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William Jennings Bryan

Born: March 19, 1860
Died: July 26, 1925

History powered by Prof. WalterWilliam Jennings Bryan is a gifted speaker, lawyer, three-time presidential candidate, and devout Protestant. Although he is born in Salem, Illinois, Bryan makes his career in Nebraska politics. He wins a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1890. A tireless defender of the small farmer and laborer, Bryan works closely with the Populist Party, a group of poor Midwestern and Southern farmers who suffer economically due to low prices for their crops, which they blame on Northeastern business interests. Bryan's efforts on behalf of farmers and laborers (the so-called "common" people) earn him the title the "Great Commoner."

William Jennings Bryan Supports Many Causes

After William Jennings Bryan resigns as President Wilson's secretary of state, he resumes his place as one of the most important members of the Democratic Party. He strongly advocates women's suffrage (women's right to vote). His efforts, as well as others, leads to the passage of the 19th Amendment, which guarantees women a vote in elections. Do you know when women finally got this right?

Not until 1920 do all women have the right to vote. Bryan also works on other issues important to him during his lifetime. He champions such causes as the popular election of senators, an income tax in which the rich pay more than the poor, the creation of a U.S. Department of Labor, and the prohibition of the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. He also fights for the farmers of America. What effect do you think Bryan's efforts has on our country?

Bryan's efforts has a lasting influence, even after he is no longer active in the Democratic Party. His belief in the power of the government to right wrongs and injustices and to guarantee the rights of all Americans is seen in programs like Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal initiatives. This program helps lift the country out of the Great Depression that follows the stock market crash of 1929. Can you think of other Americans whose beliefs are similar to Bryan's? What are some of their achievements?

William Jennings Bryan and the Free Silver Movement

William Jennings Bryan is a determined man. He runs for the presidency three times as the Democratic Party candidate -- in 1896, 1900 and 1908 -- and lost all three times. Nevertheless, many of his ideas have taken hold. Why? In many cases, it is because of Bryan's skills as an orator, or public speaker.

Bryan has the ability to persuade people to think as he does. In 1896 Bryan is able to persuade the Democrats that paper currency, money, does not need to be "backed" by gold. Have you ever had to persuade someone to change his or her mind? Were you successful?

What exactly does he mean that money does not need to be "backed" by gold? Bryan does not think it is necessary for the United States to hold in reserve an amount of gold equal in value to all the paper money in circulation. Bryan wants the United States to use silver to back the dollar at a value that will inflate the prices farmers receive for their crops, easing their debt burden. This position is known as the Free Silver Movement.

At the Democratic National Convention in 1896, Bryan not only persuades his party that he is right, he also secures the Democrats' nomination for the presidency with his skills as a speaker. Can you guess how Bryan's beliefs about money affected his campaign?

Bryan's opponent, Republican William McKinley, beat Bryan at his own game. His campaign raises far more money than Bryan's does and he is able to persuade voters that dropping the "gold standard" will lead to inflation, rising prices for goods and services. McKinley convinces the people that the Free Silver Movement is a bad idea. As a result, McKinley wins the election with 7.1 million votes to Bryan's 6.5 million. But that doesn't stop cartoonists from drawing pictures in which Bryan blows away his rival!

William Jennings Bryan and His Principles

William Jennings Bryan is a man who lives by his principles. He is not afraid to take an unpopular stand on an issue. Although Bryan loses three presidential elections, he does become secretary of state in President Woodrow Wilson's administration in 1913. As a peacemaker, he negotiates treaties with 30 nations in which they agree to investigate all disputes with other nations rather than go to war. Although Bryan does not always get his way, he remains firm in what he believes in.

Bryan strongly opposes imperialism, the extension of one nation's power over other countries. But President Wilson believes that the United States has interests in Latin America and that American influence over these nations is important to the security of the United States. The president orders more U.S. involvement in Latin America than Bryan believes is necessary. When World War I erupted in Europe in 1914, Bryan faced one of the greatest challenges to his beliefs. Do you know what this was?

Bryan's beliefs are put to the test when a German submarine sank the British ship Lusitania in 1915. More than 100 Americans on board are killed. President Wilson writes a letter that strongly condemns the German attack. Bryan fears that if he signs the letter, it will provoke war with Germany. Rather than sign it, he resigns. Have you ever refused to do something because it goes against what you believe in? What are the consequences?

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