William Jennings Bryan
1860 - 1925
William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate and prosecutor in the famous Scopes monkey trial of 1925, died July 26, 1925. He was 65.
Bryan was born March 19, 1860 in Salem, Illinois. Growing up in Illinois, Bryan attended Union College in Chicago where he graduated with a law degree. He practiced law in Jacksonville for four years, before moving to Lincoln, Nebraska.
With the reputation of being an excellent debater, Bryan won a seat to the U.S. Congress from Nebraska in 1890. After winning a second term, he ran for the U.S. Senate but was defeated.
He worked for two years as editor of the Omaha World-Herald. Meantime, he traveled the United States, grooming himself for the 1896 presidential race. He received the Democratic nomination after an impassioned speech at the party convention. At age 36, if elected, he would have been the youngest president in history.
But the well-organized and financed Republican campaign of William McKinley overcame the youthful exuberance of Bryan. McKinley defeated Bryan by a 271-176 electoral vote margin. Bryan ran twice more for president, in 1900 and 1908, losing those elections as well. He is the only person to run three times as a major party presidential candidate.
As a political favor to Bryan for helping him win the Democratic nomination and subsequent presidential victory in 1912, Woodrow Wilson appointed Bryan his Secretary of State. Bryan resigned in 1915 over Wilson’s increasingly war-like rhetoric toward Germany. Bryan was a lifelong pacifist.
In addition to his presidential aspirations, Bryan is perhaps best known for his participation in the Scopes ‘monkey’ trial in 1925. A young Tennessee teacher by the name of Scopes had been accused of teaching evolution in his public school classes, a violation of Tennessee law. Bryan went to Dayton, Tennessee to assist in the prosecution. The case brought worldwide attention when Bryan squared off against renowned defense attorney Clarence Darrow.
The case boiled down to a clash between religious fundamentalism and modernism. While Scopes was found guilty and fined $100 (later overturned), Darrow won the philosophical debate over the right to question the role of religious tenets in public education.
Bryan, who was not in the best of health during the trial, died of heart failure shortly after the trial's conclusion on July 26, 1925.