In Defense of William Jennings Bryan

Jun 08 2008 Published by under Elections, Politics, Presidential

Senator John McCain, it appears, is not a fan of William Jennings Bryan. In a recent interview with USA Today, the Republican Party's nominee for President compared the three-time Democratic nominee for president from the turn of the last century to the Party's current nominee:

"I believe that people are interested very much in substance," McCain said. "If it was simply style, William Jennings Bryan would have been president." (Bryan, a noted orator, lost three presidential elections as the Democratic nominee in 1896, 1900 and 1908.)

It would be easy for me to dismiss McCain's dislike of Bryan as a rare point that he and I can agree on. Bryan's legacy, after all, is dominated by three great failures and one Pyrrhic victory: the Presidential elections, and his successful prosecution of one John Scopes for the crime of teaching Darwinism. Given my strong support for teaching real science in science classrooms, it probably wouldn't surprise anyone if I were to say that McCain got this one right.

The problem is, he didn't.

William Jennings Bryan had style. That much is true. The man was undoubtedly one of the great orators of his time. He had a gift for finding and using the right words at the right time. You might not have any idea of exactly what he was talking about when he said it, but you'll probably still agree that, " shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold," is a decent line.

Yes, Bryan definitely had style. McCain wasn't wrong there. He was just wrong to imply that style is all that Bryan had. The man also had plenty of substance.

Take that "cross of gold" line. It comes to us from a speech that Bryan gave at a debate at the Democratic National Convention back of 1896. The debate was over one of those questions that only a diehard policy wonk or historian could love: should the Democratic Party support a movement to allow the free minting of silver and gold coinage, or should the country remain on the gold standard alone. That Bryan delivered a speech eloquent enough to be remembered over a century later on such a topic should be enough to dispel accusations that he was all style and no substance in and of itself, but it's also worth remembering just what sort of substance Bryan actually had - particularly in light of McCain's apparent disdain for it.

Bryan stood up and spoke on behalf of free silver because that was the policy that Bryan felt would be best for farmers, laborers, and the working class as a whole. Economically, remaining on the gold standard was likely to lead to deflation - the same amount of money would allow people to buy more things. A shift to a two-metal standard would bring about some inflation. At first glance, it might seem odd that anyone would argue for an economic move that would cause inflation, but there was actually a solid rationale for the policy: inflation makes it easier to pay off debts.

Inflation results in increased wages. Each dollar that those wages put into the worker's pocket might buy less at the grocery store than they would have the previous year, but they do pay off just as much of the money you owe as they would have 12 months earlier. Deflation, on the other hand, keeps wages at best level, and can lead to a drop in pay. The dollar might get the buyer twice as many goods, but that's not going to help you much if you're paying most of those dollars to the bank that loaned you the money you needed last year.

The free silver movement that Bryan supported was a drive to help the working class; the efforts to remain on the gold standard were intended to protect the wealthy at the expense of the poor. (And at this point, McCain's distaste for Bryan becomes much more explicable.)

The policies that Bryan supported were often good - he was in favor of free silver, women's suffrage, and the direct election of senators. They were also often bad - as was the case with both his strong support of Prohibition and his anti-evolution crusade. In each and every case, whether I agree with the stand he took or not, Bryan's policies clearly were about far more than pure style.

And that's really where we get to the punch-line. McCain's attempt to dismiss both Obama and Bryan as being examples of the dominance of style over substance was inept, but the comparison of the two isn't entirely inapt. Obama, like Bryan, seems to understand something that escapes McCain: ultimately, the United States is made up of nothing more than its citizens. Policies that help working- and middle-class Americans might not be in the short term interests of the wealthy, but they will ultimately make the whole country stronger.

11 responses so far

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    It is rather arrogant of you to argue with one who was an eyewitness. Little humor there, no offense.

  • toby says:

    Bryan's historical problem is that he aged badly. In retrospect, his stand against joning WW1 and against eugenics are armirable parts of his early and middle careers.
    However, he is best remembered today for his "Inherit the Wind" moment. Byran, out of power, chose the Bible Belt as his road back to the pinnacle. He beacame, in HL Mencken's words "a tin-pot Pope in the Coca-Cola belt".
    Mencken's articles on the famous Monkey Trial are still well-worth reading:

  • Naked Bunny with a Whip says:

    (And at this point, McCain's distaste for Bryan becomes much more explicable.)
    Not really. I seriously doubt McCain even knows what Bryan argued or why. He's already admitted he doesn't understand economics.
    No, McCain knows one or two bits of trivia about Bryan and everything grows from there. Talk about style over substance.

  • blf says:

    Obama may also grasp something else McCain does not: The government is hired by the voters as per (broadly speaking) a contract called the constitution. Similar to (in theory) a CEO being hired by the shareholders. A hired leader may then encourage--lead--the hirers (voters/shareholders) in a direction they didn't quite grasp they should go. Or not.
    What the elected government (or BoD) is not is failure-immune source of wisdom, authority, or blind following of "the masses". Nor should it automatically be a source of wealth. It does have an aura of power and responsibility, but that has been granted by the people (stakeholders).
    Cheney, Bush II, and H. Clinton do not seem to have grasped this. I'm unsure about Obama, but it's possible he has, or at least understands the concept.
    What has this to do with Bryan? I've always been under the impression he grasped this point, albeit his execution was flawed. The Scopes trial being a case in point: Ignoring the trial, he generally seemed to be sensible. Mistaken on occasion (and in retrospect), but sensible. Nonetheless, in the trial, he argued the position his employers (the voters) wanted, instead of advancing the general improvement of all (which would have been more advantageous for his employers).
    (My comparison of a corporation with a democracy should not be pushed too far. It's perhaps useful in illustrating that elected people are representatives of the voters, in the same way the BoD is supposed to "enhance" stakeholder value, but there are obvious differences.)

  • natural cynic says:

    Another thing that might show why McCain doesn't like what Bryan stood for: anti-imperialism. Bryan opposed many of the expansionist policies of TR, especially in the Philippines. McCain is just another C student suckered by neocons.

  • Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth says:

    Obama has style and substance;the latter shows in his health policy and being aginst the wrong war.
    To change the subject, we organics have the weight of evidence on our side that science shows no signs of teleology.Steven Schafersman noted that ten years ago against Eugenie C.Scott.

  • Joel says:

    Obama has style and substance
    Obama's health care policy is lacking, insuring only children, which is essentially what we are doing today. As for standing against the war, that's a no brainer and quite easy to do when you didn't have any responsibility in the decision when it was made.
    Obama is all style, a cheerleader. As if we need another in the White House.

  • Grumpy says:

    They were also often bad - as was the case with both his strong support of Prohibition and his anti-evolution crusade.
    Bryan's opposition to evolution is consistent with his populist ideals: he hated Social Darwinism, so he attacked Darwin. The scientific facts weren't on his side, but his heart was, as ever, aimed in the right direction.
    Bryan's resignation as Secretary of State over WW1, as toby alluded to, is another mark in the "often good" column. It was by no means a forgone conclusion that the United States should have gone to war in Europe, much less against the Central Powers. Agree or not, at least Bryan stood by his principles, thus preserving his integrity. His more recent successors should have heeded the lesson.

  • Mark C says:

    I suspect that McCain's disdain for Bryan extends no deeper than the fact that he sported a "D" after his name.

  • Metro says:

    Quoting Toby:
    "Bryan's historical problem is that he aged badly."
    McCain's current problem is the same.

  • dad says:

    happy father's day. hope the trip to the new base went well.very nice and challenging's a challenge to remedy how ignorant i am before i start forgetting everything.can we get naked bunny with a whip to leave a comment on ben's blog? hugs to all.