The Hero That Time Forgot ; A New Biography of William Jennings Bryan Seeks to Restore Lost Luster to His Image

By Capozzola, Christopher | The Christian Science Monitor, February 14, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Hero That Time Forgot ; A New Biography of William Jennings Bryan Seeks to Restore Lost Luster to His Image


Capozzola, Christopher, The Christian Science Monitor


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 1896.

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 corporate power.

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 short.)

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 weak.

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. …

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