Study Guide

William Jennings Bryan in Imperialism

By William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan

Poor William Jennings Bryan. At times he really did seem like "America's Biggest Loser."

He did have some successes early on in his career as a politician and a lawyer. This was mostly due to the fact that he had quite the knack for public speaking, wordsmithing, and the gift of gab. "Freestyle rapper" wasn't a legitimate profession in the 19th century, so he went with "lawyer" and "politician."

And those qualities actually did him well in those fields for a few years.

But that about ends Bryan's strokes of luck. He must have broken some serious mirrors, walked under too many ladders, and crossed paths with the wrong kind of black kitties 'cause everything went downhill for poor Bryan from that point forward.

Bryan vs. McKinley, Part I

After a mere six years as a member of the House of Representatives, Bryan decided to run for president. Big mistake. He had to take on William McKinley—a man that would become a serious thorn in Bryan's side for years to come.

During his presidential run, Bryan became famous for whipping crowds into a frenzy with his oratory bravado and political populism. In other words, he knew how to talk the talk. He criticized all those rich banker fat-cats for running over the little guy; he demanded that the United States started acting more like the upstanding gentleman the Founding Fathers raised it to be; and he argued for free silver.

No, not that kind of free silver. Bryan wasn't promising people as much silver as their little hearts desired. We're talking the introduction of free silver into the national economy. Let us explain.

By time the 1896 election was taking place, the U.S. was moving towards the gold standard as the foundation of the national economy. With it, the value of the dollar revolved around how much gold the U.S. government had in its possession at that time.

The problem with this was that gold is scarce. Ultimately, bankers profited from raising interest rates and farmers suffered from high interest rates.

At any rate, Bryan wanted to add silver to the equation as a way to drop prices and lower interest rates. So, during the 1896 Democratic Election, he gave what would be called the "Cross of Gold" speech, arguing that gold was a burden of biblical proportions.

To make a long story short, Bryan lost that election to McKinley. And to add insult to injury, the U.S. adopted the gold standard and not the free silver standard during McKinley's presidency.

Bryan vs. McKinley, Part II

Did losing the free silver debate and the entire presidency slow William Jennings Bryan down? Nope. He decided to run for president again in 1900.

Unfortunately for Bryan, though, this campaign probably felt like a bad case of déjà vu.

Once again, he found himself up against William McKinley—who was now an incumbent, mind you. And once again he decided to hijack the Democratic National Convention to speak his mind.

He already lost the whole gold/silver debate last time around, so this time he had to choose something a little more noticeable…more newsworthy. Well. The U.S. did just get involved in the Philippines—and what's more attention-getting than war?

This was where his "Imperialism" speech came in. McKinley had already caved under the pressure of pro-war imperialists who wanted to join the fight against Spain. But when Spain lost the war and McKinley still supported those who wanted to control the Philippine Islands, Bryan said, "Enough's enough. No more war. And no more empire talk. What do you think this is, the Death Star in Star Wars?"*

*We paraphrase. Although we definitely think Bryan would have loved Star Wars…and not just because he's a human with a pulse.

Alas, poor Bryan. He lost that presidential campaign too. He even lost the imperialism debate. The U.S. fought in the Philippines and controlled the islands until 1946.

The Bryan Phoenix Re-Rises Again Once More

Bryan—ever the optimist—decided to run for president again in 1908. Hey, why not; third time's the charm, right?

Or so they say. He lost that one too.

He was totally finished with the presidency after that one. Done. Over it. Finito.

But as we know from reading his "Imperialism" speech, this was a man with both ambition and a sense of justice. He still believed that the U.S. could be the shining light of morality in the world.

He was offered the position of Secretary of State in 1913 (hopefully not out of sympathy for the poor man). It's not the presidency, but maybe he got to sneak into the Oval Office and sit in the big chair when no one was looking. Otherwise, in his free time, he championed the temperance movement, criticized German aggression during World War I, and partook in the Scopes "Monkey" Trial.

And when we say, "partook," we mean he "was a central figure in the argument against the teaching of evolution in public schools." Plus, he got to give all sorts of speeches while the entire nation watched in anticipation once again. He was totally in his element during the Scopes Trial.

Unfortunately, he screwed it all up.

Bryan bumbled though the whole trial. He looked old and tired. The defense totally ripped into him. There were a few awkward and intense "gotcha" moments. It was bad.

Ultimately, Bryan's side won the case, but Bryan came out of the whole experience looking less than great…but Bryan accepted his losses with the patience and grace that only he himself could muster. Like they say, nice guys sometimes finish last.

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