The Great Nebraska ‘Common Man’
By Tom Morrow
If the so-called common man ever had a spokesman it had to have been William Jennings Bryan. He came from the heartland of Nebraska running three times for the presidency as a social-conservative, giving the so-called “every day American” a national voice.
Bryan was born March 19, 1860. He was one of our foremost orators and politicians. He won election to the House of Representatives in the 1890 election, serving two terms before making an unsuccessful bid for the Senate in 1894.
In 1896, he emerged as a dominant force in the Democratic Party, running as its presidential nominee in 1896, 1900, and 1908. He served as U.S. Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson.
At the 1896 Democratic National Convention, Bryan seized the moment, coming to national attention when he delivered his famous “Cross of Gold speech” attacking the U.S. gold standard and the Eastern moneyed interests as well as crusading for inflationary policies built around the expanded silver coins.
From his “Cross of Gold” speech, Bryan emerged as the nation’s leading Democrat. Bryan argued the debate over monetary policy was part of a broader struggle for democracy, political independence and the welfare of the “common man.”
“Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard.” Bryan said. “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a ‘cross of gold.’”
Bryan’s speech was met with rapturous applause and a celebration on the floor of the convention that lasted for more than half an hour, but it was to no avail. The presidency eluded Bryan again by defeat again in 1900 and 1008.
In a repudiation of incumbent President Grover Cleveland and his conservative Democrats, the 1896, Democratic convention nominated Bryan for president, making him the youngest major party presidential nominee in U.S. history. Subsequently, Bryan was also nominated for president by the left-wing Populist Party, and many Populists would eventually follow Bryan into the Democratic Party.
In the intensely fought 1896 presidential election, Republican nominee William McKinley emerged triumphant. By then, Bryan had gained fame as an orator by inventing the national stumping tour reaching an estimated audience of 5 million people in 27 states.
Bryan retained control of the Democratic Party and won the presidential nomination again in 1900. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, Bryan became a fierce opponent of American imperialism and much of his campaign centered on that issue. In the election, McKinley defeated Bryan, winning several Western states that Bryan had won in 1896. Bryan’s influence in the party weakened after the 1900 election and the Democrats nominated the conservative Alton B. Parker in the 1904 presidential election.
Bryan regained his stature in the party after Parker’s resounding 1904, defeat by President Theodore Roosevelt. Ironically, voters from both parties increasingly embraced the many reforms that had long-been championed by Bryan.
Bryan won his party’s nomination in the 1908 presidential election, but he was defeated by Roosevelt’s chosen successor, William Howard Taft. Along with Henry Clay, Bryan is one of the two individuals who never won a presidential election despite receiving electoral votes in three separate presidential elections held after the ratification of the 12th Amendment.
After the Democrats won the election of 1912, President Woodrow Wilson rewarded Bryan’s support with the important cabinet position of U.S. Secretary of State.
Bryan helped Wilson pass several progressive reforms through Congress, but he and Wilson clashed over U.S. neutrality in World War I. Bryan resigned from his post in 1915, after Wilson sent Germany a note of protest in response to the sinking of SS Lusitania by a German U-boat, thinking it would further involved the U.S. in the European war. After leaving office, Bryan retained some of his influence within the Democratic Party, but he increasingly devoted himself to religious matters and anti-evolution activism.
If you remember the 1960s, you may recall the film “Inherit the Wind,” starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. The latter portrayed Bryan. Tracy portrayed noted defense attorney Clarence Darrow. Bryan and Darrow were good friends, although they were in opposite political corners on and off the stage of politics. In that event Bryan gained national attention for attacking the teaching of evolution in the “Scopes Trial.”
For many years a statue of Bryan represented the state of Nebraska in the U.S. Capitol’s illustrious National Statuary Hall. However, last year (2019) Nebraska replaced his statue with that of Chief Standing Bear.
Since his death on July 26, 1925, Bryan has elicited mixed reactions from various political observers and historians, but he is widely considered to have been one of the most influential figures of the Progressive (liberal-socialist) Era. He was a forerunner to today’s liberal politicians such as senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and other Democrats seeding the 2020 presidency.