William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan, the son of Silas Lillard Bryan and Mariah Elizabeth Jennings, was born in Salem, Illinois, on 19th March, 1860. Bryan graduated from Illinois College in 1881 and afterwards studied law in Chicago at the Northwestern University School of Law.

Bryan married Mary Elizabeth Baird, a fellow law student, on 1st October, 1884. He practiced law in Jacksonville but in 1887 moved to the fast-growing Lincoln in Lancaster County. Bryan was an active member of the Democratic Party and in 1890 was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was only the second Democrat to be elected to Congress in the history of Nebraska.

Bryan soon established himself as one of the nation's leading orators. A Democratic with progressive views, he supported campaigns for graduated income tax, regulating child labour and women's suffrage. After his defeat 1894 he was appointed editor of the Omaha World Herald before becoming the Democratic presidential candidate in 1896. At the age of 36 he was the youngest man ever to win the nomination.

During the campaign Bryan became the first presidential candidate to use a car. His Republican opponent, William McKinley argued for high protective tariffs on foreign goods. This message was popular with America's leading industrialists and with the support of Mark Hanna, McKinley was able to raise $3,500,000 for his campaign. Outspending Bryan by 20 to 1, McKinley easily defeated his opponent by an electoral vote of 271 to 176.

Bryan was also the Democratic Party candidate in 1900. A devout anti-imperialist he urged a non-aggressive foreign policy. In one speech he argued: "The nation is of age and it can do what it pleases; it can spurn the traditions of the past; it can repudiate the principles upon which the nation rests; it can employ force instead of reason; it can substitute might for right; it can conquer weaker people; it can exploit their lands, appropriate their property and kill their people; but it cannot repeal the moral law or escape the punishment decreed for the violation of human rights." He added: "Behold a republic standing erect while empires all around are bowed beneath the weight of their own armaments - a republic whose flag is loved while other flags are only feared." This policy was not popular with the American public and this time he was defeated by McKinley by 292 electoral votes to 155.

Bryan became editor of his own newspaper, The Commoner . However, his main source of income was as a public speaker. Over the next few years he toured America giving talks on current affairs. He argued: "Never be afraid to stand with the minority when the minority is right, for the minority which is right will one day be the majority." He usually charged $500 per speech in addition to a percentage of the profits. He invested some of this money in buying large areas of land in Nebraska and Texas.

Bryan was again selected as the Democratic candidate for the 1908 Presidential Election and John W. Kern, a progressive politician from Indiana, became his running mate. The Republican Party selected Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Using the slogan: "Shall the People Rule?", Bryan campaigned in favour of new income and inheritance taxes. He also warned against the growing influence of corporations in elections and called for their donations to political parties to become public. Bryan went down to his largest defeat, winning only 162 electoral votes to Roosevelt's 321.

William Jennings Bryan
William Jennings Bryan

Bryan returned to the lecture circuit where he continued to advocate progressive policies. This included arguing that religion was the foundation of morality, and individual and group morality was the foundation for peace and equality. However, in other ways he was a traditionalist and began attacking the ideas of Charles Darwin. He told one audience: "The parents have a right to say that no teacher paid by their money shall rob their children of faith in God and send them back to their homes skeptical, or infidels, or agnostics, or atheists." On another occasion he argued: "If we have to give up either religion or education, we should give up education."

In 1905 he suggested that "the Darwinian theory represents man reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate, the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak. If this is the law of our development then, if there is any logic that can bind the human mind, we shall turn backward to the beast in proportion as we substitute the law of love. I choose to believe that love rather than hatred is the law of development."

In 1912 Theodore Roosevelt stood as the Progressive Party candidate against William H. Taft. This split the traditional Republican vote and enabled Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic Party candidate, to be elected. Wilson appointed Bryan as secretary of state. A passionate pacifist, Bryan convinced 31 nations to agree in principle to his proposal to accept a year's cooling-off period during political conflicts, allowing the dispute to be studied by an international commission. Bryan resigned from the government in protest against the way that President Wilson dealt with the sinking of the Lusitania. However, when the United States entered the First World War in 1917, Bryan gave his full support to the war effort.

As Bryan got older he became more conservative in his political attitudes. In June, 1924, the journalist, Heywood Broun, accused Bryan of being a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan. "For William Jennings Bryan is the very type and symbol of the spirit of the Ku Klux Klan. He has never lived in a land of men and women. To him this country has been from the beginning peopled by believers and heretics. According to his faith mankind is base and cursed. Human reason is a snare, and so Bryan has made oratory the weapon of his aggressions. When professors in precarious jobs have disagreed with him about evolution, Mr. Bryan has never argued the issue, but instead has turned bully and burned fiery crosses at their doors." Broun also criticised Bryan for not opposing Jim Crow laws.

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial.
Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial.

In the early 1920s Bryan began a campaign to bring an end to the teaching of evolution in schools. Bryan argued in 1922: " Now that the legislatures of the various states are in session, I beg to call attention of the legislators to a much needed reform, viz., the elimination of the teaching of atheism and agnosticism from schools, colleges and universities supported by taxation. 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. Our Constitution very properly prohibits the teaching of religion at public expense. The Christian church is divided into many sects, Protestant and Catholic, and it is contrary to the spirit of our institutions, as well as to the written law, to use money raised by taxation for the propagation of sects. In many states they have gone so far as to eliminate the reading of the Bible, although its morals and literature have a value entirely distinct from the religious interpretations variously placed upon the Bible."

Tennessee governor Austin Peay, agreed with Bryan and in 1925 he passed what became known as the Butler Act. This prohibited public school teachers from denying the Biblical account of man's origin. The law also prevented the teaching of the evolution of man from what it referred to as lower orders of animals in place of the Biblical account.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced that it would finance a test case challenging the constitutionality of this measure. John Thomas Scopes, a teacher at Rhea County High School in Dayton, Tennessee, was approached by engineer and geologist George Rappleyea, and asked if he would be willing to teach evolution at the Rhea County High School. Scopes agreed and was arrested on 5th May, 1925. America's most famous criminal lawyer, Clarence Darrow, offered to defend Scopes without a fee. Bryan agreed to help the prosecution by Arthur Thomas Stewart, the District Attorney. He was financed by the World Christian Fundamental Association.

The Scopes Trial began in Dayton on 11th July, 1925. Over 100 journalists arrived in the town to report on the trial. The Chicago Tribune installed its own radio transmitter and it became the first trial in American history to be broadcast to the nation. Three schoolboys testified that they had been present when Scopes had taught evolution in their school. When the judge, John T. Raulston, refused to allow scientists to testify on the truth of evolution, Clarence Darrow called William Jennings Bryan to the witness stand. This became the highlight of the 11 day trial and many independent observers believed that Darrow successfully exposed the flaws in Bryan's arguments during the cross-examination.

In his closing speech Bryan pointed out: "Let us now separate the issues from the misrepresentations, intentional or unintentional, that have obscured both the letter and the purpose of the law. This is not an interference with freedom of conscience. A teacher can think as he pleases and worship God as he likes, or refuse to worship God at all. He can believe in the Bible or discard it; he can accept Christ or reject Him. This law places no obligations or restraints upon him. And so with freedom of speech, he can, so long as he acts as an individual, say anything he likes on any subject. This law does not violate any rights guaranteed by any Constitution to any individual. It deals with the defendant, not as an individual, but as an employee, official or public servant, paid by the State, and therefore under instructions from the State.... It need hardly be added that this law did not have its origin in bigotry. It is not trying to force any form of religion on anybody. The majority is not trying to establish a religion or to teach it - it is trying to protect itself from the effort of an insolent minority to force irrellgion upon the children under the guise of teaching science."

Bryan went on to argue: "Evolution is not truth; it is merely a hypothesis - it is millions of guesses strung together. It had not been proven in the days of Darwin - he expressed astonishment that with two or three million species it had been impossible to trace any species to any other species - it had not been proven in the days of Huxley, and it has not been proven up to today. It is less than four years ago that Professor Bateson came all the way from London to Canada to tell the American scientists that every effort to trace one species to another had failed - every one. He said he still had faith in evolution but had doubts about the origin of species. But of what value is evolution if it cannot explain the origin of species? While many scientists accept evolution as if it were a fact, they all admit, when questioned, that no explanation has been found as to how one species developed into another."

John T. Scopes was found guilty, but soon after the trial, William Jennings Bryan fell ill and died on 26th July, 1925.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) William Jennings Bryan, The Menace of Evolution (1922)

Now that the legislatures of the various states are in session, I beg to call attention of the legislators to a much needed reform, viz., the elimination of the teaching of atheism and agnosticism from schools, colleges c and universities supported by taxation. 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. Our Constitution very properly prohibits the teaching of religion at public expense. The Christian church is divided into many sects, Protestant and Catholic, and it is contrary to the spirit of our institutions, as well as to the written law, to use money raised by taxation for the propagation of sects. In many states they have gone so far as to eliminate the reading of the Bible, although its morals and literature have a value entirely distinct from the religious interpretations variously placed upon the Bible.

Quietly and unnoticed, the enemies of the Bible have been substituting irreligion for religion. Having excluded the teaching of religion, they are daily teaching that which cannot be true if the Bible is true. They do not always openly attack the Bible, but that which they teach is built upon the theory that the Bible is untrue. Many of these teachers are atheists, and do not believe in either a personal God or a personal immorality, as Professor Leuba, of Bryn Mawr, shows in his book, 'Belief in God and Immortality.' Professor Leuba has himself rejected belief in a personal God and belief in a personal immortality, and presents evidence to show , that a majority of the prominent scientists agree with him.

Some deny that they are atheists, preferring rather to call themselves agnostics, it being easier to plead ignorance than to defend atheism. Darwin declared himself to be an agnostic, having substituted his hypothesis and its implications for the Bible. Darwin began life a Christian, but finding that his hypothesis was inconsistent with the fundamental teachings of Christianity, he rejected the Bible as an inspired Book, and with it the Christ of whom the Bible tells. Darwin declared himself an agnostic, and said that the beginning of all things, was a mystery insoluble by man.

The tendency of Darwinianism, although unsupported by any substantial fact in nature, since no species has been shown to come from any other species, is to destroy faith in a personal God, faith in the Bible as an inspired Book, and faith in Christ as Son and Saviour.

The so-called theistic evolutionists refuse to admit that they are atheists, contending that they believe in a God back of creation; they argue that evolution is God's method, but they put God so far away as to practically destroy a sense of God's presence in the daily life and a sense of responsibility to Him. At least, that is the tendency, and since the so-called theistic evolutionists borrow all their facts from atheistic evolutionists and differ from them only in the origin of life, the istic evolution may be described as an aesthetic administered to young Christians to deaden the pain while their religion is being removed by the materialists.

When the Christians of the nation understand the demoralizing influence of this godless doctrine, they will refuse to allow it to be taught at public expense. Christianity is not afraid of truth, because truth comes from God, no matter by whom it is discovered or proclaimed, but there is no reason why Christians should tax themselves to pay teachers to exploit guesses and hypotheses as if they were true.

The only thing that Christians need to do now is to bring the enemies of the Bible into the open and compel them to meet the issue as it is. As soon as the methods of the atheists, agnostics, and Darwinists are exposed, they raise a cry that freedom of conscience is being attacked. That is false, there is no interference with freedom of conscience in this country, and should be none. Christians will be just as prompt as atheists to oppose any attempt to interfere with absolute freedom of conscience. The atheist has just as much civil right to deny God as. the Christian has to believe God; the agnostic has just as much right to profess ignorance in regard to God's existence as the Christian has to profess his faith in the existence of God. The right of conscience is not menaced in this country, it is inviolable.

Neither do Christians object to the teaching of atheism and agnosticism by those who believe in these doctrines. Atheists have just as much civil right to teach atheism as Christians have to teach Christianity; agnostics have just as much right to teach agnosticism as Christians have to teach their religion. Let it be understood that there is no attack either upon the freedom of conscience or upon anyone's right to teach religion or irreligion. The real issue is whether atheists, agnostics, Darwinists and evolutionists shall enjoy special privileges in this country, and have rights higher than the rights of Christians. They dare not claim higher rights, though they now enjoy higher rights and are contending for higher rights.

When Christians want to teach Christianity, they build their own schools and colleges, and employ their own teachers-- Catholics build Catholic schools, Protestants build Protestant schools. Every Protestant branch of the Christian church builds its own schools for the propagation of its own doctrine. This is the rule, and there is no protest against it.

Why should not atheists build their own colleges and employ their own teachers if they want to teach atheism? Why should not agnostics build their own colleges and employ their own teachers if they want to teach agnosticism? Only a small percentage of the American people believe that man is descendant of the ape, monkey, or of any other form of animal life below man; why should not those who worship brute ancestors build their own colleges, and employ their own teachers for the training of their own children for their brute doctrine? There are no atheistic schools, and there are no agnostic schools-why should there be, if atheists and agnostics can save the expense of building their own schools and the expense of employing their own teachers by using the public schools for the propagation of their doctrine? They even rrw,ke their living by teaching to the children of Christians a doctrine that the parents reject and which they do not want their children to accept. As long as the atheists and agnostics have the same rights as the Christians, what complaint can they make of injustice? Why do they ask special favors?

(2) Heywood Broun, New York World (30th June, 1924)

In Madison Square Saturday night William Jennings Bryan testified his love of Christ and voted for the Ku Klux Klan.

Mr. Bryan explained his vote by saying that he did not think the Ku Klux Klan should be advertised in the platform of the Democratic Party. And as he pleaded against giving publicity to the Klan he stood in the glare of ten great Klieg spotlights while 15,000 in the hall, and millions outside, listened to the debate on the most fiery issue presented to any National Convention in fifty years. It was a little as if Noah, on the twenty-ninth day, had said, "Let's hush up the matter that there's been quite a spell of rain around here lately."

"You may call me a coward if you will," Mr. Bryan continued in developing his argument, "but there is nothing in my life to justify the charge that I am a coward."

That's as it may be, but it is true that Saturday night Mr. Bryan's betrayal of his country was not actuated by fear. No such kindly explanation is possible. The poor frightened woman from Georgia who changed her vote over to the forces of the Klan was afraid. She could hardly whisper the "no" which helped largely to decide the result. But Bryan spoke fearlessly in a loud, clear voice with oratorical interludes.

He did that which he wanted to do.

For William Jennings Bryan is the very type and symbol of the spirit of the Ku Klux Klan. He has never lived in a land of men and women. To him this country has been from the beginning peopled by believers and heretics. According to his faith mankind is base and cursed. Human reason is a snare, and so Bryan has made oratory the weapon of his aggressions.

When professors in precarious jobs have disagreed with him about evolution, Mr. Bryan has never argued the issue, but instead has turned bully and burned fiery crosses at their doors. Once he wrote to a friend: "We will drive Darwinism from the schools. The agnostics who are undermining the faith of our students will be glad enough to teach anything the people want taught when the people speak with emphasis. My explanation is that a man who believes he has brute blood in him will never be a martyr. Only those who believe they are made in the image of God will die for a truth. We have all the Elijahs on our side."

Of course, that is not quite true. William Jennings Bryan was a pacifist for the glory of God. Eugene V. Debs was a pacifist for the glory of man. It was Mr. Debs who went to jail.

But, true or untrue, Mr. Bryan's letter is revelatory. Jesus Christ was the first and greatest teacher of democracy because his mission in the world was to win belief. He made faith the test of the human soul. Mr. Bryan is content to compel conformity.

In the present convention the Ku Klux Klansmen were not in the least concerned with what the delegates thought about them. They were only interested in what was said. The demand was simply that the platform should be silent. Mr. Bryan can understand that philosophy.

I said that Mr. Bryan spoke fearlessly, but I will not say that he spoke truthfully. He said many things which were obviously false. His capacity for folly and misconception is great, but even so, I think he knew that he spoke falsely.

"There is not a State in the Union," he said, "where anybody whose rights are denied cannot go and find redress."

If a Negro in Mr. Bryan's Florida went to the polls and tried to vote, where could he go when his right was denied? Not to William Jennings Bryan, for Mr. Bryan is on record as giving complete approval to the policy of his adopted State in handling the race question. And so in this instance Mr. Bryan knew that he did not speak the truth.

(3) H. L. Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun (21st July, 1925)

At last it has happened. After days of ineffectual argument and legal quibbling, with speeches that merely skirted the edges of the matter which everyone wanted discussed in the Scopes anti-evolution trial. William Jennings Bryan, fundamentalist, and Clarence Darrow, agnostic and pleader of unpopular causes, locked horns today under the most remarkable circumstances ever known by American court procedure.

It was on the courthouse lawn, where Judge Raulston had moved so that more persons could hear, with the Tennessee crowds whopping for their angry champion, who shook his fist in the quizzical satiric face of Mr. Darrow, that Mr. Bryan was put on the stand by the defense to prove that the Bible need not be taken literally.

The youthful Attorney General Stewart, desperately trying to bring the performance within legal bounds, asked, "What is the meaning of this harangue?" "To show up fundamentalism," shouted Mr. Darrow, lifting his voice in one of the few moments of anger he showed, "to prevent bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the educational system of the United States."

Mr. Bryan sprang to his feet, his face purple, and shook his fist in the lowering, gnarled face of Mr. Darrow, while he cried: "To protect the word of God from the greatest atheist and agnostic in the United States."

And then for nearly two hours, while those below broke into laughter or applause or cried out encouragement to Mr. Bryan, Mr. Darrow goaded his opponent. His face flushed under Mr. Darrow's searching words, and he writhed in an effort to keep himself from making heated replies. His eyes glared at his lounging opponent, who stood opposite him, glowering under his bulging brow, speculatively tapping his arm with his spectacles.

No greater contrast in men could be imagined. The traps of logic fell from Mr. Darrow's lips as innocently as the words of a child, and so long as Mr. Bryan could parry them he smiled back, but when one stumped him he took refuge in his faith and either refused to answer directly or said in effect: "The Bible states it; it must be so."

(4) William Jennings Bryan, closing speech at the Scopes Trial (July, 1925)

Let us now separate the issues from the misrepresentations, intentional or unintentional, that have obscured both the letter and the purpose of the law. This is not an interference with freedom of conscience. A teacher can think as he pleases and worship God as he likes, or refuse to worship God at all. He can believe in the Bible or discard it; he can accept Christ or reject Him. This law places no obligations or restraints upon him. And so with freedom of speech, he can, so long as he acts as an individual, say anything he likes on any subject. This law does not violate any rights guaranteed by any Constitution to any individual. It deals with the defendant, not as an individual, but as an employee, official or public servant, paid by the State, and therefore under instructions from the State.

The right of the State to control the public schools is affirmed in the recent decision in the Oregon case, which declares that the State can direct what shall be taught and also forbid the teaching of anything ''manifestly inimical to the public welfare." The above decision goes even further and declares that the parent not only has the right to guard the religious welfare of the child but is in duty bound to guard it. That decision fits this case exactly. The State had a right to pass this law and the law represents the determination of, the parents to guard the religious welfare of their children.

It need hardly be added that this law did not have its origin in bigotry. It is not trying to force any form of religion on anybody. The majority is not trying to establish a religion or to teach it - it is trying to protect itself from the effort of an insolent minority to force irrellgion upon the children under the guise of teaching science. What right has a little irresponsible oligarchy of self styled "intellectuals" to demand control of the schools of the United States; in which twenty-five millions of children are being educated at an annual expense of nearly two billions of dollars?

Christians must, in every State of the Union build their own colleges in which to teach Christianity; it is duly simple justice that atheists, agnostics and unbelievers should build their own colleges if they want to teach their own religious views or attack the religious views of others.

The statute is brief and free, from ambiguity. It prohibits the teaching, in the public schools, of "any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught in the Bible," and teaches, instead, that man descended from a lower order of animals. The first sentence sets forth the purpose of those who passed the law. They forbid the teaching of any evolutionary theory that, disputes the Bible record of man's creation and, make sure that there shall be no misunderstanding, they place their own interpretation on their language and specifically forbid the teaching of any theory that makes man a descendant of any lower form of life...

Evolution is not truth; it is merely a hypothesis - it is millions of guesses strung together. It had not been proven in the days of Darwin - he expressed astonishment that with two or three million species it had been impossible to trace any species to any other species - it had not been proven in the days of Huxley, and it has not been proven up to today. It is less than four years ago that Professor Bateson came all the way from London to Canada to tell the American scientists that every effort to trace one species to another had failed - every one. He said he still had faith in evolution but had doubts about the origin of species. But of what value is evolution if it cannot explain the origin of species? While many scientists accept evolution as if it were a fact, they all admit, when questioned, that no explanation has been found as to how one species developed into another.

Darwin suggested two laws, sexual selection and natural selection. Sexual selection has been laughed out of the classroom and natural selection is being abandoned, and no new explanation is satisfactory even to scientists. Some of the more rash advocates of evolution are wont to say that evolution is as firmly established as the law of gravitation or the Copernican theory. The absurdity of such a claim is apparent when we remember that any one can prove the law of gravitation by throwing a weight into the air and that any one can prove the roundness of the earth by going around it, while no one can prove evolution to be true in any way whatever.