By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The Duty to Revolt
Progressives and the Election of 1924
IX. The Contested Inheritance
These efforts to enlist the former president from the grave culminated in a September 1924 statement penned by Raymond Robins and signed by forty-seven other former Roosevelt Progressives, including Garfield, Henry Allen, social worker Frances Kellor, and prominent newspaper editors Frank Knox, Chester Rowell, and E.A. Van Valkenberg. The purpose of the 1912 Progressive movement, it argued, "was to improve American institutions, not to substitute others for them. It stood for political and social justice, not economic revolution. It believed in democracy, not Socialism. It sought the welfare of all the people, not the welfare of class against class." La Follette's candidacy, on the other hand, was obviously a "class party" being used by the Socialists "as a step toward their goal of economic revolution based on class war." At best, its hope was "to deadlock the electoral college and prevent an election by the people." And so it fell to the Colonel's former comrades "to vindicate the memory of Theodore Roosevelt by repudiating this attempt of frustrated ambition to promote the class cleavage in class politics, which Roosevelt spent his life to prevent."2
In truth, Robins -- who thought Coolidge would support Outlawry -- was playing the type of close political hand for which his friends Harold Ickes and Hiram Johnson thought him so untrustworthy. As noted earlier, before the CPPA convention, La Follette had even asked Robins to be his running mate, but Robins had turned him down, since he was "opposed to many of his domestic planks - government ownership of the railroads, for example - and also to his absurd proposal for a referendum on peace or war." Nonetheless, Robins had privately told his sister Elizabeth that the Coolidge-Dawes ticket was "the apotheosis of reaction in American politics. If the voters stand for it, they will stand for anything. I regard the ticket as: Coolidge & Dawes, The Gold Dust Twins, Address Wall St." And, during the election campaign, Robins wrote his sister that "[d]eep in my heart, I have a real regret, not to be with brave courageous old Robert Marion La Follette. He is the veteran of the progressive movement in American politics." Two months later he again voiced his discomfort to her. "I am the only nationally known Progressive of the Roosevelt Adventure of 1912 who is leading the battle for Coolidge. I am finding some strange bed-fellows -- but such is the brutal game of politics."3
To other Roosevelt Progressives, Robins' statement wasn't normal politics at all, but an abject betrayal of the cause and a "confession of the bankruptcy of progressivism in the Republican Party." "I was a follower of Roosevelt, but I thought I was so for Principle's sake," one correspondent wrote Robins. But Robins and his co-signers were "hero worshippers… Hardly a one would but have supported Taft just as heartily if Roosevelt was not running...And now these men and women give out a statement primarily intended to help Coolidge, who by all standards is the most completely reactionary candidate who has been before the people in this generation."4
"I will wait until the final statement of the battle scarred heroes of Armageddon appears before I finally make up my mind," a furious Harold Ickes told Hiram Johnson while the Robins statement was still being circulated for signatures. "But a sizzling statement is beginning to ferment in my bosom and I am afraid I will have to give it expression one of these days." At that point still undeclared, Ickes confessed to his friend that this latest salvo might well be the straw that broke the camel's back. "I have stuck on in the Republican Party hoping against hope that we might be able to make it progressive from the inside," he said. "I have cherished political association within the party with yourself and those other old progressives who stood together and went down together in 1912 and 1916. But when I see Raymond and Van Valkenburg and Garfield and Henry Allen…falling on their bellies to lick the hand that has struck them I am filled with inexpressible disgust and an almost over-powering inclination to pack my playthings and go off with the lunatic fringe."5
Besides, Ickes thought, if Coolidge wins "there will be a natural drifting together of the La Follette Progressives and the Democrats. The Republican Party will then be the conservative party and the new Democratic-Progressive Party will be the Progressive Party. I know how many flaws can be picked in this statement and yet it seems to me, largely speaking, the present natural trend." Ickes argued much the same to George Henry Payne. "I think I see an impending break-up coming," he explained to his friend. "If I am correct in this view the Republican Party will be the conservative party in the future and there will be a liberal party composed of the present Democratic part, except such conservatives as go over into the Republican Party, and the La Follette Progressives." While Ickes "had expected to sit on the sidelines" since he didn't even "like La Follette personally" he told Payne, "the statement that appeared recently over the signatures of such heroes of Armageddon as Raymond Robins, Henry J. Allen et al delivering the progressives of the country, by influence at least, to Coolidge is more than I can stand."6
With Robins' fusillade, Ickes' break with the Republican Party was complete. "All I can say about Raymond Robins is that you had him sized up better than I had," Ickes told Senator Johnson after the statement had been published. "I don't see how further stultification politically is possible for him…he has plumbed the depths." The Senator, meanwhile, had no names to offer Ickes for a statement of rebuttal. "The difficulty is that all of the prominent progressives who were leaders of our Armageddon army in 1912 are so anxious for office, and so mad to bask in the sunlight of power," Johnson confided, "that they will accept anything. Most of them, too, [are] heartily ashamed of having been irregular once in their lives, and are atoning for their offense by an added subserviency to those they once denounced." That being said, Johnson - like his colleague George Norris, stayed regular as well, although both were well-known to be sympathetic to La Follette.7
And so Ickes fired off his own angry response to the press, denouncing the "hymn of hate" his fellow Progressives had published. If La Follette didn't stand for the ideals of 1912, Ickes argued, "certainly no other individual or political group does." Along with requesting "a frank account of what they have done…to uphold the Roosevelt tradition," Ickes asked these "self-appointed defenders of the faith [to] interpret the oil scandals of the present Republican administration in the light of the Roosevelt tradition," since their statement said "nary a word about the little black satchel with its hundred thousand dollars…or of the little green house on K Street, or of the Veterans' Bureau scandal." Nor, Ickes noted, did it mention "the Mellonaire tax plan" or "the Columbian blackmail treaty."8
Perhaps most egregiously, in Ickes eyes, the signers had failed "another test of real progressivism when Hiram W. Johnson ran as a candidate at the primaries." Then, these "limping heroes of Armageddon, some of them openly and others by their silence, chose to support a proven corrupt administration as against Roosevelt's companion in arms…Bull Moosers had been transmuted into Bull Mousers." In short, he concluded, "[t]rue progressivism is a matter of deeds and not of mere words, however indignantly expressed. Those who vouched for Mr. Harding as a Progressive…those who helped to throw Hiram Johnson to the reactionary lions; those who can blink at corruption of government at Washington that has never been equaled in American history, are ill-fitted to constitute themselves trustees of progressivism."9
Just as he had gauged Progressive sentiment for James Cox in 1920, Ickes again cast out a net far and wide to see where his fellow Roosevelt supporters in 1912 were leaning in 1924. "Most of the people in this vicinity that have Progressive leanings," George Henry Payne reported in from New York City, "are shouting for La Follette," though it helped that the people running the Davis campaign there "are the grandest collection of boneheads that were ever gotten together in a campaign headquarters." In Chicago, meanwhile, one insurance man found that "people engaged in business" -- like him -- were for Coolidge, while "La Follette unquestionably is popular among laboring men." But La Follette, this correspondent argued, was "a man who never could see more than one side to any question," and an election decided by the House "would be disastrous to every man engaged in business and working for a living, however much one might welcome it as just punishment for Republican misdeeds." Another Chicagoan thought "the prosperity of the country…will induce many to vote for Coolidge" and the "only real La Follette talk is done by some Germans who are always crabbing anyway." The "intelligent average workman," argued this writer, knows "that a vote for La Follette is a vote for the radicals and reds, whose power in office would make a drastic change in our present prosperity…Always remember that the Progressives are Republicans at heart when occasions like the present arise."10
Outside Chicago, however, reports from Illinois were more promising for Progressives. "I may be somewhat over shooting the mark," wrote Zardia Crain from Murphysboro, "but from what I can…[tell] the progressive movement is going much stronger than it did for Teddy in 1912, especially among our laborers and farmers…90% of the working class, it seems to me, will support La Follette and Wheeler." Crain, a La Follette supporter himself, told Ickes that Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa seemed similarly pro-Progressive. "LaFollette will carry the farmer and labor vote in this locality also a great many Democrats who have been doing a little thinking for themselves," wrote in another former Progressive from Atlanta, Illinois. Reporting in from Rockford, one attorney thought "there is no doubt that Coolidge will carry this county," though "La Follette will run way ahead of Davis." But "[i]f we have a killing frost," he suggested, "La Follette will get a much larger following than he will if the frost holds off."11
To assess the situation in California, Ickes turned to Senator Johnson, who gave him little reason for hope. "La Follette will get a very large vote in this State," Johnson reported, "and if his campaign were in appropriate hands he might be a very dangerous contender." But "those who come to the front of the campaign do not commend themselves to the ordinary man very highly." La Follette's candidacy was further hampered by a 4-3 decision by the California Supreme Court kicking Independent electors off the ballot and forcing the Senator to run as a Socialist. Publicly, Hiram Johnson denounced the decision as "unjustified by the law, contrary to public policy, and of most harmful consequence. It is decisions such as this that undermine public confidence in the courts." To Ickes privately, Johnson noted that, as a result of the decision, "I do not think there is much doubt about what this State will do."12
Even as Ickes surveyed his political contacts, Paul Kellogg of The Survey aspired to put together a more formal rebuttal to the Robins Progressives' grasping of the Roosevelt inheritance. "I have a notion that it should be both racy and vigorous," Kellogg told Arthur Garfield Hays of such a proposed statement, arguing it should "subtly convey to the public that they are merely the exhaust and we are the real steam" of the 1912 Progressives "in putting ourselves into the La Follette movement." Hays thought it was an excellent idea, but since he was tied up with campaign matters, he suggested Amos Pinchot or Harold Ickes take the lead in drafting one. Together with input from Donald Richberg, the two put a counter-statement together which eventually included the signatures of forty-two former Bull Moosers, including Ickes, Pinchot, Richberg, Kellog, Hays, George Record, Fremont Older, and Jane Addams, who told Ickes she was "very glad to sign my name to the document, although I always wince a little at the terms of political abuse, even when men deserve them!"13
Rather than being a Roosevelt Progressive, this counter-statement argued, Calvin Coolidge was "a protégé of Murray Crane," the Massachusetts politician who served on the Republican National Committee in 1912 and who was "foremost in the plot that…deprived Theodore Roosevelt of the nomination that was his by right." Moreover, as president, Coolidge had "never by express statement or by intimation… voiced even conventional regret" over the various Harding scandals. The "traduced, vilified, and plotted against" La Follette, on the other hand, "has stood his ground and has come out of each contest stronger and bigger and more trusted by 'just folks.'"14
As such, this counter-statement concluded, it was the Wisconsin Senator, not Silent Cal, who was the real heir of Roosevelt. To underscore the point, the La Follette Progressives counteracted the World War-era bromides of Roosevelt with a 1911 editorial from The Outlook, in which the Bull Moose complemented the "extraordinary work that has been accomplished in the State of Wisconsin under the lead of Senator La Follette" - work that Roosevelt blessed as being in "the true progressive spirit." After visiting the state, Roosevelt gushed, he felt like congratulating not just the locals but "the country as a whole because it has, in the state of Wisconsin, a pioneer blazing the way along which we Americans must make our civic and industrial advance during the next few decades."15
In response to this response, Robins and Valkenberg -- along with fifty other Roosevelt Progressives this time -- penned an additional statement in late October, to commemorate the late Roosevelt's birthday, reaffirming that the Bull Moose would vote for Silent Cal. "We denounce the use of the name Progressive by Senator La Follette, the Socialists, and other extremists," it argued. "If Roosevelt were here today, the Socialists would never have had the hardihood to pervert the Progressive name." Moreover, Robins et al declared "with complete assurance that he would be vigorously supporting Calvin Coolidge, who exemplifies the elemental principles of Theodore Roosevelt in behalf of democratic civilization and human progress."16
Sounding the same chord in TNR just before the election, California newspaper editor and old Progressive Chester Rowell, once a close ally of Hiram Johnson, argued, quite disingenuously, that "nearly all those who were most conspicuous in the Roosevelt movement of 1912 are now for Coolidge….[as are] the main body of the Progressive voters of that time" La Follette's bid, Rowell continued, was merely an attempt to form "a third party avowedly founded on class. Now, I may be archaic, palaeocrystic, obsolete, Byzantine, mid-Victorian, and all the other back-number epithets in the thesaurus, but I am not ready to accept class as the basis of political division in America."17
While progressives and Progressives wrestled over the legacy of Roosevelt, another high-level defection to the Davis camp caused similar consternation on the left. "I shall vote for Mr. Davis because he is the only man who can be elected in place of Mr. Coolidge, and 1 do not wish directly or indirectly to give the present administration another term of power," argued Walter Lippmann in TNR. "I shall vote for him because I believe that in this post-war world of fierce nationalisms his strong Jeffersonian bias against the concentration and exaggeration of government is more genuinely liberal than much that goes by the name of liberalism." The La Follette crowd, Lippmann thought, were tilting at windmills, since "it seems extremely unlikely that La Follette will break the solid South and almost as unlikely that the Southern Democrats will coalesce…with the Eastern Republicans." Besides, Lippmann wrote, belying his earlier days as a Rooseveltian New Nationalist "even though I warmly respect Mr. La Follette, I do not like the main drift of his preaching. His political program is almost violently nationalistic and centralizing; that seems to me reactionary and illiberal."18
If anything, Lippmann was soft-pedaling his criticism of La Follette in TNR. In the New York World -- a Democratic paper -- he was much more strident. "A vote for La Follette is a vote for Coolidge," he wrote. "A vote to disrupt the Democratic party is a vote to make the reaction supreme." La Follette, Lippmann insisted, had "united the conservatives and divided the progressives…paralyzed the liberals and revivified the reactionaries…muddled every issue, dragged a red herring across every trail, and done his complete and most effective best to insure the re-election of Coolidge." In launching this assault on the third party bid, Lippmann was in part heeding the advice of the 1920 Democratic candidate, James Cox, who told him that, for the Democrats, "the all-important thing is the defeat of La Follette." Nonetheless, Lippmann's stance enraged the progressives supporting the Wisconsin Senator. While not calling him out by name, Lippmann's old colleagues at TNR deemed his argument "a painfully opportunist doctrine. Since when has a vote in favor of the principles and men you believe in become 'a vote thrown away'? Must millions of Americans go on forever supporting one of two parties neither of which they approve, neither of which differs from the other just because it is difficult for a third party to win the first election in which it appears?"19
In another editorial just before the election, TNR took the fight to Lippmann directly. Their former colleague, they argued, was rationalizing towards an already-decided viewpoint - As such his view of parties "is framed to guarantee the survival of Mr. Davis's party." To "justify a progressive like himself in voting against La Follette," they argued, Lippmann was attributing "a long life after death to certain structural forms in the two existing parties. He fails to attribute sufficient vitality to the destructive and constructive possibilities of an economic and political ferment, which just in so far as it spreads will furnish economic groups with sufficient motive and momentum to break through old partitions and set free new political forces." In short, TNR argued, Lippmann was playing it safe to satisfy his new Democratic bosses.20
Particularly irate by Lippmann's stance was Felix Frankfurter, who began to fire off angry letters to the World at a weekly clip. "Coolidge and Davis had nothing to offer…except things substantially as is," pleaded Frankfurter. "The forces that are struggling and groping behind La Follette are, at least, struggling and groping for a dream." Lippmann was unmoved, and after publishing the first few harangues decided to cut his friend off. "I am exercising an editorial right to close a correspondence in which the correspondent has no further claim upon your space," he replied to Frankfurter. "Your letter has been published. The World has made its reply. We do not wish to conduct an argument with you."21
If the Robins Progressives wanted Coolidge because they were leery of the notion of a class party, Lippmann -- after the events of recent years -- urged Davis in part because he no longer wanted to see a strong and centralized federal government that could be bent to the whims of the masses. "You must not complicate your government beyond the capacity of its electorate to understand it," he warned. "If you do, it will escape all control, turn corrupt and tyrannical, lose the popular confidence, offer real security to no man, and in the end it will let loose all the submerged antagonisms within the state." Because of this, and because the increasingly foreign-policy-focused editor thought La Follette's view of the world was immature and archaic -- a combination of "American irresponsibility and isolation with provocative statements about the policies of France and England" -- Lippmann chose to cast his vote for John W. Davis.22
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Salzman, 316-317. "48 Roosevelt Aids Repudiate 3d Party," The New York Times, September 15, 1924.
3. Salzman, 316-317.
5. Ickes to Johnson, September 9, 1924. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
6. Ickes to Johnson, September 9, 1924. HLI. Ickes to George Henry Payne, September 22, 1924. HLI, Box 36: George Henry Payne.
7. Ickes to Johnson, September 18, 1924. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson. Johnson to Ickes, September 13, 1924. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
8. Undated statement, Harold Ickes. HLI, Box 35: La Follette Campaign. "Attacks Bull Moose for Backing Coolidge," The New York Times, October 5th, 1924.
10. George Henry Payne to Ickes, September 18, 1924. HLI, Box 36: George Henry Payne. Albert O. Anderson to Ickes, September 15, 1924. HLI, Box 34: Hiram Johnson Campaign 'A' Ernst C. Dittman to Ickes, September 18, 1924. HLI, Box 34: Hiram Johnson Campaign 'D'
11. Zardia Crain to Ickes, September 12, 1924. HLI, Box 34: Hiram Johnson Campaign 'C' G.G. Chittick to Ickes, September 12, 1924. HLI, Box 34: Hiram Johnson Campaign 'C'
12. Johnson to Ickes, September 22, 1924. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson. "Editorial Paragraphs," The Nation, October 8th, 1924 (Vol. 119, No. 3092), 347-348.
13. Paul Kellogg to Arthur G. Hays, October 8, 1924. HLI, Box 35: La Follette Campaign. Arthur G. Hays to Paul Kellogg, October 15, 1924. HLI, Box 35: La Follette Campaign. Amos Pinchot to Ickes, October 13, 1924. HLI, Box 35: La Follette Campaign. Ickes to Amos Pinchot, October 13, 1924. HLI, Box 35: La Follette Campaign. Addams to Ickes, October 14, 1924. HLI, Box 35: La Follette Campaign.
14. "42 Bull Moosers for La Follette," The New York Times, October 24, 1924.
15. Ibid. "Theodore Roosevelt on LaFollette and Wisconsin" (undated press release) HLI, Box 35: La Follette Campaign. Two prominent Progressives who stayed neutral in the back-and-forth between the two camps were Gifford Pinchot and William Allen White. Pinchot, rumored to be a signer of the Robins statement at first, told Ickes that he "did not sign that pronunciamento mainly because any statement by Progressives at this stage of the game ought to be a Progressive statement and not a mere denunciation. Moreover, LaFollette has done magnificent work for conservation, and I don't propose to forget it." As for White, while he ostensibly favored Coolidge, he also told Bob Jr in March 1924 that his father should "make the fight of his life for his health. Never before have we needed him so badly. It seems as if the army amassed around the idea of a just government for all Americans is mobilizing fast and getting in training for the fight. We cannot lose the General without confusion, discouragement, and a long time of waiting, perhaps another generation. I have fought so long that I am anxious to see even in the sunset some sign of victory." Gifford Pinchot to Ickes, September 26, 1924. HLI, Box 38: Gifford Pinchot. White to La Follette, Jr., March 29, 1924. White, Selected Letters, 239.
16. "Old Progressives Out for Coolidge," The New York Times, October 27, 1924.
17. Chester Rowell, "Why I Shall Vote for Coolidge," October 29th, 1924 (Vol. 40, No. 517), 219-220.
18. Walter Lippmann, "Why I Shall Vote for Davis," October 29th, 1924 (Vol. 40, No. 517), 218-219. Steel, 226-227.
19. Steel, 226-227. "The Week," The New Republic, October 15, 1924 (Vol. 40, No. 515), 153.
20. "Barriers to Progressivism," The New Republic, November 5, 1924 (Vol. 40, No. 518), 240-242.
21. Steel, 226-227.
22. Ibid. Lippmann, "Why I Shall Vote for Davis," 219.
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