When William Jennings Bryan died in 1925, H.L. Mencken wrote a scathing eulogy stating:
“There was something peculiarly fitting in the fact that [Bryan’s] last days were spent in a one-horse Tennessee village, and that death found him there. The man felt home in such scenes. He liked people who sweated freely, and were not debauched by the refinements of the toilet…He liked getting up early in the morning, to the tune of cocks crowing on the dunghill. He liked the heavy, greasy victuals of the farmhouse kitchen. He liked country lawyers, country pastors, all country people…The Simian gabble of a country town was not gabble to him, but wisdom of an occult and superior sort.”
The truth is that Mencken, the son of German immigrants, could never understand why William Jennings Bryan had such a strong following in the south. Mencken was a journalist, social commentator, Nietzsche scholar, and secretive racist who had an ongoing feud with Bryan over the topic of evolution. The two never saw eye-to-eye on religion, science, or politics.
We can consider Bryan an agrarian because, as John Crowe Ransom wrote in I’ll Take My Stand, “there are many other minority communities opposed to industrialism, and wanting a much simpler economy to live by. The communities and private persons sharing the agrarian tastes are to be found widely within the Union. Proper living is a matter of intelligence and the will, does not depend on the local climate or geography, and is capable of a definition which is general and not Southern at all.”
William Jennings Bryan was born in Illinois, but his family came from Virginia and his father was a famous lawyer that served in the State Senate. Young Bryan was brought up to appreciate the Jeffersonian tradition of government and once wrote that Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson would “stand together in history as the best exponents of true democracy.” Bryan also stated that the Declaration of Independence’s correct application shows that:
The government should not by a protective tariff, collect money from the many and give it to the few……the government should limit expenses to actual needs and not make appropriations for the benefit of those who urge extravagance because of the profit they find in government contracts…It is common today to hear the doctrine of non-interference advocated by representatives of trusts and monopolies because these immense aggregations of wealth, having strangled competition, only require to be let alone in order to enjoy an advantage to which the antebellum slave holder could never approach.
Many people identify Populism with race-baiters like Ben Tillman or Coleman Blease, but Bryan was a better example of the true ideals of the Populist movement because he stood up for all small farmers against industries, corporations, and banks. In his famous Cross of Gold speech, Bryan drew historic parallels to Andrew Jackson, stating: “If you will read what Thomas Benton said, you will find that he said that in searching history he could find but one parallel to Andrew Jackson. That was Cicero, who destroyed the conspiracies of Cataline and saved Rome. He did for Rome what Jackson did when he destroyed the bank conspiracy and saved America.”
In addition to his strong support for the small farmer, William Jennings Bryan was also against empire building. In a 1900 speech titled Imperialism, Bryan stated that farmers and laboring men “as a rule, [have] small incomes and and under systems which place the tax upon consumption, pay more than their fair share of the expenses of government. Thus the very people who receive least benefit from imperialism will be injured most by the military burdens which accompany it.”
In the same speech, Bryan went on to quote Jefferson twice on imperialism, stating: “If there be one principle more deeply rooted than any other in the mind of every American, it is that we should have nothing to do with conquest” and “Conquest is not in our principles; it is inconsistent with our government.”
Most of Bryan’s criticism stems from his anti-evolution stance. The release of Inherit the Wind, a 1960 dramatic film portrayal of the Scopes Trial, saw Brian portrayed as a backward, Bible-thumping bumpkin. We see the same attitudes within the academic community today, where the automatic assumption is that anyone who opposes science is either backward, unintelligent, or a fundamentalist.
John Crowe Ransom discussed this “Cult of Science” in I’ll Take My Stand and argued in 1930 that “the capitalization of the applied sciences has now become extravagant and uncritical; it has enslaved our human energies to a degree now clearly felt to be burdensome.” According to Ransom, science was used to promote industry, and industry was leading to a society where religion was losing value.
Five years before I’ll Take My Stand, William Jennings Bryan made some of the same arguments about science in his closing statements of the Scopes Trial. Bryan was not against all science, but actually argued that science and religion do not have to constantly be in conflict.
Bryan clearly stated “The Christian men and women of Tennessee know how deeply mankind is indebted to science for benefits conferred by the discovery of the laws of nature and by designing of machinery for the utilization of these laws.” It was in this same appreciative sense that John Crowe Ransom later wrote “The contribution that science can make to a labor is to render it easier by the help of a tool or a process, and to assure the laborer of his perfect economic security while he is engaged to it.”
Neither Bryan, nor the Agrarians had a problem with science. The problem is that, when you get into evolution, you start talking about a lot of theories. Real science is based on experiments that can be reproduced and measured. While evolution is certainly thought provoking, it has no more real evidence than creation or “intelligent design,” as the scientists are now calling it.
Evolution has actually been used to justify the murder of millions. Nietzsche believed in a blonde race of “supermen” and called Christianity “the greatest of all conceivable corruptions, the one immortal blemish of mankind” because of its sympathy with the sick and weak; it was the exact philosophy that helped give rise to Hitler’s fascism in the 30s. The Reverend Amzi Clarence Dixon wrote in 1922 that “Nietzsche’s philosophy of beastliness has its roots in the evolutionary assumption that the strong and fit, in the struggle for existence, have the scientific right to destroy the weak and unfit.”
Bryan went on in the Scopes Trial to argue that evolution “drags man down to the brute level.” He was taking a stand, trying to say that humans are unique creations with a purpose, not some accident that resulted from a primordial soup. Bryan believed that evolution robbed humans of our true divine nature, just like John Crowe Ransom believed industrialism was robbing us of our balanced relationship with nature. Ransom wrote: “Religion can hardly expect to flourish in an industrial society…But nature industrialized, transformed into cities and artificial habitations, manufactured into commodities, is no longer nature but a highly simplified picture of nature. We receive the illusion of having power over nature, and lose the sense of nature as something mysterious and contingent.”
Even though William Jennings Bryan was not a farmer or native southerner, his philosophy regarding science and religion align with the Agrarians. He carried the south in the elections of 1896, 1900, and 1908, and was admired because of his willingness to stand up for the common man. Most importantly, Bryan believed in the Jeffersonian system of government and wanted to limit the power of the elite.
There has been a recent revival of interest in Bryan since the election of Trump. One recent article was even titled “Forget Hitler: Donald Trump is the New William Jennings Bryan.” We live in a modern world where science and government are absolute and unquestionable. Many people, who believe the Wizard of Oz to be a political allegory, see the lion to be a symbol for William Jennings Bryan: a man, who if only he had the courage, could have changed the system. Maybe someday we will see more politicians with this kind of connection with the common folk.