The media vs. the populists, Jazz Age edition: Mencken vs. Bryan.

paul johnson modern times

Re-reading Paul Johnson’s book of 20th century history Modern Times I found the following nuggets which, if I’d come across them a few weeks earlier, I would have incorporated into my essay on the mutating definition of “populism”.

The first concerns William Jennings Bryan, whom Johnson describes as “the hate-figure of the East Coast highbrows in the Twenties”. By that decade the ex-Nebraska congressman, ex-Secretary of State, and three-time losing Democratic presidential candidate (in 1896, 1900, and 1908) was known primarily as the champion of the anti-Darwinist side in 1925’s Scopes Monkey Trial.

In the most famous fictionalization of that event, 1960’s Inherit the Wind, Fredric March plays “Matthew Harrison Brady” as a puffed-up backwoods pulpit-banger easily tied in knots by Spencer Tracy’s skeptical defense attorney.

In Johnson’s telling, Bryan wasn’t opposed to the teaching of evolution per se, he only believed that it should be presented as theory rather than as settled fact. The Tennessee law under which biology teacher John Scopes was charged was more restrictive than Bryan personally preferred; nevertheless he joined the prosecution to affirm the power of elected legislators to determine which doctrines were taught in public schools, and the duty of teachers to respect those democratic decisions.

Bryan’s closing argument supports Johnson’s interpretation:

A teacher can think as he pleases and worship God as he likes, or refuse to worship God at all. He can believe in the Bible or discard it; he can accept Christ or reject Him. This law places no obligations or restraints upon him. And so with freedom of speech; he can, so long as he acts as an individual, say anything he likes on any subject. This law does not violate any right guaranteed by any constitution to any individual. It deals with the defendant, not as an individual, but as an employee, an official or public servant, paid by the state, and therefore under instructions from the state.

(Bryan was denied a chance to deliver this statement, as Scopes’ defense team opted to change his plea to guilty in order to facilitate an appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court.)

Johnson rues the manner in which Bryan’s bible-thumping reputation has eclipsed his other accomplishments:

Fundamentally, Bryan’s aims were democratic and progressive: he fought for women’s suffrage and a federal income-tax and reserve-bank, for popular election to the Senate, for the publication of campaign contributions, for freeing the Philippines, and for the representation of labour in the cabinet. Yet his values were popular ones or, to use the new term of derogation, “populist”; he spoke the language of anti-intellectualism. His wife’s diaries testify to the bitterness the couple felt at the way his work was misrepresented or completely ignored in the “Eastern press”.

the vintage mencken

When Bryan died just a few days after the end of the Scopes trial, the era’s most famous journalist, Baltimore’s H.L. Mencken (whose Inherit the Wind alter ego was played by Gene Kelly), felt no need to soft-pedal his scorn:

In the presence of city folks [Bryan] was palpaby uneasy. Their clothes, I suspect, annoyed him, and he was suspicious of their too delicate manners. He knew all the while that they were laughing at him – if not at his baroque theology, then at least at his alpaca pantaloons. But the yokels never laughed at him. …

His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses. It was hard to believe, watching him at [the Scopes trial], that he had traveled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and beautiful things. … He was born with a roaring voice, and it had the trick of inflaming half-wits. His whole career was devoted to raising those half-wits against their betters, that he himself might shine.

This is pretty harsh, but only a bit harsher than the acid Mencken poured over every other politician. They were all mediocrities of one stripe or another, elevated by the risible doctrine of democracy:

If x is the population of the United States and y is the degree of imbecility of the average American, then democracy is the theory that x × y is less than y.

As the chosen figurehead of all these imbeciles, the president was necessarily the primary target of Mencken’s ire: at the time of the Scopes trial that was Calvin Coolidge. Only after the laconic Vermont Republican was safely buried could Mencken admit that he had delivered the least and therefore best one could reasonably expect from a politician:

Counting out Harding as a cipher only, Dr. Coolidge was preceded by one World Saver and followed by two more. What enlightened American, having to choose between any of them and another Coolidge, would hesitate for an instant? There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was not a nuisance.

Herbert Hoover, who had the bad luck to inherit the presidency from Coolidge a few months before the stock market crash of 1929, is remembered now as a do-nothing who ignored the suffering unleashed by the Great Depression. His successor Franklin Roosevelt is credited with taking the belated action that helped America struggle back to its feet.

In fact, Johnson argues, there wasn’t much distance between these two World Savers on questions of policy, although in fighting the 1932 election they strove to exaggerate their areas of disagreement. He quotes Roosevelt:

“Never before in modern history have the essential differences between the two major American parties stood out in such striking contrast as they do today.” It was all baloney. It illustrates the degree to which oratory engenders myths and myths, in turn, breed realities.

Johnson contends that a Coolidgean restraint would have led to a much faster recovery, while Hoover’s and Roosevelt’s eagerness to be seen doing something added up to a lot of useless tinkering that prolonged the pain. Hoover tinkered through the worst of the collapse, which found its nadir near the end of his term. By the time Roosevelt took office there was nowhere for the economy to go but up, and his tinkering was given credit for the recovery. The transfer of political power from Republican to Democrat in 1932 was less significant than the cultural realignment:

But it was only in 1932 that the Republicans finally lost the Progressive image they had enjoyed since Lincoln’s day and saw it triumphantly seized by their enemies, with all that such a transfer involves in the support of the media, the approval of academia, the patronage of the intelligentsia and, not least, the manufacture of historical orthodoxy.

Uncowed by the new orthodoxy, Mencken loosed on FDR and his “puerile amalgam of exploded imbecilities” the same stream of hilarious invective he’d aimed at previous occupants of the White House:

The New Deal began like the Salvation Army, by promising to save humanity. It ended, again like the Salvation Army, by running flophouses and disturbing the peace.

But the intelligentsia that had whooped at his assaults on Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover now mumbled their embarrassed disapproval. “The only consequence of these diatribes,” says Johnson, “was that Mencken forfeited his influence with anyone under thirty.” In his diary, Mencken groused philosophically:

On the ultimate fate of my writings I sometimes speculate idly. At the moment, with the Roosevelt crusade to save humanity in full blast, my ideas are so unpopular that it is impossible … to print them. But when the New Deal imposture blows up at last, as it is sure to do soon or late, they may have a kind of revival.

While a writer as abundantly quotable as Mencken could never be forgotten entirely, in the long run his pungent rhetoric, which did so much to sink William Jennings Bryan in the public’s esteem, may drag its author to even deeper abysms of infamy. After all, a “poor clod … deluded by a childish theology” can perhaps be given a pass on grounds of ignorance; but as Mencken clearly possessed a high and discerning intelligence, no mitigation can be extended for the many truculent comments, shocking to modern sensibilities, which can be plucked from his vast, diverse, and self-contradictory output.

When some of these unpalatable comments came to light with the release of Mencken’s diaries in 1989, the “over-reaction” was pooh-poohed by a coalition of old-school liberal intellectuals. In the Twitter era, it has mainly been anti-evolution polemicists who have taken the trouble to subject Mencken’s work to thorough offense-mining. But over on the other side of William Jenning Bryan’s intellectual lineage – the sour-faced progressive side – they’re bound to notice one of these days that dirt-poor Scotch-Irish hill-folk weren’t the only targets of Mencken’s down-punching.

As for Bryan, his reputation might yet recover. Hostility to scientific research into heredity seems to be growing on the left, and for pretty much the same reason Bryan opposed Darwinism: because he thought it would lead on to Social Darwinism and eventually to eugenics.

(As Christopher Hitchens pointed out, “Mencken shared the same opinion but with more gusto. He truly believed that it was a waste of time and energy for the fit to succor the unfit.”)

In this review of Robert Plomin’s Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, the author accuses “hereditarian” pop-science authors of “leveraging the cultural authority of science to advance a discredited, undemocratic agenda”. It’s a phrase that could have come out of Bryan’s closing argument at the Scopes trial, if the verb “to leverage” had existed at that time. He phrased it a little more elegantly:

[W]hat else but the spirit of evolution can account for the popularity of the selfish doctrine, “Each one for himself, and the devil take the hindmost,” that threatens the very existence of the doctrine of brotherhood.

In Inherit the Wind the Bryan stand-in is made to piously bluster that he is “not the least interested in the pagan hypotheses” of Charles Darwin; that he has never read On the Origin of Species, “and I never will”.

Back here in the real world, it’s clear from Bryan’s closing statement that he had researched his foe. He plucks from Darwin’s The Descent of Man the well-known passage which gave inspiration to the era’s eugenicists:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. … Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

Bryan was quick to acknowledge that Darwin’s “kindly heart rebelled against the cruelty of his own doctrine”; but he foresaw that less amiable thinkers would follow Darwinism’s logic to its ghastly end, ushering in an age of cruelty, war, and sanitary murder. Non-Christians (like me) might object to the claim in his peroration that if civilization is to be preserved, it can only be “by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene.” But it doesn’t subtract one whit from Darwin’s genius to agree with Bryan that:

Science is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of storm-tossed human vessels.


This is the third in a series on populism that began with my review of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s One Canada and continued with last month’s discussion of Diefenbaker, Trudeau, Trump, and Jane Jacobs. In the novel Job: A Comedy of Justice, summarized in my essay on Robert Heinlein’s Crazy Years, a parallel-universe America where William Jennings Bryan won the presidency has become a technologically stunted backwater run by witch-burners.

Update, July 29, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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