A Godly Hero
Michael Kazin wants to rescue William Jennings Bryan’s popular image. Historians have long been aware of the progressive reforms Bryan supported during his years on the national political scene. However, few rate his achievements as favorably as Kazin, whose narrative of Bryan’s positive contributions to American political life is a valuable corrective to most Americans’ image of Bryanif they remember him at allas the bigoted fundamentalist portrayed in Jerome Lawrence’s frequently revived play Inherit the Wind (1955).
Bryan grew up in southern Illinois, where his father, a small-town lawyer and judge, inculcated Christian religion and ethics in his son. Kazin stresses throughout his biography that Bryan’s reform ideas stemmed from his religious beliefs, not from secular sources. In 1881 he graduated from Illinois College in Jacksonville, where studying geology and biology briefly shook his belief in biblical inerrancy; in 1883 he graduated from Union College of Law in Chicago. In 1884 Bryan married Mary Baird; they had three children. Unlike most women of the time, Mary continued her education after marriage, studying law and being admitted to the Nebraska bar in 1888, after the family moved there. She was a significant partner and helpmate to Bryan throughout his political career.
In 1890 Bryan won election as a representative in a year when Democrats took control of the House. Half of the Representatives were freshmen, and Bryan received an appointment to the powerful Ways and Means Committee, where he studied economic issues and earned national attention through speeches on the tariff and currency. Bryan was already a practiced orator with a gift for stating complex matters in simple terms which, Kazin notes, even opposition newspapers reported. His lively denunciation of the tariff as an unjustified subsidy of wealthy manufacturers that should be replaced by a graduated income tax, drew congressmen and reporters back into the chamber to listen.
Bryan’s speeches on the silver question received even more attention. The years between the Civil War and the 1890’s were one of the few deflationary periods in American history, when prices of goods dropped steadily, increasing the value of the gold-backed currency. Both proponents and opponents of using silver equally with gold to back currency were passionately convinced that this would cause significant inflation, which would benefit agriculture but be detrimental to the well-being of manufacturers and urban consumers. The severe depression of the 1890’s intensified pressure on farmers, magnified their complaints, and increased their interest in those who, like Bryan, claimed to have a solution for their distress.
Bryan won reelection to the House in 1892 but in 1894 decided to run for the Senate, winning a nonbinding popular vote but failing in the Republican-dominated legislature that still elected senators. Kazin records that Bryan abandoned his law practice after discovering he could make more money lecturing and then toured the West, denouncing the gold standard.
The majority of delegates to the 1896 Democratic National Convention were intent on disavowing Democratic president Grover Cleveland for his insistence on maintaining the gold standard. Few considered Bryan, attending as a delegate from Nebraska, a possible candidate for president. A member of the Platform Committee, he helped write the plank denouncing Cleveland and calling for the monetization of silver and delivered the closing argument in its favor. Bryan had a mellifluous voice and, even more important, the lung power and clear enunciation to be audible in the farthest reaches of huge auditoriums at a time when rivals could not yet benefit from electric amplification. He was probably the only speaker who could be understood by everyone in the convention hall.
His address recapitulated arguments and repeated language Bryan had been honing during his lecture tours. Kazin describes the histrionics with which Bryan delivered his famous peroration. He raised his fingers to his temples as he spoke the words: “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 then extended his arms straight out from his body and held the Christlike pose for several seconds. The stunned audience exploded in a wild demonstration that projected Bryan into the presidential...
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