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Reviving the democracy: William Jennings Bryan and his crusade to save the Democratic Party

Randal C Fulkerson, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


William Jennings Bryan believed that political history consisted of a constant battle between an elitist minority and the people. This elitist minority, known by many different names, ruled through coercion and fear. Bryan concluded that the only government that could protect the people was one in which the majority ruled. If the majority erred in its decisions, they could correct their errors, but when the elitist ruled oppressive decisions could not be reversed. In the nineteenth century the ability of capitalists to control economics and politics undermined American freedom. Capitalists used their wealth to control political parties and governments while exploiting the working class. Desperate farmers and laborers organized to fight the growing concentration of wealth and power. ^ Since the elitist minority had enormous time and money, the people must organize to fight oppression. People must remain politically active and informed. Bryan believed the Republican Party had sold out to big business so the Democratic Party was the only party that could protect the people. From 1894 to 1912 he campaigned to make the Democratic Party serve the people’s interest. ^ Bryan wanted to rescue the Democratic Party from capitalists and Bourbon Democrats who maintained a conservative, laissez-faire philosophy. He considered this a religious calling. Bryan developed a national system in which he maintained constant communication with reform-minded Democrats. He accomplished this through his constant lecture tours, speeches, correspondence, and journalistic activities. ^ Bryan was the dominant voice in shaping Democratic Party Platforms in 1896, 1900, and 1912. In 1904 and 1908 he made compromises with conservatives concerning the platform, but remained an essential influence. In 1912, he could not determine the presidential nominee, but he could prevent an aspirant from obtaining the nomination. ^ His effect on the Democratic Party was to change it from a conservative, junior-Republican Party to a liberal alternative to elitist control. His efforts came from neither accident nor demagoguery, but rather from a distinct vision. ^

Subject Area

Biography|History, United States

Recommended Citation

Fulkerson, Randal C, "Reviving the democracy: William Jennings Bryan and his crusade to save the Democratic Party" (2007). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3293922.