Synopses & Reviews
An illuminating and dramatic biography of William Jennings Bryan that restores him to his place of importance in American history as a hero and leader of the Christian left.
Bryan is remembered today mostly as the fundamentalist voice in the 1925 Scopes trial. But as Michael Kazin makes clear, he was a man of exceptional accomplishment. The most popular speaker of his time, he gained a vast and passionate following among both rural and urban Americans, to whom he embodied the righteousness of a pastor and the practical vision of a reform politician. As leader of a major political party, he was able to put the fight to improve the welfare of ordinary Americans in a moral and religious frame. He preached that the nation should expand the power of the federal government and counter the overweening power of banks and industrial corporations by legalizing strikes and supporting labor unions, banning private campaign spending, giving the vote to women, instituting a progressive income tax, and prohibiting the sale of alcohol.
At the 1896 Democratic convention, he delivered the famous Cross of Gold speech and made the fight against the gold standard, believing it was the cause of the nations economic travails, his own Christian mission. Thereafter, the size of his following mushroomed: for the first time, millions outside the industrial north felt they had a champion with a chance to take power in Washington. Bryan became their godly hero, in honor of whom they named their sons and to whom they wrote fervent letters of admiration. In 1896, 1900, and 1908, the Democratic Party nominated him to be its presidential candidate, relying on the discontent of the heartland to tip the balance in his favor. But despite his immense popularity, the Republican opposition was able to defeat him each time.
Yet Bryan's legacy in American political history is enormous. He did more than any other man to transform the Democratic Party from a bulwark of laissez-faire into the citadel of liberalism we identify with Franklin D. Roosevelt. As secretary of state, Bryan helped craft the idealistic foreign policies of Woodrow Wilson before resigning in protest against the administration's drift toward entering World War I.
This is the first major biography of Bryan in almost forty years and the first to draw on the countless letters Bryan received from his followers as well as on his speeches and the lively journalism of his time. The result is a clarifying portrait both of a seminal figure in the history of our national politics and religion and of the richly diverse and volatile political landscape in America during the early twentieth century.
"Kazin (Barons of Labor) attempts a revisionist portrait of Bryan (18601925), whom scholars have long dismissed as a rabid white supremacist, bullying fundamentalist and braying pacifist/isolationist. But Kazin errs in downplaying such popular characterizations of Bryan as a closed-minded Bible-thumper and bigot. In a speech delivered, ironically, on July 4, 1906, Bryan argued that 'blacks carried away into slavery have been improved by contact with the whites.' Clarence Darrow referred to his Scopes trial nemesis as 'the idol of all Morondom.' And H.L. Mencken, after observing Bryan at the Scopes trial, wrote: 'He seemed... deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty....' In the place of these popular negative images of Bryan, Kazin argues without much success for appreciation of the attorney, orator, congressman, presidential candidate and secretary of state as 20th-century America's first great Christian liberal: an eloquent voice and leading force in the fields of anti-imperialism, consumer protection, regulation of trusts and campaign finance reform. But the fundamentalist bigot in Bryan trumps the earnest populist at every turn. In sum, Kazin's heroic Bryan is simply not to be believed." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"History professor Kazin traces the life of this brilliant, charismatic, and flawed giant....This superbly written biography greatly enhances our knowledge of the man and a recurring movement in American politics." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Kazin brings a politically complex Bryan to life and vividly re-creates the political milieu in which his supporters and opponents operated....Kazin leaves no doubt as to his pivotal role in the forging of modern American politics." The Chicago Tribune
"Bryan emerges from Kazin's new biography as the founding father of the modern Democratic Party and maybe even of modern American politics....Kazin's attempt to see him in a modern light is instructive, illuminating and engagingly written." The Boston Globe
"Kazin, a superb political historian, trains a powerful searchlight on Bryan's career and the social and political trends of the time." Richard Lingeman, The New York Times Book Review
"A must read....Michael Kazin, already our leading scholar of populism, is now our best interpreter of its greatest practitioner. It would be difficult to imagine a biography of any early 20th century political leader more relevant to the early 21st century than this one."
The Washington Post Book World
"History that remains solidly relevant today, and a real eye-opener for anyone who thinks that fierce debates over tax reform, corporate power, imperialism and evolution are recent developments in American politics and culture." Kirkus Reviews
"Some of what Bryan stood for has no place in a pluralistic society, but most of it does. In these grim times, when Christianity has merged with success-worship and super-patriotism, when the very word 'Christian' has been captured by operatives and cranks, Bryan's public life is worth pondering. Kazin has removed Bryan from the cross of secularist scorn and resurrected his chief significance his melding of Christianity, anti-imperialism, and social democracy. He may not exactly be a prophet for our times, but his career sparks speculation." Jackson Lears, The New Republic
(read the entire New Republic review
About the Author
Michael Kazin is professor of history at Georgetown University. He is the author of three previous books about American history, America Divided, The Populist Persuasion, and Barons of Labor. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Nation, and The American Prospect, among other publications. The recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Woodrow Wilson Center, and twice from the Fulbright Scholar Program, he lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.