Uphill All the Way: The Fortunes of Progressivism, 1919-1929
By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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Chapter Eight:
The Duty to Revolt

Progressives and the Election of 1924

VII. Fighting Bob

I. Indian Summer.
II. Now is the Time.
III. Hiram and Goliath.
IV. Coronation in Cleveland.
V. Schism in the Democracy.
VI. Escape from New York.
VII. Fighting Bob.
VIII. Coolidge or Chaos.
IX. The Contested Inheritance.
X. Reds, Pinks, Blues, and Yellows.
XI. The Second Landslide.

One of the few places in America where the Coolidge operation had completely run aground during the 1924 Republican primaries was in Wisconsin. There, even with the president and Hiram Johnson on the ballot, Robert La Follette had won two-thirds of the vote simply through write-ins. "La Follette," commented the New York World on that April 1924 victory, "is the only man now on the political horizon who can lead hosts in an independent pilgrimage." And even though the Senator was in fading health, he was eager to take up such a standard if neither of the two major parties chose a progressive nominee. With the Republican convention in Cleveland no doubt in the hands of reactionaries, La Follette queried his old friend, William Jennings Bryan, about the potential goings-on among Democrats in early June. "If you care to do so," La Follette wrote Bryan, "I will be pleased to have your judgment as to the probable outcome at New York." Bryan, of course, had no clue what he was in for, and, as the Democratic convention dragged on, La Follette dispatched his son Bob to New York to keep an eye on the proceedings. If the deadlocked Democrats chose a conservative, the Senator was ready to run.1

That being said, La Follette did not want his third party attempt to get tarnished out of the box with the Bolshevik brush. In fact, William Mahoney, the head of the Farmer-Labor Party, had begun trying to draft La Follette as their candidate well before their June 1924 convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. This was not quite the same Farmer-Labor movement that had experienced a Communist takeover in Chicago -- Mahoney and his powerful Minnesota branch of the FLP had refused to send delegates to that ill-fated 1923 convention. But Mahoney had nonetheless allowed the Worker's Party a place at the table, provided they remained a minority and were open about their status. This FLP also had the support of J.A.H. Hopkins -- who had earlier pushed Borah to throw his hat in the ring at St. Paul -- as well as both the Forty-Eighters and the Socialists. The more conservative labor wing of the CPPA, as well as Samuel Gompers' AFL, however, were less enthused, and pushed La Follette to renounce this movement -- which the Wisconsin Senator eventually did. "I have no doubt that very many of those who have participated in bringing about the St. Paul Convention have been actuated by the purest desire to promote genuine political and economic progress," La Follette wrote. Nevertheless, he added, "those who have had charge of the arrangements for this convention have committed the fatal error of making the Communists an integral part of their organization.":
The Communists have admittedly entered into this political movement not for the purpose of curing, by means of the ballot, the evils which afflict the American people, but only to divide and confuse the Progressive movement and create a condition of chaos favorable to their ultimate aims. Their real purpose is to establish by revolutionary action a dictatorship of the proletariat, which is absolutely repugnant to democratic ideals and to all American aspirations…

Reposing complete confidence in the soundness of the deliberate judgment of the American people, I have no apprehension that the Communist Party can ever command any considerable support in this country. I do not question their right, under the Constitution, to submit their issues to the people, but I most emphatically protest against their being admitted into the councils of any body of progressive voters…

Not only are the Communists the mortal enemies of the progressive movement and democratic ideals, but, under the cloak of such extremists, the reactionary interests find the best opportunity to plant their spies and provocatory agents for the purpose of confusing and destroying true progressive movements.2
"I have devoted many years of my life to an effort to solve the problems which confront the American people by the ballot and not by force," concluded La Follette. "I have fought steadfastly to achieve this end, and I shall not abandon this fight as long as I may live. I believe, -therefore, that all progressives should refuse to participate in any movement which makes common cause with any Communist organization."3

As a result of La Follette's open letter, the Committee of '48 subsequently separated all ties from the Farmer-Labor party as well. In the end, the St. Paul convention included less than 400 delegates, most of them heralding from the Worker's Party. Their eventual nominee, Duncan McDonald, returned the Senator's scorn. "If the man who frowned on this gathering has gone over to the crowd that plundered the public domain at Teapot Dome and acted as bootleggers down in Washington, then it is our right to return the compliment. If he calls us reds then by God he is 'yellow.'" As it happened, La Follette's dismissal of the Communists turned out to be opportune for them. Soon after the St. Paul convention, the Comintern in Moscow officially decreed that the Worker's Party involvement in any coalition third party attempt should be repudiated.4

The Conference on Progressive Political Action, on the other hand, had from the start steadfastly kept Communists out of their gatherings. And, at their third meeting in February 1924, the associated members -- the railroad unions, the Committee of '48, the Socialists - began laying the groundwork for a political convention in July to choose a coalition candidate for a third party bid. Joining them in the spring of 1924 was the Women's Committee for Political Action (WCPA), an organization initially led by Carrie Chapman Catt and including Charlotte Perkins Gilman, female Forty-Eighters, journalists like The Nation's Freda Kirchwey, and various members of the National Women's Party, among them suffragists Harriet Stanton Blatch (daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton) and La Follette family ally Zona Gale. At a May 1924 conference in Washington DC, timed to coincide with the end of an international WILPF meeting in the same city, the WCPA created a platform advocating international peace, public ownership of the railroads and natural resources, defense of civil liberties, various welfare and protective measures, and the election of "a substantial woman's bloc in Congress."5

By the time the CPPA conference opened in Cleveland on Independence Day -- in the same building where the Republicans had recently nominated Coolidge - the WCPA had members from forty-two states, was organized in twenty-five, and could send thirty-six delegates from seventeen states to the proceedings, where they joined roughly 1000 delegates from the various coalition members of the CPPA and around 9000 more young faces. If "the Republican convention was a gathering of Babbitts [and] the Democratic a meeting of Southern gentlemen and Northern sportsmen and politicians," noted a reporter from the New York Herald Tribune, "this is a gathering of students" -- including sizable contingents from Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Vassar, Barnard, and Union Theological Seminary. The average delegate, the Herald-Tribune estimated, was under forty. Meanwhile, representing the other end of the generational spectrum in Cleveland was Jacob Coxey, the seventy-year-old Ohioan who had led "Coxey's Army" of unemployed to Washington in 1894.6

The conference still harbored the occasional crank -- one fellow claiming to represent "The Migratory Workers of America," James Francis Murphy, kept trying to steal the nomination from La Follette; another Forty-Eighter from Boston, known as "Old Sock Joe" wanted official planks forcing Klansmen to wear their hoods round the clock and suspending Prohibition for ten days a year. But most on hand were eager to send La Follette on his way with a maximum of patriotism and a minimum of fuss. As the credentials committee kicked out William Mahoney of the Farmer-Labor Party and burly guards blocked the way of any Communists trying to infiltrate the proceedings -- outside, they protested "the worst reactionary political convention held that year" -- delegates continually made reference to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address. Compared to the Democratic shenanigans playing out on the radio as well - the local station WJAX transmitted from Cleveland while New York was in recess -- the CPPA seemed a relatively calm and statesmanlike affair.7

In fact, most of the in-fighting in Cleveland had occurred beforehand in committee, between the moderates who still just wanted an independent candidacy, and the Socialists who wanted the explicit construction of a third party. When La Follette sent word from Washington that he agreed to accept the nomination of the conference -- New York had not finished its decision-making, but after seventy ballots it was looking less and less likely that any progressive Democrat would be chosen -- the union men wanted to immediately endorse his candidacy, while Morris Hillquit and the Socialists thought the convention should go through the usual party-building steps of naming official credentials, resolutions, and delegates first. Hillquit won that fight -- the immediate declaration for La Follette was ruled out of order -- but overall he and the Socialists lost the war. Since May, La Follette had been adamant against constructing an official third party, since he thought it would jeopardize "the election of every progressive Senator & Representative in Congress candidates in 1924 -- the men who now hold the balance of power in both houses and into whose hands will be committed the issue if the Presidency is thrown into the House." The Socialists fought this in committee, sometimes bitterly, but with La Follette against a third party their hands were tied.8

On the evening of the first day of the conference, Bob La Follette, Jr, speaking on behalf of his father, read the nominee's statement. "I stand for an honest realignment in American politics," La Follette announced, "confident that the people in November will take such action as will insure the creation of a new party in which all Progressives may unite…Permanent political parties have been born in this country, after, and not before national campaigns, and they have come from the people, not from the proclamations of individual leaders...If the hour is at hand for the birth of a new political party, the American people next November will register their will and their united purpose by a vote of such magnitude that a new political party will be inevitable." Instead La Follette announced on behalf of his father, "I shall submit my name as an Independent Progressive candidate for President…My appeal will be addressed to every class of the people in every section of the country. I am a candidate upon the basis of my public record as a member of the House of Representatives, as Governor of Wisconsin, and as a member of the United States Senate. I shall stand upon that record exactly as it is written, and shall give my support only to such progressive principles as are in harmony with it."9

The following day, July 5th -- as Democrats huddled together for their ill-fated "harmony conference" -- a series of CPPA coalition members officially nominated La Follette, including E.J. Manion of the railroad brotherhoods, Morris Hillquit for the Socialists, George Lefkowitz for the farmers, Mabel Costigan and Harriet Stanton Blatch for the WPCA, and William Pickens, an African-American delegate, for the NAACP. Also among the speakers at the convention were Senator Henrik Shipstead and Republican Fiorello La Guardia, who, speaking on behalf of the other New York -- "Avenue A and 116th Street instead of Broad and Wall" -- declared he would "rather be right than regular." La Follette was then nominated by acclamation by the assembled convention, as was his platform -- the same platform Republicans had roundly rejected in Cleveland the month before.10

Arguing that the "great issue before the American people today is the control of government and industry by private monopoly," the Progressive platform called for a "complete housecleaning" at Justice and Interior, "recovery of the navy's oil reserves" and "vigorous prosecution of all public officials, private citizens, and corporations that participated in these transactions." With Teapot Dome out of the way, it called for public ownership of water power and natural resources, as well as of the railroads "with definite safeguards against bureaucratic control" -- the latter phrase a compromise between moderates and Socialists.11

With regard to taxes, it deemed the "Mellon tax plan…a device to relieve multi-millionaires at the expense of other tax payers," and called for lower taxes on "moderate incomes," higher estate and excess profits taxes, and the publication, with proper safeguards, of all tax returns. The platform also called for "drastic reduction" of the Fordney McCumber tariff, disarmament, Outlawry, and a revision of the Versailles Treaty, cooperation in agriculture, the abolition of the labor injunction, passage of a Child Labor amendment to the Constitution, a bonus for veterans, and a "deep waterway from the Great Lakes to the sea." Perhaps most controversial, it called for abolishing the Electoral College, extending the initiative and referendum to the federal government, mandating a popular referendum for any war not involving an invasion by outside forces, a congressional veto over the Supreme Court, and the election of all judges for ten year terms.12

Perhaps equally telling is what the platform did not include. For example, while much was made of the ancient evils of monopoly, the forward-looking provision in the Democratic platform calling for public works projects in times of unemployment was not included. In short, the initial platform was very much a La Follette document, reflecting more the Senator's personal crusades over the decades rather than many of the issues which had brought progressives together to found the CPPA in the first place.

The committee report on resolutions, also adopted by the conference, did cover some of the ground missed by La Follette, such as the "unqualified enforcement of the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech, press, and assemblage," the "removal of legal discriminations against women by measures not prejudicial to legislation necessary for the protection of women and for the advancement of social welfare," freedom for the Irish and Philippine people, and a denunciation of US policy toward "Haiti, San Domingo, Nicaragua, and other nations of Central and South America." But, in total, the progressive platform still remained silent about African-American rights, Prohibition, and the Klan. (On this last question, La Follette made his position clear in early August of 1924, when he declared in a press release that he "always stood without reservation against any discrimination between races, classes, and creeds" and was "unalterably opposed to the evident purposes of the secret organization known as the Ku Klux Klan...It has within its own body the seeds of its death.")13

Many of the attendees knew they faced an uphill battle going against the two established parties. Nonetheless, the assembled delegates left Cleveland after two days with a spring in their step. "There are moments in human history which shape the destiny of nations and of mankind," mused delegate Albert F. Coyle in the Locomotive Engineer's Journal, "Columbus pleading for the support of Queen Isabella, Caesar plunging across the Rubicon, Constantine crossing the Milvian Bridge, Luther facing the prelates at Worms, Cromwell picking up the mace of power from the Speaker's table, and Hancock placing his signature upon the Declaration of Independence…so with us as we listened to Robert M. LaFollette, junior, read the great document in which his father pledged his fidelity to the people's cause and consented to take leadership in a political crusade to regain the 'freedom and prosperity and happiness of the American people.'" It was altogether possible, Coyle told the locomotive engineers of America, that "historians of the future may record" the CPPA conference in Cleveland "as the turning point in American democracy."14

The New Republic and The Nation were also very supportive of what they saw in Cleveland, with the editors of both ultimately becoming active in the fall campaign. This was the vision of a third party that had animated their very similar discussions in 1920 -- a party of farmers and laborers fused together and led by a progressive vanguard. Still, it is interesting to note how the description of the movement had changed in four years. "Progressivism, it cannot be too often insisted," argued TNR when surveying "The Meaning of the La Follette Candidacy," "has ceased to be a matter of good intentions, liberal ideas and empty or ambiguous public spirit. It has become of necessity the organized effort of the classes who live on the fruits of their own physical or intellectual labor to have their interests and outlook more thoroughly considered in the conduct of American business and politics."15

In other words, the idea of the Public Interest, once one of the fundaments of progressivism, was giving way to the view of government as a broker state among competing interests. The Farmer-Labor Party, the editors of TNR noted in August 1924, "looked novel in 1920 because…according to [the] orthodox theory it was the duty of an American citizen to act politically, irrespective of his economic interests and occupations. The Democratic and Republican parties were composed of self-sufficient individuals who, on the whole, voted as a sense of patriotic duty dictated, and who should not and could not be organized or moved by any appeals except their devotion to the public interest."16

But now, argued TNR, the situation was different. "The American citizen who lives in the highly organized, classified and industrialized society of today cannot remain socially equal and politically free unless he forms a part of conscious economic and professional groups, and unless he finds his own place in the commonwealth as a conscious and articulate member of one or more such groups." The only way America could remain "a society which escapes from becoming the victim of class divisions," the journal now argued, "[is] by fully recognizing their existence and by understanding, promoting and finally adjusting these conflicting activities. If there is any other orderly method of accomplishing this result, which is equally plausible and promising, we do not know what it is." In short, TNR argued, comparing the Progressive insurgencies of Roosevelt and La Follette, "the enlightened, disinterested, and classless public opinion upon which the Roosevelt Progressives counted simply does not exist to the extent which the success of a progressive program demands."17

Compared to the two leading progressive journals, H. L. Mencken was unsurprisingly less sanguine about the prospects of the Cleveland convention. "If all these guests could agree upon one brand," Mencken argued, "LaFollette would carry twenty-five States, including Illinois and New York. But they simply can't. For Progressives are like Christians in this: that they hate one another far more than they hate the heathen. The devil doesn't have to fight the Catholics: he leaves the business to the Ku Klux, i.e. to the Methodists and Baptists. Just so the Progressives devour one another, to the delight and edification of the Babbitts." By Election Day, Mencken predicted, "the whole pack will be in chaos, and dog will be eating dog."18

The choice of La Follette's running mate was not made at the CPPA, nor was it decided two days later when the Socialist Party officially and separately endorsed La Follette as well. (This separate nomination was the idea of Eugene Debs, who thought the Socialists should make sure to preserve their independence as a third party. Nonetheless, Debs praised La Follette as someone who "all his life had stood up like a man for the right according to his light; he has been shamefully maligned, ostracized, and persecuted by the predatory powers of the plutocracy yet his bitterest foe had never dared to question his personal integrity or his personal rectitude.") La Follette first asked Justice Louis Brandeis to join him on the ticket, who kindly but firmly declined. ("It would have been a great adventure but it could hardly be expected that Louis would make it," Belle La Follette wrote a friend. "With Bob it is the logic of his life…With Louis it would be stepping into a new field.") Raymond Robins, firmly (if reluctantly) in the Coolidge camp, also turned down a private offer from La Follette.19

Instead, the nomination went to Democrat Burton Wheeler of Montana, who made his availability known when he told the press that he could "not support any candidate representing the House of Morgan," meaning John W. Davis. Wheeler's first instinct, he recounted in his memoirs years later, was to turn down La Follette's offer as well, since while "La Follette insisted that the Progressive ticket could get nine or ten million votes…I said he would be lucky to get 5,000,000 votes." When La Follette argued the ticket could capture the labor vote in the East just as well as the West, Wheeler insisted the "political bosses in those states will take the laboring people away from you like taking candy from a baby." Nonetheless, when the Montana Senator heard whispers from Ray Stannard Baker that the Attorney General's office would indict him on another trumped-up charge if he dared to join the Progressive ticket, Wheeler immediately reconsidered and signed aboard with La Follette. "I changed my mind because I refused to let Daugherty and his crowd blackmail me for the rest of my life," the Senator later wrote.20

Officially accepting his place on the ticket on July 19th, Wheeler announced he was still "a Democrat but not a Wall Street Democrat" - much to the consternation of the third-party builders. While he would oppose any man "who bears the brand of the dollar sign," Wheeler would still campaign for progressive Democrats like his state colleague, Thomas Walsh. But, Wheeler declared, he could not support "either the Republican candidates, who frankly admit their reactionary standpat policies, or the Democratic candidate who may claim in well-chosen phrases that he is a progressive but whose training and constant association belie any such pretension. Between Davis and Coolidge there is only a choice for conservatives to make."21

The implication of Wheeler's statement was clear. For progressives, and any other American who desired to stand athwart the tide of normalcy, the only choice in the race was La Follette-Wheeler.

In fact, that's exactly the distinction the Republicans wanted to draw as well.

Continue to Chapter 8, Pt. 8: Coolidge or Chaos.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. La Follette, 1095-1096, 1103-1104.
2. Weinstein, 297-299, 304-313. La Follette, 1101-1103.
3. Ibid, 1103-1104.
4. "Why the Committee of '48 Has Withdrawn from the St. Paul June 17th Convention," RLF Box 203: 1924 Campaign. Weinstein, 320-321.
5. "Conference of Progressive Political Action," Marxists Internet Archive. (http://www.marxists.org/history/usa/eam/other/cppa/cppa.html) Cott, 251-252.
6. Cott, 252-253. Mackay, 110-111. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 101-102.
7. Mackay, 114-116. La Follette, 1111-1112.
8. Mackay, 119-120. La Follette, 1111-1113.
9. La Follette, 1113-1114.
10. Mackay, 115, 121. Nancy Unger, Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 288. Lawrence Levine, Defender of the Faith: William Jennings Bryan: The Last Decade 1915-1925 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 293.
11. Unger 289-290. MacKay, 143-148. "Progressive Party Platform of 1924," November 4, 1924. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29618.
12. Ibid.
13. Unger, 290. MacKay, 270-273. La Follette, 1119-1120.
14. Mackay, 123.
15. "The Meaning of the La Follette Candidacy," The New Republic, July 16th, 1924 (Vol. 39, No. 502), 197.
16. "The Farmer-Labor Idea," The New Republic, July 30th, 1924 (Vol. 39, No. 504), 257.
17. Ibid. "Progressivism - 1912 and 1924," The New Republic, August 13, 1924, (Vol. 39, No. 506), 313.
18. Mencken, 100.
19. La Follette, 1115-1116. Salzman, 316-317.
20. MacKay, 135-136. Wheeler, Yankee from the West, 250-251.
21. Ibid.

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