Bryan: The Progressives: Part I


Americans are a proud, ambitious, and hopeful people; they are easily riled when life does not measure up to their expectations, and quick to express their displeasure. Only one “era of good feelings” is recorded in our history; it was short, merely superficially calm, and quickly followed by the broils and battles of the Age of Jackson. On the other hand, fundamental conflicts of interest and opinion among Americans have been extremely rare. Our Constitution, for example, has been amended only a dozen times since the Bill of Rights was added nearly two hundred years ago; it is not basically different today from what it was then.

This combination of over-all placidity and local tumult is understandable. America has been generally receptive to new ideas, but has not tended to swallow them whole. Reformers who want to make basic changes seldom get far in our system; although their reforms are often achieved, they themselves seldom achieve power. Traditionally this “law” of American politics has been explained by the tendency of the major parties to make concessions to radical ideas as soon as they show signs of becoming popular, and by the generally happy and prosperous condition of the American people, which has predisposed them toward moderation and gradualism. I would like to suggest, without fundamentally questioning that view, that reformers also defeat themselves, not through the ends they cherish but by the means they choose.

This article and two that will follow will try to demonstrate this position by examining the careers of three reformers of the Progressive Era, that period from the turn of the century to World War I when America was adjusting to its rapid emergence as a great industrial nation. Our subjects are William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat; George W. Perkins, one of Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moosers”: and Robert M. La Follette, until the tag end of his long career always a Republican. Despite the diversity of their politics all three considered themselves “progressives,” and have been accepted as such by historians. All were, “good” men, utterly incorruptible, who devoted their lives to fruitful public service. All accomplished a great deal. But all, in the end, failed to achieve their chief objectives. What went right? What went wrong?

That is our story.



His public life spanned a half century. Three times his hand reached for the nation’s highest office. But at the end he was a relic of the past, an object of ridicule or pity

"The President of the United States may be an ass,” wrote H. L. Mencken during the reign of Calvin Coolidge, “but he at least doesn’t believe that the earth is square, and that witches should be put to death, and that Jonah swallowed the whale.” The man to whom the vitriolic Mencken was comparing President Coolidge was William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, one of the dominant figures in the Progressive movement. According to Mencken, Bryan was a “peasant,” a “zany without sense or dignity,” a “poor clod,” and, in addition, an utter fraud. “If the fellow was sincere, then so was P. T. Barnum,” he sneered.

It was certainly easy enough, and tempting, for sophisticates to come to the conclusion that Bryan was a buffoon and a fake. His undignified association in his declining years with the promotion of Florida real estate and his naïve and bigoted religious views, so pitilessly exposed by Clarence Darrow during the famous “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee, lent substance to the Mencken view of his character. So did Bryan’s smug refusal, while Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, to serve alcoholic beverages at Department receptions and dinners because of his personal disapproval of drinking, and his objection to the appointment of ex-President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard as Ambassador to China on the ground that Eliot was a Unitarian, and therefore not a real Christian. “The new Chinese civilization,” said Bryan, “was founded upon the Christian movement.” Eliot’s appointment might undermine the work of generations of pious missionaries, he implied. Bryan’s unabashed partisanship—he talked frankly after Wilson’s election of filling government positions with “deserving Democrats”—did not seem to jibe with his pretensions as a reformer. And his oratorical style, magnificent but generally more emotional than logical, was disappointing to thinking people. John Hay called him a “Baby Demosthenes” and David Houston, one of his colleagues in Wilson’s Cabinet, stated that “one could drive a prairie schooner through any part of his argument and never scrape against a fact.” Being largely a creature of impulse, Bryan was, Houston added, “constantly on the alert to get something which has been represented to him as a fact to support or sustain his impulses.”

But these flaws and blind spots were not fundamental weaknesses; they should never be allowed to overshadow Bryan’s long years of devoted service to the cause of reform. If there were large areas about which he knew almost nothing, there were others where he was alert, sensible, and well-informed; certainly he was not a stupid man, nor was he easily duped or misled. Although a professional politician, as his remark about “deserving Democrats” makes clear, he was utterly honest personally and devoted to the cause of the people, as he understood it.