Bryan as Secretary of State U.S. Department of Seal
Department of State

William Jennings Bryan, the silver-tongued populist Democratic candidate for President in 1896, 1900, and 1908 is best known for his support of "free silver," the farmer and the common man, and his opposition to the gold standard. In 1912, Bryan campaigned vigorously for the Democrat's presidential candidate, Woodrow Wilson. As a reward for his campaign service, Wilson appointed Bryan as Secretary of State, even though Bryan had no foreign affairs experience and was an avowed pacifist. Bryan used his tenure as Secretary of State to promote the elimination of international conflict by mutual agreement, concluding arbitration of disputes treaties with 30 nations. In keeping with his populist roots, he obtained housing subsidies for diplomats abroad, helping those of more modest means to serve as ministers or ambassadors. He attempted to broker a settlement during the Mexican revolution based on democratic compromise, but ultimately supported Wilson's policy of intervention in Mexico. Bryan generally opposed gunboat and dollar diplomacy in Latin America and sought to make amends for past U.S. interventions. He facilitated a $25 million indemnity for Columbia for territory lost to Panama.

When World War I broke out, Bryan made it very clear to Wilson that he favored strict neutrality and strongly opposed any U.S. involvement. As Secretary he tried to bring the Allied and Central Powers to a negotiated end of the war. Bryan objected to American loans to the Allies and questioned Wilson's decision to allow U.S. citizens to travel on British vessels when the danger existed that the ships may be sunk by German submarines. His efforts proved fruitless. The United States gradually tilted toward the Allied cause as German submarines began to sink merchant ships with U.S. civilians aboard. The Germans sank the Lusitania in May 1915, killing 1,200 noncombatants, including 128 Americans. The following month Bryan resigned his office in response to Wilson's stiff note of protest to Germany. Bryan believed the note violated U.S. neutrality and placed the United States on the road to war. Although he resigned over a matter of principle, Bryan did not criticize Wilson and helped campaign for him in the 1916 election. After the United States entered the war on the Allied side in April 1918, Bryan faded from the political scene, only to gain fame one last time as the leader of the prosecution team that attacked the teaching of evolution in the famous Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925.

Additional Reading:
Merle E. Curti. Byran and World Peace (Northampton, Massachusetts, 1931).