Whoopers and Shouters

James Morone

  • A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan by Michael Kazin
    Anchor, 374 pp, $16.95, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 385 72056 4

A mob of divided, disgruntled Democrats packed the Chicago Coliseum in July 1896 as William Jennings Bryan rose to the platform and delivered a roaring speech – still the speech for part of the American left – about an economic chimera. Bryan demanded that the United States peg its currency not to gold but to silver – the equivalent of treating cancer with grape seeds. No matter. The poor farmers and small merchants from the nation’s heartland grasped the essential point: Bryan was challenging a rich, powerful, Eastern establishment in their name. Before the age of microphones, Bryan’s voice reached every cranny of the great hall as his speech boomed into its grand finale. ‘We will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: you shall not press down upon the brow of labour this crown of thorns.’ Bryan grabbed at his temples and buckled his knees under the agony of the imagined thorns and from this pained crouch launched his most famous line. ‘You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.’ He slowly raised himself up, stepped back from the podium, pulled his hands off his brow, and threw them out into a crucifixion pose. Silence gripped the hall for five ticks at this inspired blasphemy. Then pandemonium. ‘The floor of the convention seemed to heave up,’ one New York newspaper reported, as men swept Bryan onto their shoulders and into national legend. The speech marks the high-water moment of the Populist movement, which had crashed out of the American plains and confronted corporate capitalism. Its memory would inspire the Democratic Party from Woodrow Wilson (elected in 1912) to Franklin Roosevelt (1932) and Lyndon Johnson (1964). More than a century later, Democratic candidates still criss-cross the country trying to rekindle the lost Populist magic. In fact, the present campaign season has seen even some Republicans groping for the prairie Democrat’s standards.

But there is also an embarrassing side to Bryan: the ‘great commoner’ was a Bible-banging fundamentalist. When officials in Dayton, Tennessee decided to roast John Scopes for teaching evolution in 1925, they called in the ageing Bryan to prosecute. The week-long trial became a national sensation and reached its climax when the defence attorney, Clarence Darrow, called Bryan to the stand and eviscerated his Biblical verities. ‘Do you believe Joshua made the sun stand still?’ Darrow asked sarcastically. ‘Do you believe a whale swallowed Jonah? Will you tell us the exact date of the great flood?’ Bryan tried to swat away the swarm of contradictions. ‘I do not think about things I don’t think about,’ he said. The New York Times called it an ‘absurdly pathetic performance’, reducing a famous American to the ‘butt of a crowd’s rude laughter’. This paunchy, sweaty figure went down as an icon of the cranky right. Today, most Americans encounter the Scopes trial and Bryan himself in a play called Inherit the Wind. I once played the role of Bryan and the director kept saying: ‘More pompous, Morone. Make him more pompous.’

Michael Kazin is a fine historian who specialises in the lost causes of the left. He has written sympathetic books on the Populist movement and the 1960s. In A Godly Hero, his life of Bryan, he now draws an unexpected conclusion: defying capitalists and defending fundamentalists were two sides of the same philosophy. An urgent message runs through the biography: Democrats will never regain the common touch until they find a way to reclaim both parts of Bryan’s legacy. At the same time, every twist in the Bryan story provokes a disquieting question: is a leftist populism still possible today? Or do racial anxieties inevitably unravel everyman’s rebellion against money power?

Will Bryan was born in central Illinois in 1860, a year before the Civil War began. By the time he was 35, he had become the people’s orator, lecturing across the country – part pastor, part politician and every bit a folk hero. Kazin speculates that Bryan received more mail than any American before Franklin Roosevelt. He ran for president three times but never came close to the prize. Kazin calls him ‘a tribune of lost causes’: lost, that is, from the vantage point of ‘our own era of non-stop satire and 24-hour commerce’. Four of his passions – equality, peace, prohibition and the Bible – cover most of the great 20th-century arguments in the United States. First, the romance of tilting against corporate power. Bryan found the Democratic Party mired in laissez-faire and states’ rights; its politicians served local oligarchs, broke unions and busted strikes. Bryan and his followers pushed the party in a radically new direction: federal power ought to protect workers, tax wealth and fight inequality. More than any single individual, Kazin suggests, Bryan thrust the Democrats towards their 20th-century incarnation as champions of federal programmes and social justice. Bryan and his Populists packed their egalitarian message with a moral charge. Greed was sinful and corporate power sinister. A good nation must exalt its ‘little people’, who, in turn, minister to one another in generous communities. The call to alms would reverberate for the next eighty years, most famously through Roosevelt and, later, Martin Luther King’s social gospel sermons. Bryan’s spirit remained vital until Ronald Reagan finally dropped the curtain on all that pandering.

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