BY PROF. J. H. G. BRINKERHOFF
William Jennings Bryan, son of Silas L. Bryan (see biography) and Mariah Elizabeth (Jennings) Bryan, was born in Salem, Illinois, March 19, 1860. As a boy he was not different from other healthy, hearty American boys, fond of play and fond of good things to eat, but rather given to serious sport than to mischief. Among his earliest ambition was the desire to become a minister, but in early youth that desire was lost in the ambition to become a lawyer like his father and as that ambition seemed to be permanent his training was directed to that end. When William was six years old the family moved to a large farm just outside of the corporate limits of Salem, and here he studied, played and worked until ten years old, his mother, a remarkably strong-minded, clear-headed, Christian woman, being his teacher, his guide and task-master, his work being such chores as fall to the lot of boys in well regulated, prosperous farm homes. At the age of ten years he entered the Salem public school, which he attended five years, but was not particularly bright in his studies his examinations show thoroughness rather than brilliancy, but his interest in the literary and debating societies was early developed and remained while he attended the school and still abides, as is shown by the Bryan oratorical contest held annually in this school, and for which Mr. Bryan provides a first and second prize of ten and five dollars respectively.
In 1872 his father made the race for Congress, and William, then twelve years of age, became much interested in the campaign, and from that time on he cherished the thought of some day being a public man and a leader of the people.
At the age of fourteen he united with the Cumberland Presbyterian church at Salem. While at Jacksonville he took membership with the First Presbyterian church, and upon his removal to Lincoln, Nebraska, he placed his letter with the First Presbyterian church of that place, and where his membership still remains.
At fifteen years of age he entered the preparatory department of Illinois College, at Jacksonville, and for eight years was a student in that college, spending only his vacations at home. Mr. Bryan while at college was not a great admirer of athletic sports, but took a mild interest in base ball and foot ball, and was rather an enthusiastic runner and jumper, and in a contest open to students and alumni, three years after his graduation, he won the medal for the broad standing jump, twelve feet and four inches being the distance covered.
While at the preparatory school the first year he entered a prize contest and declaimed Patrick Henry's great speech, and ranked near the foot. The second year he declaimed "The Palmetto and the Pine," and stood third. The next year as a freshman he tried for a prize in Latin prose and divided the second prize with a competitor. The same year he gained second prize in declamation. In his sophomore year he took first prize with an essay, and in his junior year first prize in oration and was thereby made representative of his college in the intercollegiate oratorical contest at Galesburg, in 1880, where he received the second prize of fifty dollars. That great orator, Gen. John C. Black, was one of the judges and marked him one hundred on delivery. At the close of his college life in 1881, Mr. Bryan stood at the head of his class and delivered the valedictory. This much is given for the encouragement of young men, showing that improvement only comes with effort, and to persevere, though the first attempt finds you near the foot.
In the fall of 1881 Mr. Bryan entered Union Law College at Chicago, and spent much of his time in the law office of Lyman Trumbull. After graduation he returned to Salem for a short time, and won his fee in the county court of Marion county.
July 4, 1883, Mr. Bryan began the practice of law in Jacksonville, Illinois; he had desk room in the office of Brown & Kirby, and now came the real test, waiting for business. The first six months were trying and he was forced to draw upon his father's estate for small advances, and at one time he seriously thought of seeking new fields, but the beginning of the year 1884 brought clients more frequently, and he felt encouraged to stay in Jacksonville, and now feeling that he could see success, on October 1, 1884, he was married to Miss Mary Baird, of Perry, Illinois.
In the summer of 1887 business called Mr. Bryan to the West, and he spent one Sunday with a classmate, A. R. Talbot, who was located in Lincoln, Nebraska. So greatly was he impressed with the opportunities of the growing capital of the state that he returned to Illinois full of enthusiasm for the city of Lincoln, and perfected plans for removal thither. In October, 1887, a partnership was formed with Mr. Talbot, and during the next three years a paying practice resulted.
As soon as Mr. Bryan settled in Lincoln he identified himself actively with the Democratic party, of which he had been a member in Illinois, and to the principles of which his whole being was bound, and made his first political speech at Seward, in the spring of 1888. Soon after he was sent as a delegate to the state convention, and in the canvass of the First Congressional District he made many speeches in favor of J. Sterling Morton, and also spoke in thirty-four counties in favor of the state ticket. Mr. Morton was defeated by thirty-four hundred, as the district was strongly Republican. In 1890 there was but little hope for the Democrats in the First District, and Mr. Bryan was nominated without opposition. W. J. Connell was the Republican nominee. A challenge to conduct the canvass by a series of joint debates was issued by Mr. Bryan and accepted by Mr. Connell, and at the close Mr. Bryan won by a plurality of six thousand, seven hundred and thirteen. Mr. Bryan was elected to Congress again from a new district which had been formed when the state was reapportioned in 1891. The Republican state ticket carried the district by six thousand, five hundred, but Mr. Bryan was elected by one hundred and forty plurality. During the four years he was in Congress, he was very active, taking part in every important debate and speaking many times. He declined to run again for Congress but later permitted his nomination for the Senate, but the Republicans carried the state and Thurston was chosen Senator.
The Democratic National Convention convened at Chicago July 4, 1896, and for four days a battle of giants ensued over the monetary plank in the platform. Speeches were made for and against the free silver coinage plank by such men of master minds and national reputations before the convention as Senator Tillman, Senator Jones, Senator Hill, Senator Vilas, ex-Governor Russell. Senator Tillman favored the majority report of the committee, which favored the free coinage; all the rest opposed. The debate was closed by Mr. Bryan insupport of the majority report in a speech which rang so true and was such a master piece of oratory that the convention was swept off its feet and brought to Mr. Bryan the nomination for the Presidency on the fifth ballot on Friday, July 10th. After a most remarkable campaign he was defeated by William McKinley being elected.
Four years later Mr. Bryan, greater in defeat than other men in success, was again the choice of the Democratic party for the Presidency, and again suffered defeat, Mr. McKinley being reelected. In 1904 the Democratic party nominated Alton B. Parker, of New York, for President, and he led the party to the most crushing defeat ever suffered by any party since the days of John Quincy Adams.
In 1908 the Democratic party again nominated Mr. Bryan, and the Republican party William H. Taft and again the decision was against the former. Thrice defeated vet with each defeat growing greater, advocating great principles which he sees his political opponents adopt, he stands today the greatest living American.
When in 1906 and 1907 he took a trip around the world, he was received everywhere with such ovations as are seldom accorded to any, and were never before to a private citizen, and his welcome home in the city of New York was a demonstration of love and respect from Americans to an American that has never been equalled in the history of the nation. Mr. Bryan may never be President, but he has made an impress on the nation for good that can never be effaced and from his life the peoples of the world have received an uplift that will be felt to bless generations yet unborn. In his life of moral purity, in his sincere Christianity, and in his addresses on the duties and responsibilities of life he has given a new impulse to many a youth for better things and if his work closed now the one address "The Prince of Peace," will stand a monument, more enduring than chiseled marble or moulded brass, standing forever as it must in the higher aims, purer thoughts, nobler impulses and grander lives of the men and women of the America of the future.
Extracted 06 Jun 2017 by Norma Hass from 1909 Biographical Review of Marion, Counties, Illinois, pages 16-20.