Who's Who - William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), the man who would have been president, served as President Wilson's Secretary of State following the former's presidential victory in 1912, a position Bryan retained until his resignation in June 1915 over Wilson's handling of the sinking of the Lusitania.

A major force in American politics for three decades, Bryan was three times the Democratic party's candidate for presidential election (in 1896, 1900 and 1908), each time without success.

Born on 19 March 1960 in Salem, Illinois, Bryan studied law and entered legal practice in his home state before moving to Lincoln, Nebraska in 1887.  Three years later he was elected as a Congressman, winning re-election in 1892.

Shortly after his election to Congress Bryan made a case for inflationary policies (including free silver) and unsuccessfully campaigned against the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893.

Bryan failed in his attempts to reach the Senate in 1894 but, despite remaining out of public office, garnered an increasingly wide following as a proponent of free silver, set against Grover Cleveland's so-called 'gold Democrats'.  With the silverites in the ascendancy Bryan succeeded in winning his party's presidential nomination at the Democratic convention of 1896.  Although he lost the election Bryan actually won more votes than Cleveland had when winning the 1892 election.

During his following bid for president, in 1900, Bryan again campaigned for free silver, but widened his campaign to include his anti-imperialist views.  Nevertheless Bryan again lost the 1900 election, this time by a greater margin than in 1896.

Having once more lost the 1908 presidential election, Bryan accepted an appointment as Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State following Wilson's 1912 victory at the polls; Bryan had come out in support of Wilson at the 1912 Democratic convention.

While generally supported Wilson's decision to intervene in Mexico in 1914, he nevertheless argued for peaceful diplomacy, and to that end managed to persuade some 30 nations to sign treaties committing each to arbitration of international disputes.

With the onset of the Great War in Europe in August 1914 Bryan adopted and held to a policy of strict U.S. neutrality, supported by Wilson.  Bryan favoured a ban on American citizens travelling upon belligerent nations' shipping, and argued against the granting of loans to Britain and France; in this he was at odds with his president.

Concerned that Wilson's handling of the Lusitania crisis (the sinking of which Bryan had formally complained of to Germany) was a planned precursor to a declaration of war with Germany (it wasn't), Bryan resigned as Secretary of State in June 1915.  However with Wilson's victory in the following year's presidential election (ironically on a platform of peace), Bryan's influence rapidly diminished - and was effectively extinguished with America's entry into the war in 1917.

Bryan remained active in politics however.  A fundamentalist Christian, he remained opposed to the teaching of Darwinist evolutionary theory, and in 1924 drafted legislation to prevent its teaching in Florida schools as well as in other states.

Giving evidence in the famed 1925 Scopes Trial (the "monkey trial"), Bryan's testimony (in favour of the authority of the Bible as set against evolutionary theory) was ridiculed by defence attorney Clarence Darrow.  The press labelled Bryan a "pitiable punch drunk warrior"; five days later, on 26 July 1925, he died in his sleep.

An "incendiary shell" is an artillery shell packed with highly flammable material, such as magnesium and phosphorous, intended to start and spread fire when detonated.

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