BOOKS/Alvena Bieri

A Godly Hero


It may seem trite to call a book "thought provoking, but that is an accurate description of the new biography of William Jennings Bryan, A Godly Hero, by Michael Kazin [Knopf, 2006]. Through the years Bryan's general reputation has been subject to many interpretations. Some in his own time considered him a clueless demagogue. To others he was a Christian saint, putting the ethics of Jesus to work in a society much like ours today -- rich at the top, struggling at the bottom, and uncertain in the middle. In his youth, Bryan was called "the boy orator of the Platte," then "the Great Commoner," a title that would be rather hard to attach accurately to any major national politician today.

Kazin calls himself a secular liberal, and he certainly seems open-minded and objective as he informs us of the myriad facts and ins and outs of Bryan's life.

Unfortunately, many of the negative feelings toward Bryan center on the last few weeks of his life at the Scopes trial at Dayton, Tenn., in 1925. The issue there was the teaching of evolution in public schools, something that is not yet settled. Bryan was anti-evolution and he faced the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow, who spoke for evolution. The play, Inherit the Wind, dramatized the conflict, and Bryan's character did not look too good in it. The real Bryan died just a few days after the trial was over.

But Kazin looks at The Great Commoner in a far more positive light, emphasizing his marvelous speaking skills, his boundless energy, his three runs for the presidency, reforms he introduced in our government and, most of all, his genuine concern for ordinary people.

Bryan was truly a man of many talents. Born in Jacksonville, Ill., right before the Civil War, he went to law school in Chicago. Then he moved to Nebraska to practice law, and for awhile he even edited the Omaha World-Herald. He essentially agreed with the Populists of his time that the excesses of the Gilded Age needed to be brought under control for the benefit of everyone.

Bryan ran for president in 1896 on the Democrat ticket and received six million votes. The Populists ran Gen. James Weaver in 1892, but many voted for Bryan, who won the nomination with his dramatic Cross of Gold speech favoring free silver. But he was defeated by Republican William McKinley. Bryan ran two more times for the presidency, in 1904 and 1908. His losses were painful and discouraging.

But his political career was not over. He admired Woodrow Wilson, and Kazin says Bryan was largely responsible for Wilson's nomination for president in 1912. When elected, Wilson appointed Bryan as Secretary of State. As Wilson moved to involve the US in World War I, Bryan resigned. He made a novel suggestion, proposing a vote of the people to decide whether the nation should go to war.

Bryan's legacy included many reforms. One of them, Prohibition, turned out to be a mistake, but he also backed the vote for women in 1910, long before most politicians did. Bryan's backing helped to achieve the direct election of senators, who previously had been chosen by the state legislatures.

In 1907 he visited Oklahoma and supported our new constitution, which included child labor laws, compulsory school attendance and the initiative and referendum process.

In 1920 Bryan and his family moved to Florida. By that time in his life he was a millionaire. He had made a lot of money with his successful speeches on the Chatauqua circuit, and he also had profitable investments in real estate.

Kazin calls his final chapter "The Fate of a Christian Liberal." Like all human beings, Bryan was imperfect. He was accused of anti-Semitism because of his attacks on big business. He was not ahead of his time on race relations, either. Bryan's wife, Mary, once asked, "What is it that caused this man to be so widely known, so greatly loved, and so ardently hated?" H.L. Mencken, a lifelong anti-Semite himself, called Bryan "a poor clod like those around him."

As an Oklahoman, I'm glad to say that Will Rogers in his newspaper column saw Bryan as "a fighter for the plain people."

Bryan's daughter, Ruth, went to Congress as a Florida representative in 1928 and became a good friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. His two other children were active in the Democratic Party. So he did leave an impressive legacy.

I suppose the lesson of Bryan's life and work for us is that a political party should have worthy goals and then be inclusive in welcoming all those who want to work for them, whether they are Muslims, Methodists, Unitarians or secular humanists. So far I have not heard anyone complain that Dr. Martin Luther King was a Baptist.

Contact Alvena Bieri, 2023 W. 11th Ave, Stillwater OK 74074 or email

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2007

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