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

IX. The Smoke-Filled Room

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

In early June of 1920, 984 Republican delegates - including, for the first time, 27 women - gathered in Chicago to draft a platform and choose a nominee. Conspicuously absent were the uniformed members of the Grand Army of the Republic, who had graced every Republican convention en masse since the days of Lincoln. Now, only a few stray septuagenarians circulated amongst the crowd, their numbers dwarfed by veterans of a different War.1

The festivities began with a keynote from the chairman of the convention, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge - his "voice," according to Walter Lippmann "magnified by the electrical apparatus out of all proportion to his body." For eighty minutes, Lodge decried the chaos and uncertainty of the Wilson years and deemed the League of Nations a "breeder of war and an enemy of peace" and a threat to "the very existence of the United States as an independent power." Just as he bragged that "he had kept us out of war" four years ago, the Senator said, Wilson "now demands the approval of the American people for his party and his administration on the ground that he has kept us out of peace." Before he merits such approval, Lodge suggested, "the question [of the League] goes to the people."2

Before that, however, the question had to go to the resolutions committee, where the official Party platform was being drafted. And there, there was not much in the way of overlap between a William Howard Taft, who had once stood with Wilson in support of a League, and a William E. Borah, who saw any form of it as the backdoor to tyranny. As TNR put it, "[t]here were mild reservationists, strong reservationists, irreconcilables, and partisans of a League sweltering in the heat of the Coliseum, and all represented constituents with votes to cast."3

After Borah and other Irreconcilables threatened to bolt the party if a plank for the League with reservations was included, raising the specter anew of a 1912-like split that would once again see a Democrat in office, a solution was drafted by Elihu Root that squared the circle. Republicans, it read, stood for an "international association…based upon international justice" which could "maintain the rule of public right by the development of law and the decision of impartial courts." But Wilson's League "failed signally to accomplish this great purpose, and contains stipulations, not only intolerable for an independent people, but certain to produce the injustice, hostility, and controversy among nations which it proposed to prevent."4

As a result, and despite the "unfortunate insistence of the President upon having his own way," the Senate had "performed their duty faithfully" in killing the Treaty. "We approve their conduct and honor their courage and fidelity." Any future agreements made by a Republican administration "shall meet the full duty of America to civilization and humanity, in accordance with American ideals, and without surrendering the right of the American people to exercise its judgment and its power in favor of justice and peace." Both "a tangle of contradictions" and "an ingenious piece of politics," in the words of TNR, this compromise plank was sufficiently vague that everyone could read what they wanted to out of it. Taft argued it included "the things that would lead the party into the League," while papers deemed it an "astounding surrender to League foes" and a victory for "Bitter-Enders." The Survey just argued that "it leaves the subject where it was. In the present tangled situation that is perhaps just as well."5

With the League thus addressed, much of the rest of the platform-writing was relatively smooth sailing - The Republicans just had to remind the American people that they were not the party of Wilson or Wilsonism. The platform lambasted the administration for an "inexcusable failure to make timely preparations" before the War, and for being "as unprepared for peace…vision, leadership, and intelligent planning…have been lacking." While "the country has been left to shift for itself, the government has continued on a wartime basis." To Republicans, the administration has used "the emergency of war to continue its arbitrary and inquisitorial control over the life of the people in the time of peace, and to carry confusion into industrial life. Under the despot's plea of necessity or superior wisdom, executive usurpation of legislative and judicial function still undermines our institutions."6

As such, time and again Republicans vowed to put a stop to the types of excesses that had characterized the post-war experience. While recognizing "the justice of collective bargaining as a means of promoting good will…[and] realizing the true ends of industrial justice," the "strike or the lockout, as a means of settling industrial disputes, inflicts such loss and suffering on the community as to justify government initiative to reduce its frequency and limits its consequences." Similarly, while "every American citizen shall enjoy the ancient and constitutional right of free speech, free press, and free assembly…no man may advocate resistance to the law, and no man may advocate violent overthrow of the government. Aliens "who constitute a menace" shall and should be deported, but "in view of the vigorous malpractice of the Departments of Justice and Labor," they would first be granted "an adequate public hearing before a competent administrative tribunal." In short, Republicans pledged "to end executive autocracy and restore to the people their constitutional government."7

As with the League plank, the Republican platform had enough in it to make all the varied constituents of the Party happy. To the former 1912 Progressives, it promised that, while "the federal jurisdiction over social problems is limited," solutions would be enacted into law "in accordance with the best progressive thought of the country." To Old Guard conservatives, it promised "no persecution of honest business," "to free business from arbitrary and unnecessary official control" and "to repel the arrogant challenge of any class." To acolytes of Hoover, the platform promised to "substitute economy and efficiency for extravagance and chaos." To new women voters, it offered support for suffrage, a Women's Bureau in the Department of Labor, a federal child labor law, "the independent naturalization of married women" (meaning women who married aliens could retain their citizenship), and "federal legislation to limit the hours of employment of women engaged in intensive industry." To African-Americans, it promised an anti-lynching law, to put an end to "a terrible blot on our civilization."8

And for all voters, it promised an "earnest and consistent attack upon the high cost of living," which was caused by the "unsound fiscal policies of the Democratic Administration," and which would be remedied by, among other things, "encouragement of heightened production of goods and services," "prevention of unreasonable profits," "exercise of public economy and stimulation of private thrift," and by "revision of war-imposed taxes unsuited to peace time economy."9

There was, in short, something for everybody. As Senator Borah remarked to Mark Sullivan of the New York Evening Post, "the people are getting a little weary of the ambiguity of modern language in political platforms. It has been reduced to a science." William Allen White argued it "successfully met the requirement of saying nothing definite in several thousand well-chosen words." Edward T. Devine of The Survey deemed it "long and tedious and badly written," and lamented that, for all its rhetoric against the Wilson administration, it did not call for the impeachment of A. Mitchell Palmer. The editors of TNR were similarly phlegmatic. "For seven years it has been the privilege of the Republicans to stand back and observe how their opponents manage or mismanage the affairs of the nation," they wrote. "Accordingly we had a right to expect evidence of valid political ideas, of awareness to present and prospective conditions, in the platform of 1920. We do not find them." Instead, they argued, the Republican platform was marked by "general feebleness and colorlessness...It is the product of a party impulse enfeebled by age, moribund."10

Of course, making enough promises in the platform to satisfy everyone would be an easier lift than finding a nominee to embody those promises, and by mid-June, Republicans weren't much closer in solving the dilemma than they had been in the weeks after Colonel Roosevelt's demise. After several days of nominating speeches, the voting began, with General Wood leading Frank Lowden by 287 ½ votes to 221 ½ on the first ballot, Hiram Johnson a distant third at 133, and Warren Harding at 65 ½. Several states, most notably New York and Pennsylvania, clouded the picture further by choosing favorite son candidates on this early ballot - as did Wisconsin, who chose Robert La Follette and was summarily booed for it.11

After three more ballots, the figures stood at 314 ½ for Wood to 289 for Lowden, with Johnson at 140 ½ and Harding at 61 ½. Feeling some small danger of General Wood pulling away - unlikely, since Wood's inexperienced political team had pooled all of their strength into the first few ballots - the Republican Party bosses called an adjournment for the evening and gathered to the "smoke-filled rooms" at Chicago's Blackstone Hotel to sort out a more palatable solution.

To help gain traction for Johnson, Senator William Borah - still aghast at "the corruption of the American people" the Kenyon Committee had unearthed - publicly threatened to bolt the party if Wood or Lowden were nominated. But others, including the candidate himself, began to resign themselves to the fact that this would not be a progressive year. "Nineteen twelve was a Sunday School convention compared to this," Johnson deadpanned. William Allen White argued he had never witnessed a convention "so completely dominated by sinister predatory economic forces as was this." Oswald Villard felt "money was written all over the convention" and wondered if there was even a quorum on Wall Street to conduct any business. La Follette's Magazine reported that "men representing every form and shade of monopoly, swollen by war profits" reigned over both the Blackstone Hotel and the convention floor.12


Walter Lippmann bemoaned that Johnson never had a chance against "the hysteria and the reaction among the well-to-do and powerful. The delegates and the galleries were proof against progressivism in any form, not merely stolidly proof as in 1916, but violently proof." This they had indicated by shouting down a proposed plank, by way of Wisconsin, advocating public ownership of the railroads with cries of "Socialism!," "Bolshevik," and "Throw Him Out!" Before the fateful evening was over, Hiram Johnson would still be offered the vice-presidency by all of the other major candidates - progressivism was fine on the bottom of the ticket, it seemed - but this year the top spot would be reserved for someone else.13

Although he began the evening in the lead, General Wood also felt his candidacy being frozen out by the usual powers-that-be -- although not before he was granted an offer from the Old Guard's kingmaker, Senator Boies Penrose. From a sickbed in Pennsylvania, Penrose called the Wood camp - Wood himself would not speak to him - and offered their candidate the nomination in exchange for three Cabinet members. The general's response to this "wicked game": "Tell Senator Penrose that I have made no promises, and am making none." Oklahoma oil baron Jake Hamon, who had bought up his own sizable cache of delegates as an investment for his oil business, made a similar offer to Wood: Let him pick the Secretary of the Interior and the Ambassador to Mexico (where oil was as plentiful as the politics were dicey), and Hamon would put Wood over the top. "I'm an American soldier!" Wood bellowed at the offer. "I'll be damned if I betray my country. Get the hell out of here!" These fine displays of rectitude effectively ended General Wood's candidacy. Hamon and Penrose instead began to take another look at Warren Harding, and by three in the morning, Wood was reduced to complaining, quite correctly, "They are combining against me!" at his exhausted campaign staff.14

With the two mavericks, Johnson and Wood, sidelined, the Republican Old Guard who gathered in the Blackstone Hotel's Suite 404/405/406 could now choose one of their own candidates. But, even though he was currently second in balloting, Frank Lowden was still tarred with the brush of Johnson's campaign finance investigation, and had lost his upside. "Lowden came the nearest to success because Lowden most nearly fitted the specifications," Walter Lippmann wrote soon after the convention, "He probably would have been nominated, but for the revelations in Missouri." A number of favorite sons, each with their own various complications, aside, that left the Senator from Ohio, Warren Gamaliel Harding.15

One of the senior kingmakers in the room, Henry Cabot Lodge, was reported to have settled on the choice of Harding early in the meeting. He reminded the assembled gathering that Ohio had been in the column of every single Republican ever elected president, and Governor Cox of Ohio was currently a leading candidate for the Democrats. But others in the smoke-filled room, like Senator James Wadsworth of New York, reported nothing but "confusion, puzzlement, and divided counsels" from the deliberations, deeming the "the alleged influential senators…as futile as chickens with their heads cut off." Either way, when the smoke cleared, the Senator from Ohio was the Republicans' choice. "There ain't any first-raters this year," Senator Frank Brandegee of Connecticut thereafter told the press. "This man Harding is no world beater, but we think he is the best of the bunch."16

Word of the smoke-filled room's choice reverberated through Chicago in the late hours of the night, and when the voting began anew the following morning, Harding slowly and inexorably gained on Friday's leaders over the course of the day. As Walter Lippmann put it, "Chicago was too hot, the Coliseum too crowded, the hotel lobbies too nerve wracking, and the prices too high," so when word came down from "the Old Guard, speaking through the neo-classic Mr. Lodge," "Harding was chosen, not because the convention was in love with him, but because he was the first name seriously proposed to end the deadlock."17

By the seventh ballot, Harding moved to third place. On the ninth, Kansas - whose Governor, Henry Allen, had officially put Wood's name in contention - broke from Wood's camp to Harding's, setting off a stampede that culminated in Harding's official nomination on the tenth ballot, which was then declared unanimous - despite loud protests from the direction of Wisconsin's delegation and Chicago's own Harold Ickes.18 "Because neither in this campaign nor any other time in his life," mused the editors of TNR, "has he done anything positive enough to cause offense, Harding was picked from the discard by the men who know how to run conventions. The moral seems to be that the man who does worst in the primaries is considered safest for the nomination." The nominee himself was scarcely any more impressed by what had transpired. "Well," said Harding, "we drew to a pair of deuces and filled."1

If the nomination of Harding at Chicago has taken a circuitous route, the choice of his running mate arose much more organically. During the tenth ballot, Republican leaders, including Borah and Daugherty, hastily conferred on the floor and came up with Wisconsin Senator Irvine Lenroot, a progressive, to balance the ticket. But after a number of speeches to this effect, Judge Wallace McCamant of Oregon took the stage and instead offered the considerably more conservative hero from Massachusetts, Calvin Coolidge. On the first ballot, Governor Coolidge won handily over Lenroot, 674 ½ to 146 ½. Only eight years after Colonel Roosevelt and the Progressives had walked out of the party to stand at Armageddon, there would once again be no progressive on the Republican ticket.20

Continue to Chapter 4, Pt. 10: San Francisco.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. Bagby, 80. Russell, 363-367.
2. Ibid. Walter Lippmann, "Chicago, 1920," The New Republic, Wednesday, June 23, 1920 (Vol. XXIII, No. 290), 108.
3. "The Republicans and the League," The New Republic, June 23, 1920 (Volume XXIII, No. 290), 102.
4. Bagby, 79-80. Russell, 367-368. "Republican Party Platform of 1920," reprinted at The American Presidency Project (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29635)
5. Ibid. "The Republicans and the League," The New Republic, June 23, 1920 (Volume XXIII, No. 290), 105. Edward T. Devine, "The Republicans at Chicago," The Survey, June 19, 1920, 401.
6. Republican Party Platforms: "Republican Party Platform of 1920," June 8, 1920. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29635.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Borah to Mark Sullivan August 27, 1920. WJB, Box 85: Politics - DC. White, Selected Letters of William Allen White, 585. Toth, 567. Edward T. Devine, "The Republicans at Chicago," The Survey, June 19, 1920, 401. "The Republican Platform," The New Republic, June 23, 1920 (Volume XXIII, No. 290), 101-102.
11. Bagby, 84 Russell, 376.
12. Bagby, 85-86. Pietrusza, 221. Russell, 379. La Follette, 996-997.
13. Ibid. Lippmann, "Chicago, 1920." In the end, Lippmann argued that progressives were as much to blame for their irrelevance in Chicago as the Old Guard. "Why should they take any progressive seriously when the progressives were scattered about among Johnson, Lowden, La Follette and Hoover and even Wood?" he asked. "The Old Guard is at least true to itself…It does not believe in fairies. It knows what it wants. The progressives do not know what they want. They just want to be a little nobler and a little cleaner, provided they do not have to stay out in the wilderness too long…They cannot now, and they never will be able to play poker with Penrose." Ibid. There was at least one vice-presidential offer that Hiram Johnson probably should have taken. During the deliberations of the smoke-filled room, one potential compromise ticket, floated by Borah, was Philander Knox - former Roosevelt Attorney General, Taft Secretary of State, and current Pennsylvania Senator - with Johnson at No. 2. Knox was known to be unwell, and it was suggested to Johnson that he would end up being president before the end of the term if he took the deal. Johnson balked at this suggestion as well. Philander Knox died in October 1921. Russell, 380.
14. Bagby, 84-86. McCartney, 23. When Wood's lieutenants suggested bribing some of the Southern delegates to put him over the top, Wood rejected this idea as well. Russell, 384-385.
15. Russell, 379. Lippmann, "Chicago 1920."
16. Bagby, 88-89. Leuchtenburg, 86. Russell, 383.
17. Walter Lippmann, "Chicago, 1920," The New Republic, Wednesday, June 23, 1920 (Vol. XXIII, No. 290), 108.
18. When unanimity was called for, 24 Wisconsin delegates stood on their chairs and reported that Wisconsin would not "accept the dictum of the secret caucus at the Blackstone." La Follette, 997. Russell, 395.
19. Bagby, 85-86, 92, 95-96. Russell, 392-395. The New Republic, Wednesday, June 23, 1920 (Vol. XXIII, No. 290), 98. Leuchtenburg, 86. Leonard Wood never forgave Henry Allen for the Kansas delegation's switch, even though they had earlier agreed Kansas could bolt if Lowden surpassed Wood on a ballot (which he had, on the fifth.) Ibid.
20. Bagby, 100-101. La Follette, 997-998.

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