THE BOY ORATOR OF THE PLATTE
A GODLY HERO: THE LIFE OF WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN, MICHAEL KAZIN, Knopf, New York, 2006
William Jennings Bryan is a rather interesting and paradoxical figure in American political history. While America has produced its share of political chameleons Bryan is a different breed- a true believer. Although famous, or infamous, for the fight for cheap silver and later the fight against the teaching of evolution in the public schools, which militants then as now oppose, he stood for more than that. In Bryan one can observe an apparently sincere political fighter who supported many progressive issues vital to the rural and urban working classes of the day, including legalizing the right to strike, reigning in the trusts and the fight against the bankers. A proud forthright fighter, a vanishing type of politician, then as now.
Although Bryan was the Democratic Party candidate for President in 1896, the only one of his three presidential campaigns for militants today to seriously investigate, I do not believe that party would be his home today, nor would the progressive part of his politics resonant with the substance of Democratic policy today. It is ironic that over a century later Bryan’s politics would be far to the left of what passes for the Democratic center today. Nevertheless, on the dark side, his alliance with the Old South Democratic Party and its Jim Crow policies concerning blacks in the South and dependence of the urban political machines in the North precluded any support for the Bryan ticket by militants at that time.
Moreover, there are limits that even a sincerely religious man can bring to political discourse. His Christian fundamentalism never let him really fight to the end for the program of agrarian relief and industrial reform that he articulated so well.
Mr. Kazin’s mainly admiring biography does much to reintroduce the events surrounding the rising and declining fortunes of Mr. Bryan who today, if remembered at all, is mainly known for being on the wrong side of evolution question in the Scopes trial. However, that later issue does not define what Bryan represented in American history. Rather, one must look at the populist, agrarian forces in revolt and the program Bryan tried to implement in his bid for power.
Bryan political career represented the last dying gasp of the agrarian revolt that flared up in the America Midwest and West in the last third of the 19th century. That such a revolt, left to its own devices, was doomed in the face of the rise of industrial production; the increased mechanization of agriculture and with it the decline of the family farm, and the dominance of finance capital do not make that revolt any less poignant. The question faced by Bryan and any other potential leader was the manner in which the revolt would be harnessed to win power and what allies would be sought to fight against the ravages of capitalist expansion.
Mr. Bryan took an essentially parliamentary, traditional road by trying to use the Democratic Party as a vehicle for social change. Many later politicians have also broken their teeth trying that same strategy of using the Democratic Party for progressive social change. In 1896, and perhaps earlier, such a road was futile. In short, Mr. Bryan could have led an independent third party revolt, based on the already existing People’s Party (which in his early career Bryan had been closely linked to) allied with the industrial working classes of the Northeast and Midwest. Interestingly, many of the radical leaders of the early 20th socialist and communist movements who would form third parties, were influenced, directly or indirectly by the 1896 campaign.
This third party strategy was left to other forces that later formed the Socialist party in 1901. Mr. Bryan’s political trajectory, however, was not to join that fight for working class independent political expression. Over time he moved dramatically to the right culminating in support for the suppression of radicals in World War I. We have that seen that political phenomena before, as well. That said, this is an important book that details one type of parliamentary strategy still followed today by many progressives about the way to bring social change. That today the strategy has produced meager returns and is bankrupt does not lessen its interest. In Bryan's time it at least made some rational political sense. Forward.