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Williams Jennings Bryan

Unlikely Secretary of State

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Williams Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan

Photo Courtesy U.S. State Department
Updated November 27, 2012

William Jennings Bryan is known for many things -- his famous, Populist-driven "Cross of Gold" speech in 1896; running for president -- and losing -- three times; defending creationism against science in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. The title of Secretary of State does not immediately come to mind when you mention Bryan, and yet for two years under Woodrow Wilson, Bryan held that position.

He was an unlikely secretary of state, to be sure, with very little foreign policy experience. He was something of a figurehead, with Wilson choosing to make much of his own policy decisions without consulting Bryan. And yet he was the Secretary anyway, at a time when World War I had engulfed Europe, and he vainly attempted to stop the slow drift of the United States into that war.

Early Life

Bryan was born in 1860 in Salem, Illinois. In 1883 he earned a law degree from Union College of Law and passed the Illinois state bar the same year. He practiced law until getting into politics, winning an Illinois seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1890.

Bryan became an ardent "populist." Populists championed the progressive tendencies of the late 19th Century, which sought to temper the excesses and abuses of big American industry. Populists favored such things as the silver standard, which would lower consumer prices; eight-hour workdays; workplace safety regulations, and direct election of U.S. Senators to make them more responsible to voters. Populism became progressivism, and it became the political position of the time. Republicans ultimately would adopt it under Teddy Roosevelt, but Democrats co-opted it first, and Bryan became their nominee for president in 1896.

Bryan lost to William McKinley that year, and again to McKinley in 1900. Democrats nominated him one more time, in 1908 to run against William Howard Taft. Taft, however, had Teddy Roosevelt's backing, and Bryan lost a third time.

Bryan and Wilson

At the 1912 Democratic nominating convention, Bryan tossed his support behind Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson won the presidency, he rewarded Bryan with the secretary of state job.

The position was a poor fit. Bryan was largely a domestic politician with no real foreign policy experience. Plus, Wilson had long fancied himself a diplomat, and he had no real intention of consulting Bryan on key foreign policy matters. Bryan was able to negotiate some thirty treaties with other countries that bound them to arbitration before their conflicts became war, and he negotiated the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty with Nicaragua, which gave the U.S. the right to build a canal across that Central American nation (which never happened).

While a peace advocate, Bryan was not necessarily a pacifist. He agreed with Wilson's decision to send a U.S. Army expedition into Mexico after revolutionary Pancho Villa who had attacked across the U.S. border.

World War I Fracture

Bryan fundamentally disagreed with Wilson on the issue of neutral rights in the early days of World War I. Most of Europe descended into war in August 1914, with the Entente Powers (basically France, Russia, and England) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria, and Italy) declaring war on each other.

Wilson sought to maintain traditional American neutrality, complete with neutral rights at sea. That meant that, as a neutral, the United States should be allowed the freely navigate the seas and trade with whatever country it chose.

In the age of industrialized warfare, however, no country supplying any type of goods to any other country was completely neutral. All of the combatants had vast lists of goods that constituted "materiel of war," from traditional weapons and ammunition to cotton, canned goods, and paper. England and France did not want any U.S. trade getting into Germany; Germany did not want any U.S. trade getting into England or France. In short, neutrality was an aberration.

Bryan seemed to grasp that, while Wilson either did not or did not want to. Bryan also saw that the German introduction of submarines into naval warfare made the seas even more dangerous for an ideological neutral. Bryan thought that Wilson's insistence on neutral rights would ultimately lead the U.S. into war. (Jeffersonian insistence on the same thing, in fact, had led the U.S. into the War of 1812 a century earlier.)

Bryan also wanted Wilson to prohibit American civilian travel into the submarine zones around the British Isles, but Wilson refused. Bryan seemed vindicated when a German sub sank the ocean liner Lusitania in May 1915, killing 128 Americans.

Wilson sent a harsh letter to Germany demanding that the country begin "restricted" sub warfare. That meant he wanted German subs to surface and notify a target, allowing non-combatants to escape, before torpedoing it.

Bryan was opposed to the note, thinking it would simply aggravate America's situation. Plus, he wanted Wilson to send a similar note to England, which had also violated U.S. neutral rights by stopping American ships. Wilson refused.

When Wilson sent another terse note to Germany, Bryan resigned on June 19, 1915, rather than assent to its content.

Assessment of Bryan

Bryan's peace advocacy probably did not forestall American entry into World War I. It seems likely that by 1915 Wilson had decided that, for the U.S. to have any say in the reformation of a post-war Europe, it was going to have to have a stake in the war. It also can be little coincidence that, barely a month after Wilson's second inaugural in March 1917, the U.S. declared war on Germany and her allies. His second Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, had no problem with that.

In truth, as secretary of state, Bryan was hamstrung and ineffectual. But foreign policy was never his strength. In 1925, ten years after resigning from the secretary's job, Bryan was defending the Bible in the Scopes case. Five days after that case ended, on July 26, 1925, Bryan died in his sleep, remembered and honored for his populism, his progressivism, and his religious fundamentalism -- but probably not his time at State.

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