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Jewish Ceremonial Art and Religious Observance, by Abram Kanof; The Horned Moses in Medieval Thought, by Ruth Mellinkoff

The Great Commoner

Bryan: A Political Biography of William Jennings Bryan.
by Louis W. Koenig.
Putnam. 736 pp. $14.95.

Louis Koenig’s biography of William Jennings Bryan is more than the effort to rehabilitate a man; it is a struggle to restore the integrity of our political history. The image of Bryan marketed and consumed by most intellectuals is a crude caricature, and given Bryan’s importance to his age, one which results in a fabulous distortion of the past that darkens our understanding of the present.

Of course, the materials for the myth were ready at hand. Bryan was pompous and vain, especially after years of travail had encouraged him to identify himself with his cause (“I have always been right,” he told a mild critic in 1908). His ventures into diplomacy were often naive; he did oppose condemning the Klan by name in 1924; historians did not invent the Scopes trial. But the fabric of the prevailing image is crazy-quilted, emphasizing the end of Bryan’s life when he was sick and increasingly alone. It is, moreover, too selective for accident; it could only be the creation of malice.

Accounts of the period invariably cite John Peter Altgeld’s opposition to Bryan’s nomination in 1896 and his sardonic response to the “Cross of Gold” oration (“What did he say, anyway?”). They omit Altgeld’s early commitment to Bryan’s renomination or his reference to the Commoner, in 1900, as “the greatest figure in the civilized world.” The texts analyze Bryanite economics in terms of their supposedly “paranoid” basis, contriving to slight or ignore Bryan’s belief in “pump-priming,” his demand for guaranteed bank deposits and for regulation of the exchanges, his advocacy of the income tax and a policy of jobs or aid to the unemployed. Free Silver, as Koenig points out, was a symbol for a whole range of economic reforms and a new attitude toward government. Silver was convenient partly because it was a comparatively respectable way of approaching the then radical, now conventional, policy of managed currency and partly because of the marvelous rhetorical possibilities of contrasting it with “gold,” but the terrified magnates who fuelled Mark Hanna’s machine never allowed a peroration to muddle their perception of reality.

By contemporary standards, Bryan was a racist, but was sincere enough in his devotion to equality to win the support of DuBois and Monroe Trotter in 1908 and to alarm more than one of his Southern enthusiasts. He was committed, early in the game, to women’s suffrage. In the battle against imperialism, his tactics have been criticized but never his convictions. And there is a contemporary ring to his distrust of State Department bureaucracy, his suspicion of excessive executive power in foreign affairs (Congress, he argued, needs the same power to end a war that it has to begin it), and his insistence that in time of war, wealth should be conscripted as well as men.

Similarly, Bryan feared the ties between the universities and the trusts, and resigned as trustee of Illinois College rather than accept money from “Plutocrats . . . seeking to strangle economic truth.” (It is unfortunate that Koenig sees this as only a moralistic opposition to “bad men incapable of good.” He would hardly have put the same interpretation on the almost identical statements of Thorstein Veblen.)

Bryan was neither a profound nor an original thinker, but American intellectuals have been able to forgive such defects in political leaders, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman being recent examples. But Roosevelt was a patrician and Truman was no threat. Bryan has always maddened the intellectuals because, while disrespectful of intellectual fashion and established academic wisdom, he was so often right when they were wrong. Academic economists at the turn of the century called ignorant the measures their successors would adopt in a quarter, or half-century. (At the time, the New York Times feared that the income tax would be “fatal to the solidarity of patriotism.”) Lincoln Steffens boasted of having influenced Wilson to support Carranza in Mexico; Bryan preferred Villa and Zapata. As Wilson discovered, what made it so difficult to knock Bryan “into a cocked hat” was the likelihood that one would come to decide he had been right all along.

Moreover, Bryan was courageous, as his worst enemies conceded, even when it endangered his ambitions. He might have had the Democratic nomination in 1912—and given the Republican split, certain election—if he had not presented his “anti-Wall Street” resolution to the convention. He gave up the State Department rather than support what he took to be Wilson’s drift toward war. He maneuvered and schemed for favor, attention, and office, often transparently, but the man had a moral gyroscope which called a halt at critical points. A threat to the intellectuals’ pride of intellect, Bryan was also a rebuke to their pettiness. They have been able to forgive many who were worse than themselves; they could not endure the fear that Bryan might be better. The shadow-Bryan of the myth had to be created to enable intellectual America to live easily with itself.

Perhaps the worst result of the myth, as Koenig suggests, is the failure to acknowledge Bryan’s role in the building of the modern Democratic party. According to the tale, Bryan’s oratory, almost by accident, swept him into the nomination and made him for years the symbol of the forces of revolt against untrammeled capitalism. As Koenig’s admirable account demonstrates, this ignores the planning and the skill at infighting that gave Bryan his opportunity, as well as the persistence and ability with which Bryan insured, in succeeding elections, that the verdict of 1896 would not be reversed. If 1896 was a “critical election” in American party politics, it was partly because Bryan was available as a critical man.

This aspect of the Bryan-myth has been less challenged because here the story has suited the purposes of radical historians. Their very contemporary concerns have made it essential to discredit the Populists’ fusion with the Democrats; to do that, it has been necessary to reduce Bryan’s appeal to a few gaudy phrases and the lure of victory. Henry Demarest Lloyd’s famous remark that free silver was the “cowbird of reform,” admirably suited to such a design, is always quoted. But Lloyd’s recognition that the Populists in 1896 faced a “Hobson’s choice” between fusion and playing the reactionaries’ game gets little attention, and his comment in 1900 that Bryan was “as advanced as we need him to be” is ignored altogether. Such selectivity conceals the reason that Bryan knew himself to be the “logic of the situation” in 1896: the Democrats could not hope to win without the Populists, and Bryan was the only Democratic candidate radical enough to compel Populist support. (Debs, for example, refused to be a candidate against him for the Populist nomination.) As Koenig indicates, fusion in 1896 was at least a fair compromise; as Bryan shaped the Democratic party over the years, it took on the qualities of a capture of the major by the minor party rather than the reverse. But such a reading of history hardly demonstrates the futility, for radicals, of partisan and electoral politics.

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Inevitably, a book like Koenig’s must discuss the Dayton “Monkey Trial,” a shabby charade made notable only by Bryan’s disastrous performance. Here, I think, Koenig is most outstanding. Almost alone, he sees that there were issues of substance that influenced Bryan’s intervention. Bryan was not a complete literalist about the Scriptures: Darrow could trap him in contradictions in which a fundamentalist doctrinaire or a charlatan would never have become entangled. As Lawrence Levine contends, Bryan felt driven to defend biblical literalism because he rejected evolution as a political teaching. But to argue, as so many liberals have, that there is no connection between Darwinism in biology and Darwinism as social theory is nonsense. (It would be interesting to compare attitudes toward the Scopes trial with reactions to Eric Goldman’s magisterial Rendezvous with Destiny, which makes the case which Bryan’s own lack of intellectual facility kept him from making, that Darwinian analysis led liberalism into moral confusion and a politics of drift.) In fact, as Bryan delightedly pointed out at Dayton, Darrow had argued in his defense of Leopold and Loeb that those who taught the boys the philosophy of Nietzsche shared the responsibility for the murder.

The question which Bryan hoped, and failed to, pose clearly was the extent to which the community may control the moral as well as the technical education of the young. If Darwinism is “atheistic,” and religion cannot be taught, can the scientific doctrine claim a special status on technical grounds alone? The dispute raises all the problems, so much bruited in recent years, which surround the moral and social responsibility of educational institutions.

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The Scopes trial, more than any event, enabled the intellectuals to destroy Bryan as a political figure because in this case he argued on their grounds. Paradoxically, they achieved the effect only by denying that ideas are of critical concern to politics, and in this, as in other things, Bryan’s position has returned to haunt them in the schools and colleges. But Bryan, unlike today’s fashionable leftists, had a moral creed that was substance as well as style; his life, as Koenig comments, was better testimony in support of his case than any words he spoke at Dayton.

But Koenig is too concerned to do away with the old image. Bryan’s life is instructive, but Bryan himself was not an “intensely contemporary” man; he would, as Koenig himself makes clear, have feared and despised the shamelessness of modern America and pitied its growing loneliness and self-disgust. It is simply ludicrous, moreover, to compare Bryan with Robert Kennedy in 1968 as Koenig does: a social and moral, as well as a historical gulf separates the two. And it only detracts from Koenig’s argument to call Bryan an “ideologist.” The term may be calculated to give Bryan standing among intellectuals, but it does not fit. Bryan never had a coherent political philosophy and probably never felt the need for one. He was inclined to trust his intuitions and the promptings of his emotions, and it was better that he did, for, warts and all, they were the core of his strength. “Moralist” would fit Bryan better, but even that term is a cheat, implying either that Bryan lacked pragmatic judgment or that his opponents were amoral. Ideology and moralism describe ways of reasoning, and what is vital in Bryan’s case was the substance of his beliefs, which welded the Christian demand for community and vision of human fraternity onto the spare structure of democratic institutions. There were also those qualities of character that Willa Cather saw in Bryan and the West alike, “magnitude and monotony . . . richness and lack of variety . . . inflammability and volubility . . . strength and crudeness . . . high seriousness and self-confidence . . . egotism and nobility.” These are the old roots, the ambiguous anchors of American civic virtues, and if they seem things of the past, Americans have abundant reasons for regret.

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