Despite Common belief, William Byran did not simply stride into Congress, prepare his famous throat and declare “And there shall be farm subsidies. And there shall be anti-trust laws. And there shall be railroad regulation. And it was. Seeing this bounty, he then spake saying 'And there shall be Direct Election of Senators. And there shall be Referendum laws. And it was. And he saw this was good.'
In fact, the passing of the famous Byran Bills was the complex and complicated end result of years of political efforts. In so,me cases Byran was nearly alone (farm subsides) in others he was merely one voice among a clamour calling for change (railroad regulation). Despite our current view of him, Byran was not hailed as a hero in his own time. His presidency, despite its impressive results, was a constant battle of arguments and compromise. Byran was merely a channel of the various forces of his day (and sometimes an outdated one). Also often ignored is the idea that Byran was dealing with a Democrat party that was fractious and hardly at peace with itself. The party was morphing right before his eyes, and the Democrat Party of 1908 was far different then the one of 1921. Byran's battles range over a decade of Washington politics at their most Byzantine.
This was the issue of the day. Everyone, across the political spectrum were calling for change. Railroads, the sinews of industry and business were massive monopolies that cheated rates, charge outrageous fees, and fawned on big business. Something had to be done. Both parties had answers, but the people chose Byran. Here, Byran had only a slightly different view then everyone else. As a champion of the little man, Byran saw it was clear that railroads didn't to be watched more effectively. Byran was an man of surprisingly international scope, and in this case he looked to Europe. Here the government owned many railways, and ran them in the name of the people. Would this not be the best system for America? Unfortunately, any idea of state owned railroads would never pass. Still, Byran proceeded to take power from the hands of the company and push them into state hands, and when these hands refused, he took them into federal hands. Laws and regulations were passed, and the Railroad Control Board became the ultimate arbitrator, and it was fully independent from the railroad company (unlike previous attempts). In these firm and controlled steps, the populace was behind him, as well as most of Congress. While the Republicans were not pleased with this growth of federal power, most saw the railroad problem as so grave, nearly any action was necessary.
In this realm, it seemed that Byran was going against the American spirit itself. Why should the government give money to farmers? Isn't this destroying the American way of life? And this was the charge hurled by many Congressman (and not all Republicans), not to mention the newspapers. Despite these calls however, agriculture in the USA was in deep trouble. Many Americans were farmers but tough times (bad crops, harsh railroads rates, corrupt mortgages) had caused many farms to go under and farmers were beginning to organize into quasi-Socialist groups to fight back. Some where even quite violent. Here, particularly in the Midwest, Byran saw change was needed. He wanted to bring the massive power of the government to help these small farmers who were struggling to feed their families, let alone produce food for the rest of the nation. For Byran these farmers were the heart and soul of America. Still, while normally Byran would simply charge head on, in this case he saw ti would be futile. America was not willing to pay for this. Still Byran was clever and worked slowly, over many years. Cloaking his cause under 'farm aid', his first ideas ( formulated with Senators and Representatives) merely asked for finaical aid to be given to farmers in bad years. It wads limited in time, constricted by circumstance, and small in amount, but it was a start. Byran found more Senators were willing to help, but even by the end of his third term the “Farmers Bueru” was still a small organization. Still, he had planted the seed.
Here, once again, TR had set the stage. The Sherman Act had started to policy of 'trust busting', but many large companies remained. They had grabbed huge chunks of the market and were nearly unstoppable by any force other then the government. Byran was an enthusiastic 'trust buster', even if he alienated my businesses because of it. As the 'Great Commoner” Byran felt no respect to large conglomerates (unlike TR did). Unrestrained he pushed for a re-formulation of the Sherman Act and was aggressive in pushing the Justice Department to take cases. The time was ripe for such action and the (somewhat) limited Sherman Act was Updated by the Kern Antitrust Amendment which greatly expanded its power to punish business. While Byran was a important supporter, most of the language of the Amendment was born right out of Congress itself, making the point clear that Byran was merely one voice in the call for reform.
In this, Byran wasn't even the greatest voice involved. For years many states had been slowly changing there laws (mainly in the West) to have direct election of Senators. While most of the movement came from Republicans, Byran was in favor of such 'direct democracy' and embraced the Progressive movement. These tendencies were slowly tearing the Republican party apart (as well as straining the the Democrat party). This one issue shows that Byran was perfectly willing to use the support of Republicans if they agreed with him. Byran was a vocal champion of many 'Populist' movements and this was no exception. He often pressed that an American where people had direct choices over who ruled them would be a better place. Enamored by the 'Oregon System' he often brought up ideas and bills to push such laws along. Still,t here was much resistance, mainly in his own party. Still, the times were changing to a more open, dynamic government. Byran merely sped up the general trend. Despite a massive debate in Congress which tore apart party lines, the 17 amendment (calling for the direct election of Senators in all states) was passed in 1911.