Among failed presidential candidates, few have the iconic stature of William Jennings Bryan. Though frustrated in his three campaigns for the presidency, his championing of the issues of rural Americans made “the Great Commoner” a hero to millions. Paolo E. Coletta’s book, the first volume of a three volume biography of Bryan, covers his early years and his political career through his final attempt to become president.
The son of a local politician, Bryan grew up in Illinois in a strongly religious household. After college he embarked upon law school and a career in the law, moving to Nebraska in 1883. Though successful as an attorney, his true passion was politics, and he won election to Congress in 1890 as a Democrat. There he became a staunch advocate of agrarian issues, calling for tariff reductions, the establishment of an income tax, and the free and unlimited coinage of silver. Bryan soon found himself at odds with Grover Cleveland over the silver issue, and decided to leave Congress in 1894 in a futile pursuit of statewide office.
A powerful orator, Bryan’s continued advocacy for silver coinage even after leaving Congress made him a contender for the 1896 Democratic presidential nomination. His famous and impassioned “cross of gold” speech at the convention captured the imagination of the delegates, who chose him as their party’s nominee the following day – at 36, the youngest presidential nominee in American history. Though Bryan campaigned vigorously, he was defeated by the Republican nominee, William McKinley, in what proved a historic turning point in national politics.
Despite his defeat Bryan continued his political activism. He remained true to the cause of silver, and when Cuba’s status became a national issue Bryan advocated its independence. Defeated again in a rematch with McKinley, Bryan nevertheless maintained a visible presence with highly profitable speaking tours and the publication of The Commoner, a weekly journal espousing agrarian political issues and Jeffersonian principles. Coletta argues that during this period Bryan was a prophet of progressivism, endorsing the emerging political mood for which much of his own advocacy had paved the way. His concerns about the excesses of capitalism prompted Bryan to run for the presidency a third and final time in 1908, in a campaign that ended in a frustrating and perplexing defeat at the hands of William Howard Taft.
First published in 1964, Coletta’s book represented the first scholarly biography of Bryan. Based as it was on considerable archival labors, it remains an essential source for anyone seeking to understand the course of Bryan’s iconic life. Yet the lack of a systematic analysis of Bryan’s life based upon the research Coletta undertook is a serious disappointment, as readers are forced to draw their own conclusions from the details the author provides. Because of this, anyone seeking an introduction to Bryan would be better served turning to Robert Cherny’s A Righteous Cause or Michael Kazin’s A Godly Hero, both of whom have built upon Coletta’s work to provide an understanding of Bryan’s considerable legacy as a politician and activist.