All Rights Reserved.
Site last updated
13 January, 2012
The New Star Chamber and Other Essays
Mr. Bryan's Campaigns
by Edgar Lee Masters
The period of American political history between 1896 and 1900 belongs distinctively to Mr. Bryan. When a retrospect shall be taken of it a long time hence he will stand out as the largest figure of all men then living in the United States. Indeed, during these four years he was the most influential individual in the country and none, not excepting Mr. McKinley, occupied a more conspicuous place in the public prints. Scribblers wrote their fingers off making note of his "futility," his "decline," his "rejection;" and found themselves astounded into silence at intervals by his lofty utterances upon the darkening complications that followed the campaign of 1896. Mr. Bryan's luminous influence for good steadily increased after his first defeat and in 1900, appreciative men of insight anticipated one of those recurrences of history, by which a great moral power takes hold of the destinies of a nation. The chilling shock to the ideals of liberty administered by his second defeat can never be fully expressed. Succeeding generations must mature and suffer before they can gather from the words which embodied the people's hope of him, and the words which recorded his loss of the election their deep and painful significance. This, however, is only that concrete failure over which the cynics and satirists of plutocracy have repeated their congratulations. If Mr. Bryan after the campaign of 1900 had compromised his principles, slackened his efforts, or manifested pessimism or ill temper he would have passed into history as another example of a man who lacked moral reserve for the supreme crisis. But he did none of these things. In consequence since 1900 his power has expanded and matured so that he has taken his place as a sort of patriarch, after the fashion of Washington or Jefferson. From this pedestal nothing at all probable can dethrone him. Of what value he is and will be to the country and the world the intuitive mind will not fail to discern.
The democratic platform of 1896 was the molten expression of pent up wrath against evils conterminous with the government itself. The tariff and taxation, bonds and money, the federal courts, the rights of the states are subjects which have occupied political thought in America since the days of Washington. There was nothing novel in this platform and nothing in it to suggest revolutionary designs. There was nothing in it out of harmony with previous platforms of the democratic party. Many of its clauses accorded with platforms of the republican party itself in the days of its beginning. The tempest of villification and mendacity which rose against it can be explained only upon the ground that it was rightly accepted as the sincere declaration of men in sober earnest, who meant exactly what they said and who meant to put their principles into practice if given power to do so. Special privilege was confronted by a powerful and resolute foe, and the best weapons of special privilege, as it turned out, were those things which confused the public memory, prejudiced the public conscience, and subdued the moral energies of the people. The historian who shall depict in comprehensive form that memorable campaign will not fail to note the ardor with which the republican party clasped Mr. Cleveland to its breast because the regenerated democratic party had cast him out, although no one had been more cordially despised by the republican party or more bitterly assailed by its press up to that time. Nor can that historian overlook the organized hypocrisy of the banks, the insurance companies and the monopolies of the country who presented the spectacle of the streets of the great cities of the country gaudily filled with the American flag while the air resounded everywhere with the multitudinous strains of patriotic music for which the monopolists paid the bill. Nothing so brazen and upon such a gigantic scale had ever before been known in this country. It was intended to be a sort of psychical hurricane, by which the people should be swept off their feet in spite of themselves. It very largely helped to accomplish the result that ensued. What was worst the very money which went to the undoing of the people had been taken from them by the wretched swindling of these corporations practiced for at least a third of a century.
The barest reference to history will show that the democratic platform of 1896 proceeded along familiar and creditable lines. Upon the tariff question Mr. Cleveland had been elected president in 1884 and 1892. Free trade or tariff for revenue only had been an article of the democratic faith since the time of Jefferson himself. It was not the tariff plank in the platform which could have honestly excited horror for the "monstrous birth" of the Chicago Convention. As to the income tax our own polity was familiar with such a method of raising revenue. This, therefore, was not strange and forbidding. It was not essentially populistic. The Chicago platform denounced banks of issue. But Jackson was elected president twice because of his opposition to a bank of issue. In this particular then, the platform, fulfilled the requirements of the critics who were clamoring for "historic democracy." There was nothing either novel or improper in the clause of the platform which referred to the Supreme Court and its decision in the income tax case. The republican platform of 1860 contained serious strictures upon the democratic party for using the federal courts to enforce "the extreme pretensions of a purely local interest." It denounced "perversions of judicial power." The platform denounced the sending of troops into Illinois during the railroad strike of 1894 in language which was a dilute of similar language in the republican platform of 1860, which referred to the "lawless invasion, by armed force, of the soil of any state or territory as among the worst of crimes." What was here therefore to shock the sensibilities of Mr. McKinley and his party, many of whom had supported the republican platform of 1860? And finally as the republican platform of 1892 had declared for bimetallism, and as Mr. McKinley had vigorously criticised Mr. Cleveland for "dishonoring one of the precious metals;" as the democratic platform of 1892 had declared that "we hold to the use of both gold and silver as the standard money of the country and to the coinage of both gold and silver, without discriminating against either metal" there was nothing in the money plank of the platform of 1896 to alienate any voter unless it inspired the fear that what both parties had up to that time ostensibly favored was on the point of coming to pass.
Somehow in the logic of the world's affairs, resulting perhaps from the power of special privilege and its methods of dissimulation, every trespass upon the rights of man, every reaction toward a discarded injustice can for the time being be set out to masquerade as law or progress. The protective tariff, the national banks, the single gold standard, the great monopolies, the return to militarism and the disregard of the line which divides state from national sovereignty have come to pass through stealth, mendacity and force. It is marvelous, indeed, that any considerable number of men could be made to believe that the readoption of the constitution in its essential form and vigor and the overthrow of these evils was dangerous radicalism or smacked of revolution. If a body of men, like those under John Brown, forcibly assail the "constituted authorities" the offense can be easily designated. If riots occur, if disorder prevails as the result of economic conditions, as a protest against the system, which unjustly distributes to the few wealth beyond their power to use, and to the many less of the means of life than they earn or need, it is still riot and disorder and subject to the courts or the military. Yet a few men who have been able, through one fortune or another, to name the occupants of the several departments of the government, may do infinitely worse things than these and stifle all criticism through the press and the pulpit. This they did in 1896 to an extent never before known except during the time of the war between the states. When special privilege controls the congress, the president and the supreme court no obstacle exists to the passage of any desirable law and to the validation of the law, because it is desirable. But it will require something more than the out-worn jargon of insolent power to persuade reasonable men to believe that that law is sacred, or that an act done in its name is essentially different from an act done without a law, but which is equally violative of the deeper ethical law. So it was in 1896 that men who had taken an oath to support the constitution, but who had maliciously done everything in their power to undermine the republican system, took upon themselves the protection of national honor. The platform of 1896 was denominated revolutionary by those who had themselves revolutionized the government of the United States. To re-establish justice and to re-secure the blessings of liberty were revolutionary ends in the eyes of a party which has established injustice and made the blessings of liberty difficult to ourselves and doubtful to our posterity. Hence it was that Mr. Bryan was assailed in the open and from ambush by every weapon of stupidity, hypocrisy or studied hatred. There was no catch word stimulative of the barbaric prejudices of the mind, which were not raised against him. He not only came through it all unscathed, but with a foresight and wisdom seldom equalled, avoided the snares that plutocracy everywhere spread for his feet.
No man of America, whose capacities we have had a chance to estimate, could have sustained the campaign of 1896 with the ability which Mr. Bryan brought to that trying and laborious task. Neither Jefferson nor Jackson were public speakers of consequence. Both Clay and Webster were impeachable in their private lives; both in fact exhibited vagueness and vacillation of mind on the important subjects of their day. Calhoun entered public life at an early age and had the misfortune to record himself on opposite sides of the same questions. The career of Douglas furnishes its own judgment upon his capacity for the ordeal of 1896. Lincoln was supported by centralism. He found a revolution made to his hands. The foes which he met were a divided democracy, and a special interest weakened by internal strife. Since Lincoln's day and up to the election of Mr. McKinley in 1896, we have produced no man of adaptable ability, who also possessed first rate character. Greeley was not harmoniously consistent. Tilden was vulnerable; so were Garfield, Arthur, Conkling and Blaine. Harrison lacked versatility and magnetism. To consider Mr. McKinley in this connection as having sustained the opposite side of the same campaign the comparison is contemptible. The corrupt treasure of every special privilege in the land was laid at his feet. The railroads delivered crowds at his porch; and instead of making speeches in the midst of arduous travels and after broken rest, he husbanded his strength at home and spoke amidst familiar surroundings and at intervals of repose. Could Mr. Bryan have traveled the length of the land presenting the cause of bimetallism if the opposition could have brought against him any recorded utterance of his in favor of the single gold standard? Could he have faced the hostile sentiment of desperate plutocracy if the "silver mine owners" had paid his debts and rescued him from bankruptcy? Yet Mr. McKinley within less than four years of 1896 had been an ardent bi-metallist. Within the same length of time a rather sinister influence had given him financial assistance of considerable magnitude.
If Mr. Bryan bringing into the political world a light which the world knew not, had been successfully held up as a doubtful character his rejection would have been irrevocable and tragic. But instead, he loosened a current of morality which has flowed to the refreshment of a nation; and is one of the curatives of that awful canker of the soul, whose symptoms have been more pronounced ever since the advent of that hypocrisy which supported Mr. McKinley. Political idealism never had so thorough, so unimpeachable a presentation as it did in the hands of Mr. Bryan during the campaign of 1896. After his convention speech it was apparent that plutocracy was baffled and bewildered. It burst forth into incoherent railings. It then began to conjure with those images which frighten the timorous, confuse the simple, and inspire reflection in the soul of greed. Mr. Bryan was held up as a man who had failed as a lawyer, although no one had ever pretended that Mr. McKinley had succeeded as a lawyer. He was criticised as a man who had made a living out of politics, although he had made a living both as a lawyer and as a newspaper writer, while Mr. McKinley had held office almost without interruption from the time of his majority. At loss at times for something to say his critics found fault with his dress, with the cut of his coat and the style of his collar. Ugly slanders were set afloat in the under-world of gossip in spite of his almost immaculate personal appearance. The plutocratic press scolded and laughed by turns. Orators big and little assailed his political economy in language that frequently showed the grossest ignorance of its simplest principles. He was accused of lacking humor in the face of the fact that Mr. McKinley's habitual stock in trade was a solemn pose. Yet for all that, Mr. Bryan's sallies at Mr. Hanna and his amiable flashes kept the country smiling. The silliness and the inconsistencies which were offered to the public as criticisms of Mr. Bryan showed that the press sometimes successfully maintains a poor regard for the public's sense of the absurd.
Once over the thrilling scare which plutocracy had received, and Mr. McKinley having been made president by the most immoral means outside of a military usurpation, there was observable to political thinkers the laying of plans by which no such other menace to special privilege could be nearly so possible. For the money question was only the strategic point around which the popular forces swarmed in their attack upon special privilege of every sort. Nearly four years after the campaign Congress passed a nominal gold bill; but our fiscal system was not put upon the single gold basis by that law. Before that the coinage of silver dollars had been resumed at the ratio of 16 to 1, thus showing that the republican party was afraid to imperil its lease of power by limiting the country to the single standard. It therefore accepted as correct the quantitative theory of money. The banks came in for favorable legislation in the issue of notes, and a motley combination of provisions were furnished to those chiefly interested, designed to deceive the people, to satisfy the rapacious, and to leave intact that prosperity which was beginning to spring from the energies and favorable situation of the people.
But nevertheless, the centralized grip of monopoly was tightened. It was at once perceived that plutocracy had taken the reins of power, and by cautious and astute degrees was beginning to more thoroughly intrench itself behind the ramparts of the federal government. Powers which had not been exercised by the general government for years were pressed into service, among which was the bankrupt act. Administrative policies indicated the scheme in mind.
Mr. Bryan, undaunted by this defeat, continued his work of education and encouragement. There would have been, in fact, a second battle with the money question as the entering wedge except for the war with Spain. No political party was ever held together by purer enthusiasm or clearer faith than the democratic party after the election of 1896. But an unforeseen fluke in the affairs of the country set Mr. Bryan's plans utterly adrift and gave plutocracy an undreamed of supremacy over the people of America. Mr. McKinley at first tried to keep the country out of the war. For a moment plutocracy suffered an occultation. It could see only its bonds. Then with swift realization it comprehended greater treasures than the bonds, and greater powers than it had ever known in this country. The democrats in Congress, with an insanity rarely seen, howled themselves hoarse for war and helped plutocracy to forge the first link of militarism and imperialism. They were utterly lost to the thought that the republican party never had anything to offer the people and must either win with a war or upon the memory of a war. And so without any reason whatever the forces of hate and force were turned loose. The viler elements of life were given the supremacy, and those who thirst for power and advantage at any cost broke through the bonds of peace upon missions of "glory." It was a hypocritical war and its fruits have been venomous to the death.
There never was the slightest occasion for debauching our ideals or destroying our institutions. But long ago the spirit of encroachment took courage. At first we had the protective tariff and the bank. Then the supreme court began to usurp powers not given it. Then came the civil war, which unsettled the ideals of liberty. Following upon this were some amazing trespasses upon the organic law. And all the time special privilege was flourishing in an inverse ratio to the destruction of freedom, and was forming over against itself a host of organized discontent. It was this host which made a supreme rally in 1896, perhaps the last to be seen in the country for a long time along old and familiar lines. And it was this host which plutocracy determined, after the election of 1896, to put under foot. The war with Spain furnished the means. It gave an excuse, wicked and hypocritical to be sure, but still an excuse, to begin the organization of a standing army to be used ostensibly to hold and protect our ill-gotten possessions, but in fact and chiefly to cow the labor of the land.
If there was to be a great army there had to be a great navy. Of the same brood came censorship of the press, and in the Philippines the denial of freedom of speech and of trial by jury, those estimable rights hardly ever questioned since the time of William and Mary, and which we could not reserve without the basest treason to principles of liberty which we had proclaimed in a manner none too amiable for more than a hundred years. Government by injunction was greatly strengthened by the change. The suspension of the writ of habeas corpus by a state governor in order more effectually to subjugate labor is now a matter of little moment. Conspiracy prosecutions have become the order of the day. Men are in fact today in America punished for their thoughts and their convictions; and plutocracy brings to the light the skeletons of those who perished in times past under prosecutions which are resurrected as authoritative methods adequate to present conditions of "disorder," "discontent," and even "sedition," a word much used of late. The unfortunate assassination of Mr. McKinley was turned by plutocracy to the greatest account. With this as a pretext the old alien and sedition laws have been revamped only to give them more abhorrent form. These placed in the hands of an executive secretary enable him to arrest any person coming into the country, and to deport the subject without a trial, without witnesses, without a judicial inquiry, and without even a formal accusation. The potentialities of this new law are not known. It may be used against citizens. The twin dragons of imperialism and militarism hatched out by special privilege have inspired in the breasts of thoughtful Americans fears of more tragic days than any we have yet known before they can be slain.
Time must pass before any one can fully judge of Mr. Bryan's course in urging the ratification of the treaty of Paris. It could not be doubted at any time that it meant imperialism. At least, the treaty was so suggestive of imperialism that the chance should not have been taken. Mr. Bryan, nevertheless, for his own sake and for the sake of his party, took prudent grounds in relation to it. He, in fact, was endeavoring to dodge the shadow of the civil war. But it was an awful blunder. One step before him was clear, and that was to oppose the treaty because it was repugnant to the spirit of our peculiar institutions. The next step neither he nor any one else could see. But when the first step is clear in such things the rest must be trusted to that logic of righteousness which is the hope of progress. He justified his course in one of Lincoln's epigrams, but the times were inopportune to quote Lincoln, and the epigram itself was fallacious.
So it was, however, that Mr. Bryan went into the campaign of 1900 without that odium which would have attached to him if he had opposed the treaty and it had been ratified in spite of him. While dealing with the foe he had been with his own country. After the negotiations with the foe were at an end he sought to impress principles of justice and liberty, as well as historic constitutional law, upon the policy toward the islands. There was some political wisdom in this course, and much in it to ward off the attack of the war party. But it was of no real avail. The country had gone too far. Too much had happened to deaden the feelings of the people. The democratic convention of 1900 was inspiring to the highest degree, and Mr. Bryan's speech of acceptance placed him on a higher plane as an orator than anything he had ever done. But after their echoes had died away the political atmosphere tingled with a suspicious silence. One hundred years after Thomas Jefferson routed the hosts of centralism and special privilege, imperialism in full armor stepped into power in America, easily brushing aside a man who, in some particulars, is equal to Jefferson himself.
Of a piece with the whole course of insincerity toward Mr. Bryan in the campaign of 1900 were the apologies offered by those who felt conscience stricken for not supporting him. The platform upon which he made the canvass was open to no criticism by those who deplored the Spanish war and its wicked perversions. But Mr. Bryan, in spite of the flattering prophecies of success dinned into his ears if he would abandon the money question, and in spite of appeals from his friends and well-wishers, as well as those who were neither, to abandon it, made the re-affirmation of the money plank in the platform of 1896 a condition of his acceptance of the nomination in 1900. Be this ever said to his credit. Of the many noble things which he did in the four years between 1896 and 1900, no other act of his so much stamped him with greatness and gave him power over the people. If he had renounced the money plank it is true that he would have fallen into the hands of those who wanted to make him out a mere figurante of the day with an overweening ambition for place. But still those enemies, if disposed to be consistent, should have admitted that the plank made no difference, because the gold standard had become the settled law, and Mr. Bryan could not have changed it during his term if elected, owing to the complexion of the Senate. This was the unctuous self-gratulation of the organs of the republican party until Mr. Bryan compelled the re-affirmation of the platform of 1896. Now suddenly a great outcry was made that the gold standard would be threatened by his election, and that body of men who knew that Mr. McKinley's election meant imperialism, and who had opposed the imperial policy of his administration, faced about pretendedly because the money question was more important than the question of imperialism -- the money question of whose settlement beyond Mr. Bryan's power, if elected, to disturb, they had rejoiced and boasted!
This is a cursory outline of the record which the republican party made between 1896 and 1900, and of the record which Mr. Bryan and his party made. No human power can add to or take away from either record. In time to come both records will be known and compared, and every writing and fact necessary to their clear understanding will be brought to light. There will be no doubt at the seat of judgment which controls the verdicts of history in what manner those records shall be judged. For the open and secret deeds of those will be known who "blew out the moral lights around us," and left a great nation fashioned after the purest and most philosophic principles of idealism to flounder in darkness and mire.