Thursday, August 21, 2014

Recent Reads: Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan

I must admit that I have never been a big William Jennings Bryan fan. He always struck me as a bit a whack job. In A Godly Hero, Michael Kazin reminds us that the Great Commoner played an important role in transforming the Democratic Party from the conservative, states-rights policies of Grover Cleveland to the liberal, national party associated with Franklin Roosevelt. Ironically, Kazin sees Bryan as a conservative figure that considered corporate-driven industrialization a radical force that could destroy American families, the Jeffersonian economy of farmers and mechanics, and the very project of democracy itself.

Kazin dismisses any lingering claims that the Boy Orator was selected as a dark horse in 1896, arguing instead that the crafty and ambitious Bryan had been actively working for the nomination for a year prior to the convention. By 2014 standards that would make him a late- comer, but in 1896 it was an early start. Having been nominated by the Democratic Party, Bryan ran an electrifying and novel campaign, but one that had only the slimmest possibility of success. In defeat Bryan’s supporters bonded to their hero. No other losing politician enjoyed such devoted loyalty. So potent was his spell, that the Democrats wheeled him out for two more drubbings. When not campaigning, Bryan worked his way through the lecture circuit advocating prohibition. Although his third loss more or less disqualified him from a fourth nomination in 1912, he was instrumental in steering the convention towards New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson. Kazin argues that Bryan exercised some influence on the New Freedom, and it should be as much a part of his legacy as his other projects. A Godly Hero finds one major flaw in its subject: He failed to stand for racial justice and too often sided with Jim Crow.

President Wilson acknowledged both Byran's support in the 1912 convention and his standing in the party by appointing him secretary of state. Bryan, who had campaigned in 1900 on an anti-imperialism message, wanted the United States to deviate from Roosevelt's jingoism and Taft's dollar diplomacy, by adopting a moral foreign policy. He succeeded to some extent in tempering Wilson's heavy hand in Latin America. But Kazin draws attention to the tension this created for the nation's chief diplomat. Despite his own views and preferences, he still had to serve his president.

When it comes to World War I Bryan stumbled badly in the estimation of his biographer. Bryan argued that the British bore prime responsibility for the loss of American life when a German submarine torpedoed the Lusitania in May 1915. Even before the sinking, he expressed concern that Wilson's British-leaning policy compromised American neutrality. Critical of both the British blockade and the German U-Boat campaign, he argued before the cabinet that any American citizens who traveled on belligerent ships did so at their own peril. Then, when the crisis occurred, Bryan choked. Instead of using the sinking as a platform to protest the American failure to uphold neutrality, he bowed to the president's wishes and signed a strongly worded threat to Germany that he himself had objected to. Then, he resigned in such a friendly manner that it did nothing to sharpen the differences between him and the chief executive. Following his departure from the cabinet, Bryan continued to serve Wilson. Bryan campaigned for Wilson in the 1916 election, and might have played a decisive role in the president's reelection. 
After the United States entered the war, Bryan attacked profiteers and made it a point not to castigate German citizens.

Bryan's reputation might have been improved if he had gone down in a blaze of glory protesting Wilson Administration's policy. Of course, such a course was complicated by the fact that he had signed the note to Germany, a fact that leaves Kazin scratching his head. On the other hand, Bryan was a politician and wanted his party to remain in power. He had worked his whole life to see a strong Democratic administration in the White House that would use the federal government as a tool to bring about economic justice. Wilson might be wrong on war, but he was still vastly superior to a Republican president in either the mold of either Roosevelt or Taft. 

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