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 …