A Complicated, Consequential Leader

Michael Kazin's recent biography of Williams Jennings Bryan introduces the 'Great Commoner' to a new generation.

History is a curious thing. A capable historian can make or break the legacy of a leading figure or an entire nation. A determined scholar can mold names and dates into a creative narrative—which may or may not accurately reflect reality.

Few American leaders have suffered the scorn of history like William Jennings Bryan. The "Great Commoner" was controversial and frequently unsuccessful in his own day (he lost three campaigns for President as the Democratic nominee). But Bryan has fared even worse in death. The 1960 movie Inherit the Wind cemented Bryan's legacy as the blustering bigot of the 1925 Scopes evolution trial. [See Christian HistoryIssue #55: The Monkey Trial and the Rise of Fundamentalism] Few have dared to suggest his significance since.

Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin, author of A Godly Hero: The Life of Williams Jennings Bryan (Knopf, 2006), knows that Bryan's association with fundamentalism makes him tough to sell. Publishers Weekly has already warned, "Kazin attempts a revisionist portrait of Bryan, whom scholars have long dismissed as a rabid white supremacist, bullying fundamentalist, and braying pacifist/isolationist. But Kazin errs in downplaying such popular characterizations of Bryan as a closed-minded Bible-thumper and bigot. … In sum, Kazin's heroic Bryan is simply not to be believed."

Surely Kazin, an expert on populism and the Progressive Era, expected such opposition when he stated the book's intent. "I wrote this book, in part, to gain a measure of respect for Bryan and his people," Kazin writes in his first chapter, "The Romance of Jefferson and Jesus." "I would like to help 'rescue' them from what E.P. Thompson, the great historian and activist, called 'the enormous condescension ...

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