Monday, February 15, 2021

In the Shadow of William Jennings Bryan

As I am writing this, Joe Biden has achieved a rare feat – he is probably the first President in living memory to not be the most talked-about man in America during his first month in office. Instead, America’s number one subject of conversation is still Donald Trump, courtesy of the one-of-a-kind post-presidential impeachment trial which the Democrats just put him through.

Trump got acquitted, as everyone knew he would, because only seven out of 50 Senate Republicans voted ‘guilty.’ The reason for this is that most Republicans are like Mitch McConnell: they are appalled by what Mr. Trump did during last month’s riot, and in private they probably wish that he would get eaten by an escalator so that nobody would ever have to think about him again. But they dare not vote to banish the man whom a large portion of their base regards – however irrationally – as a Messiah.

Call that attitude cowardice, call it partisanship, or call it pragmatism, if you like. The upshot is that Donald Trump – whose sons are now excitedly tweeting pictures of their father in a boxing ring with the caption “Back To Back Impeachment Champ” – will be eligible to run for President again in 2024. (Personally, I really hope he doesn’t run, as there is no way that such a spectacle could end well for the Republican Party.)

Meanwhile, the distraction of the impeachment trial has resulted in the new Congress doing a remarkably slow job of passing legislation and confirming the Biden cabinet. So with little to comment on in current events, I have decided to devote my present post to answering a historical question which was recently posed to me by a group of politically minded Americans.

Question: Who is your favorite statesman, and why?

Answer: My favorite American statesman is William Jennings Bryan, the Nebraskan populist famous for running for president on the Democratic ticket three times – in 1896, 1900, and 1908 – and losing all three elections. I admire Bryan because, behind the well-worn figure of the noble loser, I see a great tale of man who offered to take a modernizing nation down a road that hewed quite a bit closer to our founding principles than did the road we actually ended up travelling.

William Jennings Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois on 19 March, 1860. At age 24 he married Mary Baird, with whom he had three children. Bryan practiced law until 30, when he was elected to represent Nebraska in Congress. His oratory won him nationwide fame, and at 36 he became the youngest man to ever run for President. He died in 1925, aged 65.

Bryan is a difficult figure to fit into the conventional narratives of turn-of-the-century politics. It is depressingly common to see him shoehorned into the role of a forerunner to Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. But it is a mistake to view Bryan as simply a man before his time, whose core ideas would be successfully implemented by later politicians as America continued its march of progress.

While Bryan did indeed rouse many of the same popular passions that later put Wilson and Roosevelt in the White House, he did so within a distinct ideological framework. What Bryan offered was a different way forward for the forces of American liberalism – a populist, almost Jeffersonian alternative to the siren song of technocracy and global empire. That the United States rejected Bryan’s offer, only to later embrace the Wilsonian and New Deal versions of progressivism, is among the great tragedies of our national story.

Bryan’s most famous campaign issue, free silver, is as good a place as any to begin.

For many of today’s armchair economists, the gold standard is the starting point of monetary history: either the paradise from which mankind fell, or the primordial slime out of which we rose. But back in 1896, when William Jennings Bryan gave his Cross of Gold Speech and launched his first presidential campaign, the gold standard was a twenty-three year experiment whose results, for millions of small farmers across the American Midwest, had been devastating.

Ever since the Coinage Act of 1873 had privileged gold and restricted the minting of new silver coins, America’s money supply had been unable to keep up with economic growth, leading to severe deflation and a chain of panics and recessions. The problem of the currency shortage could not be left unsolved indefinitely, no matter what the monied interests who benefited from deflation might have wished. And while Bryan had the trappings of a progressive, the solution which he offered was downright reactionary: a return to the bimetallism which had existed from George Washington’s time until 1873.

Had Bryan’s cause prevailed, free silver would not have required the enlargement of the administrative state, or the concentration of power into the hands of central bankers, on which later monetary policies relied. But because the problem of deflation had to be solved somehow, free silver’s failure ended up making the Federal Reserve an inevitability.

The Fed solved the immediate problem of the currency shortage, but at the cost of consolidating power in a baroque assemblage of financial institutions which spent the next 16 years blowing a huge financial bubble. The bubble’s collapse triggered the steep deflation of 1929-1933, which lasted until the gold standard was given up entirely in favor of de facto fiat money. Again, the immediate problem was solved, but at the cost of expanding the power of the finance industry and the role of debt in both public and private life.

If William Jennings Bryan had drawn more support when he offered America a return to the monetary policy of the Founders, these disasters might have been avoided. As it is, we still have Bryan to thank for making the present situation a little less bad than it might have been, by convincing the Federal Reserve Act’s drafters to have the Fed’s Board of Governors be appointed by the President rather than elected by other bankers.

And if the free silver debacle provides only a murky example of Bryan meeting the challenges of modernity with a mixture of populism and Jeffersonian revival, the anti-imperialism at the core of his 1900 campaign should throw matters into a much clearer light.

The question was whether the United States, after winning the Spanish-American War, would become a colonial power. The incumbent President, William McKinley, had double-crossed Filipino President Emilio Aguinaldo after offering him independence in exchange for an alliance against Spain, and was now at war once again to secure the Philippines for the United States.

Bryan ran against McKinley on an anti-imperial platform, and enjoyed the support of a new coalition that included men like Andrew Carnegie. (In the past, Carnegie had been suspicious of Bryan’s apparent anti-business views, but he was willing to bury the hatchet when he saw a clear moral issue on the line.)

Once again, what Bryan offered (under a veneer of progressive populism) was a revival of the principles of America’s Founders – this time, by keeping the United States free of foreign entanglements, and by not reducing other nations under the same colonialist boot from which America had freed itself during the Revolutionary War.

Similar issues would surface again during Bryan’s brief tenure as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State. At the outbreak of World War I, both Wilson and Bryan spoke in favor of neutrality, but they clashed over Wilson’s partiality toward the British in the wake of sensational events like the sinking of the Lusitania, a passenger liner which also happened to be carrying war materials.

“A ship carrying contraband should not rely upon passengers to protect her from attack,” Bryan insisted. “It would be like putting women and children in front of an army.”

These clashes led to Bryan’s resignation from the State Department in 1915. Within two years, Wilson’s commitment to neutrality had faltered, and the United States was at war with Germany.

Apart from taking his two great stands on free silver and anti-imperialism, Bryan also supported a range of lesser-known reforms which, though bundled together by later historians under the label of “progressivism,” are worthy of consideration on their own terms.

Along with his wife Mary, William Jennings Bryan was an early and vocal advocate for women’s suffrage, and for greater participation of women in public life in general. Of this I am wholly in favor. At the same time, his lack of support for racial equality was unfortunate, though one must remember that as a Democrat who relied on the southern vote, he had little practical opportunity to do otherwise.

Prohibition and the direct election of Senators both became law with Bryan’s support. In my own opinion, both were well-intentioned mistakes. It is to our nation’s detriment that only one has since been corrected.

The anti-business reputation which Bryan carried with him throughout his career was a result of (1) his incendiary rhetoric against the (genuinely corrupt) “money power” and (2) his support for anti-trust laws, federal infrastructure subsidies, and tougher safety regulations on banks, railroads, meatpacking plants, etc. His rejection of laissez faire economics has led, in some circles, to his being tarred as a progenitor of today’s socialistic Left.

What the people who make those accusations forget is that Bryan’s economic policies, while anathema to certain strains of contemporary Right-wing thought, were squarely within the constitutional framework of America’s Founders, who wanted their new government to be strong enough to regulate interstate commerce and fund public works when Congress decided that doing so was in the national interest.

Being a populist, Bryan was uninterested in creating the armies of expert officials which later iterations of progressivism, such as the New Deal, relied on to administer their programs. Had the rising tide of American liberalism found expression with Bryan and his followers instead, voters and their elected representatives would likely have retained more influence in government.

The final act of Bryan’s public life, his prosecution of the Scopes Monkey Trial, elicits mixed feelings. On the matter of science, John Scopes was right and William Jennings Bryan was wrong. But the trial also involved larger matters of power and principle, because by flouting an act of the Tennessee Legislature that required teachers in public schools to remain silent about the theory of evolution, Mr. Scopes was asserting a power of the intelligentsia to steer public policy without having to build consensus among the common people and their elected representatives. Bryan was justified in opposing this.

And though he was far from infallible, William Jennings Bryan deserves to be remembered as a man who stood forth at a crucial time in American history to defend sensible monetary policy, freedom from needless wars, and representative government, both for his own nation and for all mankind.