Politician, evangelist, and reformer William Jennings Bryan was the most popular public speaker of his time. In this acclaimed biography—the first major reconsideration of Bryan’s life in forty years–award-winning historian Michael Kazin illuminates his astonishing career and the richly diverse and volatile landscape of religion and politics in which he rose to fame.
Kazin vividly re-creates Bryan’s tremendous appeal, showing how he won a passionate following among both rural and urban Americans, who saw in him not only the practical vision of a reform politician but also the righteousness of a pastor. Bryan did more than anyone to transform the Democratic Party from a bulwark of laissez-faire to the citadel of liberalism we identify with Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1896, 1900, and 1908, Bryan was nominated for president, and though he fell short each time, his legacy–a subject of great debate after his death–remains monumental. This nuanced and brilliantly crafted portrait restores Bryan to an esteemed place in American history.
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Education of a Hero, 1860–1890
He borrows from the philosopher his principles, from the poet his language, from the warrior his courage, and mingling with these his own enthusiasms, leads his hearers according to his will.
—William Jennings Bryan on oratory, 1877
Salem may never be more than a pleasant stop along the interstate highway that slices through the verdant prairie of south-central Illinois. Stretched out beyond the sign listing a population of eight thousand is the usual array of chain hotels and restaurants, gaudy gas stations and car washes, and tiny convenience stores. An imposing new Caterpillar rental and repair place suggests that the local economy is thriving, while twenty-six local churches compete to fill a set of loftier needs. Yet one can stroll down the main street of Salem in the middle of a weekday in summer without encountering more than a handful of residents. The nearest movie theater is down in Centralia, sixteen miles away.
A different fate seemed possible in the 1850s, when Silas Bryan moved to town. The Ohio and Mississippi Railroad had just run tracks down Main Street, which made it possible to reach St. Louis in only ninety minutes—the same time it takes to drive the distance today. A Methodist women’s college with two faculty members had recently opened its doors, and freshly built churches dotted the dirt streets of the newly incorporated town, the seat of Marion County. A few miles outside town, there lay ample deposits of bituminous coal, and three flour mills were unable to keep up with the demand of a growing population. “Salem is rapidly improving,” boasted the local weekly in 1854, “and its elements of wealth and prosperity are now being rapidly developed.” Soon it would be “a commanding point . . . where industry, sobriety, and honesty will surely thrive; where good health may be found, where long life may be enjoyed and where all the concomitants of competence and oppulence [sic] are inevitable.”
Silas Bryan’s own ambitions dovetailed with those of his town. He was born in 1822, the eighth child of a farm family from Point Pleasant, a village that then lay inside Virginia’s western border with Ohio. At the age of eighteen, he left a crowded log cabin to move westward in search of an education and, perhaps, a fortune. Harvesting crops and chopping wood, he slowly amassed enough credits to graduate, at the age of twenty-seven, from
McKendree College, a Baptist institution in southern Illinois. He then followed a career path common to educated men in rural America during the middle of the nineteenth century: a few years of teaching school followed by reading law books and passing a bar examination. In 1851, Silas moved to Salem and opened a legal practice. A year later, he married Mariah Jennings—a reverent, resourceful, lovely young woman who was one of his
former pupils. They built a small two-story frame house on Broadway Street—a five-minute walk from the county courthouse, which still marks the epicenter of Salem.
Silas matured into a man of substance and an indispensable father of his town. He was a pioneering member of the provincial legal elite that did much to establish genteel society in the hinterland of midcentury America. Townspeople admired his legal skills and compensated him well—so well that in 1866 he was able to buy a 520-acre farm a mile outside of town with a deer park alongside it. Area voters, most of whom were Democrats, also elected him to a series of public offices. Over a twenty-year span, Silas served in the state senate, as a circuit court judge, and as a leading member of the committee that drafted a new Illinois constitution.
And he never wavered from the gospel of the Democratic Party. It was a potent mixture of egalitarian principle and racist fear. Democrats in the nineteenth century often spoke as class warriors, American style. They preached that every small farmer and wage earner was equal to the rich and the well-born, and that the “producers” who fed, built, and clothed the nation deserved access to every opportunity society could offer. Yet Democrats also vowed to defend the livelihood, moral values, and families of the white majority against black Americans who refused to accept their servile destiny. As late as the 1870s, the party filled its campaign broadsides with images of “popeyed, electric-haired and slack-jawed” black men straight from the minstrel shows that were the most popular form of theater in nineteenth-century America.
These ugly stereotypes served a populist purpose. Updating and hardening Jefferson’s anti-elitist suspicions, Democrats accused their political enemies of shedding tears for unworthy blacks but sneering at the language and manners of the productive white majority. In the party’s demonology, New England divines and schoolmarms mocked the Irish-born men and women who built and cleaned their houses, while speculators made quick fortunes manipulating markets instead of gaining a just reward after “years of patient industry.” Good Democrats believed their task was to uphold the libertarian principles of the early Republic. The Democracy—as the party was commonly known—stood tall, a pillar of resistance to well-born zealots who wanted to shut off immigration, prohibit drinking and other private amusements, and increase the powers of the federal government to enrich their friends.
Silas Bryan dated his own loyalty to the Democracy to boyhood memories of the 1828 election of Andrew Jackson, a stalwart defender of slavery. Later, as a Democratic partisan in Illinois, Silas Bryan endorsed the views of Stephen Douglas, who in his famous debate with Lincoln declared, “Our people are white people, our state is a white state, and we mean to preserve the race pure without any mixture with the negro.”
In the spirit of Old Hickory, Silas mingled a plebeian ethic with a fealty to racist assumptions. In 1856, he ran for the Illinois Senate against a opponent friendly to abolition. At one rally, Salem’s “hardy yeomanry” filled the county courthouse to hear Bryan blast “the Black Republican press” for saying that he was friendly to Mormonism. In 1872, Silas ran for Congress on a platform that advocated inflating the money supply to rescue farmers and wage earners from the burden of debt. But a former general in the Union army narrowly defeated him and ended Silas Bryan’s office-chasing career. The judge remained a prominent Democrat in southern Illinois and one of the richest men in town.
However, Silas was never content with the trappings of material success. By all accounts, he embodied the virtues that nineteenth-century Americans summed up as “character.” He was loyal and honest, industrious and pious—qualities prized by moral philosophers from the Hebrew prophets to Cotton Mather. And Silas attempted to apply these virtues to the life of his local community and state. When he died of a diabetic stroke in 1880, thousands filed by his casket as it lay in the county courthouse, and every business and school in Salem closed down for the afternoon. Obituary writers praised him for never wavering from his beliefs, for routinely feeding hobos who came to his door, and for kneeling in prayer three times a day, wherever he happened to be. Silas had specified the hymns to be sung and the Bible passages to be read at his funeral. Among the most memorable were verses from Paul’s Second Epistle to Timothy: “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”
A year after his father’s death, Will Bryan paid a florid tribute to character in the valedictory he gave at his college graduation: “If each day we . . . plant ourselves more firmly upon principles which are eternal, guard every thought and action, that it may be pure, and conform our lives more nearly to that Perfect Model, we shall form a character that . . . will bring success in this life and form the best preparation for that which is beyond.” Others may have mouthed such nostrums without taking them too seriously; one biographer comments that the talk “was more suitable for an eighth-grade exercise than a college commencement.” Yet like most Americans in the Gilded Age, both father and son were convinced that character underlay good governance as well as sound religion.
Will Bryan spent his childhood in social tranquility, if not utter innocence. He was born on March 19, 1860, a year before the onset of the Civil War. More than fifteen hundred residents of Marion County served in the Union army; one out of every six succumbed from either wounds or disease. But no battles took place in the area, and the bloodshed left only a mild impression on local history—perhaps because many residents, like Silas Bryan, had migrated from the South and didn’t favor the end of slavery and the rule of the Republican Party, which were prime consequences of the war. Neither Will’s memoirs nor the little early correspondence of his that survives mentions the conflict that ruptured the nation.
As a child, he was also unfamiliar with the afflictions and joys of an increasingly polyglot and industrial society. In Salem, Will probably met few people of a religion or ethnic group different from his. In 1860, a large majority of the thirteen thousand inhabitants of Marion County were native-born white Protestants of British or Irish heritage who farmed modest plots of corn and raised pigs and cattle. A few small mills finished lumber or ground cereals; by 1870, one lone shop in Salem turned out wooden plows and carriages. Schoolteachers and store clerks outnumbered day laborers and servants. Will could always find abundant rabbits and squirrels to hunt in the woods near his house. The Ohio and Mississippi Railroad was the only real sign that the machine age, with its yawning if mutable class divisions, had arrived on the prairies of southern Illinois.
A biracial society and a religiously diverse one also lay off in the future. Although the slave state of Missouri began just seventy miles west of town, across the broad Mississippi, Silas Bryan and his neighbors seldom needed to police a color line. The antebellum Illinois constitution barred blacks from entering the state, and subsequent laws prescribed stiff penalties for hiring them. The year Abraham Lincoln was elected president, census takers found only nine black people living in all of Marion County.
European immigrants were almost as rare. In the crowded port cities of the East, Know-Nothings raged against an influx of “Papist hordes.” But Salem had just one small Catholic church, serving a few score of Irish and German residents. Tolerance toward whites from abroad seems to have come rather easily to town notables. Salem Democrats published campaign literature in German as well as English, and the town’s religious life was relatively free of rancor. As a child, Will witnessed regular visits to his home by ministers of every denomination; Silas reserved a guest room for traveling divines, as well as politicians, and annually donated a load of hay to every local church, including the Catholic one.
Mariah Bryan, at least in her son’s eyes, was no less ethical and open-minded. Twelve years younger than Silas, she was his equal in character. “Mother was a very competent woman,” recalled Will, “of rare native ability, of lofty ideals, and as devout as my father.” She educated him at home until the age of ten, drawing lessons from the Bible, the McGuffey’s Readers, and a geography text. She also held him responsible for feeding the farm animals and cutting the wood that heated their brick mansion. After he became famous, Will credited “this drudgery” for giving him the strength “to endure fatigue and withstand disease” during long periods on the road.
The few surviving photos of Mariah Bryan, grimly posed in high collar and tight bun, betray no hint of her independent spirit. Raised as a Methodist, she refused for twenty years after marriage to “take her letter” to the local Baptist congregation in which Silas was a leading elder. Mariah was active in the local chapter of the WCTU and the Royal Templars, another temperance group, though the precise nature of her work is unknown.
But her membership alone suggests she welcomed the state as a moral guardian—a notion that made most good Democrats cringe.
Neither did Mariah confuse piety with prudishness. She played the piano often and well, and liked to tell stories about acquaintances who took their religion a bit too seriously. When Will asked his mother’s opinion of his first political speech, a long-winded plea in 1880 to support the local Democratic congressman, she responded, “Well there were a few good places in it—where you might have stopped!”
Mariah’s relaxed attitude may have influenced her son’s choice of a church. Instead of becoming a Baptist like Silas or a Methodist like Mariah, Will embraced an option of his own. At the age of thirteen, he attended a revival led by a traveling minister from the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and then helped establish a small congregation with about seventy other teenagers. Cumberland Presbyterians—who took their name from the Kentucky town where the sect was founded in 1813—discarded the Calvinist idea that God “elected” a minority at birth and left all others to face the prospect of hell. Although the Cumberland way prohibited drinking, dancing, gambling, and other enticements to evil, it brimmed with hope for the salvation of all Americans and, following that, the world. As an adult, Will often attended services of other denominations, and most Cumberland congregations, including that in Salem, joined the larger Presbyterian Church in the U.S. in 1906. Still, he clung to the expansive vision of his first spiritual home for the rest of his life.
Yet long shadows chilled his family in the middle of the Midwest. Will was his parents’ fourth child; a girl and a boy born earlier had both died of whooping cough before reaching their first birthdays. The next boy also filled an infant’s grave; another brother died at sixteen. Following the first two deaths, Silas dolefully wrote in the family Bible that he thought his own end was near. In the mid-nineteenth century, with only the crudest of pediatric medical treatment available, it was not unusual for even wealthy Americans to lose a child in infancy. But only a bare majority of the Bryans’ nine offspring lived to adulthood. Grief beyond the norm may have bolstered Will’s parents in their resolve that at least one son would do the family proud.
When he turned fifteen, Will was sent off to private school in Jacksonville, a city of ten thousand in the central part of the state. He stayed there for six years, attending and graduating from Whipple Academy and then from Illinois College. In contrast to his hometown, Jacksonville looked more like what America was becoming. It boasted a three-story textile factory and a state mental hospital, and the local elite of bankers and landowners wielded influence at the state capital in nearby Springfield. About 40 percent of Jacksonville residents were foreign-born—housemaids and laborers from Portugal, railroad hands from Ireland, craftsmen and shopkeepers from Germany, and a scattering of immigrants from other lands. The black population, some five hundred, was large enough to be confined to a tiny ghetto, known as “Africa.” Local political campaigns bristled with debates over emancipation, prohibition, and law and order. To the chagrin of town boosters, Jacksonville had recently lost out to Champaign-Urbana as the site of the new state university, and it lagged behind the industrial growth of Peoria and Decatur. But it was still large enough to acquaint Will Bryan with the rudiments of a modernizing America.