The Man from Nebraska

When in 1896 William Jennings Bryan made his Cross of Gold speech, there had been no moment like it at a political convention in American history. It should have been the pinnacle of his career, capping a long time in public service and setting course for a future he would only see part of. His campaign that fall should have been a swan song, memorable for a progressive Mosses losing to William McKinley. A sort of liberal Goldwater whose lost will be a guide to future leaders like Woodrow Wilson. Instead Bryan would futility fight the Republicans during the time between of the Bourbon Democrats to the roots of the New Deal Coalition. A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (2006) by Michael Kazin tells the sadder story about the man who ran for president three times and lost. Who is best remembered arguing against evolution and science in the Scopes Monkey Trial and thus became an early symbol for Evangelical ignorance. The greatest blowhard who ever crossed America from sea to sea and a man who deserves to be remembered better than just for those failings.

Bryan is just one, but possibly the most famous, link between the Jefferson-Jackson Democratic Party to the “Hamilton methods for Jefferson goals” party of Wilson-FDR. When technocrats today suggest admiration for the Whig Party, they forget the federal program of national roads, tariffs, and private banking benefited mostly the rich manufacturing classes of the 19th Century. When Bryan said, “There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them” he’s arguing against trickle down economics almost a century before Laffer drew his napkin curve. More importantly, Bryan is suggesting new-fangled legislative techniques could help save an old class of people and their traditional ways. The yeomen Jefferson romanticizes in his writings suffered throughout the late 19th Century. They toiled under the sun often against useless soil, watch their children run off to the city, see the profit margin for crops boil down to nothing, get push around by the railroads and corporate farmers, feared African-Americans and pray loudly to God. Bryan stood up and offered them temporal salvation. The Republicans turned out to be worthy heirs to the Whigs in general philosophy if not exact policy.

A Godly Hero explains the religious, economic, and social situation of the time as well as can be expected in a one-volume biography. Kazin shows a deep understanding of the different threads of historical circumstance of Bryan’s era. But he cannot weave these threads into a tapestry. The best passages are like the one on the role of oratory in public life, where the best speakers could make a living going town to town to preach or lecture. Or how Bryan’s stance against evolution was more moderate than given he’s given credit (he would allow the teaching of evolution alongside creationism) and came more from a worry about what Darwinism would do to children morally (this at a time when Social Darwinism was entwined with the science) making them question the underpinnings of Christianity and thus give up on morality. I would guess Bryan wasn’t much of Nietzsche reader but he had the same worry of nihilists even if he didn’t used the word. Yet these elements never seem to explain Bryan’s vast influence. The writer gingerly comments on those who write letters to the Great Commoner, never reading a satisfactory conclusion on what made a person a likely fervent supporter.  Bryan’s dominance of a political party while only having been elected to one public office in his life (a single term in the House of Representatives) is unique in American history and Kazin doesn’t gives an explanation for this odd influence.

This isn’t a day-to-day life of the man or his personal makeup. There’s the nominal description of his family and wife (though not much on how Bryan behaved as a father) expected from a biography but this is more on his life on the road. The book is certainly not a psychological biography unsurprisingly as no one sees as Bryan as a particularly complicated personality. Unfortunately then for what the book is, Kazin cannot explain the political environment of Bryan. When he explains Bryan helped Wilson’s domestic agenda, it’s the first hint that Bryan had any influence over anyone in Congress besides a couple allies mentioned earlier nor does it explained how Bryan’s influence worked. It did not have enough coverage on his influence on party elites compare to the rank and file. Was it entirely through persuasion, the unspoken threat of Bryan’s bully pulpit, or did Bryan ever fall to the level of horse-trading? Like it argues about Bryan, the societal understandings of the book do not overlap with an understanding of institutions. This might be more of a projection of the author on his subject. Bryan had a wildly successful organization (Kazin credits Bryan’s brother Charles on running this group) that he could count on and understood the process well enough to control two other Democratic Conventions after his magnificent rise in 1896.

Despite these failings, the book serves its purpose of as an introduction to a wrongly forgotten political figure. Kazin while not a fan of Bryan, especially of his passive support for the Jim Crow element of Democratic Party, gives a fair trial for the man.  There’s a slight taste of how Bryan influence a few politicians, artists, and regular people and how they viewed him. Kazin shows his fluency in the literature as can be expected from a prestigious academic and isn’t in the business of trying to create a radically new picture for the Great Commoner. Even as a sort of political dead-end, there’s much to offer to understand about William Jennings Bryan. As it is in the losses that shapes a party, when a new identity that must form to go back to the business of winning elections. Bryan got three chances to do that, which is much more than a lot of pols ever got.

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