By Spc. Lisa CrawfordOctober 18, 2019
A bronze statue of Williams Jennings Bryan stood in Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., until last month when the statue of another prominent Nebraskan, Ponca Chief Standing Bear, took its place.
Now the statue of Bryan, "The Great Commoner," is the centerpiece of Nebraska's Early Guard (1854-1900) section, telling the story of the National Guard's service in the Spanish - American War, at the Nebraska National Guard Museum in Seward.
On Oct. 11, Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac, Governor Pete Ricketts, Senator Deb Fischer and Senator Ben Sasse unveiled and welcomed the William Jennings Bryan statue during a ceremony at the museum.
"It is absolutely appropriate that William Jennings Bryan be here in the Nebraska National Guard because both William Jennings Bryan and the National Guard are about service," Ricketts said. "He clearly had a career of service."
A former lawyer and editor of the Omaha World, Bryan was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served from March 1891 until March 1895.
Though he had no previous military experience, Bryan helped recruit and organize the Third Nebraska Volunteer Infantry Regiment in 1898 for service during the Spanish - American War. Already famous as a former congressman and presidential nominee, Bryan enlisted as a private in the newly formed regiment. The soldiers elected him to command their new regiment, and Governor Silas Holcomb appointed him as a colonel.
President William McKinley, who defeated Bryan in the 1896 election, would not give his political rival an opportunity to become a war hero, and the 3rd Regiment remained encamped in Florida until after the fighting ended in Cuba. Bryan resigned his commission in December of 1898 and resumed speaking out against McKinley's "imperialist" policies and poor living conditions for soldiers in the encampments, where diseases claimed many times more lives than combat.
Bryan would also serve as the Secretary of State for President Woodrow Wilson from 1912-1915.
"We really are blessed here in Nebraska to be able to have such a work of art that is representing one of our most prominent citizens, one who lived a life of service and served the Nebraska National Guard," Ricketts said. "It's absolutely fantastic to have a new home for William Jennings Bryan here in Seward."
Speaking second, Fischer shared Bryan's understanding "that freedom is never more than a generation away from extinction," and her belief "the values that we hold dear as Americans must be constantly defended."
Fischer said the men and women of the Nebraska National Guard today continue Bryan's legacy of service at home and abroad, which is why she believes the museum is the perfect fit for the statue.
"Today The Great Commoner's story and service to America lives on in a place that I think is especially fitting, where we honor the history and noble courage of those who are always ready and always there to defend our way of life," Fischer added.
Unpacking the political history between Bryan and McKinley, Sasse had one point he wanted to drive home about why his statue "fits really well in Seward, Nebraska," at the National Guard Museum. Sasse told the story of how after his voluntary enlistment, Bryan helped recruit other men into the Nebraska National Guard, even knowing it would help strengthen McKinley's influence as a wartime president.
Sasse said Bryan did this because "he thinks it's his duty as an American to bring other men with him." He also recalled a speech Bryan gave in Hastings where he called upon the citizens to, 'be a patriot; be a soldier.'
"And he enlisted 600 more men than Nebraska's target number, because we are Americans…and we had a national moment that we needed to be united around," Sasse added.
Bohac concluded the unveiling ceremony by thanking all of the state's official delegates for their unwavering support of the Nebraska National Guard, and sharing more about Bryan's selfless service, including choosing to resign his commission and went to the White House to explain the camp conditions the Nebraska Soldiers were facing, and to allow the rest of the Soldiers "to serve the noble cause that they had responded to."
"I can think of no greater legacy, and we are so proud to have the opportunity to bring the Colonel home…here to Nebraska," Bohac said.
The William Jennings Bryan statue is available for viewing by the public at the Nebraska National Guard Museum located at 201 N 8th St, Seward, NE 68434. The Museum is typically open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and admission is free of charge.