Uphill All the Way: The Fortunes of Progressivism, 1919-1929
By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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Chapter Four: The Triumph of Reaction

Progressives and the Election of 1920

VI. Ambition in the Cabinet

I. A Rematch Not to Be
II. The Man on Horseback
III. The Men in the Middle
IV. I'm for Hiram
V. Visions of a Third Term
VI. Ambition in the Cabinet
VII. The Democrats' Lowden
VIII. The Great Engineer
IX. The Smoke-Filled Room
X. San Francisco
XI. A Third Party?
XII. Mr. Ickes' Vote
XIII. Countdown to a Landslide
XIV. The Triumph of Reaction

No Democrat was as impacted by Wilson's waffling as his son-in-law, and the "Crown Prince" of the president's cabinet: former Wilson campaign manager, Secretary of the Treasury, chairman of the Federal Reserve, and director general of the United States Railroad Association William Gibbs McAdoo. A former Tennessee lawyer generally considered to be "next in line" for the Democrats, McAdoo remained a reasonably popular figure from the administration, particularly with the labor and Dry communities. He was not unloved by progressives either - Walter Lippmann deemed him "an administrator of the first order" and "a truly distinguished public servant" in The New Republic, albeit one too "sensitive to the stimulus of popular feeling." But because of Wilson's refusal to close the door on a third term - a refusal endorsed by McAdoo's wife, the daughter of the president - McAdoo spent much of the election season visibly writhing with indecision.1

"Of course, the President's silence makes it very awkward for me," McAdoo pleaded with Dr. Grayson on the eve of the February 1920 Georgia primary, as he attempted to figure out if he had the go-ahead to make a run for the nomination. "[E]ven if I had an inclination to stand for the Presidency - which, as you know, I have not, but it is not possible to resist the demands of one's friends to state either that they may proceed or that they may not…Any suggestions you may have to offer I shall appreciate. I am really very much perplexed." In the end, McAdoo removed his name from consideration in Georgia, as he did not want to "do anything that would create the appearance of a candidacy." Nonetheless, McAdoo made sure to add he would "regard it as the imperative duty of any man to accept a nomination if it should come to him unsolicited."2

So, like his father-in-law, McAdoo engaged in a delicate dance through the remainder of the primary season. Whenever he was asked, McAdoo argued he was not officially putting his name in contention, but if the Democratic Party saw fit to anoint him their leader, he would not shrink from the call of duty. Instead of campaigning outright, McAdoo took every opportunity to appear the statesman, usually of the progressive variety. "[I]n recent interviews," wrote Lippmann in TNR, McAdoo "has been courageous and straightforward on contentious questions affecting civil liberty, Russia, the Palmer injunctions, and the whole paraphernalia of the Red hysteria. He has talked the way free men are supposed to talk about such things." Meanwhile, behind the scenes, McAdoo's allies worked to secure delegates all across the country.3

This strategy worked so well that Woodrow Wilson saw fit to step in and smother it, by giving his potential third term interview with the New York World ten days before the Democratic Convention in San Francisco. The afternoon after that article appeared, McAdoo told reporters he would not allow his name to be put into nomination, and that his decision was "irrevocable." Evidence suggests that McAdoo was in fact trying to maintain the same delicate position he had held all along, and that if his name was brought forth by acclamation, he would still go along with the cries of the crowd. But this time many of his lieutenants thought he was serious, and the pre-convention McAdoo boomlet began to disperse.4

While McAdoo spent the election season tortured about the right thing to do, A. Mitchell Palmer suffered from no such quandary. In fact, Palmer became the first Democrat to officially throw his name into the ring, arguing that "[i]f the President wanted a third term he would have stated so before this time." And, because of this boldness, the Attorney General actually entered the San Francisco convention with more delegates than anyone else - albeit only 76 from his home state of Pennsylvania and 28 from Georgia, where he - and all other contenders - had been trounced by favorite son Tom Watson. (Using Palmer as an administration foil, Watson had declared on the campaign trail that "'Woodrow Wilson should be in prison and Eugene Debs in the White House!")5

Despite the delegate lead, however, Palmer was already a man whose moment had passed. Like Ole Hanson of Seattle, the Attorney General had devolved into a single-issue candidate over the course of 1919, and it was an issue he aspired to carry him all the way to the White House. "I myself am an American, Palmer said on the stump, "and I love to preach my doctrine before 100% Americans because my platform is undiluted Americanism…Each and every [radical] is a potential murderer or a potential thief…Out of the sly and crafty eyes of many of them leap cupidity, cruelty, insanity, and crime; from their lopsided faces, sloping brows, and misshapen features may be recognized the unmistakable criminal type."6

A fine message for 1919, perhaps. But by 1920 - especially after the false alarm of May Day - the public had grown sick of Palmerism, as it had of Wilsonism in general. The Attorney General's "mediaeval attempts to get into the White House by pumping up the Bolshevik issue," wrote H.L. Mencken, "have had the actual effect of greatly diminishing his chances…Aside from his efforts to scare the boobery with Bolshevist bugaboos, Palmer seems to put most reliance in his fidelity to Dr. Wilson's so-called ideals. Here he simply straps himself to a cadaver. These ideals, for two years the marvel of Christendom, are now seen to have been mere buncombe." This would be a problem for more Democrats than just Palmer.7

Continue to Chapter 4, Pt. 7: The Democrats' Lowden.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. Bagby, 65-66. Walter Lippmann, "Two Leading Democratic Candidates," The New Republic, June 2, 1920 (Vol. XXIII, No. 287), 10. 2. Bagby, 65-66.
3. Ibid. Lippmann, "Two Democratic Candidates."
4. Bagby, 69-70.
5. Ibid, 72-73. James Weinstein, The Decline of Socialism in America 1912-1925 (New York: Random Books, 1967), 237.
6. Barry, Rising Tide, 140.
7. Mencken, 8.

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