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William Jennings Bryan — the original Bernie Sanders

A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan by Michael Kazin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was on about page 120, the run-up to the 1904 Democratic convention, when the light bulb turned on:

William Jennings Bryan was the 120-years-earlier predecessor to Bernie Sanders, on the legend even more than the reality, and related to that, the degree to which many peddled the Kool-aid or drank it for themselves, often long after the reality differed clearly. This includes the two protagonists. (Kazin may not like that comparison; for more on why, see the end of this extended review.)

That said, this is one of those books that is both provocative and problematic at times. And, as is the norm with such books, I’ll have a greatly extended review on my blog. What I have here is the basics of what I learned new about Bryan as well as a basic-level critique.

Trying to rate it is also problematic. I do think this is well researched (Kazin also notes former recent, as of the 2007 date, biographers), but not necessarily well analyzed.

I don’t think I had read before about Bryan volunteering to serve in the Spanish-American War. Even if he saw no combat, it did look hypocritical next to previous anti-American statements.

That said, Kaplan gets some Spanish Empire wrong. The Philippines as well as Cuba and Puerto Rico were still a part. So was Spanish Morocco and Spanish Sahara. Bioko and Rio Muni, later united as Spanish Guinea, were held in equatorial west Africa.

As for his service, as a volunteer, why didn’t he resign before the 1898 midterms? Bryan obviously doesn’t tell us, but it’s another spanner in the spokes of his bicycle.

And, supporting the treaty? Wow. And, the Senate approved it by just 2 votes to spare. Bryan said, in essence, that we should follow Kipling’s adage and adopt the white man’s burden but shuck it quickly.

Then, after 1900, buying a rural mansion that in today’s terms would run at least $500K? Multiple guest rooms. Dining room that seated 24. Servants. (Peak Bryan was making $2K/week on the Chautauqua circuit and more besides. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator says $2K, in 1913, its earliest year, would be $62K today. Per week. Just for a dozen weeks of summer, $750,000 a year in today’s terms..)

1904? Not endorsing Hearst. Sure, Hearst’s womanizing was already known, but Bryan had shown himself a semi-hypocrite on imperialism already. Hearst probably wouldn’t have blocked Parker, by the 2/3 rule still in effect then, anyway, but maybe? Before people shifted votes after initial first ballot tallies, Parker was just short; Francis Cockrell, Bryan’s endorsee, was third. That said, all the shifts were Hearst defectors.

LaFollette had a newsletter, like Bryan’s The Commoner, but it didn’t explicitly promote him. Battling Bob missed a turn there, but, given his speaking style, what I’ve read about that, and other things, not a surprise.

Kazin believes the legend of Taft as conservative, which is only half true. For example, he doesn’t mention that, rather than “trimming” on the tariff, Taft traded tariff reform for getting the 16th Amendment out of the Senate. Nor does he mention that TR never tried tariff reform and that he didn’t push the 16th Amendment, either. As part of that, he’s also wrong about Gifford Pinchot. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Taft and TR has a more nuanced portrayal. He also could have learned something about Nellie Taft, while there, per a bio of her . (Kazin’s book came out a full year later, and while Kearns wrote later than him, the door had long been open for revisionist Taft studies.)

That said, supporting the 1898 treaty foreshadows Bryan carrying Wilson’s water in Mexico before resigning over the Lusitania. And, carry that water he did.

There are other vignettes here, such as just how conservative TR was, claiming Bryan had “socialistic and communistic tendencies” in 1900. The claim, and the demagoguery, surprise nobody who knows the reality of Brownsville 1906.

Bryan coopted w/SoS acceptance. Wilson knew that.

First big oops not on Mexico but Federal Reserve. He did get Wilson to accept government oversight, but, with individual banks controlling the regional feds, especially the NY Fed, that was hollow. And, he was told that at the time. The remaining Populists and rising Progressives wanted something like the original, not watered down, Bank of North Dakota on lending requirements for the Fed, board of directors, etc.

Mexico/Caribbean? Bryan shared Wilson's paternalism. And, such it was, even if it shed the worst of GOP dollar diplomacy.

WWI? Wilson hoped Bryan would resign already by end of 1914, reportedly. Kazin doesn’t tell us if Bryan had heard about that.

That said, Kazin misses the mark on Wilson as fake neutral, and being a fake neutral not a real one relatively early after the start of the war. He talks briefly about submarines not doing cruiser warfare as violating international law but says nothing about the same for blockade by extension and food as blockade weapon, even with his admiration for British law in general. Kazin notes later that the Lusitania was carrying munitions as well as passengers, but not that it was armed with guns more than big enough to sink a submarine if it surfaced. Lost a star right there. (He doesn't ask if Wilson knew either one at the time.)

Would siding with Bryan "have prompted a political rebellion"? Questionable. I don't know about Republicans, but most non-Southern Democrats west of the Mississippi in 1915 were still isolationist. He then claims the NY World spoke "for most of the American press" when it called German response to Wilson's diplomatic note "the answer of an outlaw."

I had suspected Kazin would land here when, in his chapter on the 1912 convention, he indicated that Bryan plumping for Wilson instead of Champ Clark was a good thing. Yes, Clark was more parochial than Wilson, but he was opposed to WWI. (As Speaker, he didn't vote on the declaration, but his opposition was known. His son was an isolationist senator in the run-up to WWII.)

In Kazin's "War Against War," long review here he partially redeems himself — but not totally.

Sadly, as Kazin notes a bit in his Bryan bio and may cover more there, antiwar Congresscritters were ill-organized. A bill to block traveling on British ships wasn't introduced until 1916, and then, Thomas Gore et al had no answer to Wilson alleging they were making foreign policy on the fly.

Kazin redeems himself more fully at the end of the chapter: "In retrospect, he was quite right to oppose American entry into the Great War. It was not a conflict that history has justified."

But NOT totally fully. See what I said above about his thoughts on Bryan plumping for Clark as well as Wilson. And, going beyond what he said about “not justified,” it not only wasn’t justified for the world, it wasn’t justified for the US, even if Germany had still decided to smuggle Lenin into Russia.

Back to Wilson on the war. The reality is that, before the Luisitania, Wilson had, essentially, willingly made the US a “non-combatant co-belligerent.”

As for history and alt-history, Bryan's unwillingness to either battle Wilson's renomination (with the two-thirds rule in effect, he might have succeeded in blocking it albeit without his own nomination) or run as a TR-type independent reinforced that he had nothing to offer but platitudes. And, John Reed type mocking aside, hadn't this long been true? (Some Progressives pushed to nominate Bryan after TR said no, but ultimately, they had only a Veep nominee.)

Re the 1916 campaign? This is the first time I've seen the claim that Debs passed on the Socialist nomination due to health. If true, he wouldn't have run for a Congressional seat, either, would he have? His later imprisonment did wreck his health, but he still stood for the 1920 nomination from his cell. Of course, he would have been in the cell anyway, but, it seems that he stepped aside in 1916 for other reasons.

On Scopes? Kazin claims his violation of the Tennessee law was UNintentional. Really? Sidebar: He grew up in Bryan's hometown of Salem, Illinois. Per Wiki, Bryan spoke at his HS graduation, and claims that Scopes was laughing. Per Wiki, the truth on the case may be not that it was an unintentional violation but that there was NONE — as in Scopes may not have taught any evolution that day. (If you're going to challenge legend, you should do it right.)

The big issue is how much Bryan was motivated by opposition to evolution by natural selection, ie, Darwinian theory, and how much by social Darwinism, and how much or how little he distinguished the two. Kazin never really addresses that how much/how little issue. And, while a fair chunk of touters of evolution also touted social Darwinism, even in the natural sciences, many did not. The same is likely true, to a lesser degree, of upper-class conservative politics. And, it's certainly true of liberal Christians.

Was Bryan a fundamentalist? In the fullest sense of the book "The Fundamentals," no, but in a narrow sense, yes. In a vaguer sense, just like the members of the conservative wing of Lutheranism in which I grew up? Yes. Bryan might not preach hellfire to or about Catholics in public, but who knows what he thought in private. He was a biblical literalist. So, Kazin's "no" must be taken as a split verdict. The problem is, that Kazin doesn’t note the difficulty with analyzing Bryan as a fundamentalist today apples in a self-referential way. Just as Bryan didn’t have the politics of today’s fundamentalists, the fundamentalists 100 years ago. The lynchpin of “The Fundamentals” was not politics, but German-based higher criticism. Though we don’t have layman Bryan on record about higher criticism, he surely rejected it.

To wrap up, it seems that Kazin has a soft spot for Bryan — and enough of one that, on fundamentalism, and a few other things, he gave him a bit of a pass. (Other critics here have said that he does that with Bryan's racism, too. One or two other critics argue the other way, but even an occasional Southern politician explicitly denounced the Second Klan, for example.) Bryan leading the effort to BLOCK Klan condemnation in the 1924 Democratic platform does get mentioned, as does his undercount of Second Klan membership, but? "Mention" is all it gets. 

Here's another way of presenting it, and why I don't think this charge against Kazin is too harsh.

To look at a direct political contemporary? Eugene Debs evolved on many things, including race. (His original union, the American Railway Union, was segregated at first.) In prison — the WWI-related imprisonment, not his early one — he had his eyes opened about racial sentencing disparity — and talked about it.

Bryan never evolved.

Beyond the review, for today?

Kazin is a DSA Rosey, and per his Wiki bio, I am assuming some sort of sheepdogger against non-duopoly leftists. Given that, it's no wonder he doesn't want to compare Bryan to Debs more.  And, related to that, I forgot that he had a less-than-stellar essay in Myth America. This Slate piece has more. And, that is why I suspect that Kazin wouldn't like the light bulb of this non-duopoly leftist seeing William Jennings Bryan, and his legend vs. reality, closely paralleling that of St. Bernard of Sanders. And, his latest book, of last year, "What it Took to Win," appears to be sheepdogging writ large across party history, per at least one 3-star review. Per others, it seems like, per Dolly Parton, he tried to pack 10 pounds of potatoes in a 5-pound sack.

Beyond the review in general, thoughts that I had stimulated?

One thing I don’t get is why Sanders hasn’t pulled a Bryan and left the Senate and hit the rubber chicken circuit long ago. He, and even more I think, wife Jane, with the multiple houses and other things, like them some money. And, especially if he had done it before now, and very especially if he hadn’t fallen on his sword in 2020 for “his good friend Joe Biden,” Bernie probably could make half as much a speech as ex-presidents do. He would easily rake $500K a year if he wanted to.

Alt-history: Had Debs run again in 1916, he probably would have gotten enough additional votes in California and North Dakota alone to tip those states and the election to Hughes.

On the Great War? With a President Clark, he probably would have protested both British and German violations of international naval law. Britain would have decided the blockade with risk of sub warfare was better. (Germany had relatively few subs in 1915.) In response? Clark might have done like Washington and Adams in the 1790s, or Roosevelt in the 1930s, and issued a neutrality proclamation, then worked to get Congress to do even more, especially before the Lusitania. That would have specified no Americans on British ships. It would have specified no US government guarantees of “credits” by House of Morgan to Britain. With that, the British and French might have crumpled before Germany felt the need to smuggle Lenin. Hard to say.  

Anyway, that gets back to the review. If you really think WWI in general was that bad, and also think the US shouldn't have gotten involved (something that Kazin does NOT expressly say, so I'm not sure of his stance) then you can't let Bryan tilting the 1912 Democratic nomination pass in silence. (Nor can you let his susceptibility to Wilsonian flattery pass in semi-silence.)

View all my reviews

This post first appeared on SocraticGadfly, please read the originial post: here

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William Jennings Bryan — the original Bernie Sanders


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