By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The Duty to Revolt
Progressives and the Election of 1924
VIII. Coolidge or Chaos
Nonetheless, the brunt of the Republican general election campaign was taken right out of the A. Mitchell Palmer playbook. At each successive campaign stop, Dawes focused on painting the Wisconsin Senator as a radical and un-American menace, aligned with in intention if not actually a card-carrying member of the Bolsheviks in Russia. In his stump speech, Dawes began by telling audiences that he had hoped to spend the campaign talking about the budget, But "like a thief in the night, a great issue has stolen upon the consciences and minds of the American people -- an issue nobody expected -- the issue of the Constitution of the United States, which…is being assailed by Robert M. La Follette." "La Follettism in this campaign," Dawes declared, "represents demagogism animated by the vicious purpose of undermining the constitutional foundation of this Republic" - a "red menace" - and "unless patriotic citizens arouse themselves…the foundations of the Republic may be torn away."2
The fact that La Follette -- the "master demagogue" -- was by necessity running as a Socialist on most tickets was just icing on the cake for Dawes. "A man is known by the company he keeps," Dawes told a crowd of 100,000 in Evanston, Illinois, and "Robert M. La Follette [is] leading the army of extreme radicalism." While patriots across American history had "struggled to establish and maintain our constitutional principles," Dawes argued, La Follette wanted voters "to follow into an attack upon them, massed behind an aggressive personality, [and] a heterogeneous collection of those opposing the existing order of things, the greatest section of which, the Socialists, fly the red flag." The argument that "La Follette has gone over to the Socialists" was repeated ad nauseum by state and local Republican Party officials anywhere where the progressives were forced to run on the Socialist ticket.3
As evidence of La Follette's un-American radicalism, Dawes pointed most often to the plank advocating a congressional veto over Supreme Court decisions. When asked "the paramount issue of the campaign" the week before the election, Dawes argued that normal discussion of issues - the World Court, tariffs, etc. - had all been "subordinated in public attention" over the course of the campaign "because Robert M. La Follette, in an attempt to amalgamate all the organized forces in our citizenry opposed to the present order of things in our country, has launched an assault on our constitutional form of government with a proposal to strip the Supreme Court of its power." "La Follette and the Socialists," Dawes argued, were "striving by one blow to disrupt our present balanced form of government and to make Congress supreme." Such a doctrine "would be disastrous," for the "bill of inalienable individual rights, the general recognition of which is the foundation of civilization, would under the La Follette proposition be at the mercy of Congress." Thus did Dawes shrewdly amalgamate the concerns of civil libertarians and the rhetoric of the Red Scare.4
In sum, Dawes argued, the choice of the election was "Coolidge or Chaos" -- The American people could either stand with "leaders like Coolidge…who get up and preach common sense to you," or get behind the "political blatherskites and pee-wits" who were endangering the foundations of the republic and "running over this country preaching all things to all men." Voters, he said at another point, must decide whether to "stand on the rock of common sense with Calvin Coolidge, or upon the sinking sands of socialism with Robert M. La Follette." As for Davis and Bryan, they were no choice at all -- The Democrats, Dawes declared, had gone for the "straddle…with one conservative and one radical on its ticket, hoping to get votes by avoiding the issue." Even some La Follette supporters saw the election in those terms. "The actual combatants are the Hon. Mr. La Follette and the Hon. Mr. Coolidge," wrote Mencken of the campaign. "Dr Coolidge is for the Haves and Dr. La Follette is for the Have Nots." Davis meanwhile was, "in a very real sense, not in the fight at all: he is simply a sort of bystander…He is simply concealed in the crowd, like a bootlegger at a wedding."5
Nonetheless, the "radical" on the Democratic ticket was used as a further bludgeon against La Follette and Wheeler. In The North American Review and other magazines, Republican writers put forward the elite-tailored version of the "Coolidge or Chaos" argument, which was that voting for La Follette would throw the election into the House of Representatives. "The campaign has resolved," argued the editors of The Review, "into a contest, not between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, not between Coolidge and Davis, but between Coolidge and No Election. That is the sole practical issue." Only "a vote for Coolidge would be a vote for a President to be elected by the people." Otherwise, the ensuing House negotiations would mean an empty White House on March 5th, 1925, after which "there could not fail to be…immeasurable confusion and utter chaos, with all attendant evils, the very recital of which would be little short of terrifying, spelling, in the grave words of Senator Borah, 'as tragic a situation, as, outside of actual war, could arise in a republic.'" After this interregnum of despair, the argument went, congressional Democrats and progressives would eventually conspire to choose Charles Bryan as the next president. Summing up this contention for the layman, TIME put it as follows: "A vote for La Follette is a vote for Bryan. A vote for Davis is a vote for Bryan. A vote for Coolidge is a vote for Coolidge."6
The relentless Republican focus on the progressives even drew consternation from the Democrat in the race, who thought Dawes was making "a new bogey man" out of La Follette -- "a Red who will certainly get you like the goblins if you do not look out." "He is wearing a fur cap and a long red robe," John W. Davis warned his audiences, "and on his breast his name is written in characters such as we rarely see in the United States, and they point to him and tell you, 'He is a Bolshevik!' And when his cape falls down and he lays down his red gown, you find that he is none other than our familiar friend Senator Bob La Follette." At another point, Davis quipped that, while the standard of the 1912 progressive was a Bull Moose, the 1924 animal of choice should be a salamander, "for no other animal could live in a heat so red as General Dawes depicted." As for the "Coolidge or Chaos" argument, Davis suggested instead "Coolidge, Then Chaos," just as America had already witnessed from the "heedless and helpless and rudderless" Harding administration.7
Especially for the first few months, Davis criticized La Follette less often than Dawes, although he too was a severe and relentless critic of the Court-veto plan. "My real objection," he explained, "is not that it is leading us on to Moscow, but that it is trying to take back to London," away from the "American system of government under a written constitution" and back toward "the English theory that Parliament is supreme." The Bill of Rights, Davis argued instead, "are too sacred to leave to Congresses or to Legislatures, and we write them for that reason into the body of our written Constitution." Nonetheless, Davis took particular pains to separate his critique from the one made by Dawes. "[B]efore Senator La Follette can make that proposal good," Davis noted, "he must carry a majority of the Electoral College…when I pick up my atlas and look at the map of the United States I cannot lie awake nights with the shaking ague for fear a Red is going to get me before the morning sun rises. And I cannot accept that, my friends, as the cardinal issue in this campaign." As The Nation said in gratitude, "Mr. Davis is a corporation lawyer…But for all that Mr. Davis is too well-informed to stomach Mr. Dawes' twaddle."8
Nonetheless, Republicans continued to paint La Follette in crimson throughout the election. "All the old machinery of the notorious Creel Information Bureau," lamented the Steuben Society, a German-American patriotic society formed at the height of the Scare, "was dragged out of its obscurity and set up anew to belch forth an avalanche of vituperation and mendacity." Indeed, if General Dawes used the campaign's Socialist ties to paint La Follette as an agent of Bolshevism, many of his Republican understudies skipped the middleman entirely. The head of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association warned that the Progressive ticket were "a Lenin and Trotsky with a formidable band of followers made up of the vicious, ignorant, and discontented element, openly organized for battle." Among those insisting that proceeds from La Follette events were financing the operations of Soviet ne'er-do-wells were California Congressman Walter Lineberger and Shipping Board chairman T.V. O'Connor, the latter of whom insisted that "a large amount of money has been sent from Russia through Mexico to aid the campaign." (When later asked under oath about this claim, O'Connor later said "I believe it in my own heart, though I have no way to prove it.") In The Saturday Evening Post, a much-discussed article entitled "Let X = La Follette" declared definitively that "the Worker's Party, which is now the William Z. Foster party, are now actively canvassing for La Follette" -- in fact, they were actively disparaging the Wisconsin Senator at every opportunity.9
While excessively dedicated to the anti-La Follette cause, The Saturday Evening Post was far from the only periodical to paint the progressive insurgency in an ugly light. With the exception of the Scripps papers, whose owners were longtime La Follette supporters, and the Hearst papers, whose owner was a longtime promoter of a third party with himself at the head, most journals across the country were of a decidedly anti-La Follette persuasion. (The Hearst empire ultimately endorsed Coolidge.) "In this campaign the capitalist newspapers could tell the public any lies they pleased and we were helpless," groused Upton Sinclair after the election, noting one in particular, printed by the Los Angeles Times, declaring that La Follette had handed out miniature champagne bottles "made in Germany" to an audience in Pasadena. In fact, painting La Follette as a pro-German Wet, and his adherents as swarthy, skeevy-looking urban foreigners, was a popular pastime in opposition newspapers - at least in the formerly McAdoo-friendly South and West. In the former pro-Smith bastions of the East, newspapers instead painted La Follette voters as unsophisticated agrarian country bumpkins, just like the ones that had recently descended on New York City en masse.10
As La Follette's candidacy became increasingly tied to Socialists and Soviets, some of the old resentments from the war and post war periods began to flare up anew. "Six years ago, La Follette was an enemy to the country, a foe of the army and navy," reminded the 35th Division Association, while a "Republican Service League [to] scotch La Follettism" arose under the leadership of a prominent member of the American Legion. In Rahway, New Jersey, La Follette supporter and editor Louis Budenz saw a thousand-member mob descend on his home, headed by veterans in uniform and carrying a coffin, yelling "Kill the Socialist!" In Darien, Connecticut, a preacher was exiled from town for speaking on behalf of the Progressive ticket and "insulting the people of the United States." In Washington, a Socialist who was arrested for touting the ticket was told by the authorities that "maybe La Follette can get you out of this." And, when 213 college professors announced their support of the independent ticket, the Cincinnati Enquirer -- a Republican journal -- urged they be fired for being "attached to recognized heresies."11
These sorts of civil liberties abuses were endemic along the trail, especially, according to historian Kenneth MacKay, "around factory towns and industrial centers where the Socialists and Progressives had made inroads or were active in campaigning." Joining these efforts this time around was the Klan, who - while allowing members to vote their conscience between the two major parties -- nonetheless deemed La Follettism "the most pernicious thing in the political life of America." The Wisconsin Senator, gravely intoned Imperial Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans, wanted to "destroy the people's confidence in this, the soundest, the greatest and the best government on earth."12
Just as prevalent as these more explicit efforts at intimidation were warnings on the factory floor that voting for La Follette would mean trouble for workers. Next to "Coolidge or Chaos" and "Keep Cool with Coolidge," the most oft-heard Coolidge slogan on the campaign was "A Vote for La Follette is a Vote for Hard Times." According to the ACLU's Roger Baldwin, who was monitoring election efforts in Connecticut, La Follette lost the state in part because "foremen told workers they would lose their jobs if they did not vote for Coolidge." This ultimatum was often heard repeated across the country, from Washington to West Virginia. One railroad machinist who tried to affix a La Follette pamphlet next to the Coolidge-Dawes propaganda already on the company bulletin board was promptly fired for his misdeed. In his memoirs, Arthur Hays remembered consoling one La Follette volunteer who "made the best speech of my life last night and lost lots of votes." What happened, asked Hays? The volunteer's Republican opponent -- "a clever Irishman" -- said of La Follette, "I like that fellow. I like his ideals. I like what he stands for. I wish I could afford to make such a fight":
Now you folks are clerks and stenographers and factory workers and such-like. This fellow says that big business controls this country. He's right and it's a damn shame. Now big business says that if Coolidge don't win, we'll have hard times and lose our jobs, and I guess those fellows know. I can't afford to take the chance. Can you? 13Similarly, after the election, Burton Wheeler asked his friend Joseph P. Kennedy how he had managed to hold Democrats in line in Massachusetts. "We scared hell out of them," Kennedy replied. "We told them that a Progressive Party victory would close all the mills and factories. And in South Boston we told the Irish that the La Follette program would destroy their Church."14
Farmers in the Northwest, meanwhile, were informed that all the workers who would be let go if Coolidge lost would affect their business negatively as well. As it happened, the election of 1924 coincided with the first substantive rise in farm prices that farmers had seen since the war. Between July and October 1924, the price of hogs leapt from seven to eleven dollars a head. Over the course of 1924, grain prices rose from $0.97 to $1.40 in Duluth, from $1.07 to $1.43 in Chicago, and to over $1.50 a bushel in Minneapolis - in part because, thanks to the cash-on-hand provided by the Dawes Plan, European demand was rising once again. As Burton Wheeler commented after all was said and done, "it is always hard to beat the pocketbook as an election issue."15
Continue to Chapter 8, Pt. 9: The Contested Inheritance.
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. "Dawes in Wisconsin Calls La Follette 'Master Demagogue,'" The New York Times, September 12, 1924. "Dawes Denounces Political Pee-Wits," The New York Times, September 21, 1924.
3. "Strikes at La Follette," New York Times, August 20, 1924. "Asserts La Follette Is Now a Socialist," October 6th, 1924.
4. "La Follette Plank A Peril, Says Dawes," The New York Times, October 29, 1924. Mackay, 163-164.
5. "Coolidge or Chaos," Dawes Tell West," The New York Times, September 26, 1924. "Strikes at La Follette," New York Times, August 20, 1924. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 60. Mencken, 97.
6. "The Paramount Issue: Coolidge or Chaos," The North American Review, Vol. 220, No. 824 (Sep., 1924), pp. 1-9. Richardson, Others, 210. MacKay, 168.
7. "Davis Defends La Follette as Republican 'Bogey Man,' The Sunday Morning Star (Wilmington, Delaware), September 28th, 1924, A1. "Davis in Indiana Hits Chaos Slogan," The New York Times, October 12, 1924.
8. Ibid. "Editorial Paragraphs," The Nation, October 8th, 1924 (Vol. 119, No. 3092), 348.
9. MacKay, 162, 164-165, 167. Wheeler, Yankee from the West, 263.
10. MacKay, 208-212.
12. MacKay, 162-173, 215.
13. MacKay, 162-173, 215. Wheeler, Yankee from the West, 264.
14. Wheeler, Yankee from the West, 253. Joseph Kennedy also gave Wheeler an anonymous $1000 donation and provided him with a Rolls-Royce and private chauffeur throughout the candidate's New England swing. "It occurred to me later on," Wheeler wrote in his memoirs, "that Kennedy actually might have been trying to undermine me in this fashion." Wheeler, 252.
15. MacKay, 205. Wheeler, Yankee from the West, 264-265.
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