William Jennings Bryan: An Uncertain Trumpet.
"If it hadn't been for Bill Bryan there wouldn't be any liberal outfit in the country at all now," former president Harry S. Truman once remarked. "Old Bryan kept liberalism alive, kept it going" (2). This pronouncement might surprise anyone who associates William Jennings Bryan with his role at the 1925 Scopes Trial and little else. But beginning in 1896, Bryan championed ideas that became standards of American political life: the direct election of senators, women's suffrage, and a graduated federal income tax. He also changed the nature of presidential campaigns in 1896 by crisscrossing twenty-six states, addressing over five million people in formal speeches and at countless whistle-stops, and persuading 95 percent of Midwestern voters, whether supporters or opponents, to turn out on election day. As Woodrow Wilson's initial secretary of state, Bryan's strict moral compass suited a foreign policy promoting democracy and national self-determinism, but Latin Americans cringed at its paternalism and Europeans ignored its idealism. Before World War I mocked his pacifism, Bryan convinced thirty countries to establish a cooling-off period for negotiations instead of charging headlong into war, and the devastation of the battlefield lent credence to his intent. At the time of his death in Dayton, Tennessee, Bryan no longer seemed relevant. Critics like H. L. Mencken dismissed him as "a sort of fundamentalist pope," flailing at an encroaching modernity, yet his support for traditional religious beliefs has found new voices in today's political discourse (147).
In this brief biography for the American Profile Series, Gerald Leinwand presents a straightforward and critical narrative of Bryan's life. The "Great Commoner" grew up in southern Illinois, became a skilled orator while at Illinois College in Jacksonville, studied law in Chicago, then established himself in Lincoln, Nebraska. Once there, he began a successful career on the Chautauqua circuit and pursued his political goals. Through it all, Bryan remained ambitious and devout, both as a Presbyterian and a Democrat, but his tight grasp on these values, as Leinwand sees it, proved limiting. Bryan's Manichean thinking, for example, was inflexible and simplistic; he seemed incapable of addressing the changes in American culture, and he never rose above the bigotry of his times. For these reasons, Bryan faced only "defeat, decline, and frustration" after 1896 (71). No doubt, political failures and lost causes have placed Bryan in historical purgatory, neither forgotten nor a hero, and Leinwand does little to change things. He underplays Bryan's significance or expects more from him. In considering L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz as an allegory for the election of 1896, Leinwand accepts the image of Bryan as the Cowardly Lion, but he misses Baum's point--the lion had courage as well as a roar.
This book is designed for undergraduate students and a general audience, but it lacks a suitable context to clarify Bryan's importance. He appears as a rigid, well-meaning crank with a like-minded following, always on the wrong side of history. And that is unfortunate; people should understand Bryan's importance.
J. Thomas Murphy
Bemidji State University
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|Author:||Murphy, J. Thomas|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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