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The Tragedy of William Jennings Bryan

The Tragedy of William Jennings Bryan: Constitutional Law and the Politics of Backlash

Gerard N. Magliocca
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The Tragedy of William Jennings Bryan
    Book Description:

    Although Populist candidate William Jennings Bryan lost the presidential elections of 1896, 1900, and 1908, he was the most influential political figure of his era. In this astutely argued book, Gerard N. Magliocca explores how Bryan's effort to reach the White House energized conservatives across the nation and caused a transformation in constitutional law.

    Responding negatively to the Populist agenda, the Supreme Court established a host of new constitutional principles during the 1890s. Many of them proved long-lasting and highly consequential, including the "separate but equal" doctrine supporting racial segregation, the authorization of the use of force against striking workers, and the creation of the liberty of contract. The judicial backlash of the 1890s-the most powerful the United States has ever experienced-illustrates vividly the risks of seeking fundamental social change. Magliocca concludes by examining the lessons of the Populist experience for advocates of change in our own divisive times.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15315-6
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION: On Constitutional Failure
    (pp. 1-7)

    We learn more from failure than from success. Although this lesson is often a bitter one, everyone eventually learns its truth—everyone, it seems, except constitutional lawyers. Their story of how “We the People” created, amended, and then interpreted the Constitution is an uplifting drama. The Founding Fathers and the miracle that was the Constitutional Convention, the abolition of slavery and Abraham Lincoln’s reconstruction of our ideals in the Gettysburg Address, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s development of the welfare state to overcome the Great Depression, and the Supreme Court’s decisions striking down racial segregation are the pillars of modern legal analysis....

  5. ONE Constructing Reconstruction
    (pp. 8-27)

    Every solution creates another problem. The bloodshed of the Civil War paved the way for a set of constitutional amendments that settled forever the issue of whether Americans could hold slaves or whether those former slaves were citizens of the United States. At the same time, the amendments raised a new set of questions about the allocation of authority between the federal government and the states. To see how William Jennings Bryan’s defeat transformed the law during the 1890s, we need to examine the doctrinal debate that followed Reconstruction. Accordingly, I focus here on three issues related to the meaning...

  6. TWO The Rise of Populism
    (pp. 28-47)

    The most important question in constitutional theory is not how courts should interpret the text, which is the subject of many books far longer than this one, but why popular movements emerge to challenge the legal order and alter interpretive assumptions. In the 1890s the Populist Party launched one of these transformative efforts and adopted the rhetoric of Jacksonian Democracy in arguing that wealthy interests were abusing their power and threatening individual freedom.¹ Unlike their predecessors, though, the Populists argued that the government needed increased authority to counter the influence of business and that African Americans were an essential part...

  7. THREE Resistance North and South
    (pp. 48-68)

    Reform leads to resistance, and resistance leads to reform. This feedback loop propels each turn of the generational cycle, for the new popular movement inevitably faces opposition from a prior one that holds the reins of power. That obstacle causes reformers to escalate their demands and triggers a process of “mutual transformation” in which the electorate becomes polarized.¹ In the 1890s the leader of the conservative backlash against the Populists was Grover Cleveland, and his role in the drama that unfolded was crucial. With the onset of the Panic of 1893, during which unemployment skyrocketed to unprecedented levels, anger at...

  8. FOUR The Supreme Court Intervenes
    (pp. 69-97)

    Conventional wisdom holds that the Supreme Court is the most important institution in constitutional law, but at generational turning points the Court is just another source of conservative resistance. Justice Robert H. Jackson, who was a close advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt during his battle with the Justices, said afterward that courts are “the check of a preceding generation on the present one; a check of conservative legal philosophy upon a dynamic people, and nearly always the check of a rejected regime on the one in being. This conservative institution is under every pressure and temptation to throw its...

  9. FIVE The Election of 1896
    (pp. 98-115)

    The shootout between the Populists and their constitutional foes reached its climax during a presidential election that broke all of the rules. A thirty-six-year-old former congressman, William Jennings Bryan, was selected as the Democratic and Populist nominee and bucked a century of precedent by campaigning personally for the job. He mounted this effort in the face of tough opposition from supporters of President Cleveland and with the burden of having two vice presidential running mates (one from each party), which raised the prospect that he would win but end up with a Republican vice president. Meanwhile, William McKinley, the Republican...

  10. SIX A New Constitutional Regime
    (pp. 116-132)

    Victorious armies do not call off their pursuit when the enemy’s lines break, and the same principle applies to politicians and lawyers engaged in generational conflict. Like many “temporary” emergency measures, the extraordinary actions taken against the Populists before the 1896 election became constitutional fixtures. Over the next few years, the Justices extended those precedents and in so doing bridged the divide in Fourteenth Amendment doctrine concerning property and contract rights, racial discrimination, and incorporation. The result of this backlash was a legal regime that lasted, with just a few exceptions, until the middle of the twentieth century.

    The most...

  11. SEVEN The Progressive Correction
    (pp. 133-148)

    The reforms of the Progressive Era seem to contradict the constitutional influence of the Populist failure, but in fact they confirm its importance. Richard Hofstadter asked in the 1950s how “a movement whose program was in the long run so generally successful [could] be identified with such a final and disastrous defeat for the class it was supposed to represent.”¹ In other words, the argument that Bryan’s defeat was a catastrophic setback cannot be correct, because Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson put many Populist policies into law. A closer look at Progressivism, however, leads to a different conclusion. First, the...

  12. CONCLUSION: What Is Constitutional Failure?
    (pp. 149-154)

    William Jennings Bryan never held elective office after 1894, but he exerted more influence over constitutional law than anyone else at the turn of the twentieth century. Bryan’s ability to lose worthy causes with unpersuasive arguments was uncanny. He failed in 1896 by hitching his star to free silver, in 1900 by running against imperialism right after the United States won a popular war, and in 1925 by challenging Social Darwinism with an attack on Darwin himself, a tactical decision that backfired in the Scopes Trial and blackened his name forever.¹ But Bryan’s unfortunate choice of means should not obscure...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 155-212)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 213-228)
  15. Index
    (pp. 229-238)