William Jennings Bryan in Duluth

William-Jennings-Bryan-speaking-c1896I played the narrator role of the “Stage Manager” in my high school junior year production of “Our Town.” I remember giving a line about how William Jennings Bryan once spoke in Grover’s Corners, a sign of some strange and isolated collision between this small town and the churn of national events.

The Zenith City blog shares this item of interest: today in 1900, Democratic Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan spoke in several events around the Twin Ports of Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin.

Bryan is one of those figures that you can’t avoid in a basic reading of American political history, but who is often dismissed as “just” some guy who was nominated for president by a major party three times and never won. He railed against the gold standard, which was a topical issue of the time, and he was right but that didn’t really matter. You poke around some more and learn that Bryan was L. Frank Baum’s inspiration for the Wizard in “The Wizard of Oz.” Then you might read that Bryan was the attorney who argued against evolution in the Scopes Monkey Trial. He is thus understood as an affable, ambitious blowhard. You know, a typical politician.

That might well be true, but we must also recognize that Bryan was typical in ways that weren’t typical in his time. He hungrily sought the presidency through populist means that have since become the norm. Ambitious politicians once worked their tricks behind closed doors. Bryan flung open those doors, and took his case to the people. Unsuccessfully, of course, but what we see in American leadership today is much more like Bryan that it is like McKinley, the man who beat Bryan twice a long time ago.


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