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Bryan in Florida

Mr. And Mrs. William Jennings Bryan had visited Florida many times before they decided in 1912 to purchase a winter home in Miami. "Villa Serena," as they called it, became a showplace at which the Bryans hosted a weekly Friday afternoon open house that sometimes attracted as many as five hundred people. As Bryan's national political power declined after he retired as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson, his interest in the political, religious, and social life of Florida increased. He and his family spent more and more time in the state.

After Bryan transferred his legal residence from Nebraska to Florida in 1921, he was increasingly urged to enter Florida politics. He was at first interested in running for the U.S. Senate from Florida, but after much thought, rejected the idea. He was reluctant to risk the chance of a defeat that "would not only impair my ability to aid the party as a private citizen but . . . would very much lessen the pleasure of my remaining years in Florida."

However, Bryan did enter politics to run successfully for delegate-at-large from Florida to the Democratic National Convention of 1924. He suggested at the convention that Albert A. Murphree, president of the University of Florida, be nominated as the Democratic Party's presidential candidate. It was widely assumed that a southern candidate could not win, and Murphree did not wish to run. The convention's rejection of Murphree was a political embarrassment to Bryan. But by the summer of 1925, he was again considering the possibility of running for the U.S. Senate from Florida.

Bryan's political plans were suddenly interrupted by the efforts of a group of men in Dayton, Tennessee, to break a state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution. He accepted an invitation to become a counsel for the prosecution and journeyed to Tennessee for the last dramatic incident of his life. The sensational and exhausting Scopes trial ended on July 21, 1925, and five days later, shortly before he was scheduled to make a speech denouncing the Darwinian theory of evolution, Bryan died. His family, after his death, continued to live in Florida, and his daughter, Mrs. Ruth Bryan Rhode, later served that state in Congress.

(September 2003)

 

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