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William Jennings Bryan Presidential Election
In 1896, William Jennings Bryan ran unsuccessfully for President of the United States. Bryan, a former Democratic congressman from Nebraska, gained his party's presidential nomination in July of that year after electrifying the Democratic National Convention with his Cross of Gold speech. He was defeated in the general election by the Republican candidate, former Ohio governor William McKinley.
Born in 1860, Bryan grew up in rural Illinois and in 1887 moved to Nebraska, where he practiced law and entered politics. He won election to the House of Representatives in 1890, and was re-elected in 1892, before mounting an unsuccessful US Senate run. He set his sights on higher office, believing he could be elected president in 1896 even though he remained a relatively minor figure in the Democratic Party. In anticipation of a presidential campaign, he spent much of 1895 and early 1896 making speeches across the United States; his compelling oratory increased his popularity in his party.
Bryan often spoke on the issue of the currency. The economic Panic of 1893 had left the nation in a deep recession, which still persisted in early 1896. Bryan and many other Democrats believed the economic malaise could be remedied through a return to bimetallism, or free silver—a policy they believed would inflate the currency and make it easier for debtors to repay loans. Bryan went to the Democratic convention in Chicago as an undeclared candidate, whom the press had given only a small chance of becoming the Democratic nominee. His 'Cross of Gold' speech, given to conclude the debate on the party platform, immediately transformed him into a favorite for the nomination, and he won it the next day. The Democrats nominated Arthur Sewall, a wealthy Maine banker and shipbuilder, for vice president. The left-wing Populist Party (which had hoped to nominate the only silver-supporting candidate) endorsed Bryan for president, but found Sewall unacceptable, substituting Thomas E. Watson of Georgia.
Abandoned by many gold-supporting party leaders and newspapers after the Chicago convention, Bryan undertook an extensive tour by rail to bring his campaign to the people. He spoke some 600 times, to an estimated 5,000,000 listeners. His campaign focused on silver, an issue that failed to appeal to the urban voter, and he was defeated.
The 1896 race is generally seen as a realigning election. The coalition of wealthy, middle-class and urban voters that defeated Bryan kept the Republicans in power for most of the time until 1932. Although defeated in the election, Bryan's campaign made him a national figure, which he remained until his death in 1925.
William Jennings Bryan (March 19, 1860 – July 26, 1925) was an American orator and politician from Nebraska. Beginning in 1896, he emerged as a dominant force in the Democratic Party, standing three times as the party's nominee for President of the United States. He also served in the United States House of Representatives and as the United States Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. Just before his death, he gained national attention for attacking the teaching of evolution in the Scopes Trial. Because of his faith in the wisdom of the common people, he was often called "The Great Commoner".
Born and raised in Illinois, Bryan moved to Nebraska in the 1880s. He won election to the House of Representatives in the 1890 elections, serving two terms before making an unsuccessful run for the Senate in 1894. At the 1896 Democratic National Convention, Bryan delivered his "Cross of Gold speech" which attacked the gold standard and the eastern moneyed interests and crusaded for inflationary policies built around the expanded coinage of silver coins. In a repudiation of incumbent President Grover Cleveland and his conservative Bourbon Democrats, the Democratic convention nominated Bryan for president, making Bryan the youngest major party presidential nominee in U.S. history. Subsequently, Bryan was also nominated for president by the left-wing Populist Party, and many Populists would eventually follow Bryan into the Democratic Party. In the intensely fought 1896 presidential election, Republican nominee William McKinley emerged triumphant. Bryan gained fame as an orator, as he invented the national stumping tour when he reached an audience of 5 million people in 27 states in 1896.
Bryan retained control of the Democratic Party and won the presidential nomination again in 1900. In the aftermath of the Spanish–American War, Bryan became a fierce opponent of American imperialism and much of his campaign centered on that issue. In the election, McKinley again defeated Bryan, winning several Western states that Bryan had won in 1896. Bryan's influence in the party weakened after the 1900 election and the Democrats nominated the conservative Alton B. Parker in the 1904 presidential election. Bryan regained his stature in the party after Parker's resounding defeat by Theodore Roosevelt and voters from both parties increasingly embraced the progressive reforms that had long been championed by Bryan. Bryan won his party's nomination in the 1908 presidential election, but he was defeated by Roosevelt's chosen successor, William Howard Taft. Along with Henry Clay, Bryan is one of the two individuals who never won a presidential election despite receiving electoral votes in three separate presidential elections held after the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment.
After the Democrats won the presidency in the 1912 election, Woodrow Wilson rewarded Bryan's support with the important cabinet position of Secretary of State. Bryan helped Wilson pass several progressive reforms through Congress, but he and Wilson clashed over U.S. neutrality in World War I. Bryan resigned from his post in 1915 after Wilson sent Germany a note of protest in response to the sinking of Lusitania by a German U-boat. After leaving office, Bryan retained some of his influence within the Democratic Party, but he increasingly devoted himself to religious matters and anti-evolution activism. He opposed Darwinism on religious and humanitarian grounds, most famously in the 1925 Scopes Trial. Since his death in 1925, Bryan has elicited mixed reactions from various commentators, but he is widely considered to have been one of the most influential figures of the Progressive Era.