By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The Triumph of Reaction
Progressives and the Election of 1920
XII. Mr. Ickes' Vote
Ickes, who had been deeply afraid of this outcome ever since the death of Roosevelt, suggested bringing former Progressives together in conference as a show-of-strength in December 1919, well before the convention. "The standpatters don't respect anything they don't have reason to fear and that is pretty much human nature," Ickes argued to Governor Henry Allen of Kansas, another veteran of 1912. "You never got anything in this life that you didn't go after and the Progressives of the country won't get anything merely by lying down and asking the standpatters to feel generous towards us because of our self effacement." But if the Progressives met as a group and agreed on basic principles, Ickes thought, "we will have, in my judgment, a strong tonic and moral effect, not only upon the republican organization, but the country at large."1
Governor Allen was cautiously positive about Ickes' idea, so long as his name, being a possible dark horse for the nomination, wasn't brought up as part of the proceedings. Ickes also received favorable responses from other Roosevelt notables, including Raymond Robins, Gifford Pinchot, William Allen White, Medill McCormick, and Hiram Johnson. But, nothing much came of the idea, and soon enough Ickes was supporting his Governor, Frank Lowden, officially, and his friend, Hiram Johnson, from afar.2
But the Old Guard's choice of Harding changed matters. "Frankly, I wouldn't believe Harding under oath," Ickes wrote Senator Johnson in August, after the nomination. "I think he is a double-dyed political crook…a stuffed figure who has no mind or convictions of his own and wouldn't know what to do with them if he had them." To William Allen White, Ickes called Harding "a platitudinous jelly-fish whose election I would regard as distinctly detrimental to the best interests of the country." Instead, Ickes began to consider switching his support to Cox. "Aside from the League of Nation issue," Ickes told Johnson, he found himself "in substantial accord with Governor Cox. On the Russian question he opposes the policy of sending soldiers into Russia, is against an economic blockade, and believes that trade relations should be resumed at once. He thinks Russia should be left free to work out her own political salvation…I like his attitude on the question of free speech, free press, the right of free assemblage, and I equally approve of his attitude on the question of labor." 3
In contrast to Harding, Ickes deemed Cox "sincerely a progressively-minded man who has real concern for the men, women, and children of the country. His policy as shown by his record seems to be to get business and labor together wherever possible to work out their differences, but where this can't be done and it is necessary for the state to intervene and protect labor from business, then he has no hesitation in taking his stand with labor." Governor Cox had the added virtue, to Ickes as to many others, that he was "not a Wilson man…one can support him without running the risk of waking up after [the] election and finding that he has helped to keep the Wilson administration in power." In short, Ickes concluded of the Governor of Ohio: "Cox isn't the man by a good deal that I would have chosen to be president, but he is so far superior in my judgment to Harding, both in ability and character and political independence, that he offers a clear choice at this time."4
Ickes expounded on his contempt for Harding in a discussion with Republican Party chairman Will Hays. "I told him," he later reported to Johnson, "that if Harding was elected he would leave the party in worse condition than Taft left it in:
that I had been hopefully waiting since 1912 for the Republican party to give some evidence that it stood for the things I believed in; that instead of improving it had gone from bad to worse; that no political party within the last twenty years had nominated a man as little qualified to be president as Harding; that he had been in public life, especially in the United States, for a good many years and that he was merely a voting member that he had never stood for anything that savored of progress…[and] that I had come to the conclusion that it was hopeless to expect the republican party to reform itself from within and the only thing to do was to keep on defeating it." 5In order to accomplish this goal, Ickes sent out a letter supporting Governor Cox to all the members of the 1912 Progressive movement he could find, in order to ascertain the depth and commitment of progressive Republicans to the Harding ticket. "After careful consideration," his form letter began:
"I have come to the conclusion that it is my duty as a believer in the progressive principles it was my privilege to fight for under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt, as well as my duty as a citizen, to support the democratic national ticket in this campaign. I have prepared a statement giving some of my reasons for this decision, a copy of which statement I enclose. If you are sufficiently interested to read this and write me how you, personally, react in the present situation I will be obliged to you."6The enclosed statement argued that "the nomination of Senator Harding was a distinct shock to the Progressives," that the Senator from Ohio "has the Mark Hanna conception of party," and, knowing his audience, that he is "seeking to capitalize the affection and respect the American people feel for the martyred president." Ickes also sent the statement to 575 newspapers nationwide, and passed it along to the candidate himself, Governor Cox. "I think much might be done to crystallize the sentiment of doubtful Republicans and former Progressives in your behalf," Ickes said to Cox, "and I hope that your managers will undertake something along this line as soon as possible."7
For his part, Hiram Johnson - who remained a regular Republican - applauded Ickes' move, calling his letter of support for Cox "the most powerful thing which has been put out against us in this campaign." Looking to future battles, if not another presidential bid in 1924, Hiram Johnson asked Ickes to "tell him the reflex" among former Progressives. "I know the attitude in this campaign, of what I have been pleased to term the 'shirt-front' and 'plug-hat' Progressives," he told Ickes, "and I am very curious to know whether that represents as little the attitude of the rank and file of Progressives as it did in the pre-convention days."8
After amassing a few hundred responses, Ickes obliged. "To date I have received 256 letters from progressives in various parts of the country commenting upon my statement in behalf of Cox," he told Johnson a few weeks later. "Of those 256 I find that 114 are against Harding. Not all of those who are against Harding have announced that they will support Cox. Of those who are supporting Harding practically none is doing it with any heart or enthusiasm." Those who were sticking with the Republicans, he argued, were doing so mainly out of misguided party loyalty. "They fool themselves that there is such a thing as party government in this country and they have decided that the republican party ought to be restored to power regardless of the personality or capacity of its candidate." 9
Some, according to Ickes, backed the GOP candidate because they "think that Harding is an irreconcilable on the League and that Cox is on all fours with the Wilson position." (Ickes personally found this view naïve.) Others were staying with the Republicans because they believed "that if Roosevelt were alive he would found back of the republican ticket." Ickes thought this "an easy way of passing the buck," as "the republicans would not have dared to nominate Harding" in that instance. "If these persons would only think back and remember that Roosevelt not only supported Taft in 1908, but wished him on the country, they wouldn't be so certain that they ought to support Harding," he quipped. "But then it is asking a great deal of people to expect them to think or remember politically."10
Looking over the responses to Ickes' support, it is clear that, to many Roosevelt Progressives only two generations after the Civil War, voting Democratic was simply a bridge too far. "I think you have pulled the most colossal 'bone-head' in your career," wrote in one correspondent from Snyder, Oklahoma. "You certainly have demonstrated your ability to support the 'Jackass' party. Them's my sentiments." An Omaha attorney concurred with "sorrow and great surprise at the stand you seem to have taken:
The Republican party has some bad men in it…but the party itself is good and true and it has accomplished the greatest results in statecraft of which we have a historic account. Desert it for the democratic party? Ye Gods, No. The candidate may change, but the party never…My idea of a good, standard democrat is a good boozer who belongs to Tammany Hall, has a winter home in Alabama or South Carolina, favors the league of nations without reservations and can smile at Bolshevism without batting an eye.11"No Democratic party for me in 1920," began another such missive. "No Republican president would make as many mistakes and be as careless of American interests. The same autocratic office-holding southern dishonest bunch will direct the affairs if Cox is elected as now direct them…I prefer the company of your so-called 'Senate Oligarchy' to the company of Tammany."12
To some former Progressives, Ickes had insulted the memory of the Colonel by contemplating such a heresy. "You ought to be ashamed to mention Theodore Roosevelt's name in the same breath with the Democratic Party," wrote in one correspondent from Boston. "You and every poor misled soul in my opinion are best described by the national emblem of that party, which is an 'ass.'" Similarly, argued a writer from Burlington, Iowa, "if Theodore Roosevelt but knew his former supporters were supporting the outfit heading the Democratic procession," he argued, "he would rise in his grave to damn them." As it was, those "consummate asses" Cox and Roosevelt "are making votes for Harding every time they open their mouths. I have no time to read your slush so I herewith return it."13
Others also invoked Roosevelt's memory, but in more pragmatic terms. "If the Col. had lived the old guard would never have pulled off that old convention gag," argued a Progressive from Panama, Oklahoma, but "of the choice of the two evils I sincerely believe we should support Harding." "Of all prominent candidates before the Chicago convention," conceded a writer from Carson City, Nevada, "Harding was least acceptable to me…[But] we have had eight years of Democratic administration. I am heartily tired of it…My belief is that Col. Roosevelt were alive he could now support Mr. Harding." A member of the Park Board in Excelsior Springs, Missouri was also "convinced that if Theodore Roosevelt were alive today he would be for Harding and Coolidge with all his strength." For, while "Harding may be an extreme reactionary…many changes have taken place since 1912, and we now need a steady hand at the Wheel."14
Still others thought Ickes was effectively endorsing all the excesses of Wilsonism - the "extravagance, southern domination, dishonesty, and visionary schemes," in one letter-writer's words - by switching parties. "I must say that I regard any man who has ever been a real republican and now falls in line with the Cox-Wilsonian autocracy," diagnosed a pharmacist from Marked Tree, Arkansas, "is a fit subject for an insane asylum. After you have taken treatment in a hospital for the insane and restored to a normal condition, I will be glad to give you some of the reasons." One particularly vociferous letter on this front came in from a conservative-leaning former Progressive from Cumberland, Maryland:15
"We have seen the 'Progressives,' so-called, in power in this country for more than seven years and there never has been, in my judgment, in the administration of public affairs in this country, such a saturnalia of extravagance and waste. If what has been going on in this period is 'progressive' it is quite time for a 'shock'...Not surprisingly given the irreconcilable campaign of Hiram Johnson, several Progressives wrote to Ickes emphasizing the critical importance of the League. "Unlike yourself," argued a lawyer from West Plains, Missouri, "I think the League of Nations is the paramount issue in this campaign…I agree with all you say (and with sadness I confess it) about the reactionary qualities of Harding's mind. But I believe we have more chance to win progressive measures in the Republican Party than the Democratic." Another argued the League of was "such transcendent importance that, feeling as I do, I could not support the Democratic Party no matter who the candidates of either party were." Yet another thought that "Cox stands absolutely for the League of Nations - which is nothing more than a League with the Devil and all his imps. "17
As with many others, that last correspondent thought Ickes was "jumping out of the Frying Pan into the Skillet" by going Democratic, and that he should instead take the more courageous route of going third party. "The nominees on the old party tickets are both controlled by the devils out of hell who are engaging this country in some of the dirtiest deals that humanity throughout its whole history has ever witnessed," continued Mr. Nalley of Forsyth, Georgia. "If Cox is any better than Harding I don't know where he comes in. The Farmer Labor ticket or the Socialist ticket may appeal to me when I go to the polls." As an attorney from Crookston, Minnesota, contemplating a Debs vote, put it, "if there is anything more rotten than the Republican Party, it is the Democratic Party, and if there is anything more rotten than Democratic Party, it is the Republican Party."18
Another, from Santa Ana, California, argued that neither a Cox nor a Harding victory mattered a whit. "'Big Business of Wall Street will run the government just as it has since Roosevelt's time." A minister from Naponee, Nebraska said he was voting Harding or Prohibition because "I am so disgusted with the democratic administration…[Still] I have yet to hear a single man in this section of the country that is satisfied with either candidate." A writer from Baltimore who had "gone over to the 'Drys', argued that "that old crowd needs another licking before they will try to be good." A dry goods merchant in Quincy, Illinois, deeming the two old parties "boss ridden," argued that "the Farmer Labor Party seems to be the only party which puts humanity in first place and the dollar in second place."19
Still others, even if they themselves had not figured out where they would vote, admired Ickes' stand on principle, and many endorsed his switch to Cox. "You are the first former Progressive of national caliber of whom I have heard who has not returned to the Republican party on his knees," noted a correspondent from Indianapolis. Another, a State Treasurer from Utah announced he "was very happy to learn that you and some other former Progressives…are going to work for Governor Cox whom I have for a long time regarded as a real progressive in both word and deed."20
Ickes wrote many of these correspondents back, or litigated the arguments he was hearing in letters to the editor. "If party loyalty requires me to support a man for office whom I believe to be unfit," Ickes wrote in a letter to Charles Sumner of the Pocatello Tribune, "then I have no desire to be a loyal party man...The cheapest trick in the whole bag of political controversy is to call names when you can't meet argument with argument…You don't prove that Harding is fit to be President of the United States by calling [me] a 'Benedict Arnold.'" 21
To those who suggested that Ickes had taken Theodore Roosevelt's name in vain - like the Colonel's own sister, Mrs. Robinson from Mohawk, New York - Ickes replied that "I have not said, either publicly or privately, at any time that if Theodore Roosevelt were alive he would be supporting the Cox-Roosevelt ticket…I revere his memory too much to use it as a lever to pry into public office men who are not worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as him." To those who argued his Cox vote was a vote for Wilson, Ickes reminded readers "as to the present administration…I have been against it with all my might…not merely because it has been democratic maladministration, but because it has been maladministration. I wouldn't, if I could, jump from Wilson's maladministration to Taft's and that is the reason I'm opposing Harding."22
With regard to the third party issue, Ickes responded with a letter to the editors of The New Republic, who, like The Nation, loudly and vociferously called for progressives to vote third party in 1920. "If the protest vote is really a protest vote and has the courage of its convictions," he argued, "it won't throw itself away" by voting for Parley Christensen or Eugene Debs. Instead, he argued, "it will make itself felt in the only way in which it can be felt and that will be by supporting the democratic national ticket." The Old Guard, he argued, are "counting upon the independent or 'high-brow' voters who think they are protesting when they are merely throwing their votes away…A vote for Christensen or Debs is half a vote for Harding."23
As these letters attest, a lot of venom was directed Ickes' way for his apostasy, and, as the Chicago political veteran confessed to Hiram Johnson, he was particularly perturbed by the pro-Harding stance of old friends from Roosevelt's circle like Raymond and Margaret Dreier Robins. The latter supported the Republicans, according to Ickes, "because she believed Harding's position on the right of free speech and free assemblage was better than Cox," although he added that her husband Raymond "didn't believe Harding would stick to that position longer than November 2."24
The Robins were not alone in this regard. In fact, when pro-Harding forces wanted a former Progressive of stature to go on the record with a response to Ickes' public disavowal, they found a ready partner in former Secretary of the Interior Gifford Pinchot. "So many former Progressives have asked me why I am for Harding," Pinchot's form response to newspapers began, "that perhaps your readers might be interested in my reasons." They were many of the same that Progressives had already made to Ickes. For one, Pinchot argued, "I am a follower of Theodore Roosevelt alive or dead…I am a Roosevelt Republican. Had he lived my choice for the Republican nominee and for the next President would have been Theodore Roosevelt. But only the spirit of Roosevelt is with us still...That, however, is no reason for throwing my vote away."25
Similarly, while Harding was no Roosevelt and "was not made to my order," Pinchot argued, "he is by no means the Reactionary I thought him." He "is no super-man, but simple earnest, and human, best thought of where best known." Most importantly, "[t]here is nothing autocratic about him. Under him, there will be no one-man rule at Washington…the government will be American again."26
Governor Cox, meanwhile, was "in bad company." The "liquor men are for him," but it wasn't just the forces of criminal wetness at the Democratic candidate's back:
Cox stands for Palmer, who promised to reduce the cost of living and conspicuously failed, but for political reasons let the liquor traffic go on; who denied the rights of free speech and fee assembly; imprisoned hundreds of people in defiance of the law he was sworn to enforce…There may have been more unfaithful public servants than Mitchell Palmer, but not many."The only way to repudiate Wilson," Pinchot concluded "is to vote against Cox." Writing to Ickes personally, Pinchot confessed that Harding might well fail in the job, at which point, "there will be a repetition of 1909-10-11, with an insurgent group in Congress, and the overturn of the Republican leadership, probably this time for good." Still, Pinchot confessed he had been taken by the positive statements he was hearing about Harding, and hoped "we are all going to be most pleasantly surprised - at any rate, I hope so." Either way, Pinchot told Ickes, "I still have the feeling that our day is not over, that Progressive sentiment in the country will revive rapidly and powerfully as soon as the immediate shadow of the War passes over." 28
Ickes disagreed strongly with Pinchot's public endorsement of Harding, but he too thought there remained a few chapters left in the tale of the Bull Moose Party. "I am very much encouraged by the large proportion of former Progressives who are still willing to do their own thinking and stand by their own convictions," he told Hiram Johnson after reviewing the many responses he had received. "I have had some really fine intelligent and encouraging letters from progressives in various parts of the country." Nonetheless, Ickes had no illusions about the contest to come: "On the basis of the letters…my opinion is confirmed that if Harding is elected (and I always have expected him to be elected) it will be really on account of the anti-democratic drift in the country and the revulsion from the Wilson administration." By the fall of 1920, that revulsion ran deep.29
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Ibid. Henry Allen to Ickes, December 24, 1919. HLI, Box 29.
3. Ickes to Johnson, August 11, 1920. HLI. Ickes To William Allen White, HLI, Box 41: William Allen White.
5. Ickes to Johnson, August 14, 1920. HLI. Box 33: Hiram Johnson. Despite his own defection, Ickes thought Johnson was doing the right thing by staying in the party and solemnly supporting Harding. "You simply have to play your part in the campaign," he told him. "There isn't anything else you can do and there never has been anything else. I am more uncompromising than is good for me and I cannot reconcile myself to the graceful ease with which progressives who a few years ago put their hearts into a fight to do away with what Harding so preeminently represents in our political life, now rally to his support. But you are in a different situation and if I were in your place I would be doing exactly what you are doing." Ickes to Johnson, August 25, 1920. Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
6. Ickes to F.S. Davenport, August 24, 1920. HLI, Box 30: James M. Cox Campaign.
7. Ibid. Ickes to Cox, August 16, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence.
8. Johnson to Ickes, August 20, 1920. HLI. Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
9. Ickes to Johnson, September 11, 1920. HLI. Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
11. H.L. Vogle to Ickes, August 30, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence. J.L. Kaley to Ickes, August 26th, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence.
12. D.S. Cooper to Ickes. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence.
13. Fred H. Timson to Ickes, August 30th, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence. J.W. Jackson to Ickes. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence.
14. J.H. Goodnight to Ickes. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence. F.R. Fletcher to Ickes, September 11th, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence. Frank A. Benson to Ickes, August 27th, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence.
15. J.R. Black to Ickes, August 28, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence.
16. T.G. Pownall to Ickes, August 26th, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence.
17. M.E. Morrow to Ickes, August 28, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence. F.R. Fletcher to Ickes, September 11th, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence. W.H. Nalley to Ickes, August 31, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence.
18. W.H. Nalley to Ickes, August 31, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence. William A. Marin to Ickes, September 6, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence.
19. S.J. Jackman to Ickes, August 31, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence. Levi A. Thompson to Ickes, August 27, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence. Julius Kespohl to Ickes, August 30, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence.
20. E.M. Lee to Ickes, August 30, 1920. HLI, Box 35: L Miscellany. George P. Gibbs to Ickes, August 28, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence. Daniel O. Larson to Ickes, October 3, 1920. HLI, Box 35: L Miscellany.
21. Ickes to Charles G. Sumner, August 20, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence.
22. Ickes to Mrs. Douglas Robinson, October 5, 1920. HLI, Box 38: C. Roosevelt Robinson. Ickes to Charles G. Sumner, August 20, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence. Ickes to O.M. Peabody, September 7, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence.
23. "The Use of a Protest Vote," The New Republic, October 27, 1920, 204. "Last Aid to Voters," The Nation, October 27, 1920 (Vol. 111, No. 2886), 466. Ickes to TNR, October 1920. HLI, Box 30: N Miscellany. In the same letter, Ickes took TNR to task for being both virulently anti-Harding and anti-Wilson. "The trouble with The New Republic," he argued, "is that everything appears either black or white to it. There are no gradations of tone. Wilson has either been all angel or all devil. As I read the New Republic these days I find it difficult to recall that something like two years ago I terminated my subscription by a letter in which one of the principal reasons assigned was the blind and idolatrous way in which Wilson and his administration were regarded. In the eyes of The New Republic, Wilson could do no wrong in those days. Your adulation of him was little short of sickening…Now you go to the other extreme and Cox, who is no more like Wilson than Wilson is like Grover Cleveland, or than Theodore Roosevelt was like William Howard Taft, is offered as the vicarious victim of your blind resentment against Wilson and the Wilson administration. Please do not understand me as attempting to apologize for or defend the Wilson administration…The hypocrisies of Wilson and the failures of his administration were apparent to any fair-minded person prior to and during the period of your abject worship of him…But I don't propose to allow my opposition to the Wilson administration to cloud my reason." Ibid.
24. Ickes to Johnson, August 11, 1920. HLI. Box 33: Hiram Johnson. In a preview of a schism that would emerge again in 1924, Ickes remained baffled by his friend Robins' support of Harding after the election as well. After a November conversation with the Robins lasting several hours, Ickes told Johnson, "I don't understand any more than I did before how Raymond could take such an active and apparently enthusiastic position as he did in support of Harding." To Ickes, "the only argument he offered to meet my point of view was that Harding wasn't as bad as I thought he was." Ickes to Johnson, November 20, 1920. HLI. Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
25. Gifford Pinchot to Republican Newspapers, October 4, 1920. HLI, Box 37: Gifford Pinchot.
28. Gifford Pinchot to Ickes, September 25, 1920. HLI, Box 37: Gifford Pinchot.
29. Ickes to Johnson, September 11, 1920. HLI. Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
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