William Jennings Bryan, the most famous of the Bryans, (not to be confused with poet, William Cullen Bryan), was born in 1860, in Salem, Illinois. His father, Silas was a prominent lawyer in the vicinity, and a staunch Jacksonian Democrat. Silas represented his district in the State Senate for eight years. William was home-schooled by his mother, Mariah for the early portion of his education. She was a very conservative lady, a Methodist, who taught her son the evils of gambling and liquor from an early age. William was very religious as well. He would go with his mother to church on Sunday mornings, and then attend Baptist services in the afternoon. When he was 14 he was baptized into the Presbyterian Church, where he was a member for the rest of his life, retaining his views on creation and the evils of liquor.
William attended college at Illinois College, where he graduated, as valedictorian, in 1881. He studied law at Union Law College in Chicago (later Northwestern College of Law). While reading the law he taught high school and met and married his wife, Mary, who joined him in the study of law. She was accepted into the Bar Association, though she never did practice law. Instead, she collaborated with her husband on all of his speeches and writings. She accompanied him on his campaign trips, and became a strong campaigner in her own right, speaking to women's groups around the country.
In 1887 William Bryan and a classmate moved west, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to open a law practice. Lincoln was a boom town at the time and the law practice for the two young men was immediately successful. Before long, Bryan was able to build an elegant home in the fashionable part of Lincoln. This home has been preserved and is now a part of the overall Bryan (East) hospital, just off 48th street in Southeast Lincoln.
From the time Bryan arrived in Nebraska, he was involved in politics. At first he supported J. Sterling Morton, but when Morton was defeated, he ran for Congress himself, winning the election in 1890. In Congress, Bryan was known as a gifted orator, ("The Boy Orator of the Platte"), blest with a big, but pleasing voice, and one who could assemble his facts and deliver his message in a manner that was convincing his listeners.
By 1896 Bryan had attracted national attention in the Democratic Party, to the extent that he was chosen to be the party's nominee for president. He ran on the platform of Popular Democracy, Free Silver (and an enemy of gold, banks, and railroads), World Peace, and Prohibition. He saw himself as a champion of the common man and became known as The Great Commoner.
During the 1896 campaign, he gave more than 500 speeches in 27 states, changing the way politicians campaigned, in a time when a nominee typically let others campaign for him, while he sat at home making periodic pronouncements to the press.
As leader of the Silverites, Bryan believed in an inflationary policy for the free coinage of silver, as well as gold. In a time of deflation, which the US experienced from 1873-1896, farmers and other debtors saw their debts rise, even as their commodities fell in value, making it hard to pay off their debts. Bryan wanted to lower the gold standard to silver, and even the playing field. This led to his famous "Cross of Gold" speech, which he ended, " ... You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!" At the end of the speech he stood, immobile for 10 seconds, with his hands to the heavens. People would sit, stunned, then erupt in cheers and applause. This was the champion of the common man.
Alas, in the end, though the race was relatively close, Bryan and his running mate, Arthur Sewell lost the election to the Republican, William McKinley. Bryan was the Democratic nominee for president two more times, in 1900 and 1908, but never again came as close to winning. He did, however, manage to stay in the public eye up until the time of his death in 1925.
His passion for oratory served him well during these years. He was a regular speaker on the Chautauqua circuit, a popular form of entertainment in those days. He regularly charged $500 for a speech and through these engagements was able to buy farms in Nebraska and a ranch in Texas. He lived quite well.
Bryan was never very far from political life in his years after his presidential runs. He served as an able secretary of state in the Wilson cabinet. During his tenure, he negotiated peace treaties with 36 nations and promoted Wilson's policies in the Caribbean. He resigned when he believed that Wilson's policies toward Germany would lead to war (World War I).
For 15 years, Bryan was the leader of the Democratic Party and during those years acted as the watchdog over Congress and served as the Conscience of the Nation. Bryan never did abandon his principles -- anti banks, gold and railroads, promoting World Peace, Prohibition, and strict interpretation of the Bible. One time he was asked how he could square his stand as a progressive politically while remaining an ultra-conservative religiously. His reply, "Government is man made and therefore imperfect ... Religion is not man made. I am satisfied with the God we have and with the Bible and with Christ!"
In 1925, Bryan was called upon to defend his views on religion. He was named the prosecuting attorney, vs. Clarence Darrow, in the "Scopes (Monkey) Trial," which tested whether or not evolution could be taught in the schools. The trial was a sensation nationally, and covered by newspapers across the land. Bryan ultimately won that case and Mr. Scopes (a teacher) was fined $100. The case was later overturned.
Wm. J. Bryan had a knack of getting along with people. Charles Darrow was a good friend, as were many of the big names of the day, Leo Tolstoy, Buffalo Bill, Billy Sunday, Thomas Edison, Willa Cather, Winston Churchill, Henry Ford, and leading Republicans, as well as Democrats, men like Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, Harding, and Coolidge. He even offered to pay Mr. Scopes' $100 fine, if it should it prove to be a hardship to Mr. Scopes.
Charles Bryan 1867-1945, was the younger brother of William, and sometimes acted as his secretary. Charles served as Mayor of Lincoln 1915-1917 and 1935-37. He was Governor of Nebraska 1923-25 and 1931-35. He sought to help the Democratic ticket by lending the Bryan name, as Vice President, with conservative easterner, John W. Davis in 1924. The two were overwhelmingly defeated by Calvin Coolidge. The Bryan brothers are still the only set of brothers to be nominated for national office.
Source: Wm. J. Bryan from Issues and leaders of 1896, W J Bryan & the Scopes Trial, Bryan College.