Victor Nuovo: The age of reform
Editor’s note: This is the 56th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
“The Age of Reform” was an expression chosen by the historian Richard Hofstadter to describe political developments in this country from 1890 through The New Deal. This is the period I am about to enter. 1890 marks the beginning of two political movements, whose names are used frequently today: Populism and Progressivism. It was at the beginning of this era that the word “Populism” was coined. “Progressivism” was in use a half-century earlier; both gained common currency during the 1890s, and they have been around ever since.
What do they mean? Populism signifies a political movement or doctrine that puts the interests of the people first, ordinary working people, before those of the idle rich. It signifies a political movement that pits farmers, teachers, shopkeepers, small business owners, tradesmen, accountants, wage earners, and a host of others who work for a living, against the moneyed classes; and in general it pits the country against the city, the West against the Eastern establishment. A progressive is someone who advocates social reform, not once and for all, but a continuing striving, as though the goals of political reform cannot be perfectly achieved in time, one may draw near to them, but never reach them, yet the will to press on persists. Thus there is a visionary aspect to progressivism, and a theory of history. Whatever the goal, a progressive is likely to say that it is always beyond the horizon, unattainable yet never ceasing urgently to beckon.
Populism came into being with the founding of the Populist or People’s Party, in 1891, whose policies were eloquently proclaimed and enthusiastically promoted by William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), and the remainder of this essay will be devoted to him and the movement he initiated.
Bryan ran for president three times, and lost each time, in 1896 to William McKinley, in 1900 to McKinley a second time, and in 1908 to William Howard Taft. He ran as a Democrat, and historians tend to blame him for the demise of the Populist Party, because Bryan stole their fire. But that is of no concern here. It is certain that he was imbued with their spirit, which is evident in a speech he delivered at the Democratic Convention of 1896, which won him the nomination. One need read only the opening paragraph to feel the power of his words:
“I would be presumptuous, indeed, to present myself against the distinguished gentlemen to whom you have listened if this were but a measuring of ability; but this is not a contest among persons. The humblest citizen in all the land when clad in the armor of a righteous cause is stronger than all the whole hosts of error that they can bring. I come to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty — the cause of humanity. When this debate is concluded, a motion will be made to lay upon the table the resolution offered in commendation of the administration and also the resolution in condemnation of the administration. I shall object to bringing this question down to a level of persons. The individual is but an atom; he is born, he acts, he dies; but principles are eternal; and this has been a contest of principle.”
The question at issue was money, and what made this a righteous cause was the redistribution of wealth. Bryan was up in arms against the Eastern bankers and investors in the great Eastern cities. He accused them of arranging the nation’s monetary policy so that it benefitted them above all, at the expense of working people, heirs of the pioneers, who produce the goods that create the wealth of the nation. The policy they favored was the gold standard, which they claimed prevented inflation by reducing the amount of money in circulation.
Bryan charged that its effect was to impoverish farmers, who received little enough. The effect on the laboring classes was the same. He believed that adopting a monetary policy of bimetallism, i.e., using silver and goal as legal tender, would inflate the value of paper money. This would provide greater income to farmers and the laboring classes. How this would work, I leave to an economist to explain. The principle behind it was the redistribution of wealth.
Bryan described the Eastern establishment of bankers and investors, as “those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below.” They were ancestors of a “trickle down economy.” In that connection he proposed an income tax on the wealthy, and term limits for members of Congress. In all this, he presented himself as a spokesman for the frontier, and for “the common man;” a spokesman for the country against the city:
“We come to speak for this broader class of businessmen. Ah, my friends, we say not one word against those who live upon the Atlantic Coast; but those hardy pioneers who braved all the dangers of the wilderness, who have made the desert to blossom as the rose — those pioneers away out there, rearing their children near to nature’s heart, where they can mingle their voices with the voices of the birds — out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the education of their children and churches where they praise their Creator, and the cemeteries where sleep the ashes of their dead — are as deserving of the consideration of this [Democratic] party as any people in this country.”
“We say to you that you have made too limited in its application the definition of a businessman. The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer. The attorney in a country town is as much a businessman as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis. You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard. I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”
He ended his speech with these words: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold,” from which his speech derived its name. The “Cross of Gold” speech has become one of the most celebrated political speeches in American political history.
In 1912, Bryan supported the candidacy of Woodrow Wilson for the presidency. After his election, Wilson appointed him secretary of state. When the First World War began in Europe, Bryan, a pacifist, sought to bring about a negotiated settlement between the belligerent nations, and at home advocated a policy of strict neutrality. This led to a parting of the ways between him and the President, and in 1915, he resigned. He did not favor United States entry in 1917, but he supported the war effort. After the war ended, Bryan gave his full support to Wilson’s peace plan, and strongly favored the U.S. entry into the League of Nations.
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