William Jennings Bryan: The Great Commoner
Posted on 25th December 2020
A thick-set robust man of boundless energy with a loud voice and a big personality, William Jennings Bryan was difficult to ignore.
His appeal to the hard scrabble workers of America, the forgotten man, would earn him a reputation as the ‘Great Commoner’, a name in which he revelled though it was never intended as a complement. Common he was not but he was certainly the ‘Great Campaigner’ as it fell to him, he believed, to carry the flag for social justice and a better world, an argument he would make at rally after rally in town after town across the heartland of the United States. To some his was a message of hope, a call to arms for David to rise once more and smite the Goliath of global capital and the East Coast elites; to others his message was a naive stump politics laced with hypocrisy and made sordid by deceit. It falls to few then in a world devoid of tyrants to enthuse so many while antagonising even more. Yet for all the bluster, the frenzied debate, and the endless oratory he would fail not once, not twice but again and again, and live to see his ideas thoroughly rejected by a liberal and progressive mainstream that had come to loathe and detest him and everything he stood for. But the maverick in politics is a beast not easily slain and his message both in style and content resonates still with the great silent majority it always intended to rouse from its slumbers.
William Jennings Bryan was born to some affluence in Salem, Illinois, on 19 March, 1860. His father, Silas, was a circuit court judge active in Democratic Party politics while his mother, Mariah, was active in the Church, and the earnest young William eagerly embraced both. Indeed, he was to experience his own religious conversion aged 14, that he was later to describe as the best day of his life.
A studious child it was said he was rarely distracted from his work and he excelled both at school and college often finishing top of his class, though he was to be distracted long enough while studying at Illinois College to court Mary Elizabeth Baird, the daughter of a local businessman whom he married in October 1884.
They shared a healthy and stable relationship in which Mary not only bore her husband three children but was constantly at his side working tirelessly on his campaigns. It was a partnership in more ways than one and her role in his future success cannot be underestimated.
After graduating from Law School in Chicago he briefly worked as an attorney in Jacksonville before moving to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the opportunities for advancement appeared greater; and being already by his mid-twenties a lay preacher and an experienced public speaker, having honed his oratorical skills at the pulpit and in college debating societies, he now entered local politics determined to succeed where his father had seen his political ambitions thwarted.
The Nebraska Democrats had in fact, never encountered anyone quite like him and he was to rise rapidly through the ranks of the local party machine.
The connections made by his father during his many years in the Democratic Party and his own association with the ex-Senator from Illinois, Lyman Trumbull, for whom he briefly worked, served the ambitious Bryan well and by 1891 he had been elected to the House of Representatives in Washington. His Congressional career was to be brief and not particularly distinguished but by force of personality alone his impact on the political scene was to be far greater than it perhaps at first appeared.
In the summer of 1896, as the great and the good of the Democratic Party gathered in Chicago to choose its Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan was not being spoken of as a serious candidate, though evidence now suggests that manoeuvres were underway on his behalf. He had recently been making a name for himself campaigning against the Gold Standard wanting instead the dollar pinned to the Silver Standard also, thereby putting more money into circulation, making it cheaper, lowering interest rates, and allowing easier access to credit and loans. This would not only put more money in people’s pockets but should also increase the price of agricultural produce making farming more viable.
On 9 July, following a series of dreary speeches either in favour of the Gold Standard or in defence of the deeply unpopular departing President Grover Cleveland; with many delegates plainly disinterested and shuffling about in preparation to vote on the party platform, William Jennings Bryan rose to address the Convention.
Although many had been bored into numb indifference there were those who had been waiting in eager anticipation for him to speak, and so it was to a mixed reception that he strode to the platform. It wouldn’t be long however, before he grabbed their attention. Modulating his voice to good effect and expressive in his mannerisms he seemed to grow like a colossus upon the stage and he was to dominate proceedings as none had before. With few able to divert their eyes he rode the rhythm of his speech as a ship rolls with the waves, plunging and rising and forging a way through as time and again he electrified them with comparisons between the hard working common man and the quixotic business elites while defending the small proprietor against the East Coast money men:
“Upon which side will the Democratic Party fight, upon the side of the idle holders of capital or upon the side of the struggling masses? That is the question which the party answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic Party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses who, have ever been the foundation of the Democratic Party.”
As the delegates shouted their approval, cheered wildly and threw their hats into the air he treated them to a rousing and defiant finale:
If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the Gold Standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interest, the labouring interests and the toilers everywhere, 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; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
As he concluded delegates rushed the stage and chaired him from the platform. It had been the speech of his life and it would propel him to the nomination as he unanimously defeated the pre-Convention favourite, the ex-Congressman from Missouri, Richard P Bland, on the sixth ballot.
His Cross of Gold Speech, as it became known, was a sensation being widely reported, much commented upon, and eagerly dissected. It elevated William Jennings Bryan, the relatively obscure machine politician from Nebraska to national prominence - he would now take his message to the country.
Following the Cross of Gold speech and his nomination as the Democratic Party candidate the Populist Party which represented the farming interest and had received more than a million votes in the previous Presidential election threw its weight behind him.
The support of the Populist Party made him appear an outsider and this was to be his own cross to bear for he was seen by many not to be a true Democrat, that he didn’t really represent the values and ideals of the party. Nonetheless, he remained popular and could draw a crowd; but politics is as much driven by jealousy as it is the art of persuasion and though Bryan was now the de facto leader of his party those who had previously been so did not easily give up the reins of power.
President Grover Cleveland was certainly no admirer of Bryan’s and would not support his candidacy but did not make his objections public. Others were not so shy in coming forward however, especially those who remained supporters of the Gold Standard, the so-called Gold Democrats, who broke away and nominated their own ticket which was to receive 137,000 votes in the forthcoming poll, not enough to swing the election but a significant number nevertheless.
Bryan’s Republican rival in the race for the White House was the popular and urbane veteran of the Civil War, William McKinley who, no less earnest in his way than his Democratic rival but no orator would not even try to compete with Bryan on the campaign trail instead he would run his campaign from the front porch of his elegant home in Canton, IIIinois.
With the financial backing of big business and the support of a largely sympathetic press he could be assured of the positive coverage he required.
By contrast Bryan hit the road and he hit it hard, as travelling by train he embarked upon a whistle-stop tour visiting 27 States, making 600 speeches, and addressing as many as 5 million people.
His message that remaining on the Gold Standard and its strict control of the money supply was keeping people poor when switching to silver coin at a ratio of 16 to 1 would restore prosperity resonated with people; and so portraying himself as the man who would stand up for the weak against the strong, as the man who would be the voice for those who had no voice, he was cheered to the rafters as he swept through the mid-West and Deep South like a cyclone. But when he addressed an audience of white farmers on the wind-swept plains of rural America he was speaking to the already converted. His campaign for Free Silver had made the election about class and the small farmers and rural poor flocked to his cause but the industrial working class who would have to carry the burden of higher prices did not.
Opining from the comfort of his front porch it was easy for McKinley and those surrogates campaigning on his behalf to portray Bryan’s demand for Free Silver as reckless. It would make the dollar in your pocket worth less he declared while also destabilising the economy and threatening U.S trade overseas.
He also appeared positively sanguine in the comfort of his own home drinking coffee and sharing a joke with reporters while the energised Bryan stumped around the country as evangelical in his politics as he was in his religion.
When the election result was announced it was perhaps closer than many people had expected, at least in terms of the popular vote. McKinley received 7,116,607 votes or 51% of the total winning 23 States; Bryan received 6,509,052 votes or 46.7% of the total winning 22 States. It was a comfortable enough win in the Electoral College at 271 to 176, and the electoral map had what would be thought an unfamiliar feel to us now with the Republican McKinley securing the East and West coast and industrial centres while the Democrat Bryan swept the mid-West and South.
The impact of Bryan’s campaign had been great, however. He had received more votes in defeat than any other previous candidate, more votes indeed than Grover Cleveland had received in becoming President four years earlier. McKinley’s front porch campaign of calm reassurance had been a success but could any candidate again afford to give their rival free rein on the campaign trail? Bryan had perhaps shown they could not. As such, even in defeat he was encouraged to run again and he would run again, but first there was a war to be fought.
On the night of 15 February 1898, the Armoured Cruiser USS Maine, which had been sent to protect American interests in Cuba threatened by its rebellion against Spanish rule, blew up and sank in Havana Harbour killing 268 men. It was a shocking incident which had most likely been an accident, an exploding boiler, but an Inquiry held shortly after found otherwise declaring it an act of sabotage carried out on behalf of the Spanish Authorities. An affronted nation their outrage fuelled by a bellicose press ensured that vengeance was now on every man’s lips and though President McKinley was at first reluctant to enter upon the path of hostilities the war hysteria that gripped the country left him with little choice - on 25 April, the United States declared war on Spain.
Bryan, who despite rumours to the contrary was no pacifist, recruited a regiment of volunteers to fight but the war was over before they could serve overseas. He had displayed a willingness to take up arms in defence of his country but what he could not countenance was imperial adventurism and was outspoken in his opposition to the American annexation of the Philippines that followed the end of the war. His anti-imperialism and the fact he never led men in combat would bear comparison to the man who would soon loom large not only in his but the nation’s life.
Bryan had wanted to fight the 1900 election on the same issue as the previous one, Free Silver, but now with the country recovering from recession and confident in victory the case for a change of Administration was a difficult one to make and the argument had lost much of its potency. Undeterred however, he once more took to the stump, another whistle-stop tour, more speeches (up to six a day) and crowds no less numerous and enthusiastic than before.
President McKinley would again run a front porch campaign greeting delegations at his front gate and holding garden parties for his supporters but this time Bryan would have a rival on the campaign trail, the Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt, a man just as energetic, just as charismatic, and one who had led men in combat, his famous Rough Riders in the storming of San Juan Hill.
Perhaps deafened by his own rhetoric or blinded by the multitudes who came to listen Bryan was slow to realise that a focus on the evils of big business at a time of economic prosperity was not a good issue upon which to campaign but when he shifted the focus to America’s continued presence in the Philippines, despite the support of the vocal anti-Imperialist League, he struggled to make headway against the wave of patriotism that invariably follows victory in war - a patriotism that was embodied both in word and deed by the man stalking him on the campaign trail.
In truth, morality can rarely withstand the storm of a robust jingoism.
As the results came in a pall of gloom descended upon the Bryan camp and the Democratic Party, McKinley’s vote had risen to 7,228,864 and the Electoral College was even more decisive than before at 292 to 155. Bryan’s vote had decreased slightly to 6,370,932. He had also won 5 fewer States one of which was his own, Nebraska.
While it was clear that his supporters had remained essentially loyal he had failed to reach out beyond them – their champion had failed them. It was enough for the Democratic Party to look elsewhere in 1904.
Bryan meanwhile, remained determined to spread his message far and wide and in January 1901 published the first edition of his weekly newspaper The Commoner, a commentary on current affairs which permeated with religious fervour became a popular addition to the political discourse of the day. It would at its peak boast 100,000 subscribers and become a regular feature on small town newsstands, but though it was sold in every State of the nation it did little to boost his support among the urban working class..
On 6 September 1901, while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, President McKinley was shot twice by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz. He remained conscious following the assassination attempt and it seemed for a time that he would make a full recovery but by the 13th it was clear that his blood was poisoned and there was little hope. He died the following day.
McKinley was the third President to be murdered while in Office in just over 30 years following Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and James A Garfield in 1881 but it came as no less of a shock for that and especially as reports had suggested he would survive. Indeed, Theodore Roosevelt had been so confident of the President’s recovery he had gone on holiday and had to be summoned back to be sworn in.
Bryan would have relished the opportunity to cross swords once again with his old rival on the campaign trail but though his ambition to be President had not dimmed the enthusiasm within the Democratic Party for another Bryan candidacy had. He chose then, not to seek the nomination in 1904 much to the relief of the party establishment if not his grass roots supporters who remained many; but as is so often the case when the establishment of any organisation is presented with a free hand they then proceed to reveal just how out of touch they really are.
Their nomination for President would be Judge Alton B Parker, a conservative Democrat respected but of limited vistas and little personality. He was also a Gold Democrat whom Bryan would not endorse and openly criticised declaring that no decent Democrat should.
The truth was Parker’s nomination and that of his running mate the 80 year old Henry G Davis was forced upon the party to prevent the campaign of another popular but controversial candidate, the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, from gaining any traction.
With the party platform offering little new and Parker failing to inspire the result when it came was not unexpected. The Democrat vote had decreased by more than 1,200,000, a mere 37:5% of the total cast, and every State in the mid-West had been lost. The return to a more traditional politics had failed. It only served to strengthen Bryan’s position and power within the party.
In the meantime, he travelled extensively including to Asia and Europe where he met leading politicians and collected lecturing fees while honing his pitch for the next Presidential cycle. But he was never to be an internationalist. Indeed, the more he travelled the more he came to appreciate the United States.
By 1908 he was again at the helm of the Democratic Party and once more its nominee for President.
Bryan had expected to run against Theodore Roosevelt but the President had kept to the promise he had made to the American people not to seek a Second Term (something he’d soon come to regret) but he would hand-pick his successor and that man would be his Secretary of War William Howard Taft whose campaign he effectively ran.
Taft, a large, avuncular man of common sense and integrity was considered a safe pair of hands while Bryan had a significant number of problems to overcome: the popularity of Roosevelt in whose shadow Taft basked; a lack of divide between the two parties and any real issue to fight over; and, of course, the law of diminishing returns. He may dominate the Democratic Party still, but this was his third run at the presidency and his standing as the champion of the people was beginning to wane.
Most of all however, was the problem of perception.
Bryan did not distinguish between his politics and his religion. Indeed, the one developed from the other and religion was in many respects his political crutch forming a large part of his mass appeal throughout the rural United States. But it was also his Achilles Heel for it allowed his enemies to portray him as an unsophisticated backwards populist appealing to the baser instincts of ill -educated yeoman farmers and an ignorant rural poor - a man congenitally incapable of running an increasingly industrialised, technologically advanced, and socially progressive country.
He was also a loser, and so it proved.
The outcome of the election was a disappointment for the Democrats not just for its defeat, Taft had won comfortably enough with 51.1% of the popular vote while Bryan’s had fallen to 43.4% or his worst performance to date, but in the manner Bryan had once again failed to bridge the gap between his traditional base support in small town America and the large and growing industrial centres. No matter what he said or what he campaigned on he just couldn’t make that breakthrough, it was as if he was banging his head against a brick wall.
Even so, there were those among his supporters who wanted him to run again in 1912, but he understood where perhaps others did not the weariness of the voter. His time as a viable candidate for President was over and he would instead focus on what he did best, campaign, not now for election but social reform.
So Bryan stood aside and for a very different kind of man, the erudite law professor, former President of Princeton University, and one term Governor of New Jersey Woodrow Wilson who with his indelible air of intellectual superiority brought a gravitas to Democratic Party politics that some thought had been lacking for too long.
Bryan and Wilson had little in common other than shared political allegiance and a mutual disdain for black people but they would work together for the benefit of the party.
Having lost all faith in his protégé Taft, Theodore Roosevelt would run again for President in 1912 as candidate for the Progressive Party in effect creating a split Republican ticket. After sixteen years in the political wilderness it offered a path back to power for the Democratic Party and so it would prove as Woodrow Wilson was elected President on just 41.8% of the popular vote, less than Bryan had received in defeat four years earlier.
The now President Wilson was, he believed, a man for the age, weary of tradition, ambivalent towards the constitution, determined that the Government should have the greater say in man’s affairs, and dismissive of those who read their Bible and merely pray for deliverance. He had little time for Bryan’s more populist brand of small town politics, his fire and brimstone religiosity but he was an impossible man to ignore and so he appointed him Secretary of State. Given his lack of experience in foreign affairs and limited diplomatic nous it seemed a strange choice but it did at least remove him from the domestic scene and restricted his ability to meddle with Wilson’s progressive agenda.
It came as little surprise to those who knew him that his naivety should be exposed on the international stage and he found both the minutiae of administration and the running of a department laborious and dull. The few initiatives he did explore such as coaxing mutually antagonistic countries to sign non-aggression treaties (and some did) were to prove a waste of his department’s time while his somewhat half-hearted attempt to mediate in the conflict that had broken out in Europe was largely ignored.
Rather than end the soon-to-be Great War, Bryan’s primary objective was to keep America out of a conflict he believed was the direct consequence of the Social Darwinism he had come to fear and dread; where the survival of the fittest in a world without God had replaced the Biblical mandate to be one’s brother’s keeper, where the desire for war and conquest had replaced the Sermon on the Mount and the love of Christ in men’s hearts..
When on 7 May 1915, the RMS Lusitania was sunk off the coast of Ireland by a U-Boat drowning 1,198 of its passengers and crew among them 128 Americans, Bryan believed Wilson would use it as the pretext for war. The outrage that followed and the initial hard-line adopted by Wilson appeared to confirm Bryan in his view. When Wilson refused to unequivocally state that the United States would maintain its neutrality throughout and regardless of provocation, he resigned. No doubt, to the relief of both men.
But Bryan was first and foremost a patriot, when, following the revelation of the Zimmerman Telegram the United States did at last declare war on Germany he wrote to Wilson:
“Believing it to be the duty of the citizen to bear his part of the burden of war and his share of the peril, I hereby tender my services to the government.”
Wilson declined the offer but he did encourage Bryan to speak favourably in public of American involvement which he proceeded to do with his usual gusto.
Following his resignation from Wilson’s cabinet Bryan returned to Florida where he had moved for the sake of his wife’s health in 1912. It was also time for him to make some money and he would do so by promoting real estate giving speeches and entertaining potential buyers at his luxury home in Miami. It was perhaps not the most edifying career move for the Great Commoner, selling land to millionaires, but everyone has to live.
His removal from front-line politics also freed him to campaign on issues close to his heart not only as an advocate for prohibition and women’s suffrage but also a minimum wage, an eight hour day, and trade union rights. Issues he should perhaps have focused on earlier in his career.
As the clocks approached midnight on 15 January 1920, the keynote speaker at a gathering of the Prohibition Movement in Washington’s First Congregational Church brought his peroration to a resounding crescendo as quoting from the Book of Matthew, William Jennings Bryan declared:
“They are dead who sought to take the young child’s life. They who would have killed us we have killed them.”
Minutes later as the Church bells rang out the Volstead Act or Eighteen Amendment to the U.S Constitution banning the production, distribution, sale, and consumption of alcohol came into force to be followed just 18 months later by the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment that granted the franchise to women nationwide. These were rare victories for Bryan and ones in which he took his full share of credit even though he had been a peripheral figure in both campaigns for many of the preceding years – even so, it was nice to taste the fruits of victory after so many bitter weeds of defeat.
There was still one battle to be fought, however.
Bryan considered Eugenics, as developed from Darwin’s theory of evolution to be the greatest threat to mankind and social cohesion. It undermined Biblical teaching and advocated for a material rather than a moral world and he fought hard to restrict its teaching in public schools. Support for his campaign wasn’t always forthcoming from the sources he expected and so disappointed was he in the Protestant Churches embrace of Darwinism by its acceptance that one could be both an evolutionist and a Christian that he ran for Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church - it was yet another election he lost.
His determination to defend a fundamentalist interpretation of the Old Testament and to argue in favour of creationism over evolution and the inherent evil of natural selection it contained within made him both a figure of fun and easy to lampoon. He remained undeterred however, he had endured such all his political life and so he ploughed on regardless, writing, speaking, and organising against the further spread of Darwinism. But he was more and more only speaking to those who wished to hear. Elsewhere, away from his traditional support, he was becoming increasingly marginalised and ignored; but the opportunity soon emerged for him to make his case not just in a moral but a legal context, and to a much larger audience.
In March 1925, the State of Tennessee, which had three times voted for Bryan as President, passed the Butler Act making it an offence to: teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.
Bryan, who had been campaigning for States to legislate against the teaching of Darwin was understandably delighted, though he wanted it banned or taught merely as one theory among many rather than made a criminal offence, wrote to the Governor of Tennessee:
“The Christian parents of the State owe you a debt of gratitude for saving their children from the poisonous influence of an unproven hypothesis.”
In Dayton an enterprising local businessman George Rappalyea aware of how controversial the Butler Act was likely to be saw it as an opportunity to put his small town on the map. He discussed the matter with others and together they persuaded a 24 year old high school teacher John T Scopes to deliberately violate the code. He agreed, and was duly arrested.
The case made headlines but the carnival that was soon to surround it astonished even Rappalyea.
The American Civil Liberties Union eager to contest the legality of the Butler Act agreed to represent Scopes and appointed the New York attorney Clarence Darrow as Defence Counsel. Darrow was the most famous advocate of his day and had recently represented the defendants in the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder trial saving both from the death penalty. He had also once campaigned for Bryan as President but he no longer had much belief in or affection for his old friend.
Learning of this Bryan, champing at the bit to do so, volunteered to lead the prosecution.
Two of the most famous men in America were to go head-to-head and the press descended upon Dayton like a swarm of locusts, one of whom was the acerbic H.L Mencken, journalist with the Baltimore Sun who had a deep loathing for Bryan, what he stood for, and the places from where he drew his support. He would use his particular poison pen to very good effect.
He was to be scathing of Dayton and its inhabitants though it was in truth an attractive small town, bathed in sunlight, with a polite and hospitable people something he was to submit to the privacy of his diary:
The town, I must confess greatly surprised me. I expected to find a squalid Southern village with darkies snoozing on the horseblocks, pigs rooting under the houses and the inhabitants full of hookworm and malaria. What I found was a country town full of charm and even beauty.
But he wasn’t one to let reality intrude upon pre-ordained and long held prejudice or to unnecessarily influence his prose:
Everywhere I venture in the Tennessee hill country I encounter faith healers, fanatics, medicine men, and frauds.”
The people were ignoramuses, childish in their theology, narrow minded, bigoted, imbecilic in their beliefs, and Bryan was their fundamentalist pope.
H L Mencken would use his particular poison pen to good effect and set the tone for much of the coverage of the trial and the debate that followed but the picture he painted wasn’t always an accurate one.
The atmosphere in Dayton was not confrontational however, but celebratory; the streets were adorned with bunting, the bands played; there were markets and fairground stalls and salesmen and charlatans and itinerant preachers and even a chimpanzee or two.
Bryan was greeted like a returning hero and he was in his element as he played the crowd, spoke often, and attended prayer meetings. The reception for Darrow was a little more muted.
The trial began on 10 July, to a packed courtroom which with the public gallery resembling a melee, journalists in every nook and cranny and even microphones set up for one of the first live radio broadcasts was clearly too small to accommodate all those who wanted to attend. The intense heat of a Tennessee summer only made it more unbearable and the courtroom would soon be abandoned for the cooler climes of the grounds outside.
There was no doubt that Scopes was guilty but then Darrow was less interested in the fate of his client than he was in excoriating the law he had been accused of violating and he had gathered an impressive line-up of witnesses to do just that. Judge John T Raulston thought otherwise however, and ruled all of them as inadmissible – the court was not charged with the responsibility to prove or disprove Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, or challenge the legality of the Butler Act, but to try the defendant John T Scopes with the violation of that act.
It seemed as if the case was as good as over but Darrow had another card up his sleeve, he would call the Prosecution Counsel William Jennings Bryan to bear witness to his ‘literal’ interpretation of the Bible. Judge Raulston was inclined to rule this inadmissible as well but Bryan was eager to take up the challenge and he was not one to defy the great man.
Darrow would prepare well for his cross-examination but Bryan felt no requirement on his part to do likewise. He was no theologian after all, and made no claim to be so, but he knew the Bible and he believed in the Word of the Bible. He had nothing to fear if he answered every question honestly and faithfully and by that alone the truth would be revealed to all those willing to listen.
Perhaps, he had become unfamiliar with the exigencies of the justice system or mechanics of court procedure but he was soon to find that whereas repeated declarations of one’s absolute faith might resonate with force from the pulpit it sits less easily on the witness stand.
The fish had taken the bait, and Darrow wasn’t about to let it off the hook.
The stuffiness of the courtroom ensured that Bryan’s testimony would be heard alfresco and a carnival atmosphere prevailed for a time as people gathered to watch. A hush descended however, as their hero stepped up to the witness stand smiling and waving to his supporters. There was a little joshing between the men, a verbal joust or two, before Darrow began to turn the screw. He pointed out the Bible’s many contradictions, its lack of historiography, and questioned Bryan as to his own absurd assumptions. He demanded clarity where Bryan’s answers were often vague and uncertain. As the Great Commoner stumbled and narrowed his eyes the atmosphere turned into one of open hostility. At times appearing confused it was not only the bright sunlight that Bryan was subjected to but the intense glare of public humiliation. Diminished in the eyes of those looking on he could not escape the vice-like grip of having to defend the indefensible. He could not say what he wanted to say and they were laughing. These were his people and they were mocking him.
He had revealed himself to be what the so-called ‘smart set’ had always said he was, a bigoted old fool who peddled superstition and lies to stand upon the shoulders of those too ignorant to know better, and they revelled in it. H L Mencken wrote:
It is tragedy indeed to begin life as a hero and end it as a buffoon.
It was unfair of course, and not all agreed with many in the South and mid-West considering the entire Scopes Monkey Trial to be an attack on their way of life but the support he received in the regional press had little influence nationwide or around the world.
Still he had one last chance to redeem his reputation, his summation at the end of the trial, a speech he had been working on for days. This would be his opportunity to address the Court and those looking on; to make clear the dangers inherent in abandoning the teachings of Christ for the assertions of an unfounded, unproven, and perverted science - but it wasn’t to be.
Much to Clarence Darrow’s delight, on 21 July the Court reconvened to find John T Scopes guilty of violating the Butler Act. He could now appeal the verdict to a higher court and having informed Judge Raulston of his intentions he declined to deliver his summation. It was a last twist of the knife for he knew by doing so it negated Bryan’s right to do so.
The Scopes Monkey Trial would fade from memory only to be revived from time to time, but its damage to Bryan’s reputation would remain. The speech he never delivered would later be published though he would never see it. The following brief extract provides something of its tone:
Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine.
If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene. His teachings, and His teachings alone, can solve the problems that vex the heart and perplex the world.
Bryan remained in Dayton after the trial happy to be in the company of God-fearing people for a change where he held meetings, attended church service, and gathered his thoughts for the battles ahead. Always a prodigious eater on 26 July having dined lavishly he went for his usual afternoon nap. He never woke up.
Upon receiving the news that Bryan had died H.L Mencken remarked:
“So, we killed the son of a bitch.”
Not all would agree with Mencken’s assessment and William Jennings Bryan remains one of the most significant figures in American political history whether you choose to agree with him or not. Best remembered now for the things he stood for and the issue he campaigned on rather than anything he actually achieved. Even though, many of the things he advocated would later become law such as female suffrage, a federal income tax, the direct election of Senators a ban on the corporate funding of campaigns, and the government guarantee of bank deposits.
By championing the causes he did he highlighted aspects of the American character that some thought best left dormant, fault lines that still exist and have only deepened since. He stood then, as others do today, as the indomitable spirit of a past glory in a society on the cusp of great but uncertain change. When his legacy is debated it can still inflame the passions. - only the man not the arguments have gone away.
Tagged as: Modern
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