William Jennings Bryan, America’s Founding Populist, and Mid-Western Politician. The Man Who Changed the Democratic Party
William Jennings Bryan can be considered the father of modern American left-wing and right-wing populism, including progressivism, religious right activism, workers’ movements like the free-silver movement, the income tax, direct elections of Senators, and more. In fact, Bryan and the movements he led can, in ways, be seen as the modern precursor to both Bernie Sanders’ and his progressive movement and parts of the modern Tea Party movement (a movement that can be described as “right-wing progressivism” or “right-wing populism“).
The first thing to understand is that Bryan was a leader of the short-lived People’s Party (the Populist Party) which eventually merged into the Democratic Party at the end of the Gilded Age. After merging, Bryan ran for President three times and helped bring America and the Democratic Party into the Progressive Era.
Given the above, we have to discuss both Bryan himself (who was fairly pure and virtuous in his personal platform and outward policy, like Bernie Sanders) and his Populist base that formed the base of the People’s Party and Democratic Party (which included all types of Populist sentiment, including some hard to grapple with sentiment that today we may think of as making up the base of the Tea Party or Solid Conservative South, or that which we might find in the religious activist right, or that which we would have found in the old Reform movement Communes).
Perhaps the simplest way to think of this is that Bryan and his movement represented a pro-worker populist movement against elitism, rooted just as much in the mentality of the earlier reformist movements as it was in the Democratic Party of the time or in a push-back against the elitist Gilded Age.
This is to say, Bryan’s core Pro-Silver Anti-Imperialist Reformist Progressive Populist message and character aside, all types of populist factions formed the base of Bryan’s supporters (be they prejudice, religious, equality-minded, or puritanically moral).
Bryan may have personally been focused on equal rights for all, but the base of the populist party included factions that were hardly as virtuous by today’s standards (something that continuously results in political difficulties for Bryan).
With all the above said, one could make a strong argument that no single person is more illustrative of the populist factions that comprise America’s political parties in any era than William Jennings Bryan and his Populists.
With his predecessors like Jefferson and Jackson considered (early notable Democratic party populists who inspired Bryan), Bryan is the politician who represented and helped popularize many of America’s most important post-Civil War left-wing and right-wing populist movements.
Bryan may have represented a lot of things, and attracted a wide array of followers, but he personally never stood for racism or elitism (even when under political pressure). In fact, Bryan fought against this his whole life. After all, the Bible is very clear about caring for the sick and the poor, equality among all, and its position on usury and gold, and as a staunch Baptist (and later Presbyterian), Bryan took both his morals and his politics directly from the Bible… even when some of his base disagreed with his unwaveringly moralist stance.
“The conscience of the nation is now aroused to free the Government from the grip of those who have made it a business asset of the favor-seeking corporations. It must become again a people’s government, and be administered in all its departments according to the Jeffersonian maxim, “equal rights to all; special privileges to none.” “Shall the people rule?” is the overshadowing issue which manifests itself in all the questions now under discussion. – Democratic Party platform 1908 which Bryan helped to write.
TIP: The populist base consisted of working class Democrats (and members of the old People’s Party third party and newly found ex-Republican allies) in the North and South pushing back against Gilded Age inequality. Populists saw the Panic of 1893 as confirmation that evil global conspiracies and big city barons were to blame. Some Populists blamed the Jews, some blamed the Freedmen, some blamed the capitalists, some globalists, some the crony capitalists, some the barons of industry, etc. There were many different factions of populists, and this is why this progressive pushback against the new Barons of industry and Crony capitalists (like the Bourbon Democrats and Stalwart Republicans) popularizes such a wide array of left-right populist ideologies.
TIP: William Jennings Bryan’s nickname was, “The Great Commoner.” This name reflects one of his inspirations, Andrew Jackson (the first Democratic party President and early populist-in-spirit). Jackson wasn’t the consummate social liberal, but he was certainly a Democrat-of-the-time in terms of his favoring the common people. Bryan might not have shared Jackson’s views on parties or equality, but he was a nativist populist who stood up against elites and bankers. This is the old thread that connects a Tea-party-like liberal and a socially progressive one despite all the other differences. Likewise, this is what connects a southern farmer who fought for the Confederacy and a second generation northern factory worker immigrant.
THE ROOTS OF AMERICAN POPULISM BEFORE BRYAN: William Jennings Bryan got his start in the late 1800’s. By that time America had already seen a century of populist figures on the left and right. If I was looking at “the history of the Tea Party” I would not start with Bryan, but would instead start with the founders and look to the anti-Federalists, including figures like Jefferson and even more radical figures in the north and south. I would then trace the linage from Nativist Populist Presidents like Jackson to states’ rights figures like Calhoun, and then to Confederates. Perhaps, after this, I may even look to Northern War Democrats like Andrew Johnson. Likewise, if I were looking to trace “the history of left-leaning progressivism in America,” I’d look to Jefferson and then Jackson. I’d also look at Northern Federalists like Hamilton and Morris (abolitionists) and Whig-Republicans like Clay. I would then move on to Lincoln and the Civil Service Reconstruction Republicans. Likewise, to find “the history of religious activism in America” I’d look to the great awakening movements (which were not represented by the parties) or the anti-Mason movement, which was. We can find the roots of all these ideologies in different parties before Bryan, and Bryan represented some ideologies better than others. Bryan was pro-tax and pro-state to the extent that the modern Tea Party is not, despite his pro-farmer, pro-forgotten working man, pro-south, pro-religious activist stance, he was only the father of some “aspects of the Tea Party.” Other founders are more like the Anti-Federalists from the South Carolinians to the Virginians, to the Bostonians. I will introduce a page for each of these movements, and it is with these histories in mind that we can call W. J. the father of modern American populism.
FACT: Bryan ran for President three times in 1896, 1900, and 1908. He defined the Progressive era and ended the Gilded Age with his popularity, completely changing America and his Democratic party in the process. Before Bryan, the Democratic party had moved away from Jeffersonian and even Jacksonian politics to become the party of “the Reconstruction and Gilded Age Redeemers” and ex-Confederates. After Bryan, the party would go on to become the modern progressive Democratic party over the next 100 years, helped in no small part by Wilson, FDR, Kennedy, LBJ, and of course Clinton and Obama. Both left-and-right-wing progressivists have roots in the south and mid-west. At the time, the North East represented the hub of the left and right Gilded Age politicians like Cleveland and McKinley.
America’s Moralist, William Jennings Bryan
Bryan took the Bible literally. Thus he was a pacifist, championed social welfare, stood against cronyism and centralized power, stood against racism, fought for workers’ rights, fought for women’s voting rights, campaigned against Darwinian evolution out of respect for the Bible and a fear that elites would use eugenics to hurt the working man. He helped ensure the 16th – 19th Amendments were passed. These concerned income tax, direct election of senators, prohibition, and women’s right to vote. He was a true Jeffersonian, considered himself a Jacksonian, and stood against the elite in both parties.
Bryan is the spiritual father of so much of Americanism on the left and right, yet few remember his name.
Below we explain why we can consider W. J. Bryan America’s founding populist (regarding BOTH left and right-wing populism) and the father of both Progressivism and, in ways, many modern American right-wing movements from the Tea Party to the religious right.
William Jennings Bryan: Founder of Religious Right and Populous Left! Dick Morris TV. Although the modern religious right tends to blur its message with traditional business-related conservatism (which Bryan stood against firmly), we can see Bryan as the founder of modern religious activism.
TIP: Bryan was many things, but there were two things he never was, “an elitist business person” or “a social conservative” in terms of color, class, or creed. Bryan favored the common man over the state all issues. He believed in social justice and the state’s role, yet he stood firmly against cronyism and central control.
The Contenders – William Jennings Bryan (September 23) Preview.
TIP: It is no stretch to say that Bernie Sanders’ movement and the Tea Party both have their roots in Bryan’s American populism, at least in the shared pro-common-man anti-elite sentiment. In this way, Bryan is like Bernie. He fought only for the working class; he did not care about geographic location or party; he started with third parties and only joined the Democrats to push out their business wing (like Cleveland) and oppose the Gilded Age Republicans.
FACT: Before joining the Democrats W. J. Bryan was considered for a leadership of the People’s Progressive Party or Populist Party. Ultimately he instead ran as a Democrat and merged the People’s Party with the Democrats. There had been a Populist/Progressive/People’s Party in the U.S. since the mid-1800’s. There has been a Progressive party in each election. Famous Progressive Parties include Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 Bull Moose Progressive Party.
Third Parties Explained: US History Review. There are two types of third parties in the U.S. They are the Progressive Parties and States’ Rights parties. Neither is focused on elitist business in either the north or south. Both are populist. One is progressive and favors big government and inclusive social policies; one is radical and favors small government and exclusive social policy. We call them progressives and the Tea Party in the modern era. Other third parties are constitutionalist, socialists, and environmentalists.
TIP: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and a few others deserve a nod in the discussion of American populism, but no other major political figure captured the spirit of the common man of both the north and the south, both the east and west, both the farmer and factory worker, like Bryan.
Who Was William Jennings Bryan?
William Jennings Bryan is unique in being one of American history’s most important politicians, despite his rarely being remembered here in our modern era.
Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois (mid-west) on March 19th, 1860 (right around the start of the Civil War and the Third Great Awakening). He was raised a Democrat. The Confederate South were Democrats before and after the war. Another faction of Democrats was “Jacksonian Democrats” who were concerned with liberty more than race, as the Bryan family was. He was raised a Baptist, and from childhood, he was taught that the Bible should be taken literally and that gambling and liquor were sinful.
Bryan went on to become a lawyer, practicing law in Jacksonville, and then later moved to Lincoln, Nebraska where he became a politician.
In the Democratic landslide of 1890, Bryan was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Nebraska’s First Congressional District. He was only the second Democrat elected to Congress in the History of Nebraska.
In 1892 Bryan was reelected, but in 1894 he lost a run for the Senate due to a Republican landslide in which a Republican took his seat. At the time senators were appointed, not elected, and it was Bryan who got this changed later in his life.
Hi-Ho Free Silver, William Jennings Bryan the Father of the Silver Movement
It all starts with “the crime of 1873” (coinage act of 1873) which confirms the gold standard (rather than a silver standard) and goes on to the repeal of the 1893 Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which resulted in the collapse of the silver market.
In this time, farmers wanted a silver standard or at least a gold and silver “bi-metal” standard, and wanted to flood the market with silver and cause inflation to help them pay off their debts. Meanwhile, the business interests wanted to keep the gold standard to ensure stability of the economy and their wealth, including their wealth via interest payments from the debts of farmers.
After the Civil War, starting after Lincoln and under Grant, both major parties had begun to be seen as corrupt elite businessmen of the Gilded Age, obsessed with keeping a gold-based currency which allowed them to keep their wealth but hurt the farmer who had increasingly high loans for farm equipment. The farmers thought that, if they injected a quantity of silver into the market, it would cause inflation. The farmers could then pay back their loans. The elite thought, “the plebs don’t understand economics.” This idea might seem complicated or short-sighted today. The wage-earning urban dweller was less inclined to embrace the full effects of inflation as the only good part is the debt paying aspect; the cost of food and housing would go up.
The Populist Movement (Story Time with Mr. Beat).
Gilded Age Politics: Crash Course US History #26.
Free-silver was very popular at the time of Bryan’s rise, and the “corrupt business interests of the Northeast favored by both parties in the gilded age” wasn’t popular in the mid-west or with the working class, or with the new immigrants working long hours in the factories of the Barons. Thus, in this environment, Williams Jennings Bryan became the head of the Silver Movement and, in one single speech, became the head of the Democratic party.
The second Bryan gives his Cross of Gold Speech the new Bourbon-liberal Cleveland and his faction were toast. The Solid South Conservatives took a back seat. The Democratic party shifted from the party of Redeemed Confederates to the Populist Party of the working man.
Bryan lost many allies by becoming a Bernie Sanders-like anti-establishment figure such as factory workers who didn’t want inflation, racists who didn’t want all workers to come together as equals, elites who didn’t want inflation, etc. The Democrats began to lose elections until 1912 when Bryan finally teamed up with the Progressive Bourbon Liberal Redeemer Wilson. He believed that “we are stronger together.” That means progressives and neoliberals, or populists and bourbon liberals; however you want to frame it. But first, the famous Cross of Gold Speech that started it all.
The Cross of Gold Speech
What follows is an excerpt from Bryan’s Cross of Gold Speech that brought modern American Progressivism to the mainstream:
We do not come as individuals…
But we stand here representing people who are the equals before the law…
It is for these that we speak. We do not come as aggressors. Our war is not a war of conquest. We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came.
We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!
The gentleman from Wisconsin has said he fears a Robespierre. My friend, in this land of the free you need fear no tyrant who will spring up from among the people. What we need is an Andrew Jackson to stand as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of aggregated wealth.
They tell us that this platform was made to catch votes. We reply to them that changing conditions make new issues; that the principles upon which rest Democracy are as everlasting as the hills; but that they must be applied to new conditions as they arise. Conditions have arisen and we are attempting to meet those conditions. They tell us that the income tax ought not to be brought in here; that is not a new idea. They criticize us for our criticism of the Supreme Court of the United States. My friends, we have made no criticism. We have simply called attention to what you know. If you want criticisms, read the dissenting opinions of the Court. That will give you criticisms.
They say we passed an unconstitutional law. I deny it. The income tax was not unconstitutional when it was passed. It was not unconstitutional when it went before the Supreme Court for the first time. It did not become unconstitutional until one judge changed his mind; and we cannot be expected to know when a judge will change his mind.
The income tax is a just law. It simply intends to put the burdens of government justly upon the backs of the people. I am in favor of an income tax. When I find a man who is not willing to pay his share of the burden of the government which protects him, I find a man who is unworthy to enjoy the blessings of a government like ours.
He says that we are opposing the national bank currency. It is true. If you will read what Thomas Benton said, you will find that he said that in searching history he could find but one parallel to Andrew Jackson. That was Cicero, who destroyed the conspiracies of Cataline and saved Rome. He did for Rome what Jackson did when he destroyed the bank conspiracy and saved America.
We say in our platform that we believe that the right to coin money and issue money is a function of government. We believe it. We believe it is a part of sovereignty and can no more with safety be delegated to private individuals than can the power to make penal statutes or levy laws for taxation.
Mr. Jefferson, who was once regarded as good Democratic authority, seems to have a different opinion from the gentleman who has addressed us on the part of the minority. Those who are opposed to this proposition tell us that the issue of paper money is a function of the bank and that the government ought to go out of the banking business. I stand with Jefferson rather than with them, and tell them, as he did, that the issue of money is a function of the government and that the banks should go out of the governing business.
They complain about the plank which declares against the life tenure in office. They have tried to strain it to mean that which it does not mean. What we oppose in that plank is the life tenure that is being built up in Washington which establishes an office-holding class and excludes from participation in the benefits the humbler members of our society….
….If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world.
Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands 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.
William Jennings Bryan “Cross of Gold” Speech (1896 / 1921) [AUDIO RESTORED].
William Jennings Bryan, Losing Elections and Changing America
William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech changed America and lifted him up the ranks to become the leader of the Democratic party.
This resulted in him being at the top of the Democratic Party ticket for 1896.
The 1896 election was in many ways the first modern election. Bryan, a brilliant orator if you haven’t already guessed it, spent the election cycle touring American and speaking at even small towns, which was rarely ever done before Bryan, in part because very few Presidents had the technology.
For every town Bryan spoke at, the elite business classes poured money into the pockets of William McKinley. Again, to draw parallels to today, it was a bit like the difference between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
TIP: Bryan ran against McKinley in 1900 and was defeated again. After that point, Bryan was no longer considered a viable candidate. However, his political career was just getting started, and 1900 wasn’t the last time W.J. would run for President.
FACT: In this era, Republicans had “imperial aspirations,” and many Democrats like Bryan still favored the old Jeffersonian idea of anti-imperialism although many Democrats had previously been expansionists. Bryan gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1900 titled “Imperialism.” In this speech he discusses his views against the annexation of the Philippines, questioning the United States’ right to overpower people of another country just to gain a military base. Even into the progressive era, McKinley and Roosevelt Republicans favor Monroe Doctrine politics despite all their progressive qualities.
FACT: Bryan was 36 when he was nominated to for the Democratic ticket over the incumbent Grover Cleveland and became the youngest presidential nominee of a major party in American history.
FACT: Bryan also formally received the nominations of the Populist Party and the Silver Republican Party. In those days there were progressive Republicans. We should not forget that both parties used to have conservative and progressive factions. See the history of the American political parties.
The Election of 1896 Explained.
William Jennings Bryan, Father of The Progressive Era
William McKinley was “an elite,” but he also had a slight progressive streak. However, McKinley was conservative compared to his VP the other father of Progressivism Teddy Roosevelt.
Sadly, McKinley was assassinated, and Teddy Roosevelt rose to power. For many historians, this officially begins the progressive era that William Jennings Bryan started back in 1896.
Following the assassination of President McKinley in September 1901, Roosevelt, at age 42, succeeded to the office, becoming the youngest United States President in history. Leading his party and country into the Progressive Era, he championed his “Square Deal” domestic policies, promising the average citizen fairness, breaking of trusts, regulation of railroads, and pure food and drugs.
Roosevelt was reelected in 1904 where he faced off against the Bourbon Democrat Alton B. Parker (showing us that Democrats, not just W.J. are losing elections).
Williams Jennings Bryan ran for President and got to the top of the Democratic Party ticket again in 1908.
Despite his two previous defeats, Bryan remained extremely popular among the more liberal and populist elements of the Democratic Party. Although he ran a vigorous campaign against the nation’s business elite in 1908, Bryan suffered the worst loss of his three presidential campaigns, although none were a “big loss.” He did well in each election, just not well enough.
Here things may be confusing to a modern reader. To compare the forces in 1908 we have to realize Republicans like Taft were progressives who were pro-business and wanted central power. Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt wanted a stronger safety net than Taft. They were tougher on business, and favored imperialism. Progressives like Bryan wanted “power to the people” and anti-imperialism (in a Jeffersonian fashion). Bourbon progressives like Wilson favored a more progressive version of Cleveland’s Gilded Age politics mixed with Bryan’s pro-farmer mentality.
There is no purely conservative modern Presidential candidate in this era, either traditional business Gilded Age conservative or social Confederate era conservative. Third parties in this era include the socialist party, populist states’ rights party, and the prohibition party.
William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, and the 1912 Election
The 1912 election is the election that changes the American political parties and begins the modern era. In this election, Teddy Roosevelt ran against Taft as a Progressive. The northern progressives had split the Republican Party to run against each other. However, the southern progressives solidified and united. Woodrow Wilson ran for President while Bryan and his followers supported him. When Wilson won, Bryan became Secretary of State.
The alliance between southern progressive populist Bryan and bourbon liberal progressive Wilson, and the splitting of the Northern Republican progressives Taft and Roosevelt, finally gave Democrats the votes they needed to win.
After this election, the united Bourbons and Progressives and the now fractured Republicans created the environment in which the modern parties took form. The progressive void in the Republican party was filled by classical conservative-liberals like Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover who become increasingly anti-Communist and anti-progressive. After being out of power in the 1920’s, The Democrats became the party of progressives under FDR. This pushed out the Solid South conservative Democrats who were attracted to the growing conservatism of the Republican party.
William Jennings Bryan, Secretary of State
Bryan was appointed Secretary of State, the top cabinet position, after supporting Woodrow Wilson for the presidency in 1912. For all his enormous influence in the Democratic Party, his two years as Secretary of State was the only time he served in a powerful office.
Sadly, given the times and Bryan’s anti-war stance, Bryan didn’t get much of a chance to shine as he was moderate and practical on war issues.
However, before Bryan could do much good he resigned from office in June 1915 over WWI, protesting “… why be so shocked by the drowning of a few people, if there is to be no objection to starving a nation.”
Bryan and Wilson’s head-butting left the two at odds, and although Bryan offered to serve the military as a private citizen, Wilson never accepted the offer.
FACT: Bryan helped to support the 16th Amendment which allowed Congress to levy an income tax without apportioning it among the states or basing it on the United States Census. The debate had started with Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co., which referenced the Revenue Act of 1861 under Lincoln. Bryan was heavily involved in popularizing the conversation on a national level and advocated an income tax and wrote that advocacy into the Democrats’ platform in 1908.
FACT: Under Wilson, Bryan helped support the passing of the 17th Amendment to ensure the direct election of Senators. Bryan also helped push for Wilson’s progressive New Freedom agenda which finally provided state assistance to farmers.
William Jennings Bryan, Prohibition and Women’s Suffrage
One might think that after three Presidential elections and being Secretary of State that Bryan’s influence would start to lessen, but reality is the opposite. It is from this point on that Bryan really affected American history.
So far Bryan had continued the spirit of Jefferson (and Jackson to some extent) turning the Democrats into a populist progressive party, bringing issues of anti-imperialism and progressivism to the mainstream again after the Civil War. Bryan then began to apply his progressivism to the Constitution and religion.
In this era, Bryan campaigned for the Constitutional amendments on prohibition and women’s suffrage. His national campaigning helped Congress pass the 18th Amendment in 1918, which shut down all saloons as of 1920 and, at the same time, helped to fight for the 19th Amendment which was finally ratified on August 18, 1920.
Social Darwinism, the Scopes Trial, and the Birth of Modern American Religious Right
One might think that Bryan’s story is over, but he still had a significant impact to make at the Scopes Trial where he defended fundamentalists as a lawyer.
Bryan actively lobbied for state laws banning public schools from teaching evolution, as he feared the elite class would use eugenics to kill off the poor. What a crazy off-base theory. He had a fundamental belief in the Bible.
The father of modern Progressivism officially became the father of the activist religious right. We can see this to be true in his earlier prohibition movement in many ways although I’d argue that Prohibition was puritanical progressive left.
Bryan ended his career fighting against elites, for the Bible, and for creationism.
FACT: The case was seen as both a theological contest and a trial of whether or not “modern science” should be taught in schools. It is one of the most important legal rulings in modern religious right history.
The Scopes Monkey Trial Explained in 5 Minutes: US History Review.