William Jennings Bryan vs. William McKinley: Competing American Myths

December 20, 2023
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William Jennings Bryan was one of the most famous politicians and public speakers of the early 20th century. Despite losing three presidential races, Bryan was monumental in shaping modern American politics as we understand it today. And yet, Bryan is a figure that sparks only vague recognition for most of us. Bryan lost two of his three presidential bids to William McKinley (in 1896  and 1900), who was, in many ways, the mirror image of Bryan. Each politician championed a different American myth. McKinley represented the urban self-made vision of America, whereas Bryan personified the wholesome agrarian version of America.[1] Though McKinley ultimately triumphed over Bryan both times, the popular vote was close; exploring how and why this was so provides crucial context to understanding not only McKinley’s administration, but how the two myths of America began competing for center stage. To understand America at a pivotal period of transition, encompassing industrialization and social upheaval, one can begin by examining the arc of Bryan’s life and career.

William Jennings Bryan: Early Life & Politics

William Jennings Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois in 1860. His father, Silas, was a prominent Jacksonian Democrat and state circuit judge who had served in the Illinois State Senate with Abraham Lincoln. Silas was a Baptist, and Bryan’s mother, Mariah, was a Methodist. Bryan was required to attend both Sunday schools but was free to choose his denomination. He chose Presbyterianism after participating in a revival at the age of fourteen. Bryan’s conversion was “one of the turning points” of his life, and his Christianity would deeply impact his politics.[2] After finishing high school in 1881, Bryan studied classics at college before attending law school in Chicago. He married Mary Baird in 1884 after they had both passed the bar.

Bryan rightly discerned that as a Democrat, his political ambitions would have a better chance further west, rather than in his home state of Illinois which had an established and crowded Democratic contingent. The Bryans relocated to Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1887, where Bryan established a law firm with a Republican while quickly entering the small, tight-knit circle of Democrats. Bryan began campaigning for Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland, and his speaking abilities did not go unnoticed.

In 1890, Bryan defeated the incumbent Republican for Nebraska’s congressional seat, becoming the second Democrat to represent Nebraska in Congress. Bryan won his seat largely for two things that he would later be known for: his strong oratorical performance, and his advocating for “free silver.” Bryan also gained early admirers for his warnings about the power of the trusts, over twelve years before Ida Tarbell publicly squared off against John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil.

Bryan’s Cross of Gold Speech

Bryan served two terms in Congress (1891-1895), during which time his political career accelerated within the more progressive Democratic ranks. In 1896, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Bryan captivated the nation with his speech advocating for free silver in the wake of the Panic of 1893. Though this sounds less than enthralling, for the American public, the gold and silver debate was about more than stabilizing the American dollar. The choice to back gold or silver fractioned both the Republican as well as Democratic parties, with voters who resided in cities or centers of commerce preferring gold, and voters who farmed (whether in the North or the South) preferring silver. Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech is considered one of the finest in American political history. The crowd was mesmerized and after a stunned silence, erupted into applause that lasted a full half an hour. Bryan easily clinched the nomination. 

Election of 1896: A Tale of Two Generations

The election of 1896 was a watershed moment in American politics on several levels. Bryan’s opponent, William McKinley, was twenty years Bryan’s senior. McKinley had served in the Civil War under the command of future President Rutherford B. Hayes, finishing the war as a brevet major. McKinley represented the old order — he was the final president to have served in the Civil War, and was of a generation who deemed it unseemly to campaign for oneself. While McKinley famously conducted his front porch campaign from his home just outside Cleveland, Bryan traveled by train all over the United States giving as many as 23 speeches a day – 570 speeches in total. 

But there was more at play than a generational gap between the two men. McKinley had the financial support of many industrialists, making it possible for his campaign to bring over 17,000 voters by train to hear McKinley speak. Bryan’s campaign was truly grassroots and relied on a cap being passed around for donations. McKinley won the 1896 election with 7 million popular votes. Bryan, whose budget was dwarfed by McKinley’s, received only half a million less, a testament to his popularity and power as an orator.[3]

Bryan vs McKinley: Election of 1900

Bryan challenged McKinley again in 1900, and the sitting president retained his office. Bryan’s second failed presidential bid marked an ebb in his personal political power, but ironically, the progressive ideas that he had been preaching for decades were on the rise. Journalists such as Ida Tarbell were exposing the dangers of trusts, and later President Theodore Roosevelt embraced Bryan’s call to government regulation. 

Bryan as Secretary of State

In 1908, Bryan was again the Democratic presidential contender but was trounced by William Howard Taft. In the following election cycle, Bryan campaigned for Woodrow Wilson, who beat Taft and appointed Bryan Secretary of State in 1913. Bryan found a political ally in Wilson, and they worked together to enact several progressive causes that Bryan had championed in the past, such as antitrust measures, a progressive income tax, and establishing the Federal Reserve. 

In turn, isolationist President Wilson found in the anti-imperialist Bryan a perfect Secretary of State, who negotiated a series of eponymously named treatises designed to slow declarations of war by allowing for third-party arbitration.  In 1915, Bryan resigned his post in reaction to Wilson’s approach to Germany following the sinking of the Lusitania. Despite their differences over the “Thrasher Incident,” as it was known in the media, Bryan supported Wilson’s successful run in the 1916 election, and offered his support to Wilson in the War effort.

Bryan: Post-Politics & Scopes Trial

With his exit as Secretary of State, Bryan focused on advocating for Prohibition. By 1920, he had stepped away from politics and had applied his oratorical gift to his true passion, becoming a popular religious speaker.

In 1925, Bryan’s reputation was forever marred, when he prosecuted the Scopes Monkey trial, in which a Tennessee teacher was taken to court for teaching evolution in public school. Unsurprisingly, Bryan found himself at the heart of a highly publicized, intensely sensationalized controversy that split the American public, and still does today. Though Bryan was publicly anti-evolution, his issues were more with the social Darwinism that had prevailed earlier in the century. Bryan was lambasted by the press – and later critics – as a backward religious fundamentalist who opposed science in public schools, and his reputation has not recovered since.

Bryan’s fundamentalist acolytes were equally displeased with Bryan, as his testimony at the trial revealed that he did not, indeed, believe in the Bible literally; he conceded that the creation of the world may have taken more than six days. To Bryan, the essence of the Scopes trial was something he had been saying for many decades: that the people, ie, the taxpayer, should decide what is or is not taught in public school. In other words, the Scopes trial was about religion versus science on one level, but in its essence, this trial was about the tension between individual liberty and majoritarian democracy.[4]

Death and Legacy

A few days after the Scopes trial, Bryan laid down on a friend’s sofa for a nap. He never woke up. William Jennings Bryan remains something of a tragic figure — not because he was a perpetual candidate and humiliated at the end of his life, but because he was ahead of his time, an occupational hazard of being a progressive. All the reforms he sought were mocked contemporaneously and then adopted and adapted by his rivals shortly after his death. His impact on the Democratic Party made it possible to nominate and elect candidates like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Bryan’s progressive crusading paved the way for Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft to sell Progressivism to the American people.

Between the bookends of his life, from his famous “Cross of Gold” speech in 1896 to his 1925 humiliation at the Scopes trial, Bryan managed to change the face of American political campaigning, overhaul the Democratic Party from being conservative to progressive, lobby for progressive income tax, advocate for workers’ rights and women’s suffrage, become a fixture in the anti-imperialist movement, and present an economic theory a century before Reaganomics that anticipated its language and proposed the opposite.[5] Though Bryan’s agrarian vision of America yielded to McKinley’s urban vision, Bryan managed to change and influence many aspects of the American political landscape in his lifetime. 

 

  1. For an in-depth analysis of the competing myths that Bryan and McKinley offered the American public in the watershed election of 1896, see Glad, Paul W. McKinley, Bryan, and the People. Philadelphia : Lippincott, 1964.
  2.  Bryan, William J. and Bryan, Mary Baird, The Memoirs of William Jennings Bryan. 2nd ed., vol. I, Kennikat Press, 1971. p. 44.
  3.  It’s estimated that McKinley spent over $3 million on his campaign, whereas Bryan spent approximately $400,000. In any event, the donations McKinley received from Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan alone totaled more than Bryan’s entire budget. Murpy, Troy A. “William Jennings Bryan: Boy Orator, Broken Man, and the Evolution of America’s Public Philosophy.” Great Plains Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 2, 2002, pp. 83–98, p. 90. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23532829. Accessed 12 Sept. 2023.
  4. Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1997), p.225
  5. On Bryan as the father of the modern Democrat party, see Mahan, Russell L. “William Jennings Bryan and the presidential campaign of 1896.” White House Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, Spring 2003, pp. 215+. Gale Academic OneFile,link.gale.com/apps/doc/A110074478/AONE?u=anon~d13ff5a3&sid=googleScholar&xid=77008f93. Accessed 17 Dec. 2023.