A review of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, by Michael Kazin
A Godly Hero, by Georgetown historian Michael Kazin, is an admirable if quixotic attempt to refurbish American liberalism by reconsidering the life of William Jennings Bryan. Insofar as he is known at all today, the three-time presidential nominee of the Democratic Party (in 1896, 1900, and 1908), is thought of as the religious fanatic whom H.L. Mencken mocked for his role in the Scopes trial. "A peasant come home to the barnyard," Mencken called him. When Bryan died a few days after the trial, Mencken boasted that he had "killed the son-of-a-bitch." Actually he killed Bryan twice, because it is Mencken's contemptuous take on Bryan that has been passed down to contemporary liberals through Frederick Lewis Allen's widely read 1931 book Only Yesterday, and the 1955 hit play and 1960 movie about the Scopes trial, Inherit the Wind.
Kazin does not argue on behalf of Bryan's religious views, which were nondenominational and tolerant. Instead Kazin's principal aim is to demonstrate that "the Great Commoner," as he was known, was hardly the provincial idiot of Mencken's caricature. On the contrary, Bryan was a man of considerable learning and enlightenment who was, except on the issue of race, broadly liberal. Accordingly, much of Kazin's well-written and largely well-argued book is devoted to dissolving Mencken's bile and describing the emotionally charged relationship between Bryan and his followers, many of whom looked to him as a political savior.
He rose to prominence in the wake of the depression of 1893, the worst downturn in American history up to then, which left despairing Southern and Midwestern farmers deeply in debt even as the price of manufactured goods rose due to an unprecedented wave of business mergers. A defender of the American farmer against the railroad monopolies and the deflationary effects of hard money, Bryan saw himself as a latter-day Andrew Jackson, at war with the same "moneyed power" that Old Hickory had fought.
A well-read world traveler and "feminist" who treated his talented wife as an equal partner, Bryan decried the sin of religious prejudice. He roundly criticized his supporters who attributed his 1908 defeat by William Howard Taft to a Catholic conspiracy; and he later took Henry Ford to task for publishing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Like other adepts of the social gospel, Bryan insisted that the only authentic Christianity was "applied Christianity." He sought a politics based on "principles which are eternal"-principles that he found in the Bible, the Constitution, and Thomas Jefferson.
Bryan's melding of Jesus and Jefferson as well as his oratorical gifts first came to national attention with his famed "Cross of Gold" speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention. "Bryan," Kazin notes, "never forgot that he was speaking to a gathering dominated by people…who agreed with him. What they craved was a memorable statement of what they already believed." When his turn at the podium came, he extolled the producing classes of laborers, farmers, and small businessmen who, he argued, were more important to America than "the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world." Then came the speech's climax: "Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world," he roared, "we will answer [the financiers'] demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." Bryan then stepped back from the podium and stuck out his arms horizontally from his sides, holding a crucifixion pose for several seconds. His theatrics, Kazin reports, left the convention awed and hushed-until the crowd erupted in wild applause.
The next day the two-term, 36-year-old congressman from Nebraska was nominated for president. His argument-that an un-Jeffersonian, activist government was needed to restore the Jeffersonian promise of America as a land of opportunity-was unsuccessful with the electorate, but marked a decisive turn by the Democrats away from the laissez-faire economics of Grover Cleveland.
Running parallel to Kazin's rehabilitation of Bryan the man is a second, and somewhat less successful, argument for Bryan as one of the intellectual sources of New Deal liberalism. It was Bryan's populism, Kazin insists, that paved the way for Teddy Roosevelt's Progressivism and then for the New Deal. Kazin approvingly quotes Herbert Hoover complaining that the New Deal was "Bryanism under new words and methods," and claims that "New Dealers in the 1930s only had to flesh out" Bryan's reform proposals "with a profusion of agencies and regulations." This is half right. Bryan's populism made the New Deal possible, but the New Deal was not an extension of Bryanism.
What's missing, from both Kazin's narrative and his understanding of the New Deal, is the parallel but very different stream of American liberalism laid out by Herbert Croly in his book The Promise of American Life (1909). In the early to mid-1960s, when Bryan had long been eclipsed, Croly was still current; five different publishers reissued Promise. Croly's argument, wrote Arthur Schlesinger for the Harvard University Press edition, "still holds up in the age of Galbraith and Berle."
While Bryan, a Democrat, and Croly, a Teddy Roosevelt Republican in 1909, both called for a far more active federal government, their personalities and their reasons were strikingly at odds. Bryan, the spokesman for local interests run aground by the new national corporations, was in some ways the less provincial of the two. He was no stranger to the city, even if he spoke for the heartland, while Croly, a classic Manhattanite modernizer (albeit with a mystical streak) had a scant sense of America west of the Hudson. Bryan, whose favorite book was the Bible, was in many ways a hail-fellow-well-met. Croly, whose sanctimony was mocked as "Crolier than thou," was a painfully shy man who told Edmund Wilson that "he saw his culture as mainly French."
Bryan spoke for the suffering of what he saw as "the producing classes," the workaday citizens who wanted to see the traditional promise of American life restored. Croly, a follower of Auguste Comte, spoke for his "exceptional fellow countrymen," the emerging professional classes, alienated artists, intellectuals, and scientists who felt stifled by America's Jeffersonian traditions. Croly accused Jeffersonians like Bryan of "suppressing fruitful social and economic inequalities…in favor of intellectual and moral conformity." While Bryan sought redress of suffering in order to return the country to what he saw as its rightful origins, Croly sought to transcend the limitations of America's business culture in order to uplift America into something morally and aesthetically more like Europe.
Croly dismissed the wordy and not always intellectually rigorous Bryan as a man born "too late." His "dislike of organization and of the faith in expert skill, in specialized training, and in large personal opportunities and responsibilities which are implied by a trust in organization," Croly insisted, "disqualified him for effective leadership of the party of reform."
"When reform comes to this country," Bryan insisted, "it starts with the masses" and not "the brains of scholars." The reforms of the New Deal were in this sense contrary to Bryan's spirit. When the New Deal arrived it was led by Croly's "exceptional fellow countrymen," who had been weaned not on Bryan's philosophy of the American common man but on the European theorizing of The Promise of American Life. Although FDR spoke approvingly of the "average American," his administration consisted of experts acting in the name of, but not necessarily on behalf of, commoners. Modern liberalism-before, during, and since the New Deal-has been based largely on Croly's exceptional fellow countrymen, the professionals who feel contempt for businessmen and pity for the unwashed.
Near the close of A Godly Hero, Kazin wonders why so few liberals have ever grasped the irony that it was Bryan who got "tagged as a right-wing authoritarian," not the rabidly anti-democratic and often anti-Semitic Mencken, who instead came to be seen as the "champion of liberalism." Unfortunately, this is less ironic than it appears. To modern liberals, Bryan became just another backwoods authoritarian, a stock character in their stilted morality (or immorality) play, linking the Scopes trial, McCarthyism, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush.
In this ambitious volume, Kazin gets the origins of contemporary American liberalism and the New Deal wrong. But he gets Bryan right, and for that his readers should be grateful.