Sunday, March 19, 2006

William Jennings Bryan


William Jennings Bryan -- who was born on this date in 1860 in Salem, Illinois -- left his mark on the presidential election process by making a national campaign seem like a local one. Decades before TV would further cultivate the illusion of intimacy between voters and politicians, speechifyin' Bryan traversed the country with brash advertisements of his own personality, helped along by the increasing willingness of "non-partisan" newspapers to report on "personality" as though it were "news" (such as Pulitzer's New York World, shedding the party imprimatur in hopes of broadening circulation). Bryan's success in getting the electorate stirred up (even if it did not translate into winning the presidency) begat Teddy Roosevelt's open-countenanced public persona, as much as it begat the populist appeals of national figures from Debs to Huey Long -- all of which set the stage for the media-savvy approach to national politics which had blossomed by the end of the 20th century.

The son of a judge, Bryan entered the Bar in central Illinois in 1883 and married his college sweetheart, Mary Baird, who later also became a lawyer. The couple moved West to Nebraska for greater opportunities, and within a short time Bryan earned a reputation among the hapless Democratic minority there for his fiery orations. He won election to Congress in the 1890 as the rise of the Populist Party chipped away at Republican dominance, echoing Populist themes: big-city moneyed interests (and their gold currency standard, which kept credit artificially tight) were in danger of choking the farmer, his business prospects, and, perhaps most importantly, his moral values.

In Congress, as a member of the House Ways and Means committee, he became a leading national spokesman for agrarian interests, proposing a national graduated income tax and opposing President Cleveland's call to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. In 1894, Bryan won a non-binding poll to become Nebraska's new U.S. senator, but the Republican legislature ignored the poll and selected someone else, freeing Bryan to take to the countryside (in the guise of journalist for the Omaha World-Herald), denouncing the gold standard in tent-shows like a crusading evangelist.

He went to the 1896 Democratic National Convention as a delegate and a member of the platform committee, which selected him to present the closing argument on behalf of free-silver forces. His oration, now known as the "Cross of Gold" speech, electrified the silver-leaning crowd -- declaring that if you burned down the cities, you could build them over again, but "destroy your farms and the grass will grow in every city in the Union," and reaching a fever-pitch with his closing remarks, delivered with arms outstretched in the attitude of Christ's martyrdom, "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold!" John Altgeld (who admitted to not understanding parts of Bryan's florid speech) led the Illinois delegation in breaking from supporting Richard Bland in favor of 36-year old ex-Congressman Bryan, and the avalanche followed, giving Bryan the nomination.

Facing William McKinley, the Republican candidate of the bosses and financiers who conducted his well-financed campaign (having raised a record $16 million) from his front porch in Canton, Ohio, Bryan took to the road again with a war chest of just $300,000, traveling 18,000 miles and delivering 600 speeches, and connecting on a personal, visceral level with an unprecedented number of individuals in the course of a presidential campaign. The Northeastern papers depicted Bryan as a wild-eyed anarchist, and even though he lost the election, both McKinley and Bryan garnered a record number of popular votes (7.1 million to 6.5 million), suggesting that Bryan's campaigning had awakened a previously disinterested class of the electorate.

Now the leading voice in the Democratic Party, Bryan easily won the 1900 presidential nomination, facing McKinley again, this time attacking him on his imperialist policies in the wake of the Spanish-American War; he lost again by nearly the same margin (7.2 million to 6.4 million votes).

Bryan started a newspaper, the Commoner, and continued his never-ending speaking tour; when the Democrats met in 1904, they opted for a conservative nonentity, Alton Parker, as nominee, and their defeat in the presidential election was catastrophic. Bryan returned in 1908 even stronger, but found himself walking into an election which seemed to be about who would carry forward the policies of Theodore Roosevelt. Although William Taft was Roosevelt's handpicked successor, Bryan argued that the Republicans had co-opted the Democratic agenda and that he would be better suited to lead that agenda. Bryan lost again by a similar margin (7.6 million to 6.4 million).

In 1912 he threw his support to Woodrow Wilson, who emerged as the victor in the general election as Roosevelt and Taft squared off over Republican votes, and Wilson returned Bryan's favor by naming him secretary of state. As a diplomat, Bryan's populist philosophy translated poorly: he threw mild support to emerging democratic governments, but wasted a lot of time naively signing up non-aggression pacts even as the seeds of World War I were being sown in Europe. As a pacifist, he resigned his post in 1915 over Wilson's confrontational note to Germany following the sinking of Lusitania, but he did support Wilson's conduct of the War, and was an advocate of the League of Nations.

After his tenure as secretary of state, Bryan returned to his interest in what he perceived to be agrarian values and virtues, but often found himself at odds with the progressives who once supported him on social issues: he supported women's suffrage, but would not condemn the Ku Klux Klan at the 1924 Democratic Convention; he was probably the most influential voice in the passage of the 18th Amendment banning the sale of alcoholic beverages; and, in his final hurrah, he took on the teaching of evolution in public schools.

After the Tennessee legislature banned the teaching of "Darwinism," schoolteacher John Scopes accepted the invitation of the ACLU to test the constitutionality of the ban, and was prosecuted for teaching evolution. Clarence Darrow took on his defense, and Bryan agreed to lend his national name to assist the prosecution. During the trial, Darrow called Bryan to the stand to speak for the Fundamentalism position, and succeeded in making Bryan look silly for his fanaticism and his apparent ignorance of science.

Scopes was convicted, but the trial did little to advance the Fundamentalist cause. Bryan collapsed shortly after the trial and died of heart failure at age 65 -- and, of course, the Scopes incident became the basis of a play Inherit the Wind, later filmed with Frederic March in the role based on Bryan.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Salem, IL! Isn't that also the birth place of Abe Lincoln?

10:17 AM  
Blogger RSchuler said...

Actually, Lincoln was born near Hodgenville, Kentucky. If you've never visited the National Historic Site they've built up around it, I can assure you it's quite a sight. Lincoln later spent part of his early adulthood in New Salem, Illinois.

11:27 AM  

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