William Jennings Bryan

Presidential Hopeful

He practiced law at Jacksonville, Ill., and in 1887 he moved to Lincoln, Nebr. Bryan was a U.S. Representative from 1891 to 1895 but was defeated for the U.S. Senate in 1894. The next two years he spent as editor in chief of the Omaha World-Herald. Having ardently identified himself with the free silver forces in Congress, he became their most popular speaker in a preconvention drive to control the Democratic national convention at Chicago in 1896.

At the convention his famous "Cross of Gold" speech so swayed the delegates that his nomination for President was assured, even though he was only 36 years old. The Populist party also nominated him, but the conservative gold Democrats ran John M. Palmer. The chief issue of the campaign was Bryan's proposal for free and unlimited coinage of silver, which he thought would remedy the economic ills then plaguing farmers and industrial workers. He lost the bitterly fought contest to Republican William McKinley, whose campaign was skillfully managed by Marcus A. Hanna.

Bryan controlled the Democratic convention in 1900 and saved the silver plank from removal by Eastern gold factions, but he agreed to put the campaign emphasis on anti-imperialism. Defeated again by McKinley, Bryan in 1901 started the Commoner, a widely read weekly that kept him in the public eye. His reduced party power in 1904 resulted in the compromise nomination of Alton B. Parker, a conservative New Yorker, upon a platform dictated by Bryan. Parker, however, disavowed the silver plank, and Bryan unwillingly acquiesced. Parker's overwhelming defeat by Theodore Roosevelt turned the Democrats again to Bryan, who in 1908 was nominated a third time. Roosevelt's candidate, William H. Taft, defeated him.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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