A Godly Hero
To the extent that William Jennings Bryan is remembered at all today, he is usually recalled as a figure deserving of ridicule. He is seen as a bigot and an intellectual lightweight with a talent for beguiling the slow-witted. Bryan had the misfortune of counting among his critics H.L. Mencken. Mencken (a distant relative of Bismark) had a great talent for hilarious, if not always justified, mockery. The stage play and the movie version of Inherit the Wind pretty much finished off Bryan's reputation.
Michael Kazin, a professor at Georgetown University, has attempted to restore some balance and historical perspective regarding Bryan in the biography A Godly Hero - The Life of William Jennings Bryan (2006). Kazin faces up to Bryan's flaws, but also demonstrates that prior to the last 10 years of his life, Bryan was a major force for reform in American politics. Although Bryan's oratorical skills were often derided as being long on style and short on substance (he was compared to the Platte River in his home State of Nebraska as being a foot deep and a mile wide at the mouth), Bryan was almost undoubtedly the greatest American political orator of his generation. Bryan's Cross of Gold speech deservedly is remembered as the most famous speech ever given at an American political convention (granted, there is precious little competition).
At the 1896 Democratic National Convention, Bryan was, at the age of 36, a leader of the "Silver Democrats". The nation had suffered a major economic depression in the early 1890s. Farmers and laborers, especially in the South and West, were hard hit. Bryan and others fought for the free coinage of silver by the U.S. mint, at a ratio of 16 to 1 to gold. Urban and Eastern political forces staunchly opposed this inflationary proposal and backed the gold standard. Further, the incumbent Democratic President, Grover Cleveland, was a Gold Democrat. So, Bryan's Silver Democrats were fighting on two fronts -- against the Republicans and against the leadership of their own party. Bryan's Cross of Gold Speech to the convention so electrified the delegates that Bryan, definitely a dark horse candidate, won the nomination. Here are two of the best known excerpts from the speech:
You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold
standard. I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile
prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will
spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will
grow in the streets of every city in the country.
* * *
Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.
Bryan went on to lose the election to McKinley. He was twice more nominated and twice more defeated. Yet, he remained a major voice in American politics until 1915, when he left the post of Secretary of State in the Wilson administration.
Bryan spent the remaining ten years of his life speaking on many issues. Most notably he spoke against Darwinism. And, of course, he served as a counsel for the prosecution in the Scopes "monkey trial" in 1925. Kazin attempts to put the Darwinism debates of the 1920s into the context of that time. Aside from the various scientific and theological issues of evolutionary biology, Kazin notes that in the 1920s Darwinism was invoked as a support for social policies that ranged from neglecting the helpless to enacting eugenics laws that required the sterilization of the mentally and morally "unfit". Those policies Bryan could not abide, and for that he is deserving of better than the ridicule he has often received.