William Jennings Bryan

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William Jennings Bryan : biography

March 19, 1860 – July 26, 1925

Legacy

Statue of Bryan on the lawn of the [[Rhea County, Tennessee courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee.]] Michael Kazin considers Bryan the first of the 20th century "celebrity politicians", better known for their personalities and communications skills than their political views. Shannon Jones, on a Socialist website, claims that Bryan never took a principled stand against white supremacy in the Southern United States. Alan Wolfe has concluded that Bryan’s "legacy remains complicated". Form and content mix uneasily in Bryan’s politics. The content of his speeches leads in a direct line to the progressive reforms adopted by 20th century Democrats. But the form his actions took was a romantic invocation of the American past, a populist insistence on the wisdom of ordinary folk, and a faith-based insistence on sincerity and character.

In his book They Also Ran, Irving Stone criticizes Bryan as an egocentric who never admitted being wrong. Stone argues that because Bryan led a privileged life, he could not feel the suffering of the common man. He asserts that Bryan only acted as a champion of common men in order to get their votes. Stone claims that none of Bryan’s ideas were original, and that he did not have the brains to be an effective president. He calls Bryan one of the nation’s worst Secretaries of State. He believes that, as President, Bryan would have supported many radical religious blue laws. In Stone’s opinion, Bryan had one of the least disciplined minds of the 19th century, and McKinley, Roosevelt and Taft all made better Presidents than Bryan would have been.

Many prominent leaders, however, have defended Bryan and his legacy. In 1962, journalist Merle Miller interviewed former President Harry Truman. When asked about Bryan, Truman replied that he [Bryan] "was a great one—one of the greatest."(Miller, p. 118) Truman also claimed: "If it wasn’t for old Bill Bryan, there wouldn’t be any liberalism at all in the country now. Bryan kept liberalism alive, he kept it going."(Miller, pp. 118-119) In 1900, Truman, aged 16, was a page at the Democratic National Convention in Kansas City. He heard Bryan speak to the delegates and was deeply impressed. In his biography of Truman, historian David McCullough wrote that in 1900 Truman and his father "declared themselves thorough ‘Bryan men’… Bryan remained an idol for Harry, as the voice of the common man."(McCullough, p. 63) Tom L. Johnson, the famed progressive mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, referred to Bryan’s campaign in 1896 as "the first great struggle of the masses in our country against the privileged classes." In a 1934 speech dedicating a memorial to Bryan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said "I think that we would choose the word ‘sincerity’ as fitting him [Bryan] most of all…it was that sincerity that served him so well in his life-long fight against sham and privilege and wrong. It was that sincerity which made him a force for good in his own generation and kept alive many of the ancient faiths on which we are building today. We…can well agree that he fought the good fight; that he finished the course; and that he kept the faith."

Bryan was one of the best known orators of his time. He was a fixture in the Democratic Party, and a hero to the common man. Starting with his Cross of Gold speech, Bryan brought the Populists into the Democratic Party, and with his common man message he would inevitably draw the African-American and feminist vote into the party. Bryan became the bridge that brought different factions into the party, and paved the way for liberal Democrats such as Franklin D. Roosevelt with his New Deal legislation. As noted by Bryan’s biographer Michael Kazin,

“Bryan was the first leader of a major party to argue for permanently expanding the power of the federal government to serve the welfare of ordinary Americans from the working and middle classes….he did more than any other man–between the fall of Grover Cleveland and the election of Woodrow Wilson–to transform his party from a bulwark of laissez-faire to the citadel of liberalism we identify with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his ideological descendants.”Progressivism by Walter Nugent