He was known as "The Great Commoner" and "The Silver-Tongued Orator" and he ran for president of the United States in a then-unprecedented three campaigns. He became famous at 1896 Chicago Democratic Party convention when he uttered words which lived on in history - "You shall not crucify the working man upon a cross of gold!"
William Jennings Bryan, Salem's Favorite Son, was born here on March 19, 1860. His boyhood home has been preserved and has been turned into a museum filled with memorabilia of Bryan, his politics and the turn-of-the-century era in which he lived. The home is located on South Broadway, next door to the building that once housed the Bryan Bennett Library which he helped found. The museum is open by appointment only. Please contact City Hall through this website, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (618) 548-2222 x.10 to set up a tour.
Bryan spent the first years of his life living in Salem. He attended Salem public school and at the age of 14 became a member of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church which is now named First United Presbyterian Church. Inside the church, located at the corner of McMackin and Washington Streets near downtown Salem, is a pulpit with a carved scene of the burning bush as noted in the Bible's Book of Exodus. The pulpit was a gift to the church from Bryan during his later years.
Initially, Bryan's ambition was to become a minister; however, he eventually decided to follow in his father's footsteps and become a lawyer. He left Salem to study law at the age of 15 and never lived here permanently again. Nevertheless, the "great commoner" often visited his home town during his career as an attorney, newspaper editor and politician.
Bryan was known as a populist and as a champion of free coinage of silver during his political career. That career blossomed in 1896 with the delivery of the "Cross of Gold" speech which drew greater ovation than had been given any other speaker at that gathering. Even those defending the gold standard applauded Bryan.
Before going to that convention Bryan had visited in Salem. He reportedly told a friend while here that he felt that he could receive the party's nomination if he could obtain the opportunity to speak to the delegates. Bryan's prediction was most accurate.
But historians note that the Chicago speech probably was the high point of Bryan's political career. Although he won the presidential nomination that year, again in 1900 and a third time in 1908, Bryan never succeeded in winning the White House. He became Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, holding that post until 1915 when he resigned, citing a disagreement with the president over the country's policy toward Germany.
After leaving Salem, Bryan lived for a time in Jacksonville, Illinois, then moved to Nebraska, entering politics and becoming editor-in-chief of the Omaha World newspaper. His final years were spent in Miami Beach, Florida.
Bryan participated as a prosecutor in the famous 1925 Scope's "Monkey Trial," in which a young biology teacher, John Thomas Scopes (also from Salem), was indicted for teaching evolution in the Dayton, Tennessee, High School.
A bronze likeness of Bryan was created by Gutzon Borglum, of Mt. Rushmore fame, in 1934 and it stood briefly in Washington, D.C. Later it was obtained by Salem and re-erected in Bryan Memorial Park where it now stands on the east side of Route 37 North.