William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan
William Jennings Bryan

An eloquent speaker of Populist tendencies, William Jennings Bryan (D-NE) delivered one of the most famous conspiracy speeches of all time to the Democratic convention in 1896 when he warned big business and those favoring the gold standard, “You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.”

Bryan lost the presidential contest to the advocate of the gold standard, Republican William McKinley, essentially ending the bimetallism debate in the United States that had characterized the Progressive era and served as a unifying point for the Populist Party.

Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois, studied law at Union College of Law, and practiced in Jacksonville, Illinois, before moving to Lincoln, Nebraska. There, he became active in Democratic Party politics and by the 1890s joined the free silver movement that sought to force the federal government to purchase western silver at inflated prices to expand the money supply.

He won election to Congress in 1890, but in 1894 was defeated in his Senate campaign. At the Democratic convention, where Bryan became a political star, he was one of several pro-silver voices, but clearly the most theatrical. He had honed his oratorical skills by a series of speaking tours and Chatauqua lectures, and even in defeat to McKinley, Bryan remained the undisputed leader of the Democratic Party.

Like other silver advocates, Bryan thought a conspiracy of Wall Street bankers and easterners had forced the gold standard upon debtors to increase in real terms the amount they repaid. In addition, however, antisemitism was widespread in the Populist Party, from which Bryan drew much of his support. Concerns over “Jewish moneyed interests” in New York had aligned many antisemites against the gold standard, and Bryan used what some conspiracy theorists see as coded language to speak to those concerns.

In foreign affairs, however, Bryan toed the anticonspiracy line as an anti-imperialist, resisting U.S. intervention in Cuba. (Even then, his position did not please some Populist supporters, who thought he could have done more. Therefore, in L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz [1900], which is widely viewed as a parable on Populism, most analysts see the Cowardly Lion as representing Bryan.) Bryan’s oratory and his grass-roots support kept him a perennial candidate for the presidency, which he lost to McKinley again in 1900, and to Taft in 1908.

By 1912, a new political star in the Democratic Party had risen, Woodrow Wilson, and at the convention that year, Bryan threw his support behind him. Partly as a reward, Bryan received an appointment as Secretary of State in the Wilson administration. Given Bryan’s support for easy money policies, which were viewed as a response to one conspiracy, it is ironic that he joined an administration that presided over the creation of the Federal Reserve Board, which was criticized by conspiracy theorists as inflationary.

In the area of foreign affairs, Bryan with his noninterventionist views began to clash with the president, who saw in the 1915 sinking of the liner Lusitania a cause of war. Bryan resigned from Wilson’s cabinet because of the president’s response to Germany over the incident, fearing that it committed the nation to war.

Conspiracy theorists tie Wilson’s desire for intervention to a variety of forces, including control by the Bank of England, the British monarchy, or other shadowy characters somehow related to preservation of the gold standard and/or Anglo-American relations. Thus, Bryan, the voice of silver and peace, could not long survive in such a setting. After the war, Bryan opposed the Treaty of Versailles unless it contained the “Lodge Reservations” that kept the United States out of the League of Nations.

Bryan next became famous for his involvement in the Scopes Trial, which was far outside the debates over silver or European intervention. John T. Scopes was a teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, who violated Tennessee law that prohibited the teaching of the theory of evolution in public schools.

Bryan served as assistant prosecutor in the case and, during the course of the trial, took the stand as an expert on the Bible. According to the mythology generated by Arthur Miller’s play, Inherit the Wind, H. L. Mencken’s newspaper columns, and F. L. Allen’s history of the 1920s, Only Yesterday, the defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, embarrassed Bryan and thereby (it was claimed) discredited the anti-evolution position.

Subsequent research has shown that only the East Coast media substantially portrayed the popular version of the events, and that local news coverage thought that Bryan held his ground well in the exchanges. (Scopes was indeed found guilty.)

The Scopes Monkey Trial generated a strain of conspiracy thinking among creationist groups, who have seen the media as deliberately distorting the evidence of evolution based on the developments of the trial. A different conspiracy of sorts involved the publicity surrounding the trial itself—a meeting called the “Drugstore Conspiracy.”

George W. Rappelyea, a local mine owner and coal company operator, saw an opportunity to promote the city of Dayton. He gathered some of the leading figures of Dayton for a meeting in a local drugstore, whereupon Rappelyea agreed to fund Scopes to challenge the evolution law and to bring in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to provide the national attention.

During the trial, fraudulent evidence on the Piltdown Man and the Nebraska Man was introduced as a confirmation of evolution. Bryan died in Dayton, not long after the trial, having crossed the lines between several major conspiracy movements in U.S. history—the gold standard, the British manipulation of U.S. foreign affairs, and the “creation/evolution” debate.