Tuesday, April 17, 2007

William Jennings Bryan

Also from Touchstone, a review by Eric Miller of a recent biography of William Jennings Bryan, Michael Kazin's A Godly Hero. Today, Bryan is remembered primarily for his role in the Scopes Trial and his opposition to the theory of evolution, but that was an outgrowth of his egalitarianism and his belief that evolution led inevitably to Social Darwinism, and to exploitation and oppression. He may well have been wrong about evolution without being wrong about all of its social and political implications.

From the review:
.... For Kazin, this story, at its most profound, is that of a people who once possessed a deeply embedded “yearning for a society run by and for ordinary people who lead virtuous lives,” the preservation of which, they believed, required an active vigilance against the concentration of economic power and an ardent fusing of Christianity and public life, all for the sake of true solidarity.

This was American populism at its best. When Kazin notes a writer on the campaign trail who witnessed, in the writer’s own words, “the weak, the humble, the aged, the infirm rush forward by the hundreds” to greet Bryan, thrusting toward him “hard and wrinkled hands with crooked fingers and cracked knuckles . . . as if he were in very truth their promised redeemer from bondage,” he glimpses promise: the promise of justice, of union, of—here’s the indispensable word again—commonwealth.

Kazin calls Bryan and his people “Christian liberals” for their conviction that Christianity itself (there’s no way, longtime Touchstone reader, that Bryan’s Democratic party could have credibly been called “the godless party”) demanded that they stand against the excesses and encroachments of corporate capital, even if it required the countervailing presence of the federal government.

Recall that Bryan’s single goal, as he told a reporter in 1912, was the “protection of the people from exploitation at the hands of predatory corporations.” For Bryan and his followers, republican government, democratic culture, and Christian civilization could not long survive the overweening presence of corporations who saw human beings as means to their reliably shortsighted ends.

Bryan, as Kazin shows with powerful clarity, kept alive for millions the endangered republican-Christian dream of citizenship: of a virtuous people unified as equals, working for the good of the whole, and for the good of the other. It was this persistent pursuit that made Bryan, in Lindsay’s moving tribute, “the fundamental man/ Who brings a unifying plan/ Not easily misunderstood/ Chanting men toward brotherhood.”

For Bryan and his kin, this was not a metaphorical brotherhood but an ontic reality. And it was sustained, they believed, by a foundation of Christian tradition. ....
Source: Touchstone: The Life of Bryan

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated. I will gladly approve any comment that responds directly and politely to what has been posted.