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.

Bryan, blocked in his Senate bid, was looking for an arena in which he could become a national figure. The convention served as his launching pad. Mounting the podium and speaking in the melodious, booming voice that had made him one of the best-known orators of the day, he declared his allegiance to the “producing masses of this nation and the world…and the toilers everywhere” against the Eastern “financial magnates” who enslaved them with usurious interest rates. As his peroration drew to an end, he theatrically held out his arms like Jesus on the Cross, raised his eyes to the rafters, and propelled his words across the giant auditorium: “We will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

It was melodrama. It was demagoguery. It was pure theater verging on camp. And in its political impact it was magnificent. It was his moment of glory, indeed the high point of his political career. Fusing Christian imagery and Populist rage, Bryan’s rhetoric ignited a potentially powerful though ultimately inchoate social movement. At that moment he spoke for farmers driven into bankruptcy by foreclosures, for factory workers and miners doomed to lives of wage slavery, for the foot soldiers of Populism. He overwhelmed the other putative candidates and became, at the age of thirty-six, the Democrats’ candidate for president.


Even skeptics put off by Bryan’s style and resistant to his message realized that something remarkable had happened. “It was the first time in my life and in the life of a generation,” wrote the Kansas newspaper sage William Allen White, “in which any man large enough to lead a national party had boldly and unabashedly made his cause that of the poor and the oppressed.”

Yet, White added in a judgment that reflected the qualms and fears that for many tainted both the message and the messenger, Bryan had made himself the “incarnation of demagogy.”

For millions of Americans, whether they revered Bryan or feared and detested him, the election of 1896 was one on which the very future of the republic seemed to hang. The nation was mired in the deepest economic depression in American history. From his base among disaffected, mortgage-burdened farmers Bryan reached out to industrial workers in the cities of the Great Lakes and the Northeast. It was a moment when the bankers and industrialists had reason to feel that they could be losing control.

They reacted by organizing, under the leadership of Mark Hanna, the most sophisticated political campaign Americans had ever witnessed. Hanna hired 1,400 speakers to stump the doubtful states and distributed 120 million pieces of literature, including pamphlets in nine European languages. His smoothly oiled effort became the model for future media-driven, big-money political campaigns. The Democrats, with one tenth of the funds, could compete only by bringing Bryan and his voice to the people. In a marathon whistle-stop campaign across the country he made more than 250 stops and spoke on average 80,000 words a day.

It was one of the most divisive and bitter, and arguably among one of the most important, elections in American history. More than 79 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. Bryan swept every state in the West and the South, and did well in the upper Midwest. But he won not a single state in the industrial Northeast, and outside the Deep South carried only one city, Denver, with more than 100,000 residents. The Republican machine, scoring heavy majorities in the big cities and among Catholics, pushed the amiable William McKinley to victory by a 600,000-vote margin. Not until 1932, with the triumph of Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression, would a Democrat win a majority of votes in a national election.

Considering the odds against Bryan, the disparate coalition he cobbled together, and his divisive free silver platform, it was striking that he did so well. Free silver may have helped farmers and miners get out of debt by raising prices for their products, but for tradesmen and factory workers it spelled inflation. His prairie populism and Bible-thumping Protestant fundamentalism grated the ears of Catholic immigrants and city dwellers. He represented the old, rural America more than the new industrial nation that was emerging. To many, put off by his evangelical fundamentalism, his Social Gospel program, with its invocations of the teachings of Jesus as the solution for social problems, seemed designed to comfort rather than arouse. People clamored to hear him talk, but often left with a warm glow rather than with anger in their hearts.

Kazin tells us approvingly that Bryan “burned only and always to see religion heal the world” and “became a hero to people who believed that politics should be a moral enterprise and that religion should purify the political world.” But that was a good part of his problem. Successful political movements are built not on love, but more often on resentment and anger. A powerful fuel for that emotion is a sense of injustice and a frustrated nationalism. Religious passions are often bitterly divisive. Nationalism by contrast is unifying. It brings social classes together and acts as a secular religion. Nothing unites a people behind a vengeful leader more powerfully than a wounded nationalism. Consider how fear and anger caused by the terrorist attacks of September 11 have affected American politics over the past five years.2

Like many liberals of his day, and of ours as well, Bryan had little trouble denouncing imperialism in principle (especially when practiced by Europeans), but found reasons to support it when able to convince himself that it would have uplifting results. As one sympathetic to Cuban independence, he had endorsed McKinley’s 1898 declaration of war against Spain, declaring that “humanity demands that we shall act.” Despite maintaining that militarism was a tool of the upper classes, he had nonetheless enlisted in the Nebraska National Guard and had even recruited a regiment of volunteers to fight the Spaniards. Fortunately the war was over before he ever got there.

But a deeper test of his principles was the American decision to seize the distant Spanish colony of the Philippines. That bold act of imperial aggrandizement had more to do with the eagerness of Theodore Roosevelt and his cohort of expansionists to establish Pacific bases and to make the United States a global naval power than it did with concern over the Spaniards’ mistreatment of their subjects. McKinley provided the pretext for the annexation of the islands by declaring that Americans had an obligation to “Christianize” and “civilize” their seven million people.

Initially Bryan had warned that the United States must resist a “war for empire.” Yet as the Senate debated the peace treaty—and the nation’s future as a global power—he reversed course and supported American control over the islands. While continuing to denounce colonialism, he persuaded himself that opposition to the peace treaty would prolong the effort to subdue the insurgents and ultimately damage the anti-imperialist cause.

Though Bryan’s contorted reasoning revealed the fissures in his own Populist brand of egalitarianism, the deeper issue was not colonialism. Rather it was what should be done with millions of dark-skinned Filipinos. His political support in the South rested on his acquiescence to the bedrock principle of white supremacy. As Kazin reminds us, “a dread of racial mixing had always driven Democrats’ opposition to seizing lands of darker people south of the border and across the Pacific.” That is the major reason why Cuba, an economic colony until Castro’s revolution, was never incorporated into the Union.

Although Bryan, a man of the plains, never espoused the segregationist racism prevalent in the South, neither did he formally repudiate it. By 1906 blacks had been completely denied voting rights in the South. Southern votes were crucial to any Democratic candidate for president. “Racism—whether aggressive or paternalistic—posed no barrier to the potential bond between rural Dixie and the blue-collar North,” Kazin writes. “Bryan was the inevitable standard-bearer of this embryonic coalition.”

The sensitivity of the Democratic Party to the “special conditions” of the American South was not fully repudiated until the bold presidency of Lyndon Johnson and his landmark civil rights bills. At the time Johnson ruefully noted that his advocacy of full legal equality for black Americans would lose the South to the Democrats for a generation. He was mistaken only in underestimating the duration of that loss. Since that time not a single Democrat from outside the old Confederacy has been elected president.

Bryan’s accommodation to the prevailing racism and imperialism raises the question of what kind of progressive he was. In contrast to reformers like Jane Addams, W.E.B. DuBois, Herbert Croly, and even Theodore Roosevelt, not to mention Debs, he appears rather, as Kazin suggests, a “die-hard Populist who somehow got caught up in a whirlwind of reform he neither generated nor understood.” To be sure, he “blazed against trusts and high finance.” Yet the fact is that he was never able to put together a strong enough coalition to tame the corporate forces that then, as now, ruled the country.

His great political virtue was that he seemed able to span his party’s feuding factions. That is why the Democrats—divided among an urban working class, Southern traditionalists devoted to their “peculiar institution,” and an embittered but politically inchoate heartland—nominated him again for president in 1900, then a third time eight years later. Following his second defeat Bryan returned to the Chautauqua circuits which had provided him with a good income. In tents and lecture halls he was received rapturously even by those who had voted against him. With his sonorous voice and biblical invocations he always put on a good show.

By the time party leaders, caught between their adulation and their desperation, nominated him a third time for president in 1908, against incumbent Theodore Roosevelt, he was a tamed lion. Unwilling to call for the dissolution of the oligopolies rather than merely deploring them, he vigorously denounced corporate malfeasance and the industrial trusts, as did Roosevelt, but, as Kazin concedes, “neither he nor his allies had more than the vaguest idea of how to bring that about.”

As the 1912 elections approached, Bryan had shed his presidential aspirations and urged his followers to support New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, a reform candidate promoting trust-busting and lower tariffs. But the election turned into a three-ring circus when the Republican Old Guard dashed Theodore Roosevelt’s hopes for a return to the White House and instead nominated the reliable Taft for a second term. A furious TR defied the party and started his own, running as a Progressive on his tailor-made Bull Moose ticket. Then Debs threw in his hat on the radical left. In the tumultuous four-man race a hapless Taft, a resentful TR, and a patrician Wilson all claimed the reformist mantle.

Herbert Croly, at his irreverent new journal, The New Republic, turned his back on Bryan and led many progressives into TR’s camp. They loved his energy, his eagerness to make the United States count as a world power, and his argument that big government should regulate big business rather than trying to make it small. Though the renegade TR easily outpolled party candidate Taft, Wilson scored a plurality with 42 percent of the votes. Bryan had loyally campaigned for Wilson and was rewarded, more as a gesture to party unity than from respect, by being appointed as secretary of state.

Diplomacy was hardly the strong point of a prairie populist not renowned for self-restraint and discipline. But, as Kazin observes, “both men were devout Presbyterians with a fondness for messianic gestures.” And at that time foreign affairs seemed mostly a sideshow. Wilson readily agreed to Bryan’s two conditions for accepting the post: first, an endorsement of his cherished plan to outlaw war by submitting international quarrels to an investigative tribunal, and second, the banishment of liquor from State Department functions.

Neither man imagined that a quarrel among European imperial states that had been allowed to erupt into war in the summer of 1914 would turn Wilson into a war president and drive Bryan from the Cabinet. Inexorably, indeed inevitably, it did. Despite Wilson’s public avowals to be “neutral in thought and deed,” he and most of the key members of his inner group were fervent Anglophiles. He wanted to avoid American involvement in the war, but he wanted even more to prevent a British defeat at the hands of imperial Germany. His position was driven not only by sentiment but by Wall Street financiers who had loaned billions to London, and by American farmers and manufacturers who were fueling the British war effort.

Bryan was virtually alone in the Cabinet in urging a policy of strict neutrality. German U-boat attacks on British ships plying Atlantic waters had resulted in the death of several American citizens, thereby inflaming public opinion. Bryan urged that Americans be warned not to travel on the ships of warring nations, but Wilson refused to compromise what he described as “freedom of the seas.” By June 1915 Bryan realized that he had virtually no influence over Wilson and tendered his resignation. But since he did not make an issue of his departure and continued to support Wilson publicly, his gesture had little impact. American public officials almost never resign over principle, lest they not be invited back to play again another day. For those inebriated by the heady heights of power, the consequences seem too great. More current examples come readily to mind.3

Bryan’s “personal failure became a minor national tragedy,” Kazin concludes. “Alone in the administration, Bryan had tried to speak for the large, if inchoate, mass of Americans who opposed the drift to war.” But the fact is that he would not have succeeded even had he stayed. Too many powerful interests were profiting from the war, and Wilson was too intent on pursuing his grand plan to make the world “safe for democracy.”

Though Bryan so strongly opposed American involvement in the war that he walked away from the highest government office he ever held, it is striking that he never made a public issue of his resignation. Nor did he object when Debs and hundreds of his followers were arrested for protesting the drift to war, or when the government set up a nationwide spy system to ferret out “dangerous” antiwar organizations, or when the Supreme Court ruled that opposition to the draft could be considered punishable as a “clear and present danger.”

The fact is that most political thinkers and activists are neither moralists nor pacifists, and Bryan was no exception. Then, as today, they persuaded themselves of the mission of the United States to spread democracy through good intentions and the force of arms. Harold Stearns, a young reformer who was not in thrall to Woodrow Wilson’s grand vision, later wrote a book, Liberalism in America, chastising the war liberals for justifying expediency as pragmatism. The substitution of method for moral values, Stearns maintained in a phrase still resonant, was the “technique of liberal failure—the method of compromise…whereby one hopes to control events by abandoning oneself to them.”4

Had Bryan’s career ended at this point he would be remembered as an evangelical reformer and perpetual also-ran. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t. In the early 1920s, still on the lecture circuit, he became concerned with the corrosive effect of modernism on confidence in the literal truth of the Bible. Scientific doctrines that ignored the spiritual element in man’s nature opened the door, he believed, to a frightening array of immoral behavior. If man were not created in the image of God, what grounds could there be for morality? Darwinism, he believed, threatened to undermine the very concept of moral behavior. That ethics might be divorced from the supernatural was hardly conceivable to him.

To counter this danger Bryan proposed a solution that seemed to him perfectly consistent with his democratic faith. Citizens who chose to send their children to public schools had the right to prevent the teaching of doctrines they found abhorrent to their beliefs. Private schools could teach what they liked. Both secularists and evangelicals were eager to test the issue. The opportunity came in 1925 in Tennessee. There a young public school teacher, John Scopes, agreed to stand trial for having violated a state ban on the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Clearly what goes around keeps coming around.

Bryan was asked to help the prosecution uphold the new state law, while the renowned criminal lawyer Clarence Darrow led the defense of the suddenly famous Scopes. The trial immediately became a media event, with reporters flocking to the small town of Dayton from all over the nation. Bryan was eloquent, as always. But he was outfoxed by Darrow, who pushed him into defending a literal interpretation of the Bible, including speculation on whether Jonah was really swallowed by a whale. Had he been smarter Bryan would have focused on the principle that parents should have a right to control what their children are taught in public schools.

Reporters and essayists, including the vituperative H.L. Mencken, who never tired of assaulting what he called the “booboisie,” ridiculed Bryan mercilessly as a country yahoo. Yet Bryan had an arguable point. “Science is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morals,” he wrote in the closing argument he was not able to deliver. “It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine.” Whether or not organized religion, Christian or otherwise, provides such restraints is another issue.5 Bryan’s reputation never recovered from Darrow’s assault. Nor did Bryan himself. Shortly after the trial he died in his sleep of a heart attack at the age of sixty-five.

Walter Lippmann, little bothered by theories of evolution but deeply concerned about uncontrolled majorities, jumped into the fray shortly after the trial. Bryan, he maintained, had been consistent in believing that the Bible was the word of God and that majority rule was an absolute principle. For that reason there could be no logical objection to a law enacted by the people of Tennessee. But in his eyes the real issue was the “dogma of majority rule.” While a minority might have to yield to the superior numbers of a majority, it should not accept the results as morally valid. Only educators should decide what ought to be taught in the public schools. “The votes of a majority do not settle anything here,” Lippmann declared, “and they are entitled to no respect whatever.”6

Lippmann, to be sure, was always skeptical of the inherent wisdom and goodness of the common man, and with some reason fearful of his emotional enthusiasms. Such skepticism was quite foreign to Bryan, who is a more endearing figure. But this may also explain why he was a better shaker than he was a mover. For all Bryan’s decency and his appeal to those, in Kazin’s words, “yearning for a society run by and for ordinary people who lead virtuous lives,” the Social Gospel he preached served more to comfort angry voters than to rouse them to action. Love may make the world go round. But anger and resentment can mightily aid one who truly wants to shake the world. Scripture tells us that. Was it not Jesus, after all, who said that He came “not to send peace, but a sword”?

This Issue

June 22, 2006