Respond to this Article March 2006

The Gospel of William Jennings Bryan

The Great Commoner wasn't a progressive despite his traditionalism --but because of it.

By Ed Kilgore

Upon hearing of the death of William Jennings Bryan in 1925, the Socialist leader Eugene Debs sadly commented that the iconic populist over the course of his lifetime "grew more and more conservative until finally he stood before the country as a champion of everything reactionary in our political and social life."

A Godly Hero
by Michael Kazin
Knopf, $30.00

This is the still-prevailing judgment that led Georgetown University's Michael Kazin to undertake a new biography of Bryan. Kazin's mission in A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan is to establish that the Great Commoner was the same man with the same principles, and much the same following, during and between the two famous bookends of his career: the 1896 "Cross of Gold" speech that launched his tumultuous first presidential campaign, and the Scopes "Monkey Trial" a few days before his death. Throughout Bryan's career, Kazin shows, he embodied a "creed that married democracy and pietism in a romantic gospel that borrowed equally from Jefferson and Jesus"--a creed that today's self-styled populists of the left and the right largely reject.

In seeking to rediscover Bryan as the paragon of a highly integrated world-view, and not a paradox combining "progressive" and "reactionary" impulses, Kazin devotes a significant portion of his book to "Bryan's people," the vast array of largely middle-class and typically Protestant folk who looked to him for political and moral direction over three decades. Like Bryan himself, his devoted followers (upon whose correspondence with Will and Mary Bryan Kazin draws heavily) were characterized by a highly moralistic and Bible-inflected approach to politics and a very direct and practical approach to the implications of their faith. The trusts, the railroad owners, the Wall Street speculators, and the urban bosses who populated Bryan's demonology were deplored as the idolatrous oppressors of godly people, not simply as products of a flawed economic system.

Though he rarely uses the term, Kazin's focus is on Bryanism as much as Bryan, and he is at pains to make the better known stages in Bryan's career--the three presidential campaigns, his later role as Democratic kingmaker, his sad tenure as a quasi-pacifist secretary of state, and his final stand against evolution in Dayton, Tenn.--punctuation marks rather than turning points in his hero's life.

This non-episodic method helps the author paint a clear portrait of his subject, often in the mirror of his followers' adoring eyes. If you want a detailed exposition of Bryan's electoral strategy in 1908, an examination of the economics of bimetallism, or a tick-tock account of his struggle against America's entry into World War I, this is not the book for you. But if you want to understand the man and the movement that dominated the Democratic Party during an exceedingly complex period of U.S. history, Kazin is an indispensable guide.

And far from being any kind of paradox, Bryan himself comes across in this book as an exceedingly simple man, rarely afflicted with doubt, happy in his domestic life (despite his constant absences and his wife's increasingly crippling arthritis), sanguine about his changing political fortunes, and confident in the righteousness of his and his "people's" various causes. That's not to say Bryan was uncalculating; he was, in fact, the master of the perfectly timed political maneuver, perhaps best illustrated by his personal domination of at least four national political conventions (including 1912, when he personally won the nomination for Woodrow Wilson with a crucial shift of support), and his leading role in another.

This book does a masterful job of examining Bryan as an orator (not only the key to his political career, but also his primary source of income from 1896 on), and Kazin makes it clear Bryan's leadership of his movement was sustained by his constant speaking tours, especially in conjunction with that great phenomenon of the pre-radio 20th century, the Chautauqua circuit. "Beginning in 1904, he spent the better part of twenty summers as the star attraction on the weeklong programs that edified, titillated and amused millions of Americans who seldom had access to a big-city theater or lecture hall," writes Kazin. He nicely evokes Bryan's powerful and mellifluous voice and notes poignantly that the first national convention where Bryan's rhetorical pyrotechnics failed, in 1920, was also the first convention employing that great equalizer, electronic amplification.

Just as he was the first presidential candidate to personally barnstorm the country, Bryan was also probably the first major politician to develop "stock" stump speeches--indeed, an assortment of them on a wide variety of subjects--that he polished and adapted for years. Kazin provides numerous examples of his subject's ability and willingness to effortlessly combine political and religious metaphors and arguments, at a time when God's Word was the lingua franca of far-flung Protestant America. It was easy for Bryan to adopt the voice of a prophet, since that was the voice he and his audience best understood.

While Kazin, as the title of the book suggests, clearly admires Bryan, he does draw attention again and again to the Commoner's "one great flaw"--his complete blindness to the evils of Jim Crow, despite, or perhaps because of, his intimate knowledge of the South, where he lived during his later years, and where he always found his most intense and consistent support.

Kazin's steady focus on the consistency of Bryan and his people enables him to explain the different causes Bryan championed as modalities of a single system reflecting changing circumstances. Bimetallism faded with the vast expansion of gold supplies and the agricultural boom just after the turn of the century. Anti-imperialism emerged as Bryan's main focus during the debate over what to do with the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, and again in the run-up to U.S. involvement in World War I.

In the one major flip-flop of Bryan's career, he embraced the drive for prohibition--already supported by much of his flock--after his third presidential race, and it became for him not only an integral cause, but central to his, and much of the country's, definition of "progressivism." At about the same time, he became a staunch advocate of women's suffrage, a movement that shared much of the political base of prohibitionism, and which Bryan argued would raise the moral tone of political life generally.

And in his last great crusade, of course, Bryan became the nation's best-known opponent of the teaching of natural selection in public schools. As Kazin shows, this was no "move to the right" on his part; it was motivated not just by Bryan's lifelong devotion to biblical teachings, but by his conviction that what we now call "social Darwinism," and the "scientific" racism and eugenic manipulation that would later ravage Europe, lay in Darwin's shadow.

Aside from these changing priorities, there were many constants in Bryan's agenda: a steadily growing interest in political reforms like primaries and ballot initiatives; an abiding commitment to the creation of a progressive income tax; trust-busting; public control of currency (culminating in Wilson's Federal Reserve Act); public regulation, and in some cases ownership, of utilities and railroads; labor union rights; and, most consistently of all, free trade. This last cause should be duly noted by today's neopopulists of the left, who often regard free trade as the ultimate corporate conspiracy.

Suffusing Bryanism from beginning to end was a fierce hostility to urban culture, perhaps, as Kazin suggests, dating back to an unhappy early experience while studying law in Chicago. While Kazin shows convincingly that Bryan was entirely innocent of the religious prejudice and xenophobia of many of his followers, there is no question that he identified every political, social, economic, and moral evil with the culture of the big cities of the East. It's only a small exaggeration to say that Bryan hated Wall Street because it was in New York as much as he hated New York because it harbored Wall Street. Profiteers, poverty, saloons, political machines and bosses, sexual immorality, and impiety--in Bryan's rhetoric, and certainly in his mind, these urban sins were all of one piece, and all an obstacle to the Jeffersonian republic of virtue and mutual assistance he envisioned.

Placing Bryan and Bryanism in the proper historical context is difficult, and one of the few judgments on which Kazin is not completely compelling is his argument that Herbert Hoover had it right when he snarled that the New Deal was "Bryanism under new words and methods." Yes, Bryan led the revolt against the Bourbon Democracy of Grover Cleveland that no less an authority than Ayn Rand once called the most libertarian in American history. But the culmination of his economic and political thinking was less the modified social-democratic model of the New Deal than the refined Jeffersonian ideology of Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom.

More relevant today is what Kazin's version of Bryan, and the Bryanite brand of populism, means for neo-populists of various stripes.

The lesson for right-wing populists, especially those of the Christian right, is pretty clear: Once upon a time, right here in America, tens of millions of people read the Bible daily and read little else; believed it to be the literal and inerrant Word of God; and somehow interpreted it as a saga wherein God repeatedly delivered His people from the predations of the rich and the powerful and the privileged, perpetually condemned their subjugation as a divine commandment, and further commanded that they respect their equality as His children. In other words, those politicized Christians who have formed a firm alliance with Mammon and Mars on the grounds that the Word's main message today is to condemn abortion and homosexuality and feminism are forever vulnerable to those faithful who read their Bible and see otherwise.

As a Democrat, I am naturally more interested in the lessons for the neopopulists of the left, who are enjoying something of a renaissance these days by offering a theory of how Bryan's old party can break out of its bicoastal, blue state ghetto.

Kazin, himself a man of the left, would presumably agree that one does not follow Bryan's example by tearing his economic policies out of their broader cultural context or fomenting class consciousness or hatred of corporations as a matter of pocketbook self-interest rather than communal values. Indeed, the common neopopulist prescription of using economic "populism" to trump cultural "populism" sets one aspect of Bryanism--and the weaker aspect at that--against the other. Telling working people who care about cultural issues that they are expressing displaced anger over their legitimate economic grievances is condescending at best and insulting at worst and is entirely alien to Bryan's kind of populism. Moreover, it's an odd kind of populism that cannot accept "the people" as they actually are: complicated creatures with a mix of "correct" and "incorrect" views, which cannot always, or even often, be reduced to one of Dr. George Lakoff's "frames."

There's one more contemporary issue for the left which the book implicitly raises: the occasional necessity but perennial peril of bitter intra-party conflict.

Without question, Bryan's revolt in 1896 overthrew a Democratic establishment mired in the politics of earlier decades, focused obsessively on competing for the "swing state" of New York, and indifferent to the growing challenges of the industrial age. His candidacy also co-opted and thus largely neutered the appeal of the People's Party, which had been mortally threatening Democratic hegemony in the South.

But Bryan's savage indictment of the Bourbon Democrats (which the fair-minded Kazin considers somewhat overwrought) also disabled Democrats in the East and much of the Midwest and dislocated a partisan balance that had produced five straight photo-finish presidential elections. And with the sole exception of Wilson's reelection in 1916, Democrats would not come close to a majority of the popular vote in any of the six presidential elections between then and Bryan's death and would remain especially weak in the urban areas Bryan and his people spurned as Babylon.

Though Bryan's relations with other elements of the party varied from tepid to cold, the very convictions that made him the leader of a movement tended to make that movement inflexible and sometimes self-destructive. By 1924, the Commoner's last convention, his determination to reject any candidate who was not "progressive and dry" helped produce the infamous 103-ballot deadlock. Worse yet, Bryan's culturally based and anti-urban definition of "progressivism" led him into alliances that betrayed his best instincts. It's no accident that his last major convention speech was in opposition to a platform plank condemning the Ku Klux Klan, which he considered more "progressive" than urban "wet" reformers like Al Smith. And it's no accident that this convention produced among the worst-performing Democratic presidential tickets in history, with Bryan's brother Charlie in the second spot.

"Progressivism" was never the same after 1924, and that was a good thing, as Bryan's people finally expired as a self-conscious faction and entered the mainstream that ultimately swelled into the New Deal coalition.

I hope neopopulists and those representing today's Democratic factions read Kazin's fine book and learn a host of lessons: "The people" are who they are; "populism" cannot be forced left or right; and "progressivism" is the shared legacy and aspiration of us all, not the exclusive property of those most passionate about exclusively claiming it.

As for Bryan, the epitaph he probably desired is reflected in a song written by bluegrass musician Charlie Oakes, which Kazin quotes in the last chapter:

He fought the evolutionists, and infidels and fools
Who were trying to ruin the minds of children in the schools
Three times he ran for president, but capitalists wouldn't let him win
Because he was a friend to the poor and to the working man.

Ed Kilgore is vice president for policy at the Democratic Leadership Council.


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