This podcast examines the nationally significant contest between William Jennings Bryan and John M. Thurston, as they campaigned and debated across Nebraska in 1894 for a seat in the U. S. Senate.
Why did William Jennings Bryan run for the Senate in 1894, and why did he lose, and how was this campaign a precursor to his Democratic presidential campaign in 1896? We might look for the beginnings of modern American politics in this showdown between Bryan and the Union Pacific Railroad lead counsel, John M. Thurston. Michael Kazin’s recent biography of Bryan, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, views Bryan more as a progressive reformer than as a populist crusader. Kazin allows Bryan to stand as a transitional figure to the modern era in both his Christian liberalism and his progressive vision for the political economy. Bryan, in retrospect, made a concerted attempt throughout his career to resolve a very modern problem—how to realign the Democratic Party so that it represented the broad working and middle classes in an aggressively growth-oriented political economy–in other words, how to appeal to voters based on their class interests without being labeled a demagogue or being accused of class warfare. In recent presidential contests in 2000, 2004, and now in 2008, the problem Bryan faced has reemerged. We might say that the line between statesman and demagogue in American politics has been a thin one ever since Bryan.