Williams Jennings Bryan is often considered American history’s biggest loser, in the most sincere way possible. He ran for President three times, securing the Democratic nomination but failing to win the White House. He also failed to prosecute teacher John T. Scopes for violating Tennessee’s Butler Act for teaching evolution in the classroom. In the famous Scopes Trial, defense attorney Clarence Darrow put Bryan on the stand and made a fool of his case, and the old candidate died only five days later.
But let’s consider almost none of that ever happening, and instead Bryan is remembered as one of history’s biggest winners. Of his three election matchups, there is one which stands out for its potential effects on American history. In 1900, Bryan and his running mate Adlai Stevenson lose to incumbent President William McKinley and his new Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt.
Imagine instead if he won…
Immediately after winning the election, Bryan would be celebrated for being able to defeat an incumbent President McKinley. The first effect that comes to mind would be that this likely saves McKinley’s life, as in reality he is assassinated in September of 1901 by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. That assassination had two distinct outcomes besides the death of a President: the Secret Service were now tasked with protecting the President, and Theodore Roosevelt becomes President. The expanded role for the Secret Service would not come about, at least not in this way, and Teddy never becomes President, at least not yet. His landmark Presidency would not be the same, if at all, and he may have never been on Mt. Rushmore.
So in 1901, Bryan is President of the United States. His policies, much different from the McKinley-Roosevelt agenda would have altered American history. His anti-imperialist vision in particular could set the country on a path that saw little influence in the Caribbean and Pacific, and as such, the Panama Canal would never come to be. And as an old Southern Democrat, who knows what the already poor condition of race relations would be like down the line.
Additionally, this makes Adlai Stevenson the Vice-President of the United States again. He had previously served under Grover Cleveland, and this returns him to his old post. Even if he never has the ambition to run for President himself, it may or may not have helped his grandson Adlai in his unsuccessful attempts against Eisenhower to say, “My grandfather is in rare company, having served as Vice-President twice.” But there is a darker scenario upon the supposed election of Bryan which may have helped the Stevenson’s even further.
Remember that in this alternate version of America history, McKinley has lost to Bryan in 1900, and is never assassinated. While he may have been able to retire peacefully from politics, this doesn’t mean his assassins motives have changed. Czolgosz was an anarchist, meaning he was against the highest level of government. His mission was to assassinate the President, not McKinley personally. “All those people seemed bowing to the great ruler. I made up my mind to kill that ruler,” Czolgosz told police following the assassination.
In the real life scenario, McKinley was taking a victory lap of sorts, when he stopped in Buffalo, New York to celebrate “President’s Day.” There is nothing that says if Bryan won, he would have taken any such tour, but let’s assume that he and Czolgosz do cross paths. If not for the same event, then at some point as Czolgosz’s mind becomes more disturbed with thoughts of taking down the “great ruler.” This means Bryan ends up assassinated, and Stevenson becomes President at the dawn of the 20th Century. Who knows what the man’s policies would have been like, and how his governing would have affected the course of history, but there is one change for sure. Now his grandson, on the trail in 1952, if not sooner, can say “My grandfather served as President of the United States.”
So if Bryan and Stevenson take the White House in 1900, at the very least, McKinley lives, Roosevelt is kept from the Oval Office, and the Stevenson’s have a chance to become the family dynasty of American politics. The course of American history is entirely different. Though it didn’t actually happen, what is fiction could have been fact, all because one man was almost President.
Featured photo source: NebraskaStudies.org