Today is the birthday of William Jennings Bryan, who, had he not participated in the 1925 Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, would have been remembered in a far better light. Bryan was a progressive’s progressive. He favored women’s suffrage, the eight-hour day, and corporate income tax. He was a three-time Democratic candidate for the presidency. Then came Dayton, where in the final days of his life he took on Clarence Darrow amid a perfect storm of 1920s iconoclasm and new media. This remarkable man is now remembered as a befuddled fundamentalist in one of the more embarrassing episodes of Tennessee history. A new biography, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan has just come out in paperback.
In 1975, I interviewed Judge Sue K. Hicks, who at that time was the sole surviving attorney in the Scopes Trial. It was he who helped recruit Bryan to lead the prosecution of John Scopes. Judge Hicks spoke kindly of “The Great Commoner” and was bitter about the way H.L. Mencken and “Inherit the Wind” portrayed him.
Bryan was a great orator, and his voice can be heard here giving a reading of his famous “Cross of Gold” speech.