Born in Salem, Illinois in 1860, Bryan was a graduate of Illinois College and Union College of Law. He practiced law in Illinois and Nebraska before starting his career in politics. After winning a seat on the U.S. House of Representatives in 1890, Bryan advocated on behalf of many of the same issues that were central to the Populist Party, the third party that rose in the midwest in the 1890s and sought sweeping changes to the balance between the government and the free market. The Populists supported inflationary measures that would help indebted farmers such as backing currency by silver as well as gold, a move that would put much more money in circulation. They also sought a program that would help farmers and other often marginalized Americans and intended to pay for these programs with a national income tax that would only be paid by those with high incomes. They also sought to make politics more democratic with reform and recall, as well as the direct election of Senators at a time when most state legislatures nominated Senators.
In 1894, Bryan mounted a failed campaign for U.S. Senate and left politics for a short time after to work as an editor for the Omaha World-Herald in Nebraska. Bryan's famous Cross of Gold speech helped win him national attention as he secured the Democratic presidential nomination in 1896. The nomination came despite the fact that he had not declared his candidacy as part of the Democrats plan to adopt popular planks of the Populist platform. The strategy succeeded as the Populists decided to join forces with the Democrats in the national election of 1896, but the fusion ticket led by Bryan with the support of the Populists and Democrats was still defeated by the Republican William McKinley. Bryan was nominated by the party again in 1900 and 1908, though he lost both of those elections as well.
Despite his three losses in presidential campaigns, Bryan was still one of the leading voices of the Democratic Party. In return for his endorsement, Bryan was appointed Secretary of State by President Woodrow Wilson after the 1912 election. As Secretary, Bryan was able to make an impact on American diplomacy. He negotiated the 1914 Bryan-Chamorro Treaty, permitting the U.S. to build a canal through Nicaragua and securing rights to build naval bases. At the outset of WWI, Bryan and President Wilson were in disagreement on how to approach neutrality. Bryan believed that submarines made U.S. citizen's water travel dangerous and that restrictions should be placed on travel. Wilson disagreed and U.S. citizens continued to travel through and into war zones. Wilson's response to the sinking of the British passenger ship, Lusitania, and subsequent deaths of 128 U.S. citizens in 1915 led Bryan to resign his position.
Though he was no longer Secretary of State, Bryan continued lecturing and writing on political issues until his death. During the Scopes Trial, he opposed attorney Clarence Darrow and defended the state of Tennessee's law that banned the teaching of evolution. His health declined during the trial and Bryan died in 1925. Despite being progressive on many leading issues throughout his life, Bryan's decision to side with religious fundamentalists in a losing battle against scientists and educators led many to view Bryan differently after his death. At a few key points of the sensationalized trial, Clarence Darrow made Bryan look foolish. Many contemporaries focussed on these more sensationalized portions of the trial rather than the more essential debate about academic freedom and the question of whether teaching the scientific theory of evolution violated the rights of parents.