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William Jennings Bryan was a Populist

Populism is a tricky subject. We use it these days as a slur, but populism can be a useful phenomenon. History professor and author Michael Kazin says that populism is an important tool when it comes to regulating power. In the late 1800s, railroads and banks were out of control. Industrialists like John D. Rockefeller had uninhibited control of their markets. Rockefeller believed in social Darwinism and didn’t mind using dirty tactics to undermine his competition.

The origins of the Populist Party

The Populist Party sprouted out of frustrations women had with the political machines of their day. Republicans and Democrats were not yet willing to accept women and the issues they cared about. Women were slowly becoming a force within politics, but neither party had the guts to accept them. So women and others decided to form their own party. But in the election of 1896, the Populist Party was worried about a split vote. They worried that if they were to run a candidate of their own then they might split the vote. So the Populist Party backed Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan.

Bryan was a man of God. He quoted the Bible extensively, talked about the example of Jesus. But he was soundly defeated by the Republicans and William McKinley. He had only about 4% of the budget of his opponents. The story of Bryan is an interesting one because it contains the building blocks of fundamentalism.

Discussion Questions:

  • What is a populist?
  • Can you name some populists?
  • What are the advantages of populism? The drawbacks?
  • How are Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders similar?
  • William Jennings Bryan was one of the first presidential hopefuls from a major party to tour the country. How has this shaped American politics? Why do we like to see politicians in our home states?
  • What do populism and fundamentalism have in common?
  • Do you think that fundamentalism relies on strong figures as populism does? Why or why not?

Helpful Resources:

  • “A Godly Hero” and “What It Took to Win” by Michael Kazin
  • Library of Congress collection of Chautauqua materials
  • Bernie Sanders Clip from C-SPAN
  • Elizabeth Warren Clip from C-SPAN
  • Donald Trump clip from C-SPAN
  • Article about Mary Lease
  • “These Truths” by Jill Lepore
  • Library of Congress collection of McKinley/Bryan campaign materials. It’s worth searching the site in general for images from both of them.
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