Today I picked a great new biography and have raced through the first chapter, and I felt like blogging about it. Its called A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan by Michael Kazin. As I have talked about before, I am a fanatic about American history and I am closing in on my masters degree this spring from Mason. Since I have gobbled up so many books in my time, I have develpoped an odd historical taste towards the obscure. While people love Washington, Lincoln, Franklin, and other mainstream figures who are the most important men of our country, I look to go deeper towards some of the important people history has forgotten. One of them is William Jennings Bryan. I have been fascinated by Bryan, but I have had a hard time finding things about him. I've read the small bio by Robert Cherry called A Rightous Cause, as well as The Election of 1896 by Stanley Jones--an out of print book I found at the Mason library, as well as a compendium of essays edited by Richard Hofstader. But the work on Bryan is pretty thin as far as emphasis on him. So far, I have not been dissapointed.
Bryan is one of the great Americans that history has looked over (along with Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas) despite being of great importance. Not that they have been ignoired, but rather they have been the foil for the titants of their age: Jackson for Clay, Lincoln for Douglas, TR/Wilson for Bryan. Because of this, they are often marginalized and defined by their opposition and their own stories and their own individual accomplishments, which in Bryan's case is substantial, are swept under the rug. So its great to read these books. In trying to break into teaching, I think its important to know about second and third tier historical figures to understand the entire framework of our history.
Bryan is fascinating because he is the first true modern liberal in the sense of class warfare and big government answers to social problems, as well as the first true evangelical in the modern sense as well. As we know from the Scopes Trial, Bryan was a deep, literalist Christian who peppered his oratory with biblical references, seen most powerfully in Bryan's historical "Cross of Gold" speech that won him the 1896 Democratic Nomination. For all his progressive liberalism--Bryan advocated women's suffrage, inflationist free silver, spoke out against McKinley and TR's Imperialism, and was a fierce pacifist as Sec. of State in the Wilson Administration--he was often critized in the same way religious conservatives are: unimaginitive, too literal in their biblical interpratation, and often intolerant of other faiths. Indeed, the Populist movement's harrangues agasint business and banks often took an anti-semetic turn, though Bryan never subsribed to that. The only real dent in Bryan is his lack of criticism of Jim Crow--but that is tough considering Bryan needed the south to acheive any of his political ends. Jim Crowism was so entrenched that you could not end it in one burst. Still, I think Bryan is worth looking at today. The Election of 1896 is the dawning of modern politics--big government liberals vs. anti-tax small government conservatives. Bryan and McKinley really do caricature modern Democrats and Republicans, don't they? The fiery, populist Bryan and the quiet, focused McKinley.
Anyways, I plan on finishing this by the weekend before I have to start reading the boring crap I do for class. So long live William Jennings Bryan! Now, somebody's gotta get out there and write something good on McKinley (though as a staunch conservative, that will NEVER happen).