The People's Voice

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3m 27sec

The Life of William Jennings Bryan.

By Michael Kazin.
Knopf. 374 pp. $30

There is a tide in the affairs of politicians, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) caught the tide in 1896 in the Chicago Coliseum, where the Democratic Party was in session to nominate its presidential candidate. Bryan was there as a 36-year-old Nebraska delegate. His career to that point, as Michael Kazin describes it in a new biography, had been interesting but not extraordinary. Bryan had been elected to the House of Representatives twice but defeated in a run for the Senate. Neither he nor the other delegates believed that he would leave the convention as the Democratic Party’s nominee for the presidency.

Then it happened. The convention platform speakers were repeating themselves. The delegates were restless and bored. A journalist friend sitting nearby handed Bryan this note: “You have now the opportunity of your life. Make a big, broad, patriotic speech that will leave no taste of sectionalism in the mouth.” Bryan scribbled a reply: “You will not be disappointed. . . . I will speak the sentiment of my heart and I think you will be satisfied.”

In fact, Bryan stunned the delegates. His “Cross of Gold” speech was a historic event, a ringing populist attack on the gold standard that was “crucifying” America’s small farmers and laborers. Bryan owned one of the great political voices of all time: It rolled out to every corner of the hall with no need of artificial amplification. The words he spoke that day became a sort of cassette that he would play and replay hundreds of times all across the land, at good rates and before sellout crowds. Although he lost the election, he was forevermore the spokesman for a large and passionate constituency.

Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University and the author of a history of American populism, wishes to reclaim Bryan as a “godly” spokesman for a vanished combination of muscular economic populism and conspicuous Christian virtue. Bryan is remembered mostly for his disastrous role in the Scopes trial of 1925, but in the reform era of the 1890s to the 1920s, Kazin argues, only Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had a greater impact on politics and political culture. Bryan championed the small farmers and wage earners and preached democracy, piety, and a belief in absolute moral values (though some of those “values,” notably on race, were repellent). Politically, he combined the appeal of Thomas Jefferson and the Bible, an unbeatable formula.

But of course it wasn’t. The Democratic Party nominated Bryan for president twice more, in 1900 and in 1908, and twice more he lost. In 1912, Bryan saw in Woodrow Wilson a man of high religious purpose and gave Wilson his support at the Democratic convention. Wilson acknowledged Bryan’s crucial help by naming him secretary of state, but Bryan resigned in 1915 over what he considered Wilson’s overly aggressive handling of the sinking of the Lusitania by German torpedoes. Kazin says Bryan was quite happy to exchange the only powerful office he had ever held for a return to the lecture halls. He could add to his resumé that he was the man who had resigned from high office rather than compromise his principles.

Bryan contributed to many accomplish­ments now seen as progressive: He helped bring about the election of senators by popular vote and the establishment of a graduated income tax; he spoke for women’s rights and labor’s right to organize. Then he made the mistake of getting involved in the Scopes trial. He accepted an invitation to be called as a witness for the prosecution and to opine that every word of the Bible was factual. Clarence Darrow cross-examined him, and H. L. Mencken made fun of him, and he died shortly after the trial concluded.

Popular history, says Kazin, has unfairly embalmed Bryan in that trial. Kazin’s effort to revive him and his reputation is only partly successful, but it tells a rollicking story and brings back the resonant echoes of a glorious political voice.

—Jacob A. Stein

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