Woodrow Wilson appointed as his secretary of state a three-time presidential loser, William Jennings Bryan (Illinois College, '81), defeated in the campaigns of 1896, 1900 and 1908. Bryan, in spite of this record, was a major power in the Democratic party, and his endorsement of Wilson in the 1912 election would have done much to help Wilson gain support of Bryan's constituency - populist, moralist, anti-imperialist, suspicious of the Eastern Establishment. However, another member of the State department under Wilson was its Counsellor, Robert Lansing (Amherst College '86), who was appointed in April 1914, following the resignation of his predecessor. Lansing was an acknowledged expert in international law, while Bryan offered passionate leadership in support of pacifist causes such as the use of arbitration to resolve international disputes instead of war.
Complicating this picture was Wilson's close associate, Colonel Edward House (Cornell, did not graduate). House held no official position, but was an important member of Wilson's administration nonetheless. He was an intimate of the president, especially after the death of Wilson's first wife on 6 August 1914, just days after the outbreak of the First World War. Wilson valued House's opinion as an unbiased perspective, unlike that of his rival Bryan. House had been to Europe in the spring, to sound out the possibility of some kind of agreement over naval strength between Germany and Britain. House had played a part in securing Lansing's appointment to the State Department, and represented the more conservative wing of the Democrats, while Bryan was known as the standard-bearer of the radical faction.
The interplay between these four men played an important role in developing the American response to the war in Europe. As the July Crisis of 1914, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, developed, Wilson was coping with the grief consequent on the death of his beloved Ellen, who suffered from Bright's disease. Bryan was more concerned with cutting the kind of public figure he had done all his life, and also was aware of Wilson's view that the presidency ought to be the focus of international initiatives, such as Wilson's offer on 4 August to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Accepting Wilson's attitude freed Bryan to pursue his own agenda from a pulpit at the pinnacle of American politics.