The View From 1776

William Jennings Bryan: Radical Reformer

Despite his influential role in national politics between 1896 and and 1915, Bryan is known (if at all) to the present generation only as an ignorant buffoon who was ridiculed for his belief in literal interpretation of the Bible by ACLU attorney Clarence Darrow in the 1925 Scopes Money Trial.

A recent Wall Street Journal review of “A Godly Hero,” by Michael Kazin, the latest biography of Bryan, puts a broader and more accurate frame around his career.  As reviewer James Grant writes,“Bryan—he of the Scopes trial and the Cross of Gold speech; orator, journalist, evangelist and perennial Democratic presidential hopeful—tirelessly worked to take from the rich to give to the poor. Or, rather, to take from the other rich. If you were wondering whom to thank for the federal income tax, you may begin by thanking Bryan. His voice was the wind in the sails of what became the 16th Amendment to the Constitution.

“His latest biographer, Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University, does thank Bryan: “In his advocacy of a stronger, more interventionist state, Bryan calmed his party’s ancestral dread of federal power. Every Democratic president from Woodrow Wilson to Lyndon Johnson would reap the rewards of his apostasy.”

Paradoxically, Bryan has been indelibly painted in the public mind as an enemy of liberal-socialism whose ignorant faith in the Bible’s truth was a conclusive validation of teaching atheistic Darwinian evolution in our public schools. 

William Jennings Bryan?s celebrated ?Cross of Gold? speech in the 1896 Presidential campaign was the Populist Party’s rallying cry in the midst of a serious economic recession.  Bryan lost the election to Republican William McKinley, who did the opposite of what the Populists demanded, strengthening the gold standard and raising tariffs. Prosperity returned almost immediately, leaving a moribund Populist party that never again was a factor in national politics.

Their place was assumed by the Progressives, who formed separate political parties in 1912 and 1924.  Progressives were the first organized political movement in this country to identify themselves with the emphasis of socialism on scientific management of society, what Franklin Roosevelt two decades later was to introduce as State-Planning.  Progressives metamorphasized into today?s socialist liberals, more or less officially in 1924, when they united with the Socialist party to support the Presidential candidacy of Robert M. La Follette.

While the Progressives were heavily represented in Midwestern farm states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, they were equally the party of the academic community and big-city intellectuals.  American Progressives before World War I had come to believe that America?s future lay in socialism and rejection of religious and moral ?ignorance.?

This background explains why today’s liberals, fearing the negative political connotations of the “L” word, have reverted to calling themselves Progressives.

Progressives? infatuation was characterized by a blind, unquestioning faith in ?scientific? management and social engineering.  The individual citizen, they thought, was incapable of directing his own affairs, either to his own good, or to the well-being of the National State.  Hence the thesis of Herbert Croly in “The Promise of American Life” (1909) and Walter Lippmann in his “A Preface to Politics” (1914) that America?s competitive position in the world required putting affairs of state into the hands of trained managers and scientists, under a strong leader.  Lippmann, then fresh out of Harvard, where he had been president of the student socialist organization, joined with Croly in 1914 to found “The New Republic,” which became the flagship periodical of liberal socialism in the United States.

They were anxious to have an activist President, of the sort envisioned by Bryan and the Populists a generation earlier, who could overpower the traditionalist mind-set of Congress and the Federal judiciary of that era.  Herbert Croly proclaimed that the nation was mired in mediocrity by its devotion to Jeffersonian individuality.  A vigorous leader was needed to break through the social and constitutional barriers that separated us from scientifically-managed greatness.  Political power, Croly insisted, must be taken from the states and collectivized at the national level.  Moreover, the constitutional powers of Congress must be tightly constrained and subsumed by the powerful personality needed for the presidency.  The United States required Nietzsche?s iron-willed Super Man.

For intellectuals before the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Germany was the model to emulate.  In the 1860s, Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, had single-handedly, by sheer personal brilliance and diplomatic dexterity, pulled together the divergent German principalities of the old Holy Roman Empire to form the new German Empire under the Prussian Kaiser.  By the 1870s, Germany had the world?s most admired universities, the most advanced chemistry and physics, as well as the leading medical system.  In 1881, Bismarck had established the world?s first national welfare system,  created, as he said, to make the German people more dependent upon the National State and therefore more easily herded like cattle.

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal ideas about the need for a collectivized political state came directly from Fascist Italy and from the Soviet Union, but the path to public acceptance of socialistic state-planning had been prepared by William Jennings Bryan and Germany’s Otto von Bismarck.

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