In his recent biography of William Jennings Bryan, A Godly Hero, Michael Kazin joins a long line of historians in making the claim that Bryan (1860-1925) was an ideological precursor of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the book’s Introduction, Kazin asserts that Bryan “did more than any other man—between the fall of Grover Cleveland and the election of Woodrow Wilson—to transform his party from a bulwark of laissez-faire into the citadel of liberalism we identify with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his ideological descendants.” Significantly, he offers no detailed evidence to support this claim beyond a laundry list of Bryan-endorsed reforms. As an admirer of FDR, Kazin has probably engaged in wishful thinking. There are things to admire about Roosevelt if we consider only his rhetoric and reputation, but a close look at his record leaves us with little to celebrate.
A decade ago, Kazin authored The Populist Persuasion, which examined populism of both the left-wing and right-wing varieties with sympathy and sensitivity. So it is somewhat surprising that he does not recognize Roosevelt for what he was: an elitist to the core. Following in the footsteps of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt was a Hamiltonian. In the eyes of such Democrats as Vincent Astor, Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that was a good thing. To a Jeffersonian, it is not. Bryan was a true follower of Thomas Jefferson. The Great Commoner was willing to embrace the positive (activist) state in isolated instances, but he preferred to work at the state and local levels. He never gave up his commitment to states’ rights and decentralization, and he advocated an America-first foreign policy, which is why most prominent Bryanites opposed FDR by the late 1930’s. For every Josephus Daniels who remained loyal to Roosevelt, there were two Thomas Gores who loathed his presidency.
Bryan’s greatest inspirations were Jesus and Jefferson, neither of whom greatly influenced Roosevelt. Of his contemporaries, Bryan was perhaps most indebted to Russian novelist and philosopher Leo Tolstoy, with whom he conversed in 1903 for 12 hours straight. Bryan did not embrace Tolstoy’s anarchopacifism completely, but the meeting strengthened his belief in decentralization and peace. Needless to say, Tolstoy’s thinking was light years away from Roosevelt’s in every particular—from trusts, to government, to war.
In almost every campaign and on almost every issue, Roosevelt and Bryan were on opposing sides, despite their shared membership in the Democratic Party. (Though both were lifelong Democrats, Roosevelt voted for Republican William McKinley instead of Bryan in the 1900 presidential election.) Roosevelt was as militaristic as Bryan was pacifist. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt supported U.S. entry into World War I; Secretary of State Bryan did all he could to keep American blood from spilling on European soil, and he ultimately resigned from the Wilson Cabinet and repudiated the President’s foreign policy.
In 1920, Roosevelt boosted the presidential candidacy of Herbert Hoover, whom he would later face in a general election. Bryan and other traditional liberals correctly identified Hoover as a front man for J.P. Morgan & Co. When FDR agreed to be the running mate of 1920 Democratic nominee James Cox, Bryan gave only tepid support to the ticket because of its friendship with liquor interests and corporate monopolies. Roosevelt was a prominent supporter of Al Smith at the 1920, 1924, and 1928 conventions; Bryan consistently opposed the New York governor. In 1924, Roosevelt urged liberals to support Democratic nominee John W. Davis rather than waste their votes on the La Follette-Wheeler third-party effort. Bryan denounced Davis as a Morgan attorney and was bitterly disappointed when his brother, Gov. Charles Bryan, agreed to run alongside Davis. After the 1924 election, Roosevelt called for a national party strategy session. He planned to exclude Bryan from the conference, and the Bryan brothers later announced that they were opposed to FDR’s proposed session.
Between 1920 and 1928, Roosevelt was a Wall Street financier. He was eventually elected governor of New York with the support of big bankers and businessmen, and the same group of imperial-minded corporatists would dominate his administration in Washington. Roosevelt supported U.S. membership in the League of Nations and World Court without provisions that would protect U.S. sovereignty. His foreign-policy views were shaped by his personal enterprises and by his association with the newly formed Council on Foreign Relations. A think tank founded in 1921 largely through the machinations of the Morgan banking firm, the bipartisan CFR—half of whose members were Wilson-Roosevelt Democrats—was unremittingly hostile toward Bryan Democrats.
Following the Preamble to the Constitution, Bryan believed that the federal government should “promote the general welfare,” and he strongly opposed class favoritism and the redistribution of wealth through unfair monetary policies. Instead, he favored equality (equal rights) and justice (the fair application of laws). Bryan invoked the Jeffersonian maxim “Equal rights for all; special privileges for none” throughout his career. In 1900, he insisted that
The democratic party does not expect to destroy poverty . . . The democratic party is protesting against those things which interfere with the natural distribution of rewards and punishments. It is protesting against legislation which gathers from millions in order to give an undeserved advantage to hundreds, or at most, thousands. . . . Equality in rights does not mean equality in possessions or equality in enjoyment.
Bryan’s concern for the common people did not make him an early advocate of the welfare state created by Franklin Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey, and Lyndon Johnson. However, the failure of historians to understand the political context of the day has contributed to a perception that Bryan Democrats supported federal-government activism. Astute contemporaries of Bryan did not make this mistake. Herbert Croly, a Hamiltonian Republican, believed that the dedication of Bryan and other Jeffersonians to strict constructionism and states’ rights had “hamstrung” the government so that little could be accomplished in the way of reform. In 1908, Bryan proudly wore the label: “I am a strict constructionist, if that means to believe that the Federal Government is one of delegated powers and that constitutional limitations should be carefully observed.”
With plutocrats in control of the federal government, any kind of reform that attempted to create a condition of “Equal rights for all; special privileges for none” could be seen as a move in the direction of a positive state. Indeed, given the context, any attempt to restore government neutrality regarding income, manufacturing, banking, and trade required positive state action.
Bryan specifically condemned anarchy in the wake of President McKinley’s assassination. However, he was closer to anarchism than to state socialism. Invoking Tolstoy, he wrote in 1906 that “It is much easier to conceive of a voluntary association between persons desiring to work together according to the Christian ideal, than to conceive of the successful operation of a system, enforced by law, wherein altruism is the controlling principle.” Unlike Tolstoy, Bryan believed that government could be a force for good, but he worked for “just” government—not paternalistic or “compassionate” government. According to Bryan, “A government is strong in proportion as it rests upon justice; it becomes weak in proportion as injustice is substituted for justice.”
Throughout his career, Bryan contended that big business was in control of the U.S. government and fought to free the American economy from the predations of monopoly capitalists. Bryan viewed monopoly, whether economic or political, as antithetical to both equality and diversity, because it concentrated power into the hands of a small group of like-minded people. This is why Bryan so strongly favored antitrust legislation. Breaking up private monopolies was a negative act designed to restore the nation’s economic freedom, competition, and balance. He was willing to use government to control the actions of big business because he distinguished between the God-given rights of human beings and the state-given rights of corporations. This was not a rejection of laissez-faire. In fact, it could be argued that corporations themselves represented a rejection of free enterprise since they were chartered by state governments and often depended on political favors. Bryan was neither a state socialist nor a state capitalist: In economic affairs, government should be neutral, refusing to confiscate and operate private enterprise or to protect and favor private enterprise.
In 1904, Bryan suggested that the government could assist citizens with some types of social insurance as an alternative to private insurance policies and savings accounts—a reflection of his distrust and enmity toward banks and insurance companies. In general, Bryan’s response to the harmful effects of big business was to encourage antitrust laws and criminal prosecution, not government enlargement or regulations. Bryan did not believe that support for national legislation concerning child labor, alcohol prohibition, and woman suffrage was inconsistent with states’ rights. The 18th and 19th Amendments were duly submitted to the states for ratification.
In 1922, Bryan opposed the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. Like most Americans of European descent in his day, Bryan took the concept of white supremacy for granted. Nonetheless, he condemned the lynching of blacks, and, as an attorney, he rejected private “justice.” In fact, he did not support capital punishment, even when it was procured by due process of law, because he opposed the death penalty on moral grounds. Still, he opposed the Dyer Bill, as did many other political leaders, because, according to the Constitution, law enforcement was a state and local, not a federal, responsibility.
A proponent of national self-determination and sovereignty, Bryan condemned American and British imperialism. This can be seen in his attitudes toward the Spanish-American War, the Filipino rebellion, British rule in India, the Boxer Rebellion, the Boer War, the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, and home rule for Ireland. Anti-imperialism was the cornerstone of his 1900 campaign: “We assert that no nation can long endure half republic and half empire, and we warn the American people that imperialism abroad will lead quickly and inevitably to despotism at home.” While rejecting the idea of global Manifest Destiny for America, Bryan tended to be paternalistic toward the weaker nations of the Western Hemisphere. As secretary of state, Bryan’s application of the Monroe Doctrine to Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America was his most glaring departure from the fundamental principles of Jeffersonian foreign policy.
Bryan and his supporters resented conservative attempts to make American economic and foreign policy subservient to the interests of England. In 1916-17, Bryan argued against the proposed League to Enforce Peace, writing, “America first! . . . Beware of Entangling Alliances.” He rejected the idea that the U.S. government should police the world. In 1919-20, he supported ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and U.S. membership in the League of Nations, hoping that more cooperation would lead to more peace. Together with Sen. Thomas Walsh (D-MT), he proposed amendments to the treaty that would protect U.S. sovereignty. At the 1924 Democratic Convention, Bryan proposed a plank requiring a national referendum on joining the League of Nations, in opposition to internationalist Newton D. Baker’s plank calling for U.S. entry into the League.
In 1916, Bryan was willing to lend support to the idea of an international court whose rulings would only be advisory, but he remained committed to the concept of national sovereignty. When he endorsed U.S. adherence to the World Court in 1923, he added that participation in it “should always be on the condition that we shall not be bound by the action of other nations except insofar as our government affirmatively endorses the action taken.” In 1922, Bryan supported the Four-Power Treaty only after a stipulation was added which clarified that the agreement would not commit the United States to an armed alliance. Bryan’s occasional conspicuous departures from isolationism stemmed from a conflict between a Jeffersonian desire to avoid foreign entanglements and a Christian desire to make the world a better place. Highlighting the resulting ambivalence, historian Kendrick Clements calls him a “missionary isolationist.”
During the 1964 presidential campaign, Walter Lippmann compared Barry Goldwater to Bryan, and, three decades later, Ralph Reed did the same with Pat Buchanan. These apologists for the power elite intended their comparisons to be disparaging. In these pages, Thomas Fleming also compared Buchanan to Bryan—but favorably—in his essay “From Bryan to Buchanan” (March 1996), in which he identified a stream of populist-decentralist-moralist political thought running from Bryan to the Old Right. Granted, there are some differences in emphasis between old-style populists and paleoconservatives, but both share a common lineage from Jefferson, the Antifederalists, and other foes of Hamilton in the Old Republic.
In the 1940’s, John T. Flynn saw a charming but ignorant and unprincipled man behind the “Roosevelt myth.” Flynn, an old-fashioned Bryan Democrat, noted that Roosevelt’s “impulsive starts in unconsidered directions, his vanity, his lack of a settled political philosophy, his appetite for political power and his great capacity as a mere politician” turned the presidency into “an instrument of appalling consequences.” Whatever his other vices and virtues, William Jennings Bryan should not be blamed for the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
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