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.
Still, the Populists looked backwards as much as they anticipated the future. Their common man lived in the countryside. And – always the little jolt of prejudice – Bryan’s people distrusted the big cities, bloated as they were by immigrants. Populists had little to offer the strangers. Bryan himself was blunt about the sanctity of the rural idyll: ‘Burn down your cities and leave our farms and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.’ Such bursts of rural defiance, Kazin observes, were no help in converting urban voters to the cause. The big city politicians returned the disdain. They were Democrats too, but Bryan did not speak to them or their followers. Populist economics constantly touched the great American antinomies. Bryan’s egalitarian campaigns foreshadowed the contemporary left, but with a vital difference: the Populists clung to their white, Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. To this day, populists in the heartland eye with suspicion the ethnic and racial cacophony of the madding cities.
A second Populist cause sounds even more contemporary. Bryan described military power as ‘an un-Christian tool of the upper classes’. The corporate juggernaut generated ‘wars of conquest’ while crushing clerks and farmers. In his second run for the presidency, in 1900, Bryan defiantly challenged the nation’s rising imperial aspirations. In contrast, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt made no apologies for American conquest. The United States would spread freedom and Christianise degraded peoples. It must shoulder the white man’s burden. The United States liberated Cuba from Spanish tyranny and then, after an easy victory, snatched the Philippines and set out to civilise them.
The Populist fight against empire became tangled in contradictions. They would spread freedom but resist imperialism, yet Bryan and his followers had a difficult time distinguishing one from the other. Populist fervour kept slipping into war fever. Bryan eventually supported the war to liberate Cuba and – pressed by his followers – even organised a battle unit for the good fight. (The Republican administration shrewdly stuck the Great Commoner and his men in a Florida swamp, where they spent the war fighting malaria, mosquitoes and snakes.) Bryan finally drew the line at swallowing the Philippines. This, he said, was imperialism pure and simple. The island’s natives had rejected the uplifting Anglo-Saxon mission. They rebelled, demanded liberty from their benefactors, and mired America’s imperial illusions in war. On the ground, American soldiers forgot their Christian purpose. ‘I got two of the niggers,’ the first American to draw blood on the islands crowed, and I ‘could have killed more’.
Once again, race vexed a forward-looking Populist impulse. When Republicans trumpeted the imperial mission, Populists responded with warnings about the ‘half-civilised, piratical, muck-running inhabitants’ of the Philippines, who would soon ‘inject this poisoned blood . . . into the body politic’. Neither the imperialists who shouldered their white man’s burden nor the anti-imperialists who denounced them showed much sympathy for the people of the Philippines. Hard racial attitudes helped subvert this Populist campaign, which Kazin calls ‘the most disjointed anti-war movement in US history’. Prejudice blinded the Populists to a robust American tradition that would have afforded them a sounder footing. Senator George Hoar, a 74-year-old Republican from Massachusetts, pointed the way when he charged both Republicans and Democrats with violating the nation’s founding principles: ‘I can see no difference in the lynching of a Southern [black] postmaster and lynching a people because they think a government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, and got those ideas from the Constitution of the United States.’
A third Populist cause seems entirely lost in time. Bryan and his followers fervently supported Prohibition. Today we see Prohibition through the eyes of its contemporary critics. Eastern newspapers gleefully timed reporters as they got off the train in a distant metropolis, located a clandestine saloon, and downed an illegal drink (all generally managed in under ten minutes). The whole business illustrates a standard libertarian piety: of course Prohibition collapsed; no nation can legislate a moral code rejected by the people. This, however, is a big city myth. Fighting liquor may have been the greatest reform in US history: it engaged more people and more passion over more time than any other American movement. Across the rural heartland, Americans welcomed Prohibition. The cynical reporters would have had a difficult time finding drinks in the small towns and villages that cheered Bryan. Many of these places – half of all American counties – remain dry to this day. The liquor issue tested all the Populist reflexes. Large economic powers – breweries, distilleries and saloons – exploited common men and women. The liquor barons fed on the working man’s misery. Once again, Bryan called for new federal powers to protect the people from the oligarchs; once again, the Populists sought a moral counter to economic exploitation. And, inevitably, God-fearing rural folk found in their teetotal temperance a way to distinguish themselves from unsavoury Irish, German and black mobs in the dangerous cities.
Prohibition reflected deep racial trouble. As Bryan rose to national prominence, the Democrats in the South imposed a system of racial apartheid (known as Jim Crow) that was policed by the public lynching of black men. Bryan took a lackadaisical approach to the issue. He condemned the lynching (more than many Democrats would do) but defended the ‘suffrage qualifications’ at the heart of the segregationist regime. ‘Bryan was least convincing,’ Kazin writes, ‘when he struck such a disinterested’ – or uninterested – ‘amoral pose.’ White Southerners turned blacks into ‘child-people’ who needed restraints for their own good – exactly what the imperialist imagination prescribed for Filipinos. But repression in the South raised a question that Kazin does not fully explore. How could a decent society strip people of their rights and then sponsor such a terrible plague of lynching? Americans found the answer by conjuring up a story of black depravity. Black men got drunk, threw aside all control and raped innocent white women. White propaganda imagined that the lynching parties had no choice. In reality, sexual crimes were alleged – never mind proven – in less than one in five lynchings. Ritualised execution was the enforcer of American apartheid. Nevertheless, the story of liquor and black abomination became accepted lore. Reformers touted Prohibition as the antidote to racial violence.
A terrible eruption had pushed the elites into action. In September 1906, an Atlanta newspaper printed an extra edition yowling about an unknown black man who had assaulted three white women and got away; could good men no longer protect their women? Thousands of white men were soon racing through the streets. They burst into black businesses and dragged away the proprietors, they stopped streetcars, pulled out the black passengers and beat them on the spot. The riot lasted four days and claimed an unknown number of black lives. Alcohol fuelled the riot; presumably it had also unloosed the shadowy black assailant. The Georgia legislature banned the sale of all liquor. Almost every Southern state followed its lead. Prohibition then spread to the Western states, where it inspired a very different political coalition. Feminists believed that drinking fostered male violence; religious groups aimed to purify the nation; and almost everyone dreamed of redeeming the fallen cities. The Populist strongholds in the South and West had already legislated state prohibitions when the moral ardour stirred up by American entry into World War One pushed Prohibition into the US Constitution. Rural America embraced the programme, as did Herbert Hoover in 1928 (when he was running against the notorious drinker Al Smith of New York). Hoover called the cause ‘a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose’, and won by a landslide. Prohibition collapsed only when the Great Depression destroyed every aspect of the Hoover programme. But the cheers for the return of legal drinking, in 1933, did not sound across rural districts in the South and West.
A single theme connects all Bryan’s great causes. Populist fires burned on resentment. The angry ‘us’ always excluded immigrants in the cities and blacks in the South. This enduring tension is what raises the central question about American Populism, then, later and now: does a social movement that feeds on resentment, that defines itself against ‘them’, inevitably get entangled in the racial line – the deepest us v. them in the United States? And although he does not raise the issue explicitly, Kazin’s exploration of Bryan and the many sides of Populism brings us to the inevitable question about contemporary American politics: did the Democrats eventually lose their hold on the American heartland – on Kansas, Nebraska and Texas – because they lost their Populist economics? Because they abandoned their moral vision? Or because, at long last, they embraced civil rights?
And then there is Bryan’s embarrassing drama in Dayton. On its surface, the Scopes trial looks like a collision between modernity and a backward Southern zealotry that was one step removed from witch-hunting. ‘Men quite without taste or imagination,’ H.L. Mencken wrote from Dayton, ‘whoopers and shouters, low vulgarians, cads’ had set out to lynch John Scopes, but they ‘were having trouble pulling it off’. Here Kazin’s story takes an unexpected turn that scrambles the usual heroes and villains. Dayton’s leading citizens, led by a modern engineer with a PhD, had asked Scopes to offer himself up as a defendant in order to challenge the laws against teaching Darwin – and give the local economy a boost in the process. The debate between the Bible and a biology textbook was more fraught than Mencken’s hooting suggested. The offending book, A Civic Biology, illustrated the evolutionary tree in roughly Darwinian terms. Seventy pages later, however, the author endorsed a more dubious modern theory: social Darwinism, or the survival of the fittest individuals, groups and nations. ‘The same principles of breeding that produced healthier, stronger horses’ could ‘improve “the future generations of men and women on the earth”’. Social Darwinism was all the rage in the 1920s. So was eugenics. A Civic Biology – the ‘civic’ in the title was no accident, Kazin says – repeated the eugenicists’ favourite ‘natural experiment’.
The experiment went like this: a Revolutionary War soldier called Martin Kallikak had a fling with a feeble-minded woman named Margaret; Margaret bore Kallikak’s bastard. Then Martin settled down with a good wife and produced a normal family. Now, six generations later, the results were irrefutable. Margaret’s line had produced 143 feeble-minded people (with 291 more in serious doubt), 33 prostitutes, 24 confirmed alcoholics and eight brothel owners. ‘Margaret, the mother of criminals, has left a progeny of some 700 paupers, prostitutes and criminals.’ They bred recklessly and burdened society. Meanwhile, Kallikak’s other line begot nothing but the cream of the community: doctors, lawyers, judges, educators and – the ambiguous little blemish that adds verisimilitude to the portrait – one case of ‘religious mania’. Contemporary scholars have exposed the whole business as nonsense but at the time it seemed the latest scientific thing. By 1931, thirty states had passed laws encouraging the sterilisation of the feeble-minded. The California legislature directed prison authorities to ‘asexualise’ men convicted of three crimes or more (or any who acted as ‘moral and sexual perverts’). Other laws proscribed marriage between races. Kazin does not defend Bryan’s religion so much as place it in the context of a generous social vision. Bryan imagined a nation of spiritual and selfless communities. Social Darwinism violated everything he believed in: it subverted mutual aid and challenged his dream of a land where ‘every citizen is a sovereign, but . . . no one cares to wear a crown’. Bryan was less ‘the idol of all Morondom’, as Clarence Darrow sneered, and more the prophet of mid 20th-century liberalism.
There is a forgotten epilogue to the Scopes trial. After humbling Bryan, Darrow casually conceded the case: John Scopes was guilty, since he never denied teaching evolution. The plan was to have the court fine Scopes, then to appeal to the state court, which would uphold the conviction, and finally to take the case to the Supreme Court, which had the authority to strike down all anti-Darwin legislation (five states had already passed laws, 15 more were debating the issue). But the Tennessee ‘whoopers’ outmanoeuvred their challengers when the state court quietly reversed the Scopes conviction on a technicality. No slap on the wrist for Scopes, no Supreme Court appeal for Darrow. Despite the legends about modernity’s triumph, the fundamentalist law survived the assault of the big city sarcastics; Darwin and evolution slipped right out of the Tennessee school books. Humiliated by the Scopes trial and deflated by Prohibition’s fall, religious fundamentalists retreated from national politics. They would keep to themselves for two generations until the sexual depravity of the 1970s (as they saw it) forced them back into the arena. With the returned fundamentalists came a renewed attack on evolution. Republican politicians now gingerly shuffle around the issue – George Bush artfully dodges the Darwin Question whenever he is asked. But the old Populist corollary – we ought to help the helpless – vanished from the fundamentalist catechism. Bryan stood on both sides of modernity. He looked foolish when he tried to trump Darwin with Genesis. But, unlike his sophisticated tormenters, he grasped the dangers of social Darwinism, with its questionable science and chilling eugenics. Though he was limited by his racial blinkers, Bryan doggedly championed common people when most American politicians were pandering to Mammon.
Bryan died in his sleep five days after the Scopes trial. He would not live to see the rise and triumph of his egalitarian ideals: in many ways, they dominated the middle of the 20th century in the United States. After two generations, the liberal ascendancy would, in turn, fall to a new age of inequality. Kazin surveys the contemporary landscape and rather wishes for another Bryan. ‘We lack politicians, filled with conviction and blessed with charisma, who are willing to lead a charge.’ Today, leftist reformers may be sensitive about race and sensible about biology. But they lack the egalitarian passion. The most recent spasm of neo-Populist reform offers a disheartening contrast. Bill Clinton introduced national health insurance in a masterful television address. How will future generations judge our society, he asked, if we were to stand by while ‘hard-working families lost their homes, their savings, their businesses, lost everything simply because their children got sick?’ Over the following year, opponents outmanoeuvred Clinton and defeated his proposal; the president discarded national health insurance as a political liability. ‘I was . . . disappointed,’ he wrote mildly in his memoir, ‘and I felt bad that Hillary and [presidential adviser] Ira Magaziner were taking the rap.’ No further mention of the hard-working families who lost everything when a child fell sick.
The current election campaign has quite unexpectedly veered back to Populism. Mike Huckabee rose out of nowhere (well, out of Arkansas) and jolted the Republican Party establishment by combining evangelical fervour (he is a former Baptist preacher) with a zany economic populism. Huckabee is a penniless, rock-and-roll-loving, regular guy who has managed to win six states. The Democrat John Edwards, a wealthy lawyer, offered an all-out economic rebellion that lambasted the smugness of the haves. College professors loved his lyrical rants – but they never touched the have-nots. And every Democrat who entered the race loudly echoed Bryan’s anti-war rhetoric – often miming his confusion and contradictions. The most exuberant campaigns, however, forge a more ambiguous kind of populism. Hillary Clinton touts steadiness and experience; Barack Obama would douse the very antagonisms – between black and white, immigrant and native, rich and poor – that fired up traditional Populists. And yet Clinton and Obama share a kinship with the Great Commoner. Clinton, almost despite herself, seems to empower people who feel left out, while Obama electrifies his supporters with the same wild jolt of unbounded possibility that was once Bryan’s stock in trade.
The life of William Jennings Bryan offers one great lesson for contemporary reformers. Not how to win – Bryan almost never won – but how to lose and lose again and still preserve the cause. Bryan never faltered in his quest for a moral republic in which federal power would honour and protect working people. The vision was more important than whether the most beloved politician in the nation actually won an election. Kazin has something entirely contemporary in mind when he gives a half-cheer for this politician who imagined a more generous nation, who never wavered in his aspirations, and who always made his dream seem right, urgent and irresistible.