Beyond monkey business: Bryan as reformer

Review Biography


A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan

Michael Kazin

Alfred A. Knopf / 374 pages / $30

In A Godly Hero, his sweeping and fascinating biography of William Jennings Bryan, Georgetown University history Professor Michael Kazin has taken a fresh look at the three-time Democratic Party presidential nominee who as "The Great Commoner" waged crusades against the gold standard, banks, trusts and railroad monopolies in the name of the common man and rural America.

Kazin acknowledges in his thoroughly researched and well-written book that he hoped to "gain a measure of respect for Bryan and his people," rescuing him from what writer and historian E.P. Thompson has identified as "the enormous condescension of posterity."

However, if Bryan is at all remembered today, it is most likely as a sad, pathetic, bald-headed figure standing in a Dayton, Tenn., courtroom during the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial," sans collar, waving a palmetto fan to ward off the insufferable heat of a summer's day.

"The Fundamentalist Pope," as H.L. Mencken dubbed Bryan, had come to Dayton, and with his great basso profundo voice, filled with all the oratorical flourishes he could muster, proceeded to inveigh against Darwinism and the theory of evolution, all the while defending the word of the Bible. He would die there several days after the conclusion of the trial.

And some 80 years after the historic showdown in Dayton, and given the current presidential administration and religious right's adoration of such fundamentalist nonsense, Bryan's ghost, wherever it is, must surely be smiling.

But Kazin asks us to think of Bryan not at the end of his life, as a broken-down national windbag, but rather in his prime, when he grappled with issues that are as hauntingly familiar today as they were more than a century ago. He gives him credit as being the father of today's modern Democratic Party.

"Bryan was the first leader of a major party to argue for permanently expanding the power of the federal government to serve the welfare of ordinary Americans from the working and middle classes," he writes. "With the background of his followers, he preached that the national state should counter the overweening power of banks and industrial corporations by legalizing strikes, subsidizing farmers, taxing the rich, banning private campaign spending, and outlawing the `liquor trust.'"

Kazin adds: "He did more than any other man - between the fall of Grover Cleveland and the election of Woodrow Wilson - to transform his party from a bulwark of laissez-faire into the citadel of liberalism we identify with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his ideological descendants."

For nearly four decades, beginning in 1890 when he was first elected to Congress from Nebraska, Bryan loomed large over the American political landscape. He was nominated in 1896, 1900 and 1908 - losing to William McKinley and William Howard Taft - and was appointed secretary of state by President Wilson in 1913, only to resign two years later over policy disputes.

Another of Bryan's defining moments came at the Democratic Party Convention in 1896 at the Chicago Coliseum, when he rose to do battle against the gold standard and the "moneyed aristocracy" in his "Cross of Gold" speech.

"Bryan never forgot that he was speaking to a gathering dominated by people, both on the floor and up in the gallery, who agreed with him," writes Kazin. "What they craved was a memorable statement of what they really believed - one they could wave over their heads in battle against the mighty `hosts of error.' His voice - clear, robust, and sincere - gave it to them, in rhythmic phrases that countered the arguments of the arrogant with the sentiments of the masses."

"`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,' intoned Bryan as the spellbound convention hall exploded into chants of `Go after them, Willie' and `Give it to them, Bill,'" writes Kazin.

Although Bryan may have had the common man's interest at heart, it didn't include African-Americans.

"Bryan's passion for democracy had always cooled at the color line. He made an exception for the Japanese, whom he considered quaint but virtual equals, and regarded Mexicans and other Latinos with the eye of an amiable paternalist," Kazin writes.

By the 1920s, Bryan was one of the country's leading evangelists and supporters of Prohibition. In need of money and suffering from diabetes, he had moved to Florida, where one of his schemes was shilling for the developer of Coral Gables, who paid him $100,000 for his exhortations.

Kazin blames Mencken's piece, "In Memoriam: W.J. B.," written a day after Bryan's death in 1925 for The Evening Sun, for creating the image of Bryan that has endured through the years and was reinforced by Inherit the Wind, the 1955 Broadway play and subsequent Hollywood film.

Kazin concludes: "It is probably fortunate that he was never elected president. As Bryan demonstrated while secretary of state, he relished confrontations over principle and abhorred compromise. If he had captured the White House, that trait would have made it difficult for him to rally an enduring majority in what would have been a nation rent by angry divisions of class, region, and party."

Somehow or other, one still has to agree with Mencken's assessment: "He came into life a hero, a Galahad, in bright and shining armor. He was passing out a poor mountebank."

Frederick N. Rasmussen writes the Back Story column, which explores a piece of Maryland history every Saturday.

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