Politics & Policy

William Jennings Bryan Revisited

William Jennings Bryan (Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress)
Tapping Trump to run again in 2024 may seem sensible, but Trump’s downward political trajectory looks eerily like William Jennings Bryan’s.

William Jennings Bryan gave one of the most important speeches in American political development 125 years ago today — on July 9, 1896. The Nebraskan’s “Cross of Gold Speech” is a watershed moment in American history. In it, Bryan supplanted the conservative laissez-faire policies of Grover Cleveland with a new brand of progressive populism, changing the course of the Democratic Party. Some pundits have compared Bryan to another populist politician, Donald Trump, and their respective careers can tell us much about the future of the modern Republican Party.

Suited for both the pulpit and politics, Bryan’s rhetoric shaped the Progressive era’s social and economic discourse. Bryan came to political prominence as a member of the People’s Party in the mid 1890s. Populism flourished in rural areas as a reaction to the economic depression of 1893. Populists found their greatest spokesman in William Jennings Bryan. He gave a voice to people who were struggling financially while he recognized the social decay afflicting many voters who worked in the fields.

Fellow Democrats, populists, and Progressives received Bryan with messianic enthusiasm. Both the Democratic Party and the People’s Party buttressed Bryan’s rise, and in return, he carried the populist agenda further than any other candidate. However, this is not the narrative you will find in a typical history book. The Scopes Monkey Trial tainted Bryan’s image forever. Aged and increasingly intractable, Bryan’s performance at the Scopes trial was widely mocked by media members such as H. L. Mencken, who portrayed Bryan as a fundamentalist fool. Upon Bryan’s death, Mencken remarked that “the Fundamentalist Pope” was not “to be taken seriously hereafter by fully literate men, even of the kind who write schoolbooks.”

Mencken was wrong to dismiss Bryanism, which dominated an entire decade of political discourse. Bryanism was a powerful doctrine built on a distinctly Calvinist belief in the inevitability of God’s plan. In 1904, Bryan said, “To those who have grown gray in the Church, I need not speak of the peace to be found in faith in God and trust in an overruling Providence.” He spoke to crowds that were overwhelmingly Protestant, which probably reinforced his beliefs about the religious virtue of the masses. The common person, he believed, could guide virtuous policy, leading him to value both democracy and government. Bryanism marks the definitive break in the Democratic Party away from Jackson and Jefferson, who were far more skeptical of government power.

His powerful rhetorical abilities undoubtedly aided Bryan’s cause. Nearly everyone remarked at how beautifully he spoke. More important, though, he offered political solutions that were economically and socially grounded. He was at the fore of Prohibition, greater protections for workers, women’s suffrage, and the rejection of American imperialism. All these policy goals came to pass within his lifetime. In that respect, it’s hard to find many politicians in American history who achieved more success, all of it reached despite never holding the highest office.

Because both are idiosyncratic populists, many have argued that Bryan and Trump are similar figures. Bryan and Trump are alike, but not for the policy reasons that some suggest. Bryan and Trump have little in common religiously or economically. However, Bryan and Trump are stylistic and electoral twins.

Stylistically, both are known for their speechmaking rather than policy acumen. Both were lambasted by urban media outlets that branded them dangerous to the future of the country. Bryan and Trump also both positioned themselves as spokesmen for the common people’s interest against an established political system.

Electorally, the two have devoted rural bases that do not constitute the majority of the electorate. From 1896 to 1908, many Democrats would vote for nobody except Bryan. In 1904, Democrats nominated Alton B. Parker, and the party was thoroughly crushed, losing to Teddy Roosevelt. Similarly, current polling indicates that two-thirds of the GOP still want Trump at the top of the ticket. There is a fear that without him, many Trump voters will stay home and Republicans will lose badly.

These similarities have little to do with actual policy, but neither Bryan nor Trump sold himself as a policy wonk. Instead, they characterized themselves as disruptive political leaders who would push back against the “aristocracy parties” in Washington, D.C. This history suggests that knowing where Bryan succeeded (and failed) is essential for the GOP’s future health.

Interestingly, Bryan’s greatest success came after his presidential losses. After stepping away from partisan politics, he went on a tour giving speeches and began focusing more on social issues. Whereas the younger Bryan campaigned on free silver or trustbusting, the older Bryan focused on Prohibition and Christian morality. He went after liquor merchants for preying on the vulnerable. He pilloried Darwinism, fearful of the consequences of a system that offered only “the law of hate — the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak.” In this capacity, Bryan used his silver tongue to great effect.

Conversely, the political failures of the early-20th-century Democratic Party under Bryan must serve as a warning to modern Republicans. The Great Commoner never won a higher percentage of votes than he did in his initial campaign. His voice carried weight as a kingmaker within the Democratic Party throughout his lifetime, but he became more unelectable over time. Bryanism successfully changed the political discourse, but the Democratic Party needed a different leader to implement his ideas.

Woodrow Wilson was an unlikely person to bring Bryanism to fruition. He personally disliked Bryan, once quipping, “Would that we could do something, at once dignified and effective, to knock Mr. Bryan once and for all into a cocked hat.” Bryan notably resigned as Wilson’s secretary of state over political differences. However, despite their vast differences, the technocratic Wilson was critical to the Bryanist agenda.

Nearly every major victory for Bryanist policies came under Wilson. His campaigns against drink, for instance, came to fruition in 1920, under Wilson. In matters of workers’ rights, Bryan led the way culturally, but Wilson maneuvered to get the worker-protection policies codified into law. The 19th Amendment was also passed during the Wilson administration. Wilsonian bureaucrats adopted a Bryanist view of trustbusting, as well.

To be sure, Wilson and Bryan disagreed on many issues, especially on American intervention in foreign affairs. Nevertheless, while Wilson was not the great visionary he believed himself to be, he was an effective technocrat. The Princetonian knew Washington insiders, projected an intellectual image that put voters at ease, and could effectively marshal political resources in a way Bryan never could.

The Bryan-Wilson dynamic is a useful analogue for the modern conservative moment. An optimistic conservative might see that a Trump-style political recentering is on the horizon. For the more pessimistic voter, it could indicate that the GOP is facing uphill electoral battles. Jack Balkin, a professor at Yale Law School, characterized Bryan’s defeat in 1896 as a failed political realignment. According to his 2019 essay “The Recent Unpleasantness: Understanding the Cycles of Constitutional Time,” the Democrats would have to wait until FDR for their party’s preeminence. It is this kind of failure that the GOP must avoid.

Waiting years for a conservative FDR to appear isn’t politically viable. Tapping Trump to run again in 2024 may seem sensible, but Trump’s downward political trajectory looks eerily like Bryan’s. Furthermore, if we understand Bryan’s career as a success (which, I argue, we should), having Trump run again might not be in his best interest, either. He, like Bryan, may be better suited for a political rally than a presidential briefing.

William Jennings Bryan was a transformational leader who has been underappreciated by historians and political strategists. His life and career can also help frame our current political moment. If history is a guide, Trump will not fully actualize his populist movement. Instead, his skills may be best used to bolster a Wilsonian technocrat who can effectively navigate legislative coalitions. Bryan was humble enough to step away from party politics and support a former adversary such as Wilson. It remains to be seen whether Trump willingly enters that same stage of his political career. Nevertheless, it may be the best way forward for the Republican Party, and ultimately for him, too.

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