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The Controversial Commoner

March 2023
1min read

When McKeighan died [William McKeighan, Nebraska free-silverite], Bryan came down to the sun-scorched, dried-up, blown-away little village of Red Cloud to speak at his funeral. There, with an audience of some few hundreds of bronzed farmers who believed in him as their deliverer, the man who could lead them out of the bondage of debt, who could stay the drought and strike water from the rock, I heard him make the greatest speech of his life. Surely that was eloquence of the old stamp that was accounted divine, eloquence that reached through the callus of ignorance and toil and found and awoke the stunted souls of men. I saw those rugged men of the soil weep like children. Six months later, at Chicago, when Bryan stampeded a convention, appropriated a party, electrified a nation … one of those ragged farmers sat beside me in the gallery, and at the close of that never-to-be-forgotten speech, he leaned over the rail, the tears on his furrowed cheeks, and shouted, “The sweet singer of Israel.”

Willa Cather, in Round-up: A Nebraska Reader

What a disgusting, dishonest fakir Bryan is! When I see so many Americans running after him, I feel very much as I do when a really lovely woman falls in love with a cad.

Elihu Root to William M. Laffan, October 31, 1900

As for Bryan, though he has many kindly and amiable traits, what a shallow demagogue he is! I do not believe he is a bit worse than Thomas Jefferson, and I do not think that if elected President he will be a worse President. The country would survive, but it would suffer just as the country suffered for at least two generations because of its folly in following Jefferson’s lead.

Theodore Roosevelt to Henry Cabot Lodge, August 6, 1906

It has become the custom nowadays, among supercilious people, to depict Bryan as a clown, or a fool, or a mountebank. He was nothing of the kind. In many respects, he was one of the shrewdest men I have ever known. In him, unsophistication and sagacity were strangely blended. Along with this he was truthful and square. His friendships were sincere; one could depend implicitly on his word. … He turned every public question into a moral issue. He was by nature a crusader, a reformer. … But anyone who pictures him as a grumpy, sour, muddled fanatic is wholly wrong. …

As I think of him there comes into my mind what somebody said of Gladstone—that to keep hating him, one had to avoid meeting him. I cannot say if this was true of Gladstone, but it was certainly true of William Jennings Bryan.

William G. McAdoo, in Crowded Years

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