- Paperback: 240 pages
- Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press (September 15, 1994)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0806126671
- ISBN-13: 978-0806126678
- Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.6 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 7 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,172,825 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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A Righteous Cause: The Life of William Jennings Bryan
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William Jennings Bryan is one of the most influential "failures" of American politics: a three-time Democratic nominee for president who, although he never won the office, transformed his party into an institution "pledged," in biographer Robert W. Cherny's words, "to use the power of government on behalf of those displaced and disadvantaged by the advance of industrialization and the emergence of corporate behemoths." Although he is best remembered for two events--his electrifying "cross of gold" speech at the 1896 Democratic convention and his work for the prosecution in the Scopes trial of 1925--his career was extremely rich in incident. Cherny draws amply upon Bryan's own writings and correspondence to produce a portrait of the lifelong political crusader that, while comparatively short in length, offers a substantial evaluation of his legacy.
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The problem with Bryan, at least in terms of making him into something sensational, was that he was a paragon of virtues from an earlier time, a time when when, well, humility, modesty, temperance, focus, honesty, forgiveness, and a lot of other now-unfamilar and boring concepts were considered virtues. Oh, Bryan was ambitious, and he enjoyed being adored by crowds but it wasn't the ambition of Cheney or the craving for adoration of Clinton, at least not in any dreary sense we'd understand. Bryan made his impact by being Bryan, by speaking to people, by articulating their dreams, by often being an effective politician. He did that so well that up till fairly recently he still had mythic status, a great orator who was still spoken of with some reverance as late as the 1960's (I doubt nowadays 1 in 10,000 would even know the name).
I think ultimately historians have the same problem with Bryan as music biographers have with Franz Joseph Haydn--one of the greatest of all composers but a fairly normal and healthy man whose life lacked wild stories and titilating anecdotes. Personally, I find biographies of people like Haydn and Bryan enjoyable (this book at hand was very refreshing and I've found over the years that virtually everything from the University of Oklahoma Press usually is). It's nice reading about accomplished folks who are fairly normal. It's interesting that Bryan and Roosevelt, two of the giants of that era, both had steady and rewarding marriages with highly intelligent and accomplished women, both had families, both had lives and interests outside of politics. There's a rough definition of "healthy" lurking in there somewhere.
Through his powerful belief in Christian virtue, Bryan constantly championed the rights of the least among him. While his strict fundamentalist views eventually humiliated him at the end of his life by way of the "Scopes Monkey Trial," it was this belief in the decency of human life that drove him for so long. This book gives a brief and succinct discussion of the great politician's life.
Mr. Cherny's mainly admiring biography does much to reintroduce the events surrounding this important figure who today, if remembered at all, is mainly known for being on the wrong side of evolution question in the Scopes trial. That is part of his late history and although that controversy has heated up again today Bryan is still on the wrong side of the evolution question. However, that issue does not define what he represented in American history. Rather, one must look at the populist, agrarian forces in revolt and the program Bryan tried to implement in his bid for power.
Bryan political career represented the last dying gasp of the agrarian revolt that flared up in the America Midwest and West in the last third of the 19th century. That such a revolt, left to its own devices, was doomed in the face of the rise of industrial production; the increased mechanization of agriculture and the dominance of finance capital do not make that revolt any less poignant. The question faced by Bryan and any other potential leader was the manner in which the revolt would be harnessed to win power and what allies would be sought to fight against the ravages of capitalist expansion.
Mr. Bryan took an essentially parliamentary, traditional road by trying to use the Democratic Party as a vehicle for social change. Many later politicians have also broken their teeth trying that same strategy for progressive social change. In 1896, and perhaps earlier, such a road was futile. In short, Mr. Bryan could have led an independent third party revolt, based on the already existing People's Party (which in his early career Bryan had been closely allied with) linked with the industrial working classes of the Northeast and Midwest.
This strategy was left to other forces that later formed of the Socialist party in 1901. Mr. Bryan's political trajectory, however, was not to join that fight but basically moved to the right culminating in support for the suppression of radicals in World War I. We have that seen that political phenomena before, as well. That said, this is an important book that details one type of parliamentary strategy still followed today by many progressives about the way to bring social change. That today it has produced meager returns does not lessen the interest it for this writer as applied in an earlier time. At that time it at least made some rational political sense.