William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925)
by Doug Linder (2004)

 Theodore Roosevelt said of William Jennings Bryan, “By George, he would make the greatest Baptist preacher on earth.” A Baptist preacher he might have been, too, were it not for his boyhood fear of water.  As a young boy in the 1860s in Salem, Illinois (the same small town in John Scopes studied high school biology), Bryan dreamed of becoming a preacher in the Baptist Church of his father.  Witnessing his first baptismal immersion at age six, however, changed his career plans. Bryan later claimed that his fear of water was so great that it led to his decision to leave the Baptist Church and become a Presbyterian at age fourteen.

Bryan said, “My early life ran quiet as a brook.”  He enjoyed books and outdoor sports.  “The pleasantest memory of my boyhood,” he said, “is that of my mother, who taught me until I was ten years of age.”  Bryan excelled in school, and graduated as the valedictorian and class orator from Illinois College.  He married a college sweetheart, Mary E. Baird, during his first year at the Union College of Law in Chicago.   Six years later, the young lawyer and his wife moved to a place Bryan saw as the land of opportunity, Nebraska.

In 1890, just three years after settling in Nebraska, “the Boy Orator of the Platte” launched a political career that in six short years would win him the Democratic Party’s nomination for President.  His election to Congress came as a surprise; he became the first Democratic congressman in Nebraska’s twenty years of statehood.  After two terms in Congress, Bryan became editor of the Omaha World-Herald and traveled the Chautauqua lecture circuit promoting populist ideas.  In 1896, Bryan spoke on one of his favorite populist issues, free silver, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  He championed the idea that the dollar should be backed by more plentiful silver rather than gold, as was the present U. S. policy.  His speech—characterized, like so many of his speeches, by a religious quality—for a monetary policy more favorable for debtors ended with the memorable words, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”  Tumultuous applause erupted on the convention floor and continued for thirty minutes.  Five ballots later, the thirty-six-year-old Nebraskan became the youngest person ever nominated for the presidency.  He lost in November to Republican William McKinley, receiving 47 percent of the vote to McKinley’s 51.  The national ticket took down with it many Democratic candidates for Congress, including a young man from Illinois named Clarence Darrow, who lost his race by a mere 100 votes.

Twice again, in 1900 and 1908, Democrats nominated Bryan as their candidate for president.  “The Great Commoner” campaigned hard on progressive issues such as anti-imperialism, consumer protection, regulation of trusts, and campaign finance reform, but lost both elections--in 1900, again to McKinley, and eight years later, to Howard Taft.  Although his dream of the presidency was never realized, Bryan succeeded in transforming the Democratic Party from a conservative party of Civil War losers to a coalition more focused on the interests of blue-collar workers, farmers, and religious and ethnic minorities. 

The Democrats finally reclaimed the White House in 1912 with the election of Woodrow Wilson.  Wilson named Bryan his Secretary of State, but Bryan resigned in disagreement with Wilson’s decision to push the country toward involvement in World War I.

After leaving the Wilson Administration, Bryan devoted himself to advocacy of social reforms such as women’s suffrage and prohibition.  With these issues, as almost always the case for Bryan, the source of his fire came from his deep Christian faith.  Bryan’s politics, in fact, have been described as “applied Christianity.”  He saw no line between politics and religion.

Bryan’s faith and democratic instincts led to a profound suspicion of scientific elites and “modernism.”  He rebelled at the suggestion that reason should test all things—to Bryan, the soul ranked above the brain in importance.  He held science responsible for what he saw as a weakening of moral standards.  He watched with increasing alarm, in the years immediately following World War I, as modernists, with their watered-down view of the Divine, took control of school boards and churches.  The “real enemies,” Bryan contended, were not agnostics and atheists, but rather those  who would “suck meaning out of every vital doctrine of the Christian Church.”

In particular, Bryan grew concerned about the influence of teaching evolution in the schools.  As a young man, he had “looked into evolution.” He found the theory improbable and “resolved to have nothing to do with it.”  The evolution controversy at that time was largely confined to scientists and the highly educated.  In the 1900s, however, the controversy began to spread into the public schools.  When Bryan read a book published in 1916, The Belief in God and Immortality, by Bryn Mawr psychology professor James H. Leuba, alarm bells rang.  Leuba’s statistical study showing that college education eroded young people’s religious faith convinced Bryan that evolution presented a real and present danger to the country’s moral health.  Leuba concluded, “young people enter college possessed of the beliefs still accepted …in the average home of the land,” but “40 to 45 percent” leave college denying or doubting “the fundamental dogmas of the Christian religion.”  Equally shocking, Bryan thought, was Leuba’s finding that most scientists were non-believers.  The professor noted that “the smallest percentage of believers is found among the greatest biologists; they count only 16.9 per cent of believers in God.” Letters from worried parents only added to Bryan’s resolve to fight evolution.  His wife, in her husband’s memoirs, explains: “His soul arose in righteous indignation when he found from the many letters he received from parents all over the country that state schools were being used to undermine the religious faith of their children.” 

By 1920, Bryan identified evolution as “the most paralyzing influence with which civilization has had to contend during the last century.”  The next year, he stepped to prominence on the issue when he published a full-fledged attack on evolution in a pamphlet, “The Menace of Darwinism.” In his pamphlet, distributed throughout the country, Bryan warned, “Under the pretense of teaching science, instructors who draw their salaries from the public treasury are undermining the religious faith of students by substituting belief in Darwinism for belief in the Bible.”  He argued that persons “who worship brute ancestors” should “build their own colleges and employ their own teachers” rather than use the public schools to preach their “godless doctrine.”  For Bryan, opposition to the teaching of evolution sprung almost as much from his deep-seated majoritarian instincts as from his worries about the “consummately dangerous” theory.

The Great Commoner’s increasingly fevered attacks on evolution seemed to strike a chord, especially in the South where fundamentalism and democratic values predominated.  Bryan expressed satisfaction with his support, and complaint about Darwinists, in a letter to a friend: “In this controversy, I have a larger majority on my side than in any previous controversy, and I have more intolerant opponents than I have ever had in politics.”   

In speeches around the country, Bryan peppered his criticism of evolution with catch phrases and humor.  “It is better to trust in the Rock of Ages that to know the ages of rock,” he told his audiences.  At a Baptist Convention, he told the crowd of churchgoers, “When I want to read fiction, I don’t turn to Arabian Nights: I turn to works of biology—I like my fiction wild.”  Bryan criticized professors who “regard the discovery of the bones of a five-toed horse as a greater event than the birth of Christ.” 

Bryan offered what seemed to him a commonsense appraisal of evolution’s plausibility.  Isn’t a theory self-evidently preposterous, he asked, that linked “the rose to the onion, the lily-of-the-valley to the hog-weed, the eagle to the mosquito, the mocking bird to the rattlesnake, the wolf to the lamb, the royal palm to the scrub oak, and men to it all?” He loved to share with audiences examples of what seemed to him implausible evolutionary explanations for human body parts.  He ridiculed, for example, the idea that the eye began as a light sensitive freckle.  “The increased heat irritated the skin—so the evolutionists guess, and a nerve came there and out of the skin came the eye!  Can you beat it?” Bryan exclaimed.  “Is it not easier to believe in a God who can make an eye?” As proof of the confidence he held in his view, he offered one hundred dollars in cash to anyone who signed an affidavit declaring that he or she personally descended from an ape.

By 1923, Bryan focused much of his efforts on securing state legislation banning the teaching of evolution in public schools.  In speeches to state legislative bodies, Bryan urged enactment of laws that contained no penalty provisions and proscribed only the teaching of evolution “as fact.”  “A book that merely contains it as an hypothesis,” Bryan said, “can be considered as giving information as to views held, which is very different from teaching it as fact.” 

Bryan took his antievolution crusade to Tennessee in early 1925, where he spoke in Nashville on the topic “Is the Bible True?”  A Nashville attorney supporting legislation banning evolution sent copies of Bryan’s speech to every member of the state’s General Assembly to “guide” their deliberations on the issue.  Within days of his Nashville speech, legislation was introduced in each Tennessee house prohibiting instruction on the subject of evolution in state schools.  Bryan wrote to the author of the antievolution bill in the Tennessee Senate urging that he remove his penalty provision.  He urged that a fine or jail term was unnecessary and a possible drain on support for passage of the bill, but the provision stuck. When the Butler Act became law, Bryan offered his praise. In a telegram to Governor Austin Peay, he wrote, “The Christian parents of the State owe you a debt of gratitude for saving their children from the poisonous influence of an unproven hypothesis.” 

On May 12, 1925, five days after the arrest of John Scopes, Bryan received a wire from William Bell Riley requesting his participation, on the behalf of his World ‘s Christian Fundamentals Association, in the upcoming trial in Dayton.  It had been thirty years since Bryan last appeared in a courtroom.  No matter; he replied to Riley from his lecture tour stop of Pittsburgh: “I shall be pleased to act for your great religious organizations and without compensation assist in the enforcement of the Tennessee law provided of course it is agreeable to the Law Department of the State.”  Sue Hicks, the local prosecutor in Dayton, sent a letter to Bryan days later expressing pleasure in his willingness to join the prosecution team.  “We will consider it a great honor to have you with us in this prosecution,” Hicks wrote. 

Bryan saw the case as straightforward.  The “real issue,” he asserted, is “the right of the people speaking through the legislature, to control the schools which they create and support.”  Optimism shone in his comments.  “For the first time in my life,” he told a fundamentalist conference, “I’m on the side of the majority.” 

Bryan’s decision to join the prosecution raised the stakes of the trial, in the minds of many supporters of evolution.  Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History and arguably America’s most prominent evolutionist, declared, “William Jennings Bryan is the man on trial; John Thomas Scopes is not the man on trial.  If the case is properly set before the jury, Scopes will be the real plaintiff, Bryan will be the real defendant.” 

In the weeks leading up to the trial in Dayton, Bryan corresponded regularly with his fellow prosecutors and met them once in person in Nashville.  Noting the defense’s interest in landing big name attorneys, Bryan wrote to Sue Hicks, “The unbelievers are evidently very much worried about the case.”  He added his suggestion that the prosecution round out its squad with Samuel Untermeyer, a prominent New York attorney.  “Being a Jew, he ought to be interested in defending Moses from the Darwinites,” Bryan suggested.  Hicks replied that the prosecution had plenty of talent already, as Judge Raulston already tipped his hand in discussions of the case with Attorney General Stewart.  “Knowing the sentiment of the court (who by the way is somewhat indiscreet in discussing the merits of the case with the Attorney General), General Stewart is confidant that [the defense] motion to quash the indictment will be overruled and all [prosecution] evidence will be admitted at the trial.” 

Bryan boarded the Royal Palm near his home in Miami on July 6, and arrived in Dayton the next day, a Tuesday.  Three hundred people shouted greetings and applauded as Bryan, wearing a large, white tropical cork helmet bought on a trip to Panama, stepped down from the last car of the train.  “Well, I’m here,” Bryan announced to a crowd of reporters.  “Long have I looked forward to getting to Dayton.”  After a rest at a local residence that would be his home for the next two weeks, Bryan spent the rest of the hot summer afternoon wandering the streets of the town.  He chatted with residents, met briefly with fellow prosecutors at a local law firm, downed an ice cream sundae at Robinson’s drugstore, and munched on radishes that had been handed to him on his arrival.  In the evening, the Dayton Progressive Club hosted a dinner in his honor at the Hotel Aqua. After the banquet dishes were picked up, Bryan obliged the audience (which included John Scopes) with a speech in which he declared, “The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death.  If evolution wins, Christianity goes.” 

The next two days were busy ones for Bryan.  The evening after his welcoming banquet, Bryan spoke to a couple hundred persons from a veranda overlooking the Tennessee Valley at the Morgan Springs Hotel, about six miles into the mountains above Dayton.  As Bryan told rapt listeners—his voice vibrating with feeling—about the coming religious tide that would sweep the nation, lightening lit up the valley below.  An impressed reporter for the New York Times, observing the scene, enthused, Bryan “is more than a great politician, more than a lawyer on trial, more even than one of our greatest orators, he is a symbol of their simple religious faith.” The next morning, he addressed members of the local school board.  School Superintendent Walter White introduced Bryan as “the greatest man in the world and its leading citizen.”

Bryan reveled in the attention he received during the opening days of the Scopes trial.  He let Attorney General present the prosecution’s case for upholding the law’s constitutionality, while he spoke from pulpits, on courthouse lawns, and wherever else admiring crowds gathered.  H. L. Mencken commented, “There are many…who believe that Bryan is no longer merely human, but had lifted himself up to some level or other of the celestial angels…It would have surprised no one is he suddenly began performing miracles.”  Bryan spoke for over an hour to the congregation of the Methodist Church in Dayton on Sunday.  Judge Raulston and his daughters listened from the front pew as the local minister introduced Bryan as “the ambassador for Christ.”

Of course, not everyone in Dayton found Bryan mesmerizing.  Reporter H. L. Mencken, in town to cover the trial, attacked Bryan in his most caustic prose:  "Once he had one leg in the White House and the nation trembled under his roars.  Now he is a tinpot pope in the Coca-Cola belt and a brother to forlorn pastors who belabor halfwits in galvanized iron tabernacles behind the railroad yards….It is a tragedy, indeed, to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon."

Bryan, who spent the first four days of the trial listening and waving a large palm-leaf fan (Bryan observed to reporters that the palm leaf’s design is evidence of “the great eternal plan of adapting all nature to man’s use”), finally broke his prolonged silence when debate began on the question of whether the defense could present expert witnesses to testify about evolution or Biblical interpretation.  Before Bryan rose to deliver his much anticipated speech, Judge Raulston warned the spectators who jammed the courtroom to hear the Great Commoner that too much applause might cause structural damage to the building. 

The crowd leaned forward as Bryan took a long drink of ice water.  With a copy of Hunter’s Civic Biology in one hand and his fan it the other, he walked from the prosecution table to the front of the courtroom.  His hands trembled.  His wife observed later, “I never saw him quite so agitated.”   Bryan began by describing the question of whether the defense would be allowed expert witnesses as “the broadest question that will possibly arise” in the trial.  The law is straightforward, Bryan insisted, and nothing experts could say would be relevant to the guilt or innocence of John Scopes. 

Within minutes, his voice rising, Bryan swerved from an attack on the relevance of the defense evidence to a full-fledged attack on “the absurdities” of Darwin.  Bryan cared more about convincing the standing-room-only audience than the judge; he turned his back to the bench and spoke directly to the crowd. “The Christian believes man came from above, the evolutionist believes he must have come from below,” he declared.  Opening his copy of A Civic Biology, Bryan sarcastically dismissed the section on evolution as nonsense.  He ridiculed Hunter for tossing man into a category with “thirty-four hundred and ninety-nine other mammals—including elephants!”  Raising his hands as if in terror, Bryan exclaimed, “Talk about putting Daniel in the lion’s den!”  Turning from Hunter’s book to Darwin’s Descent of Man, Bryan quoted Darwin as tracing man’s ancestry to “Old World monkeys”—“Not even from American monkeys,” Bryan complained, “but from Old World monkeys.”  Evolutionists “have no proof” to support their theory, Bryan continued, and they cannot even “tell you how life began.”

In addition to finding evolution scientifically flawed, Bryan argued that it threatened morality.  With a flushed face and holding his arms high over the audience, Bryan cried, “The Bible is not going to be driven out of this court by experts.”  The purpose of teaching evolution is plain, he concluded.  It “is to banish from the hearts of the people the Word of God as revealed.” 

Bryan’s hour-long speech sparked a sustained, but not overly enthusiastic, applause.  Many reporters thought his remarks, especially his suggestion that man was not a mammal, were evidence of buffoonery.  At the least, the speech lacked intellectual rigor. Even some of Bryan’s supporters conceded that his oratory often showed few signs of a penetrating intelligence.  One friend of Bryan’s later observed, “Vague ideas floated through his mind but did not unite to form any system or crystallize into a definite practical position.” 

After a recess for lunch, Dudley Malone answered Bryan’s speech for the defense.  Malone complimented his old boss at the State Department: “Probably no man in the United States has done more to establish certain standards of conduct in the…world of politics,” Malone said.  But Bryan, Malone reminded the crowd, “is not the only one who believes in God.”  He argued that now was not the time to fear truth.  “The children of this generation are pretty wise,” Malone observed.  “If we teach them the truth as best we understand it, they might “make a better world of this that we have been able to make of it….For God’s sake, let the children have their minds kept open.” Malone, in his booming baritone, moved to his conclusion. The crowd erupted in the longest—and loudest—applause of the entire trial.  The courtroom took fifteen minutes to calm.

When the afternoon session of court ended, and the spectators had left the courtroom, only three persons remained: Bryan, Malone, and Scopes.  Bryan stared for a moment at the floor, then said in a low, shaking voice to Malone: “Dudley, that was the greatest speech I ever heard.”  “Thank you, Mr. Bryan,” Malone replied.  “I am terribly sorry that I was the one who had to do it.”

Bryan devoted much of the weekend to working on his closing speech.  He took a break from his writing on Sunday night to deliver another rousing speech to the faithful in the nearby town of Pikesville.  Prepare to meet “a gigantic conspiracy among atheists and agnostics against the Christian religion,” he warned his audience. 

Bryan’s memorable two-hour confrontation with Clarence Darrow occurred on the courthouse lawn on Monday July 20.  [Editorial note: This dramatic confrontation between Darrow and Bryan will be treated in more detail in the essay on Darrow.] Darrow’s relentless questioning and sarcasm took its toll on the Great Commoner.  His anger finally reached the boiling point. On his feet, shaking his fist at his antagonist, Bryan shouted, “I want the world to know that this man, who does not believe in a God, is trying to use a court in Tennessee—.”  Darrow, also standing and shaking his fist, cut him off: “I object your statement.  I am exempting you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes.”  Judge Raulston had enough.  He banged his gavel and announced that the court stood adjourned until the next morning.   

When the court reconvened, the judge announced, “I am pleased to expunge this testimony, given by Mr. Bryan yesterday, from the records of this court.”  The evidence, Raulston concluded, could not aid in determining the guilt or innocence of John Scopes.  Years later, W. C. Curtis, an expert witness for the defense, related another reason that the judge chose not to allow the examination of Bryan to continue.  Popular resentment against Darrow grew to the point that law enforcement officials met secretly with the judge to urge that he put an end to the trial.  According to Curtis, officials told Raulston, “This thing must be stopped.  We cannot be responsible for what may happen if it goes on.  Someone is likely to get hurt.” 

In the eyes of many of his followers, Bryan’s concession in his testimony that the “days” of Genesis might be “periods” made obvious for the first time that his theory of Biblical interpretation was not one of strict literalism.  Bryan’s opposition to evolution clearly had another source.  In the words of his biographer Lawrence Levine, “His literal acceptance of the Bible did not lead to his rejection of evolution so much his rejection of evolution led to his willingness to accept literally certain portion of the Bible.”  Nearly a century after Dayton, one prominent evangelist faulted Bryan for his non-literal reading of Genesis.  Jerry Falwell said Bryan “lost the respect of fundamentalists when he subscribed to the idea of periods of time for creation rather than twenty-four-hour days.”

The major disappointment for Bryan in Dayton came when the defense used a little known rule of Tennessee criminal procedure to deprive Bryan of the opportunity to deliver his carefully crafted summation.  Under state law, when the defense waived its right to give a closing speech, the prosecution was barred from offering a summation of its own.  Clarence Darrow explained his ploy: “By not making a closing argument on our side we could cut him down.” Darrow asked the court “to bring in the jury and instruct the jury to find the defendant guilty.  We do not think it fair,” he added, “to waste a lot of time when we know this is the inevitable result and probably the best result for the case.” 

Bryan spent most of the two days after the trial in Dayton dictating to his secretary his undelivered closing speech—the speech Bryan called “the mountain peak of my life’s effort.” He wrote a few letters to friends, including one to evangelist J. Frank Norris.  Bryan told Norris, “Well, we won our case.  It woke up the community if I can judge from letters and telegrams.”  On Friday, Bryan traveled to Chattanooga to make arrangements for publication of his speech, and that evening he perused the first proof sheet.  Saturday, on the way to Winchester, Tennessee to deliver what would be the final speech of his life, Bryan shared with his wife his determination to continue with his antievolution crusade.  At eleven o’clock the next morning, back in Dayton, Bryan attended Church with Mary Baird Bryan, and offered the prayer.  As he ate dinner following the service, Bryan told his wife of a recent physical examination that indicated that he probably had several good years still in him.  He made a few calls after dinner to arrange a vacation for he and his wife in the Smoky Mountains.  At three o’clock, after a brief discussion with a publisher in Chattanooga to discuss the printing of his final speech, Bryan laid down for a nap.  He never woke up.  Bryan’s personal physician, Dr. J. Thomas Kelly, concluded, “Bryan died of diabetes melitis, the immediate cause being the fatigue incident to the heat and his extraordinary exertions due to the Scopes trial.” 

Five years after his death, in response to the Great Commoner’s wish that a Christian college be established in the Tennessee hill country, Bryan College opened its doors on a scenic Dayton overlook. 

Some biographers saw Bryan’s last stand as a contradiction of the progressive goals he fought for during most of his life.  Others recognized his opposition to evolution as consistent with the themes that had long marked his political career.  For the Great Commoner, who never really understood the theory of evolution but fully understood the theory’s misuse—and who saw things as black and white, not gray—the decision to fight evolution was an easy one.  Not only did evolution threaten to leave students feeling lost in an uncaring universe, it also provided ammunition for those who, calling it “survival of the fittest,” would sterilize the abnormal or forget the weak.  Given a choice, Bryan said, “I would rather begin with God and reason down than begin with a piece of dirt and reason up.”