A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan
Michael Kazin’s new biography of William Jennings Bryan is admirable. Without tying too neat a bow, Kazin not uncritically illuminates the life and beliefs of one of America’s greatest orators.
It is Bryan’s irresolvable contradictions that make him interesting. He was a devoted husband who nonetheless could not stay home. His enthusiasm for extended speaking engagements led him to admit to a friend, “I have been absent most of the time for a quarter of a century.” He was indefatigable, lecturing for hours at a time, several times a day, when he was on tour. This lust for a constant audience may have killed him; a sufferer of diabetes who never settled down to regular treatment, he died five days after his infamous anti-evolution testimony at the Scopes trial. (Kazin resuscitates this ill-fated performance by highlighting Bryan’s concern for the ramifications of social Darwinism and eugenics on the weak of society.)
A conservative Christian, Bryan was surprisingly in favor of women’s suffrage and for such progressive reforms as prosecuting the male clients of prostitutes. An ardent populist and defender of the common man, he had a wide following and received as many as 2,000 letters a day during his 1896 presidential campaign. Yet, as Kazin writes, “Bryan would never extend that lifelong faith in ‘the people’ to black Americans.” Disappointingly, the moralist remained a segregationist until the end.
Although Bryan sought the presidency (unsuccessfully) three times—in 1896, 1900, and 1908—when he finally gained executive power by being appointed Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state in 1913, he resigned only two years later, protesting the administration’s growing inclination to join the war in Europe. His lifelong pacifism sent him out of office, where he continued to exert influence and have a following, but left him far from the reins of power when he wanted America to respond to the Armenian genocide.
You don’t come away from Kazin’s book liking his subject so much as grudgingly respecting him. Bryan was a captivating speaker. Even H.L. Mencken, who later mocked Bryan as a “quack,” gushed upon hearing him at the 1904 Democratic National Convention: “What a speech, my masters! What a speech!” And yet, unlike many crowd pleasers of American politics, Bryan remained an uncorrupt and faithful adversary of the moneyed interests he saw as enemies of the people. He founded many of his political stances upon religious conviction, and yet he might have been shocked by our moral mudslinging. At the heart of the Christian iconography he used so poetically in his speeches, Kazin suggests, was a genuine determination to serve his fellow man.