In “Don’t Blame Bryan!” (Reactionary Radicals/Radical Reactionaries, October), Jeff Taylor takes Michael Kazin to task for identifying William Jennings Bryan as the man who built the ideological bridge between 19th-century laissez-faire government and the modern liberal welfare state birthed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Dr. Taylor writes: “[Kazin] offers no detailed evidence to support this claim beyond a laundry list of Bryan-endorsed reforms.” This is like saying that there is no evidence against a murderer beyond the testimony of 20 or so eyewitnesses to the crime!
I will concede that it is unfortunate to lump such a man as Bryan, who had both values and ability, with the valueless hustlers and snake-oil salesmen, typified by FDR, of the modern welfare state. Nonetheless, it was the Progressives, whose greatest representative was Bryan, who began the transformation of our government and society from limited and free to socialist-totalitarian and no longer free. To be sure, the Progressives wished to use the government to do good, yet this is the foil of every demagogue and demagogic movement that has made its appearance among us but failed to recognize the timeless truth that government can act in society, constructively and legitimately, only in a negative sense. Government is, at bottom, brute force, and one cannot use brute force to reform a man or a society while keeping that man or society free. Force can be used constructively for the purpose of reform only with children. And that, by the way, is why the nanny state treats its citizens as a mother would a nine-year-old child. Is this really the society we want? One in which the nameless and faceless army of government bureaucrats rule us as a child is ruled by doting but severe parents? It was the Progressives led by Bryan who bent the tree of government in this direction, and they deserve the blame for the disasters that have inevitably followed.
Dr. Taylor is also unjust in his de-mon-ization, by implication, of the Morgans. No two men in 19th-century America did more than Junius and Pierpont Morgan (père and fils) to establish sound money and promote foreign (primarily British) investment in this country. These two factors were of immense importance in fostering the prosperity and economic growth that characterized America in that golden century. The instabilities of the 19th century were caused by the system of partial-reserve banking that we have with us to this day. That bucking bronco of a financial system was managed far better by ethical private men such as the Morgans than it has since been handled by government bureaucrats through the Federal Reserve System. If we wish real reform, we must go to the root of the problem, which is the artificial interference of government in society. Shielding those men, including Bryan, who prepared the soil for the modern socialist-totalitarian germ from the criticism they deserve is counterproductive.
Dr. Taylor Replies:
I agree with much of Dr. Collins’ perspective, but I disagree with his assessment of blame and praise. Who are the eyewitnesses who testified about Bryan’s supposed crime? They are cited in neither this letter nor Kazin’s book. On the contrary, Bryan’s contemporaries understood that he was a Jeffersonian. He was an exponent of individualism and an enemy of state socialism. Bryan was not the “greatest representative” of the Progressives who opened the door to the bureaucratic welfare state. In the Republican Party, it was Theodore Roosevelt; in the Democratic Party, it was Woodrow Wilson. (See Gabriel Kolko’s classic The Triumph of Conservatism.) Bryan should not be blamed for the centralizing tendencies of other men—men who represented Eastern-urban-faux liberalism while Bryan was a champion of Western/Southern-rural-genuine liberalism. As for the Morgans, I cannot agree with Mr. Collins’ assessment of their virtue. Greed and monopoly are not praiseworthy. The banking firm’s links to Europe eventually contributed to Wilson dragging our country into a costly and unnecessary war.
By the way, while I disagree with a few aspects of Kazin’s book A Godly Hero, it is, overall, a fine biography.