Lovable loser

William Jennings Bryan shows it isn't easy to lose three presidential elections

CorrespondentMarch 26, 2006 

For a baseball pitcher to win 20 games in a season is a worthy accomplishment; for a pitcher to lose 20 games is a far rarer feat. He must be bad enough to keep losing but good enough to remain in the starting rotation. Great losers in politics are similarly rare. Only two men have lost three times as major candidates for president. The first was Henry Clay, the wunderkind of Kentucky who became speaker of the House of Representatives only weeks into his first term in Congress, and who made serious runs for the presidency in 1824, 1832 and 1844.

The other was William Jennings Bryan, the "Boy Orator of the Platte," who won two congressional terms from Nebraska and three Democratic nominations for president. He lost to William McKinley in 1896 and 1900, and to William Howard Taft in 1908. But unlike Clay, whose mark on American politics included crucial compromises that appeased the forces of sectionalism and saved the Union in 1820, 1833 and 1850, Bryan left no legislative record worth noting. Neither did he transform his party in any meaningful way. He served improbably and unsuccessfully as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson.

And yet, as Michael Kazin contends convincingly in this first full biography in nearly 40 years, Bryan was a significant figure nonetheless. For three decades he furnished a conscience to the Democratic Party, appealing to its Jeffersonian roots in the language of evangelical Christianity. His natural constituency was farmers, and it was his bad luck to emerge on the national scene at a time when farmers, once the dominant force in American politics, were being eclipsed by industrial workers and their urban neighbors.

But it wasn't merely bad luck, argues Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University whose three previous books include "The Populist Persuasion." If the farmers had still been powerful, Bryan's appeal would have been less potent. For his principal weapons, Kazin explains, were his ringing, stirring voice and his abiding sense of grievance.

The performance that made Bryan famous -- the single most effective speech in American political history -- still sends chills up the spine of any but the most cynical. The Democrats in 1896 went to Chicago to select a candidate they hoped would succeed Grover Cleveland as president. The party was split between pro-business Easterners who backed a currency based on gold and farm-friendly Westerners and Southerners who sought debt relief via the remonetization of silver. Bryan stepped onto the stage of the convention and flung his challenge into the face of the goldbugs. "If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost," he declared. "Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." The convention went mad, and Bryan became the party's standard-bearer.

The campaign of 1896 was in many respects a model of electoral responsibility. The issue lines were so clearly drawn between Bryan and McKinley that their supporters felt little need to descend to the personal slanders that had characterized American politics for much of the 19th century (slanders that out-negatived anything anyone in the early 21st century could conjure up). Americans understood that a vote for McKinley was an endorsement of industrialization, urbanization and consolidation -- values broadly associated with the modern era. A vote for Bryan was an embrace of farm, family and tradition -- the characteristics of the time that was rapidly fading from view. The turnout was by far the largest in American history till then, and the verdict was a resounding victory for McKinley.

For America the consequence was three decades of Republican dominance; for Bryan, three decades of gradual decline. The campaign of 1900 was an uninspiring recapitulation of 1896, and in Bryan's last hurrah as a candidate, in 1908, he was badly beaten by the charisma-deficient Taft. Woodrow Wilson acknowledged Bryan's remnant appeal for the farm wing of the party by naming him secretary of state, but once the job acquired real significance, upon the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, Wilson looked elsewhere for advice, till Bryan resigned prior to American intervention.

Bryan's curtain call came in the 1925 trial of John Scopes for teaching evolution in Tennessee. Bryan enlisted with the prosecution and took the stand as an expert witness on the Bible. His affirmation of Genesis pleased the gallery, but the cross-examination by Clarence Darrow, America's most celebrated defense lawyer and most notorious infidel, tied Bryan in knots. He died just days after the trial, of embarrassment said some, of overeating said others, of heart failure said his doctor. "God aimed at Darrow, missed, and hit Bryan by mistake," offered H. L. Mencken.

Few historians are farmers; perhaps even fewer are Bible literalists. Not surprisingly, Bryan has fared poorly at their hands. But Kazin makes the argument for Bryan as an exemplar of the good soul -- if not the great intellect -- in politics. His naivete always erred on the side of the ordinary people, and his theology, though narrow, wasn't intolerant. Certain of his views -- that expansion of the money supply (the objective of silver remonetization) would help restore prosperity, and that loans to belligerents in World War I would almost inevitably lead to American intervention -- were borne out by events.

Most striking -- and timely -- is the depiction Kazin gives of a period in American history when conservative Christians weren't generally conservative Republicans. A century ago the message of Jesus was still read as a radical challenge to the status quo, instead of the apology for power it seems to have become. Could Bryan return in the age of George W. Bush, he might pray with the president on the Sabbath, but he'd blister his ears the other six days of the week.

(H. W. Brands' most recent book is "Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times.")

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