Sunday, March 17, 2013


A review of Michael Kazin’s A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (2006)

(Rating 4 of 5)

William Jennings Bryan is a complicated figure in history.  After reading this biography, I—much like the author—am still not sure how I feel about him.  Bryan in his time inspired a lot of people.  He had a mass following in this country.  He is one of only a handful of Americans who carried a major party’s banner three times.  The others were Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Grover Cleveland, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Richard M. Nixon.  Nevertheless he leaves behind a complicated legacy.

Bryan was never elected to anything higher than a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and his brief time there can be considered unremarkable.  He was also very inefficient in the highest post he ever earned: Secretary of State of the United States.  What could be fair to say about Bryan is he played a type of a liberal Barry Goldwater role for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal the same way the real Goldwater paved the way for Reagan conservatism.  Bryan espoused polices that helped the Democratic Party break away from its phobia about the Federal Government’s powers.  Bryan told the Democrats that the government could actually be used for good.
Bryan on the campaign trail

He also changed the way people would run for president.  Bryan actually ran for president.  By the end of the century it was common for candidates for the highest office to actively campaign, instead of staying home and running through surrogates.  He also would come to advance popular causes, such as women’s suffrage, that were long overdue.
Woodrow Wilson's Cabinet, Bryan served as Secretary of State ineffectively

Despite this there are extremely negative things about him as well.  He allowed his religion to often cloud his judgment.  Bryan was always so convinced that he was right and God was on his side that he labeled anyone who opposed him was acting against the will of the Lord.  He was completely deaf to constructive criticism and that attitude turned former supporters against him.  Bryan supported and helped pass prohibition and never could see how it was a complete failure.  Bryan also turned back science education in his useless war on evolution.  Even some of the defenses that Kazin comes up with to explain his position doesn’t excuse his over reach and how he harm he caused to the education of students that continues to this day.
Bryan vs Darrow in the famous Scopes Trial

Then there is his stance on race.  I have long accepted that there are historical figures who I admire, who had opinions on race—and other things—that I now find abhorrent.  (Already we have mentioned Jefferson.)  I also understand that politics is always of the possible and sometimes even sympathetic politicians have to make choices in the name of political necessity.  (John Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Bill Clinton come to mind.)  However as Kazin points out his racism and racist positions are not based on any political calculus, but rather blind bigotry.   It makes his whole anti-imperialism crusade look hypocritical.  The nicest thing you could say about his racial legacy was that his populist campaigns helped pave the way for other social movements that would challenge those issues to rise up.

This is a good book about a fascinating individual who gave voice to the opposition in the era of Theodore Roosevelt.

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