Born in rural Rockingham County, Bryan attended Washington Academy (later Washington and Lee University) but did not graduate. He then studied law at home. His first book, The Mountain Muse (1813), consisted primarily of “The Adventures of Daniel Boone,” an ambitious poem of more than 5,600 lines. Perhaps the poem’s subject persuaded some later writers that its author was a nephew of the famed frontiersman. Boone did have a nephew named Daniel Bryan, but he was not the poet.
By 1815 Bryan was practicing law in Harrisonburg, and he married Rebecca Davenport that year. She died in July 1816. In April 1818 Bryan married Mary Thomas Barbour, sister of James Barbour (1775–1842) and Philip Pendleton Barbour, who were then representing Virginia in Congress. Later in 1818 Bryan was elected to a term in the Senate of Virginia. On January 26, 1820, he cast the only vote against a Senate resolution advocating Missouri’s entry into the Union as a slave state. He also delivered an impassioned speech defending his stand, in which by denouncing slavery and urging gradual emancipation he placed himself in direct opposition to the pro–Missouri positions of his brothers-in-law and Virginia’s Jeffersonian-Republican establishment.
In April 1821 Bryan accepted an appointment as postmaster of Alexandria. He was absent from Richmond when the new legislative session began, and his Senate seat was declared vacant. Shortly afterward Bryan’s poetry began to appear regularly in periodicals, often anonymously or bearing only the initials “D.B.,” and in his own short books. Bryan’s most notable works during the 1820s, his most productive decade, were The Lay of Gratitude (1826), a tribute to the marquis de Lafayette, and The Appeal for Suffering Genius (1826), an attempt to encourage support for struggling artists. He also gained a reputation as an orator and sometimes delivered his speeches in verse form.
Throughout his career Bryan’s poetic style remained essentially unchanged. Of his later works, only “Strains of the Grotto,” a somewhat gothic poem first published in 1837, betrays any influence of the romantic movement then burgeoning in American literature. Thematically Bryan’s writings often expressed intense nationalism as well as support for various reform causes, including temperance, women’s education, and the antidueling movement.
Bryan resigned his postmastership in 1853 to accept a position in the library of the Treasury Department. He opposedand remained a firm Unionist while living in Alexandria during the Civil War. Immediately after hostilities ended, he and his wife moved to Washington, D.C. Daniel Bryan died there on December 22, 1866, and was buried in Washington’s Oak Hill Cemetery.
- The Mountain Muse (1813)
- Oration on Female Education (1816)
- The Lay of Gratitude (1826)
- The Appeal for Suffering Genius (1826)
- Thoughts on Education in Its Connexion with Morals (1830)
- A Tribute to the Memory of the Rev. George C. Cookman … and The Lost Ship, A Poem on the Fate of the Steamer President (1841)