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William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan

  • Secretary of State, US Department of State, 1913–1915
  • Representative, US House of Representatives, 1891–1895
  • Born: March 19, 1860
  • Died: July 26, 1925

William Jennings Bryan ran for president in 1896, 1900, and 1908. He served as secretary of state from 1913 to 1915 under President Woodrow Wilson. He was a leading promoter of silver-backed currencies and an ardent opponent of the gold standard.

Bryan was born in 1860 in Salem, Illinois. He attended Illinois College and afterward studied law at Union Law College in Chicago (which later became Northwestern University School of Law). He began practicing law in Jacksonville, Illinois, in 1883 and moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1887. From an early age, he demonstrated a passion for public speaking, a skill that would serve him well throughout his political career.

After moving to Nebraska, Bryan became involved with the Democratic Party and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1890. In Congress, he became a proponent of “free silver.” From 1792 to the Civil War, the United States was on a bimetallic system, under which the dollar was backed by fixed quantities of silver or gold. Initially, the ratio of silver to gold in a dollar was set at fifteen to one. This meant that an individual could bring either fifteen ounces of silver or one ounce of gold to the US mint and have it exchanged into equivalent amounts of dollars. Likewise, dollars could be converted into either gold or silver at the fixed exchange rate. In 1834, Congress changed this ratio to sixteen to one, which made gold the preferred form of currency.

In 1873, Congress ended the “free coinage” of silver and limited its status as legal tender, and in 1879, the United States followed several other countries in adopting a gold standard for currency rather than a bimetallic system based on gold and silver. Farmers in the western United States supported using silver as well as gold to back money. They argued it would increase the money supply and raise the prices of the commodities they sold. Additionally, since most farmers at the time were debtors, inflation would reduce the burden of the debts they owed. This position was opposed by bankers on the East Coast, who were predominantly creditors and supported “sound money” under the gold standard.

At the 1896 Democratic National Convention, Bryan delivered an impassioned speech in favor of free silver to help working class Americans. His “Cross of Gold” speech catapulted him to national fame and secured his party’s nomination for president. He campaigned against Republican William McKinley, who supported the gold standard. Despite Bryan’s exhaustive campaign speaking tour across twenty-six states, McKinley won the election. Bryan ran unsuccessfully against McKinley again in 1900 on a platform of free silver and opposition to the acquisition of territories following the Spanish-American War. By the time of the election, however, the issue of free silver had lost much of its popular support. McKinley had officially put the United States on the gold standard in 1900 by signing the Gold Standard Act, and discoveries of new gold sources led to increases in the money supply that helped satisfy the wishes of silver supporters.

Bryan launched one more unsuccessful presidential bid in 1908, running against William Howard Taft. In the 1912 election, Bryan supported Woodrow Wilson. After Wilson won the election, he appointed Bryan his secretary of state. While in Wilson’s cabinet, Bryan initially opposed the bill to create the Federal Reserve, voicing concerns that it gave bankers too much control over the monetary system. After the bill was revised to grant the government more control, however, Bryan helped the administration rally support among Democratic members of Congress for the Federal Reserve Act. He was instrumental in convincing the agrarian, populist wing of the Democratic Party to vote for the act.

Bryan married Mary Elizabeth Baird and had three children. He died in 1925 at the age of 65.

Written by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. See disclaimer.