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A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan
by Michael Kazin
(374 pages, $30.00, hardcover)
reviewed by Eric Miller
The rehabilitation of has-beens is a fact of political life as old as democracy itself. Curiously, this has proven to be as true for the dead as it is for the living, with figures ranging from John Adams to Dwight Eisenhower arising recently from history’s proverbial ash heap.
Such resurrections should no longer surprise anyone. But when in the first decade of the twenty-first century William Jennings Bryan, that paragon of yesteryear’s simplistic piety and colossal ignorance, comes in for a makeover, it cannot but force the reader (or at least this reader) to sit up, clean his glasses, and check out the facts once more.
The Common Bryan
Michael Kazin, the author of A Godly Hero, is a professor of history at Georgetown University and a genuine admirer of Bryan. The title is not ironic—perhaps as strong an indicator as any that the spell of the so-self-consciously ironic “postmodern” is finally broken. Kazin offers an honest but kind, affectionate but discerning look at a man once known to millions as simply “the Great Commoner,” a three-time Democratic presidential nominee, immensely popular orator, and defender of Christian civilization in the face of the swelling modernist currents of his day.
The remarkable public life of he whom the poet Vachel Lindsay once deemed “the fundamental man” certainly has a lot to teach, and Kazin teaches it well—but not by sorting through layers and layers of psychological debris for “analytic” or “deconstructive” ends. Rather, he simply accepts Bryan for what he (at least to Kazin) was: a clever, gifted, often wise man with an enormous populist and evangelical heart.
Kazin constantly keeps these twin chambers of Bryan’s heart in view, for they are the source of what he finds so appealing in Bryan: his “worldly faith,” shared by multitudes of nineteenth-century Americans, that “married democracy and pietism in a romantic gospel that borrowed equally from Jefferson and Jesus.” The yield of this faith was, for Kazin, a people “who believed that politics should be a moral enterprise and that religion should purify the political world.”
The glimpses Kazin gives us of this people and their “worldly faith” are fascinating, and poignantly serve notice of the vast difference a century can make. After Bryan’s historic “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic convention, for instance, a “joyful riot” ensued. “The floor of the convention seemed to heave up,” one awed and overwhelmed newspaperman recorded, and “everybody seemed to go mad at once . . . the whole face of the convention was broken by the tumult—hills and valleys of shrieking men and women,” who kept at it for some forty minutes.
Another telling example: When in 1898 Bryan enlisted as a colonel in the Spanish-American War, thousands of men from Nebraska joined his regiment explicitly to serve under him; Colonel Bryan had to pick and choose carefully. And one more: Nominating a candidate at the 1904 convention, Bryan delivered a 45-minute speech that didn’t begin until 4:30 A.M.—and the reporters (including a youthful and deeply impressed H. L. Mencken) were still there.
Bryan’s Love Affair
What Kazin is narrating, with dozens of stories like these, is a love affair, one well worth remembering, between Bryan and a certain swath of America, and between Kazin himself and a certain part of the American political tradition he fears is nearly lost, that part of our past captured by the old, beloved notion of commonwealth.
To be sure, Kazin makes clear, Bryan’s concrete political achievements were considerable: completing three impressive campaigns for the presidency at a time when his party had little chance of denting the Republican dominance; substantially writing five Democratic platforms; pioneering a new form of political campaigning and oratory that put the candidate on the road and among the people; and, what is hugely significant for Kazin, moving the Democrats toward a political vision in which the federal government would become directly involved with and responsible for the average citizen (so that Herbert Hoover would later declare the New Deal “Bryanism under new words and methods”). And, Kazin underscores, along with Bryan’s accomplishments there were equally concrete flaws, including his consistent failure to see black Americans as deserving full citizenship in the republic he loved.
But neither Bryan’s political achievements nor his moral failings drive this biography, but Bryan’s part in a deeper, ongoing story, a story that Kazin freights with a wistful, hortatory undertow. For Kazin, this story, at its most profound, is that of a people who once possessed a deeply embedded “yearning for a society run by and for ordinary people who lead virtuous lives,” the preservation of which, they believed, required an active vigilance against the concentration of economic power and an ardent fusing of Christianity and public life, all for the sake of true solidarity.
This was American populism at its best. When Kazin notes a writer on the campaign trail who witnessed, in the writer’s own words, “the weak, the humble, the aged, the infirm rush forward by the hundreds” to greet Bryan, thrusting toward him “hard and wrinkled hands with crooked fingers and cracked knuckles . . . as if he were in very truth their promised redeemer from bondage,” he glimpses promise: the promise of justice, of union, of—here’s the indispensable word again—commonwealth.
A Common Dream
Kazin calls Bryan and his people “Christian liberals” for their conviction that Christianity itself (there’s no way, longtime Touchstone reader, that Bryan’s Democratic party could have credibly been called “the godless party”) demanded that they stand against the excesses and encroachments of corporate capital, even if it required the countervailing presence of the federal government.
Recall that Bryan’s single goal, as he told a reporter in 1912, was the “protection of the people from exploitation at the hands of predatory corporations.” For Bryan and his followers, republican government, democratic culture, and Christian civilization could not long survive the overweening presence of corporations who saw human beings as means to their reliably shortsighted ends.
Bryan, as Kazin shows with powerful clarity, kept alive for millions the endangered republican-Christian dream of citizenship: of a virtuous people unified as equals, working for the good of the whole, and for the good of the other. It was this persistent pursuit that made Bryan, in Lindsay’s moving tribute, “the fundamental man/ Who brings a unifying plan/ Not easily misunderstood/ Chanting men toward brotherhood.”
For Bryan and his kin, this was not a metaphorical brotherhood but an ontic reality. And it was sustained, they believed, by a foundation of Christian tradition. Bryan, who as late as 1913 had been hailing a “worldwide moral awakening,” was not well-prepared for the role he, with dismayed confusion, took up in the last decade of his life, that of champion in these culture wars that still besiege us.
To modernists, Bryan, as Kazin keenly puts it, “seemed to embody a time, a place, and a system of beliefs that had been appreciated too much and dissected too little.” They savaged him, unfairly, in the decades after his death in 1925, following the Scopes trial. But if Kazin’s volume is an indicator of the times, perhaps the scoffing is finally dying down, making it possible for the voice of this uncommon man once to more be heard.
Eric Miller is an Associate Professor of History at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania (www.geneva.edu). He is writing a biography of Christopher Lasch.