A Character Sketch of the New Bryan
Willis J. Abbot in the American Review of Reviews Magazine
SOMEWHERE the other day I read the statement that the Bryan who was nominated at Denver is not intellectually or ethically the same Bryan who carried the Chicago Convention of 1896 off its feet with his “Cross of Gold and Crown of Thorns” speech.
This assertion is only about half true. The Bryan of 1896 had youth and its fire. The Bryan of to-day has more maturity, more knowledge of the world, and more poise. But it is to be questioned whether there has been so much change in Bryan as there has been in the temper of the people to whom he made his appeal twelve years ago, and to whom he is renewing practically the same appeal, with the exception of one issue, to-day.
The people who in 1896 could see in him nothing but a hot-blooded zealot have come to look upon him as a serious and somewhat conservative public man, actuated perhaps more than any one in public life by the highest principles of ethics and of morals. But the change has not been in Bryan. Even in the bitter campaign which first made him a great national figure, I, having known him rather intimately and having studied his character for nearly four years before that campaign, said that if Mr. Bryan should be elected he would disappoint his more radical supporters and please the people in the Democratic or any other party who wanted to see a straightforward business administration conducted quietly, without seeking for dramatic effect, and not in any way directed for the overthrow of honestly existing business institutions. The talk in that campaign concerning anarchism and repudiation was political buncombe altogether. No man could be farther then from
The Democratic Nominee for the Presidency is a Vastly More Intellectual, Moderate Minded and Mature Man Than he Was in His First Campaign Twelve Years Ago - A Serious and Somewhat Conservative Statesman Actuated by the Highest Principles of Ethics and Morals.
anarchism that was Mr. Bryan; none today believes more fully in the ability of the law or the lawmaking bodies to find a remedy for practically every political or economic ill, provided the lawmakers and the law expositors are responsive to the will of the people and alive to the people’s needs.
A man who holds views of that sort is as far removed from anarchism as the north pole is from the south. Yet he held these views in 1896 when the cry of anarchy was raised. He holds them still. One wonders whether it is a new Bryan, or a newly
awakened public conscience and public intellect. with which we shall have to do in the campaign of this year.
But the silver question. There indeed is a marked and material change in the apparent attitude of the man. He no longer preaches silver. But he says very frankly that the need which was supposed to exist in 1896 for a greater volume of currency because of the then existing scarcity of gold has been met, not as we then would have met it by coining silver with gold at a fixed ratio, but by the discovery of new goldfields, which have enormously increased the output of that metal, and added prodigiously to the world’s stock of metallic money.
There is no sixteen-to-one idea in the Bryan mind to-day. There is no apology for the dogma of 1896, nor any attempt to revive it. h et I am not so sure that even on this point Mr. Bryan has changed so much as the community to which he must make his appeal. We were told in those days that to continue coining silver as money of ultimate redemption amounted to repudiation and dishonor. But as Mr. Bryan pointed out in conversation with me only a few days ago, the very public men who thought it was perilous to make dollars out of silver have now passed a currency law which will enable the banks to issue money based upon railroad bonds, upon commercial securities, upon any asset which a speculative bank cashier may take and which an overburdened Secretary of the Treasury may perfunctorily approve. The Bryanite point of view, even to-day, with silver no longer an issue, would doubtless be that a precious metal dug out of the earth, possessing the intrinsic value which any limited product of labor must possess, and having a special value for use in the arts, was at least as good a form of money as bank-notes, based on railroad bonds or upon the notes of speculators or captains of finance. However, as Tay Gould once remarked, when the Erie printing presses were running overtime. “The American people are mighty partial to bonds.” Still it does not appear that on this point Mr. Bryan has changed as much as public sentiment has changed, though he has frankly, during the last six years, declared that the question of bimetallism had passed out of the arena of political discussion.
When one looks back on that bitterly de-
nounced Chicago platform of 1896 one wonders why the denunciation was so fierce and how the public mind has changed so greatly on the issues it announced. The Roosevelt of to-day is very much like the Bryan of ’96; for many of the demands made in that platform have been accepted and some of them given legislative effect by the President. Many planks in that platform were of immediate importance only, but most of those which were then fundamental remain fundamental to-day, though there may still exist some difference of opinion upon them.
What was known then as the attack upon the Supreme Court has at the moment I am writing this come up in a new form in Republican councils, for the question as to whether the Republican platform should contain a plank expressing unqualified confidence in both the Federal and the State courts received such general discussion both pro and con as to indicate that even within the Republican ranks there is a very considerable sentiment in opposition to the deification of any and all men who might happen to be appointed to the bench.
The old Bryan was not averse to criticising a court, and while the new Bryan has had less to say on that particular point, there is no reason to doubt his continued belief in the views of the first campaign.
The income tax was an issue in 1896. Its principle has been accepted in many States and approved by the President, though the Supreme Court decision still blocks its enactment into Federal law.
So it would be easy in discussing the changing conditions since the first Bryan campaign to show that the people and the opposition party had come nearer going over to Bryanism than Bryan has come to deserting his early ideals.
Yet he is a new man in many ways. When first nominated, barely beyond the constitutional age prescribed for a President, he knew his own country, but none other. Since that time he has made frequent trips abroad, has made one trip around the world, has visited every one of our colonial possessions, and indeed is better equipped to discuss the foreign relations of the United States and its colonial problems than any man in public life.
Of course, I know that the instant rejoinder to this statement would be the mention of the name of Secretary Taft. But
the difference between the studies of the two men is that Secretary Taft has traveled as an official, has gone about the Philippines, Panama, and our other outlying possessions in somewhat of the state of a proconsul. He has been feted everywhere, and subordinate officials have had ample warning to prepare conditions so that they would meet with his approval. Mr. Bryan has gone merely as an unofficial American citizen, eminent, no doubt, and with a name known in all parts of the world. But for him there were no warships to act as yachts, no saluting cannon, and no incentive on the part of any man to conceal from him the facts which he set forth to seek.
And so the simple but not unsuccessful country lawyer of Lincoln has since 1896 become one of the most widely traveled men living. But his new strength of to-day —not his intellectual, but his political— strength, is derived rather from his travels within his own country than from those expeditions which have taken him to the ends of the earth. Ever since his first campaign Mr. Bryan, with the commendable purpose of providing for his family and advancing the cause which he typifies and represents, has followed the business of a lecturer. In this honorable calling, in which, by the way, he was preceded 'by such men as William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Ward Beecher, James Russell Lowell, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and is joined to-day by such public men as Senator Beveridge, Senator La Follette, Senator Tillman, Representative Champ Clark, and former Senator Dubois, he has not merely achieved a competence, but has been able to visit every nook and corner of these United States of ours. The Bryan of 1896 knew Washington, for he had been an efficient Congressman there. He knew the Mississippi Valley, for he had early taken an active interest in the development of waterways—to which, by the way, the President is now committed—and had attended all the conventions held to further that cause. But he had not traveled from Portland, Me., to Portland, Ore. ; from Fernandina, Fla., to Santa Barbara, Cal. He had not dropped into scores of small towns in every State and made himself known to the millions of people who to-day flock to cheer him whether he preaches on the “Prince of Peace” or delivers a political speech on the principles
of Democracy. The present-day Bryan is known to a million men where the one who came somewhat nervously at first to that historic rostrum in Chicago in 1896 was known to scarce a hundred.
Probably no man in the United States, not even the President himself, has so wide a personal acquaintance and so many followers who are not merely loyal, but sometimes to a degree fanatical as he. And this following has been built up without the aid of any patronage, State or national ; with no offices to give, no favors to dispense. And that it is a continuing following has been shown by the way in which during the last year, or more properly, during the last four months, the prominent politicians of the Democratic party who are not wholly admirers of Mr. Bryan’s attitude have been compelled by their constituents to concede to him delegation after delegation, until his nomination was assured.
And there is, too, another difference between the new Bryan and the old, though this is a material and not a moral difference. But in 1896 Mr. Bryan went to Chicago unheralded and unsung, not even provided with credentials to the convention which afterward nominated him, but merely at the head of a contesting delegation. Many stories have been told after the fact of carefully laid plans for his nomination. There were no such plans. Governor Altgeld, who has been credited with arranging the coup which resulted in the nomination, was, in fact, the last of the strong leaders in the convention to yield to the demand for it. But this year the new Bryan went to the convention with two-thirds of the delegates either instructed for him or personally devoted to his cause.
The Bryan of 1896 was ridiculed^ very unjustly for his poverty; the Bryan of 1908 is attacked very unjustly for his wealth. But I remember well that in ’96, when some of the assertions that he had been unable to earn a living for himself in the practice of the law stung him somewhat, he showed me his account book for the first two years of his practice as a stranger in Lincoln. The records showed a rather singular success for a young and almost unknown lawyer. Mr. Bryan has always owned his own home. In ’96 it was an attractive and not too small a frame house within the town limits of Lincoln. Some people then sneered at him because he did not live in a style
more beseeming a Presidential possibility. To-day they sneer because, with advancing years and as the result of indomitable energy and the utilization of his mental power he has built himself a beautiful house outside of the City of Lincoln.
If Mr. Bryan cared more for money and less for ethics than he does, the income which he derives from his paper, the Commoner, might readily be tripled. His advertising manager in Chicago some time ago almost wept as he told me of the obstacles which were put in his way when he attempted to secure advertising. I am only guessing at it, but I think the circulation of the paper exceeds 200,000 copies weekly. Any journalist or publisher knows what might be done with such a circulation. But the Commoner carries only a beggarly two or three columns of advertising. The reason is that the owner of the Commoner clings to the idea that its advertising columns are just exactly as much a part of the paper as its editorial columns, and that if he is responsible for the editorial “we,” he is equally responsible for any advertisement which appears in the paper which secures its circulation through his national prominence.
This is not particularly an illustration of the “New Bryan.” I thrashed that issue over with him at least eight years ago. Then I discussed with him the question of the responsibility of the owner of a newspaper for the advertisements which appeared in its columns. He held then, as he holds now, the conviction that the advertising columns of a newspaper should be kept clean of all announcements for which the owner, would not personally stand.
There is nothing new in this attitude on the part of Bryan. From his very earliest days in public life he has insisted upon making his private business affairs run parallel with his public utterances and beliefs. There are men in public life who believe that they can sit in the United States Senate or the House of Representatives and represent all the people while as attorneys they represent a very few of the people whose interests are necessarily opposed to those of the many. Mr. Bryan is not one of this sort. He discontinued the practice of law when he went to Congress first, and has never resumed it.
In these later days a sense of his respon-
sibility to the millions of people in this country who have put their trust in him, and who look upon him with an admiration amounting almost to idolatry, has impelled him to give up any sort of legal work, any kind of personal activity which would withdraw him in any degree from the fight for the people in which he has been enlisted. I know that Mr. Bryan’s entrance upon this campaign means to him a struggle, a task, which if he could set it aside, he would not undertake. But while the Bryan of 1896 was a youth flushed with ambition, eager to rush to the forefront as he then did, the new Bryan is a man not desiring so much the honors that are proffered to him, but rather feeling, with a solemn sense of responsibility, his duty to take up the battle for true Democratic principles and to lead a party long out of power to ultimate victory.
I remember well, and so too will most New Yorkers, the wonderful and impressive parade of New York business men during the 1896 campaign, which filled Broadway from the Battery to Forty-second Street, and which was held as a protest against Bryan. The new Bryan has been asked within the last few months to address many of the associations which then paraded—associations of bankers, of publishers, of manufacturers—and has found a hearty welcome and a respectful hearing at all.
I recall, too—for in that ’96 campaign I was deeply interested—the bitterness of the financial community in Chicago against Bryan and all his works ; but now he cannot pass through the city without being invited by the bankers and the commercial men, who then excoriated him, to address their organizations.
And, finally, I recall the somewhat bitter speech made by Theodore Roosevelt, then Police Commissioner of New York, at the Coliseum in Chicago, in which he could say no words too harsh about the Bryan of 1896. When a short time ago Mr. Bryan’s friends found him selected by President Roosevelt to be one of the five unofficial citizens chosen, because of their eminence, to advise with the governors of the Lmited States, they thought that whatever Mr. Bryan himself might think, at least the President and the President’s advisers and associates thought there was indeed a new Bryan.