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Bryan: The Progressives: Part I
exhibit one in a gallery of men who fought the good fight in vain
December 1961 | Volume 13, Issue 1
That these appearances were deceiving was due in considerable measure to William Jennings Bryan. Unchastened by defeat and always cheerful (“It is better to have run and lost than never to have run at all,” he said), he maintained the leadership of his party. Consistently he took the liberal position on important issues. Despite his strong pacifism he approved of fighting Spain in 1898 in order to free Cuba. “Humanity demands that we should act,” he said simply. He enlisted in the Army and rose to be a colonel, although he saw no action during the brief conflict. The sincerity of his motives was proved when the war ended, for he then fought against the plan to annex former Spanish colonies. Running for President a second time in 1900, he made resistance to imperialism an issue in the campaign along with free silver. If both of these were poorly calculated to win votes in 1900, they were nonetheless solidly in the liberal tradition. Bryan lost to McKinley again, this time by 861,459 votes, and leadership of the reform movement passed, after McKinley’s assassination, to Theodore Roosevelt. But Bryan continued the fight. In 1904, battling almost alone against conservatives in his own party, he forced the adoption of a fairly liberal platform (including strong antitrust, pro-labor, and antitariff planks), and when the conservative Judge Alton B. Parker was nonetheless nominated for President, Bryan kept up his outspoken criticism. While remaining loyal to the Democratic party he announced boldly: “The fight on economic questions … is not abandoned. As soon as the election is over I shall … organize for the campaign of 1908.”
In that campaign Bryan, once more the Democratic nominee, was once more defeated in his personal quest of the Presidency, this time by Roosevelt’s handpicked successor, William Howard Taft. Immediately he announced that he would not seek the office again, thus throwing the field open to other liberals.
Although he thus abandoned formal leadership of the Democrats, Bryan continued to advocate reform. Throughout the Taft administration he campaigned up and down the country to bolster the liberal wing of his party. When the 1912 nominating convention met in Baltimore, he introduced and won approval of a highly controversial resolution denouncing Wall Street influence, and he stated repeatedly that he would not support any candidate who was under the slightest obligation to Tammany Hall. The platform, as one historian says, “was a progressive document, in the best Bryan tradition.” In the end Bryan threw his support to Woodrow Wilson. While this alone did not account for Wilson’s nomination, it was very important in his election, for it assured him the enthusiastic backing of millions of loyal Bryanites.
Nothing reveals Bryan’s fine personal qualities better than his support of Wilson, for the former Princeton professor had opposed the Great Commoner since 1896, when he had called the Cross of Gold speech “ridiculous.” In 1904 he had publicly demanded that the Bryan wing be “utterly and once and for all driven from Democratic counsels.” As late as 1908 he had refused to appear on the same platform with Bryan. Mr. Bryan, he said, “is the most charming and lovable of men personally, but foolish and dangerous in his theoretical beliefs.” During the campaign of that year he refused to allow Bryan to deliver a campaign speech on the Princeton campus.
By 1912 Wilson had become far more liberal and no longer opposed most of Bryan’s policies; even so, had Bryan been a lesser man he would not have forgiven these repeated criticisms. But he was more concerned with Wilson’s 1912 liberalism than with personal matters, despite the publication of an old letter in which Wilson had expressed the wish to “knock Mr. Bryan once and for all into a cocked hat!” He shrugged off the “cocked hat” letter, and when Wilson paid him a handsome public tribute they became good friends. Furthermore, during the 1912 campaign, Bryan campaigned vigorously for Wilson, making well over four hundred speeches within a period of seven weeks. When Wilson won an easy victory in November, Bryan reacted without a trace of envy or bitterness. “It is a great triumph,” he declared, “Let every Democratic heart rejoice.” A few months later he said in a speech in Chicago:
Sometimes I have had over-sanguine friends express regret that I did not reach the presidency. … But I have an answer ready for them. I have told them that they need not weep for me. … I have been so much more interested in the securing of the things for which we have been fighting than I have been in the name of the man who held the office, that I am happy in the thought that this government, through these reforms, will be made so good that a citizen will not miss a little thing like the presidency.
Wilson made Bryan Secretary of State. He was needed in the administration to help manage his many friends in Congress. The strategy worked well, for Bryan used his influence effectively. His role was particularly crucial in the hard fight over the Federal Reserve bill, but his loyal aid was also important in passing income tax legislation and a new antitrust law and in other matters as well.