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

III. The Men in the Middle

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

With General Wood thus off the reservation, Old Guard Republicans began to search for a more pliant horse for their 1920 election hopes. They soon found a sturdy, if unremarkable one in one of the favorite son candidates General Wood had managed to antagonize - Governor Frank Lowden of Illinois. Although he hailed from a Republican state not generally considered in competition, and while he was neither a popular nor a well-known figure nationally, Lowden nevertheless enjoyed the benefit of a sterling resume for Party purposes: A log cabin boyhood, marriage to a Pullman heiress, experience in both the US Congress and the State House, and several years of service to the Republican national committee.1

More than anything, Lowden was a safe and conventional compromise choice in a year when such men were exceedingly hard to find. "There is a logic to Lowden," wrote Walter Lippmann, "once you grant the premises. He comes from the middle of the country, he stands in the middle of a road, in the middle of his party, about midway between [Leonard] Wood of New Hampshire and [Hiram] Johnson of California." During four years as Governor, Lowden had managed to remain agreeable to both Republicans and Democrats in the State House, as well as to both corporate and labor interests in the state (notwithstanding some issues with his Pullman family ties.) He was for women's suffrage, for Prohibition, and against the League as envisioned by Wilson, although he endorsed the court-oriented approach of conservatives like Elihu Root and supported the Lodge reservations. He was anti-Red, of course, but still distinguished himself from Wood as "the goose step vs. the forward step." And thus he could remain an amenable choice to Old Guard figures like Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia and Senator Warren Harding, who thought of Lowden as his second choice for president behind himself, as well as to Chicago progressives like Harold Ickes, who thought the Governor "fair and open-minded" and a "first-rate governor."2

And, with the exception of some competitive fights against General Wood in the South Dakota primary and in his home state of Illinois, Governor Lowden played nicely with Old Guard figures and state and local party officials alike, and mostly seemed content just to keep his name afloat until the Republicans gathered in his home state that summer. In other words, he seemed like the perfect candidate for what was looking to be a brokered convention.3

Nonetheless, conservatives in the party did not want to put all their eggs in one basket again. And, so to assure a full field that would prevent one of the non-Old-Guard-sanctioned candidates from breaking too far ahead, Boies Penrose also urged his fellow Senator, Warren Harding of Ohio, to make a run for the presidency. A handsome, amiable Ohio newspaperman who had risen through the State Senate to become a Republican regular in the US Congress, Harding was not much inclined to take the offer.

For one, the Senator from Ohio had a keen sense of his own limitations, and did not think himself fit for the highest office in the land. "I must assert the conviction," he wrote one supporter early in the campaign season, "that I do not possess the elements of leadership… essential to the ideal leadership of our Party in 1920…I know better than some who overestimate both my ability and availability." To another, he wrote, while "I would almost be willing to make a bet that I would be a more 'commonsensible' President than the man who now occupies the White House…I have such a sure understanding of my own inefficiency that I should really be ashamed to presume myself fitted to reach out for a place of such responsibility." In short, as he told yet another well-wisher, "I harbor no delusions or designs. I should like to be kindly esteemed, but the pretense that seems to be necessary to popularity is not agreeable to my nature."4

Which wasn't quite true - Harding was actually an exceedingly popular figure in the Senate. In Washington, he often golfed, played poker, entertained guests at his Wyoming Avenue residence, and ran up a liquor bill that got into the hundreds per month. As such, Harding felt he already held what he believed to be "the most desirable office in the world." As a result, Harding declared he would prefer "he not be forced into…becoming an aspirant for the nomination." "I should be unhappy every hour from the time I entered the race until the thing were settled," he said. "I had much rather retain my place in the Senate and enjoy the association of friends and some of the joys of living."5

Harry Daugherty, Harding's former campaign manager and head of the Ohio Republican Party, thought differently. Daugherty had risen through the ranks of Ohio politics as a protégé of the estimable kingmaker Mark Hanna, and he harbored ambitions his friend did not. "When I met him," Daugherty said of Harding, "he was like a turtle sitting on a log. I pushed him in the water." Assuaging the Senator's insecurities by telling him that "the days of giants in the Presidential chair is passed" and that "the truest greatness was in being kind," Daugherty prevailed upon Harding to enter his name as a candidate, if nothing else than to push back against the challenge that Wood insurgents now clearly posed for control of the Ohio party apparatus. This Harding did, retaining Daugherty as campaign manager out of loyalty and friendship, even though the latter's reputation for double-dealing, extortion, and bribery in Ohio was something of a political albatross.6

As with Governor Lowden, Harding's campaign mostly involved keeping his name in contention while not unduly irritating the other candidates - an easy fit for a jocular fellow like Harding. At first, he was considered to be one of the leading contenders for the nomination by both the press and political observers like party chairman Will Hays, who thought him "strong in the Middle West and eminently satisfactory to Wall Street." But his star dimmed when General Wood's forces launched a well-funded foray into the heart of Harding country, and managed to take nine of forty-eight delegates in the Ohio primary. (Harding had run a half-hearted race in his home state, believing it undignified.) And when the Ohio Senator ran fourth in nearby Indiana soon thereafter, most people gave up on Harding as a viable candidate for the nomination.7

Harry Daugherty was not one of those people. However sinister his reputation, the Ohio bagman was nonetheless as savvy a political operator as they come. And, in February 1920, he famously prophesied to The New York Times that Harding could still have his day as a dark horse. "I don't expect Senator Harding to be nominated on the first, second, or third ballots," he said:
[B]ut I think we can afford to take chances that about eleven minutes after two, Friday morning of the convention, when fifteen or twenty weary men are sitting around a table, someone will say, 'Who will we nominate?' At that decisive time, the friends of Harding will suggest him and can well afford to abide by the result."8

Continue to Chapter 4, Pt. 4: I'm for Hiram.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. Bagby, 32-35. Pietrusza, 176.
2. Walter Lippmann, "The Logic of Lowden," The New Republic, April 14, 1920 (Vol. XXII, No. 280), 204. Bagby, 32-35. Ickes actually continued to support Frank Lowden even after a more progressive choice, Hiram Johnson, entered the race - on the grounds that Illinois would be a Lowden state regardless. "I adhered to Lowden," he wrote, "with the distinct understanding that if he failed of nomination, he would make no attempt to deliver me to another. I told him frankly that Johnson was my first choice. Lowden, in turn, assured me he would rather throw his strength to Johnson than to any of the reactionary candidates. So I went along." Pietrusza, 179.
3. Ibid.
4. Russell, 313-315, 331. Bagby, 37-38. Some Harding biographers argue this sense of insecurity stemmed from either his possible mixed-race ancestry - the "shadow of Blooming Grove," in the words of Frances Russell - or his knowledge of his own many extramarital indiscretions, most notably with Carrie Fulton Phillips and Nan Britton, the latter of whom would tell Harding of her pregnancy in February 1919.
5. Ibid.
6. Bagby, 39. Laton McCartney, The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the White House and Tried to Steal the Country (New York: Random House, 2008), 10. Pietrusza, 83. Russell, 334-335, 340.
7. Bagby, 40-42. Russell, 341-342.
8. Ibid.

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