header by Emerson Taymor, 2005

1. The Colonial Era: 1607-1763

2. The Revolutionary Era: 1763-1789

3. The Early National Period: 1789-1824

4. Jacksonian America: 1824-1848

5. Antebellum America: 1848-1860

6. The Civil War Era: 1861-1877

7. The Gilded Age: 1877-1901

8. Progressivism: 1901-1920

9. The Twenties

10. Depression and New Deal: 1929-1939

11. World War II: 1939-1945

12. Early Cold War: 1945-1963

13. Social Ferment: 1945-1960

14. The Sixties

15. The Seventies and After




Jackson Lears, "When Jesus Was a Democrat"
review of A Godly Hero by Michael Kazin, a biography of William Jennings Bryan
The New Republic, 4/13/06

To anyone who cares about the fate of our republic, these are troubling times. Yet seldom has our public discourse seemed so inadequate to the seriousness of the situation. George W. Bush's administration has pushed us into moral and constitutional crisis, but the media remain committed to business as usual -- trivializing criticism of the president as partisan bickering, finding expert apologists for power to sanction appalling departures from American tradition. Think-tank intellectuals with impeccable credentials calmly discuss torture as an instrument of national policy. Bush himself, having deceived Americans into supporting his disastrous Iraq adventure, now asserts his authority to ignore legislative constraints of any kind. "Presidential historians" on public television solemnly compare him to Lincoln and other "wartime presidents," overlooking the egregious flaw in this analogy: we are not in a state of war. Instead we are in a state of permanent emergency, a murky atmosphere of genuine danger and popular anxiety that can be deployed to justify just about any expansion of executive power.

Meanwhile the Democrats dither. Of course, this is not entirely fair. The media's fascination with power renders serious criticism almost invisible. When Al Gore gave a major speech on Martin Luther King Day cataloging Bush's misdeeds, only a few major media outlets reported it. But too many of the Democrats who are actually in public office, who bear some responsibility for sustaining an opposition party, are apparently unwilling to challenge the unchecked power of the presidency. Rarely was this clearer than on the night of this year's State of the Union address, when the official Democratic response turned out to be a bland porridge of promises served up by an unknown and amiable Virginian with presidential ambitions, whose main oratorical gambit was the leaden refrain "We have a better way."

Given this insipid excuse for opposition, Democrats might well re-examine their own traditions in search of inspiration. In the not-too-distant past, they would discover a different political universe, one that would baffle the current purveyors of red state/blue state conventional wisdom. In that strange time and place -- I refer to the early twentieth-century United States -- populism was about economic power as well as cultural style, and popular Christianity was about questioning imperial hubris as well as sanctifying crusades. The leading socialist newspaper came out of Kansas; the governor of Arkansas was known as a "Karl Marx for hillbillies"; and farmers crowded into Nebraska town squares to hear politicians denounce monopoly power. The most eloquent and prominent of those orators was certainly William Jennings Bryan, whose career is deftly captured in Michael Kazin's fine biography.

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.

Kazin, unlike his predecessors, shrewdly recognizes that Bryan's persistent failure embodied a larger triumph. Throughout his career, Bryan championed the vision of social democracy that finally (if imperfectly) became embodied in the New Deal. Far more clearly than his successful contemporaries Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Bryan understood the need for curbing concentrated corporate and government power in the name of genuine democracy. He recognized the fundamental conflict between republican tradition and imperial ambition. He was prescient on nearly every policy matter of his time, from the progressive income tax and banking regulation to union rights and federally funded social insurance. Even his critique of evolutionary thought, however embarrassing to right-thinking secularists today, focused on the dubious and repellent social applications of Darwinian theory -- eugenics and similar schemes for eliminating the ethnically "unfit."

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."

The Social Gospel was a politically charged expression of a much broader evangelical consensus in post-Civil War America, a Protestant sea of language and belief that seeped into nearly all aspects of public life. The persistent project of self-improvement merged with the growing acceptance of (uplifting) leisure to create institutions such as the Chautauqua lecture circuit, where Bryan became a star performer in his thirties as a handsome and charismatic man who looked younger than his years. Under big tents pitched in places such as Chillicothe, Ohio and Davenport, Iowa, he sweated, he waved his arms, he mesmerized audiences for hours with his booming, mellifluous, but oddly conversational voice, his plainspoken anecdotes, and his biblical cadences.

Neither he nor his audiences bothered with theological niceties. They displayed the typical American trait, as William James characterized it, of disbelieving "facts and theories for which we have no use." One was the doctrine of original sin. Bryan was a liberal optimist, as Kazin points out, who believed that "Jesus was a benevolent figure and hell an anachronistic abstraction." Reverent readers of The Commoner, his magazine, applauded Bryan's effort to apply "the teachings of Jesus to everyday life and public affairs." Between runs for the presidency, his ceaseless speech-making was a way of "doing God's work by defending the interests of suffering humanity." Or so he and his audiences believed. And doing God's work was not merely a matter of obligatory plodding. Bryan went about it with unending gusto well into his sixties, his paunch hanging over his belt, his pants bagging at the knees, his morning-coat tails flapping in the prairie wind.

What gave a special energy to his Social Gospel was its emotional core: a yearning for regeneration at once personal and social, moral and spiritual. That common chord of longing resonated between Bryan and his audiences; the excitement it aroused was what made the evangelical consensus the seedbed of "godly insurgencies" (in Kazin's apt phrase) -- the Knights of Labor in the 1880s, the Populist Party in the 1890s. Bryan caught the Populist fire and carried it into the Democratic Party, marrying Jefferson and Jesus. Like his idol Tolstoy, he was a "hedgehog" (to use Isaiah Berlin's term) who knew One Big Thing: that the spirit of Jesus could regenerate an entire society, not only saving individual souls but also suffusing social relations with democratic fellow feeling. Christianity would be the cement that held the cooperative commonwealth together.

One of the great achievements of A Godly Hero is that it brings to life a good man with a benign social vision but apparently little inner life -- certainly no inner demons -- and makes him an interesting, sympathetic, even arresting character. But all that does not quite make him a model for contemporary leadership. No matter how desperately the Democratic Party needs inspiration from the past, Bryan cannot simply be lifted out of his time to speak to ours. As Kazin remarks, he embodied a persistent "yearning for a society run by and for ordinary people who lead virtuous lives." The question is: who gets to say what's virtuous? To wed politics and virtue, while defining virtue as conformity to conventional norms, is (at best) to risk terminal boredom -- as William James recognized when, after a week at Chautauqua, he craved "the flash of a pistol, a dagger, or a devilish eye, anything to break the unlovely level of ten thousand good people." It was a world for decent liberal optimists -- one without the dread of ennui and disbelief, the awareness of metaphysical darkness that James could never forget for long: a world for people like Bryan.

The difficulties with Bryan's worldview involve political substance as well as philosophical style. Despite his own ecumenical breadth -- he displayed a tolerance for Catholics and Jews that was comparatively rare among Protestants of his day -- Bryan's Social Gospel presented a problematic vision for a genuinely pluralistic society. Even at the high tide of evangelical consensus, not everyone wanted to be regenerated in quite the same way. In fact, the very notion of regeneration was rooted in the peculiarly Protestant hope of personal transformation through conversion. And the most strikingly successful Progressive drive to regenerate the body politic by regenerating individual bodies was the movement to prohibit the consumption of alcohol from coast to coast, which resulted in the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1919. Not everyone took kindly to this mandatory national purification, particularly the non-Protestant ethnic groups that increasingly flocked to Bryan's own party. When the Democrats regained power in the 1930s, they would owe their ascendancy to a new and more motley assemblage than the one that had voted for Bryan.

The distance between Bryan and contemporary Democrats stems from a variety of complex developments in American politics and American Protestantism. Some of the most decisive changes involved the struggle for racial equality. Race was simply not on the Progressive agenda in the early twentieth century -- unless it was the disfranchisement of black people in the name of "good government." Though he advocated women's suffrage, Bryan tacitly accepted the exclusion of African Americans from politics. The Populist movement may have begun (at least in the South) as a biracial insurgency, but when it entered the Democratic mainstream it was a lily-white affair. Demands for economic justice were less complicated when they avoided challenging Jim Crow.

By the time Bryan was leaving the political stage, the Progressive tradition had begun to turn into something more akin to modern liberalism. The suppression of free speech during World War I -- not to mention the chilling effect of Prohibition -- had led Dewey and other intellectuals (including a number involved with this magazine) to place a new value on civil liberties and the protection of minority rights. It would be decades before the minorities in question included African Americans, but still the change in tone was significant. The new liberalism was more secular, pluralistic, and pragmatic than the old Progressivism. As the Social Gospel faded, Protestant Christianity and radical politics pulled apart. The looming specter of Bolshevism and the Red Scare orchestrated by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer reinforced a fundamental shift in radical iconography. In the popular imagination, the radical was no longer the pitchfork-wielding farmer, but rather the bomb-throwing (and frequently Jewish) foreigner. White evangelical Protestantism retreated from overt political involvement for half a century, until it emerged in the 1970s in a guise that would have been unrecognizable to Bryan. By the Reagan era, Jesus was no longer a prophet of economic justice; he was a proponent of surefire personal success.

But none of this means that Bryan is irrelevant to contemporary liberalism and its current difficulties. On the contrary: there remains something compelling about the man, about the coherence of his character and his public thought. His example makes clear that morality can sustain a consistent approach to public life, not merely a set of prescribed positions on "values issues." Bryan's moral vision informed the comprehensive critique of laissez-faire capitalism that led to the American version of the welfare state. It also animated his commitment to making war the last -- instead of the first -- resort of foreign policy. His career should remind us that Christianity can inflect public life in humane and intelligent ways. Bryan knew that Jesus's teachings were far more compatible with radical social democracy than with devil-take-the-hindmost individualism. This subversive insight is still available, if anyone cares to remember it. And Kazin's book is the best place to see the possibilities and the limitations of the Social Gospel, through the life of its most eloquent preacher.

Bryan imbibed politics and religion with his mother's milk. He was born in 1860 in Salem, Illinois, a town boasting such signs of progress as a new railroad and a Methodist women's college, but surrounded by farmers fretting about tight money and mounting debt. His father was a lawyer and a prominent figure in the state Democratic Party -- an organization sustained (as Kazin observes) by a "potent mix of egalitarian principles and racist fear." His mother was competent and devout, a leading member of the local Women's Christian Temperance Union. Young Bryan himself seemed fated for oratory from the outset: at the age of four, he began to give "little talks" to his playmates from the front steps of his house. At thirteen, he attended a revival of the Cumberland Presbyterians, who rejected Calvinist notions of "election," holding out salvation to all while condemning dancing, drinking, and similar profane pursuits. This was the combination of liberal theology and conservative morality that Bryan would favor throughout his life.

At Illinois College in Jacksonville, known as a haven for "red-hot abolitionists," Bryan remained a loyal Democrat, a YMCA member who never touched liquor or cards and carried a Bible around campus. In a society where public speaking was a competitive sport, Bryan quickly found his voice. Bored by the college classes in rhetoric, he practiced in the woods, by himself. The cultural atmosphere was pervaded by sentimental ideals of sincerity, and Bryan inhaled them deeply. "A lifelong romantic," Kazin remarks, "Bryan could not imagine that inauthentic motives could lead to moral behavior."

That naïveté was his weakness, but it was also his strength. It energized his courtship of Mary Elizabeth Baird, the daughter of a prosperous Jacksonville merchant and student at the local Female Academy -- "the Jail for Angels," as the town boys called it. She was a domestic version of the New Woman, more concerned with public ideas and issues than with entertaining and dressing well. Reversing Victorian gender roles, she was pragmatic and skeptical, while her suitor was didactic and visionary. In a letter to her in 1880, he struck a characteristically portentous tone, referring to himself in the third person: "Law will be his profession, his aim, to mete out justice to every creature, whether he be rich or poor, bond or free. His great desire is to honor God and please mankind" -- and also "to stand with Webster and Clay." A little put off by Bryan's relentless piety, Mary eventually accepted his marriage proposal. She studied law and passed the bar exam, sharing a double desk with Bryan while also finding time to raise their three children, manage the household, and try to safeguard the health of a man who loved chicken-fried steak and peach pie with ice cream. During their early years together, Will's absorption in public life left Mary isolated and sometimes quietly desperate. After he lost a Senate bid in 1894, she asked him to quit politics. When, knowing himself, he said he could not, she accepted her fate stoically. Whatever inner restlessness she may have felt, she remained her husband's indispensable partner throughout their life together.

Bryan's career sputtered briefly, then caught fire. After several tedious years of practicing law in Jacksonville, he visited a law school chum in Lincoln, Nebraska, and "caught a vision" of "a new country." He packed up his young family and headed west. Soon after he arrived in Lincoln, he began introducing himself to every Democratic leader in the state. The party was poised between the laissez-faire Bourbon establishment and the insurgent Farmers' Alliance; the key issue dividing them was how much (if any) government intervention to demand on behalf of the dispossessed. Bryan took his time deciding which faction to support, but hard times helped make up his mind.

In the late 1880s, the forces of nature and the market combined to create unprecedented hardship for Nebraska farmers. They were battered by blizzards, bankers, and brokers; their profit margins were squeezed down to nothing by high railroad rates, tight money, and mounting indebtedness. When they got lucky and raised a bumper crop of corn or wheat, their prices plummeted. Commodities markets were as menacing and unpredictable as the weather. The situation was a severe instance of a chronic condition: farmers were damned if they did and damned if they didn't. The alliance spoke directly to their desperation, drawing on a long rhetorical tradition that arrayed the producers of the prairie against the parasites of Wall Street.

Bryan was raised in that tradition, and he quickly began to deploy it as a young activist in the campaign of 1888, stumping statewide on behalf of Democratic candidates. Addressing discontent with simple force, he perfected his speaking style. Returning one night from the northwest corner of the state, he awakened Mary to share his excitement. "Last night I found that I had power over the audience," he said. "I could move them as I chose. I have more than usual power as a speaker.... God grant that I may use it wisely." He knelt by the bed and prayed. The boy orator was already melding grandiosity and humility, on his way to becoming the Great Commoner.

In 1890, Bryan ran for Congress. It was a propitious moment. Local Farmers' Alliances were coalescing into the People's Independent Party, a.k.a. the Populists. Running as a Democrat, Bryan wanted to lead a prairie insurgency. He attacked tariffs, trusts, and the gold standard -- which since 1873 had created a narrow basis for the money supply, making borrowing expensive and indebtedness a heavy burden. He waffled on Prohibition so as not to alienate his working-class constituency in Omaha. Stopping in saloons, he had his aide buy beers all around while he himself quaffed soda water. He won in a walk, the second Democratic congressman in Nebraska history.

Bryan's first star performance in Washington was a speech calling for the liberation of wool and twine from the tariff's grip; and his second demanded the free coinage of silver -- an inflation of the currency designed to lift the burden of "sound money" from the backs of debt-ridden farmers'. Within a few months he had established himself as the leading agrarian radical in Congress. He ran in 1892 as a Populist in all but name, winning handily and soon confronting the ravages of Wall Street panic and economic collapse. As businesses failed and unemployment spread, a wealthy Ohioan named Jacob Coxey led a legion of "tramps" to Washington to demand federal jobs and an eight-hour day. The ruling class shivered, and the conservative Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, aimed to restore business confidence by making sound money even sounder. He proposed to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which had authorized the government to buy a limited amount of silver for coinage. The gold standard would be re-affirmed and purified of even the smallest taint of silver.

Bryan was outraged, denouncing the proposed repeal as a deflationary move that would only exacerbate the economic depression. "Can you cure hunger by a famine?" he asked, and proceeded to deliver a series of proverbial couplets: "The poor man is called a socialist if he believes that the wealth of the rich should be divided among the poor, but the rich man is called a financier if he devises a plan by which the pittance of the poor can be converted to his use." The speech was a sensation, provoking ecstasy in the countryside and dark fulminations on Wall Street. Bryan was radicalized: he spoke out for a graduated income tax and federal insurance on bank deposits; he attacked Cleveland's intervention in the Pullman strike and endorsed the workers' right to form a union and to strike. He was attracting national attention, but his ambitions ran afoul of the Republican landslide in 1894. Setting his sights on the Senate, he won 73 percent of the popular vote but lost in the state legislature (where senators were chosen until 1913). Still, his eloquence had made him a man to watch, even while it had also given his detractors a target -- "the image of a man in love with his words but heedless of rigorous argument," as Kazin puts it. Oratory made him famous, but it also blocked his path to power in the long run.

In the short run, though, it was a different story. Bryan's political defeat had been a moral victory. He was the people's choice, and he was poised to assume prominence in a Democratic Party that was lurching to the left, responding to the human cost of Cleveland's disastrous policies. The country, in deep depression, was aflame with popular movements of the discontented. In July 1896, many of them descended on Chicago, where the Democratic Party was holding its convention. Inside the hall, free-silverites from the South and West controlled the platform debate; eastern goldbugs were banned from the floor. The streets outside thronged with suffragists, prohibitionists, socialists, and Populists -- a scruffy lot, thought respectable folk, whose ministers invoked the specter of anarchy.

The Democratic platform in 1896 decisively re-set the party's course away from laissez-faire and toward Wilson's New Freedom and FDR's New Deal. It declared the gold standard "not only un-American but anti-American" because it placed Americans' welfare in the hands of British bankers (this was the opening to anti-Semitism in Populist lore). It reviled Grover Cleveland for bedding down with J.P. Morgan and criticized the Supreme Court for nullifying the income tax. It demanded government control of the money supply and defended workers' right to strike. "Democrats now possessed a Decalogue of reform, but lacked a Moses to lead them," Kazin observes. But then, after a parade of unimpressive speakers, Bryan stepped up to the podium.

Bryan's Cross of Gold speech resonated with republican tradition. It was, in Kazin's words, "a Jeffersonian's plea for moral equity, not a radical's demand for power." Much of its two hours were taken up with the familiar producerist argument that farmers, miners, and other laborers created as much or more wealth than commodity traders or financiers. The nod to labor was an attempt to bring the urban worker on board, but while Bryan lavished praise on farmers, he had nothing to say about factory hands or building tradesmen, who could equally well claim producers' credentials. Bryan's agrarian bias would prove fatal to his campaign.

But no one in the hall was thinking about that as Bryan rose to his conclusion. As Kazin vividly makes clear, Bryan's gestures were as significant as his words. "'Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere,' he declared, before raising his hands to his temples and stretching his fingers out along his forehead for the penultimate phrase, 'we will answer their demand 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!'"

He stepped back from the podium and stretched his arms out to his sides, holding the Christ-like pose for five seconds. There were a few moments of silence, and then "everybody seemed to go mad at once," the New York World reported, "the whole face of the convention was broken by the tumult -- hills and valleys of shrieking men and women." The New York Times, like much of the established press, saw the dire social implications at once: "a Wild, Raging, Irresistible mob" had been unleashed by a demagogue.

It is hard to grasp this apocalyptic furor over apparently arcane questions of currency management. In our own time, economic debate is conducted in reified abstractions and dueling statistics, in categories created by academic economists. "Over the past century," Kazin politely observes, "economics has become a highly specialized profession that repels those who question its authority." But in Bryan's day, the professionalization of economic thought had just begun. Producerist tradition sustained a popular distrust of abstractions in economic life, based on the insistence that wealth be embodied in tangible entities: crops, coal, gold, silver. Advocates of free silver were articulating the need for a more flexible money supply -- a reasonable enough goal, even if the rhetoric surrounding it was shrill and conspiracy-ridden.

But the election of 1896 was about far more than the money question. It was "the first time in my life and in the life of a generation," the Progressive journalist William Allen White wrote, "in which any man large enough to lead a national party had boldly and unashamedly made his cause that of the poor and the oppressed." No presidential candidate until Franklin Roosevelt received so much mail (and so many gifts) from admirers: Catholics and Jews who felt the need to identify themselves as such; Protestants who took their identification for granted and hailed Bryan as "the saviour of our nation."

For Bryan, the choice between him and the Republican William McKinley was a choice between "two ideas of government" -- prosperity from the top down or from the bottom up. He insisted on the protection of a common public interest from rapacious private interests, proposing the regulation of business and other policy innovations in homely metaphors. En route to a campaign stop in Iowa, he saw some hogs tearing up a farmer's field and remembered that one of his jobs as a boy had been to keep the swine tethered to protect the family land. "And then it occurred to me that one of the most important duties of government is to put rings in the noses of hogs," he said. "We submit to restraint on ourselves in order that others may be restrained from injuring us."

But the hogs were not ready to be reined in. While Bryan roared about the country trying to sell himself, McKinley campaigned from his front porch in Ohio, letting his handler Mark Hanna sell him "as if he were a patent medicine" (in Theodore Roosevelt's words). In what has become a familiar Republican tactic, the McKinley campaign distributed thousands of American flags and flag buttons, implying that their opponents were somehow less than patriotic. And along with the wiles of Hanna, Bryan confronted more serious problems. Agrarian radicalism did not always translate well into industrial settings. Free silver meant little to urban workers, and the tariff was their friend. Bryan's camp-meeting style alienated German-American voters, who helped put Illinois and Indiana in the Republican column, along with the upper Midwest, the entire Northeast, and the West Coast. Bryan took the Great Plains and the South, and this was not nearly enough. Despite their defeat, though, the Democrats had departed decisively from their laissez-faire past. Bryan was at the center of this transformation.

Within a few years after the campaign of 1896, the money question faded. Free silver lost resonance as corn, wheat, and cotton brought higher prices on commodities markets and farm debt fell. The discovery of gold in Alaska relieved pressure on the money supply, and a Republican Congress re-affirmed its commitment to the gold standard. The emerging class issue was fear of the trusts -- the unprecedented and largely unconstrained economic power concentrated in monopolistic corporations. Manipulation of the money supply seemed a paltry weapon against these behemoths, and radicals grew impatient with Populist panaceas. In certain circles, murmurings about public ownership began to be heard. By 1900, the Democratic left had lost ideological coherence. Again nominated for president, Bryan spoke for scattered and disgruntled factions, quarreling among themselves with little common purpose.

The one thread that pulled them together was opposition to imperialist foreign policy. Bryan had long suspected militarism as an "unchristian tool of the upper classes," but he had a weakness for moral crusades. So he put himself at McKinley's disposal in 1898, when the president proclaimed his intent to free Cuba from Spanish domination. Bryan enlisted in the Nebraska National Guard, raised his own regiment, and sat out the Spanish-American War far from combat. (McKinley made sure of that.) But when war ended in the Caribbean, it continued in the Philippines, which American advocates of empire had decided to annex -- overlooking the awkward fact that the Filipinos were as committed to fighting for their independence against the Americans as they had been against the Spanish. Annexation required ten years of armed struggle against Filipino men, women, and children who were determined to resist "the blessings of liberty and civilization" that the Republican Party platform pledged to bring them.

Like William James, Mark Twain, and other thoughtful Americans, Bryan was appalled by this betrayal of the principles that had supposedly led the United States into war with Spain in the first place. Unlike Theodore Roosevelt, he knew the difference between a republic and an empire. "The fruits of imperialism, be they bitter or sweet, must be left to the subjects of a monarchy," he said in 1899. "This is one tree of which the citizens of a republic may not partake. It is the voice of the serpent, not the voice of God, that bids us eat." McKinley, he charged, was "trying to convert the Filipinos by killing them." Accepting the nomination in 1900, Bryan merged Jesus and Jefferson in his critique of imperialism. How did the imperialists' claims of concern for the Filipinos differ from those of the British for the American colonists in 1776? How could the acquisition of empire not require the establishment of a standing army that would encourage more "wars of conquest"? William James, for one, was profoundly impressed with Bryan's stand. "I have so fallen in love with him for his character," he told a correspondent, "that I am willing to forget his following."

But James was not a typical American. A majority of his countrymen were unmoved by Bryan's appeal to republican tradition. A part of the problem was that Bryan had to compete with the antics of Roosevelt, McKinley's rough-riding running mate and the hero of the tactically dubious charge up San Juan Hill. Roosevelt despised Bryan as a "small man" unwilling to take up the burdens of national greatness. "A man goes out to do a man's work, to confront the difficulties and overcome them, and to train up his children to do likewise," he announced. "So it is with the Nation." The portentous vacancy of this formula, its utter lack of evidence or argument, and its fundamental confusion of individual and national courage -- all these qualities were characteristic of Roosevelt's imperial rhetoric, and none proved a barrier to his popularity. McKinley won easily, and Roosevelt ascended to the presidency when McKinley was assassinated in 1901.

Bryan never called a retreat. He created The Commoner as a vehicle for developing his vision of social democracy, which gradually merged with the widening Progressive mainstream. By the time he and Mary returned from a world tour in 1906, the public had caught Progressive fever, fed by such muckraking journalists as Ida Tarbell, who revealed the corruption of entire legislatures by Standard Oil, and David Graham Phillips, who exposed "the treason of the Senate" in the service of big business. Bryan saw another opportunity. He bundled an attractive package of Progressive reforms, sidled up to urban labor, and won the nomination. His party's platform thundered against money but otherwise differed little from the Republicans', except for advocating a federal mandate that national banks insure deposits. Bryan's opponent William Howard Taft, speaking for the embryonic regulatory state that began to emerge under Roosevelt, identified the source of the Democrats' timidity as their small-government tradition. He observed that the Democrats could neither punish the rich nor help the poor as long as so many of them still wanted "to reduce the government to a mere town meeting." Temporary heir apparent to the popular Roosevelt, Taft defeated Bryan easily. His victory brought a benign standpatter to the White House -- a president who would be brought down by the spreading, bipartisan Progressive insurgency.

The Democrats began to position themselves. Within the next few years, some party leaders -- including Bryan -- moved a little further away from their Jeffersonian past. In the spring of 1909, Bryan came out for Prohibition, departing from Democratic libertarianism. After his defeat the year before, he was free at last, he claimed, to express his hostility to the Liquor Trust. Cynics suspected another run, but the man to watch turned out to be Woodrow Wilson. He had at first disdained Bryan, warming to him only after becoming governor of New Jersey and a presidential aspirant. The men circled each other warily until the convention of 1912. Bryan by that time was no longer young. "The firm strong features that made him so handsome sixteen years ago have hardened and grown coarse," a reporter noticed. "His neck is thick and his jaw has an iron rigidity." Age and self-righteousness had taken their toll. But Bryan was poised to play a kingmaker's part. The key issue for him was Wall Street: for Bryan, Wilson seemed more likely than his chief opponent, Champ Clark of Missouri, to defend ordinary people against the white-shoe investment bankers and their "Money Trust." So he decided to switch his support to Wilson at a crucial moment, ensuring Wilson's nomination.

That sort of deed can hardly go unrewarded, at least not by a successful presidential candidate. Wilson appointed Bryan secretary of state. This was not as crass a political move as it may have seemed. Bryan was by no means as provincial as his detractors assumed: he had traveled widely, observing the operations of empire in India and Malaysia and the modernization of tradition in Japan; he had informally adopted a Japanese "son." More important, he and Wilson shared certain sensibilities. Both were Presbyterians with a fondness for the messianic gesture; both abhorred the pro-business priorities of "dollar diplomacy." Wilson was sterner, Bryan sunnier, but both men were given to grandiose visions of America's role in the world -- even as they tried to define that role in language outside the familiar idioms of military adventure and imperial power. As early as 1900, Bryan had envisioned the United States as "the supreme moral factor in the world's progress and the accepted arbiter of the world's disputes -- a republic whose history, like the path of the just, 'is as the shining light that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.'" A City on a Hill that would lead by example rather than try to force its ways on the rest of the world: this was Bryan's alternative to the imperial vision.

Implementing such a perfectionist agenda would be a tricky business, but Bryan was not bereft of ideas. By the time Wilson asked him to serve as secretary of state, Bryan had conceived an ambitious plan to reduce the likelihood of American involvement in war. He proposed that the United States sign a series of bilateral treaties in which each signatory would agree to submit any quarrel to an investigative tribunal and begin no conflict for a year afterward. One of the conditions of his accepting the appointment was that Wilson allow him to pursue this plan. (The other was that there be no liquor served at his and Mary's table on state occasions.) Wilson agreed, and Bryan entered the period that marked the decisive downturn in his career.

Bryan's unhappy tenure at State was characterized by blundering interventions in Latin America that violated his own reluctance to use force except as a last resort, and by the coming of World War I -- a cataclysm, as Kazin points out, that made Bryan's beloved bilateral treaties seem "irrelevant or even ridiculous." From the outset, Wilson's Latin American foreign policy was more than half Bryanite. Both men rejected any desire to take colonies or seek material plunder; both wanted to guide Latin America to a peaceful democratic future. This "imperialism of idealism" created disaster at every turn. Intoxicated by their own good intentions, Wilson and Bryan "had little patience with the messy details of local politics or cultural distinctions," Kazin succinctly observes. "In their clumsy efforts to heal a sinful world, they shaped a mold for future disasters."

Moralism always seemed to bring militarism in its wake. As a Haitian journalist observed after the United States established a military regime there in 1915, supposedly to protect Haitians from exploitation and Americans from expropriation, "The Americans are enemies of despotism, and to prevent its return, they invaded the country." Naïveté could be as destructive as realpolitik. In the fall of 1913, Bryan was fooled by James Sullivan, the American ambassador to Santo Domingo, who was heavily involved in its biggest bank. Sullivan persuaded Bryan (and through him Wilson) to back the Dominican president, José Bordas Valdez, who was trying to extend his term beyond its one-year limit. Bryan in turn cajoled Wilson into sending U.S. naval vessels to Santo Domingo harbor "for moral effect." For the rest of his time in office, Bryan lurched from one Dominican leader to another, each of whom kept promising to hold free elections. After Bryan's departure, Wilson sent in the Marines to run the country as a military police state, which they did for twenty years. In Mexico, Bryan and Wilson aimed to protect American investments while using a combination of diplomacy and force to make agrarian rebels behave like good American Progressives; the consequences of this policy included botched invasions and needlessly lost lives, as well as lingering Latin distrust of the pious bully to the north.

But if Wilson and Bryan bungled together in Latin America, when it came to World War I they pulled quickly apart. Like most Anglo-Americans, Wilson was instinctively pro-British -- as was the established press, which derived most of its news from British sources and depicted the Germans as marauding savages. Bryan's insistent neutrality isolated him from the rest of the Wilson administration. The central issue involved German submarine warfare against civilian belligerent vessels, which the Germans charged were carrying ammunition and other war materiel to their enemies. The problem was that these same ships were also carrying civilian passengers, including some from the officially neutral United States. When a German U-boat sank the British liner Lusitania in May 1915, 128 Americans were among the 1,195 people who perished. Bryan wondered if the ship had been carrying munitions, and in fact later investigation revealed that six million rounds of ammunition in the ship's hold had increased the death toll dramatically. But at the time of the sinking, American policymakers were in no mood for anti-British muckraking. Bryan wanted to warn Americans against riding belligerent vessels; Wilson thought the idea "weak and futile," and insisted on a harsh note demanding that the Germans ensure the safety of neutrals or abandon submarine warfare altogether.

Bryan resigned soon afterward, believing that his efforts to promote a moderate course had failed. As Kazin observes, he might have stayed on as a salutary irritant, focusing his energy on matters more "practical" diplomats shunted aside -- the Armenian genocide, for example, which Bryan's successor Robert Lansing refused to protest publicly. Instead Bryan left public office, and in subsequent decades became a symbol of sentimental naïveté in foreign policy.

The judgment is unfair. It is true that Bryan embodied the survival of "feminized" Victorian sentiment amid a public discourse increasingly infatuated with manly vigor and "tough-minded realism." Yet the war and its aftermath made boasts of realism ring hollow. Bryan's wariness about intervention was well grounded, certainly more so than Wilson's belief that if he entered the war he could bend the European powers to his will and achieve a "Peace Without Victory." Wilson's concept of a League of Nations was noble and necessary; it confronted the need for the abridgment of national sovereignty that any such organization must be able to enforce if it is to be more than a debating society. But Bryan correctly saw that for Wilson's vision to have any hope of fulfillment, he would have to allow the Senate to ratify the Versailles Treaty with reservations. This Wilson refused to do. Bryan proved more prescient and realistic than many men who dismissed him as an impractical dreamer.

After his departure from the State Department, Bryan turned his attention to Prohibition and women's suffrage -- two moral reform movements that were hurtling toward fulfillment. Bryan viewed them as complementary: women were among the main supporters of Prohibition, and their influence would be as regenerative for the body politic as the abolition of alcohol. These dreams of national redemption marked him as a man whose time was passing. The Progressive coalition was splitting apart just as its fondest hopes were about to be realized. This became apparent in the winter of 1916, when Bryan took a boat trip through the swamps of northern Florida, where he was interviewed between stump speeches by the bohemian journalist John Reed. While the locals roared their approval of Bryan at every stop, Reed simply could not take him seriously -- any more seriously than he could take the YMCA, the Chautauqua circuit, or the whole apparatus of Protestant uplift. The surreal scene evoked an American left on the cusp of transformation, poised between The Commoner and The Masses, between righteousness and skeptical satire. The heartland left was losing legitimacy.

And for good reason, many liberals would say. Certainly the closing years of Bryan's career revealed the looming narrowness of his creed. Even while he embraced a Social Gospel version of the strong liberal state -- demanding federal financing of political campaigns and the enforcement of anti-prostitution laws against male clients as well as female purveyors -- he also re-affirmed the racism and the anti-intellectualism that pervaded much of his constituency. He endorsed segregation and suffrage restrictions in states with large black populations, and he embarked on his quixotic crusade against Darwinism. He had always been a pragmatic Christian moralist, never a devotee of dogma. But when a clever skeptic pressed him on theological matters, as Clarence Darrow did at the Scopes Trial, Bryan could be made to appear ridiculous. Darrow got the last word in the trial by instructing the jury to bring in a guilty verdict against his client, after Bryan's embarrassing testimony had been stricken from the record. So Bryan never had a chance to redeem himself by delivering his closing statement -- a cogent critique of social Darwinism, focusing on the misuse of science as a weapon against the weak.

Bryan died in his sleep a few days after the verdict, but the statement was soon published, and it made a powerful epitaph. The man's ideas outlived his outwardly unsuccessful life. Bryan's funeral train, en route from Tennessee to Washington, was flanked by mourning plain folk. But the smart set met his passing with howls of derision. Mencken wrote a famous character assassination disguised as an obituary. In many ways one can understand the sentiments of the sophisticated. By the 1920s, Bryan's rhetoric had been outmoded by microphones and changing tastes; his sunny Victorian optimism had come to seem vapid and evasive; his zeal for Prohibition epitomized everything prying and prudish about the Protestant village culture that many sensitive Americans were fleeing.

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.