William Jennings Bryan — known as “The Great Commoner” and “Keeper of the Faith” — was a Populist, religious, conundrum. He was for the people. He was against big money. He fought, testified, and prosecuted via the Bible — in utter infamy — during the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial and died five days after the trial ended. Defending his Faith killed him.
William Jennings Bryan was a good son of Nebraska who was nominated three times on the national Democrat ticket — and he lost each time — and his failure to find a national political footing beyond his deeply religious Nebraska grassroots haunted him until his death.
I was able to purchase this fascinating photo of William Jennings Bryan, dated September 18, 1924 — he would be dead 10 months later — the caption reads:
WITH THE COMMENDATION OF THE COMMONER
Photo shows William Jennings Bryan pinning a badge of allegiance (David-Bryan campaign stuff) to Rose Minto’s coat lapel. She is a popular motion picture star in Hollywood who is actively interested in politics.
What is most interesting about the photograph is the use of the black editorial pen on the image. You can see the crop indices, but there are also black ink pen “lines of emphasis” added to Ms. Minto’s hat, Bryan’s lapels and face. You can see the dullness the pen makes when you move the glossy photograph in your hand in and out of reflective light.
At first wink, those added lines look like marks of defamation until you realize, after scanning the photograph for publication here, they must have been an important part of newspaper publishing in 1924 to help the highlights and shadows be more discernable in ink on paper.
In the late 1980’s, my mentor, Marshall Jamison, and I wrote a teleplay for the Nebraska ETV Network based on the life of fellow Nebraskan — and national punching bag — William Jennings Bryan. The title of the script was “The Magnificent Loser” and our effort matched the title. The reasons for our failure to get the script right were plentiful. You may read an early draft of the script here. David Ogden Stiers was to play the role of William Jennings Bryan.
How can you root for a man who places his Faith first, above all else, even when he’s made to look a fool in public and his legacy as a humanist is placed in jeopardy? You can pity the man, but pity alone isn’t enough to offset the fact that William Jennings Bryan was a local, Creationist, celebrity who could not make a mainstream political run to save his life. He was always on the wrong side of the national coin, and he paid dearly for his inability to change with evolutionary, modern, times.
Yes, William Jennings Bryan is a fantastically perpetually fatalistic figure where Faith mattered more to him than fact — but in the end — we know what he had to know: He believed too much and didn’t compromise enough to be able to represent the madding crowd he claimed to love and support. It’s hard to root for the hardheaded panderer who, while magnificent in his belief, was utterly a loser when it came to cashing in on the human promise of his predestiny.
I was also able to purchase this telling photo — dated May 3, 1934 — that begins to reach the magnificence of William Jennings Bryan’s failures. The caption reads:
PRESIDENT LAUDS “GREAT COMMONER” AT DEDICATION
President Roosevelt, speaking at the dedication of a memorial to William Jennings Bryan, in Washington, D.C., May 3rd, said that the “Great Commoner,” had “fought the good fight and kept the faith”. The statue, depicting Bryan in speaking pose, and standing near the Lincoln Memorial, was unveiled by David Hargreaves, Bryan’s grandson. Photo shows David Hargreaves unveiling the memorial. The statue was designed by Gutzon Borglum.
In 1961, only 27 years after its unveiling, that Gutzon Borglum statue of William Jennings Bryan — Borglum was the most famous sculptor of his time, Mount Rushmore was his popular success — was removed from the public green in Washington, D.C. under public pressure and placed in Bryan’s hometown in Salem, Illinois. Here’s how that statues lands today:
In 1947, the State of Nebraska commissioned a statue of William Jennings Bryan and it appeared at the north approach of the Nebraska State Capitol. Here’s the statue in front of the building defaced with white paint:
After standing in front of the Capitol for 20 years, the statue was removed in 1967 because of public outrage and relocated outside a local hospital in Lincoln, Nebraska bearing his name.
Some may believe the United States is only a Christian nation, but it isn’t just that, and it hasn’t ever been just that — some of us may be highly religious, but there are many variations on the God meme that must be factored into the power majority mandate — so, any Evangelical Christian who chooses to put individual blind Faith over the well being of the entire populace will have a hard lesson to learn when it comes to governing the All of Us in every aspect of theory and minutiae of fact in truth.
The ultimate lesson of the sad end to the promise of a wonderful life in William Jennings Bryan is that we must each learn how to change with the times and how to become worldly in vision and purpose without complete reliance on the Bible as the only divining rod in a life.
There are many influences and captions we must pursue and examine throughout our living, and to limit our thought and heart to a solitary text is, ultimately, unredeemable in both fact and mattering — and we only need point to the removal of William Jennings Bryan’s legacy in bronze from the Lincoln Memorial green, and from the Nebraska Capitol — to realize our heartfelt foundations may not be enough to seize us from the ruins of the day where only one word misleads a great man of mind.