The latest round of withdrawals of candidates for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States leaves us in somewhat uncharted historical waters. The youngest man remaining in the Democratic field is the 77-year-old Joe Biden. His two principal challengers, Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg, are both 78. Suddenly, incumbent Republican Donald Trump looks quite youthful at 73.
The race for the White House was not always a game played only by senior citizens. Considering the current crop of candidates, one might even pine for the days of yore when younger men vigorously sought the nation’s highest office. William Jennings Bryan, the perennially unsuccessful presidential aspirant of that bygone era, was the Democratic nominee three times between 1896 and 1908–all before he reached the age of 50.
The image of Bryan that endures nearly a century after his death is that of a bombastic, self-righteous, and intellectually shallow “fundamentalist” crusading against such “progressive” ideas as evolution and scientific inquiry. This Bryan of popular folklore was largely the creation of journalist H.L. Mencken, who covered the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial in which Bryan led the prosecution against a Tennessee biology teacher charged with (and ultimately convicted of) violating a state statute against the teaching of evolution in the classroom. The 1960 film based on the trial, Inherit the Wind, portrayed Bryan (through a character named Matthew Harrison Brady) almost precisely as he had been described in Mencken’s less than objective reporting.
The real William Jennings Bryan, however, could not be so easily pigeonholed as a backward-thinking rube. More than any other political figure of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, he paved the way for the shift in the Democratic party away from laissez-faire capitalism to economic populism and the big government liberalism ultimately enshrined in FDR’s New Deal. In other words, the man so vilified by present-day liberals for his unswerving commitment to religious “fundamentalism” was himself a liberal, and a passionate one at that.
That is not to say, of course, that Bryan’s religious faith was a mere sidelight. On the contrary, it was the fuel that ignited his passion for the causes he championed. In the epilogue of his 2006 biography, A Godly Hero, Michael Kazin summarizes Bryan’s legacy.
The rhetoric of shared responsibility sounds rather hollow today, except when it is tethered to a war of self-defense against terrorists. Yet a century ago, those who spoke about collective sin and collective redemption occupied the mainstream. They took their place in a long narrative of reform that included the abolitionists, early temperance agitators (who battled poverty as much as saloons), the Knights of Labor, and the Populist insurgency — all led by men and women whose faith motivated their activism. From William Lloyd Garrison to Sojourner Truth to Frances Willard and Edward Bellamy, nineteenth-century progressives never advanced without a moral awakening entangled with notions about what the Lord would have them do.
To inspire another such upheaval was Bryan’s fondest desire. His record was impressive, particularly for someone who held no office during most of his career. Starting with the campaign of 1896, the Democrats ceased being the more conservative of the two major parties — with the fateful exception of their support for Jim Crow. Bryan was the leading proponent of three constitutional amendments — for the income tax, the popular election of senators, and prohibition. He also did much to place on the national agenda a variety of other significant reforms: insured bank deposits, government-owned railroads, publicly financed campaigns, and a reliable method for preventing war. None of these became law during his lifetime — he had better luck with statewide curbs on the teaching of Darwinism. But it was certainly not for lack of promotion or resolve. “With the exception of the men have occupied the White House,” wrote William Gibbs McAdoo in 1931, “Bryan . . . had more to do with the shaping of the public policies of the last forty years than any other American citizen.”
It is probably fortunate that he was never elected president. As Bryan demonstrated while secretary of state, he relished confrontations over principle and abhorred compromise. If he had captured the White House, that trait would have made it difficult for him to rally an enduring majority in what would have been a nation rent by angry divisions of class, region, and party.
But neither was he a classic demagogue, burning to seize power and vengeful toward anyone who opposed him. Unlike Tom Watson, Huey Long, George Wallace, and others of their ilk, Bryan never appealed to the violent or authoritarian impulses of his fellow citizens. He was satisfied to feed a grassroots hunger for changes in the American social order, which he believed would have profound moral implications. Bryan’s oratory infused the idea of a welfare state with passionate intensity. If the Golden Rule was too simple a prescription, it was certainly superior to impersonal bureaucracy or strong-man rule.
Whatever he achieved depended on the power and durability of his voice and the romantic tenor of his words. Every other progressive giant — TR, Woodrow Wilson, Robert La Follette, Jane Addams, Booker T. Washington, and the radical Eugene Debs — was a gifted orator. But each had to worry about operating an institution — whether a local one such as Hull House or Tuskegee Institute, a state, or the entire federal government. But Bryan could devote decades to honing the art of preaching both for God and for the welfare of the common white American.
That rhetoric and the new style of politics it helped to create may be his most enduring legacy. “Um, um, um. Look at all those folks — you’d think William Jennings Bryan was speakin’,'” jokes a character in To Kill a Mockingbird as her Alabama town fills up for a dramatic trial. After the stirring contest of 1896, most presidential candidates learned to engage in an aggressively affable, go-to-the-people campaign to demonstrate that theirs was a cause of and for the common people. For over half a century, every subsequent Democratic nominee, with the exception of the hapless Alton Parker and John W. Davis, played the happy populist warrior — cracking jokes, beaming for the cameras, flaying the corporate rich before audiences of the insecure. Even after its party’s candidates stopped bashing “economic royalists,” Democrats tried their best to appear friendly, optimistic, and visionary. John Scopes, of all people, regretted that Bryan hadn’t survived into the age of television, when “he could have projected his personality to millions” and had a good chance of being elected president. For Americans with a sense of history, Bryan remains a paragon of eloquence for “a lazy-tonged people.” And unlike contemporary candidates for high office, he wrote every word that he spoke, except when he was quoting someone else.
The triumph of the ever-accessible, always loquacious political style helps reassure ordinary citizens as well as to mobilize partisan crowds. As the federal government grew in size and complexity, Americans hankered for leaders who could make the enterprise of governing seem more personal and comprehensible. The electorate struck an implicit bargain with the political class: “If we can no longer understand or control much of what you do, at least give us men and women at the top who can comfort us and, on occasion, provide a thrill.” This was as true for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush as it was for Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy.
Yet Bryan was a great Christian liberal, and to neglect the content of his prophecies sells both his career and American political history short. Vachel Lindsay wrote in 1915:
When Bryan speaks, the sky is ours,
The wheat, the forests, and the flowers,
And who is here to say us nay?
Fled are the ancient tyrant powers.
When Bryan speaks, then, I rejoice.
His is the strange composite voice
Of many million singing souls
Who make world-brotherhood their choice.
Critics from Mencken onward failed to appreciate what drew millions of Americans to Bryan and that our own era of nonstop satire and twenty-four-hour commerce manifestly lacks: the yearning for a society run by and for ordinary people who lead virtuous lives. As everyone who heard him could attest, Bryan made significant public issues sound urgent, dramatic, and clear, and he encouraged citizens to challenge the motives and interests of the most powerful people in the land. That is a quality absent among our recent leaders, for all their promises to leave no man, woman, or child behind. Bryan’s sincerity, warmth, and passion for a better world won the hearts of people who cared for no other public figure in his day. We should take their reasons seriously before we decide to mistrust them.