William Jennings Bryan's Railroad Campaign in 1896

Early in his career as a lawyer William Jennings Bryan took a principled position that set him apart from many of his colleagues at the bar: he refused "to accept money from a railroad company." This was remarkable, as attorneys in fast-growing towns and cities across the west and south vied for the opportunity to claim such a steadily lucrative client. The list of prominent railroad attorneys who made their way into politics was long and distinguished, from Abraham Lincoln of Illinois to Thomas S. Martin of Virginia.  Bryan, it seemed, went out of his way to maintain his political purity and to keep his distance from the largest special interests of the day--the railroads.

Later, in his political career Bryan tried to turn this principled position into a virtue and at key moments took a vigorous stand against the railroads. His opposition to the railroads, it turns out, was remarkably consistent, and throughout his career he tried to focus widespread resentment against the big corporations into meaningful political change and greater economic opportunity for working people. After a trip to Europe in 1906, he was so impressed with the efficiency of government-run rail that he came back convinced the United States should make the railroads a publicly owned enterprise, a stance he had avoided earlier and, indeed, quickly backed away from, only to return to it again in 1919. The railroads and the corporate power they symbolized, then, were a political lodestar for Bryan, guiding his course through decades of his political life, a reference point again and again to gain his bearings on the problem of economic and social justice for the laboring classes. The political problem Bryan faced throughout his career, but especially in 1896, was how to confront the railroads successfully, for after all they were, in effect, both the engine of corruption and the engine of growth.

Michael Kazin's 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 redeems Bryan from the devastating obituary of him by H. L. Mencken, who presented Bryan as a vestige of an earlier era, little more than a hapless hick bumbling about in the modern world.  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. Despite his arrogant refusal to take railroad clients and his long association with populism, Bryan was no throwback. He made throughout his career a concerted attempt 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 his presidential campaign in 1896 Bryan used the railroads to develop one of the first modern political campaigns, traveling across the country to give speeches at nearly every depot or station he could reach.