Donald Elder – Fifty Greatest Americans – William Jennings Bryan

Jun 11, 2015 by

William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder – Fifty Greatest Americans- William Jennings Bryan

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1. Professor Elder – one of our greatest statesmen, at least in my opinion, was William Jennings Bryan. Where and when was he born and what were his early years like?

William Jennings Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois on March 19, 1860. He was born into a prominent family: at the time of his birth, Bryan’s father was serving in the Illinois State Senate, and became a state circuit judge a few years later. For the first ten years of his life, Bryan was educated at home. To prepare him for college, his parents sent him to the Whipple Academy, which was located in Jacksonville, Illinois. After graduating with a high school degree from this institution, Bryan attended Illinois College, which was also located in Jacksonville. He was the valedictorian of the Class of 1881, and upon graduation attended what is now the Northwestern University School of Law. After passing the bar examination, he and his wife (who was also a lawyer) moved back to Jacksonville to open a law practice.

2. When did he first get involved in public service?

In 1887 Bryan moved to Lincoln, Nebraska. Three years later he ran for a seat in the US House of Representatives, and won the election. He was re-elected in 1892, and in 1894 became the Democratic candidate for a seat in the US Senate. The Republicans won control of Nebraska’s unicameral legislature that year, however, and chose a Republican for that position.

In 1896, he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, and gave a rousing speech in favor of coining silver money at a ratio to gold of 16:1. This address, known as the “Cross of Gold” speech, immediately thrust him into the limelight, and his fellow delegates selected him to be the party’s candidate for president. Only 36 at the time, Bryan became the youngest nominee for president of any major party in American history. Bryan also became the nominee of the Populist Party. He proved to be an exceptionally eloquent public speaker, and ran a strong campaign.

Indeed, Bryan would receive 176 electoral votes, but lost the election to William McKinley. Still, this experience had made Bryan a household name, and he would remain a public figure for the rest of his life.

4. How eloquent an orator was he?

Bryan was regarded as being one of the finest public speakers of his generation. He had a rich voice, and his gestures and mannerisms helped him create a dramatic effect whenever he gave a speech. In addition, Bryan had an astounding ability to speak at great length on a daily basis. It is estimated, for example, that while campaigning for president in 1900 he said 63,000 words per day. Bryan was thus clearly one of the greatest orators in our nation’s history.

5. Do you know who coined the phrase “Golden Voice Orator “?

Bryan was actually associated with three famous nicknames. Because of his young age when he was first nominated for president, he was known as “The Boy Orator.” His concern for the average American resulted in him being referred to as “The Great Commoner.” H.L. Mencken gave him the unflattering nickname “The Fundamentalist Pope” because of Bryan’s stance on Evolution. But the nickname usually associated with him was “The Silver Tongued Orator of the River Platte.” This appellation embodied his stand on the free coinage of silver, his skills as a public speaker, and his association with the state of Nebraska.

6. What contributions to the American landscape did he make?

Bryan is an interesting figure in American history. He had a progressive stand on issues ranging from female suffrage to the income tax, but at the same time he favored prohibition and refused to support a plank in the Democratic Party platform in 1924 denouncing the Ku Klux Klan. In terms of foreign policy, he also acted in a contradictory fashion. Bryan actively supported the Spanish-American War, serving as the colonel of a Nebraska regiment, but he opposed Wilson’s response to Germany’s use of unrestricted submarine warfare during World War I. In retrospect, it seems that Bryan’s influence on American history was fleeting.

7. Did he write anything of merit? And what were his later years like?

Bryan wrote four books, two of them autobiographical. In addition, there are books that are collections of his speeches. If people remember Bryan today, however, they probably do not associate him with his literary efforts. Instead, they probably remember him for his connection with the Scopes Trial. He appeared as a witness for the prosecution, but fared poorly under the cross examination of Clarence Darrow. There are some who believe that more people are aware of Bryan through the writings of Frank Baum. It has been asserted by some that the character of the Cowardly Lion in his The Wizard of Oz was based on William Jennings Bryan. If so, this guarantees that his memory will live on forever, if only metaphorically.

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