A Righteous Cause: The Life of William Jennings Bryan

A Righteous Cause: The Life of William Jennings Bryan

by Robert W. Cherny, Oscar Handlin

Three times the Democratic Party’s nominee for president (1896, 1900, and 1908) and secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson, William Jennings Bryan voiced the concerns of many Americans left out of the post–Civil War economic growth.

In A Righteous Cause: The Life of Williams Jennings Bryan, Robert W. Cherny presents Bryan’s key role


Three times the Democratic Party’s nominee for president (1896, 1900, and 1908) and secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson, William Jennings Bryan voiced the concerns of many Americans left out of the post–Civil War economic growth.

In A Righteous Cause: The Life of Williams Jennings Bryan, Robert W. Cherny presents Bryan’s key role in the Democratic Party’s transformation from the conservatism of Grover Cleveland to the progressivism of Woodrow Wilson. Cherny draws on Bryan’s writings and correspondence to trace his major political crusades for a new currency policy, prohibition, and women’s suffrage, and against colonialism, monopolies, America’s entry into World War I, and the teaching of evolution in the public schools.

Editorial Reviews

**** Reprint of the Little, Brown work originally published in 1985, and recommended as part of college core collections by BCL3. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
From the Publisher
"A succinct study in which the author combines a knowledge of the standard works in the field with original research and new insights and analysis. . . . His book is a serious and intelligent one that students, scholars, and a general public can read with pleasure and profit."—Martin Ridge, Annals of Iowa

"The best short biography of Bryan. . . . Cherny’s treatment of Bryan and Darrow at the Scopes trial is fair, and his concluding chapter, ‘Evaluating a Crusader,’ is very well balanced."—Ferenc M. Szasz, Ohio History

"Cherny has traced Bryan’s life in short compass and in a fashion that works well for the student and general reader."—R. Hal Williams, Western Historical Quarterly

Product Details

Little, Brown & Company
Publication date:
Library of American Biography

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A Righteous Cause

The Life of William Jennings Bryan

By Robert W. Cherny


Copyright © 1994 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4812-0


Youth of a Crusader

IN 1887, THE FIRST DAY of October had a double significance for twenty-seven-year old William Jennings Bryan. Three years before, he and Mary Baird had pronounced their wedding vows. Now, on his third wedding anniversary, the tall, black-haired lawyer stepped down from a train in Lincoln, Nebraska, the city he and Mary had chosen as their future home. Mary and the family remained in Illinois while Will came ahead to find a house and to begin a new law practice with Adolphus Talbot, a friend from law school.

It must have seemed that Will brought very little with him to start a new life. He had his clothes and his law books, to be sure, but little more of a material nature. In his head and his heart, however, he carried a set of values, beliefs, attitudes, and expectations bred during his childhood and youth. Bryan had grown up in the America of farms and small towns, of religious revivals and church socials, of Civil War and its aftermath. To know what he carried with him that day in October, it is necessary to begin in Salem, Illinois, where Bryan was born on March 19, 1860.

Salem, county seat of Marion County, drew its economic life from agriculture. In 1870, only two towns in the county held more than a thousand residents; four out of five county residents lived outside those two towns. A majority of the county's families earned their livelihood by tilling the soil. Most who did not farm ran small businesses, selling goods and services to the farmers and to each other. In 1870, the town of Salem counted 342 people with identifiable occupations other than farmer or farm laborer. About a hundred worked as artisans: carpenters, saddle and harness makers, shoemakers, butchers, bakers, blacksmiths, milliners. Most artisans worked in their own shops, usually without assistance except from family members. Another seventy provided personal services, half as domestic servants, most of the others as launderers, saloonkeepers, hotelkeepers, and barbers. The town counted nearly equal numbers of professionals—teachers, physicians, and lawyers—and of merchants, bankers, brokers, or agents. As county seat, Salem claimed nearly two dozen government officials, most of them serving the town and county. Manufacturing was limited and small in scale; members of the community purchased the flour and lumber produced by Salem's three mills. They also bought most of the plows, wagons, and carriages made in Salem's one manufacturing shop. The mills each employed four to six workers; the shop occasionally hired as many as eleven. Only one adult Salemite in five worked for wages, most of them as domestic servants, day laborers, teachers, or store clerks. Agriculture controlled the economic destiny of the entire population. If crops were good and prices steady, the merchants, artisans, proprietors, and professionals of Salem prospered along with the farmers. In his most famous speech, Bryan was to proclaim, "destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country." His dictum unquestionably held true for Salem and thousands of other towns like it.

In the year of Willy's sixth birthday, his family moved from the house where he had been born to a new home on a farm just outside Salem. Willy's father, Silas Bryan, a lawyer and judge of the circuit court, believed in hard work, in "the sweat of the face in agricultural pursuits." Judge Bryan's farm—purchased with income from bar and bench—was one of the largest in the county. There Willy grew up, bearing his full share of farm chores: chopping wood, caring for livestock, milking cows, haying. He recalled it later as "drudgery" but acknowledged that it was probably responsible for his physical strength.

Farm work taxed the strength of most farmers, for much of it was based on human muscle power. Silas Bryan, more country gentleman than serious farmer, sometimes paid laborers to help with the most difficult tasks, especially in the summer. A farmer's work day began at sunrise—sometimes before—and lasted until sunset. Chores such as feeding and watering stock, milking, and gathering eggs demanded daily attention, usually at the same time. Other work varied according to the seasons. Every family member had chores, but everyone pitched in when an extra hand was needed; farm children might come to school exhausted after spending much of the night with farrowing or calving. A few important labor-saving innovations, notably the reaper, had appeared before the Civil War, but in 1866, when Silas moved his family to the farm, farmers worked in much the same way as those of a century before.

Families in Salem or on nearby farms knew each other, at least by reputation. Virtually all relationships were between people who knew each other in multiple social and economic roles. Salem township—Salem village and the rural areas a few miles in each direction, forming a square six miles on each side—contained 2,041 people in 1870, half of them children. The average home held nearly six people, usually related by kinship; a number included a boarder or a live-in servant. Frequently in face-to-face contact at church functions, lodge meetings, and in stores and shops, people could keep few secrets. The community knew who regularly attended Sunday school and church, and knew as well who regularly patronized saloons. People who violated dominant standards risked being labeled as "not of the better sort."

Willy Bryan's family occupied a secure place among "the better sort." His father Silas served both as circuit court judge and as deacon of the Baptist church. Willy's mother, Mariah, came from the Jennings family, one of the oldest in the county, and she took an active part in the Methodist church for many years before joining her husband's denomination. Silas Bryan was one of the most important men in town. In 1870 he owned $18,000 worth of real and personal property, a sum which put him sixth in the township. A history published in 1881 described him as one of five Salem residents to have achieved "state or national reputations." His judicial circuit included a half-dozen counties; travel often kept him away from home for days at a time. Well-known in a number of communities, Silas Bryan came within a few votes of being elected to the House of Representatives in 1872.

Most residents of Salem and other small towns led a more isolated life than Silas Bryan. Travel was usually limited to the distance a horse could travel in a day. A farmer's once-a-year trip to sell grain necessitated extensive preparations—loading the wagon the night before, rising before sunrise, traveling until noon, selling the grain, making a few purchases, then returning home long past sunset. Some family members stayed home to care for the stock and milk the cows, tasks that could not be ignored even for a day.

Though most small town residents traveled little beyond the boundaries of their own communities, news from the outside world was easily available. Salem had several weekly newspapers, most with a strong commitment to one of the major political parties. Willy's father undoubtedly subscribed to the Salem Advocate, the staunch voice of the local Democratic party. None in a series of weekly Republican papers was very successful; other short-lived papers espoused the Greenback party or the Baptist church. A half-dozen other weekly papers were printed in the other villages and towns of Marion County. Silas Bryan's family may also have taken one of the national weeklies or monthlies; magazines such as Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Monthly, or Lippincott's treated their readers to a wide variety of articles, everything from essays on Charles Dickens to accounts of spiritualism. Farm journals also flourished, devoted to the improvement of agriculture, but often also including fiction and travel accounts.

Although residents of Salem could read about slums in London and explorations in Africa, the outside world rarely touched them directly. Salem lived a relatively self-sufficient economic and political life. Members of the community owned and operated every business in Salem except the railroad and the telegraph office. Salem's economy could not claim immunity from national patterns of prosperity and depression, but its small manufacturing concerns produced for a local market and felt less susceptibility to variations in demand than the New England mills that produced cloth, clocks, and other items for Salem stores. When wheat and corn prices fell, however, so did patronage at the shops and stores along Main Street. Outside political forces seldom intruded on the lives of Salem residents. Local government touched Salem residents most directly, providing schools and roads and settling disputes over land ownership. State and federal governments were both remote and seldom seen. When Willy was a toddler, the Civil War touched every household in the nation. With that exception, the federal government did little to affect most citizens—it neither taxed them, regulated their enterprises, nor defined their social relationships.

The self-sufficiency of most village households mirrored the autonomy of the village. Salem houses usually sat in large yards, with lawn and maple trees in the front and space in the back for fruit trees, a large vegetable garden, a poultry yard, a barn if the family kept a cow or horses, and perhaps a pigpen. Nearly all families, whether on the farm or in town, produced much of their food, resorting to the grocery for sugar, coffee, spices and specialty items. The women of the house, aided perhaps by a hired seamstress, also produced clothing for the children and women. (In 1870, Salem counted only six grocers and five butchers, but fourteen dry goods merchants.)

America valued self-sufficiency and the autonomy of self-employment. The community looked down upon those who worked for wages. A young man might toil as a farmhand while waiting to acquire a holding of his own, or as a day laborer while learning a trade. A young woman might work as a domestic servant or teacher while waiting for a husband. Those who continued to labor for wages into later years bore the stigma of failure. The community defined success for a man as being a self-employed family head, with a farm, shop, store, or office of his own. For a woman, success meant being the wife of such a successful man, with a brood of children to help. The family formed the basic social unit. The person not part of a family was an outsider; he or she could rarely expect acceptance within the community.

Willy Bryan grew up in a large family with extensive community ties. While more prosperous than most, the Bryans probably fell close to the mean in many other ways. Born in Virginia of Scotch-Irish descent, Silas followed others of his family west, down the Ohio River. He scraped for an education, spending a few months at an academy in Missouri near the farm of his brother, William, for whom he later named his son. He then studied several years at McKendree College, a Methodist institution in Illinois, near the home of his sister, Nancy. He taught school while reading law, won election to a term as county superintendent of schools, secured admission to the bar, and, in 1852, married Mariah Jennings. Mariah gave birth to nine children, three of whom died before the age of five. Willy was born in 1860; he grew up with an older sister, two younger brothers (one of whom died at the age of seventeen years), and two younger sisters. Mollie Smith, orphaned niece of Silas and ten years older than the oldest Bryan child, lived with the family. Eventually Mariah's mother also came to live with the Bryans. Within Marion County lived many Jennings cousins, aunts, and uncles, and a number of Silas's relatives as well. Silas assisted with the legal careers of at least two of his nephews, taking one as a partner and bringing the other into his office to read law.

Next in importance to the family as a social institution stood the church. Salem counted eight churches during the years when Willy Bryan grew to manhood. Three were Methodist: one Northern, one Southern, and one for blacks. Both theology and regional sentiments separated the two Presbyterian congregations. Baptists, too, divided into two congregations, but along the lines of race. Salem also had a small Church of Christ. Catholics had formed a church during railroad construction in the 1850s, but only six Catholic families lived in Salem in 1881. Centralia, a town three times the size of Salem, held Marion County's only Catholic congregation large enough to support a priest. Few immigrants lived in Salem, only eight percent of the adults; old-stock Protestant churches—and values—dominated the town.

Divided by doctrine and sometimes by region, the Protestant churches of Salem—and most parts of the United States—nonetheless shared similar views on the nature of conversion, proper social behavior, and the role of the church. During the early nineteenth century, Methodists led the way in the development of an evangelical, perfectionist Protestantism that profoundly affected attitudes, if not formal doctrines, in most other denominations. The concept of free will infused Methodism with the belief that an individual could choose good or evil, rather than being predestined to one or the other. Through free will and the grace of God, the individual might cleanse sin from his or her life and be assured of salvation. By the time of the Civil War, the concepts of free will and perfectibility had found wide acceptance by the laity of most Protestant churches. Of the churches of Salem, only Old School Presbyterians and Catholics stood apart from these patterns.

Revivalism was the most widely practiced method for bringing people to the point at which they felt Christ enter their lives and change them forever. Baptists recognized this spiritual rebirth by adult baptism through total immersion. Cumberland Presbyterians considered a conversion experience necessary to become a communicant. For Methodists, this "second blessing" represented the inward assurance of success in cleansing sin from one's life. Revivalism typically took the form of a series of meetings filled with enthusiastic hymn-singing, lengthy prayers, and fervent preaching. Preachers held the center of attention, adjuring those already converted to maintain their faith and pleading with those not yet reborn to allow Christ to enter their lives.

Although the Protestants of Salem separated themselves into various denominations by disagreeing over the fine points of doctrine and practice, they acknowledged each other's legitimacy and cooperated in a variety of common endeavors. From 1843 to 1858, for example, the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians of Salem jointly operated a Sunday school. From 1844 to 1858, when Baptists lacked a building, they met in the Cumberland Presbyterians' church. They moved into their own building in 1858, only to see it burn down during a revival held in it by the Cumberland Presbyterians, whereupon the Church of Christ offered the use of their building to the distraught Baptists. Such ecumenicalism extended to families as well. At haying time, Silas Bryan sent a load of hay to every clergyman in town, whatever his denomination. Because Silas was a Baptist and Mariah a Methodist, young Willy attended Sunday school twice each Sunday. He later claimed that it gave him a "double interest in Sunday-school work."

A broad agreement on definitions of acceptable social behavior further encouraged ecumenicalism among Protestants. Few Baptists or Cumberland Presbyterians would have disagreed with the list of unacceptable social conduct published by the Methodists in the late nineteenth century: "imprudent conduct, indulging sinful tempers or words, the buying, selling or using of intoxicating liquors as a beverage, signing petitions in favor of granting license for the sale of intoxicating liquors, becoming bondsmen for persons engaged in such traffic, renting property as a place in or on which to manufacture or sell intoxicating liquors, dancing, playing at games of chance, attending theaters, horse races, circuses, dancing parties, or patronizing dancing schools, or taking such other amusements as are obviously of misleading or questionable moral tendency." Such standards of conduct received strong endorsement in the Bryan household.

In the mid-nineteenth century, women often experienced conversion in larger proportions than men. Prevailing social views assigned women prominent roles in protecting moral standards and fostering proper conduct. Willy grew up surrounded by four older women, two of whom were devout Methodists. He never had a role model for behavior patterns his society assumed to be typically masculine—swearing, brawling, drinking, gambling. Silas was away from home for long periods of time on the judicial circuit; when at home, he reinforced the attitudes of the Bryan household's women on such behavior. Willy's childhood aversion to "improper conduct" developed into life-long commitments.


Excerpted from A Righteous Cause by Robert W. Cherny. Copyright © 1994 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Robert W. Cherny is Professor Emeritus of History at San Francisco State University. He is the author of Populism, Progressivism, and the Transformation of Nebraska Politics, 1885-1915, American Politics in the Gilded Age, 1868–1900  and coauthor of Competing Visions: A History of California and Making America: A History of the United States.

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