William Jenning Bryan

In Statuary Hall, there stands a magnificent statue of a tall, handsome man from the mid-west. He was called by the name of “The Great Commoner.” He was also a candidate for President on three different occasions but always came out on the losing side.

What is his name? What state is he from? William Jennings Bryan from Nebraska.

He has also been referred to as the “Silver Tongued Orator of the Platte” and the “Voice of the West.”

He was a young lawyer who had served 4 years in Congress. At the age of 36, he was invited to speak to the delegates at the National Democratic Convention in 1895 at Chicago. The great political question of that day at the close of the 19th century was whether the country would stay on the gold standard or approve the free coinage of silver at a ration of 16 ounces of silver to 1 ounce of gold.

The Democrats were opposed to the gold standard and the Republicans opposed the free silver question. It was to this question that the young Nebraska speaker directed his speech. He stated that the contest was between the holders of idle capital and the toiling millions. He ended with these words:

It is for the small businessmen and workers for which we speak. We do not come as aggressors. Ours is not a war of conquest. We are fighting in defense of our homes and families. We have petitioned and our petitions have been scorned. We have begged and they have mocked us. We beg no longer, we entreat no more, we petition no more. We defy them. We shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them: “You shall not press upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

The Convention went wild and Bryan was unanimously nominated as the Democratic candidate for President. He lost to McKinley, but four years later he was again the nominee but President McKinley again was elected. Eight years later, he again was nominated by the Democrats but lost to Taft.

Four years later, he was Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson, but because of differences with the President over foreign policy, he resigned and retired from public life. He traveled around the world and made many lecture tours around the country. In 1921, he moved to Miami and made his home in Coconut Grove. He was active in community and religious affairs and in Bay Front Park every Sunday afternoon he taught a Bible class. Thousands of people came to hear the “Voice of the West.”

I lived in Jacksonville at the time, but I recall on one trip to Miami I walked down Flagler Street to the Park where the Bryan Bible Class was in session. Mr. Bryan was telling the crowd about his recent trip to the Holy Land. He said that in one of the sacred places of worship, it was required that you take off your shoes and go in in your stocking feet. He said that he took off his shoe and to his embarrassment he had a hole in his sock and his big toe was sticking out. He tried to be nonchalant about it and took off his other shoe and lo and behold, he had a hole in this sock and his big toe was sticking out. This he said was one of the most embarrassing moments in his long and eventful life.

William Jennings Bryan was a man ahead of his time. Clarence Darrow, the noted lawyer who opposed Bryan in the famous Scopes “monkey trial” in Tennessee said of Bryan, when he learned of his death five days after the trial. “At the turn of the century, when it took real courage, he spoke the meaning of America. He kept insisting, and history will remember him for it, that America is not really America unless the lowliest man feels sure in his bones that he has free and equal opportunity to get ahead.”

In my opinion, William Jennings Bryan, who came out of the West as the “Boy Orator of the Plains” well deserves his place of honor in our nation’s Hall of Fame.

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