Nebraska Historical Marker: Fairview
4998 Sumner St, Lincoln, Lancaster County, Nebraska
View this marker's location 40.795705, -96.65132
View a map of all Nebraska historical markers, Browse Historical Marker Map
William Jennings Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois in 1860. He moved to Lincoln in 1887, entered into law practice and was elected to Congress in 1890. He won the first of three presidential nominations with his "Cross of Gold" speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1896. Fairview was built in 1901-1902 with the proceeds from his publications. Construction costs were more than $10,000.00. Bryan visualized Fairview as a new Monticello and accepted the 1908 presidential nomination on the front steps of the home. Woodrow Wilson visited here during the 1912 campaign and a steady parade of political personalities came to consult with "The Great Commoner". Here he collected the mementos of his unsuccessful political campaigns and world tour of 1905. Fairview was the scene of many lawn parties held by the Bryans for their friends. The surrounding fields were farmed under his watchful eye. Mrs. Bryan's health forced the family to leave Nebraska in 1917 after Bryan served as President Wilson's Secretary of State. In 1922 Fairview was deeded to the Lincoln Methodist Hospital, now Bryan Memorial Hospital. William Jennings Bryan died in 1925 after the famed Scopes trial and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Fairview was the home of William Jennings Bryan from 1902 to 1917, after which he moved to Florida. As the home of a prominent political figure, the home saw many distinguished guests, not the least of which was Woodrow Wilson, who visited Fairview during his 1912 campaign.
William Jennings Bryan: Before Nebraska
William Jennings Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois on March 19, 1860. His father, Silas, was a deeply religious lawyer who served as a state senator and judge. When William was 15, he began to attend the Whipple Academy in Jacksonville, Illinois. There he thrived as a debater and orator. He became a member of the Sigma Pi debate club. In one debate, he voiced support for free trade, meaning the abolition of tariffs. The year 1880 saw two significant moments in Bryan’s life. On March 29, his father died. Shortly before that, however, William had met Mary Elizabeth Baird, whom he would marry four years later. In his latter years in college, he became very involved in politics and stumped for local candidates. He graduated in 1881 and went on to become a lawyer. In 1887, he moved to Lincoln, Nebraska to join A.R. Talbot’s law firm.
Bryan’s Rise to Prominence
Bryan and Talbot had a successful law practice in Lincoln. They appeared in trials involving every level of the state judiciary and every branch of the law. Bryan continued to be involved in politics. He corresponded with prominent Democratic leaders in the state and studied issues important to Nebraskans. Nebraska was heavily Republican in those days, but he and his mentors, including J. Sterling Morton, believed that the time was ripe for a Democratic takeover thanks to the unpopularity of the Republican tariff. Bryan announced himself as a force in state politics with a rousing speech at the Lancaster County Democratic convention in 1888. He spent the rest of the year stumping for Grover Cleveland, the Democratic nominee for president, around Nebraska. This gave him a reputation as a skilled orator and party leader.
Bryan in Congress
The Populist Party became a force in Nebraska politics by 1890. Sharing a passion for free silver, Bryan thought that the Democratic Party and the Populist Party should join forces. The advance of populism caused deep divisions in the Democratic Party, and Bryan was the leader of the populist side of the split. As a leader of the Democrats in Nebraska, Bryan was elected to the House of Representatives in 1890. He made free silver and fusion with the Populists his major goals. This put him at odds with the wing of the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, which included Morton and Cleveland. Cleveland became president again in 1892, and Bryan was reelected to Congress. The two men clashed over free silver and the gold standard even as they agreed on tariff reform. In 1894, Bryan turned down a reelection bid to become the editor of the Omaha World-Herald. Bryan campaigned for Senate in 1893 and 1895, but was defeated each time. In fact, his congressional victory in 1892 was the last election he would win. Despite his failure, his oratory and leadership made him a popular candidate for the presidency in 1896.
Bryan on the National Scene
Bryan spent much of 1895 and 1896 crisscrossing the country, trying to unite the Democrats behind free silver. By the time the Democratic National Convention met in Chicago in the summer of 1896, however, the party was bitterly divided.
Cross of Gold
Bryan came into the Democratic National Convention a long shot for the nomination. He was immensely popular in the West and South, but had not yet achieved great national support. Furthermore, he was seen as a radical on the pro-Populist side of the party. This changed when Bryan rose to address the convention. Several speakers addressed the convention on the free silver/gold standard issue. Bryan was the last of this group of speakers. In a speech now regarded as a classic, Bryan made a stirring plea for populism, most notably its free-silver platform. The most famous portion of the speech came at the conclusion:
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.
The speech solidified Bryan’s position as a top nominee for the presidency. On the fifth ballot, he won the Democratic nomination. Shortly thereafter, he also received a presidential nomination from the Populist Party.
Election of 1896
In the general election, Bryan ran against William McKinley from Ohio. McKinley had many supporters from the business class and ran a well-funded campaign. Like most candidates of the day, he did not tour the country for votes but had a “front porch campaign,” meaning that reporters and other interested citizens would come to his house to hear him speak.
Bryan’s campaign did not have the funds to distribute as much literature or hire speakers like the McKinley campaign, so Bryan decided to go on a nation-wide tour to campaign. He made speeches daily in cities across the country. Bryan’s support for free silver made him most popular in rural-heavy states. Industrialists and urban wage earners feared that free silver would lead to inflation, so they did not back Bryan. This showed in the election returns. McKinley won the election in the Electoral College 271-176 and had a 51-47 edge in the popular vote. Bryan was able to win all the states in the South and most states in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions. He did not win any of the large-population states in the Northeast, however, and this proved to be his demise.
Election of 1900
Bryan was once again nominated by the Democratic Party in 1900. In this campaign, Bryan made imperialism rather than free silver his main point. Bryan served in the 3rd Nebraska Regiment during the Spanish-American War in 1898. He supported the war at first, saying that the Spanish treatment of Cubans was immoral. After the war, however, he objected to American occupation of Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines, saying that no nation could be half republic and half empire. In addition, Bryan kept his populist credentials by supporting free trade and speaking against trusts. Bryan fared even worse in 1900. The country’s prosperity convinced many that McKinley’s economic policies were indeed superior to Bryan’s. Even the farmers that Bryan championed saw their incomes rise. McKinley was so popular that even Nebraska voted for him. McKinley’s support in the state was also due in part to his campaign partner Theodore Roosevelt’s tour of the state. McKinley won the electoral vote 292-155, winning six western states that Bryan had won four years previous.
Election of 1908
Bryan was once again nominated by the Democratic Party in 1908. This time he ran against William Howard Taft. Unlike his last two campaigns, Bryan did not have an overarching issue to run on. Still, he continued his tradition of carrying out a huge nation-wide campaign tour, a tactic which by this time had become the standard for presidential elections. The results of this election again spelled defeat for Bryan. Taft, thanks in part to the continued popularity of Republican Roosevelt, won 321-162. Bryan was only able to carry the South and three western states, including Nebraska.
The Later Years
Secretary of State
By 1912, Bryan was done campaigning for office but still held a position of prestige within the Democratic Party. In the nominating convention of 1912, Bryan threw his support behind the progressive Woodrow Wilson. Wilson carried the nomination and, thanks to Republican votes being split between Taft and Roosevelt, won the election. He nominated Bryan to be his Secretary of State. Bryan and Wilson believed that Christian principles should guide foreign policy. In the idyllic pre-WWI year, they championed the abolition of war through international arbitration and planned on a celebration of Europe’s century of relative peace. In Congress, Bryan’s presence in the administration helped Democrats pass many progressive reform bills that Bryan had been championing since the 1890s. In 1913, Bryan proposed, and Congress passed, a series of treaties with various nations whereby those nations agreed that any international disputes would be sent before an international committee that would decide who was right. Many Americans and other citizens around the world hoped that this process would end war. By 1914, however, the outbreak of WWI proved the folly of these treaties. None of them were ever used to settle disputes. While he opposed imperialism, Bryan was not opposed to intervening in foreign nations if he felt that such moves could ensure peace and democracy. As an ironic result of this policy, American military forces occupied the Dominican Republic and Haiti for some time during the Wilson and following administrations (though not until after Bryan left office), depriving these nations of democratic control. In 1915, Bryan and Wilson clashed over the response to German submarine warfare. Both men opposed German actions, but after the sinking of the Lusitania, Wilson issued a harsh warning to Germans that their policies must cease. Bryan felt that Wilson was moving the country to the brink of war and resigned in protest. America eventually entered the war in 1917. Bryan was fully supportive of the war effort once America got involved in the war.
Scopes Trial and Last Days
After the war, Bryan moved to Florida. He was scarcely involved with politics after this but instead directed his energies towards combating the teaching of evolution in schools. Bryan was a deeply religious person and opposed evolution as a matter of faith. However, he was not opposed to evolution taught in schools until after the war. He read books describing the “Social Darwinism” of German leaders as a defense of war. (Social Darwinism refers to the misapplication of evolutionary science to human society, usually in the form of eugenics, scientific racism and, most dramatically, genocide.) Bryan conflated Social Darwinism with scientific evolution and decided that he must oppose its teaching with all his might. He saw his struggle against evolution not as a battle of faith and science, as later observers would see it, but as his last great populist struggle to keep America’s youth from having a morally depraved philosophy forced on them by the intellectual elite.
Bryan’s anti-evolution campaign saw its climax at the Scopes Trial in Tennessee in 1925. John Scopes was a teacher who was charged with teaching evolution in the classroom contrary to Tennessee law. His trial, planned all along as a publicity stunt, became a national media event. Bryan was asked to defend the anti-evolution side and Clarence Darrow defended Scopes. Thanks especially to newspaper men like H. L. Mencken, the trial gained reputation as a battle between, depending on how one looked at it, Biblical faith versus godless, immoral science or science and reason versus superstition and ignorance. The whole trial was a show, and its verdict was already a given: Scopes had taught evolution and was fined according to the law (though the fine was overturned on appeal when the case was thrown out on a technicality). Still, Bryan and Darrow provided a rousing debate on the issue of evolution. Towards the end of the trial, Darrow called Bryan to the stand and grilled him on his biblical knowledge and its relation to science. The holes in Bryan’s knowledge of the subjects showed, and he was mocked and discredited by the press. Five days after the trial, on July 26, 1925, Bryan died at the age of 65.
Legacy and Impact
As a political and social leader for three decades, Bryan’s life and opinions have drawn mixed reactions from contemporary observers and historians. Critics point out that Bryan was unable to win a presidential election. His only stint in public office after 1894 was an appointed position as Secretary of State. While he was the leader of the Democratic Party from 1896 to 1908, the party was always in the minority. Opponents of his policies both then and today criticize his ideas as naïve or stupid. Shortly after his death, William Allen White, a Pulitzer-winning journalist from Kansas, said that Bryan was the best diagnostician and the worst practitioner of politics in American history: he could correctly assess problems but could not prescribe viable solutions.
Bryan’s impact on politics, on America in general and the Democratic Party in particular, was immense. He was the figurehead in the Democratic Party’s shift from the limited government championed by Democratic heroes Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson to the active government later expanded on by Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. While his policies differed from his Democratic forebears, his populist rhetoric and concern for agrarian interests were in line with the Democratic Party’s Jeffersonian heritage. He was always proud of his nickname “The Great Commoner” for his ability to reach out to the “common man.” Since he never won a national election, he was never able to implement his policies on his own, but most of his ideas became law during the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Direct election of senators, the income tax, trust-busting and Prohibition were some of the ideas Bryan had long championed that his successors brought about.
Some critics argue that his opposition to evolution negated his progressive nature. Teaching evolution was an academic freedom issue, they say, and a true progressive would always support the freedom of new ideas. Bryan was a Christian, first and foremost, not a progressive, and he saw his opposition to evolution as a defense of Christian morality. Regardless of one’s opinions of his political views, Bryan’s oratorical skills are lauded to this day as some of the best in American political history. He is called the “Boy Orator of the Platte” for this reason. If he left no other legacy, his “Cross of Gold” speech will be forever remembered as one of the most powerful and important speeches in the history of American politics.
Fairview: The Bryan Home
Fairview was constructed between 1902 and 1903 at a cost of $17,000, a considerable sum in those days. It was designed by Lincoln architect Artemus A. Roberts. Bryan and his family lived there from 1903 to 1921, after which they moved to Florida. Bryan’s political clout meant the house saw its fair share of political leaders, including Woodrow Wilson. After leaving Lincoln in 1921, Bryan deeded the house and 10 acres of property to the Nebraska Methodist Conference and became the site of Lincoln Methodist Hospital, renamed Bryan Memorial Hospital after Bryan’s death in 1925. The house served as a home for student nurses for a time. In 1961, the house was restored by the Junior League of Lincoln and the Nebraska State Historical Society. It now serves as a museum where patrons can see the house as it might have looked during Bryan’s life.
Bailey, John W. “The Presidential Election of 1900 in Nebraska: McKinley Over Bryan.” Nebraska History. Winter 1973: 560-584.
Cherny, Robert W. “William Jennings Bryan and the Historians.” Nebraska History. Fall/Winter 1996: 184-193.
Christensen, William E. (Ed.). “The Cross of Gold Reburnished: A Contemporary Account of the 1896 Democratic Convention.” Nebraska History. Fall/Winter 1996: 119-123.
Clements, Kendrick A. “Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan.” Nebraska History. Fall/Winter 1996: 167-176.
Coletta, Paolo E. “Bryan, Cleveland, and the Disrupted Democracy, 1890-1896.” Nebraska History. March 1960: 1-28.
Coletta, Paolo E. “The Youth of William Jennings Bryan– Beginnings of a Christian Statesman.” Nebraska History. March 1950: 1-24. Coletta, Paolo E. “William Jennings Bryan’s First Nebraska Years.” Nebraska History. June 1952: 71-94.
“Fairview National Register of Historic Places Inventory-- Nomination Form.” National Register of Historic Places. Nebraskahistory.org.
Gould, Stephen Jay. “William Jennings Bryan’s Last Campaign.” Nebraska History. Fall/Winter 1996: 177-183.
Hornig, Edgar A. “The Indefatigable Mr. Bryan in 1908.” Nebraska History. September 1956: 183-200.
Kazin, Michael. A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. New York: Anchor. 2007.
Szaz, Ferenc M. “William Jennings Bryan, Evolution, and the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.” Nebraska History. Summer 1975: 259-278.
See Nebraska Historical Marker Program for more information.