William Jennings Bryan and Populism

August, 2018

Washington -- New York Times columnist (and Nobel prize winner) Paul Krugman has sent many of his millions of readers to look up William Jennings Bryan if they want to know who is and who is not a "populist."

The problem with Krugman's linked Bryan-bio is that, at the end, it disparages Bryan wrongly and gratuitously by alleging "shallowness and ignorance of science and archaeology."

Bryan was the founder of the modern Democratic party, of which there is little dispute. A progressive, he paved the way for the election of Woodrow Wilson and was the force behind constitutional amendments approving the federal income tax, direct election of U.S. senators, and women's suffrage. At the end of his life, he fought the teaching of evolution, memorialized in the play and movie Inherit the Wind.

It is the movie version of Bryan that seems to be the source of the "shallowness and ignorance" description.

Bryan was in fact quite well read on evolution and the science of the 1920s. Evolution at that time was understood to comprehend "social Darwinism" (survival of the fittest, including in economics) and eugenics. The textbook that Bryan opposed taught eugenics as science, including the hierarchical rankings of different human races, with Caucasians at the top, superior to all others. This was contrary to Bryan's lifelong work.

Bryan was a world-traveller and followed foreign affairs closely. He was Wilson's first secretary of state. His wife, Mary Baird Bryan, a lawyer and student of German, read German language newspapers to him. Bryan was well aware that the eugenics movement in the United States was being taken up by German institutions and political movements, and was alarmed by it.

Germany in the 19th century had given America its model* of higher education; America in the early 20th century gave Germany eugenics. We know what happened next.

This side of Bryan, his abhorrence of xenophobia, is seldom acknowledged. Progressives are calling for a remake of the movie.**

Bryan is also in the news as his statue, along with that of J. Sterling Morton, is being removed from the U.S. Capitol. It is a benign recall, at least in the case of Bryan, as the Nebraska legislature has chosen Willa Cather and Standing Bear to represent the state henceforth in the Capitol's statuary hall. As the statues come back to Nebraska and are relocated, it would be a good time to review the legacies of Bryan and Morton, both Democrats but political enemies. Morton was a Bourbon Democrat, a southern sympathizer, a foe of Bryan, and is now becoming the subject of more scrutiny. It may have been only a matter of time before Morton had to go.

Krugman has the right person in Bryan to contrast with today's so-called populists, but it would be even better if the real Bryan was correctly portrayed.

* The University of Berlin model of teaching combined with research was first emulated by Johns Hopkins University, from which it spread rapidly across America.

** If there is a remake, it should also stick to Scopes trial testimony in which Bryan, speaking on archaeology, reveals himself not to be a biblical literalist, as he takes the offensive against Darrow's mistaken assumption that he is. Where Darrow got the better of Bryan was in ending the trial quickly with a guilty plea, preventing Bryan's attack on eugenics, which Bryan had planned for his closing. A remake could also make the point that evolution as now taught is more firmly grounded than it was in Bryan's time, as evolutionary theory has adapted to accommodate Mendelian genetics, is now accepting the emerging field of epigenetics, and has shed its ugly past association with "social Darwinism" and eugenics.