April 13, 2006
In Praise of William Jennings Bryan — The Great Commoner

It is easy for liberals these days to villify William Jennings Bryan. However, Bryan should not be villified, at least because of his final “coup de’ gras” at the hand of Clarence Darrow. We must remember that Bryan was a pacifist and “Crusader for World Peace". Yes, Bryan believed in the “simple maxims of the Gospels”.

Mrs. Batard pointed me to this Powell’s book review, which I suggest is something that all liberals who think Bryan was a screwball should read — and read carefully. Christian “conservatives” who we hope will visit here and consider these thoughts should read it prayerfully and consider changing yourself from the label of “conservative” to the much villified in the media, but much more Christian label of “liberal”. I might suggest that “liberals” are villified in the press much because of the same reason that Jesus was villified in his day. He spoke for the poor and downtrodden. Isn’t that what “bleeding hearts”, which Christ was, do? Yes indeed, Jesus was a bleeding heart. You can figure out the rest if you’re smart enough.

Jerry Doolittle previously mentioned Bryan on this blog in his usual laudable fashion. We must allow ourselves to look deeper into the psyche of William Jennings Bryan. Thus these selected quotes from a book review from Powell’s. Please read the rest if you have the time. Maybe just buy the book.

Mrs. Batard also made the point that one of the reasons that Bryan was so opposed to Darwin was that he did not believe that the strong would inevitably conquer the weak, as Darwin’s theory suggests, and perhaps as Ayn Rand suggests in her infamous books. Let us hope that Mr. Bryan was right in this respect.

Bryan was not the sort of man whom contemporary Americans like to celebrate. He was the quintessential loser. From the 1890s to the 1920s, he deployed his extraordinary rhetorical gifts in the service of the “little people,” the farmers and workers and shopkeepers who felt steamrollered or shunted aside by the engines of commerce and empire. He ran repeatedly for president — in 1896, 1900, and 1908 — and never came close to winning. He served as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson and resigned after twenty-seven months, feeling powerless to stop the administration’s drift toward involvement in World War I. He ended his career defending biblical literalism against Darwinian evolution in the Scopes Trial, thereby assuring that he would remain a target of secularist scorn — from H.L. Mencken to Richard Hofstadter — for decades to come.



Bryan’s version of Protestant Christianity was as gracious and generous as it was provincial and moralistic. This was the “Social Gospel,” a worldview that Bryan shared with millions of other Americans. One of Kazin’s accomplishments is to show how much Bryan had in common with his more urbane contemporaries, the reformers who called themselves Progressives and who counted among their number Quakers such as Jane Addams and humanists such as John Dewey. The Social Gospel was rooted in a post-millennial faith — a belief that the Second Coming of Christ would occur only after reformers had created (or done their best to create) the Kingdom of God on Earth. There were more secular versions of this story, of course; Dewey’s tale of progress through pragmatic problem-solving was one of them. For all Progressives, however, the trajectory of advance, though inevitably forward, was dependent on collective action by a community of educated and morally responsible people like themselves. According to the Social Gospel, as Hofstadter dryly remarked, “Everyone was in some very serious sense responsible for everything.”


Some of what Bryan stood for has no place in a pluralistic society, but most of it does. In these grim times, when Christianity has merged with success-worship and super-patriotism, when the very word “Christian” has been captured by operatives and cranks, Bryan’s public life is worth pondering. Kazin has removed Bryan from the cross of secularist scorn and resurrected his chief significance — his melding of Christianity, anti-imperialism, and social democracy. He may not exactly be a prophet for our times, but his career sparks speculation. He allows us to re-imagine the role of Christianity in politics. The life of William Jennings Bryan suggests that it is possible to conceive a candidate who actually takes Christianity seriously, as something more than a source of self-satisfaction, who finds the waste of war appalling and the persistence of poverty outrageous — someone who actually believes, against all the odds, that the meek should have a shot at inheriting the earth.

[Update: Mrs. Batard sends another link on Darwin. One sentence states: “Bryan was the closest thing to a socialist that the American mind could tolerate.” Don’t miss this one either.]

PS: Anyone remember how Columbo did so well? Columbo was probably a klutz most of the time. Mrs. Columbo kept him straight.


Posted by Buck Batard at April 13, 2006 11:53 PM
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Excellent post! Unfortunately, "Inherit the Wind" did Bryan an injustice. But also Darrow. The Scope's case was most certainly not Darrow's most interesting case. In my humble opinion, that would be his own trial on charges of trying to bribe a juror that would have heard his defense of two brothers accused of trying to blow up the L.A. Times building circa 1911. In the case of Bryan, his progressive legacy is all but forgotten and that's a pity. I don't think he would have had much in common with the likes of John Ashcroft or the concept of the "corporate Christ!"

Posted by: Len Hart on April 14, 2006 4:32 PM

Thank you, Buck (and Mrs. Buck) for the Bryan post.
Your "heads up" [and your recommended links] have inspired me to read the biography--Bryan--by Louis Koenig, Putnam's, 1971, 719 pages, which has been languishing unattended here in my library for too many years.

Posted by: Hoffmann on April 14, 2006 5:34 PM

Oops "...and Mrs. Batard" My apologies !

Posted by: Hoffmann on April 14, 2006 5:47 PM

Mrs. Batard won't mind. As you may know, "batard" has two meanings in the French language. The first is a type of bread. When I refer to Mrs. Batard, I refer to "the bread of my life". When I use the name to refer to myself, I mean that other French word, somewhat akin to one who has a very bad attitude.

Posted by: Buck on April 14, 2006 9:14 PM

Buck, I did not know: Batard, a name for most all occasions---wonderful!

Posted by: Hoffmann on April 15, 2006 10:06 AM

Well, actually the name "Buck Batard" has a rather involved history. Simply put though, Buck refers to the famous character "Buck" in Jack London's most famous book, "The Call of the Wild".

Batard was another London character.

Thus the molding of two Jack London names of dogs.
Why dogs? Jerry Doolittle's exquisite and what I consider his most famous post which can be found here.

I am and will always be part of the lower order. I am shamelessly proud to be so.

Mrs. Batard stands on a platform above me, directing my doglike qualities.

PS Please don't tell this to our kitties.

Posted by: Buck on April 15, 2006 11:04 AM
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