Our image of William Jennings Bryan captures one moment in time:
the summer of 1925, when he prosecuted a Dayton, Tenn., football
coach named John Scopes for teaching evolution.
In photographs taken that summer, Bryan looks paunchy and sweaty,
exhausted by his battle against the forces of modernity; his death
followed just days after the trial's end.
Combine that with the snide disdain of journalist H.L. Mencken
(who called Bryan "a peasant come home to the barnyard") and
Frederic March's overacted depiction in "Inherit the Wind" (1960),
and Bryan devolves from "the Great Commoner" into a hysterical
buffoon. One wonders how anyone ever thought he could be president.
Michael Kazin seeks to undo that vision in A Godly Hero: The Life
of William Jennings Bryan. "I wrote this book to gain a measure of
respect for Bryan and his people," writes Kazin.
Byran's "people" were the commoners of his time: men and women
who tilled the soil, read both Jefferson and Jesus, and loved their
country. It was on their behalf that Bryan challenged the status quo
with his populist crusade as a 36-year-old presidential candidate in
He spoke out against imperialism in the Philippines and fought to
keep the United States out of World War I. At the same time he
mobilized millions of Americans with oratory that drew from biblical
traditions but spoke to their concerns about the modern world of
Bryan placed his faith in the people: "when reform comes in this
country," he exclaimed, "it starts with the masses" and not "the
brains of scholars."
But Byran's career was not an entirely glorious one. "A Godly
Hero" is largely a chronicle of failure: bills vetoed, planks ripped
out of party platforms, elections lost, and lost - and lost. (Three
times Bryan sought the White House and three times he came up
Somehow, however, all this failure added up to success. By
putting people first, Bryan tore apart the Democratic Party of the
19th century - a hidebound fossil of corrupt Boss Tweed machines and
Southern white supremacists - and convinced Americans suspicious of
big government that the state could solve the nation's common
problems. All this while FDR was still sipping sherry at Harvard.
Readers of "A Godly Hero" will also get a fresh perspective on
the Scopes Trial. Bryan, who paid scant attention to theological
controversies, was "not a fundamentalist." He "burned only and
always to see religion heal the world."
There was much to fix: Social Darwinists of the Gilded Age had
turned the naturalist's ideas about "the survival of the fittest"
into a tool of class hierarchy. By the 1920s, eugenicists were
hoping to harness evolution and purify the race by sterilizing the
Kazin persuasively shows that Bryan's real crusade in Tennessee
was not against free inquiry (he never opposed altogether the
teaching of evolution), but against the enormous condescension of
scientists who knew what was best for ordinary people - the same
battle, in other words, that Bryan fought throughout his life. …