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[From the Archive]

Fifty-One Percent

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During the Dayton trial there was much discussion about what had happened to William Jennings Bryan. How had a progressive democrat become so illiberal? How did it happen that the leader of the hosts of progress in 1896 was the leader of the hosts of darkness in 1925?

It was said that he had grown old. It was said that he was running for president. It was said that he was a beaten orator who had found his last applauding audience in the backwoods. And it was said that he had undergone a passionate religious conversion.

No matter whether the comment was charitable or malicious, it was always an explanation. There was always the assumption that Bryan had changed and that he had departed from the cardinal tenets of his political faith. Bryan vehemently denied this and, on reflection, I am now inclined to think he was right. We were too hasty. Bryan’s career was more logical and of a piece than it looked. There was no such contradiction, as most of us assumed, in the spectacle of the Great Commoner fighting for the legal suppression of scientific teaching.

Illustration by Cathy Hull

He had always insisted that the people should rule. And he had never qualified this faith by saying what they should rule and how. It was no great transformation of thought, and certainly it was not for him an abandonment of principle, to say that if a majority in Tennessee was fundamentalist, then the public schools in Tennessee should be conducted on fundamentalist principles.

At Dayton, Bryan contended that in schools supported by the state the majority of the voters had a right to determine what should be taught. If my analysis is correct, there is no fact from which that right can be derived except the fact that the majority is stronger than the minority. It cannot be argued that the majority in Tennessee represented the whole people of Tennessee; nor that fifty-one Tennesseeans are better than forty-nine Tennesseeans; nor that they were better biologists, or better Christians, or better parents, or better Americans. It cannot be said they are necessarily more in tune with the ultimate judgments of God. All that can be said for them is that there are more of them, and that in a world ruled by force it may be necessary to defer to the force they exercise.

When the majority exercises that force to destroy the public schools, the minority may have to yield for a time to this force—but there is no reason why they should accept the result. For the votes of a majority have no intrinsic bearing on the conduct of a school. They are external facts to be taken into consideration, like the weather. Ultimately, guidance for a school can come only from educators, and the question of what shall be taught as biology can be determined only by biologists. The votes of a majority do not settle anything here. They may be right or they may be wrong; there is nothing in the majority principle that will make them either right or wrong. In the conduct of schools, the majority principle is an obvious irrelevance.

But what good is it to deny the competence of the majority when you have admitted that it has the power to enforce its decisions? I enter this denial myself because I prefer clarity to confusion, and the ascriptions of wisdom to fifty-one percent seems to me a pernicious confusion. But I do it also because I have some hope that the exorcising of the superstition that has become attached to majority rule will weaken its hold upon the popular imagination, and tend therefore to keep it within convenient limits. Bryan would not have won the logical victory he won at Dayton had educated people not been caught in a tangle of ideas that make it seem as if the acknowledgment of the absolutism of the majority was necessary to faith in the final value of the human soul. It seems to me that a rigorous untangling of this confusion may help to arm the minority for a more effective resistance in the future.

From “Why Should the Majority Rule?,” which appeared in the March 1926 issue of Harper’s Magazine.


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May 2020