The Radical: What William Jennings Bryan Means Today

Willam Jennings Bryan (white suit), Woodrow Wilson (white pants) and Franklin Roosevelt (far right).
Willam Jennings Bryan (white suit), Woodrow Wilson (white pants) and Franklin Roosevelt (far right).

The Radical

Democracy is messy. When we let the masses vote and decide upon their government, we get quirky results. That is why the founders set up a system of checks and balances—so when democracy goes awry, there are remedies.

It is why the Constitution separates powers. It is what former Justice David Souter talked about at the Harvard Law School in 2013 when discussing the desperate need today for more civic education in our country.

We need to teach, Souter said, that the Constitution is more than a simply a blueprint for structure—though it is that. It is more merely a Bill of Rights—though it is that.

“It is,” Souter declared, “a value system.”

“We need to teach that we have a value system, and the one common value system that we can claim to have in the United States is a constitutional value system: a value system that identifies the legitimate objects of power, the importance of distributing power, and the need to limit power by a shared and enforceable conception of human worth.”

It is why the president would not be king or sovereign. Indeed, the president’s oath inscribed in the Constitution is to protect and defend a higher authority: the Constitution itself. It is why the president wages war but only the Congress can declare war. It is why Congress creates law and the president is charged with its faithful execution. It is why the president can be impeached if guilty of treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

Our history teaches that when the ship of state is rocked by waves of populism or when a president acts like a tyrant, the steadying force of these institutional checks always rights the ship. Always.

But will that be the case in a post-Trumpian world? To be sure we have seen waves of populism and we have seen tyrants who have abused presidential power. But never have we seen a foreign power intervene is such a nefarious, surreptitious and effective way as we did in the 2016 elections. The Internet and social media provide extraordinary reach and impact with virtually no transparency.

In the Civil War when Britain hoped the United States would fracture into two nations, its support of the South was open and obvious. It did not go well for Britain or the Confederacy.

When Brits and Germans (mainly Germans) sent spies and saboteurs into the United States to influence American opinion during the First World War, Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917. A German cable to Mexico suggesting the carving up of parts of the American southwest should the U.S. join the war against Germany was uncovered and exposed, galvanizing public opinion and leading to Woodrow Wilson’s request that Congress declare war to make the world safe for democracy.

During the Second World War, the pro-fascist America First movement led by people like Charles Lindberg was soundly defeated and disgraced under Franklin Roosevelt’s superlative leadership.

Yet today, one searches in vain in our history to find a time when a foreign power’s interference seems to be supported, tacitly if not expressly, by our own president. And a Congress that squeals with joy over tax reform appears to have lost its backbone.

Is there a check on this president?

There is—but it may not be the result of the separation of powers. There is one true democratic remedy and that is the exercise of the ballot.

If 2018 is to be a year of reckoning, it will require not just voters turning out in record numbers but leadership that will boldly stand for the people. Leadership that will not be just about resistance but about saving the constitutional values that have allowed the United States to exist as a democratic Republic.

We are in the Second Gilded Age. A billionaire president, who seems at times unhinged, has somehow convinced millions of gullible Americans that he stands for them. He has passed a tax law that enriches himself and his friends and promises to create deficits that will haunt generations to come.

During the First Gilded Age, there arose leadership that fought the concentration of wealth as undemocratic. William Jennings Bryan ran for president three times and gave birth to the Progressive Era. His “cross of gold” speech could easily be reworked today to make reference to Trump and his Richie Rich golden world.

While Bryan did not win the presidency, he set the table for Woodrow Wilson, who created the Federal Reserve and instituted the first progressive tax on the wealthy and the robber barons of the day. Bryan paved the way for FDR and his New Deal, an administration that saved the country from its worst depression and installed the essential safety net of Social Security. Bryan was the progenitor who brought about John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and Medicare.

In his time Bryan was vilified as a radical. But that was exactly the point—he was radically for the common man and against concentrated wealth and “the moneyed interests.” He was Bernie Sanders before there was a Bernie Sanders.

My great-aunt, a schoolteacher in a small Ohio town, wrote a poem about Bryan that she entitled “The Radical.” When Franklin Roosevelt won the nomination of the Democrats in 1932, she sent a copy of the poem to him, writing,

“In every age there have been valiant souls that found the cause of democracy swell within them until it crowded out selfish considerations of personal wealth. Such leaders inspire a fervor that gives the cause strength to live on even in the face of defeat. Such temporary halts are only part of the price of ultimate victory, and we are sure you, such a leader, are come at the happy time of ultimate victory.”

Franklin Roosevelt wrote back: “Such a sincere letter of approval was deeply appreciated by me. Thank you for sending me a copy of the verse that you wrote a great many years ago.”

Winning the ultimate victory will come if Americans preserve, protect and defend our Constitution and its values. It will take a commitment from a host of American radicals.

Here is Eliza Wallace Durbin’s poem:

The Radical

Truth’s youngest steep he seeks to climb,

Nor heeds the jeers below;

Nor cringes from the mud and slime

Rude ignorance doth throw;

He is God’s answer to the prayer

Wrung out from human need;

‘Twas he that lured man’s vision dim

From cent’ring on grey clod,

For eyes upturned to follow him

In time saw past to God;

And he unto the end shall lead

To richer realms of soul;

His heart may break, but hearts that bleed

Mark trails to freedom’s goals;

When pointing to the last his view

He drops, his vigor spent,

By blood upon the stones we threw

We seek the way he went.

James D. Robenalt is the author of Linking Rings, William W. Durbin and the Magic and Mystery of America, The Harding Affair, Love and Espionage During the Great War, and January 1973, Watergate, Roe v Wade, Vietnam, and the Month That Changed America Forever. His upcoming book is Ballots and Bullets, Black Power Politics and Urban Guerrilla Warfare in 1968 Cleveland (summer 2018). He was a contributing author to The Presidents and the Constitution, A Living History (Gormley, ed.). Robenalt lectures with John W. Dean on legal ethics.

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