At fifteen he entered Whipple Academy, the preparatory department of Illinois College, at Jacksonville, Illinois, and with this step a changed life began. Vacations found him at home, but for eight years he led the life of a student, and then took up the work of his profession. Six years of his school life were spent in Jacksonville, in the home of Dr. Hiram K. Jones, a relative. The atmosphere of this home had its influence upon the growing lad. Dr. Jones is a man of strong character, of scholarly tastes, and of high ideals, and during the existence of the Concord school was a lecturer upon Platonic Philosophy. His wife, too, was a woman of rare attainments, and having no children, they gave the youth a home in the fullest sense of that word.
His parents wished him to take a classical course and while sometimes grumbling over his Latin and Greek, he has since recognized the wisdom of their choice. Of these two languages, Latin was his favorite. He had a strong preference for mathematics, and especially for geometry, and has believed that the mental discipline acquired in this study has since been useful in argument. He was, too, an earnest student of political economy. This entrance into college life brings to mind an incident which shows both the young man's rapid growth and his father's practical views. During the first year of his absence, he discovered, as holidays drew near, that his trousers were becoming too short, and wrote home for money to buy a new pair. His father responded that as it was so near vacation he need not make any purchase until he reached home, and added: "My son, you may as well learn now, that people will measure you by the length of your head, rather than by the length of your breeches."
As to college athletics, he played very little at baseball or at football, but was fond of foot-racing and of jumping. Three years after graduation on Osage Orange Day, he won a medal for the broad or standing jump, in a contest open to students and to alumni. The medal records twelve feet and four inches as the distance covered.
A prize contest always fired William's ambition. It may interest the boys who read these pages to know of his record on this point, and to note his gradual rise. During his first year at the Academy he declaimed Patrick Henry's masterpiece and not only failed to win a prize, but ranked well down in the list. Nothing daunted, the second year found him again entered with "The Palmetto and the Pine" as his subject. This time he ranked third. The next year, when a Freshman, he tried for a prize in Latin prose, and won half of the second prize. Later in the year, he declaimed "Bernardo del Carpio," and gained the second prize. In his Sophomore year he entered another contest, with an essay on the not altogether novel subject, "Labor". This time the first prize rewarded his work. An oration upon "Individual Powers" gave him the first prize in the Junior year. A part of this prize was a volume of Bryant's poems. Mr. Bryan gave me this book, his first gift, because it contained his favorite poem, an ode to a waterfowl, which concludes:
He who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must tread alone,
Will lead my steps aright.
The winning of the Junior prize entitled him to represent Illinois College in the intercollegiate oratorical contest which was held at Galesburg, Illinois, in the fall of 1880. His oration was upon "Justice" and was awarded the second prize of fifty dollars. Gen. John C. Black, of Illinois, was one of the judges in this contest and marked Mr. Bryan one hundred on delivery. Upon invitation of Mr. Black, the young man called at the hotel and received many valuable suggestions upon the art of speaking. At the time of graduation he was elected class orator by his class, and, having the highest rank in scholarship during the four years' course, delivered the valedictory. Upon entering the academy, he joined the Sigma Pi society, and was an active member for six years, profiting much by the training in essay, declamation and debate.
My personal knowledge of Mr. Bryan dates from September, 1879. He was then entering upon his Junior year. At the risk of departing from the purpose of this biography, I shall speak of my first impressions. I saw him first in the parlors of the young ladies' school which I attended in Jacksonville. He entered the room with several other students, was taller than the rest, and attracted my attention at once. His face was pale and thin; a pair of keen, dark eyes looked out from beneath heavy brows; his nose was prominent—too large to look well, I thought; a broad, thin-lipped mouth and a square chin, completed the contour of his face. He was neat, though not fastidious in dress, and stood firmly and with dignity. I noted particularly his hair and his smile. The former, black in color, fine in quality, and parted distressingly straight; the latter, expansive and expressive. In later years this smile has been the subject of considerable comment, but the well-rounded cheeks of Mr. Bryan now check its onward march, and no one has seen the real breadth of the smile who did not see it in the early days. Upon one occasion, a heartless observer was heard to remark, "That man can whisper in his own ear," but this was a cruel exaggeration.
During the summer of 1880, Mr. Bryan attended his first political meeting. I record the details of this gathering for the encouragement of young speakers. He was to make a Democratic speech at a farmer's picnic near Salem, and the bills announced two other speakers, Mr. Bryan standing third upon the list. Upon reaching the grove, he found the two speakers and an audience of four, namely, the owner of the grove, one man in control of a wheel of fortune, and two men in charge of a lemonade stand. After waiting an hour for an audience which failed to come, the meeting adjourned sine die, and Mr. Bryan went home. Later in the fall, however, he made four speeches for Hancock and English, the first being delivered in the court house at Salem.
The graduating exercises of Illinois College occurred in June, 1881. Mr. Bryan's oration and valedictory address are given below, not because they posses great literary merit, but in order to show his style and the trend of his mind at that time.
Illinois College Graduating Oration
Illinois College, June, 1881
It is said of the ermine that it will suffer capture rather than allow pollution to touch its glossy coat, but take away that coat and the animal is worthless.
We have ermines in higher life—those who love display. The desire to seem, rather than to be, is one of the faults which our age, as well as other ages, must deplore.
Appearance too often takes the place of reality—the stamp of the coin is there, and the glitter of the gold, but, after all, it is but a worthless wash. Sham is carried into every department of life, and we are being corrupted by show and surface. We are too apt to judge people by what they have, rather than by what they are; we have too few Hamlets who are bold enough to proclaim, "I know not seem!"
The counterfeit, however, only proves the value of the coin, and, although reputation may in some degree be taking the place of character, yet the latter has lost none of its worth, and, now, as of old, is a priceless gem, wherever found. Its absence and presence, alike, prove its value. Have you not conversed with those whose brilliant wit, pungent sarcasm and well-framed sentences failed to conceal a certain indescribable something which made you distrust every word they uttered? Have you not listened to those whose eloquence dazzled, whose pretended earnestness enkindled in you an enthusiasm equal to their own, and yet, have you not felt that behind all this there was lurking a monster that repelled the admiration which their genius attracted? Are there not those, whom like the Greeks we fear, even when they are bringing gifts? That something is want of character, or, to speak more truly, the possession of bad character, and it shows itself alike in nations and individuals.
Eschines was talented; his oration against the crowning of Demosthenes was a masterly production, excellently arranged, elegantly written and effectively delivered, so extraordinary was its merits, that, when he afterward, as an exile, delivered it before a Roadian audience, they expressed their astonishment that it had not won for him his cause, but it fell like a chilling blast upon his hearers at Athens, because he was the "hireling of Philip".
Napoleon swept like a destroying angel over almost the entire eastern world, evincing a military genius unsurpassed, skill marvelous in its perfection, and a courage which savored almost of rashness, yet ever demonstrated the wisdom of its dictates. For a while he seemed to have robbed fortune of her secret, and bewildered nations gazed in silence while he turned the streams of success according to his vascillating whims.
Although endowed with a perception keen enough to discern the hidden plans of opposing generals, he could but see one road to immortality—a path which led through battle-fields and marshes wet with human gore; over rivers of blood and streams of tears that flowed from orphans' eyes—a path along whose length the widow's wail made music for his marching hosts. But he is fallen, and over his tomb no mourner weeps. Talent, genius, power, these he had—character, he had none.
But there are those who have both influence through life and unending praises after death; there are those who have by their ability, inspired the admiration of the people and held it by the purity of their character. It is often remarked that some men have a name greater than their works will justify; the secret lies in the men themselves.
It was his well-known character, not less than his eloquent words; his deep convictions, not less than the fire of his utterance; his own patriotism, not less than his invectives against the Macedonian that brought to the lips of the reanimated Greeks that memorable sentence, "Let us go against Philip."
Perhaps we could not find better illustrations of the power and worth of character than are presented in the lives of two of our own countrymen—names about which cluster in most sacred nearness the affections of the American people—honored dust over which have fallen the truest tears of sorrow ever shed by a nation for its heroes—the father and savior of their common country—the one, the appointed guardian of its birth; the other, the preserver of its life.
Both were reared by the hand of Providence for the work entrusted to their care, both were led by nature along the rugged path of poverty; both formed a character whose foundations were laid broad and deep in the purest truths of morality—a character which stood unshaken amid the terrors of war and the tranquillity of peace; a character which allowed neither cowardice upon the battle-field nor tyranny in the presidential chair. Thus did they win the hearts of their countrymen and prepare for themselves a lasting place of rest in the tender memories of a grateful people.
History but voices our own experience when it awards to true nobility of character the highest place among the enviable possessions of man. Nor is it the gift of fortune. In this, at least, we are not creatures of circumstances; talent, special genius may be the gift of nature; position in society the gift of birth; respect may be bought with wealth; but neither one nor all of these can give character. It is a slow but sure growth to which every thought and action lends its aid. To form character is to form grooves in which are to flow the purposes of our lives. It is to adopt principles which are to be the measure of our actions, the criteria of our deeds. This we are doing each day, either consciously or unconsciously. There is character formed by our association with each friend, by every aspiration of the heart, by every object toward which our affections go out, yea, by every thought that flies on its lightning wing through the dark recesses of the brain.
It is a law of mind that it acts most readily in familiar paths, hence, repetition forms habit, and almost before we are aware, we are chained to a certain routine of action from which it is difficult to free ourselves. We imitate that which we admire. If we revel in stories of blood, and are pleased with the sight of barbaric cruelty, we find it easy to become a Caligula or a Domitian; we picture to ourselves scenes of cruelty in which we are actors, and soon await only the opportunity to vie in atrocity with the Neroes of the past.
If we delight in gossip, and are not content unless each neighbor is laid upon the dissecting table, we form a character unenviable indeed, and must be willing to bear the contempt of all the truly good, while we roll our bit of scandal as a sweet morsel under the tongue.
But if each day we gather some new truths, plant ourselves more firmly upon principles which are eternal, guard every thought and action, that it may be pure, and conform our lives more nearly to that Perfect Model, we shall form a character that will be a fit background on which to paint the noblest deeds and the grandest intellectual and moral achievements; a character that cannot be concealed, but which will bring success in this life and form the best preparation for that which is beyond.
The formation of character is a work which continues through life, but at no time is it so active as in youth and early manhood. At this time impressions are most easily made, and mistakes most easily corrected. It is the season for the sowing of the seed—the springtime of life. There is no complaint in the natural world because each fruit and herb brings forth after its kind; there is no complaint if a neglected seed-time brings a harvest of want; there is no cry of injustice if thistles spring from thistle-seed sown. As little reason have we to murmur if in after-life we discover a character dwarfed and deformed by the evil thoughts and actions of today; as little reason have we to impeach the wisdom of God if our wild oats, as they are called in palliation, leave scars upon our manhood, which years of reform fail to wear away.
Character is the entity, the individuality of the person, shining from every window of the soul, either as a beam of purity, or as a clouded ray that betrays the impurity within. The contest between light and darkness, right and wrong, goes on; day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment, our characters are being formed, and this is the all-important question which comes to us in accents ever growing fainter as we journey from the cradle to the grave, "Shall those characters be good or bad?"
Illinois College Valedictory
Illinois College, June, 1881
Beloved instructors, it is character not less than intellect that you have striven to develop. As we stand at the end of our college course, and turn our eyes toward the scenes forever past—as our memories linger on the words of wisdom which have fallen from your lips, we are more and more deeply impressed with the true conception of duty which you have ever shown. You have sought not to trim the lamp of genius until the light of morality is paled by its dazzling brilliance, but to encourage and strengthen both. These days are over. No longer shall we listen to your warning voices, no more meet you in these familiar class-rooms, yet on our hearts "deeply has sunk the lesson" you have given, and shall not soon depart.
We thank you for your kind and watchful care, and shall ever cherish your teachings with that devotion which sincere gratitude inspires.
It is fitting that we express to you also, honored trustees, our gratitude for the privileges which you have permitted us to enjoy.
The name of the institution whose interests you guard, will ever be dear to us as the school-room, to whose influence we shall trace whatever success coming years may bring.
Dear class-mates, my lips refuse to bid you a last good-bye; we have so long been joined together in a community of aims and interests; so often met and mingled our thoughts in confidential friendship; so often planned and worked together, that it seems like rending asunder the very tissues of the heart to separate us now.
But this long and happy association is at an end, and now as we go forth in sorrow, as each one must, to begin alone the work which lies before us, let us encourage each other with strengthening words.
Success is brought by continued labor and continued watchfulness. We must struggle on, not for one moment hesitate, nor take one backward step; for in language of the poet—
The gates of hell are open night and day,
Smooth the descent and easy is the way;
But to return and view the cheerful skies,
In this, the past and mighty labor lies.
We launch our vessels upon the uncertain sea of life alone, yet, not alone, for around us are friends who anxiously and prayerfully watch our course. They will rejoice if we arrive safely at our respective havens, or weep with bitter tears, if, one by one, our weather-beaten barks are lost forever in the surges of the deep.
We have esteemed each other, loved each other, and now must with each other part. God grant that we may all so live as to meet in the better world, where parting is unknown.
Halls of learning, fond Alma Mater, farewell. We turn to take one "last, long, lingering look" at thy receding walls. We leave thee now to be ushered out into the varied duties of an active life.
However high our names may be inscribed upon the gilded scroll of fame, to thee we all the honor give, to thee all praises bring. And when, in after years, we're wearied by the bustle of a busy world, our hearts will often long to turn and seek repose beneath thy sheltering shade.
When fall came, he entered the Union College of Law at Chicago. Out of school hours his time was spent in the office of ex-Senator Lyman Trumbull, who had been a political friend of Mr. Bryan's father. This acquaintance, together with the fact that a warm friendship existed between Mr. Bryan and his law school classmate, Henry Trumbull, the judge's son, led to the establishment of a second foster home—a home in which he and his family have ever found a cordial welcome. In this home, but lately bereft of its head, he spent his first Sabbath after the Democratic National Convention.
Mr. Bryan stood well in law school, taking an especial interest in constitutional law. Here again, he was connected with the debating society of the college, and took an active part in its meetings. At graduation, his thesis was a defense of the jury system. His first fee was earned in the County Court at Salem.
To these years of study belong many things which are of interest to us, but which are too trivial for the public eye. I shall venture upon one, however. Many people have remarked upon the fondness which Mr. Bryan shows for quoting Scripture. This habit is one of long standing, as the following circumstance shows. The time came when it seemed proper to have a little conversation with my father and this was something of an ordeal, as father is rather a reserved man. In his dilemma, William sought refuge in the Scriptures, and began: "Mr. Baird, I have been reading Proverbs a good deal lately, and find that Solomon says: 'Whoso findeth a wife, findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the Lord!'" Father, being something of a Bible scholar himself, replied: "Yes, I believe Solomon did say that, but Paul suggests that, while he that marrieth doeth well, he that marrieth not doeth better." This was disheartening, but the young man saw his way through. "Solomon would be the best authority upon this point," he rejoined, "because Paul was never married, while Solomon had a number of wives." After this friendly tilt the matter was satisfactorily arranged.