Most political biographers choose a subject whom they either admire or loathe. They then spend years attempting to understand what, for example, made Martin Luther King, Jr., an inspiring leader of the black freedom struggle or drove Stalin to order the deaths of millions who refused to conform to his terrible designs. However, I just finished writing a biography of a man about whom, as a secular leftist, I feel passionately ambivalent: William Jennings Bryan.
Bryan was a prominent figure in American life for three decades, but he is remembered today for just two acts that formed chronological bookends of his floodlit career. The first act was his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1896, which helped him win the nomination for president. In a sweltering Chicago hall, Bryan, a masterful orator, broke with the laissez-faire traditions of his party and articulated a new kind of liberalism that left-wing Democrats would embrace through the next century and into the present. “There are two ideas of government,” he declared. “There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.” The New Freedom, the New Deal, and the Great Society were all built on that wisdom, which sprang from the labor and farmer insurgencies of the Gilded Age.
Today, Bryan’s second act is more famous, or infamous, than his first. In 1925, he helped prosecute John Scopes for violating a new Tennessee law that forbade the teaching in public schools of “any theory that denies the story of Divine creation of man as taught in the Bible.” Bryan participated in the case because he equated Darwinism with Social Darwinism and eugenics. It was thus, in his view, a “brutish” philosophy, the handmaiden of inhumane, aggressive power. The American Civil Liberties Union financed the other side, a legal team headed by Clarence Darrow, and the Scopes case quickly became known as “the trial of the century.” Bryan died five days after its conclusion. His image as what H.L. Mencken called the “fundamentalist Pope” continues to be evoked in the raging battle between scientists of evolution and their enemies.
The more I learned about Bryan’s life, the more I came to appreciate that neither he nor most of his followers saw any contradiction between the words he had spoken in 1896 and his last stand almost thirty years later. After all, his speech at the Chicago convention was festooned with metaphors from both the Scriptures and the history of Christianity. It ended with the famous 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.” As he delivered the peroration, Bryan stepped back from the podium, p...
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $35 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.