The Great Commoner
The historical reputation of William Jennings Bryan has not been a distinguished one. He is ridiculed for losing three presidential elections. He is often presented as a reactionary spokesman for a dying rural culture that resisted yielding to the progress of urbanization. His opposition to American imperialism and the First World War mark him as an isolationist. Finally, and most notoriously, his prosecution of John Scopes for teaching the theory of evolution in 1925 marks him as anti-intellectual.
A Godly Hero, Michael Kazin’s revisionist biography, challenges all these points, usually convincingly and always gracefully. He stresses the damage that the journalism of intellectual elitists like John Reed and H. L. Mencken did to Bryan’s reputation while he was still alive. Unable to accept his orthodox Christianity, temperance and rural values, they disregarded many points of public policy on which they agreed with Bryan. Instead they focused on the motif of his leading an ignorant country mob. Their critique endured after Bryan’s death, culminating in the 1950’s in the unflattering caricature of him as the character Matthew Harrison Brady in the play “Inherit the Wind.”
Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University, clearly regrets the contemporary chasm between the intellectual left and organized religion. An underlying current in this book is a conviction that the left must accommodate American piety in order to return to power. Whether Bryan is the right politician to invoke on this point is debatable, for he never held elective office higher than two terms in the House of Representatives. Nonetheless, Catholic readers will identify with Bryan’s combination of orthodox belief and Christian social action. He was remarkably close to recent popes in this combination of traits. Bryan opposed evolution because he correctly associated many of its advocates with genetic manipulation, and he believed that religious skepticism led to inhumane wielding of political power. Social Darwinism was the true target of his crusade against evolution.
Bryan cherished people of very different backgrounds. He often received international boarders into his home, including an Irish Catholic named Dan Bride, who participated in ecumenical prayer sessions with the Bryan family. A Japanese admirer, Yamashita Yashichiro, lived with the Bryans for five years. Bryan toured Europe extensively in the early 1900’s, forging a strong friendship with Leo Tolstoy and studying the embryonic welfare state that the British Liberal Party was assembling during those years. Such signs of openness make it tragic that Bryan never extended the same empathy to African-Americans, remaining quite indifferent to their growing sufferings in the segregated South. Also unfortunate was the fact that Bryan’s anti-imperialism was partly motivated by his fear of wider American association with people of color around the world.
This evidence modifies assumptions that the Democratic Party’s minority status during the first third of the 20th century was caused by the divisions between its rural and urban wings. In fact, Bryan understood the importance of the urban vote to Democratic chances and worked closely with the relatively few Catholic advocates of prohibition. He also sought to restrain the anti-Catholicism of his less enlightened followers, rebutting those who blamed his defeat in 1908 on the papacy’s support for William Howard Taft’s friendliness to the church when governor of the Philippines. When Bryan praised the party’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, he never emphasized Jefferson’s agrarianism, focusing instead on the third president’s advocacy of popular democracy and his rejection of privilege of all kinds. Bryan was also among the first Democrats to ask whether these Jeffersonian goals might be best met by an activist government rather than by limited government, Jefferson’s personal preference. Bryan, like Barry Goldwater, became an example of a defeated presidential candidate whose essential models for political coalitions and domestic legislation were later fulfilled by actual presidents from his party.
Why, then, was Bryan himself perennially unsuccessful? He clearly frightened powerful financial interests, who greatly outspent him. However, a deeper explanation reflects an enduring contemporary criticism: that he was an impressive orator whose rhetoric contained little substance. Bryan valued sentiment over logic in his discourses. This led commentators like Gov. John Peter Altgeld of Illinois to review Bryan’s memorable “Cross of Gold” speech at his party’s 1896 convention as follows: “I have been thinking over Bryan’s speech. What did he say, anyhow?” Kazin does not connect the two themes explicitly, but his evidence suggests that Bryan’s tragedy was that he did not often allow his deeply reflective character to influence his speeches, thus creating the false impression that he was no more than a demagogic rube.
Occasionally, Kazin’s analysis is marred by overreaching for parallels to present-day events. In 1915, for example, Bryan resigned as Secretary of State because he thought Woodrow Wilson was too inclined toward intervention in World War I. Kazin believes that Bryan would have better served his cause by remaining in the administration so that there would have been more advocacy against American entry into that conflict. Bryan, he feels, was prophetic about the war’s futility and long-term evil effects in bringing totalitarianism to Europe. The unspoken subtext here is the Iraq invasion of 2003. It would have been better if Kazin had been more explicit about this supposed parallel, so that an otherwise excellent book would not be guilty of the same flaw he sees in “Inherit the Wind”—using an event of one era as a metaphor for a different event in another.