The Tragedy of William Jennings Bryan


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Constitutional Law and the Politics of Backlash

Gerard N. Magliocca

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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.

Gerard N. Magliocca is Samuel R. Rosen Professor of Law, Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, Indianapolis.

“[T]his history of politics in the Gilded Age presents crucial background for contextualizing contemporary constitutional debates.”—A.B. Cochran, Choice

“A remarkable  reinterpretation of Bryan’s failed constitutional revolution. Magliocca  successfully integrates the Populist moment into larger patterns of American constitutional development.”—Bruce Ackerman, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science, Yale University

“Who would have imagined that Williams Jennings Bryan, the three-time losing Democratic candidate for president, was responsible for the shape of twentieth century constitutional law? Students of constitutional law should know far more than we do about the populist movement of the nineteenth century and its legacy, and this book is a wonderful place to start.”—Randy Barnett, Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Legal Theory, Georgetown University Law Center

“Creative, bold, and counterintuitive, The Tragedy of William Jennings Bryan offers a new and provocative view of the conservative turn taken by the Supreme Court at the close of the Gilded Age. This accessible book is a must-read for constitutional historians, teachers of constitutional law, and anyone who cares about how generational change alters our Constitution.”—Noah Feldman, Bemis Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

“Helps readers understand not only a number of important cases, but also the extent to which the Court is an important political player in shoring up political regimes faced with fundamental critiques.”—Sanford Levinson, author of Our Undemocratic Constitution

“Provocatively retrieving the story of the constitutional backlash to Populism and William Jennings Bryan, Gerard Magliocca makes important contributions to constitutional history and theory—essential reading for anyone interested in the field.”—Mark Tushnet, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

“[W]ell documented, this book is replete with analysis of the legal and political issues involved.”—Library Journal

“Magliocca has written an excellent constitutional history of a pivotal period in American law…The book is highly recommended for those interested in the political contests of the 1890’s and in the evolution of American constitutional law.—James L. Hunt, The Journal of American History

ISBN: 9780300153149
Publication Date: June 28, 2011
248 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/4
15 b/w illus.