William Jennings Bryan (1860- ), American political leader, son of Silas Lillard Bryan, a native of Culpeper county, Virginia, who was a lawyer and from 1860 to 1897 a state circuit judge, was born at Salem, Marion county, Illinois, on the 19th of March 1860. He graduated from Illinois College as valedictorian in 1881, and from the Union College of Law, Chicago, in 1883; during his course he studied in the law office of Lyman Trumbull. He practised law at Jacksonville from 1883 to 1887, when he removed to Lincoln, Nebraska. There he soon became conspicuous both as a lawyer and as a politician, attracting particular attention by his speeches during the presidential campaign of 1888 on behalf of the candidates of the Democratic party. From 1891 to 1895 he represented the First Congressional District of Nebraska, normally Republican, in the national House of Representatives, and received the unusual honour of being placed on the important Committee on Ways and Means during his first term. He was a hard and conscientious worker and became widely known for his ability in debate.
Two of his speeches in particular attracted attention, one against the policy of protection (16th of March 1892), and the other against the repeal of the silver purchase clause of the Sherman Act (16th of August 1893). In the latter he advocated the unlimited coinage of silver, irrespective of international agreement, at a ratio of 16 to 1, a policy with which his name was afterwards most prominently associated. In a campaign largely restricted to the question of free-silver coinage he was defeated for re-election in 1894, and subsequently was also defeated as the Democratic candidate for the United States Senate. As editor of the Omaha World-Herald he then championed the cause of bimetallism in the press as vigorously as he had in Congress and on the platform, his articles being widely quoted and discussed.
The Democratic party was even more radically divided on the question of monetary policy than the Republican; and President Cleveland, by securing the repeal of the silver purchase clause in the Sherman Act by Republican votes, had alienated a great majority of his party. In the Democratic national convention at Chicago in 1896, during a long and heated debate with regard to the party platform, Bryan, in advocating the "plank" declaring for the free coinage of silver, of which he was the author, delivered a celebrated speech containing the passage, "You shall not press down upon the brow of labour this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." This speech made him the idol of the "silver" majority of the convention and brought him the Democratic nomination for the presidency on the following day. Subsequently he received the nominations of the People's and National Silver parties. In the ensuing presidential campaign he travelled over 18,000 m. and made altogether 600 speeches in 27 different states - an unprecedented number. In the election, however, he was defeated by William McKinley, the Republican candidate, receiving 176 electoral votes to 271. But though defeated, he remained the leader of his party.
Between 1896 and 1900, except during the Spanish-American War when he was colonel of the 3rd Nebraska Volunteers, though he saw no active service, he devoted his time to the interest of his party. His ability, sincerity of character, and wide information, and his attitude towards the new issues arising from the war, in which he took the side opposed to "imperialism," increased his following. Although he had advised the ratification of the Peace Treaty, he opposed the permanent acquisition of the Philippine Islands. In 1900 he was nominated for the presidency by the Democratic, Silver Republican, and Populist party conventions; but although "imperialism" was declared to be the paramount issue, he had insisted that the "platforms" should contain explicit advocacy of free-coinage, and this declaration, combined with the popularity of President McKinley, the Republican candidate for re-election, again turned the scales against him. In the November election after a canvass that almost equalled in activity that of 1896 he was again defeated, receiving only 155 electoral votes to 292.
After the 1900 election he established and edited at Lincoln a weekly political journal, The Commoner, which attained a wide circulation. In 1904 although not actively a candidate for the Democratic nomination (which eventually went to Judge Parker), he was to the very last considered a possible nominee; and he strenuously opposed in the convention the repudiation by the conservative element of the stand taken in the two previous campaigns. The decisive defeat of Parker by President Roosevelt did much to bring back the Democrats to Mr Bryan's banner. In 1905-1906 he made a trip round the world, and in London was cordially received as a great American orator. He was again nominated for the presidency by the Democratic party in 1908. The free-silver theory was now dead, and while the main question was that of the attitude to be taken towards the Trusts it was much confused by personal issues, Mr Roosevelt himself intervening strongly in favour of the Republican nominee, Mr Taft. After a heated contest Mr Bryan again suffered a decisive defeat, President Taft securing 321 electoral votes to Mr Bryan's 162.