“When I was in Alabama 13 years ago, they had no child labor law,” wrote labor activist Mary Harris Jones, better known as Mother Jones, in 1908. “In Alabama 13 years ago, women ran four or five looms. Today, I find them running some 24 looms. This is the Democratic south, my friends — this is a Democratic administration. This is what Mr. Bryan and Mr. Gompers want to uphold.”
The “Gompers” that the more-radical-than-thou Ms. Jones judged to be insufficiently concerned about the subjugation of labor was Samuel Gompers, the 10-year-old who was taken out of school to become an apprentice shoemaker and then a cigar maker in the sweatshops of New York before becoming the first president of the American Federation of Labor.
“Mr. Bryan” was William Jennings Bryan, the Democrats’ three-time candidate for president, in 1896, 1900 and 1908, and a three-time loser. Still, he was skilled at tossing around the anti-capitalist rhetoric, such as on Labor Day in Chicago in 1896 when he famously called for “putting rings in the noses of hogs,” referring to how politicians should be treating people like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie.
In 1921, having failed to turn the nation’s top industrialists into farm animals, Bryan began a national campaign to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools. “Under the pretense of teaching science,” he warned, “instructors who draw their salaries from the public treasury are undermining the religious faith of students by substituting belief in Darwinism for belief in the Bible.”
Bryan argued that people “who worship brute ancestors,” i.e., monkey relatives, should “build their own colleges and employ their own teachers.” There was no room for professors who “regard the discovery of the bones of a five-toed horse as a greater event than the birth of Christ.”
In 1925, John Scopes, a football coach and 10th-grade science teacher in Tennessee, was arrested and charged with assigning a reading on evolution to a biology class. The World’s Christian Fundamentals Association wired Bryan, offering a spot with the prosecution.
Bryan, in his opening statement, characterized the trial as a lethal battle between Christian holiness and ungodly evildoers: “If evolution wins, Christianity goes.” Not only that, Bryan reminded the jury, but the evolutionists had the good people of Dayton, Tennessee, descending “not even from American monkeys, but from Old World monkeys.”
Reporting from the trial, H.L. Mencken didn’t award Bryan any gold stars: “Once he had one leg in the White House and the nation trembled under his roars. Now he is a tinpot pope in the Coca-Cola belt and a brother to forlorn pastors who belabor halfwits in galvanized iron tabernacles behind the railroad yards. It is a tragedy, indeed, to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon.”
In the end, neither Gompers nor Bryan was anti-capitalist enough for Ms. Jones. “I stand for the overthrow of the entire system that murders childhood,” she explained, referring to child labor. “I stand for the day when this rotten structure will totter of its own vileness. I stand for the day when the baby will live in God’s fair land, enjoy its air, its food, its pleasures, when every mother will caress it warmly.”
Fast-forward 100 years and the kids are at BabyGap, and then GapKids, not in the mines. Karl Marx got it wrong about the working class becoming inescapably poorer under capitalism. So much so that Mother Jones — the magazine, not the activist — is moaning in its March-April 2005 issue about the over-the-top level of America’s increasing affluence: “Since 1970, the size of the average new home has ballooned by 50 percent. Great rooms, Viking ranges, 10-acre lots — can moats and turrets be far behind?”
And the more specific grievances from Mother Jones: “In 1950, 1 in 100 homes had 2.5 baths or more. Today, 1 in 2 do.” “One in 4 Americans want at least a 3-car garage.” “Fourteen million households own 4 or more TVs.”
The lesson, fashioned over several centuries of declining destitution: It’s hard to make a pinko happy.