William Jennings Bryan - Vol. 1

By Paolo E. Coletta | Go to book overview

Preface and Acknowledgments

WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN exemplified what a common man could accomplish in the fluid social structure of democratic America. To rise from humble beginnings to the leadership of a major political party is no mean record; the fact that his party selected him as its presidential candidate three times remains unique.

Born and bred of the soil, Bryan stanchly represented agrarian America of the last frontier. When the election of 1896 posed the question of whether the United States would remain an agricultural nation or adopt the policies and techniques of the industrial state which it had become, he defended the Jeffersonian rather than the Hamiltonian philosophy.

Bryan was less a statesman than a moralist and evangelist. Had he been a missionary, he probably would have dedicated his life to saving the souls of persons and nations that did not know God. A humanitarian, he sought to change men rather than their institutions, to get men to exercise in political, economic, and social fields the righteousness they should show in religious and ethical matters. Not an innovator, his power lay not in radicalism—in seeking to overthrow or to make a sharp break with the past—but rather in his buoyant belief in progressive change that would recapture for the future the equalitarian democracy that characterized early America and would thus fulfill the promise of American life. His evocative rhetoric in popularizing this progressivism, and his "keeping of the faith" in its defense, support his being called a political evangelist.

When the Spanish-American War raised the question whether the United States should remain attached to its isolationist attitude or adopt the "large policy" an emotionally aroused people demanded as befitting a great power, Bryan adhered to the traditional isolationist attitude of his Middle West. History upholds his anticolonialism, and his search for methods short of war for settling international problems has left its mark upon American history.

This volume deals largely with Bryan as a political figure who left his impress on American domestic and foreign policy battles from 1890

-vii-

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