William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan

Clarence Darrow may have embarrassed him at the Scopes trial, but William Jennings Bryan will long be remembered as one of the country’s greatest progressive crusaders.


Bryan early won the love and confidence of a vast section of the American people, and he held his devoted personal following for nearly thirty years. With the echoes of the Dayton trial still in our ears, it is easy to forget the great crusades of his early days and to miss his significance in American life. The New York Herald Tribune of today can afford to speak of his exacting moral code and of his political honor. In 1896 the Tribune wrote that

The wretched rattle-pated boy, posing in vapid vanity and mouthing resounding rottenness, was not the real leader of that league of hell. He was only a puppet in the blood-imbued hands of Altgeld, the anarchist, and Debs, the revolutionist. But he was a willing puppet, Bryan was &mdash willing and eager. None of his masters was more apt than he at lies and forgeries and blasphemies and all the nameless iniquities of that campaign against the Ten Commandments.

What was the secret of this hatred in the newspapers, which pursued him all his life? It was more than free silver that made the Tribune foam. The “boy orator of the Platte” represented in that day what his contemporary La Follette expressed in the next generation &mdash the protest of the Western farmers against the domination of public life by the vast aggregations of capital centering in New York City. We forget today the denunciation in Bryan’s 1896 platform of “government by injunction as a new and highly dangerous form of oppression by which federal judges, in contempt of the laws of the State and rights of citizens, become at once legislators, judges, and executioners.” We remember the “cross of gold,” and forget that in the same speech Bryan eloquently pleaded the cause of the federal income tax (which even The Nation of that day regarded as a dangerous precedent) and insisted &mdash doubly interesting today &mdash that the income-tax law was not unconstitutional when it was passed, or the first time it went before the Supreme Court. “It did not become unconstitutional,” he said, “until one judge changed his mind; and we cannot be expected to know when a judge will change his mind.” There in 1896 Bryan was pointing out the fallibility of the Supreme Court, as La Follette insisted upon it in 1924 &mdash and it is profoundly discouraging to reflect that the country in 1896 seemed to be more open-minded on the question than in 1924.

The curse of his free-silver mistake followed Bryan all his life. The “gold standard” is a kind of fetish in the business fraternity; like Bryan upon religion, they will not reason, but prepare for battle on mention of the phrase. Much of the criticism of monometallism in the years preceding the Bryan and McKinley campaign was justified. No one could foresee the Alaska gold rush or the development of the Transvaal mines, which made the success of the gold standard possible while inconspicuously giving that larger basis to the currency for which Bryan and his cohorts had somewhat unintelligently fought. The historian smiles to think that Bryan was feared all his life because in 1896 he bore a standard which McKinley, Lodge, and other heroes of the Republican faith had earlier espoused. They, however, spoke for “free silver” at a safe time and without any sense of protest against Eastern capital. Bryan helped to make it a class issue and a sectional issue. “Upon which side shall the Democratic Party fight?” he asked a hesitating convention. “Upon the side of the idle holders of idle capital or upon the side of the struggling masses? Burn down your cities and leave our farms,” he cried, “and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms, and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in this country.” And accordingly all the power of capital, idle or occupied, was thrown against him, and the newspapers bayed at him as at few men in the history of this country.

Instinctively Bryan chose the side of the people as against the powers of money, but it was his weakness that his heart was much stronger than his head. La Follette knew his issues; he studied, he toiled to master every fact and every detail before he made his smashing public indictments. La Follette’s career in Washington was an attempt to work out on a national scale policies which he had already applied on a smaller scale while governor of Wisconsin. Bryan had no executive and almost no legislative experience. He was lost when pinned down to detail. He had no talent for administration; in the State Department he floundered. It is significant that the man who sincerely fought the Presidential campaign of 1900 upon the issue of antiimperialism bears the official responsibility for two of the most outrageous examples of brute imperialism in American history. He was engaged in negotiating an excellent if somewhat vague series of peace and arbitration treaties with all the nations of the world; and while he was doing that American troops ruthlessly invaded Vera Cruz in Mexico, and later stamped out the centurylong independence of Haiti. Of course Bryan took no initiative in either of these proceedings; but neither did he do anything to stop them. He fought imperialism more effectively on the Chautauqua circuit than in the State Department. He resigned as Secretary of State because he thought the President’s course was drifting dangerously toward war; but he did nothing else to stop the drift, and when the war came he ridiculously volunteered as a private. And his last wish was to be buried in the Arlington military cemetery, on the strength of his military record in raising a regiment of Nebraska volunteers for the Spanish War. Always the heart swept him on, with no check from a reasoning head. When the anti-evolution issue came up he dashed valiantly to the defense of the Christian religion without stopping to inquire whether the Christian religion was in danger or how it could best be defended. And when Clarence Darrow got him on the witness stand he revealed himself as a pathetically sincere and pitifully ignorant old man.

The lapse of time leaves heroes stranded. Bryan was stirring as a boy orator, pleading for the people against the powers of capital; he was splendid preaching democracy to an imperialist age; he was magnificent when in 1912 he made the Democratic convention nominate Wilson in spite of itself; there was something noble in his lonely gesture of serving grape juice to the foreign diplomats, taking his convictions seriously even in public office &mdash but it is pathetic to think of the hero of such crusades spending his last years selling real estate and attempting to keep science out of the schools. The world has a right to ask of its leaders something more than sincerity and a generous heart.

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