Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle celebrates William Jennings Bryan Day on October 12, 1909.

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 6/20/2008
  • Essay 8663

On October 12, 1909, William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) takes the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific (A-Y-P) Exposition by storm as he gives five different speeches over the course of the Special Day designated for him. The exposition took place on the University of Washington campus in Seattle between June 1 and October 16, 1909. More than three million visitors came from around the state, the nation, and the world to view hundreds of exhibits, stroll the lushly manicured grounds, and be entertained on the midway, while Seattle promoted itself as a gateway to the rich resources of Alaska, the Yukon, and Asia. Each day (except Sundays) of the A-Y-P was designated as a Special Day for one or more groups. Special Days drew people involved in the featured organizations, and the resulting programs, lectures, ceremonies, parades, and athletic competitions gave local people a reason to visit again and again. Bryan, known for running as Democratic presidential candidate in three elections (1896, 1900, and 1908) and later defending the Creationism side of the Scopes Trial in 1925, had just completed his third failed campaign for president. While at the exposition he vocally criticized the Taft administration and its policies, though he declared he would not run again for president.

A Popular Figure

Although William Howard Taft won Washington's electoral votes in the presidential election of 1908, Bryan enjoyed considerable popularity in Washington and his arrival at the fair drew large crowds. Bryan's opposition to imperialism, tariffs, a proposed central bank, and trusts appealed to a large contingent of Washington voters, many of whom came to hear his speeches at the exposition. 

In the morning, Bryan spoke to a group of Broadway High School students about the importance public speaking skills. He had given a number of important speeches himself, including the famous "Cross of Gold" speech at the 1896 Democratic Convention. Bryan told the students, "Every man and woman in our country should be prepared to give his thoughts and judgements to his fellow men" ("Nebraskan Has Busy Day in City").

Wanted in Walla Walla?

He then moved on to an audience of University of Washington faculty and staff before a luncheon at the New York State Building. While looking at exhibits in the Washington State Building before the luncheon, Bryan talked with a young woman at the Walla Walla County booth. She pinned a ribbon on his lapel reading, "What Walla Walla Wants Is You." During the luncheon, Bryan noticed that the people seated near him were sharing a joke. He asked J. E. Chilberg, president of the exposition why everyone was laughing. Chilberg replied, "The joke is on you, Mr. Bryan. Our state penal institution is located at Walla Walla and the ribbon you wear intimates you're wanted there." Bryan took off the badge. ("Walla Walla Wants You, Bryan Proclaims")

In his address to the luncheon guests, Bryan announced he would not seek office again, but would continue to work for the causes he had championed in his failed bids for the White House.  In the afternoon, Bryan gave a speech in the amphitheater titled, "The Average Man." He lauded the "ability and steadfastness" of the American middle class ("Commoner Favors Home Rule in North"). He then segued into an argument for home rule in Alaska. At the time of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Alaska was still a territory.

Between his afternoon and evening speeches in the amphitheater, Bryan gave a short address to a group of University of Washington students about faith. He told the students, "In order to accomplish any great thing a man must have faith in his physical ability, in his mental preparedness, in his own purpose, in his government and in his God" ("'Faith' is Key-Note of Bryan's Message"). Lofty sentiments, but that did not distract one student, Roy Crismas, from noticing, "The most striking thing about Mr. Bryan is the aged look he has for a man of his years. Although only thirty-five when he first ran for president he now looks to be sixty" ("Cannot Attend Assembly"). In March 1909 Bryan had turned 49.

Still Against Taft

Spectators filled the natural amphitheater in the evening for his speech. Bryan used the venue to criticize and argue with the Taft Administration and Republican proposals for an hour and a half. He particularly noted how many of his own proposals had been implemented by Taft.    

In arguing against imperialism he reminded the crowd that in opposing the Spanish American War, "We said not only that we did not want them [Filipinos] as citizens, but that as a republic we could not have them as subjects" ("Bryan Assails Policies of the Republican Party," 2). It had been just over a decade since the Spanish American War ended with the United States in possession of the Philippines.

The evening ended with a reception at the Washington State Building for Bryan and his wife, Mary (Baird) Bryan (1867-1930), where "most of the large audience" greeted the couple ("Bryan Ridicules Republican Tenets").

Before he left Seattle, Bryan placed an order for a totem pole, which would be a "small pole and not one which will overshadow the house and all of the trees in the state of Nebraska," according to The Seattle Times. There is no evidence Bryan ever received a totem pole for his residence in Lincoln, Nebraska, however.

Sources: Roy Crismas, "Cannot Attend Assembly," University of Washington Daily, October 12, 1909, p. 1; "1896 General Election Results -- Washington," "1900 General Election Results -- Washington," and "1908 General Election Results -- Washington," Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections website accessed June 18, 2008 (;  "Bryan Assails Policies of the Republican Party," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 13, 1909, p. 1, 2; "Bryan Ridicules Republican Tenets," The Seattle Times, October 13, 1909, p. 5; "Bryan to Continue His Fight for Right," The Seattle Times, October 13, 1909, p. 5; "Bryan Wants a Totem Pole," The Seattle Times, October 12, 1909, p. 6; "Commoner Comes to See Big Fair," The Seattle Times, October 12, 1909, p. 1, 2; "Commoner Favors Home Rule in North," The Seattle Times, October 13, 1909, p. 5; "'Faith' is Key-Note of Bryan's Message," University of Washington Daily, October 13, 1909, p. 1; "Give Home Rule to Alaska, Says Bryan," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 13, 1909, p. 9; "Learn to Speak in Public, Says Bryan," The Seattle Times, October 12, 1909, p. 2; "Nebraskan Has Busy Day in City," The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 13, 1909, p. 9; "Walla Walla Wants You, Bryan Proclaims," The Seattle Times, October 13, 1909, p. 5.

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