The Commoner was a weekly journal produced by William Jennings Bryan (b.1860, d.1925); himself often called the Great Commoner. Because he was a man speaking loudly for the common man, he was caricatured in his day and since by political cartoonists (like those at Harper’s) and high-minded commentators as a buffoon leading people astray from the gentle, competent hand of Wall Street robber barons and their political cronies in Washington; some of which became our worst presidents. In those days (as today in large measure) the instruments of public communication were largely in the hands of, and reflected the concerns of, the wealthiest Americans. This was a time before workplace safety regulations and other measures gained by the labor union movement. Nevertheless, the newspapers wept for the rich.
William Jennings Bryan was a master public speaker, and the only three-time presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, in 1896, 1900, and 1908. He was a populist that ushered in the Progressive Era in America. He defended the cause of the common people at almost every turn. This is why we love him. However, it must be said that he was also a man of his time, and his political circumstance. Though he was certainly against slavery and spoke out against lynching, some of his views toward black people were less than stellar, though quite typical of the common racism of the time. At times he defended the draconian polling requirements in the South that were discriminatory against blacks and poor whites. While this was a significant failing, it was probably more a political calculation than anything else. At that time, the Democratic Party was still a political machine wedded to post-Civil War policies that defended white privilege in the South. It would have been impossible for him to get a presidential nomination had he taken a better stance. That being said, Bryan was paving the way for women and blacks in the Democratic Party as he made the case for common people. He also prepared the way for progressive reformers like President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal. FDR said “I think that we would choose the word ‘sincerity’ as fitting him [Bryan] most of all…it was that sincerity that served him so well in his life-long fight against sham and privilege and wrong. It was that sincerity which made him a force for good in his own generation and kept alive many of the ancient faiths on which we are building today. We…can well agree that he fought the good fight; that he finished the course; and that he kept the faith.” Later, President Harry Truman would say that Bryan “was a great one — one of the greatest”. He also claimed that “if it wasn’t for old Bill Bryan there wouldn’t be any liberalism [read progressivism; not classic liberalism, nor social liberalism] at all in the country now. Bryan kept liberalism alive, he kept it going.” In 1900 Truman served as a page at the Democratic National Convention in Kansas City, where he heard Bryan give the acceptance speech. Truman supported Bryan greatly.
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