Reactionary Radicals

Don’t Blame Bryan

Cut From a Different Cloth

In his recent biography of William Jennings Bryan, A Godly Hero, Michael Kazin joins a long line of historians in making the claim that Bryan (1860-1925) was an ideological precursor of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  In the book’s Introduction, Kazin asserts that Bryan “did more than any other man—between the fall of Grover Cleveland and the election of Woodrow Wilson—to transform his party from a bulwark of laissez-faire into the citadel of liberalism we identify with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his ideological descendants.”  Significantly, he offers no detailed evidence to support this claim beyond a laundry list of Bryan-endorsed reforms.  As an admirer of FDR, Kazin has probably engaged in wishful thinking.  There are things to admire about Roosevelt if we consider only his rhetoric and reputation, but a close look at his record leaves us with little to celebrate.

A decade ago, Kazin authored The Populist Persuasion, which examined populism of both the left-wing and right-wing varieties with sympathy and sensitivity.  So it is somewhat surprising that he does not recognize Roosevelt for what he was: an elitist to the core.  Following in the footsteps of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt was a Hamiltonian.  In the eyes of such Democrats as Vincent Astor, Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that was a good thing.  To...

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