jennings Bryan is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

If you would like this series to visit more graves in the Baltimore-DC area, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Among those in the area I would like to see are the civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell and former Washington senator Brock Adams, who retired to an island in the Chesapeake. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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