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.