Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

William Jennings Bryan (1913–1915): Secretary of State

William Jennings Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois, on March 19, 1860. He graduated from Illinois College in 1881 and earned his law degree in 1883 from the Union College of Law in Chicago.

After practicing law for two years, Bryan moved to Nebraska, becoming, in 1890, only the second Democrat to win a Nebraska seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Bryan remained in the House for two terms before running unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1894. As a delegate to the 1896 Democratic convention, Bryan's rousing "cross of gold" speech, advocating a silver standard for U.S. currency, rallied the masses behind him and brought him his party's nomination for the presidency. He would lose the election that November to Republican candidate William McKinley of Ohio.

Following the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Bryan served as a colonel in Nebraska's Third Regiment. He ran for the presidency once again in 1900, only to meet with the same result. Bryan subsequently founded a newspaper -- The Commoner -- to disseminate his ideas, writing editorials for the sheet between 1901 and 1908 and speaking often in public.

In 1908, Bryan chose once again to run for the presidency, losing to the popular secretary of war, William Howard Taft. Four years later, Bryan became President Woodrow Wilson's secretary of state. He would resign from that position on June 8, 1915, following the sinking of the British cruise liner Lusitania, fearing that the President's stern warnings to Germany, and Wilson's reluctance to ban passenger travel on belligerent ships, would involve the United States in hostilities.

Bryan continued to write and lecture, and in the famed Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, defended the teaching of creationism in public schools. William Jennings Bryan died in Dayton on July 26, 1925, shortly after the trial's conclusion.