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A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan
A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan
Michael Kazin
Anchor, 2007
432 pp., 18.00

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Eugene MCCarraher

The Great Loser

The ambiguous legacy of William Jennings Bryan.

Before they were the party of Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi, the party of Bill and Hillary Clinton, before they were the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman, the Democrats were the party of William Jennings Bryan, whose apparent erasure from the pantheon of Democratic heroes recalls the clumsy removal of Trotsky from Bolshevik photographs. Not that Democrats don't have excellent reasons to forget the Great Commoner. A three-time loser in the race to the White House, Bryan also failed to turn his oratorical gifts against racism and segregation, and he ended his life with a public and imperishable display of scientific ignorance. But even as they are gloating over their resounding triumph in the 2006 midterm elections, Democrats would be well-advised to remember Bryan.

A good place to start is the famous but little-read "Cross of Gold" speech, Bryan's address to the Democratic convention in 1896. Unlike today's gerrymandered speeches—with the lexicon and syntax of demographics inscribed on every neutered paragraph—Bryan's oration was a lavish political sermon, an un-triangulated exposition of the ways of God to Wall Street. Clad only in "the armor of a righteous cause"—that of "the producing masses of this nation and the world"—Bryan preached against that leviathan his descendants are too timid and feckless to name: "the encroachments of organized wealth," the unelected government of money and property, the devotees of Mammon who consider democracy a franchise of corporate capital. This isn't the twaddle of "values," or the high-priced pabulum of consultants, speechwriters, and other peddlers of the latest fashions in euphemism and sophistry. It's the clarion of populist insurgency, leavened and propelled by the spirit of the prophets, the battle-cry of the meek and lowly who've been promised the earth as their estate.

Michael Kazin considers Bryan a prophet whose challenge to the first Gilded Age might inspire resistance to ours, the second. In his timely biography, Kazin holds up Bryan as the prototype for a resurgent populist liberalism and for a "Christian left" inspired to crusade for the peace and justice of the Kingdom. Routinely vilified by intellectuals as the exemplary rube of fundamentalism—"a peasant come home to the barnyard," as H. L. Mencken described him at the Scopes trial—Bryan becomes, in Kazin's tale, a knight of democratic nobility, a defender of the faith that commoners are wiser than pedants, clerics, and moneybags.

It's a righteous cause, and Kazin will surely lift the spirits of liberals with his account of Bryan's "applied Christianity," a "radically progressive interpretation of the Gospels" in which the Beatitudes were the measure of modernity. At its best, Bryanism was one of our broadest and most charitable political visions. That latitude and charity stemmed from Bryan's evangelical faith, and Kazin, though an avowed unbeliever, is too respectful of the abundant historical evidence to leave the American Left in its undogmatic slumber.

Was Bryan's social gospel an aberrant episode in the history of the evangelical moral economy?

Alas, Bryan's vision had its limits, its degrees of myopia and patches of blindness, and they raise serious questions, which Kazin doesn't always answer or even raise, about the legacy of American populism. For all its incendiary rhetoric—perhaps even because of it—the populist tradition has never posed a serious or even genuine threat to capitalism. Its whiteness prolonged the tyranny of Jim Crow and infected the cultural nationalism now in play in debates about "immigration reform." And its evangelical religiosity, even as it provided a language of social reform, sustained the mythology of possessive individualism. Like most tribunes, Bryan was an equestrian in plebeian's clothing, a minister without portfolio in the government of property and empire. In the flamboyant and combustible art of demagoguery, Bryan was without peer, arguably the most big-hearted practitioner of an often malevolent trade. The most popular of losers, Bryan ended his life a magnificent ruin, and his relevance may lie in the lessons he drew from the magnitude of his failure.

The Great Commoner was born in 1860 in Salem, Illinois, to Silas and Mariah Bryan. The future scourge of plutocracy grew up in a prosperous political household. A stalwart Democrat, Silas was a well-to-do lawyer, judge, and farmer who served in the state senate; Mariah ran the farm, joined temperance groups, and educated Will in the bedrock verities of "the Bible, the McGuffey's Readers, and a geography text." Though raised a Baptist, Will defected, at the age of thirteen, to the Cumberland Presbyterians, who had renounced the traditional Calvinist doctrines of election and predestination.

In Salem and in Jacksonville, where he attended a private academy to prepare for college, Will learned the gospel according to Jesus and Jefferson. Mobilized in "the Democracy," as the party was called, this credo combined a tolerant if not quite ecumenical Christianity with a romance of small proprietorship. Even after the Civil War and its acceleration of industrial capitalism, Americans still cherished the vision of a "producer's republic," an evangelical Protestant empire where the omnicompetent male freeholder, commonsensically interpreting "his" Bible, exercised firm but benevolent dominion over family, property, and government. But this Christian herrenvolk democracy was a strictly white-faced affair: as Kazin notes, Democratic campaign literature abounded with images of "popeyed, electric-haired, and slack-jawed black men." In addition to hastening the demise of Reconstruction, racism held together the motley and fractious Democratic coalition: in the industrial North, with its urban immigrants and "Bourbon" moneybags; the Jim Crow South, garrison of white supremacy after "Redemption" from Reconstruction; the Midwest, home to small-town entrepreneurs and struggling, often insolvent farmers.

After graduating from Illinois College, Bryan studied law in Chicago, where for the first time he saw the human damage wrought in the nexus of graft and industrialism. Though scandalized by the poverty and corruption, Bryan seems to have had little interest in the new metropolitan culture of ethnic and religious diversity. After passing the bar exam, he set up a practice in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he spent much of his time collecting debts that farmers owed to their corn suppliers. (When Bryan later excoriated the cruelty of "the money power," he spoke from guilty experience.) He also married Mary Baird, a steely and intelligent woman who learned German to read political economy. (Was Das Kapital on the list, I hope?)

Nebraska Democrats were led by their home-grown Bourbons, who combined fiscal conservatism with an aversion to "moral crusades" such as prohibition and redistribution of wealth. (Their ideological descendants are "fiscally responsible," pro-choice Democrats—that is, junior-varsity Republicans.) Against the Bourbons stood a younger legion of jacobins, firebrands for farmers, railroad workers, and small businessmen. Having shoveled manure for Bourbon creditors, Bryan, eager to lose his publican stench, aligned himself with the insurgents, and found therein his political salvation. Elected to the House of Representatives in 1890, Bryan soon became a national figure, bearing the banner of righteous resistance to Wall Street and "the plutocracy."

When Bryan took up the insurgent standard, he ventured into a zone of turbulence that stretched well beyond the farms of Nebraska. On both sides of the Atlantic, an epic battle was underway over the future of capitalist modernity. Against the forces of money and steel were arrayed the battalions of bread and roses: socialists, anarchists, a host of other zealots against the new imperium of capital. Since 1989, we've all been encouraged to consign these radicals to the dustbin of history, vilify them as heralds of the Gulag, and forget their hopes that something saner and lovelier than avarice could rule the world.

In the United States, these hopes took shape in programs for what was popularly called "the cooperative commonwealth." From Henry George's "single-tax" scheme of land redistribution, to the consumerist collectivism (complete with credit cards) advocated by Edward Bellamy in the utopian bestseller Looking Backward, to the "workingmen's democracy" envisioned by the Knights of Labor, Americans confronted the corporate reconstruction of capitalism with proposals for bringing the titanic forces of industry and science under some kind of democratic control. Because the machinery of the industrial state—the gold standard, exorbitant railroad shipping rates, miserable factory conditions—was mastered by distant, faceless, and unaccountable captains of finance and production, runaway capitalism threatened not only the material livelihoods of farmers and workers but the integrity of producer democracy itself.

Like its later, urban cousin Progressivism, Populism was another version of the "cooperative commonwealth." Responding to the demolition of small proprietorship and artisanal skill by corporate consolidation and technology, both Populists and Progressives saw their historical moment as an enormous debate about the nature and destiny of democracy in industrial America. Ranging from Jane Addams' Hull House to the editorial offices of the New Republic, and reaching its high point of political excitement in Theodore Roosevelt's presidential run in 1912, Progressivism put down its firmest roots among urban middle-class professionals. Emerging from the Grange and the Farmers' Alliances, and crystallizing in the People's Party in 1892, Populism found its greatest support among farmers and small-town entrepreneurs.

Often in debt to suppliers and railroads, these rural yeomen detested the gold standard and its tight-money grip on their lives, and so Populists naturally focused on the coinage of silver. But far from being crackpots obsessed with free silver, Populists advanced a comprehensive and formidable agenda for the extension of popular power: women's suffrage, workers' rights to organize and bargain collectively, a graduated income tax, federal insurance for bank deposits, regulation (if not outright nationalization) of railroads and communications. At their most imaginative, Populists encouraged producers' cooperatives, community-owned banks (the ancestors of today's credit unions), and a "subtreasury" plan which, unlike the present Federal Reserve system, would have put the nation's monetary policies under direct Congressional control.

Oddly, Kazin doesn't do much to locate Bryan in relation to this history—he skips hastily over the Farmers' Alliances, and provides nothing of even a thumbnail sketch of Populism itself. Still, his unconventional characterization of Bryan as a "radical progressive" both deftly underlines the continuity between Populists and their urban cousins and counters the lingering caricature of Bryanism as a purely rural phenomenon. From his tumultuous campaign of 1896 to the end of his life, Bryan espoused much that was dear to the hearts of both rural and urban reformers, dropping only the subtreasury plan as an impossibly radical scheme. (He even admired the German Social Democrats, an unlikely sympathy for a peasant from the barnyard.)

Still, even if the American political economy had been renovated according to Bryan's just and humane specifications, it would not have been fundamentally transformed. The problem with Kazin's anointment of Bryan as "radically progressive" is that it evades the question of what was "radical" about Populism in the first place. While it's true that the Democrats denatured the Populist agenda by fixating on free silver, Populism was always a half-way covenant between capitalism and socialism—which is to say, an amended version of the old covenant of capital. The spectral presence of the old "producer's republic" hovered around Populism, obscuring the realities of class in rhetoric about "the producing masses." Bryan's Cross of Gold speech was a sterling example. "The man who is employed for wages," Bryan asserted, "is as much a business man as his employer." Tell that to the workers at Wal-Mart.

Like many other scholarly partisans of lowercase populism—Christopher Lasch springs to mind—Kazin desires an alternative to what he considers a moribund socialist tradition. But populist rhetorical shorthand about "plutocracy," "Wall Street," or "working Americans" has long been a surrogate for serious thought about capitalism as a system. The substitution of palaver about "the people" for political analysis goes a long way in explaining why populists have been such easy marks for currency panaceas (like free silver) that preserve the power of finance capital; for "tax the rich" schemes that leave the architecture of accumulation relatively undisturbed; for pabulum about "fairness" that ignores the structural imperatives of capitalism and postpones indefinitely all reflection about the nature of wealth itself.

Kazin rightly contends that Bryan and other Populists proved more prescient than most of their Progressive and socialist contemporaries about the dangers of centralized power and the alienation spawned by large-scale production. But he neglects to consider that those same contemporaries also realized, more clearly than the Populists, that the corporate transformation of the economy was raising unprecedented questions about the nature of property, the politics of the workplace, and the meaning of labor. Rather than look to the Social Democrats, Bryan could have turned to British guild socialists like G. D. H. Cole and J. N. Figgis—the latter a theorist of Christian socialism—who offered answers to these questions that combined the decentralist and artisanal features of populism with a greater respect for modern technology and cosmopolitanism. Given the indomitable survival of the "producer republic" in our moral economy—where regulations on multi-national firms are rebuffed in the name of "private enterprise"—you don't have to be a socialist, Christian or otherwise, to think that Americans have not even begun to grapple with, let alone resolve, these issues. For that expensively indefinite postponement, we have Populism to thank, in part.

We also have Populism to thank, in part, for the persistence of racism, unctuously disguised today in battles over "immigration reform" by references to "our historic national character." Bryan's indisputable racism plainly embarrasses Kazin, who concedes that his support for Jim Crow was "his one great flaw." (For her part, Mary thought that poor whites were wading in the shallow end of the gene pool. The "mountain people" she endured while in Dayton, Tennessee would, she lamented, "marry and intermarry until the stock is very much weakened.")

True to the whiteness that held the Democrats together, Bryan always endorsed "suffrage qualifications," and as late as 1924 he was shielding the Ku Klux Klan from denunciation in the party platform—this at a time when the Klan was at its most visible, influential, and ferocious. Though he loathed the race-baiting of southern Democrats, Bryan never posed the slightest challenge to white supremacy, refusing to lend his eloquence and moral authority to an assault on the most wicked and glaring injustice of his time. His acquiescence in the antics of James Vardaman, Ben Tillman, and Josephus Daniels enabled that grotesque marriage of Jim Crow and labor liberalism whose final tragic offspring was George C. Wallace. And when that unholy union ended with the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, the messy and fateful divorce delivered the South into the hands of the Republican Party.

Kazin's attempts at damage control only further tarnish Bryan's reputation. Hinting that Bryan felt "a certain discomfort with white supremacy," Kazin cites a "Poem on Colored Man" among Bryan's papers, glossing it by arguing that its counsel of Christian forbearance is "not as patronizing as it sounds." Maybe not, but it's hard to imagine Bryan giving the same advice to beleaguered white farmers. There's also the example of W. Thomas Soders, an attorney whose acerbic letter to Bryan, cited at length by Kazin, was a minor masterpiece of prophetic censure. "You call yourself a Christian," Soders scolded. "Pray tell me what kind of Christianity is this you profess?" Bryan's chilly and ludicrous reply—your letter, he told Soders, implied "what the colored race would do if they had the power"—revealed the guilt and hysterical fear that made whiteness so heavy and vicious a burden on everyone.

However sardonic and accusatory, Soders' appeal to Bryan's Christian faith pointed to the evangelical heart of his politics. Hard as it might be to imagine a time when evangelicals could stand against business, the biblical texture of American culture once ensured that Scripture provided the standards by which Americans condemned the new pharaohs of capital. Well-versed in religious history, Kazin reminds us that evangelicalism is not necessarily the religion of which unbridled capitalism is the economy. Still, it's no secret that evangelicals have, on the whole, taken a hard turn to the right, and until Kazin only a handful of writers have even noted Bryan's once-happy alignment of evangelical religion and progressive politics.

One could argue that Bryan's finest hours as an evangelical politician were not on the campaign trail but in the White House. His tenure as Secretary of State for President Woodrow Wilson (1913-15), together with his opposition to imperialism, form a case study in the evangelical peace witness. Of course, like his domestic agenda, Bryan's foreign policy was marred by racism. Kazin strongly implies that Bryan's disapproval of U. S. expansion after the Spanish-American War had as much to do with fear of racial contamination as it did with any Christian aversion to empire-building. Later, Bryan matched Wilson's odious condescension to "our little brown brothers" in Mexico with his own doubt that Haitians, "a largely unchurched black nation," would "do much to save themselves." (Apparently, Bryan had never heard of Toussaint Louverture.)

But Bryan also embraced Emilio Aguinaldo, the Filipino ex-guerrilla leader, and befriended Leo Tolstoy, whose Christian but unchurched anarcho-pacifism would seem light-years in sensibility from populist evangelicalism. Bryan and Tolstoy shared a powerful revulsion at the demonic power of violence, even when employed in allegedly "just" causes. (Incidentally, Bryan opposed capital punishment, arguing—like Tolstoy—not on the utilitarian ground of deterrence but on the eminently theological ground that even murderers shared in the imago Dei.)

In the spirit of ploughshares, Bryan proposed that the United States negotiate a series of bilateral treaties stipulating that each side submit quarrels to an outside investigative tribunal, and postpone armed conflict for at least a year. Today, alas, Bryan would face the umbrage of "Christian realists," scouring his meekness as a symptom of impotence and spiritual rot, or of nativists like Patrick Buchanan, opposing the "surrender" of national sovereignty.

His most courageous act as secretary was his resignation in 1915. Refusing any longer to tolerate Wilson's wrong-headed and duplicitous resolve to enter the war in Europe, Bryan set a standard of integrity that many of us have seen both honored and trampled in our lifetimes. When Jimmy Carter approved a foolish and disastrous rescue mission during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980, Cyrus Vance quit rather than front for a policy he disavowed. If only others had emulated Vance and Bryan. I can't imagine Bryan, if confronted with the deaths of half a million Iraqis thanks to his government's sanctions, making Madeline Albright's ghoulish reply: "We think it's a price worth paying." (That's always an easy call to make when the currency in question is other people's lives.) It's hard to see Bryan dissembling as lissomely as Condoleeza Rice about torture and illegal imprisonment. And Bryan might now be praying for Colin Powell, who disgraced himself and his office shilling for an invasion that he now admits he suspected was based on flimsy evidence.

Bryan's peace-mongering, as well as his social gospel, depended on the strength of Protestant cultural authority, whose demise largely accounts for the self-pitying and punitive sense of dispossession that infects today's Christian Right. But by the same token, Bryan's career discredits all facile equations of evangelical social thought with unfettered capitalism. It's easy to show that evangelicals have been insensitive to the structural character of evil, defining social injustice as the sum of individual failings, and social reform as the unadjusted tally of personal regenerations. But Bryan's inclination to activist government, together with the electoral support he did elicit from evangelical voters, demonstrates that the evangelical imagination was not completely hostage to the producer's republic.

Still, Billy Sunday and Russell Conwell (the latter's surname worthy of Dickens) were at least as popular as Bryan. Sunday famously dubbed Jesus "a real scrapper," while Conwell promised "acres of diamonds" to the plucky and ingenious faithful. Today, millions of evangelicals long to be impaled on Bryan's cross of gold, as eager to "name it and claim it" as were Conwell's beguiled fans. Proud as they might be of Bryan's defense of biblical inerrancy, many if not most evangelicals would find his politics insupportable. Bryan would be a prophet with honor, but a politician without a base.

Because Kazin is uninterested in theology, academic or popular, he doesn't appreciate that Bryan and Conwell represented a larger argument about the political trajectory of evangelicalism. He attributes the rightward movement of evangelicalism to the usual suspects—fear of cultural modernity, liberal distrust of public piety, material prosperity—but never entertains the possibility that evangelical political theology might also be a culprit. As Mark Noll's recent work has emphasized, evangelical faith partook of the individualist, "common-sense" ideology of antebellum America—and thus, gave credence to the proprietary conception of democracy that both inspired and lamed the populist tradition.

If that's true, Bryan's beloved failure as a presidential candidate raises two historical and theological questions: Was Bryan's social gospel an aberrant episode in the history of the evangelical moral economy? And is evangelical anthropology so bound up with possessive individualism that it precludes a coherent and enduring social gospel? I cheerfully pose these questions as a provocation to evangelicals, and especially to proponents of an "evangelical Left," who most need to answer them.

Bryan's hope for a Christian commonwealth prompted the final failure of his career: his foolhardy decision to testify as an "expert witness" at the Scopes Trial. Worldly wisdom would have advised him to steer clear of the ambush in Dayton. Clarence Darrow ate Bryan for lunch, of course, and Kazin makes none of the usual excuses on account of age or misguided valor. Bryan knew, or should have known, what he was getting into. (Kazin muses wittily that "it was the seventh day of the trial, and Bryan should have rested.")

But if one wanted to cite an example of how God extracts pearls from the dung of defeat, one couldn't do much better than Bryan's undelivered speech to the jury. (Barred on account of the judge's ruling, it appeared posthumously as an appendix to Bryan's memoirs.) Kazin cites it only briefly, but it's a magnificent testament to the moral and political import of Christian love, and Bryan might never have composed it if he hadn't gone to Dayton. Read past Bryan's scientific ineptitude, and it becomes apparent that his opposition to evolution stemmed partly from the same anti-elitism that kindled his politics—directed, in this case, at the aristocracy of learning in the universities. Pointing to "distinguished educators and scientists," an "irresponsible oligarchy of self-styled 'intellectuals,'" Bryan warned that their lack of a "heavenly vision" ensured their deference to the strong, and especially to the state. If the undelivered speech was a bit too heavy on grand-standing—"self-styled" is always a revelation of status anxiety—it nevertheless offered a critique of the military-industrial-educational complex a generation before the New Left.

Bryan was no theologian, but he clearly sensed that beatitude was indeed the crux of the matter. The battle in Dayton, he claimed, was "a renewal of the issue in Pilate's court": the struggle for jurisdiction in human affairs between "the law of force" and "the law of love." Figured, for Bryan, in Roman imperial might and Darwinian natural selection, the law of force was indiscriminate and unforgiving, and its verdicts always ratified the dumb and evanescent grandeur of power. But the "meek and lowly Nazarene"—the "Apostle of Love," perhaps the greatest loser of all—presided over a very different court, whose judgments, inerrant and however severe, were always delivered with the majestic quality of mercy. Here is no "childish theology," by which Mencken thought Bryan was "deluded." It's a genuine Christian realism to fathom that fidelity and witness, not victory and dominion, should be our bedrock political commitments.

Measuring the veracity of the gospel, not by its "contribution" to wealth or hegemony, but by its faithfulness to the Beatitudes, Bryan's apostolate of love—lethal and improvident foolishness by the standards of Caesar—is the realpolitik of charity, if you will. Our most lyrical, generous, and pacific demagogue, Bryan learned the power in weakness. I seriously doubt that Democrats will find it marketable, but like it or not, it's a truth that Americans—Democrats and Republicans too, anarchists and Greens—urgently need to hear.

Eugene McCarraher teaches humanities at Villanova University. He is writing The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.

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