Let’s play a quick game of Guess Who. Do you know who this man is?
If you do not, he might sound familiar to anyone paying attention to our modern political landscape. Starting off as a Congressman from a rural state, he launched multiple candidacies for President with an aggressive populist message. A Democrat, who was far from the “establishment” wing of his party that was often at odds with the rest of his party as well as the Democratic President, due to his stance on using the government to raise taxes on the rich, expand the scope of government and to doggedly attack the super rich practically campaigning to redistribute corporate wealth to workers. He held rallies where thousands would attend to hear him give speeches about the common man and how they were being victimized by wealthy corporations who hated him.
Now if read the above platform and you are a conservative, you’d readily recognize this as something you’d associate with most(if not all) Democrats. An over-eagerness to rely on the government and punishing the rich. And of course, if you are a progressive, the platform looks like a solid start, using the strength of the federal government to aid working families because you’re probably a Democrat like him.
But if you thought this was a picture of a younger Bernie Sanders… you’d be wrong. Though it does sound remarkably like what a Bernie Sanders would sound like today in 2020.
This is William Jennings Bryan.
William Jennings Bryan isn’t a Democrat from the modern Democratic Party. He isn’t even a Democrat from the formative years of Bernie Sanders’ youth of the 1960s. He really isn’t even a Democrat from anytime in the last 100 years. William Jennings Bryan rose to prominence in the Gilded Age of the 1880s campaigning for then President Grover Cleveland. Now, the politics of the 1880s and the 1890s when Bryan entered in politics is definitely not the politics of 2020, but the the similarities between the Democratic Party of now and the Democratic Party then are unmistakable.
And there is a very specific reason for this. To understand this reason, you have to go back to the very beginning and understand the philosophical difference with any Two-Party Dominant system like ours and that’s with the size and role of government. One side likes the role of government to be small and the other prefers for its presence to be more ubiquitous. The foundations of the Democratic Party was found with those that believed in a small government that allowed for individuals to know what’s best for them and their farming or agrarian interest than a centralized authority. This was the philosophy held by Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, farmers from Virginia who were known as “Democratic-Republicans” then. On the other side of the coin, Founding Fathers like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton belong to the “Federalist Party”, who believed in a stronger centralized government that could best protect the rights of individuals. However, before too long, John Adams lost re-election to Thomas Jefferson and Hamilton, of course, lost his life to Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s Vice President. And the Federalist Party soon followed both. (SPOILER ALERT for anyone who has either not seen Hamilton yet or opened a history book.)
Eventually, the Democratic-Republicans fractured and the Democratic Party emerged as the same party of Jefferson, that was the party of small government and agrarian interest and of course some of the largest holders of agrarian interest was the slave owners of the Antebellum South. They were eventually opposed by the Whig Party that believed in stronger government. They did not, however, believe in taking a strong stance against slavery, but a newer party did and took their place in our system; The Republican Party. Their first champion was Congressman and eventual President, Abraham Lincoln. And it is with his election that the question of slavery, the fall of agrarian politics and the rise of industry that gave birth to politicians like William Jennings Bryan.
When Lincoln was elected, Southern politicians saw the writing on the wall that the end of slavery was coming and they of course rebelled. The Civil War was fought and was won by the Union that won not simply by better tactics or strategy. The Confederacy, being mostly of the agrarian politics of farming and plantations did not have the powerful industries and factories of the Northern states. Lincoln was able to use that industrial strength to America’s advantage to produce more bullets, more cannons, textiles for more uniforms and bandages, iron for railways and wood to create cars to move soldiers. It was not the government making these resources, but it was the government buying these resources. It was Republicans like Lincoln that lead the party to be the pro-business party that it has become because they were dedicated to continuing the policies that generated their unparalleled wealth and agrarian workers of the Democratic Party were left behind.
And this is where William Jennings Bryan found his legacy. He was known as “The Great Commoner” because he was the face of the then-agrarian Democratic Party fighting for their interest against the Corporate Trust that backed Republican Presidents like William McKinley. The very William McKinley that would defeat Bryan in consecutive elections in 1896 and 1900. Unfortunately for the super rich, some Republicans still supported workers and saw the threat of a powerful Corporate lobby. And when President McKinley was assassinated, his Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt took up right where William Jennings Bryan left off and did as President what Bryan could not do as candidate.
I write all of this for those who do not know or who continue to dismiss political history. Many tracing the history of our Political Parties will draw the line at the likes of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, who were instrumental in bringing Black Americans to the Democratic Party over the last 50 or 60 years. Prior to that, Black Americans were not able to vote in large enough numbers to have political capital. That was actually succinctly done with the election of Republican President Rutherford Hayes when he ended Reconstruction. Yes, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were supposed to give us equal rights and voting rights, but those were laws of a central government authority. As was the politics of Theodore Roosevelt’s cousin Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal, an agenda that used the resources of central government to aid workers. However, small government figures in the South where the majority of Black Americans lived controlled voting rights and privileges. And when the the big government Republicans became focused on generating wealth, BOTH parties lost interest in Black America as a priority. This, of course, changed with the Kennedy-Johnson Administration. However, those same small government factions, Democrats AND Republicans in the South opposed Johnson’s priorities. And those same Small government factions are the ones who run the Republican Party today.
Am I blaming anyone for their party in being Anti-CIvil Rights? No. Afterall it was overwhelming majorities in both parties that passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in the 1960s. But I am also tired of those who pretend history never happened. It did. Regardless of whether you ever heard of William Jennings Bryan or not.
I have an idea. Let’s make him a statue. To some, that goes for learning these days.