William Jennings Bryan, the son of Silas Lillard Bryan and Mariah Elizabeth Jennings, was born in Salem, Illinois, on 19th March, 1860. Bryan graduated from Illinois College in 1881 and afterwards studied law in Chicago at the Northwestern University School of Law.
Bryan married Mary Elizabeth Baird, a fellow law student, on 1st October, 1884. He practiced law in Jacksonville but in 1887 moved to the fast-growing Lincoln in Lancaster County. Bryan was an active member of the Democratic Party and in 1890 was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was only the second Democrat to be elected to Congress in the history of Nebraska.
Bryan soon established himself as one of the nation's leading orators. A Democratic with progressive views, he supported campaigns for graduated income tax, regulating child labour and women's suffrage. After his defeat 1894 he was appointed editor of the Omaha World Herald before becoming the Democratic presidential candidate in 1896. At the age of 36 he was the youngest man ever to win the nomination.
During the campaign Bryan became the first presidential candidate to use a car. His Republican opponent, William McKinley argued for high protective tariffs on foreign goods. This message was popular with America's leading industrialists and with the support of Mark Hanna, McKinley was able to raise $3,500,000 for his campaign. Outspending Bryan by 20 to 1, McKinley easily defeated his opponent by an electoral vote of 271 to 176.
Bryan was also the Democratic Party candidate in 1900. A devout anti-imperialist he urged a non-aggressive foreign policy. In one speech he argued: "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." He added: "Behold a republic standing erect while empires all around are bowed beneath the weight of their own armaments - a republic whose flag is loved while other flags are only feared." This policy was not popular with the American public and this time he was defeated by McKinley by 292 electoral votes to 155.
Bryan became editor of his own newspaper, The Commoner . However, his main source of income was as a public speaker. Over the next few years he toured America giving talks on current affairs. He argued: "Never be afraid to stand with the minority when the minority is right, for the minority which is right will one day be the majority." He usually charged $500 per speech in addition to a percentage of the profits. He invested some of this money in buying large areas of land in Nebraska and Texas.
Bryan was again selected as the Democratic candidate for the 1908 Presidential Election and John W. Kern, a progressive politician from Indiana, became his running mate. The Republican Party selected Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Using the slogan: "Shall the People Rule?", Bryan campaigned in favour of new income and inheritance taxes. He also warned against the growing influence of corporations in elections and called for their donations to political parties to become public. Bryan went down to his largest defeat, winning only 162 electoral votes to Roosevelt's 321.
Bryan returned to the lecture circuit where he continued to advocate progressive policies. This included arguing that religion was the foundation of morality, and individual and group morality was the foundation for peace and equality. However, in other ways he was a traditionalist and began attacking the ideas of Charles Darwin. He told one audience: "The 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." On another occasion he argued: "If we have to give up either religion or education, we should give up education."
In 1905 he suggested that "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."
In 1912 Theodore Roosevelt stood as the Progressive Party candidate against William H. Taft. This split the traditional Republican vote and enabled Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic Party candidate, to be elected. Wilson appointed Bryan as secretary of state. A passionate pacifist, Bryan convinced 31 nations to agree in principle to his proposal to accept a year's cooling-off period during political conflicts, allowing the dispute to be studied by an international commission. Bryan resigned from the government in protest against the way that President Wilson dealt with the sinking of the Lusitania. However, when the United States entered the First World War in 1917, Bryan gave his full support to the war effort.
As Bryan got older he became more conservative in his political attitudes. In June, 1924, the journalist, Heywood Broun, accused Bryan of being a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan. "For William Jennings Bryan is the very type and symbol of the spirit of the Ku Klux Klan. He has never lived in a land of men and women. To him this country has been from the beginning peopled by believers and heretics. According to his faith mankind is base and cursed. Human reason is a snare, and so Bryan has made oratory the weapon of his aggressions. When professors in precarious jobs have disagreed with him about evolution, Mr. Bryan has never argued the issue, but instead has turned bully and burned fiery crosses at their doors." Broun also criticised Bryan for not opposing Jim Crow laws.
In the early 1920s Bryan began a campaign to bring an end to the teaching of evolution in schools. Bryan argued in 1922: " Now that the legislatures of the various states are in session, I beg to call attention of the legislators to a much needed reform, viz., the elimination of the teaching of atheism and agnosticism from schools, colleges and universities supported by taxation. Under the pretense of teaching science, instructors who draw their salaries from the public treasury are undermining the religious faith of students by substituting belief in Darwinism for belief in the Bible. Our Constitution very properly prohibits the teaching of religion at public expense. The Christian church is divided into many sects, Protestant and Catholic, and it is contrary to the spirit of our institutions, as well as to the written law, to use money raised by taxation for the propagation of sects. In many states they have gone so far as to eliminate the reading of the Bible, although its morals and literature have a value entirely distinct from the religious interpretations variously placed upon the Bible."
Tennessee governor Austin Peay, agreed with Bryan and in 1925 he passed what became known as the Butler Act. This prohibited public school teachers from denying the Biblical account of man's origin. The law also prevented the teaching of the evolution of man from what it referred to as lower orders of animals in place of the Biblical account.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced that it would finance a test case challenging the constitutionality of this measure. John Thomas Scopes, a teacher at Rhea County High School in Dayton, Tennessee, was approached by engineer and geologist George Rappleyea, and asked if he would be willing to teach evolution at the Rhea County High School. Scopes agreed and was arrested on 5th May, 1925. America's most famous criminal lawyer, Clarence Darrow, offered to defend Scopes without a fee. Bryan agreed to help the prosecution by Arthur Thomas Stewart, the District Attorney. He was financed by the World Christian Fundamental Association.
The Scopes Trial began in Dayton on 11th July, 1925. Over 100 journalists arrived in the town to report on the trial. The Chicago Tribune installed its own radio transmitter and it became the first trial in American history to be broadcast to the nation. Three schoolboys testified that they had been present when Scopes had taught evolution in their school. When the judge, John T. Raulston, refused to allow scientists to testify on the truth of evolution, Clarence Darrow called William Jennings Bryan to the witness stand. This became the highlight of the 11 day trial and many independent observers believed that Darrow successfully exposed the flaws in Bryan's arguments during the cross-examination.
In his closing speech Bryan pointed out: "Let us now separate the issues from the misrepresentations, intentional or unintentional, that have obscured both the letter and the purpose of the law. This is not an interference with freedom of conscience. A teacher can think as he pleases and worship God as he likes, or refuse to worship God at all. He can believe in the Bible or discard it; he can accept Christ or reject Him. This law places no obligations or restraints upon him. And so with freedom of speech, he can, so long as he acts as an individual, say anything he likes on any subject. This law does not violate any rights guaranteed by any Constitution to any individual. It deals with the defendant, not as an individual, but as an employee, official or public servant, paid by the State, and therefore under instructions from the State.... It need hardly be added that this law did not have its origin in bigotry. It is not trying to force any form of religion on anybody. The majority is not trying to establish a religion or to teach it - it is trying to protect itself from the effort of an insolent minority to force irrellgion upon the children under the guise of teaching science."
Bryan went on to argue: "Evolution is not truth; it is merely a hypothesis - it is millions of guesses strung together. It had not been proven in the days of Darwin - he expressed astonishment that with two or three million species it had been impossible to trace any species to any other species - it had not been proven in the days of Huxley, and it has not been proven up to today. It is less than four years ago that Professor Bateson came all the way from London to Canada to tell the American scientists that every effort to trace one species to another had failed - every one. He said he still had faith in evolution but had doubts about the origin of species. But of what value is evolution if it cannot explain the origin of species? While many scientists accept evolution as if it were a fact, they all admit, when questioned, that no explanation has been found as to how one species developed into another."
John T. Scopes was found guilty, but soon after the trial, William Jennings Bryan fell ill and died on 26th July, 1925.