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

I. A Rematch Not to Be

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

"The chief distinguishing aspect of the Presidential campaign of 1920
is the eclipse of liberalism or progressivism as an effective force in American politics."
- Herbert Croly, 19201

"Harding's main appeal was to get back to 'normalcy.' It was just what the people wanted to do after all the emotional and other strains of the war. It was a sort of 'leave-me-alone' feeling after a fever."
- Herbert Hoover, 19522

"The Gamalian plurality in the late plebiscite was so huge that contemplation of it has distracted the public attention from all subsidiary phenomena. One gapes at it as a yokel gapes at a blood-sweating hippopotamus; its astounding vastness makes it seem somehow indecent, as a very fat man always seems somehow indecent."
- H.L Mencken, 19203

With the president incapacitated and the nation in the throes of chaos, 1920 looked to be a Republican year from the start. But which Republican? The death of Theodore Roosevelt opened the door to several different challengers, all of whom hoped to assume the mantle of the fallen Colonel. The Democrats, meanwhile, found that their fallen standard-bearer was not quite ready to leave the stage just yet. And some progressives thought the time may finally be ripe for a third party challenge to the established order. By the end of the year, progressives would witness what appeared to be a definitive triumph of reaction, and an end to their remaining post-war hopes.

A Rematch Not to Be

As a United States Senator, and eventual Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, a 6'4", 350-pound, Harvard-educated scion of a powerful Pennsylvania family, and, in the words of one historian, a "successor to Hanna, Quay, and Aldrich" as a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker in the Republican Party, Boies Penrose was a man with no small amount of standing in the world of Republican politics. Eleven years after his 1921 death, he was described in the New York Times as "the Last of the Great Political Bosses." "He put men in high and low places and pulled the wires which moved their joints and tongues," wrote the NYT's Henry Hart in 1932. "More than any other great national political boss…he may accurately be represented as the instrument which, from 1900 until 1920, transformed the democratic intentions of American government into the agencies that would yield the country and its fruits into the hands of a plutocracy." Similarly, William Allen White deemed him the "incarnation and epitome of plutocratic power in a democratic society."4

In short, Boies Penrose was the Old Guard's kingmaker, and for decades, rumor would have it that he was the Machiavel who orchestrated the ascent of Warren Harding to the Republican nomination in the famous "Smoke-Filled Room" of Chicago's Blackstone Hotel.5

But two years earlier, in the fall of 1918, Senator Penrose had expected quite a different candidate to wrest the White House away from the Democrats. "There is only one candidate for president," Penrose told Republicans gathered at the Hotel Willard. "He is the only candidate. I mean Theodore Roosevelt…I don't like him. I once despised him. But that doesn't alter the fact that Theodore Roosevelt is now the one and only possible Republican candidate in 1920. He will surely receive the nomination."6

In late 1918, a grief-stricken and bed-ridden TR told his biographer he was "indifferent to the subject. I would not lift a finger to get the nomination. Since Quentin's death, the world seems to have shut down on me." Still, Penrose was not alone in thinking thus in 1918. Many political observers then believed that the next presidential election would be a rematch of the two titans who had battled in 1912, Wilson and Roosevelt. "The most piquant forecast for 1920," editorialized The Nation in January of that year, "is that of two Presidents running against each other for a third term." Of course, it was not to be. By mid-January 1919, one of the two great combatants would be deceased. By the following September, the other would be stricken. The question of who would now fill the two Great Men's shoes would come to dominate the election season.7

Even as he came to terms with his grief over Roosevelt's death, Harold Ickes, always a savvy political observer, began to game out what the election now meant for Republicans and Progressives -- those Republicans who had followed TR out of the party in 1912. "The death of Colonel Roosevelt," he wrote Raymond Robins in January, "creates a very difficult situation…"
Of course, if Colonel Roosevelt had lived and had been nominated for president on the Republican ticket in 1920, as everyone seemed to think he would be, there would then have been no doubt as to what former Progressives would have done…[But now]Colonel Roosevelt has gone and there is no single man who can guarantee to former Progressives either the progressiveness of the Republican Party or fair treatment by that party of former members of the Progressive Party.8
"The Progressive voters cannot be 'delivered' in the old political sense," Ickes warned. "They think for themselves and will vote according to their convictions…If the Republican Party ignores this situation and goes ahead taking it for granted that the progressives will fall into line and support the ticket in 1920, regardless of who the candidates may be and of what the platform will be, they will be committing suicide…A misstep now will be very likely to prove fatal in 1920. 9

Of course, writing in January 1919, Ickes had no sense of the year that was to come, or how much the spirit of progressivism would recede by 1920. Nonetheless, his letter spoke to two questions that the death of Colonel Roosevelt now posed. Who could possibly replace such a larger-than-life character and unite all the factions of the disparate Republican Party in 1920? And where could progressive-minded Republicans, and progressives in general, now put their vote to best use? Ickes would have a lot to say on both of these questions before the election season was out.

Regarding the first of these -- who could replace Roosevelt -- Republicans would not find the answer to their dilemma in their last presidential candidate, Charles Evan Hughes. The former New York Governor's oldest daughter, Helen, would die of tuberculosis in April of 1920, an event Hughes would call in his memoirs "the greatest sorrow of my life." After that, his heart was just not in the fight. "Since our daughter died," he told the lawyer sent to ascertain his intentions, "Mrs. Hughes and I are heartbroken. I don't want to be President of the United States. I request that my name not even be mentioned in the convention," adding presciently that "whoever is nominated will be elected, but in my opinion he will not fill out the term."10

And so, Republicans would instead have to choose a new candidate to assume the Colonel's mantle. But Theodore Roosevelt was a bundle of contradictions. What aspect of the ex-president did they want their candidate to embody? Or, as Walter Lippmann put it, "[t]here were no end of Caesars after Julius as there are Roosevelts after T.R. is dead. The name is a magnet of affection and of votes, and whoever can carry the name can carry some of the affection and some of the votes. There is consequently a tussle for the name."11

Continue to Chapter 4, Pt. 2: The Man on Horseback.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. Herbert Croly, "The Eclipse of Progressivism," The New Republic, Oct. 27th, 1920. Reprinted at http://www.tnr.com/article/78969/the-eclipse-progressivism
2. Hoover, 35.
3. Mencken, A Carnival of Buncombe, 35.
4. Bagby, 47. New York Times, January 3rd, 1932. Bagby, 98. Russell, 330.
5. In fact, Penrose was gravely ill during the Republican convention - he would perish the following year - and, despite both his reputation and the stories in the press at the time, he probably had very little to do with the final choice of Harding. Bagby, 97.
6. Pietrusza, 69. Russell, 301. That being said, Penrose - after having visited the former President in the hospital at the end of 1918 - told his Senate colleague James Watson that "Colonel Roosevelt will not be alive in three months…[Y]our promise to support him will be of no avail." Ibid.
7. Russell, 311. The Nation, January 31, 1918, 105.
8. Ickes to Robins, January 10, 1919. HJI, Box 38: Raymond Robins.
9. Ibid. One Ickes correspondent who viewed things from the opposite direction was Henry C. Wallace, soon to be Secretary of Agriculture in the Harding Administration. I feel more and more," Wallace wrote Ickes in May 1919, "that we have got to keep in mind not only how to promote the progressive principles for which we stand, but also how to make sure that we elect a Republican President." Henry C. Wallace to Ickes, May 22, 1919. Box 38: Progressive Conference.
10. David Joseph Danielski and Joseph S. Tulchin, ed., The Autobiographical Notes of Charles Evans Hughes (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1973), 196. Pietrusza, 186. Russell, 351.
11. Walter Lippmann, "Leonard Wood," The New Republic, March 17, 1920 (Vol. XXII, No. 276), 76.

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