The Forgotten Forerunner

The Forgotten Forerunner

Michael Kazin

William Jennings Bryan launched the Democratic Party on the path of liberal reform and pioneered, for better or worse, the politics of celebrity.

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In the United States, few things are more durable than the historical images of our national leaders. Despite the arduous efforts of debunkers, both scholarly and polemical, George Washington remains, for most Americans, the selfless father of his country, Abraham Lincoln the self-made man who emancipated the slaves, and Franklin Roosevelt the empathetic leader who ended the Great Depression and won the antifascist war. Negative perceptions have similarly long lives, to the chagrin of those who've written revisionist biographies of the likes of Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon.

On the hazy image of William Jennings Bryan hangs a sign that reads "old-fashioned." Thrice the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for president (in 1896, 1900, and 1908), Bryan is easy to portray as a tribune of lost causes. The man known as the Great Commoner defended the interests of small farmers, railed against the speculators of Wall Street, crusaded to ban the saloon, and denounced the teaching of evolution in public schools. His clumsy performance at the 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee (followed, just days later, by his death), earned him the derision of leading intellectuals and journalists. H. L. Mencken's scathing postmortem on Bryan as an agrarian charlatan, the would-be "Pope of the peasants," has echoed through the decades. 

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About the Author

Michael Kazin, a former Wilson Center Fellow, is a professor of history at Georgetown University. He is the co-author of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, published this fall by Oxford University Press.

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