By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The Triumph of Reaction
Progressives and the Election of 1920
X. San Francisco
As in Chicago, women delegates officially joined the proceedings for the first time. And, as in Chicago, the proceedings began with a keynote address that put the issue of the League squarely at the forefront of the election. The orator this time was national committee chairman Homer Cummings, who argued there was "no blacker crime against civilization" than what Senate Republicans had done to the League. They had chosen "provincialism, militarism, and world chaos," Cummings argued, "over peace, disarmament and world fraternity."2
But, also as in Chicago, the League was more in dispute in the platforms committee, this time chaired by the Senator from Virginia, Wilson ally Carter Glass. With the exception of irreconcilables like Senator James Reed of Missouri, virtually all Democrats in attendance agreed that Wilson's League, in the words of the platform, was "the surest, if not the only, practicable means of maintaining the permanent peace of the world and terminating the insufferable burden of great military and naval establishments."
But some Democratic leaders, most notably William Jennings Bryan, Senator Thomas Walsh of Montana, and Senator David Walsh of Massachusetts, also wanted a commitment in the platform that the Democrats would not balk at reservations if they were needed to make the League a reality. Knowing Wilson's inflexibility in this matter, Chairman Glass and the administration officials present opposed this concession, deadlocking the platform committee for five days. 3
The final, eleven-paragraph compromise language on the League, passed over some objection from the Wilson camp, endorsed the president's "firm stand against reservations designed to cut to pieces the vital provisions of the Versailles Treaty," and advocated "the immediate ratification of the treaty without reservations which would impair its essential integrity." It also argued against the "utterly vain, if not vicious" Republican claims that "ratification of the treaty and membership in the League of Nations would in any wise impair the integrity or independence of our country. The fact that the covenant has been entered into by twenty-nine nations, all as jealous of their independence as we are of ours, is as sufficient refutation of such a charge."4
That being said -- and this was the rub for Wilson -- Democrats, argued the platform, "do not oppose the acceptance of any reservations making clearer or more specific the obligations of the United States to the league associates. Only by doing this may we retrieve the reputation of this nation among the powers of the earth and recover the moral leadership which President Wilson won and which Republican politicians at Washington sacrificed."5
Also in serious contention in these first five days was the Democrats' official stance on prohibition: Wilson and administration Wets like Albert Sidney Burleson favored liberality, while Drys like Bryan and Glass wanted no such retreat from the hard-fought and only-recently-established noble experiment. Foreshadowing later problems for Democrats, the 1920 platform eventually remained silent on this question -- no possible plank could manage to muster a majority.6
Aside from these two issues, the platform predictably lauded Wilson, hailing "with patriotic pride the great achievements for country and the world wrought by a Democratic administration under his leadership…a chapter of substantial achievements unsurpassed in the history of the republic." Among these achievements were the Federal Reserve System, the Smith-Lever Act and farm loan system, the creation of a Department of Labor, workman's compensation, anti-child labor laws, and eight-hour day laws, female suffrage, and a wartime leadership that "exhibited the very broadest conception of liberal Americanism."7
Having cast its lot with Wilsonism, the Democratic platform was a more progressive document in many ways than the one earlier articulated by Republicans in Chicago. It declared Democrats' "adherence to the fundamental progressive principles of social, economic and industrial justice and advance," and promised, with the war over, that the Party would "resume the great work of translating these principles into effective laws." To America's farmers, the party "does not find it necessary to make promises. It already is rich in its record of things actually accomplished." Similarly, it argued, Democrats were "now, as ever, the firm friend of honest labor and the promoter of progressive industry," and that "those who labor have rights, and the national security and safety depend upon a just recognition of those rights." It advocated for "for the protection of child life through infancy and maternity care," "the prohibition of child labor," "full representation of women on all commissions dealing with women's work or women's interests," ending gender discrimination in the civil service, "a continuance of appropriations for education in sex hygiene," and, like the Republicans, independent naturalization for women.8
But there were sour notes struck for progressives as well. Democrats took issue with Republican "unfounded reproaches" over civil liberties, arguing rather dubiously that "no utterance from any quarter has been assailed, and no publication has been repressed, which has not been animated by treasonable purposes, and directed against the nation's peace, order and security in time of war." While reaffirming "respect for the great principles of free speech and a free press," the platform also asserted "as an indisputable proposition that they afford no toleration of enemy propaganda or the advocacy of the overthrow of the government of the state or nation by force or violence." The editors of TNR were galled by this inclusion. In trying to "defend the tactics of Messrs. Palmer and Burleson," they argued, Democrats has included a plank in their platform "that simply isn't true."9
And to many, the platform's rhetorical feints in the direction of progressivism had more to do with the exigencies of partisan politics than with any concessions to principle. "If labor can still content itself with generalities and platitudes," opined The Nation, both platforms were "soothing and comforting…But the most careful reading of the platform shows nothing tangible and solid of which labor can take hold." "So far as Progressivism is concerned," Harold Ickes wrote one newspaper editor, "these [two] platforms are literally 'tweedledee and tweedledum.'" Summed up one progressive reader of the platform, Bruce Bliven, reporting in from San Francisco for TNR: "[E]very possible evil thing was declared to be the fault of the Republican Congress. Every other evil thing was declared, with adjectives and adverbs, to be non-existent. If it was an evil for which the administration is obviously and directly responsible, it was declared to be (a) non-existent and (b) a great achievement, pricelessly valuable to the nation."10
And, indeed, the Democratic platform went at great length to assail Republicans wherever it could. "The shocking disclosure of the lavish use of money" in the Republican primaries, it argued, "has created a painful impression throughout the country." Coupled with the recent conviction of Republican Senator Truman Newberry of Michigan for "criminal transgression of the law limiting expenditures" -- Newberry had spent over $175,000 to win his seat over automobile pioneer Henry Ford -- "it indicates the reentry, under Republican auspices, of money as an influential factor in elections, thus nullifying the letter and flaunting the spirit of numerous laws, enacted by the people, to protect the ballot from the contamination of corrupt practices." Thus Democrats pledged "earnest efforts to a strengthening of the present statutes against corrupt practices, and their rigorous enforcement."11
While ascribing one of the most important issues in 1920 -- the high cost of living -- "primarily…to the war itself," as well as "private extravagance," "the world shortage of capital," "the inflation of foreign currencies and credits," and "conscienceless profiteering," Democrats argued that it was, naturally, the Republican Party who was most "responsible for the failure to restore peace and peace conditions in Europe…[the] principal cause of post-armistice inflation the world over." Republicans, the platform argued, had ignored Wilson's call for "necessary legislation to deal with secondary and local causes" and instead "wasted time and energy for more than a year in vain and extravagant investigations, costing the tax-payers great sums of money." 12
In short, it argued, the Republicans in Congress had "raged against profiteers and the high cost of living without enacting a single statute to make the former afraid or doing a single act to bring the latter within limitations." Democrats, on the other hand, knew the high cost of living could "only be remedied by increased production, strict governmental economy and a relentless pursuit of those who take advantage of post-war conditions and are demanding and receiving outrageous profits." As such, Democrats pledged "a policy of strict economy in government expenditures, and to the enactment and enforcement of such legislation as may be required to bring profiteers before the bar of criminal justice."13
These attempted demarcations notwithstanding, the editors of The New Republic found, with very few exceptions that "the platform drawn in San Francisco is as nebulous as the program of the Republicans…They want the cost of living to come down, but they are as helpless about it as the Republicans are - except that they find one additional cause for our present difficulties: the inertia of a Republican Congress." Taken in total, "the Democrats trim as cautiously as the Republicans do." It seemed to them that "the authors of the platform were so exhausted by the delight of contemplating their own past that they refrained wisely, considering that past, from any definite convictions about the future." W.E.B. Du Bois' Crisis took as similar pox-on-both-your-houses approach to both platforms. "In the Democratic convention…we had, as Negroes, no part," he editorialized. "The Republican Convention had for us more personal interest but scarcely more encouragement."14
A disgusted Bliven thought the Democrats had blown a tremendous opportunity with their platform. "The Republicans by the character of the platform and nominee they selected at Chicago threw open for the Democrats a door which everyone had believed closed. Where upon the Democrats assembled in San Francisco and, after due deliberation, slammed the door in their own faces and locked it shut":
On every point where a bold stand might have lost some votes, the convention pussyfooted…If there is one instance in the whole platform where truth was not sacrificed to political expediency, I am unaware of it and in my judgment the platform committee is equally unaware of it or it would have been stricken out. True, the platform is a liberal document -- more liberal than the Republican instrument. But it should have been apparent to everyone who averages better than high grade moron that a mere plurality of liberalism in the Democratic platform this year can never wrest victory from the Republicans. A platform which endorses the League and the Treaty as though nothing had happened since June 1919, which ignores Russia altogether, which defends free speech and a free press with such a faint praise as to constitute an endorsement of all Mr. Palmer has done, which pussyfoots on Ireland and pussyfoots on labor, which has only praise for Burleson, which does not dare mention prohibition, and which leaves the great problem of Russia untouched - such a document cannot cause the flaming enthusiasm among liberals which could alone have made a Democratic victory possible this year.15"One is forced to the belief," Bliven concluded, "that the forces which are seeking a restoration of genuinely Democratic conditions in America are balked, so far as political action is concerned until 1924."16
In any event, with the Democratic platform thus worked out, attentions in San Francisco turned to the matter of the nomination - but not before an attempt on the floor by three-time presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan to add reservations and dry planks to the document. Having helped Wilson "to become immortal" by giving him "my treaty plan" to take to Paris, Bryan "would walk up to the scaffold today and die with a smile on my face" if he could get the League passed without reservations. "But I cannot do it, my friends; nobody else can do it." Reservations were required to get the Treaty through the Senate, and when "someday I shall stand before His judgment bar…there shall not be upon my hands the blood of people slaughtered while I talked politics." As for Prohibition, he encouraged the party to "be not frightened; time and again in history, the timid have been afraid. But they have always found that they underestimated the number of those who had not bowed the knee to Baal." And when suffrage passed "on the mountain tops you will see the women and the children of our allies in every righteous cause."
The crowd cheered for nearly half an hour for Bryan. No Democratic convention in over two decades had felt quite complete without some rousing and florid oratory from the Great Commoner, and he had not failed his audience this time either. But when it came time to vote, Bryan's suggested planks went down to defeat quite easily. "I never thought they would beat me so badly," Bryan allegedly said to himself. The party was changing. "When a country gets into a frame of mind where it smiles indulgently at such a man," wrote Bruce Bliven, "it is in a bad way, and the convention smiled indulgently at Mr. Bryan." As TNR deadpanned in their editorial, "[a]ll correspondence agree that Mr. Bryan scored a personal triumph. He received a twenty minute demonstration. But all…of his proffered planks were buried. It was a typical Bryan victory." "This is not my kind of convention," the Great Commoner conceded. "Four years from now it will be my kind of convention."17
On the matter of the nomination, Democrats were scarcely any more united than the Republicans had been in Chicago. The allies of the administration were split into three camps: Some followed A. Mitchell Palmer, the man who had, in the words of his nominator John Bigelow, "deported and imprisoned the defamers of the nation - aye, even at the threat of the terrorists' bombs." Some stubbornly stuck to William Gibbs McAdoo, despite the still conflicting signals coming from their candidate about his availability. And some - most notably Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby, Burleson, and other top administration officials - waited for exactly the right moment to put forward Woodrow Wilson's name - a moment that never seemed to come.
Along with a scattering of favorite sons, like Bryan, the perennial candidate, and New York's Governor Al Smith, whose name was seconded by Franklin Roosevelt, that left Governor James Cox of Ohio, who hailed from the home state of the Republican nominee, and who, more importantly, was not really affiliated with the administration in any way. And so the balloting was a grinding affair, where the war of attrition between administration candidates eventually redounded to Cox's favor. The first ballot, Friday night, showed McAdoo with 266 votes, Palmer with 256, Cox with 134, and favorite sons with the rest. By the sixth ballot the next morning, McAdoo stood at 368 ½, Palmer 265 ½, and Cox with 195. New York and New Jersey switched to Cox on the next ballot, putting the Governor in second place at 295 ½.18
By the twelfth ballot, Cox passed McAdoo to take first place, where he remained until the thirtieth ballot Monday afternoon, when McAdoo once again took the lead, reaching a high of 421 against Cox's 380 ½ on the thirty-third ballot. But before the McAdoo forces could break the deadlock and extend their lead, Palmer surged one last time, forcing both McAdoo and Cox back before the Attorney General finally conceded and gave up his delegates without instruction. These men and women slowly, fitfully, turned to Cox - even the southern Democrats, for whom, apparently, being Wet turned out to be less of a sin than being a Wilsonian. The Governor of Ohio gained more than a majority of delegates for the first time on the forty-third ballot, and on the forty-fourth, at 1:40am Tuesday morning, his nomination was declared unanimous. Whoever won in November, the next president of the United States would hail from Ohio.19
To some, the choice of Cox as the Democratic standard-bearer was as contentious as that of Harding across the aisle. "My heart is in the grave with our hopes," lamented William Jennings Bryan who abhorred the idea of a Wet leading the ticket, "and I must pause until it comes back to me."
Nonetheless, while the selection of Governor Cox's partner on the ticket was made by Democratic leaders, their choice of running mate was as universally popular and well-regarded on the convention floor as Calvin Coolidge had been over in Chicago. The strapping young Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had a famous name, a vigorous glow, and a winning disposition. Just as important, the thirty-eight-year-old rising star carried the blessings of both administration and anti-administration Democrats. Roosevelt's name had been bandied about as a running mate in Democratic circles all summer, prompting FDR to ask his law partner "who started this fool Vice-Presidential boom." By the time of the convention, he was chosen by acclamation, prompting nods of approval outside the party from the likes of Herbert Hoover and Walter Lippmann. "When cynics ask what is the use," Lippmann telegrammed Roosevelt, "we can answer that when parties can pick a man like Frank Roosevelt there is a decent future in politics." To the Chicago Tribune, however, the choice of FDR "is to put the honey of a name on the trap of a ticket. Franklin is as much like Theodore as a clam is like a bear cat…If he is Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root is Gene Debs, and Bryan is a brewer."20
Whoever Franklin Roosevelt was, the most important factor coming out of the Democratic convention is that James Cox was not Woodrow Wilson. "Having proclaimed the League of Nations and the record of the Wilson administration the transcendent issues of the campaign," summed up TNR's editors of the events in San Francisco, "the convention nominated a man as far removed as it was possible to be both from the League and the record of the administration."21
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Bagby, 102-103.
3. Ibid, 104-105.
4. Ibid. "Democratic Platform of 1920," reprinted at The American Presidency Project (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29592)
6. Bagby, 104-105.
7. Democratic Platform, 1920.
9. Ibid. "The Week," The New Republic, July 14, 1920 (Volume XXIII, No. 293), 183. The Democratic platform also pledged support to the "policy of the United States with reference to the non-admission of Asiatic immigrants" as "the true expression of the judgment of our people."
10. "Labor in the Party Platforms," The Nation , July 17, 1920 (Vol. 111, No. 2872), 61.Harold Ickes to Chester Rowell, August 20, 1920. HLI Box 39: Chester Rowell. Bruce Bliven, "San Francisco," The New Republic, July 14, 1920 (Volume XXIII, No. 293), 197.
11. Ibid. "The Election Case of Truman H. Newberry of Michigan," United States Senate (http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/contested_elections/102Ford_Newberry.htm)
12. Democratic Platform of 1920.
14. "The Week," "Cox: Away From the White House" The New Republic, July 14, 1920 (Volume XXIII, No. 293), 183, 187. "The Political Conventions," The Crisis, August, 1920 (Vol. 20, No. 4), 174.
15. Bruce Bliven, "San Francisco," The New Republic, July 14, 1920 (Volume XXIII, No. 293), 196.
17. Bagby, 108-109, 111. "The Week," The New Republic, July 14, 1920 (Volume XXIII, No. 293), 182. Robert K. Murray, The 103rd Ballot (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 83.
18. Bagby, 112-115.
19. Ibid, 115-116.
20. "Cox in Wilson's Shoes," The New Republic, July 21, 1920 (Vol. XXIII, No. 294), 215. Bagby, 120-121. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 361-362.
21. "Cox: Away From the White House," The New Republic, July 14, 1920 (Volume XXIII, No. 293), 187.
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