By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The Triumph of Reaction
Progressives and the Election of 1920
XI. A Third Party?
"I am so low in my mind that I wouldn't laugh at Charlie Chaplin throwing the whole custard pie at Cox or Harding or both," William Allen White confessed to Herbert Croly. "I think that the only honest vote either a Republican or a Democrat can cast should be a spite vote against his own party." The election, Walter Lippmann explained to a friend, now boiled down to "two provincial, ignorant politicians entirely surrounded by special interests, operating in a political vacuum. Nobody believes in anything." To the muckraking journal The Searchlight on Congress, it seemed that "an epidemic of political blundering" had "gripped America. Each succeeding national convention had outstripped its predecessor in the greatness of its mistakes. First, the Penrose Republicans nominated the pathetically incompetent Harding. Next…[the] Democrats named Cox, sending him into the race weighted with Wilsonism and tainted by the odors and atmosphere of the underworld of politics." The Nation was similarly phlegmatic. "Precisely as the Republican Convention turned at the end to the weakest candidate, so has the Democratic," it argued. "Their followers must, therefore, choose between two mediocrities, between two second-rate Ohio newspaper editors, neither of whom can truthfully be said to have the caliber requisite for the Presidency even in ordinary times." Privately, Oswald Villard pleaded Robert La Follette to get involved on a separate ticket. "We need you sorely in these dark times," he wrote. "If you, Johnson, and Borah would start a third movement, at least Harding's election could be made impossible."1
Although exacerbated by the two party conventions, third party sentiment was not new. Talk of a viable third party had been in the air ever since Roosevelt and the Progressives had stood at Armageddon in 1912, and, as the Herbert Hoover boomlet made plain, some progressives had spent much of the entire election season looking outside the normal party lines for a standard bearer.
"The New Republic does favor the organization of a third party," the journal opined in March 1920, attempting to explain its gushing support for Hoover over Hiram Johnson. "We have repeatedly explained why neither the Republican nor the Democratic machine is worthy of confidence as an agency of progressive economic and political policy." And so, while Senator Johnson deserved "a large measure of sympathy" for his "up-hill fight for the nomination," the editors of TNR "cannot support him because he is running as a Republican on the straight and narrow path of party regularity. That fact renders his candidacy barren. He must subordinate his progressivism to his Republicanism." On the other hand, because -- at this moment -- Hoover had not made clear his party affiliation, "[t]he agitation in favor of Mr. Hoover is equivalent to propaganda for the formation of a third party." In the present two-party system, the magazine argued, voters of "independent mind and liberal opinions" were "harmless and ineffective," but if united behind Hoover "in a single party organization, they might at least form a fighting and an increasing minority." In short, TNR concluded:
There is no future for progressivism in American politics until a sufficient number of American voters believe sufficiently in the need of it and agree sufficiently in the meaning of it to organize a party which can act as his agent. Such emphatically is the meaning and the lesson of the Hoover movement.2The New Republic was not alone in its advocacy of a third party movement. "The largest party in the United States," Borah wrote one constituent in May 1920, "although it has not yet received its name nor has been organized is the third party. Everywhere we go the people are utterly distrustful that either one of the large parties will really do anything." "Take Wilson out of the Democratic Party," former Bull Mooser Amos Pinchot had similarly written a friend in December 1918, "and what is left? Take a little minority of fairly progressive politicians out of the Republican Party and you are in darkest Egypt."3
Hoover's candidacy suggested to progressives what the vanguard of a third party might look like. In an article the previous year, the editors of TNR had articulated who they believed the rank and file of a new party had to be. In that August article, the problem remained the same: "Democratic regularity, based on the Negro-White complex, produces Republican regularity, based on fear of the Democrats…That Gronna and La Follette should be in the same party as Smoot, Penrose, and Lodge is a joke, but it is a persistent joke. That Hiram Johnson and Borah should be under the same label as Brandegee or Warren would be inconceivable if these men weren't tied in a bundle by party regularity." As a result, TNR explained in Lippmannesque terms, both parties "drift helplessly, incapable of foreseeing the needs or expressing the energies of the nation. They merely divide the constructive forces and then neutralize them."4
So a new party was clearly needed. But if this party were to enjoy any success at all, it would have to find a way to square "the ancient conflict of interest between the producers of food and urban industry, between dear food and cheap food." In other words, it would have to represent the interests of both "the organized farmers and the organized workers," and find ways to soothe the longstanding enmities that divided agriculture and labor, or even labor from each other. "The powerful unions occupying strategic positions as in the railroads, for example, have hitherto used their power to raise wages, regardless of the effect on the prices which other workingmen have to pay for their goods."5
But if labor interests "unite to insist on a reduction of the cost of living," TNR thought it was inevitable they would "discover that there can be no permanent relief short of a cooperative system of distribution for the necessities of life. When they have gotten to that point, they will reach common ground with the progressive farmers, and a penetrating social programme will begin to define itself. The distributing cooperative, dealing with the farmer on one side and industry democratically controlled on the other, is not only the surest way out of our economic troubles but the true bond of unity for all those who want a progressive democracy."6
In such a party, the editors argued, "[p]olitical representation would follow inevitably and naturally. It would not be something based on the popularity of a politician but the expression of forces at once aware of their interests and of the larger groupings into which those special interests fall." In other words, disinterested progressive leadership and progressive ideas would be the alchemists that could unite laborer and farmer, show them their common interests, and thereby transmute class interests into the Public Interest. This, presumably, is why the already-extant Socialist party was never mentioned as a viable alternative by the editors of TNR in either article. Along with being anathema in public life in 1919 and 1920, the Socialists were an avowedly class-based party, and progressives were not yet ready to abandon the concept of the Public Interest as a cornerstone of their ideology.7
The problem with a viable Third Party in 1920 is that the progressive vanguard and the class-based rank-and-file were not on the same page. From the beginning of the election cycle, even if they could agree -- despite however often millionaire publisher William Randolph Hearst intimated he was available -- that Robert La Follette would make an exemplary standard-bearer, progressives and labor leaders often worked at cross-purposes.
As early as January 1919, Amos Pinchot and a like-minded "gathering of men and women interested in public affairs" came together in New York City to create what they hoped would be the seeds of a new third party in the Committee of Forty-Eight. The primary instigator, and eventual Chairman of the Committee, was J.A.H. Hopkins, who had led Bull Moose forces in 1912 in his native New Jersey, served as national treasurer of the Progressive Party remnant in 1916, and had also been active in the formation of a National Party - comprised of pro-war Socialists - in 1917. Eventually setting up shop on E. 40th St., the Committee set out to organize a national "Conference of Liberals" that could agree on a "tentative platform dealing with political, social, industrial, and international reconstruction." Among its executive committee, along with Pinchot, were the leading lights of High Society progressivism in New York, including academics like Will Durant, Horace Kallen, and Swinburn Hale, ministers such as John Haynes Holmes, writers like Lincoln Concord, Robert Morss Lovett, and Harold Stearns, and well-known progressive lawyers like Arthur Hays and Dudley Field Malone.8
"It was learned yesterday," the New York Times commented wryly in June 1919, "that the organization was representative of the forty-eight States in the Union, not of forty-eight individuals."9 And yet, even as it aspired to be a national movement - sending out platform questionnaires to progressive-minded men and women across the country - the Committee remained a highly parochial organization of New York progressives, who saw themselves as the disinterested focal point of any potential new third party. In the words of the Justice Department surveillance reports compiled by agents infiltrating the organization, the Committee was mostly comprised of "parlor Bolsheviks."10
Nonetheless, the Committee of Forty-Eight opened its doors to all, sending out leaflets and advertisements encouraging anyone with interest in a progressive third party to gather in St. Louis in December 1919 in order to help develop a platform. Remembering this process, lawyer Arthur Garfield Hays said:
We sat up long hours listening to every crank suggestion presented as the only road to salvation. We heard from single-taxers and birth controllers, from health enthusiasts, gymnosophists, nudists, fundamentalists, and scientists, from back-to-nature and forward-to-technology orators, from silver, gold, and fiat-money adherents. One delegate proposed the building of an Arcadian highway around the world with little houses, each with its own garden, dotting the road, as a path to international understanding and a method to end war. The suggestion was made that we should set up as our standard a sign from a near-by candy store: "If there's a nut, we have it."11From this whittling-down process, the Committee devised a platform that, in the words of TNR, was "extremely short and wholly definite and uncompromising":
It provides merely for public ownership of transportation, of all public utilities, and of the principal natural resources. It declared against the holding of land and patents out of use for speculative purposes. It demands equal rights irrespective of sex and color, the immediate and unqualified restoration of all civic liberties guaranteed by the Constitution, and the effective abolition of injunctions in labor cases. It "endorses" the effort of labor to share in the management of industry and its right to organize and bargain collectively of its own choosing.12While arguing that public ownership did not inherently result in sound administration ("Prussian government owned the railroads…but public ownership did not prevent the rate structure from favoring the cartels") and that "the elimination of economic privilege among property-owners will not be sufficient to create a socialized democracy," TNR thought the Committee's platform was a "succinct statement of one fundamental cause of American economic abuses" that would appeal to "essentially the same traditions and interests which were expressed by the progressive movement of 1910-1912…a demand for the more equal distribution of the opportunities for making money."13
With the platform thus set, the Committee of Forty-Eight polled its members in early 1920 on who they desired to be their standard-bearer. Counted in June, their choice was Robert La Follette with 310 first or second-place votes, followed by Herbert Hoover (177), Hiram Johnson (155), and Eugene Debs (151). Wrote one Illinois farmer to the Committee: "La Follette is right on labor, liquor, woman suffrage, the treaty, the league, freedom of speech and press, amnesty to war prisoners, profiteering, monopolies, initiative and referendum, government control and ownership, banking taxation, strikes, lynching, and anything that can be named. He is the hope of these states." "To place his name before the people as a candidate for President," argued another Committee member from Texas, "would be the best way to show the DRAGON and its followers that American people repudiate…the last four years of tyranny." (To further stand against "the shylocks and profiteers of our great country," this man urged Tom Watson of Georgia as a running mate.) If it is "Robert M. LaFollette and Henry Ford on the LaFollette platform," urged another Committee member from NY, "the people will do the rest and you and yours will have made history by saving their country from the Invisible Government."14
The Committee also advertised once again in progressive publications and newspapers an invitation to all interested to come to a national convention in July to officially form the new party - "a national party representing the needs and hopes of average American men and women." Since the Republicans and Democrats were "but rival lackeys to great monopolies" that "do the bidding of the interests that filled its campaign coffers and paid for its publicity," the ad read, since they were "bankrupt of democratic purpose and have made their peace with a treasonable reaction…the time has come for lovers of the real America to organize themselves anew, to inaugurate another such period of resolute construction as four generations ago raised Jefferson and the once American Democratic party to power, and two generations since raised to power Lincoln and the once American Republican Party."15
That very same generation, however, another group of left-minded individuals were trying to build a slightly different third party. Only a few weeks before Arthur Hays and the Committee held a cattle call for progressive ideas in St. Louis, delegates of organized labor from thirty-five states met in Chicago to form a brand-new Labor Party for America. This Labor Party movement was mainly the brain child of the Chicago Federation of Labor, who chafed at the yoke of Samuel Gompers' more conservative and apolitical approach to labor relations. On January 4, 1919 -- only a few weeks before the Seattle general strike would galvanize the nation -- the CFL had begun a new publication, The New Majority, under the editorship of former Socialist alderman Robert M. Buck, to push for a new worker's party in America.16
While the Labor Party movement, as one reporter put it, was "born of hatred for the American Federation of Labor and nurtured in wrath against its president, Samuel Gompers," the actual convention saw delegates "from every important craft union" in the AFL, according to TNR's Charles Merz. "The Mine Workers had 179 delegates," reported Merz, "the Machinists, 40; the Railway Brotherhoods, 65. There were Plasterers and Nurses and Glassblowers; Moulders and Waitresses and Bill Posters; Teachers and Blacksmiths and Lighter Captains." (There were however, very few Farmers in attendance, although the Nonpartisan League had sent two "fraternal delegates" to advocate in favor of a farmer-labor alliance.) "Labor is the primary and just basis of political responsibility and power," the universally adopted Declaration of Principles at the Convention began. "It is not merely the right, but the duty of workers by hand or brain to become a political party."17
Like the Forty-Eighters, the architects of the Labor Party decried the two existing parties for the corruption "by which they gain and keep control of the government. They withhold money from the worker and use it to make him pay for his own defeat." In order to break "the shackles of the sinister forces of reaction, corruption, and greed," it was now time "for the workers of the United States to…disengage themselves definitely and permanently from old party ties and henceforth support only those who openly espouse the cause of the workers who constitute the large majority of our citizens."18
Before the Labor convention had convened, organizers had sent out a brief platform that looked much like what the Forty-Eighters would eventually agree upon -- "freedom of speech, nationalization of public utilities and natural resources, and taxation of unused land." But, in the words of Merz, the delegates at the convention "had ears for every voice crying in the wilderness," and so the platform soon swelled from three planks to thirty. In its final declaration, the Labor Party called for "the destruction of autocracy, militarism, and economic imperialism," "complete political and industrial equality of the sexes and of races, nationalities, and creeds," and that government abolish the injunction and do more "to reduce the unreasonable cost of living and to curb the depredations of profiteers." It also advocated an estate tax, an end to child labor, the eight-hour day, clean voting, a national referendum on constitutional amendments, popular election for federal judges, an end to both federal contractors and unemployment, and abolition of both the Senate and the "unlimited power of veto over national legislation now exercised by our Supreme Court."19
Surveying the final product, the editors of TNR deemed Labor's platform "an exhaustive schedule of miscellaneous economic and political reforms, compiled for the purpose of assembling on one comprehensive platform as many discontented groups as possible." Still, they argued, the platform included "the raw material…out of which the party can eventually forge the needed instrument of progressive agitation and legislation:
It is a clear, even if unwieldy and blundering expression of the needs of a class, whom the existing economic and political organization neglects, the class of the wage-earning worker. It insists on a method of satisfying those needs which, if carried out would profoundly modify the relation among all the classes in American life, but which seeks finally to bring about a class concert rather than a class struggle.20To Charles Merz reporting in from the convention floor, some of the planks were admittedly "doubtful." "But whatever the sins" of the Labor platform, he argued, "it is politically honest. It does not attempt to substitute unreal issues for genuine ones." As a reward for focusing on these issues, Merz thought, "is likely to be the charge that it is pandering to class sentiment… [But] if it is indeed class feeling to which a party of hand and brain workers appeals, it is at least not that minority class which profits from a stand-still order, but that larger class, not only of trade unionists, but of farmers, and professional men and small business agents whose interests demand a democratic reconstruction in America."21
With their respective platforms set, both the Committee of Forty-Eight and the Labor Party held simultaneous conventions in July of 1920, at the Hotel Morrison and Carmen Hall in Chicago respectively -- with the hope that the two organizations could unite as one third party under the leadership of their mutual first choice as candidate, Robert La Follette. In fact, before the respective conventions took place, both the Committee and the Labor Party tendered their nominations to the Wisconsin Senator, who was recuperating from the gallstone surgery that had been long put off due to the influenza epidemic. In both cases, La Follette -- through his lieutenants Gilbert Roe and Bob La Follette, Jr. -- demurred, for now. If the Senator had desired, he and his aides could likely have foisted the already-written Wisconsin platform, recently rejected by the Republicans in Chicago, on both conventions as a condition of his nomination. But, instead, La Follette argued that the two groups must first come together on a common progressive platform that arose voluntarily and organically from the delegates themselves.22
And so, even as nine hundred Committee delegates from forty-three states listened to speeches from the likes of Eamon de Valera (calling for Irish independence) and Taraknath Das, secretary of the Friends of Freedom for India, and seven to eight hundred Labor Party delegates cheered at pro-worker (and pro-Russia) speeches from the likes of CFL president John Fitzpatrick, the real work was being conducted behind the scenes. In several marathon sessions, a five-member Labor Party subcommittee, headed by New Majority editor Robert Buck, and a Committee of '48 subcommittee, under longtime New Jersey progressive George Record, met to discuss a common platform that could bring both organizations together and garner La Follette's approval. Each party to the negotiations had brought their own draft platform -- the Committee had one penned by Record and Pinchot, while the Labor Party had one that already gone through their side's platform committee (and thus could not be easily amended.) In addition, La Follette lieutenant Gilbert Roe, participating as an observer, had brought his own draft modeled on the Wisconsin platform, which he offered through New York lawyer -- and soon-to-be Labor Party candidate for Governor of New York -- Dudley Field Malone, a delegate at both conventions.23
On much of the substance, there was widespread agreement between the Committee and Labor negotiators. As Gilbert Roe informed La Follette after the dust had settled, "agreement was readily reached…upon the following propositions:
(1) Repeal of Esch-Cummins law, (2) government ownership and operation of railroads and transportation and of public utilities generally, (3) government ownership and operation of mines and other natural resources, (4) right of workers to a voice in the management of above industries…(5) Labor's right to strike, the eight-hour day in industry, and in fact a long list of propositions set out as Labor's Bill of Rights." (6) The establishment of public markets, rural credits, and other aid to farmers and the promotion of cooperation between producer and consumer. There was also substantial agreement with regard to all manner of civil liberties, military training,, the principle of curtailing the power of the federal courts, and also agreement respecting our foreign policy including the League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles.24"Here was a program," Roe concluded, "upon which substantial agreement was reached, which was sweeping in its character and which, if put in operation, would have revolutionized the politics and industries of the country and have made of the United States the freest and most progressive country in the world."25
But, even though there was so much in the way of agreement, Committee negotiators balked at language and planks that seemed, in Roe's words, "made from a Trade Union point of view rather than from a political point of view." A plank on "Democratic Control of Industry" -- "The right of labor to an ever increasing share in the responsibilities and management of industry" -- caused particular consternation, with Record and Pinchot objecting first to the entire inclusion, on the grounds that efforts "should be governed…by actual experience with the working of the principle, instead of the opinions of some social theorist or labor union," and then mainly to the word "ever-increasing…whatever that might mean." Also at issue was a single-tax plank, which Roe argued "would have lost us the entire farmer vote," as well as "an impossible banking scheme."26
Concerns about class bias aside, Committee negotiators also thought the Labor Party platform was just too long and unwieldy. "Unless we can agree upon one or two simple, clearly understood issues," Record had told La Follette of the Wisconsin platform, "it is hopeless to launch a new party." This was mainly because, as Record told La Follette in true progressive fashion, a long platform diluted the message and made it nigh impossible to educate Public Opinion. "[T]here is very little use," he wrote, "in putting things in the platform upon which we have not the power or do not intend to educate the public in the campaign. The effect of such a campaign upon such a platform would be such a wide scattering of our energies and such a confusion of the popular mind that when the campaign was over no central idea would have taken possession of the public mind." And the Labor Party's proposed platform was considerably longer than the 18-plank Wisconsin model.27
For both of these reasons, the Committee dug in their heels. But eventually, so too did the Labor Party negotiators. "We want Senator La Follette as our candidate just as much as you of the Committee of Forty-Eight want him," Buck told the subcommittee, "but we do not want even Senator La Follette as much as we want our programme. And so we now refuse to make any further concessions either to bring about harmony between the groups or to get the Senator."28
The Forty-Eighters' negotiating position was further harmed when its own convention disappeared. Pinchot and Record were already concerned that western members of the Committee did not hold the same views as the New York leadership. "[N]obody has understood our platform," Record remarked. Socialists "in the West," for example, "identify government ownership with socialism."On Tuesday morning, as the platform subcommittee bogged down, western Committee delegates walked out of the Hotel Morrison en masse and joined the Labor Convention at Carmen's Hall. Labor Party officials welcomed the swelling of their ranks, but also made sure they continued to control the convention floor. "The Labor Party had simply swallowed up the '48' convention, reported Frances Tyson of The Survey. "[S]pectators later had the unpleasant experience of seeing the '48' leaders disgorged, amid much bickering; when all had been said, Labor had its way."29
On the Labor convention floor, delegates considered possible nominees like Henry Ford (whose name was booed) and Jane Addams (who removed her name from consideration and offered instead "the Jesus Christ of today," Eugene Debs.) But ever since the beginning of the process, it had been assumed by La Follette's aides, both conventions, and the popular press alike that Wisconsin Senator's nomination was a fait accompli. But since no agreement on the platform ever emerged, the Senator's son and other lieutenants advised him via telegram that he should not put his name into nomination. "The ailing Senator," Arthur Hays wrote in his memoirs, "was a good enough politician to realize that there was no national interest in the internal warfare in the A.F.L. and that union labor could get nowhere politically without the support of the middle class and the farmers. He refused to run as our candidate." When this was announced to the joint convention on the last day of the conference, an impromptu demonstration nonetheless broke out all over the floor on behalf of La Follette, with all the campaign accoutrements -- photograph and banners -- that had been planned for his acceptance speech. Eventually, Bob La Follette, Jr. had to rush the podium and read a telegram from his father: "I have just been informed that contrary to my expressed wishes my name has been placed in nomination before your convention. In view of the circumstances which have arisen I do not consider myself available and must therefore decline to run if the nomination be tendered me. I earnestly hope that my name will be withdrawn without further delay."30
This enraged several of the Labor men in attendance. One of the platform subcommittee members, C.J. France, told the audience (falsely) that La Follette had objected to the Negro equality plank. Robert Buck took the stage and argued that "never again would a 'liberal' ticket hope to win. It must be a radical ticket." Soon thereafter, the Labor Committee's platform officially defeated the Committee of Forty-Eight's alternative, 308-125, at which point what remained of the Committee of '48 delegation -- around six hundred delegates -- left the building. The Labor Party then renamed themselves the Farmer-Labor Party and named Parley Christensen of Utah their presidential candidate. "Just before the final vote was taken," Hays recalled, "Amos Pinchot, who had no sleep for three smoke-laden nights, peered quizzically through his pince-nez and murmured 'Parley P. Christensen, oh, very well." As for Christensen's running mate, "[s]o many tenders of the nomination were made and so many persons refused to submit to the honor that it began to look as though the delegates were handing out a term in jail. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, we named by acclamation, and as his back was turned, Max Hayes, a labor man from Ohio." In any case, "[h]ope of an extensive new party movement that would challenge the old parties," reported The Survey's Francis Tyson, "was dead."31
To many, it seemed the negotiators had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and in the wake of the collapse there were plenty of recriminations to go around. "We did not form a coalition with the Labor Party because we could not accept its class, guild-socialistic platform," Committee Secretary Allen McCurdy announced in a letter to all Committee of '48 members. "By our refusal to join a class party our position has been clarified. The country now understands us to be a group of people intent on economic reconstruction, secured through the ballot for the benefit of all people regardless of class." Arthur Garfield Hays has suspected trouble going in. "Some of our younger idealists," he wrote later, "thought of Labor, spelled with a capital L, as some brawny figure come out of a symbolic painting, spiritually and mentally devoted to the democratic ideals that we espoused. Others were more realistic…[and] feared that we would be used as pawns in the fight against Gompers…And we were right."32
Similarly, wrote Amos Pinchot, "[a] great opportunity has been lost" because "the men who controlled the Labor Party…were not bent on a new people's party drawing from the whole American public, but on a trade unions party" to "spread British guild socialism in the United States" and "destroy Gompers' leadership" in the AFL. While "the need of a third party that is not a class party" still exists, now it was time, Pinchot thought, "to allow to sink home the lessons of our miscalculations." Sympathetic to labor's claims -- "How can people vote classlessly when they do nothing else classlessly?" -- William Hard also argued in The New Republic that La Follette had made the right decision to stand down. "[I]t is not the function, since it is not the impulse, of Mr. La Follette to be a labor movement leader."33
Members of the Labor Party, on the other hand, believed it was the Committee that had attempted a class coup at the proceedings. According to Committee negotiator Gilson Gardner, Labor leaders said "they did not need our people and did not want us. These leaders saw in any successful amalgamation or third party movement with La Follette as candidate an absorption of their new labor party. They felt they would be swallowed up by the white collared element. The more successful the movement, the less there would be left of them, their leadership, and their party." Dudley Field Malone - now candidate for New York Governor on the Farmer-Labor ticket -- berated the Committee leaders who had bolted as disconnected eggheads without "political knowledge and experience." They "had formed very strong and definite views as to the character of the programme that was to be adopted, and as to the character of the leadership of the new party, without ever consulting the rank file of their own organization, or even trying to gauge its views." As a result, "they are accompanied on their return trip into the political wilderness by so few of their rank and file that their defection is not likely to affect the fortunes of the new party." This new party, Malone made sure to mention, "is not a class-party except as it is the party of every man and woman who by hand or brain creates the wealth out of which e or she lives."34
Whoever had the right of it, several newspapers portrayed the happenings in Chicago as a radical act of class warfare. Much was made of the presence of William Z. Foster, the presumed orchestrator of the great steel strike, at the Labor convention, and the New York Times bemoaned the attempt to "set up something very like a soviet in this country." Others remained mostly amused at the fumbling attempts to create a third party - a lack of respect that greatly irritated the editors of The New Republic. When Republicans left having Chicago "having rubber-stamped what eight or nine men in a hotel room decided, it is a solemn occasion. It marks a return to American ideals. It is the salvation of the Constitution. It is the protection of American sovereignty. But if a group of men and women journey to Chicago determined to find some alternative…to inject a creative idea into the phrase-mongering of politics, it is excruciatingly funny. They are a collection of nuts. They are ridiculous. They are absurd." While TNR conceded that the eventual platform was "badly written, rather confusing at important points, and open to the fundamental criticism that it seems to have taken no cognizance of the progress of thought and experience since the time when government ownership seemed a simple remedy…it is a beginning worth the effort."35
Regardless of who was at fault, the failure in Chicago devastated the leadership of the Committee of Forty-Eight. Disgusted that the platform snafu -- on which he had been a hard-liner at the time -- had not been worked out weeks before the convention. Amos Pinchot argued the Committed had been "infiltrated by a lot of honest, well-meaning mushheads, who without any economic ideas whatsoever, cherished the simple faith that you could form a union of forces by getting the discordant elements under the same roof…cat and dog, monkey and parrot, lamb and lion would all become a united army of the righteous, marching with brass bands and waving banners toward a glorious and gilded millennium situated not farther than half a dozen city blocks from the convention hall." Along with George Record, he left the organization a few months later, saying "I do not want again to be off shore in a boat without a compass, and with the quartermaster steering consistently for the breakers. I am willing to pull oar, but not in that direction." Another defector was Mercer Green Johnston of Maryland, who told Senator La Follette he was resigning due to the "unsportsmanlike conduct of the 'responsible leaders' who had "played fast and loose with the Labor Party," and that the Maryland branch of the Committee was dissolving as a result. "If the conduct of our 'responsible leaders' in Chicago was not a crime," Johnston wrote, "it was perhaps worse for the purposes of practical politics: it was a joke. I feel sure you have little or no idea of being the butt of this joke."36
Even after the schism in Chicago, the Committee of '48 worked to nominate Robert La Follette on their own ticket, with Secretary Allen Curdy urging all members to "send a short telegram" to the Senator, "expressing your views as to the state of public opinion in regard to a new party in your locality." In his epistle, Johnston told La Follette "it would be a colossal blunder for you to be sponsored by the discredited 'rump' of the Committee of '48…That sponsorship would be a liability rather than an asset in Maryland."37
Gilbert Roe agreed. "To enter the field now at the head of another party," he wrote the Senator, "will necessarily bring you in conflict with a considerable number of labor leaders who have always been and who I believe still are your friends and supporters." And besides, "[t]he time is so late, the situation so confused, the forces naturally friendly to you so divided and largely embarked upon separate political enterprises that you cannot hope to poll a vote even as a protest vote to which you were entitled." As such, Roe advised La Follette to wait a cycle. "The Democratic and Republican parties as now organized and run can safely be trusted to be wrong on both our domestic and foreign policies," he argued. "In the meantime you will have several years to educate the public through your lectures, through your writings and in the Senate and will be building up a strong sound sentiment for a new radical but constructive party which this country is going to stand in great need of in the very future."38
La Follette's son concurred with Roe's assessment of the situation. "The edge has gone off in the third party movement at this time," he wrote his uncle, "and…the public generally have slumped back in the belief that nothing can come of it during this campaign…I do feel…a wonderful opportunity has passed and regret it exceedingly, but I think it would be a task comparable to lifting one by one's boot straps to attempt anything now."39
Nonetheless, Bob, Jr. continued, "this distinctly is not dad's attitude…I think if someone came along with the money to conduct a campaign he would be a candidate over night, and therefore for the first time I will look askance at anyone who comes along and seems to have any indication of carrying money bags." Eventually, however, Senator La Follette heeded the advice of his inner circle and decided not to make any third party run in 1920. Instead, planning for what looked to be the now-inevitable future ahead, Senate La Follette spent the remainder of the election ignoring requests from the Harding campaign to appear on his behalf, and instead began feeling out fellow Members of Congress to see if there was any interest in creating a bipartisan bloc of progressives -- an Independent Congressional Campaign Committee -- moving forward.40
While the failure of third part attempts rankled in 1920, some saw a silver lining in the party that almost was. "I think the gains from the convention far outweigh the losses," Roe wrote the Senator. "We uncovered the fact that there was a tremendous sentiment all over the country for a third party. It is undoubtedly the fact that you were the choice of such party. And it is also the fact, and this is the point I wish to emphasize, that the principles which were agreed upon were so fundamental and far reaching that they constituted a programme fully as large and fully as advanced as any party ought to consider." 41
However unsightly the proceedings, The Nation also thought the "efforts to create a third party has not been wasted. The beginning seems at the moment unpropitious, but at least it was a beginning." Even the curmudgeonly Pinchot didn't feel the experience was entirely a waste. "In the first fight for these things," he wrote, "we have been repulsed with loss. But we have gained the knowledge, that a new movement has got to grow from the grass roots up and consist of people who not only believe in the goal but agree substantially on the way the goal can be reached." 42
"It was not labor's cause we differed on," Pinchot concluded, "nor the need of a great party that would give to all the fruit of their own toil and a representation in the management of industry. It was whether the way to do this was by a class movement."43
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. "A New National Party," The New Republic, March 24, 1920, 108-109. Similarly, when Hoover chose to stay regular and speak on behalf of Harding in the general election, few turned against him with the virulence of TNR. They deemed Hoover and his ilk as "lacking both continuity and integrity of conviction…Mr. Hoover's endorsement of Senator Harding's nomination implies an interpretation of liberalism which in our opinion necessarily deprives it of impulse and stamina and condemns it to a meaningless opportunism." "Progressive Twilight," The New Republic, June 30, 1920 (Vol. XXIII, No. 291) 137-139.
3. Borah to W.J. McConnell, May 27, 1920. WJB, Box 85: Politics - Idaho. Noggle, Into the Twenties, 183.
4. "Towards a New Party," August 13, 1919 (Vol. XX, No. 249), 41-43.
6. Ibid. TNR also made a case that a third party begin by looking local. As men are grouped politically in America today, the first principle of effective party-building is not to begin, as the 1912 progressives did, with a desire to achieve the Presidency or nothing. The real way is to organize the liberal forces locally, win local elections, and gradually group the localities. The progressives should not aim at the National Executive now. In national affairs their immediate objective should be a block of liberal Congressmen, who will have a balance of power in Congress and will have a chance to educate the country to a new leadership." Ibid.
8. Noggle, Into the Twenties, 183. La Follette, 998. "Plan a Conference to Form New Party," New York Times, June 25, 1919. "Third Party Looms Again," New York Times, April 13, 1922. Said the NYT: "It was said that ,while the present membership of the Committee does not include any avowed Socialists, the plan and scope of the new organization might be broad enough to permit participation by those of the constructive type in its activities."
9. Ibid. There were many iterations of this joke floating around. When J.A.H. Hopkins and Arthur Hays spoke at a Socialist summer camp, Socialist leader Morris Hillquit introduced them as the "leader - and membership - of the Committee of Forty-Eight." Hays, City Lawyer, 251. Kenneth Miller, From Progressive to New Dealer: Frederic Howe and American Liberalism (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), 319.
10. Ibid. Remembering the formation of the Committee, Hays recalled: "We talked Progressive politics until well into the night, but none of our discussion of policies and programs equaled in length and intensity the matter of selecting the name." Miller, From Progressive to New Dealer, 319.
11. Arthur Hays, City Lawyer, 256. Quoted in Miller, From Progressive to New Dealer, 320.
12. "Platforms for Progressives," The New Republic, September 31, 1919, 135. Miller, From Progressive to New Dealer, 320.
13. "Platforms for Progressives," TNR.
14. W.E. Johnston to Committee of '48, July 5, 1920. J.A. Stewart to Committee of '48, July 7, 1920. Lester Franklin to J.A.H. Hopkins, July 11, 1920. All in RLF Box B-85: Special Correspondence.
15. Miller, From Progressive to New Dealer, 321, Committee of 48 Advertisement, The New Republic, May 19, 1920, III.
16. La Follette, 1000.
17. Ibid. Charles Merz, "Enter: The Labor Party," The New Republic, December 10, 1919 (Vol. XXI, No. 262), 53. "Declaration of Principles of the Labor Party of the United States," The New Majority, December 6, 1919 (Vol. 2, No. 23), 8-9.
18. Declaration of Principles, The New Majority.
19. Merz, "Enter: The Labor Party." Declaration of Principles, The New Majority.
20. "Platforms for Progressives," TNR.
21. Merz, "Enter: The Labor Party."
22. La Follette, 1001. Gilbert Roe, "Why Senator La Follette Declined the Nomination," RLF Box B-86: Special Correspondence, 2-3.
23. "There was a fair sprinkling of the long-haired strange ones of Roosevelt's 'fanatic fringe,' reported The Survey's Frances Tyson, from the Committee's convention floor. "But the vast majority of the 48-ers were disinterested business and professional men, and farmers and workers, with inchoate purpose, it is true, who had come at their own expense and some sacrifice from all parts of the country." Frances Tyson, "Labor Swallows the Forty-Eighters," The Survey, August 2, 1920, 587. La Follette, 1001-1005. Roe, 3-6.
24. Roe, 8.
26. Roe, 7. Gilbert Roe to Robert La Follette, July 16th, 1920. RLF Box B-86: Special Correspondence, 2-3, 2. Dudley Field Malone, "The Birth of the Third Party," The Freeman, July 28, 1920, 467, in RLF Box B-85: Special Correspondence.
27. George Record to Robert La Follette, June 25, 1920. RLF Box B-86: Special Correspondence, 2.
28. Malone, 468. La Follette, 1006.
29. Noggle, Into the Twenties, 183-186. Tyson, 588. La Follette, 1005.
30. Darcy Richardson, Others: Robert La Follette and the Progressive Movement: Third-Party Politics in the 1920s (Lincoln: iUniverse, 2008), 26. Hays, 261. La Follette, 1007.
31. La Follette, 1007-1008. Allen McCurdy to '48 Members, August 21. 1920. RLF Box B-85: Charles M. Cron. Tyson, 588. William Hard, "The Third Party," The New Republic, July 28, 1920 (Vol. XXIII, No. 295), 247. Hays, 262.
32. McCurdy. Hays, 257.
33. Amos Pinchot Press Release (undated), RLF Box 180: Committee of 48.
34. La Follette, 1008. Malone, 467-468.
35. La Follette, 1009. "The New Party," The New Republic, July 28, 1920 (Vol. XXIII, No. 295), 239-240.
36. Miller, From Progressive to New Dealer, 321. Pinchot Press Release. Mercer Green Johnston to Robert La Follette, August 4, 1920. RLF Box B-85: Special Correspondence.
37. McCurdy, August 21, 1920. Johnston, August 4, 1920.
38. Gilbert Roe to Robert La Follette, July 22, 1920. RLF Box B-86: Special Correspondence.
39. Robert M. La Follette, Jr. to Uncle Gil, August 2, 1920. RLF Box 113: Letters Sent 1920-21.
40. La Follette to Gil. Karen A.J. Miller, Populist Nationalism and American Foreign Policy (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999), 96.
41. Roe to La Follette, July 16, 1920.
42. "The Third Party Effort," The Nation, July 24, 1920 (Vol. 111, No. 2873), 83. Pinchot Press Release.
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