There is something eerily contemporary about William Jennings Bryan, the perennial Democratic presidential candidate of a century ago. Not his attacks on bankers who squeezed prairie farmers with high-interest loans. Not his diatribes about the evils of drink. And certainly not his aversion to militarism and imperialist wars—however admirable at least some of these passions may be to unhappy liberals today. No, rather what makes him seem a figure of our very own times is his ostentatious public piety and his relentless infusion of religion into politics.
Bryan, as Michael Kazin informs us in the title of his admiring biography, was someone rare in politics: a godly man, indeed a “godly hero.” That is an improbable claim for an office-seeker. Yet this preacher in politician’s clothing, an indefatigable candidate who never quite made it and never really gave up, was indeed a hero to millions. With hope in their hearts they faithfully followed him from one failed presidential campaign to the next. They believed that he could not only drive the moneylenders from their tainted temples on Wall Street, but also cleanse America’s soul of cupidity and wickedness.
Today such talk seems charmingly old-fashioned. Indeed, were one to take it seriously, it could be viewed as vaguely seditious—certainly enough to get one wiretapped, or hauled in for questioning, or perhaps even “rendered” to some distant, obliging dictatorship. But in the election of 1896 when Bryan, still in his mid-thirties, ran for president of the United States, standards were more lax. A candidate for the nation’s highest office could damn the bankers rather than tap them for contributions, demand that the rich pay a fair share of the wealth they extracted from their workers, and call on the government to serve as protector of the common man.
Bryan did all that, and the Democrats nominated him three times for president. He actually came relatively close to winning his first time around. Even in defeat he never stopped talking, and arguing, and preaching his own particular fusion of piety, patriotism, and reform. He was revered by millions and feared by more than a few. Initially many thought him dangerous. Then they found him troublesome. And ultimately they dismissed him as irrelevant.
He came into politics in the last decade of the nineteenth century as a youthful crusader with a golden tongue. For a time Bryan disturbed those ensconced in the halls of power and led millions to believe that the age of the common man was at hand. He argued for taxing the rich, subsidizing farmers, legalizing strikers, and banning private campaign financing. He was an inspirational leader who preached a creed that “married democracy and pietism in a romantic gospel that borrowed equally from Jefferson and Jesus.”
That is a potent combination for a politician, but the test is in the deed and not the word. During his first two decades in public life Bryan shone. Then he began to fade into ineffectuality. And ultimately he self-destructed. He was neither a radical agitator like Eugene V. Debs nor an autocratic and self-righteous politician like Woodrow Wilson. Rather he was essentially a performer, and his public life was pure theater. He was in succession Henry V, then Willy Loman, and finally George Babbitt, playing out his public life in three disparate acts—the first a romance, the second a melodrama, and the third a farce.
Certainly the most colorful, arguably the most exasperating, probably the most absurd—and yet in some ways perhaps the most guileless and inherently well-meaning—of our presidential candidates, Bryan framed and dramatized issues that are quite contemporary. Piety, patriotism, and populism infuse our national life today just as they did in Bryan’s day. It is the American way.
To write a life of Bryan is not only to probe the actions of a preacher-politician but also to delve into our national psyche. And deep within that psyche lies the phenomenon we call Populism. It was, of course, a movement for political and economic reform. But it was also something more: an expression of anger and rebellion that blew in from the heartland. It was built on violence and repression and an inconsolable sense of loss of a people driven ever further westward from their ancestral homes and ways. Passing time and sentimental ballads have romanticized the Populist era. But its bitter legacy is still with us, erupting periodically in violent acts and inarticulate resentments.1
Michael Kazin analyzed the impact of that prairie revolt and its consequences in his 1995 classic, The Populist Persuasion. From that book follows this sympathetically revisionist study of the movement’s most colorful politician. Bryan, Kazin tells us, should be viewed not as a garrulous fundamentalist, as he is often dismissively judged today, but as the “creative forerunner” of the New Deal. Kazin’s scholarship is impeccable and his understanding of the period profound. His gracefully written portrait brings a nearly forgotten figure to life. Yet what emerges is a flawed and self-infatuated, though charismatic, man who led a crusade whose potential he never fully understood or developed.
This decent, self-dramatizing political preacher combined the progressive and the provincial. Kazin, generally admiring what Bryan represented rather than what he actually accomplished, brings both aspects vividly to life. If he has a tendency to sentimentalize Bryan, this is quite appropriate to the subject. Bryan, after all, sentimentalized both himself and his message. He represented much of what was hopeful and inspiring, as well as what was self-defeating, in American liberalism. This gives him a contemporary meaning at a time when the search for a liberal hero has an increasingly desperate air.
Today the American left—bruised by a faith-based Republican ascendancy it neither understands nor knows how to counter—resolutely looks backward for solace and inspiration. Latter-day Bryanites and nostalgic New Dealers dream of a resurrected alliance of farmers and laborers that will shake the barricades of monopoly capitalism. Center-hugging pragmatists eagerly triangulate themselves in a contorted effort to unearth a post-ideology candidate who will offend no one. Born-again cold warriors yearn for a sword-brandishing crusader like Truman to inspire the masses against the most recent forces of evil. The faintly beating heart of the Democratic Party has never seemed more frantically agitated.
At a time like this, when liberals seem as bereft of heroes as they are of ideas, when the Democratic Party is nearly as beholden to corporate interests and payoffs as the Republicans, when the mantra of “globalization” is intoned to justify the export of American jobs to Asian sweatshops, when slogans like “compassion” are cynically invoked by employers to drive down the cost of labor through unlimited immigration, when the gap-filled social network cobbled together in the 1930s is being dismantled, and when the specter of terrorism is invoked to stifle murmurings of social discontent, Bryan’s tireless quest, and the Populist unrest that fueled it, have a disturbing relevance.
A perennial candidate for president whose highest electoral office was two terms in Congress, Bryan is unfortunately best remembered for maintaining that public schools in Tennessee had no obligation to teach young people that they shared a common ancestor with monkeys. That argument makes him seem very up-to-date. But it has also overwhelmed his importance as an advocate of social and economic reform. Bryan’s politics flowed from his religious beliefs: a brand of evangelical Protestantism that preached moral uplift and championed the common man. The Social Gospel, as it was known, was a form of Christian socialism that paved the way for the more secular Progressive movement.
During the last decades of the nineteenth century evangelical rhetoric marked nearly every mass social movement, particularly in the fundamentalist Protestant heartland. The agrarian insurgency that swept the Great Plains was fueled by protests phrased in the language of the Bible. Bryan was a product of that movement—one of its most eloquent voices, and its most politically agile exponent. Already in his twenties he was known as a great orator. His clarion voice, it was said, could be heard unaided from three city blocks away. Not only was the timbre clear and strong, but the instrument flowed on melodiously for hours. This made him a natural for politics.
The son of a Baptist lawyer, farmer, and well-known Democrat in downstate Illinois, Bryan grew up knowing the local preachers and their congregations of poor farmers; he went to law school in Chicago, practiced briefly in central Illinois, and then left for Nebraska, where he ran for Congress in 1890 when he was barely thirty. It was a propitious moment. A combination of drought, falling prices, and bank foreclosures had impoverished and radicalized the farmers of the Great Plains. Bryan, Kazin explains, seized the opportunity “to make himself the symbolic leader of the prairie insurgency.” Campaigning as a Democrat in a traditionally Republican state, and linked to the more radical People’s Party, or Populists, he took on the moneylenders and made the farmers’ appeal for cheap credit his campaign cry. Their heretical solution: liberating the dollar from the gold standard and linking it to relatively cheap silver.
The gold standard, with its strict control over the money supply to protect the propertied classes against inflation, was imposed in 1873 by the business-dominated Republican Party. The farmers of the Great Plains viewed it as a major cause of their chronic debt because it raised the cost of credit. For them “free silver” meant cheap money. The miners liked it because more silver production meant more jobs. Bryan made himself their champion. He also hewed close to the program of the Populists, although not formally a member of their party, by calling for a graduated income tax, federally insured bank deposits, and the freedom of workers to join unions and to go on strike.
In 1890 the moment and the man came together. The farmers and the miners sent him to Washington, only the second Democrat ever elected from Nebraska. Two years later he was easily reelected. It seemed that he had only just begun. The next logical step was the US Senate. But at that time senators from Nebraska, as from many other states, were chosen by the legislature rather than by popular vote. The elders considered him to be too radical. This did not dampen his ambition. If he could not sit in the Senate, then he would set his sights on the White House.
When the Democrats met in Chicago in 1896 the delegates were in a rebellious mood. The Supreme Court had struck down the nation’s first peacetime income tax, passed by Congress only two years earlier. One of the justices called it a “stepping stone” toward “a war of the poor against the rich.” Then the Court gutted the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and upheld the injunction used to crush a strike against the railways—a strike that had landed the radical labor leader Eugene V. Debs in jail and made him a working-class hero.
The impact of the violent strife-torn "winning of the West" on American politics and identity is impressively analyzed in Anatol Lieven's recent America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 2004); in Richard Slotkin's remarkable trio of interpretive histories: Regeneration Through Violence, Gunfighter Nation, and The Fatal Environment; and in a stunning host of classic westerns, including the greatly underrated Heaven's Gate by Michael Cimino.↩
The impact of the violent strife-torn “winning of the West” on American politics and identity is impressively analyzed in Anatol Lieven’s recent America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 2004); in Richard Slotkin’s remarkable trio of interpretive histories: Regeneration Through Violence, Gunfighter Nation, and The Fatal Environment; and in a stunning host of classic westerns, including the greatly underrated Heaven’s Gate by Michael Cimino.↩