Who was William Jennings Bryan? Today, he is a relatively obscure historical figure and a footnote to American presidential politics - chiefly because, despite three attempts, he was unable to secure the White House. However, Bryan was a nationally prominent politician, orator, and social commentator for over four decades whose biography intersects with some of the most important events and individuals of the early twentieth century.
Here are some facts about William Jennings Bryan that return him to his rightful place at the center of American history.
Bryan Was the Inspiration for the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of OzPhoto: W.W. Denslow/Library of Congress / via Wikimedia
For many years, L. Frank Baum's book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was perceived as merely a fantasy written for children. However in 1964, an article by Henry Littlefield in a scholarly journal, The American Quarterly, made the claim that the 1900 book was also a clever political parody of both political figures and factions of the time period. Gold and silver were represented symbolically by the yellow brick road and Dorothy's silver shoes (changed to ruby slippers in the film). The Wizard was actually the President of the US, whose power was an illusion, the Wicked Witches of East and West were the moneyed interests of the east and west, plus many other uncanny similarities.
One of the most sarcastic was the Cowardly Lion, who was believed to be William Jennings Bryan, a blustering, fiery speaker who opposed the US war against Spain in 1898.
Baum was a writer who did pen various serious articles about politics, so it's not surprising that even his work ostensibly for children might reference the major political issues of his time.
Bryan's Presidential Election of 1896 Was One of the Dirtiest in US HistoryPhoto: Public Domain / via Wikimedia
If the election of 1896 was one of the most pivotal, it was also one of the dirtiest in US history. William McKinley was the sitting governor of the state of Ohio, whose chief political advisor was Mark Hanna, a multi-millionaire industrialist who correctly viewed Bryan as a force for economic change of the American status quo. He raised enough money from like-minded wealthy businessmen and Northeastern bankers like J.P. Morgan to be able to outspend Bryan twelve to one.
In most newspapers, Bryan was routinely depicted as a dangerous, unstable radical who would destroy the fabric of American life. Hanna saw to it that every American household received printed publications that vilified Bryan as a dangerous reptile or insect. Political strategist Karl Rove has cited Mark Hanna as his most important political influence.
The Scopes "Monkey" Trial Revealed Bryan's Ignorance and DemagogueryPhoto: Brown Brothers, Sterling, PA / via Wikipedia
The Scopes "monkey" trial was a 1925 American court case that adjudicated the guilt of a Tennessee teacher who had taught the concepts of evolution in a public school in violation of state law. When William Jennings Bryan heard about the case, he agreed to represent the prosecution. The ACLU then recruited Clarence Darrow, not only the foremost criminal defense attorney of the day, but also an avowed atheist.
The trial became a nationwide media spectacle and was the first broadcast on radio. The climax of the case was the direct questioning of Bryan as a hostile witness in a surprise move by Darrow, who asked questions concerning biblical events that left Bryan to appear confused, short tempered, and ignorant. In truth, the entire trial had been staged by the town fathers of Dayton to generate attention and income and the outcome was never in doubt. From the beginning the ACLU had been looking for a case that could be used in the appellate process that would hopefully overturn the law. The law was upheld by the Tennessee Supreme Court, but Scopes's conviction was tossed out. The state legislature would repeal the law in 1967.
Bryan's Humiliation in Dayton May Have Caused His DeathPhoto: Public Domain
William Jennings Bryan's testimony and demeanor at the Scopes Trial was so embarrassing that the judge in the case, John Raulston, adjourned the trial in a move to rescue Bryan from any more damage. The next day he would not allow any further testimony from either man, ruling that such a line of questioning was not relevant.
The eight day trial and media circus that lead up to it certainly must have taken a toll on the sixty-five-year-old Bryan. He died in his sleep, in Dayton, only five days after the end of the trial. While his death may have been coincidental, it certainly signaled that America had left strict fundamentalism behind and was entering a new intellectual age. Bryan's fanatical religious fervor and anti-intellectualism also overshadowed his legacy as a progressive thinker and populist.