By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The Duty to Revolt
Progressives and the Election of 1924
IV. Coronation in Cleveland
Instead, the convention was almost completely controlled by Coolidge and his business-minded allies. The new Republican Party chairman was longtime Coolidge backer William Butler, a wealthy Massachusetts textile manufacturer, who, TNR thought, "was so dictatorial and arrogant that even machine politicians, accustomed to their serfdom and prepared to kiss the hand which wields the whip, found his overbearing attitude unendurable." Before the end of the year, Lodge would be dead, and Butler would be appointed to his Senate seat.2
And, right down the line, the new power behind the Republican throne made itself known. "The mass of the convention," wrote William Hard in The Nation, "perceived that Mr. Butler was making the Republican Party less and less in the image of a political party and more and more in the image of a patriotic, efficient, businesslike rotary club." William Allen White, noting the presence of Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon in the Pennsylvania delegation, declared that "for the first time, the owners of America were appearing in Republican conventions." Oswald Villard, watching the opening invocation, was tickled in light of Teapot Dome by the bishop's call that "the crooked shall be made straight," and noted that the deity being appealed to was "the God of business success, the God of special privilege, the God of the exploitation of the masses on behalf of the big-business masters of the Republican Party." Clearly, argued TNR, "the big business interests which in the past have exerted their influence through deputies…at Cleveland came out in the open and themselves made their demands."3
The convention certainly moved with a business-like efficiency. On the second day of the convention, June 11th, the 1924 platform -- a sober-minded, innocuous document -- was reported to the floor and accepted. After a preamble that eulogized the "reverent memory of Warren G. Harding" and reminded America of the tumult of the Wilson years, the platform endorsed "rigid economy in government," lower taxes and higher tariffs, investment in roads and waterways, America's joining the World Court, and the continuance of Harding's policies with regard to disarmament and immigration restriction. Sidestepping a pit trap that would ensnare the Democrats, the document said nothing about the Ku Klux Klan other than a general statement that "[t]he Republican Party reaffirms its unyielding devotion to orderly government under the guarantees embodied in the constitution."4
For progressives, there were nods to conservation, an anti-lynching law, the eight-hour-day, increased regulation (but not ownership) of public utilities, and protective legislation for women, as well a promise to root out "dishonesty and corruption" and support "clean and honest government" - although the platform also took pains to emphasize that corruption was a problem of "both parties." ("It is a grave wrong," the platform warned Democrats and progressives "against…patriotic men and women [in government] to strive indiscriminately to besmirch the names of the innocent and undermine the confidence of the people in the government under which they live.") While recognizing "the fundamental national problem" facing agriculture and blaming it on Wilsonism, the platform prescribed higher tariffs, opening foreign markets, "reduction in taxes, steady employment in industry, and stability in business," along with a few rhetorical flourishes in the direction of cooperative marketing and McNary-Haugenism. Perhaps the most important lines in the platform were these: "The prosperity of the American nation rests on the vigor of private initiative which has bred a spirit of independence. The Republican Party stands now, as always, against all attempts to put the government into business."5
As in 1920, the platform impressed few. The New York Times thought it "not only verbose but labored," and recommended instead: "Coolidge, that's all." To The New Republic, the "wordy platform was written as usual for the sole purpose of catching as many votes as possible." In fact, the platform was more noteworthy to the editors of TNR for what it did not contain. "With the single exception of the World Court," they noted, "it evaded every important question…The prohibition question was dodged. The Ku Klux issue was evaded with a statement so mild as to be meaningless. The Japanese exclusion aspect of the immigration law was ignored." The closest thing to passion in this "dull and dispiriting document" was the evocation of the "protective tariff…The farmers were actually assured that they are in fact pretty well off and that the tariff is responsible for this happy state. Cynical contempt for the intelligence of the people could hardly be carried much further than this."6
As usual, the delegation from Wisconsin had tried to put forward a completely different platform for the Republicans -- one composed by La Follette -- but they were laughed out of the platform committee, and their progressive-minded minority report was dismissed just as contemptuously on the floor by the assembled delegates. In making the case, Congressman Henry Cooper of Wisconsin reminded the assembled Republicans that 26 of the 31 planks Wisconsin had put forward since 1908 were now the law of the land. It didn't take. The Wisconsin planks, particularly the one calling for government ownership of the railroads, were booed down. When the convention band, led by John Phillip Sousa, began to play "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here" to ease the tension, the crowd began to croon "All except Wisconsin, All except Wisconsin." To Villard, "the Wisconsin representatives blew the breath of life into the proceedings, redeemed the convention from the subserviency of a herd of soulless delegates, and quickened our faith in the survival in America of truth and honesty, reason and courage." He reminded his readers that Wisconsin "is always in advance of the party," and that "if another party does not get ahead of them," the Republicans will be "talking about these same issues a few years hence." But Villard was one of the few sympathetic observers there.7
Wisconsin made no friends on the floor on the morning of the third and final day of the convention either. After the president of the University of Michigan, Marion Burton, extolled the virtues of Calvin Coolidge, the convention erupted into a party that included everyone but Wisconsin. (The delegates ignored the continual cries of "Stand up, Wisconsin!" until Sousa played "The Star-Spangled Banner.") Then, the Republicans took the first and only presidential ballot of the convention: Coolidge led with 1065 votes, while La Follette had thirty-four (from Wisconsin and North Dakota), and Hiram Johnson ten (his winnings from South Dakota.) After the vote was taken, the floor called for unanimity, which Wisconsin refused to offer - prompting the chair to announce in oxymoronic fashion that "with the exception of a very few voices the nomination of Calvin Coolidge for President of the United States is made unanimous."8
Only in the afternoon of the third day, when it came time to choose a vice-presidential nominee, did the officious and business-like tone of the proceedings to that point begin to slip. Throughout the convention, party leaders -- among them Nicholas Murray Butler, Secretaries Andrew Mellon and John Weeks, Speaker Frederic Gillett, and a smattering of other Old Guard senators and representatives -- had been trying to pick a good running mate for Silent Cal. (After one marathon session that lasted until four in the morning, Senator Harry New of Indiana declared "I am going off to bed. The kind of man you are looking for as vice-president was crucified nineteen hundred years ago.") After talking with Coolidge, William Butler said the president wanted William Borah as his running mate, since having a progressive of note would balance the ticket. When Butler asked the assembled wise men what they thought of Borah, Secretary of War Weeks began spewing forth expletives, while Secretary Mellon shrugged and answered, "I never think of him unless somebody mentions his name."9
But Borah wanted no part of it, and, as the convention story went, when the president called the Idaho Senator to offer him a place on the ticket he replied "At which end?" (To a friend, Borah confessed he "had no desire to sit mute and be a figure head for four long years; in fact, I would die of nervous prostrations." To another, he argued that "one of the saddest things in the world was for a person to attempt suicide and not succeed but maim himself for life. Politically, I think that is just what the [vice-presidency] would be.") The convention then turned to 1920 also-ran Frank Lowden of Illinois, who was nominated on the second ballot and announced to the world - except Lowden had no desire for the post either. By his third telegram unequivocally refusing the position, Republicans realized they had to go into a special evening session to pick someone else.10
At this session, names began popping up all through the convention hall -- the farm bloc wanted William Kenyon, the Klan wanted James Watson of Indiana, Chairman Butler thought Herbert Hoover made the most sense. But the business-minded representatives running the show desired one of their own: Chicago banker, former Budget director, Open Shop advocate, and originator of the Dawes plan Charles Dawes. On the third ballot, Dawes has 682 ½ votes, while his nearest competitor, Herbert Hoover, had only 234 1/2. And so, in what the nominee called "about the most unexpected thing in my life," Charles Dawes found himself on the Republican ticket.11
Temperamentally, the choice of the fiery, hot-blooded "Hell and Maria" Dawes well offset the prim, taciturn Coolidge - As one wag put it, "Coolidge and Dawes, Coolidge and Dawes, one for the freezes, and one for the thaws." But, in terms of political orientation, it was now a conservative businessman backing a business-minded conservative. His inclusion, noted TNR, "shatters the last hope that any spark of liberalism will be found inside the ranks of the Republican Party this year." Oswald Villard called the choice of Dawes "the greatest political blunder of all from the point of view of vote-getting," while his journal called the choice "eminently fitting. If there is a rotary club or a chamber of commerce in America whose members are not swooning with joy at this beatification of big business…we should like to know which it is. No other man so well personifies the opposition of big business to union labor. We don't see how anybody could have slapped the face of the American Federation of Labor more deliberately."12
To The New Republic, the net result of the Cleveland Convention…will be to commit the Republican Party to a much more explicit and extensive support of big business as distinguished from small business, and of industry as distinguished from agriculture, than it ever has accepted in the past." Clearly, "the advocates of the divine right of industry have become the most aggressive, self-confident and articulate faction among the Republicans." Now, with a Coolidge-Dawes ticket and "with Mellon as economic spiritual advisor…they can for the present make the Republican Party smell like a Chamber of Commerce." William Hard also saw "a new Republican Party" in Cleveland. "Gone were the emotionality of Lincoln, the dare-devilry of Blaine, the humanity of Hanna, the impetuosity of Roosevelt; instead there were a rising calculation, preciseness, scientific management, and autocratic orders from the planning room." Oswald Villard was more succinct. "After three days one is inevitably forced to the conclusion that there is no longer any republic in America, or any democracy. We are ruled by a king and his name is Bunk."13
"There never has been a time in our lives," Hiram Johnson wrote Ickes of the Cleveland convention, "that big business has been so firmly in the saddle, and so determined in its activities." In fact, he argued, "the invincible alliance of crooked big business and crooked politics will not brook the slightest opposition even from their former favorites, and the alliance has not only been admonishing, but punishing those who dare in any matter vote against the sacrosanct program which it has given to Coolidge." Among those on the outs, Johnson noted with a certain relish, were "the pseudo-progressives…[Those] who have crawled during our campaign, and who were received during that period so graciously, have been kicked as viciously and as thoroughly as under the old Taft regime."14
That is with one exception, which Johnson noted with both exasperation and envy: Borah. "He is able to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds in a fashion that I believe no other man in politics has ever equaled," Johnson told Ickes of his colleague:
He has been the spokesman for Mellon and he is praised by LaFollette…He has been the constant adviser of Coolidge, and the beautiful child of the New Republic and other parlor liberals. The World Sunday published a table of votes of senators for or against Coolidge and the policies that have been given Coolidge. It looked like a baseball score. There was only one man who batted 100% for Coolidge, and that was Borah of Idaho.15"I admire the ability, perhaps you would call it cunning, with which Borah can be upon both sides and get away with it," concluded Johnson. "I think it is the most remarkable exhibition we have ever seen in our politics." In a letter the following month, Johnson marveled at an article he "read in the New Republic that there were really only two Progressives, LaFollette and Borah. And yet I observe the latter, not only voting against the Child Labor amendment, but actually the leading exponent of Mr. Mellon and voting in favor of the Mellon Tax Plan, and the chief adviser with Mr. Dwight Morrow of President Coolidge. With such contrary exponents of Progressivism as LaFollette and Borah held out to us by our omniscient intellectuals, the ordinary intellect may be pardoned a bit of confusion."16
Borah aside, Johnson asked Ickes whether "it might be a good time for some of the old Progressives to get together, not for the purpose of bolting the Republican Party, nor for the purpose of fighting Coolidge, but simply to keep in touch with one another upon the general idea of Progressivism. It has been suggested that William Allen White, Henry Allen…Pinchot, Payne, yourself, Robins, myself, and such others as might be appropriate, get together in a kind of love fest at a dinner or luncheon, so that there might be some sort of cohesion of the progressive forces in the country." At the very least, thought Johnson, it might be a good idea to prevent "the wild-eyed radicals of the La Follette group" to lay claim to the name. And in any case, the California Senator argued, "it seems ridiculous that men who on many points have a similarity of views, have let their forces be dissipated and destroyed, because upon a single point they may not agree. However, this is perhaps the mental attitude of our so-called Progressives and probably always will be."17
Ickes was even more disgusted than Johnson with the goings-on in Cleveland. "I never had the slightest intention of voting for Coolidge," he told his friend. "It would have been much easier for me to support Harding in 1920." The convention, Ickes thought, had exposed that there "is a distinct cleavage now. The futility of attempting to reform the Republican Party from the inside, to make it voluntarily progressive, must appeal to any open minded man as being quite futile. To work for Coolidge and help to keep him in the White House is to sin against the light; is to kill republican-progressivism and put reaction in the seat of power; is to advocate what we have against all our political lives…there is a higher duty than that of mere party loyalty. There is a duty to the principles that we believe in."18
The nomination of Dawes only cemented Ickes' resolve. "No one can any longer have any doubt about the Republican Party and what it really represents. It is the party of reaction and it glories in its shame…The issue is straighter and more definite than any issue we have ever faced not even excepting 1912." There was no way Ickes was going to "vote for the political bell-hop who is at the present moment masquerading as a President." Arguing that the "futility of attempting to reform the party from within must appeal to every reasonable mind," Ickes told his friend he was done forever with the party of Lincoln and Roosevelt. "My present disposition is to curse the Republican Party and all its works and leave it for good and all.19
As for the old Roosevelt Progressives, Ickes thought the group was unsalvageable and any meeting a "futile gesture." "[P]ersonally, I don't see the use," he told Johnson. On one hand "some of those who naturally would be invited and who ought normally to attend wouldn't come because they are so busy being regular that they would be afraid of being caught playing hookey." On the other, given the political predilections of Robins and White, the group would assuredly try to go on record as endorsing Coolidge. Upon further consideration, Johnson agreed with Ickes that "the calling of the old Progressives together is wholly useless…Indeed, there are not any Progressives left. We have a mild sort of protestant, who in reality hopes and prays he may exchange his protest for an office bestowed by the regulars or for a pat on the back by them." Now, Johnson sighed, the so-called progressives were people like "Borah, who plays both ends against the middle," and "our friend, Raymond, posing as the people, and longing for a place in the sun with selected few. We'll forget the suggestion about those who once were our Progressive brethren."20
Nonetheless, Johnson told Ickes, "I see myself in the next four years as a pretty lonely individual."21
Continue to Chapter 8, Pt. 5: Schism in the Democracy.
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. "The Week," TNR, 6/25/24.
3. William Hard, "Coo with Coolidge," The Nation, June 25th, 1924, 729. MacKay, 93-94. Oswald Garrison Villard, "The Convention of the Fit-to-Rule," The Nation, June 25th, 1924 (Vol. 118, No. 3077), 730. TNR did qualify their remarks about the "business men's bloc" by noting that theirs was a "victory by default…The Republican party is disorganized, disheartened, and leaderless…their victory is not a tribute to their strength but to their opponent's weakness." "The Week," June 25th, 1924.
4. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 228. "Republican Party Platform of 1924," Reprinted at The American Presidency Project (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29636)
6. Sobel, 284. "The Week," June 25th, 1924, 109-110. La Follette, 1107-1109.
7. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 227. Villard, "The Convention of the Fit-to-Rule," 731.
8. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 228. Sobel, 286.
9. McKenna, 208-210.
10. Sobel, 286. Vinson, 88. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 228-229. Borah to Hon. A.T. Cole, October 10, 1923. WJB, Box 142: Politics - Misc.
11. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 229.
12. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 238. "The Week," June 25th, 1924, 110. Villard, "The Convention of the Fit-to-Rule," 732. "Editorial Paragraphs," The Nation, June 25th, 1924 (Vol. 118, No. 3077), 721.
13. "The Business Man's Bloc," The New Republic, June 25th, 1924 (Vol. 39, No. 499), 113-115. William Hard, "Coo with Coolidge," 729. Villard, "The Convention of the Fit-to-Rule," 732.
14. Johnson to Ickes, June 10, 1924. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
16. Ibid. Johnson to Ickes, July 14, 1924. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
17. Johnson to Ickes, June 10, 1924. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
18. Ickes to Johnson, June 11, 1924. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
19. Ickes to Johnson, June 11, 1924. Ickes to Johnson, July 15, 1924. Ickes to Johnson, June 13, 1924. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
20. Ickes to Johnson, June 13, 1924. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson. Johnson to Ickes, June 16, 1924. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson. When George Henry Payne asked Ickes about a possible Progressive summit, Ickes gave a similar answer. "Just after Harding and Coolidge were nominated in 1920," he replied, "we had a conference at the University Club. We gathered up every one we could find in a hurry. Allen, White…Pinchot, Robins, and others. We counted the survivors, felt of our wounds and decided that whatever happened we would have frequent conferences and stay together. And we haven't met since. I ventured to predict at that meeting that there wouldn't be another conference. With the sole exception of myself all of those conferees supported Harding and Coolidge and helped to give us the most corrupt administration in the history of the country. Since then some of them have learned to like the medicine that was forced down their throats at that time. I doubt if we could get many of them to sit around the same table now. Many of them would be afraid that Coolidge would hear of it and turn them over his knee for a sound spanking." Ickes to George Henry Payne, June 13, 1924. HLI, Box 36: George Henry Payne.
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