BY NORMAN ROZEFF
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second part of a two-part series by Harlingen historian Norman Rozeff. Part one can be found at www.ValleyStar.com.
And what exactly were the facts about Bryan?
He was born in Salem, Illinois, March 19, 1860. His mother was a member of the Salem Baptist church while his father attended a Methodist church. Bryan would attend both, but, at age 14, he attended a revival, was baptized and joined the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. He was active in the Presbyterian church the rest of his life, rising to become Vice-Moderator of the General Assembly.
Bryan’s father, Silas, was a staunch Jacksonian Democrat, who was elected to the state senate and judgeships, before taking on a 520-acre farm near Salem. Until age 10, Bryan was home-schooled, as many children were. In 1874 he was sent off to the Whipple Academy, which was attached to Illinois College in Jacksonville. After graduating high school he entered Illinois College from which he was graduated as valedictorian in 1881. He then went on to law school at what would become Northwestern University School of Law.
He married Mary Elizabeth Baird on October 1, 1884. She would also become a lawyer and collaborated with Bryan on all his speeches and writings. As a supporter of the prohibitionist movement, in the Democratic landslide of 1890, Bryan was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Nebraska’s First Congressional District and only the second Democrat to be elected to Congress in the history of Nebraska. He was narrowly reelected in 1892 but lost a bid for the Senate in 1894.
“The People’s Party, by the 1890s demanded government ownership of railroads and other corporations, while issuing a slate of political reforms, including term limitations and direct election of U. S. Senators. The Democratic Party, long the champion of free trade, co-opted the movement in 1896 with William Jennings Bryan running a pale version of the agenda, essentially centered on currency expansion, in an effort he lost to orthodox Republican William McKinley.”
It was said by some that although he received forty-seven percent of the vote and won in more states, voting fraud stole six states from Bryan. Over time Bryan had honed his innate talent for oratory. He led efforts to what eventually became the National Silver Committee. The fact was at the time “farmers’ groups believed that by increasing the amount of currency in circulation, commodities would receive higher prices. They were opposed by banks and bond holders who feared the effects of inflation.”
Despite opposition from Democratic-leaning newspapers, Bryan became the Democratic Party candidate after delivering a fiery speech to the convention.
Known as the “Cross of Gold” speech, it ended with the oft-quoted lines “Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
In 1921 Bryan re-read and recorded part of the speech that may be heard on You Tube.
Bryan was a critic of militarism but softened his stance in the Spanish-American War as he believed that the introduction of democracy was of more import.
He did however come out against “imperialism” in a speech at the 1900 Democratic convention from which he was again chosen as the Democratic candidate for president. When Republicans subsequently mocked him as indecisive or even worse as a coward, L. Frank Baum was to satirize him as the cowardly lion in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz published in 1900. Once again he went down to defeat at the hands of McKinley.
In 1908 he was again nominated, this time by a wide margin. His Republican opponent this time would be Theodore Roosevelt with his running mate William Howard Taft. Inn his campaign, Bryan urged Congress to institute income and inheritance taxes, publicity on campaign contributions, and to oppose the use of the navy for the collection of private debts. In an issue still with us today, he campaigned “against corporate domination, urging that all corporation contributions be made public before election day, and that failure to cooperate be made a penal offense.”
Bryan fared poorly among the voters. He lost the electoral college 321 to 162, his worst defeat yet, and did not carry any of the states in the Northeast. Following his defeat and to earn a living, Bryan went on the Chautauqua circuit as a speaker for the next quarter century. While he often spoke about Christianity, he covered a wide variety of topics including a famous one “The Value of an Ideal,” that was a stirring call to public service. He had also commenced publishing a weekly magazine, The Commoner, in 1899. It had a peak circulation of 285,000.
As an early master of mass media, he was editor-in-chief of the Omaha World-Herald and he also wrote some fifteen books, edited two collections of orations, and produced numerous pamphlets. His Sunday School lessons were syndicated in over a hundred newspapers with an estimated readership of fifteen million.
For the 1908 campaign, Bryan made a movie with a recording of his speech and thus was the first presidential candidate shown in motion pictures and anticipated the first talking motion picture by many years. In 1922, his first radio address is estimated to have had an audience of sixty million.
For supporting Democrat Woodrow Wilson in his successful candidacy for president in 1912, Bryan was appointed Secretary of State. In 1914, Bryan supported Wilson’s Mexican intervention. This was the seven month naval incursion of Veracruz after a trumped up incident in Tampico. The decision would later involve Rabb and other community leaders and affect the tranquility along the river.
After Wilson was elected president, South Texas political boss Jim Wells, who had not supported Wilson’s nomination, wanted a share of the patronage. He and (Gov.) Colquitt asked for the appointment of Archie Parr to the collectorship at Laredo. The progressive Democrats, however, wanted Frank Rabb and among Rabb’s supporters were several prominent leaders, including Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who had met Rabb during his visits to the Valley, Senator Morris Sheppard, who had been strongly opposed in the Valley due to his prohibitionist stand, T. W. Gregory, a special assistant to the Attorney General, Railroad Commissioner Earle B. Mayfield, and Austin attorney W.F. Ramsey. After Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan purchased land in Hidalgo County, he stayed as a guest at Rabb’s Santa Maria ranch during his occasional trips to the Valley.
Later Bryan openly campaigned for Rabb when he became politically active in 1909. Rabb was later to run into trouble by too closely associating with the Mexican revolutionist General Lucio Blanco. And, as border incidents associated with the Mexican Revolution and border banditry increased, now Secretary of State Bryan had to inform Texas Governor Colquitt that any incursion into Mexico by Texas Rangers “would constitute an act permissible only by the Federal government.” On the whole Wilson only nominally consulted Bryan. In short Bryan was minimized in forming foreign policy. Bryan did, however, negotiate 28 treaties that promised arbitration of disputes before war broke out between the signatory countries and the United States.
When Wilson reneged on his promise to keep the United States out of the war in Europe, Bryan resigned his post in protest in June 1915. Bryan had already purchased real estate and moved to Coconut Grove in Miami, Florida in 1913. Still later he became a paid spokesman for the newly planned Coral Gables, Florida In the years to follow Bryan was hot and cold in his support of Democrat candidates depending upon their prohibition stance. His national campaigning however, eventually led to the passing of the Eighteen Amendment that shut off most alcohol consumption by 1920.
He was also the chief proponent of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, which could be said was the precursor to the modern War on Drugs. Seldom out of the public eye, Bryan was to gain national attention once last time during the famed Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925.
As a prominent anti-evolutionist Bryan was a natural choice when called upon to act as counsel to the World Christian Fundamental Association. It was the Butler Act of 1925 which made it unlawful in Tennessee to teach that mankind evolved from lower life forms. That was the issue in contention. Equally famous defense lawyer Clarence Darrow, an agnostic, was to defend the accused, teacher John Thomas Scopes, in a trial deliberately stage to publicize Dayton, Tennessee.
“The case was thus seen as both a theological contest and a trial on whether modern science should be taught in schools.” On the seventh day of the trial Darrow questioned Bryan for two hours. Bryan did not come off well, however the next day the judge expunged the testimony as being irrelevant. Bryan, therefore, did not get an opportunity in turn to cross-examine Darrow. After a nine minute deliberation the jury, on July 21, found Scopes guilty of disregarding the Butler Act. The state Supreme Court later reversed the verdict on a technicality. Bryan traveled to a number of towns in the next four days. On a Sunday, July 26, 1925, Bryan died in the afternoon while taking a nap. Having volunteered for duty and becoming a colonel of a Nebraska militia regiment at the onset of the Spanish-American War, Bryan was interred in the Arlington National Cemetery where his headstone reads “Statesman. Yet Friend To Truth! Of Soul Sincere. In Action Faithful. And In Honor Clear.”
Bryan has been characterized as “hard-working, courageous, and noble in moral principles as well as friendly, charming, and optimistic… and was very popular with the average person.” His legacy and his far-sighted thinking eventually resulted in at least 27 acts and reforms to be instituted by the Federal government over the decades.
Following Bryan’s move to Florida, his Mission home and farm were occupied by the Buckley and Council Family until 1989. Thereafter the farmland was spun off from the residence which was purchased by Gerald and Jane Wilson. Its current location is the northwest corner of Bryan Road (3005 N. Bryan) and Mile 2. In rundown condition it took the Wilsons six months to repair the premise, including leveling it. The white two-story, two-bedroom home features two fireplaces and hardwood floors. Once built into a hill, it’s also one of few homes in the area with a basement. They resided in it until 2010, after which the house was vacant for four years.
Ariel and Frank King, Mission area residents, saw the house advertised for sale and both were immediately interested. Upon purchasing it, they meticulously studied its history so as to leave and restore as much of the original as possible. They have succeeded. Now the house is available for special events, as a bed and breakfast facility, and for heritage tours.
To add to the house’s ambiance the Kings have filled it with period pieces and appropriate Bryan photos and history memorabilia. It is truly a treasure of Mission, Texas.