FROM: The Baltimore Evening Sun (July 27th 1925) ~
By H.L. Mencken
It was plain to everyone, when Bryan came to Dayton,
that his great days were behind him -- that he was now
definitely an old man, and headed at last for silence.
There was a vague, unpleasant manginess about his
appearance; he somehow seemed dirty, though a close
glance showed him carefully shaved, and clad in
immaculate linen. All the hair was gone from the dome of
his head, and it had begun to fall out, too, behind his ears,
like that of the late Samuel Gompers. The old resonance
had departed from his voice: what was once a bugle blast
had become reedy and quavering. Who knows that, like
Demosthenes, he had a lisp? In his prime, under the magic
of his eloquence, no one noticed it. But when he spoke at
Dayton it was always audible.
When I first encountered him, on the sidewalk in front of
the Hicks brothers law office, the trial was yet to begin,
and so he was still expansive and amiable. I had printed in
the Nation, a week or so before, an article arguing that the
anti-evolution law, whatever its unwisdom, was at least
constitutional -- that policing school teachers was certainly
not putting down free speech. The old boy professed to be
delighted with the argument, and gave the gaping bystanders
to understand that I was a talented publicist. In turn I
admired the curious shirt he wore -- sleeveless and with the
neck cut very low. We parted in the manner of two Spanish
But that was the last touch of affability that I was destined
to see in Bryan. The next day the battle joined and his face
became hard. By the end of the first week he was simply a
walking malignancy. Hour by hour he grew more bitter.
What the Christian Scientists call malicious animal magnetism
seemed to radiate from him like heat from a stove. From my
place in the court-room, standing upon a table, I looked
directly down upon him, sweating horribly and pumping his
palm-leaf fan. His eyes fascinated me: I watched them all day
long. They were blazing points of hatred. They glittered like
occult and sinister gems. Now and then they wandered to me,
and I got my share. It was like coming under fire.
What was behind that consuming hatred? At first I thought
that it was mere evangelical passion. Evangelical Christianity,
as everyone knows, is founded upon hate, as the Christianity
of Christ was founded upon love. But even evangelical
Christians occasionally loose their belts and belch amicably;
I have known some who, off duty, were very benignant. In
that very courtroom, indeed, were some of them -- for
example, old Ben McKenzie, Nestor of the Dayton bar, who
sat beside Bryan. Ben was full of good humor. He made
jokes with Darrow. But Bryan only glared.
One day it dawned on me that Bryan, after all, was an
evangelical Christian only by sort of afterthought -- that his
career in this world, and the glories thereof, had actually come
to an end before he ever began whooping for Genesis. So
I came to this conclusion: that what really moved him was a
lust for revenge. The men of the cities had destroyed him and
made a mock of him; now he would lead the yokels against
them. Various facts clicked into the theory, and I hold it still.
The hatred in the old man's burning eyes was not for the
enemies of God; it was for the enemies of Bryan.
Thus he fought his last fight, eager only for blood. It quickly
became frenzied and preposterous, and after that pathetic.
All sense departed from him. He bit right and left, like a dog
with rabies. He descended to demagogy so dreadful that his
very associates blushed. His one yearning was to keep his
yokels heated up -- to lead his forlorn mob against the foe.
That foe, alas, refused to be alarmed. It insisted upon seeing
the battle as a comedy. Even Darrow, who knew better,
occasionally yielded to the prevailing spirit. Finally, he lured
poor Bryan into a folly almost incredible.
I allude to his astounding argument against the notion that
man is a mammal. I am glad I heard it, for otherwise I'd
never believe it. There stood the man who had been thrice
a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic -- and once,
I believe, elected -- there he stood in the glare of the world,
uttering stuff that a boy of eight would laugh at! The artful
Darrow led him on: he repeated it, ranted for it, bellowed it
in his cracked voice. A tragedy, indeed! He came into life a
hero, a Galahad, in bright and shining armor. Now he was
passing out a pathetic fool.
Worse, I believe that he somehow sensed the fact -- that
he realized his personal failure, whatever the success of the
grotesque cause he spoke for. I had left Dayton before
Darrow's cross-examination brought him to his final absurdity,
but I heard his long speech against the admission of expert
testimony, and I saw how it fell flat and how Bryan himself
was conscious of the fact. When he sat down he was done for,
and he knew it. The old magic had failed to work; there was
applause but there was no exultant shouts. When, half an hour
later, Dudley Field Malone delivered his terrific philippic, the
very yokels gave him five times the clapper-clawing that they
had given to Bryan.
This combat was the old leader's last, and it symbolized in
more than one way his passing. Two women sat through it,
the one old and crippled, the other young and in the full flush
of beauty. The first was Mrs. Bryan; the second was
Mrs. Malone. When Malone finished his speech the crowd
stormed his wife with felicitations, and she glowed as only a
woman can who has seen her man fight a hard fight and win
gloriously. But no one congratulated Mrs. Bryan. She sat
hunched in her chair near the judge, apparently very uneasy.
I thought then that she was ill -- she has been making the
round of sanitariums for years, and was lately in the hands
of a faith-healer -- but now I think that some appalling
prescience was upon her, and that she saw in Bryan's eyes
a hint of the collapse that was so near.
He sank into his seat a wreck, and was presently
forgotten in the blast of Malone's titanic rhetoric. His
speech had been maundering feeble and often downright
idiotic. Presumably, he was speaking to a point of law,
but it was quickly apparent that he knew no more law than
the bailiff at the door. So he launched into mere violet
garrulity. He dragged in snatches of ancient chautauqua
addresses; he wandered up hill and down dale. Finally,
Darrow lured him into that fabulous imbecility about man
as a mammal. He sat down one of the most tragic asses in
It is the national custom to sentimentalize the dead, as it
is to sentimentalize men about to be hanged. Perhaps
I fall into that weakness here. The Bryan I shall remember
is the Bryan of his last weeks on earth -- broken, furious,
and infinitely pathetic. It was impossible to meet his hatred
with hatred to match it. He was winning a battle that would
make him forever infamous wherever enlightened men
remembered it and him. Even his old enemy, Darrow, was
gentle with him at the end. That cross-examination might have
been ten times as devastating. It was plain to everyone that the
old Berseker Bryan was gone -- that all that remained of him
was a pair of glaring and horrible eyes.
But what of his life? Did he accomplish any useful thing?
Was he, in his day, of any dignity as a man, and of any value to
his fellow-men? I doubt it. Bryan, at his best, was simply a
magnificent job-seeker. The issues that he bawled about
usually meant nothing to him. He was ready to abandon them
whenever he could make votes by doing so, and to take up
new ones at a moment's notice. For years he evaded Prohibition
as dangerous; then he embraced it as profitable. At the
Democratic National Convention last year he was on both sides,
and distrusted by both. In his last great battle there was only a
baleful and ridiculous malignancy. If he was pathetic, he was
Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted.
He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest.
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 Dayton, 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 noble things. He was a peasant come home
to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined
everything that he was not.
The job before democracy is to get rid of such canaille. If it fails,
they will devour it.
Thanks for posting this.
Gee Mencken, tell us what you REALLY think...
One of my joys a few years back was listening to my two daughters,
then 8 & 12, discussing and debating after watching "Inherit the
Wind". Their conversation fluctuated between film criticism, religion
It was a joy for me not so much in their positions, but mainly in the
fact that they each displayed a goodly amount of critical thinking in
their arguments. Would that more folks, especially some of our
politicians, did so more often.
"EVERYbody Eats When They Come To MY House!"