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.


  1. Maybe things have changed in this respect, but I seem to recall that when I was learning American history some decades ago, Bryan was treated with amused condescension by most historians, with the Scopes 'Monkey Trial', where he was pitted against the saintly Clarence Darrow, as the final nail in the coffin of his reputation.

    And of course today, you never hear the word 'populism' without the accompanying fright-adjective, 'right-wing' or even 'far right'.

    So it's very pleasing to see this man's reputation rescued from what a great Marxist historian, writing about the Luddites and similar movements, once called 'the insufferable condescension of posterity'. []

    Although he is now forgotten, the (liberal) political commentator and humorist, Harry Golden, pointed out that, of Darrow and Bryan, the latter was the real heretic, standing as he did, well before they became the norm, for measures such as Social Security.

    The Scopes 'Monkey Trial' has been immortalized in film and play ('Inherit the Wind'), both of which grossly distort the real history of the event -- as we expect from leftists. (For a critique of the dishonest fictionalized version of those events, see here: )

    It's worth quoting the summary of his case that Bryan would have presented to the court, if he had been allowed. He doesn't actually make the argument that the Bible, as interpreted literally, is infallible, although that is presumably what he believed. Rather, he presents a pragmatic argument for religion, the Dostoyevskian 'Without God, all things are permitted' charge. In other words, the consequences of believing that humans are another species of primate are terrible. A fallacy, of course -- the truth of an assertion is not related to the consequences of its widespread acceptance -- but a fallacy the Left believes in fervently today, as witness their literally violent response to any discussion of the genetic sources of IQ.

    His motivation is entirely honorable, and should give pause to the modern lefties who sneer at him:
    [Continued ...]

  2. [Continued...]

    "Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of [a] storm-tossed human vessel. It not only fails to supply the spiritual element needed but some of its unproven hypotheses rob the ship of its compass and thus endanger its cargo. In war, science has proven itself an evil genius; it has made war more terrible than it ever was before. Man used to be content to slaughter his fellowmen on a single plane, the earth's surface. Science has taught him to go down into the water and shoot up from below and to go up into the clouds and shoot down from above, thus making the battlefield three times as bloody as it was before; but science does not teach brotherly love. Science has made war so hellish that civilization was about to commit suicide; and now we are told that newly discovered instruments of destruction will make the cruelties of the late war seem trivial in comparison with the cruelties of wars that may come in the future. If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene. His teachings, and His teachings alone, can solve the problems that vex the heart and perplex the world."[ ]

    In other words, accept evolution as applied to humans and you will find it easier to vaporize cities full of these primates. And this was 25 years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (And, yes, even this argument against propagating the idea of our primate ancestry on pragmatic grounds is probably fallacious. Religion does not seem to have been very effective in staying our hands in war.)

    It's also of interest to speculate whether Bryan's anti-imperialism -- in which he was not alone -- could have informed American foreign policy in the 20th Century ... or was our path inevitable?

    A final thought: history gave us a Bryan, and we rejected him. Perhaps she was miffed by this, and is now toying with us, by giving us a Trump.

  3. Doug,

    As usual you have given me a lot to think about. Like I said in my post on evolution last August, I don't think that the science in question is incompatible with religion in general, only with the particular kind of religion that asks its devotees to look to some book or body of teachings or body of men as an infallible authority source, and dismiss all "human wisdom" when a conflict appears. Not all religions do that, but unfortunately, the religions that have dominated in the Middle East, Europe, and Europe's colonies for the last two millennia DO do that, which is why they have been gradually imploding under the pressures of modern science since at least a century before Darwin's time.

    Anyhow, I do think that it's possible to build a profoundly religious and moral worldview that is also accepting of evolution, if you do a few things, viz. (1) Believe that evolution accounts for the origin of our bodies, but not of our spirits which are at least as important, (2) Talk a lot about how hominid evolution involved our ancestors developing the ability and desire to solve most conflicts nonviolently, to care for weak and sickly members of the tribe, and to develop lasting emotional bonds with their mates, because those things turned out out to be beneficial to individual and group survival, and (3) Believe that God or the Gods had some role in determining what selective pressures our ancestors would be subject to and what beneficial mutations they would receive in order to make evolution into our current form possible.

    This is, in essence, what I think the dominant religion in America in the year 2500 - whatever that religion may be - will be teaching on the subject of the origins of the human race.

    As for whether history is toying with us by giving us a Trump after we rejected Bryan three times, that could well be the case - history does have a lot of patience so it's plenty reasonable to see the events in 2016 and 2020 as a sort of blowback for mistakes made in 1896 and 1900 and 1908. Though I do think that there are deeper forces at play, too: in the America of 1896 and 1900, 46 or 47 percent of the electorate found Bryan's message sufficiently appealing to vote for him. The fact that the best way to appeal to the electorate of 2016 is to run a Trump instead has a lot to do with changes in the moral and intellectual quality of the electorate in the intervening 120 years.