The Clare Spark Blog

December 10, 2011

Claude Bowers: racist Dem pol

Claude Bowers

[For a related blog see More irrationalism in our political culture.]

This blog is about Democratic Party fundamentalism as expressed by the populist journalist Claude Bowers, keynote speaker at the Democratic Convention of 1928. The Democratic essentials had already been revealed in Obama’s speech at Osawatomie, Kansas on December 8, 2011, but I had never heard of Bowers, a Hoosier journalist, politician, and later ambassador to Spain and Chile, before reading about his role in the ascendance of Jeffersonianism and the concurrent stigmatizing of Alexander Hamilton in the early 20th century. (My source was Stephen F. Knott’s Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth.) Since Knott had mentioned Bowers’ memoir and Bowers’s racist elevation of Andrew Johnson in the bestselling Tragic Era (1929),* and since I had never heard of him before, I consulted his memoir. I was not prepared for this inside story of Democratic politics, nor the starring role that this autodidact had played in publicizing not only the Jefferson-Jackson contribution to populist ideology, but in delegitimating such Radical Republicans as Thaddeus Stevens and the whole Reconstruction [gang]. This hatred would be transferred to “the money power” and the ostensible Republican “oligarchy” that had viciously exploited the suffering masses, masses whom Bowers was calling to arms, as indeed Obama had done in his New-New Nationalism peroration.

The first thing I noticed in the Bowers memoir was his excitement in vivid Irish oratory and the theater of politics, also by the Leader principle, for his book is full of hero-worship and the language of military battle, replete with violent metaphors. Then I came upon his speech, delivered to the most powerful Democratic partisans during the election year 1928, and the word protofascist came to mind. So I am copying out his own transcription of the rules for fighting Democrats that are in many ways, indistinguishable from the rhetoric of communists, fascists, and the most militant of social democrats (including POTUS). (This speech was meant to unify a dangerously splintered Party, divided about such issues as evolution and Al Smith’s Catholicism, but also fatally defeatist, in Bowers’s view. In his memoir, he places his speech to the Jackson Day Banquet of 1928 after a description of a pleasant meeting with FDR, at that time an adviser to Al  Smith. This is not his keynote address at the 1928 convention: that one sharply divided Hamiltonian Republicans from Lincoln Republicans, thus annexing Lincoln to the politics and policies of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and consigning the Hamiltonians to hell/the “penitentiary.” Bowers viewed his accomplishment as banishing forever the false notion that party differences were merely about patronage, as opposed to [class struggle].)

[Claude Bowers, as reprinted in My Life (Simon and Schuster, 1962):]

“[Referring to Andrew Jackson as exemplary Jeffersonian democrat:] He was too wise to enter a conflict with enemies, spies and traitors in the rear.

He had no patience with the timid or the time server, and the ordered the Miss Nancys and the Sister Sues back with the scullions and the cooks to make way for two-fisted fighting men upon the firing line.

His strategy of battle was to center on a single issue, brush all extraneous matters out of the line of march, and, the strategy determined, close debate and concentrate on victory.

Imagine, if you can, an Iago insinuating himself into Jackson’s camp to propose the division of the party on evolution or the theory of relativity and living to report progress to the enemy that sent him.

He never fought with ping-pong sticks—he gave his men battle axes and artillery.

He never soft-pedaled his approach to conflict—he rode to battle waving a warrior’s sword and shouting commands, and he rode at the head of the column.

He never inquired whether a policy would be good for the North, South, East, or West, for he knew if it were really good it would be good for the masses of the people everywhere.

He fought the common enemy; he waged no civil wars.

Under his courageous leadership, the jingle of the golden coin could not intimidate the army that he led, and the enemy barricades could not stop it, and the machinations of the enemy could not divide it, and thus he moved to inevitable and immortal victories for popular government and the economic rights of man.

And how did he do it? By giving the people a fundamental issue that had a meaning at every fireside in every home in the country. He pointed to the entrenchments of monopoly [i.e, the National Bank, CS] and he said, “We will take that.” He called attention to the increasing arrogance of class rule, and he asked the masses to follow him to battle for the restoration of a government of equal rights for all and special privileges for none.


[Bowers, cont.] But someone asks what Jefferson and Jackson have to do with present-day problems and conditions; and the answer is that there is scarcely a domestic issue that Jefferson thought for and Jackson fought for and Wilson wrought for that is not a vital living issue at this hour.

If the party that these men stood for stands today where these men stood, for equal rights for all and special privileges for none—there is an issue.

If it stands where these men stood, against monopoly and autocracy in government and industry—there is an issue.

If it stands where these men placed it, for the rule of the majority and the greatest good to the greatest number—there is an issue.

If it believes, as these men did, that the debaucher of the ballot box and the hucksters in high places who sell the nation’s birthright to line their pockets belong to the penitentiary and nowhere else—there is an issue.

And to put it all in one sentence: If it stands where these men stood, for democracy and against the oligarchy of a privileged class—there, there is an issue that can mobilize the people and make them march with waving banners and the will to victory in their hearts.” (pp. 178-180) [End, Bowers excerpt]

[Clare’s comment:] Earlier in the text, Bowers mentioned Jefferson’s beloved household servant, too reticent, perhaps, to name the servant as a slave. So much for Jeffersonian or Jacksonian democracy, models that are supposed to speak to us today, red banners waving. Obviously, the entire gold-jingling, huckster-ridden Republican party should be hunted down and jailed. So much for popular sovereignty: we don’t need any. The Leader and the masses are joined at the hip.

*The Tragic Era is notorious in the annals of apologetics for white supremacy. It was favorably reviewed by William E. Dodd (see my remarks on Dodd’s Southern agrarianism in . Peter Novick in That Noble Dream, p.231, states that Bowers’s achievement in discrediting the Republican Party in the South was awarded with the ambassadorship to Spain. Novick doesn’t mention that it was FDR’s appointment that sent Bowers off to a Spain he romanticized in his autobiography.


February 2, 2011

“…the legitimate aspirations of the ___ people”

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 7:07 pm
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William Jennings Bryan

[This was originally written during the Egyptian revolt that displaced Mubarak, but remains relevant, especially if we apply it to the Democratic Party or OWS.]

Recall that PLO spokesmen constantly use the phrase “the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people”? This constantly reiterated trope is populist propaganda, pure and simple. We hear it today in cable news and elsewhere, except that the word Palestinian has been replaced by “the Egyptian people.” This is populist talk, and populism is a buzz word that is applied by propagandists of both parties seeking to implant the notion that there is an oppressor whose foot is on the neck of the population at large: it could be “Wall Street” or “The Northeastern establishment” or “experts” or “the Washington DC Beltway.” (See The oppressor monopolizes force and has not been elected by the [protesting] people, all of whom are supposed to share the same life goals and interests. And who confers legitimacy? Or is legitimacy irrelevant because populists implicity believe in spirits–vox populi, vox dei?

Such loose talk, resistant to precise common sense analysis, makes it easy to conflate competing factions with incompatible objectives and divergent views of the source of evil. In the U.S. there was a definable populist movement that emerged forcefully in the latter quarter of the nineteenth century. They were small producers, small farmers, and artisans displaced by the growth of big business, and otherwise threatened by railroads and banks. As debtors, they wanted to defend their interests against “monopolies” and to get off the gold standard so that the government could print easy money. (For a defense of this movement, see Michael Kazin’s biography of William Jennings Bryan, a good job of history writing, except that he ignores the antisemitism that was an intrinsic part of the populist movement, and also denies that Bryan was afflicted with it (in an email to me), notwithstanding the rhetoric of his famous Cross of Gold speech. Richard Hofstadter noted the pervasive antisemitism in his ”The Age of Reform” and was heavily criticized for it by New Left historians beginning with Michael Rogin in his book on McCarthyism.)

This blog is primarily a plea for readers to demand that their news gatherers specify the factions in the current Egyptian agitation and describe their interests and objectives. Is this primarily a youth revolt? If so, do these supposedly secular, social-media loving youth share the widespread reactionary Arab resentment of the U.S. and Israel? Do they want to purge the schools of antisemitic propaganda, much of it based on the heavily distributed Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Just asking.

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