The Lessons of Defeat


It is perhaps some measure of the current desperation of American liberals that an obviously talented historian would recommend for their attention the career of William Jennings Bryan-a three-time political loser, vigorous advocate of Prohibition, and equally vigorous opponent of the theory of evolution. When Bryan, a reform Democrat who was defeated in presidential races in 1896, 1900, and 1908, died in 1925 a short time after his Pyrrhic victory as an anti-Darwinian prosecuting attorney in the celebrated trial of Tennessee science teacher John Scopes, he was for sophisticated urban liberals of his day a figure of pathos and ridicule. “A poor clod,” H. L. Mencken savagely wrote. “Deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things.” But such a recommendation is precisely what Michael Kazin has on offer in his well-crafted biography of the “Great Commoner,” who as much as anyone other than Franklin Roosevelt was responsible for the making of the modern Democratic Party. He writes: “In some ways, Bryan’s time is not unlike our own. Large corporations still dominate our economy, bankroll our politicians, and frame our mass culture. Pious, if often intemperate, voices still denounce the corrosive impact of modern society and look to a spiritual awakening to cleanse the body politic. But we lack politicians, filled with conviction and blessed with charisma, who are willing to lead a charge against secular forces whose power is both mightier and more subtly deployed than a century ago. Perhaps the story of an earnest and eloquent, if not godly, hero can help.” As this comment suggests, Kazin is not entirely comfortable with the conviction of thousands of Bryan’s fervent admirers that he was an instrument of divine providence. Yet Kazin is drawn to Bryan’s moral passion and respectful of its sources. If he has not avoided the temptation of a title tinted with secular irony, neither has he simply succumbed to Mencken¬esque mockery of evangelical belief. Christian faith was a wellspring of Bryan’s democratic politics; he “married democracy and pietism in a romantic gospel that borrowed equally from Jefferson and Jesus.” And Kazin is no more inclined than Bryan to separate Jefferson from Jesus in his portrait, even though this combination serves more to distance Bryan from contemporary liberal sensibilities than to accommodate them. As Kazin makes clear, Bryan’s genius was, above all, rhetorical and oratorical. He was a brilliant performance artist, and in an age before amplified and recorded sound, his remarkably powerful, resonant, yet intimate voice was the key to his fortune and fate. His political career turned on his greatest performance: the “Cross of Gold” speech before the Democratic Party convention in Chicago in the summer of 1896. The Democrats whom Bryan faced in the Chicago Coliseum that day were deeply divided, quarreling amid a crushing economic depression that had gripped the country on their watch. On one side stood conservatives, centered in the Northeast and led by then President Grover Cleveland, who clung to the financial orthodoxy they shared with Republicans and to the party’s longtime commitment to limited government. Arrayed against them were insurgents from the South and West, sympathetic to the fierce discontent in the rural precincts of those regions that had led to the third-party revolt of the Populists, whose demands centered on a call for federal control of a radically democratized political economy. At the heart of the conflict within the Democratic Party was the “battle of standards,” the struggle between conservative proponents of a deflationary gold standard and reformers who shared with the Populists the demand for an inflationary remonetization of silver in order to raise collapsing commodity prices. Bryan, a thirty-six-year-old former congressman from Nebraska who had lost a hotly contested Senate race in 1894, had built his fledgling political career on a commitment to the reform camp. He rose before the convention to defend the “silverite” position in the contentious platform debate over the monetary plank. Casting the issue as one that divided corporate elites from the “producing masses,” Bryan quickly captured the hearts of much of the crowd. As the speech drew to a close, he stretched his fingers along his broad forehead and declared that “we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” He then stood back and extended his arms straight out from his body, holding a crucified pose before a stunned audience. As Bryan walked from the stage, the New York World reported, “Everybody seemed to go mad at once. The whole face of the convention was broken by the tumult-hills and valleys of shrieking men and women.” To the conservatives, this was sheer demagoguery, and even some Populists were unimpressed. But the speech rallied the Democratic rank-and-file and bolstered the “fusionists” among the Populists, who sought to bore from within rather than displace the major parties. The young orator won the Democratic nomination for president on the fifth ballot, and weeks later, the Populists followed suit by making him their candidate too. The 1896 presidential election was among the most important in U.S. history. Although Bryan lost a close contest to William McKinley-and would lose again to McKinley four years later and again to William Howard Taft in 1908-his nomination would begin the reconstruction of the Democratic Party into a force for reform that would culminate decades later in the midst of an even greater depression with the creation of Roosevelt’s New Deal order. This reconstruction was no easy task, for then, as now, conservatives and the interests of big business remained a formidable force within the party. The lackluster, and thoroughly forgettable, stand-patter Alton Parker won the Democratic nomination in 1904, and the party’s persistent divisions were on full display in 1924, when presidential nominee and Wall Street lawyer John Davis found himself with Bryan’s brother Charles as a running mate following a bitter party convention unrivaled until that of 1968. Bryan would never hold elective office after 1894. He made his handsome living as a lecturer on the Chautauqua circuit and elsewhere. Yet, in part because he was unconstrained by the duties of office, Bryan played a pivotal role in shifting his party leftward in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Although the drama of 1896 has since tied him in the minds of many to the Populists (and their defeat), he is best seen as one of the many varieties of Progressives who held center stage in American politics in those years-the tribune of a progressivism that built upon and extended the populist impulse in new circumstances and had its greatest appeal to a peripheral, white, Protestant constituency of farmers, small businessmen, independent professionals, and skilled workers outside the manufacturing belt of the industrial Northeast. The reforms Bryan advocated included federal control of the banking and monetary systems-including federal insurance for bank deposits, a progressive income tax, tariff reduction, direct election of senators, women’s suffrage, prohibition, federally funded elections, union rights to organize, and government ownership and control of the railroads. He called for the liberation of Cuba from Spanish tyranny in 1898, and then played a leading role in anti-imperialist protest against the U.S. appropriation of the Philippines following the defeat of Spain. Bryan was instrumental in the election of freshly converted reformer Woodrow Wilson in 1912 (aided, to be sure, by the bitter divide among Republicans that produced Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive third party). And although he served an unhappy tenure (1913-15) as Woodrow Wilson’s pacifist secretary of state in the early years of World War I, he was a good deal more successful in influencing domestic policy behind the scenes than he was in deterring the drift of U.S. foreign policy toward intervention in that bloody disaster. Bryan was the leader of the Democrats in Congress from the South and West who, as Elizabeth Sanders has shown in her important book, Roots of Reform (University of Chicago Press), were responsible for much of the major reform legislation enacted in the early twentieth century, though most historians have given them scant credit-perhaps because so many of them were racists. Racism was the most obvious blind spot in Bryan’s egalitarian radicalism and that of his legion of followers (as black correspondents observed to him). He accommodated racial prejudice even if he did not, like many Southern “Bryanists,” openly avow it. He also kept his prohibitionist leanings under wraps during his electoral campaigns in order to appease Irish Catholics and other “wet” core Democratic constituencies, but once unburdened of presidential hopes, he gave them free rein. On the other hand, he remained persistently silent on the matter of white supremacy and even urged his party in 1924 to lay aside concerns about the Ku Klux Klan, which suggests that more than strategic political caution was at work in his racial attitudes. Bryan’s religious convictions, as Kazin makes abundantly clear, were not “fundamentalist” but a brand of evangelical Protestantism at once liberal and anti-modernist. Strictly speaking a Presbyterian, he spent much time at Methodist services, oblivious to the competing theological niceties. He was ecumenical in his relations with Catholics too, and tried to keep a lid on the anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic enthusiasms of many of his supporters. He was, above all, a proponent of the social gospel. His first commandment was “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” The good Christian, he argued, “can only follow in the footsteps of the Nazarene when he goes about doing good and renders ‘unto the least of these,’ his brethren, the service that the Master was anxious to render unto all.” Bryan’s opposition to Darwinism was, above all, an opposition to conservative social Darwinism, to the creed of heedless individualism and unstinting social conflict that he believed the scientific theory sustained. As Kazin points out, the textbook from which John Scopes had taught his Tennessee students was laced with eugenic prescriptions for the ruthless weeding out of the lower orders of the human species. Bryan also argued that in a democratic society, the public schools should be subject to democratic control and should not teach doctrines that were at odds with the beliefs of the public (private schools were free to do so). Even Walter Lippmann admitted that Bryan had a point. But by the mid-1920s, evangelical Christianity and populist politics were beginning to pull apart, if not for Bryan then for many who had once looked to him for leadership. Clarence Darrow put Bryan on the stand in the Scopes trial and befuddled him with the contradictions between biblical literalism and modern science. Bryan never had a chance to make the case against social Darwinism. Mencken and others effectively portrayed him as a hapless boob, a hero only to “people who sweated freely, and were not debauched by the refinements of the toilet.” Bryan’s people, as Kazin nicely and more accurately puts it, were “egalitarian modernizers with little use for the culture of modernism.” John Dewey made much the same point in 1922. Bryan, he said, represented the “backbone” of American social reform, people who intimately associated Christian evangelicalism with “impulses to neighborliness and decency.” A defense of science and modernity that rested content with Mencken¬esque contempt for such people and their beliefs, Dewey warned fellow sophisticates, was doomed to cultural defeat. Instead, secular liberals had to find a way to make common cause with “Bryanism” and its aspiration for a decent, neighborly life. Dewey’s warning went largely unheeded, and Kazin laments it. Today, he concludes, “the obvious problem for liberals is that most Americans don’t share their mistrust of public piety. Time and again, secular reformers defeat themselves by assuming that this difference doesn’t matter, that they can appeal solely to the economic self-interest of working-class Americans and ignore moral issues grounded in religious conviction.” As they did in the 1920s, liberal modernists shake their heads in bewilderment at people beset by an obviously false consciousness and ask “What’s the matter with Kansas?” Liberals, Kazin contends, must recover a connection to those gripped by “the yearning for a society run by and for ordinary people who lead virtuous lives.” Easier said than done. In Bryan’s day the character of a “virtuous life” was contested, and it is no less so in ours. But for much of his life Bryan could openly and unselfconsciously couch his appeals for justice and equality in a Christian idiom because that idiom reigned unchallenged. Bryan could presume that public debate over moral issues would be cast within the frame of his own religious tradition. What brought him up short in Dayton, Tennessee, was his dim recognition that the dominance of this frame was eroding. Our far more pluralistic public life presents liberals and conservatives alike with the challenge of articulating a moral argument without insisting on its grounding in any particular religious (or, for that matter, secular) tradition. Little wonder that so many politicians avoid the challenge, one that has defeated many political philosophers. Evangelical Protestantism was the medium of American public conversation in 1896; today it is a public conversation stopper, though it may serve to rally the like-minded for combat. One might well hope for a liberalism that avoids insult, but in recommending Bryan’s Jesus to us, Kazin seems to have something more strenuous, and unlikely, in mind. At the same time, I think Kazin underplays the persistent appeal of Bryan’s Jefferson. In insisting on viewing “Bry¬an¬ism” as the precursor of the New Deal “regulatory state,” he slights the differences that separated Bryan’s neo-Jeffersonian vision from Roosevelt’s liberalism. As Elizabeth Sanders shows, the congressional progressives from the periphery whom Bryan led were attempting to expand the authority of the national state to bring corporate capital to heel without at the same time vesting discretionary power in the sort of regulatory state of bureaucrats and judges that the New Deal instituted. They pursued not the growth of the regulatory state, which they astutely feared would be captured by the regulated interests, but rather an enlarged “statutory state” in which power would be vested in the legislature not the executive or judicial branch, and in which corporations would be subject to the enforcement of highly specific statutes, not to vaguer statutes enforced at the administrative discretion of federal bureaucrats and judges. They were forced to compromise this vision, losing out not only to their corporate opponents but to progressive allies (mostly Midwestern Republicans) who put much more faith in experts than they did. The New Deal was less the fruition of Bryan’s progressivism than, like the Scopes trial, part of the story of its eclipse. Bryan’s progressivism was, in sum, petty bourgeois radicalism. It aimed to use the national state to secure and sustain a decentralized market economy marked by small-scale production and subject to the control of a robustly democratic polity. A good Christian argument can still be made for it, but even without Jesus on its side, it continues to have much to commend it.

Published in the 2006-09-22 issue: 

Robert Westbrook is the author, most recently, of Democratic Hope: Pragmatism and the Politics of Truth (Cornell).

Also by this author
Overcoming Democracy

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads