By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The Duty to Revolt
Progressives and the Election of 1924
XI. The Second Landslide
This, TIME noted in their own post-election write-up, was "the Second Landslide…In 1920, the country voted out war and the League of Nations -- and voted in Harding and the Republicans. In 1924, the country voted out LaFollette and radicalism -- and voted in Coolidge and the Republicans again." In total, Coolidge won 35 states and 382 electoral votes, more than twice the haul of his two competitors. Davis won twelve southern states -- the eleven states of the Confederacy and Oklahoma -- and 136 electoral votes. La Follette took only Wisconsin, and its thirteen votes. In fact, absent Wisconsin, the final electoral map looked much the same as 1920, with only Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Kentucky switching sides -- the prior two for Coolidge, the latter for Davis. In terms of votes, Coolidge won 15.3 million votes and 54% of the vote, Davis 8.3 million and 29%, and La Follette 4.8 million and 17% -- the third-best third-party showing in American history, after Roosevelt in 1912 and Ross Perot in 1992, but still considerably less than the Wisconsin Senator had hoped for.2
Diving deeper into the numbers, La Follette came in second to Coolidge in eleven western states -- California, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming. While the Progressives pulled over 20% in America's nine largest cities and showed strength in working-class enclaves like Pittsburgh, Passaic, Paterson, and Rochester -- thanks in no small part to the Socialist organizations on the ground there -- the independents only won one county east of the Mississippi not in Wisconsin - Clinton, Illinois. (Fiorello La Guardia, however, did win re-election in New York City on a La Follette-Wheeler ticket.) Comparing the La Follette showing to the Debs vote in 1920, historian Kenneth MacKay estimated that the third party garnered around one million Socialist votes, two and a half million farm votes, and around 200,000 votes from railroad brotherhoods.3
While Silent Cal won handily, he did not provide much in the way of coattails. The Republicans gained four seats for a 54-42 advantage of the Democrats, but after factoring in deaths and retirements, this gave them only one more Senator than in 1922. While Farmer-Labor Senator Magnus Johnson of Minnesota lost the seat he had won in a 1923 special election, among the Senate progressives re-elected for another term were William Borah, George Norris, Thomas Walsh and Smith Brookhart. The Republican tide was more dramatic in the House, where they picked up 22 more seats for Speaker-to-be Nicholas Longworth of Ohio for a 247-183 advantage - The previous Speaker, Frederic Gillett, won the Senate seat previously occupied by Democrat David Walsh of Massachusetts. Meanwhile in the Governor's races, Al Smith won re-election in New York over Theodore Roosevelt Jr. by 100,000 votes - roughly the same number that Norman Thomas pulled on the Socialist ticket, while William Allen White, running for governor of Kansas on a Klan protest ticket, came in third, with less than half the votes of the ultimate winner, the Klan-supported Republican, Ben Paulen.4
Despite the relatively small impact of the results in Congress, the victory for Coolidge was, by all accounts, decisive. "It was a famous victory," exulted Chief Justice William Howard Taft. "This country is no country for radicalism. I think it is really the most conservative country in the world." A disgusted Hiram Johnson was inclined to agree. "The victory is overwhelming," he wrote to Ickes. "The outlanders, pariahs, and outcasts like yourself and myself have the choice between devoting ourselves to our private occupations, becoming a part of what we know is the crooked political machine, or speaking when opportunity offers our fruitless opposition. I take it there is not much doubt about which of the three roads you and I will follow."5
In the last weeks before the election, Harold Ickes had reconciled himself to a Coolidge victory and hoped it might "more quickly" bring about the "substantially new party alignment of Democrats and La Follette Progressives" he had envisioned. But he didn't expect the types of overwhelming margins Silent Cal would receive. As such, he thought the election represented the victory of "subnormalcy" and "a great day for reaction…If Coolidge had a wooden leg than it would have been acclaimed throughout the country that no one was qualified to be president who didn't have a wooden leg." Now, on account of the landslide, "Mediocrity is king…When Harding was elected I thought the country couldn't sink any lower. I find I was mistaken…[I]t used to be our proud boast that any native born American might become president of the United States. In the light of the recent election it can now be affirmed."6
Parsing the defeat, Ickes and Johnson both took the opportunity to nurse their grievances. "All I can say is that Raymond couldn't fall much lower than the place he now occupies in my estimation," Ickes had told Johnson just before the election. Now, the enmity grew stronger. "Robins' exultant voice came to me over the telephone the other day," he reported to the Senator, "but I didn't prolong the conversation on my part or encourage its continuance on his. He did manage to tell me, however, 'it was the biggest thing I ever put over.'" "The fact of the matter is," Ickes wrote in a separate letter, "I don't think any of us can ever depend upon him again." As for himself, Ickes told Johnson that "you were very wise to keep strictly to the side lines. I suppose I was a fool to do otherwise, but I couldn't sit still after Raymond and his associates… undertook in the name of Roosevelt to deliver the old progressive vote to the mannequin from Northampton…As an active force in politics it seems to me that my future is all past."7
Senator Johnson was also irritated by Robins and his "honeyed words," but he preferred to vent his spleen over his colleague from Idaho. "I note a dispatch this morning that Borah is to succeed Lodge as the Republican leader in the Senate. This I think entirely appropriate. On the one hand he can dance a jig on Wall Street with Dwight Morrow as his partner, and on the other he can scowl with Wheeler and La Follette, and he even may pursue a third policy and march with the southern democrats for states rights. With his capacity for doing all three at the same time and being feared by nobody, he ought to make Raymond Robins his secretary and vicarious orator, and lead the Republican Party in Congress." Ickes concurred with Johnson's assessment, "With Raymond to tell him what to do and leave undone," he replied, Borah "will now outlaw war, whatever that means…If Hughes didn't seem to have such a tight hold on his job Raymond might even grow whiskers and be made Secretary of State. He is almost as sanctimonious as Hughes, and his political morals are fully as elastic."8
The progressive apostate on the Democratic side seemed as sanguine as Robins about the Coolidge victory. "If to know exactly what you want and where you are going is the prime virtue in politics," Walter Lippmann wrote the morning after the election, "then Coolidge and Dawes deserved to win. The World salutes the victors!" Meanwhile, many Democrats, like Ickes and Johnson, began to descend into the same sort of internecine bickering that had made a fiasco of the New York convention. The month after the election, Franklin Roosevelt -- building a web of party influence that would serve him well in the years to come -- sent a letter to all the delegates of that ill-fated convention, asking in which direction the party should now move. The Republicans were clearly "for conservatism, for the control of the social and economic structure of the country by a small minority of hand-picked associates." But, "in the minds of the average voter the Democratic Party has today no definite constructive aims." What now should the Democracy stand for? 9
Much to Roosevelt's chagrin, the responses were all over the map. Senator Carter Glass thought the party was shot through with "La Follette-ism and Bryan-ism," and far too radical for most voters. Senator C.C. Dill, on the other hand, though it far too conservative. William Jennings Bryan wanted the party to forsake completely the wet urban East. One Illinois Democrat lamented that there was nothing to do "except wait for the Republican Party to blow up." While Roosevelt himself thought Democrats had to become "by definite policy, the Party of constructive progress, before we can attract a larger following," he too began to come around to this latter way of thinking. Before the election returns, Franklin Roosevelt had told Eleanor that a Coolidge victory would mean "we shall be so darned sick of [the] conservatism of the old money-controlled crowd in four years that we [will] get a real progressive landslide in 1928." But, in the face of such an overwhelming Republican victory, his resolve began to crumble. "Much as we Democrats may be the party of honesty and progress," he now decided, "the people will not turn out the Republicans while wages are good and markets are booming." The "stone wall which we all face at present moment is, of course, the complacency of the multitude of voters," he eventually concluded. "I do not look for a Democratic president until after the 1932 election."10
Looking at the sorry state of the Democrats, the editors of TNR concurred with Franklin Roosevelt's basic assessment, while taking one last opportunity to thumb their nose at Lippmann. "The World attributes Davis's poor showing to 'treachery' by McAdoo Democrats who did nothing or less than nothing to aid him," sneered the journal. "But a simpler explanation is just as probable. Thousands of progressive Democrats voted for La Follette because Davis was too conservative. Thousands of conservative Democrats voted for Coolidge because they had been frightened into hysterics by the possibility of a La Follette victory..[This] is the fate which is to be expected for a party which does not know, and cannot make up its mind, whether it is progressive or conservative." As for 1928, TNR thought the ascendancy of Al Smith as "the solitary leader of the Democracy" only meant the party was likely to "repeat its near-suicide of 1924" in New York on a larger scale. Besides, since "the fires of conviction having burned themselves out long ago," Democrats were just as likely to pick a conservative in 1928, since "[t]oday conservatism's black appears to be the winning color."11
For The New Republic, the only "Possible Consolation" of the Coolidge rout was that conservatism was now irrefutably in control. Republicans, in the minds of voters, were now "peculiarly responsible for things as they are and for making things as they are convertible into cash prosperity for a majority of the voters." Although progressives "failed emphatically to win the confidence of the American people during the recent campaign," their fight committed the Republican "party to its support of plutocracy and placed the plutocracy itself on trial":
The question of the adequacy of government by and for business and its effect on the welfare of the American people has broken through the barriers into the arena of party politics, and there we believe it is bound to remain-the chief bone of contention. The Progressive success in provoking so many million American citizens to ignore the sacred party loyalties and allow their votes to be determined by conservative fears and economic purposes has resulted for the moment in an overwhelming endorsement of the business man's state, but there are other elections to follow. The trial will be continued, and sooner or later, the verdict will be reversed."If the Progressive protest is as necessary as they think it is," TNR concluded, "and their analysis of the sickness of American industrialism is correct, they can await the ultimate turn of the tide with confidence." In their pursuit of normalcy, Americans "have lost their former conviction without substituting anything positive in its place, and in their ignorance and doubt they voted for what they took to be their interests and the best chance of social stability. But in their own souls there is no stability," and eventually the tide would turn again. "This outlook may or may not console many Progressives for their overwhelming defeat at the polls this year, but if it proves to be true, it may prove to be decisive in favor of the ultimate triumph of the Progressive cause."13
While acknowledging the bitterness of the defeat, The Nation took a similarly philosophic turn. "We thought the prairies were beginning to catch fire, and so they did at the edges, but the blaze must be fanned a good deal yet before it will drive the coyotes and the timber-wolves into the open. This year the back-fires easily held the flames in check." Nonetheless, La Follette and Wheeler, given their lack of resources and organization and the power of the forces arrayed against them, had delivered a "magnificent achievement…Against incredible odds, they took their cause to the people. It gained steadily and what they accomplished will endure to their lasting renown." As for the future, the editors of The Nation, were "not at all sure that four years more of the crass materialism now enthroned in Washington, of the soulless Republican exploitation of the people for the benefit of the rich and privileged, of the licensing of corruptionists to proceed if only they do not caught, and of the loosing of our financial imperialism upon the world will not bring about an early reaction and a bitter awakening for the masses. We do not -- we cannot lose heart."14
Even the redoubtable Mencken agreed with that basic assessment. Yes, seeing Coolidge and particularly General Dawes win so gloriously was an affront to progressive values. "But let us not commit the error, so common among Progressives of all wings, of shuddering over it too piously, of seeing in it too much of the lamentable. Dawes…is very typical of the America in which he lives, and in particular of the business America now triumphant. His ethical ideas are simple and devoid of cant. He believes that any man deserves whatever he can get. That is also the notion of at least 98 per cent of his countrymen." Besides as Mencken had argued before the election, "[t]he day good Cal is elected every thieving scoundrel in the Republican party will burst into hosannas…There will follow, for a year or two, a reign of mirth in Washington, wilder and merrier even, than that of Harding's time. And then there will come an explosion."15
For his part, W.E.B. Du Bois lamented that La Follette and Wheeler, two "unusually honest and straight-forward men," had been beaten. But in The Crisis, Du Bois saw in the 1924 results reasons for hope. True, a million of Coolidge's fifteen million votes came from African-Americans - "a last pathetic appeal for justice in the face of unparalleled flouting of black men by this administration." Du Bois predicted that, if the Dyer bill did not soon pass, Republicans "will lose more and more of its black voters as years go." But 500,000 African-Americans also voted for La Follette, "a splendid and far-reaching gesture" to a third party that "has come to stay, and the Negro recognizes its fine platform and finer leaders." And approximately the same number had voted for Democrats in the northern states, including Harlem voting by over a 10,000 vote margin to help put Al Smith over the top. Thus, Du Bois concluded, 1924 marked a year "in which Negroes voted with greater intelligence and finer discrimination than ever before."16
Some of the participants in the campaign were at peace with the third party showing as well. Burton Wheeler, who had never expected much of a better showing, declared after the results were in that "the wonder is not that so many millions were intimidated and voted for Coolidge but that so many millions stood by their convictions and voted the Independent ticket." Arthur Garfield Hays took solace in a fight hard-waged as well. "For all its comedy of errors," he wrote in his memoirs, "that campaign of 1924 gave to us who actively participated in it a deeper love for democracy and the decent human beings who make up the rank and file. We made all sorts of stupid mistakes, we were outsmarted time and again by professional politicians and renegade liberals as well, but somewhere, somehow, we got five million folk to stand up and be counted. 'There was something where there had been nothing." Still he added, "La Follette never recovered from the disappointment of the '24 campaign."17
To be sure, the Wisconsin Senator put on a brave face. "Providence willing," he told an adoring crowd in Madison after the election, "I believe that I shall last long enough to see the nation freed from its economic slavery and the government returned to the people." When campaign advisors spoke bitterly of organized labor's failure to fully back the campaign, La Follette called them out for their "lack of understanding." "Those pay checks are all that stand between starvation for those workers and their families," he admonished them. "You are asking too much of them." Upon his return to the Senate for the lame duck December session, he was gracious in defeat, although he confessed to his sister that "[i]t was not easy to face the old gang with the election just over and every state lost except Wisconsin. But I sailed in my head up & all smiles. You [may] be sure I would give any outward evidence of the taste in my mouth." A few months later, in the opening session of 1925, the Republicans would try to strip La Follette and the remaining heretics of their seniority. "As for my committee assignments," the Wisconsin Senator told a reporter, "if I were removed from all committees I would still find plenty of work to do in the Senate."18
But, soon, La Follette's health began to fail for the final time. In June 1925, La Follette became bedridden. "I am at peace with the world," he told his son Bob Jr., "but there is a lot of work I could still do. I don't know how the people will feel toward me, but I shall take to the grave my love for them which has sustained me through life." On the morning of June 18th, 1925 -- four days after his seventieth birthday -- the already ailing La Follette experienced a severe heart attack.19
Five hours later, with his family gathered around him, the Wisconsin Senator passed away at his home in Washington DC. "It is hard to say the right thing about Bob La Follette," said Borah upon hearing the news. "You know he lived 150 years." "His was the voice of justice and humanity, calling God's common people to battle righteousness," eulogized La Follette's old friend George Norris. "He blazed the path through the wilderness of suspicion and doubt, leading the way to a higher civilization, a nobler life, a happier day." Elsewhere, Norris deemed La Follette's passing "the most serious loss that honest Government could sustain." When La Follette's family cleared out his Senate desk, they found written on a piece of scratch paper, "I would be remembered as one who in the world's darkest hours kept a clean conscience and stood to the end for the ideals of American democracy."20
As for the independent party movement that had rallied around La Follette's candidacy it lasted scarcely as long as the Senator. In February 1925, the CPPA reconvened in Chicago, ostensibly to discuss their future plans. To Socialist Morris Hillquit, remembering the scene in his memoirs, it seemed the convention had been convened to "bury Caesar, not to praise him." Complicating matters, the varying members of the CPPA coalition had only been reconfirmed in their prior opinions by the 1924 showing -- The railroad brotherhoods and labor organizers thought the La Follette-Wheeler bid had proved that a third party would never work, while the Forty-Eighters, Socialists, and Farmer-Labor elements thought it proved a third party, with boots on the ground all across the country, was a necessary prerequisite to success. "If five million voters were not enough," pleaded Hillquit to the railroad brotherhoods, "will you wait until we have swept the country…Did you start your trade unions on that practice?"21
Also pleading the case for a continued coalition party movement was an ailing Eugene V. Debs, making his first appearance before a CPPA convention. To Hillquit, the frail, sickly old man "seemed like a ghost of reproach from their past…calling them back to the glorious days of struggle and idealism." "Do you know that all the progress in the whole world's history has been made by minorities," Debs told the assembled delegates. "I have somehow been fortunately all my life in the minority. I have thought again and again that if I ever find myself in the majority I will know that I have outlived myself." Yes, a third party would be an uphill endeavor. If organized, "it must expect from the very beginning to be misrepresented and ridiculed and traduced in every possible way, but if it consists of those who are the living representatives of its principles, it will make progress in spite of that, and in due course of time, it will sweep into triumph.22
The gathered convention was awed into silence during Debs' address. But, nonetheless, upon adjournment of that session, the railroad brotherhoods and other unions decided to leave the organization. Later that evening, the Socialists and the Farmer-Labor Party began to feud over the character of the new party, with the former desiring an explicitly class-based party organized along vocational lines and the latter preferring a more traditional party system. When the Socialist organizational proposal failed 93-64, they too left the dwindling coalition. Eventually, the only ones left were the Forty-Eighters. Oswald Villard and Arthur Garfield Hays remained active in the movement through 1925 and 1926, with Villard co-writing a Declaration of Progressive Faith in 1926 for a third party convention that never happened - only seven states even showed any interest in gathering. By November 1927, the third-party dream was officially over, and the National Progressive Headquarters closed its doors. "Sooner or later," wrote Mercer Johnston of Maryland in explaining the decision, "the principles for which the Progressives fought in 1924 will assume definite militant form." That day had clearly not yet arrived. "Throughout this period," noted Donald Richberg, looking back, "the progressive forces had only the vaguest ideas of where they were going."23
Even if the message didn't take, Eugene Debs' plea before the CPPA was one of the old Socialist's last hurrahs. Since leaving prison, he had remained a symbol of the old Socialist spirit to many across the county. "You and I belong to different schools of socialism," wrote fish-peddler Bartolomeo Vanzetti to Debs from his Massachusetts prison cell in 1923, "[b]ut you are my Teacher…I am positive that if a minority would follow your practical example the reality of tomorrow would be above the dreams of many dreamers." Nonetheless, in his final years Debs had been increasingly sidelined by his old party as a venerable and well-meaning relic. "What he does not realize is that his imprisonment is an old story and he is not the drawing card he once was," party secretary Bertha Hale White complained to Hillquit in the summer of 1925. "The old speeches will not do…I made it as emphatic as I could, saying his old speeches were familiar to every person who would be at his meetings." What's more, White argued, "Gene's psychology is all wrong…the old Appeal days and methods are of the past." One longtime admirer of Debs saw him speak in 1925 and was shocked at the ill health and lack of vitality in the man. "Had the lecture been delivered by anyone other than Debs," he reported sadly, "many in the audience would have walked out." Increasingly sick throughout 1926, the old man spent time in Bermuda and the Lindlahr Sanitarium in Elmhurst, Illinois to regain his strength. But at Lindlahr, on October 20th, 1925, Eugene Victor Debs passed away of heart failure, also at the age of seventy. "The death of so great a mind and so brave a heart," wrote W.E.B. Du Bois in The Crisis, is a calamity to this poor nation."24
La Follette and Debs were but two of the fixtures in American political life to pass on within two years of the 1924 election. The day after Election Day, Henry Cabot Lodge -- who had seemed so lost at the Cleveland convention after being purposefully sidelined by Coolidge forces -- suffered a severe stroke. He joined his old nemesis Woodrow Wilson beyond the veil four days later on November 9th, 1924, at the age of 74. The following month, Debs' old rival Samuel Gompers, also age 74, suffered a heart attack in Mexico City while attending a meeting of the Pan-American Federation of Labor. Desiring to die on American soil, Gompers was sent on the fastest train available back to the United States. He perished on December 13th, 1924, in San Antonio, Texas. Seven months later, and five days after the conclusion of the Scopes Trial in Tennessee in which he was prominently featured, William Jennings Bryan died in his sleep at the age of sixty-five, on July 26th, 1925.25
With Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson already gone, many of the remaining pillars that had shaped the American political landscape for decades had now all crumbled away. The world, it seemed, was changing -- New political forces were in charge and a New Era was coming to light. Those left to continue the fight would be forced to dwell often on the question that had haunted Robert La Follette in the last months of his life.
"I believe in democracy," he had said in 1925, near the end, while lying on his office couch with a troubled look. "But will it ever work?"26
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. "The Second Landslide," TIME, November 17th, 1924. MacKay, 220.
3. Cott, 253-254. La Follette, 1148-1149. MacKay, 224-226. Zinn, La Guardia in Congress, 84. Vote fraud may have played a factor in a few of these counties - perhaps most notably in Ohio, where the Progressives received exactly zero votes in several Cleveland precincts despite various citizens declaring they had voted for them. But calls for an investigation into fraud never coalesced into anything meaningful. MacKay.
4. Jack Wayne Traylor, "William Allen White's 1924 Gubernatorial Campaign," Kansas Historical Quarterly, Summer 1976 (Vol. 42, No. 2, pp 180-191).
5. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 60. Johnson to Ickes, November 7, 1924. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
6. Ickes to William H. Stephens, October 14, 1924. HLI, Box 35: La Follette Campaign. Ickes to Johnson, October 17, 1924. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
7. Ickes to Johnson, November 11, 1924. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson. Ickes to Johnson, November 1, 1924. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
8. Johnson to Ickes, October 25, 1924. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson. Johnson to Ickes, November 7, 1924. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson. Ickes to Johnson, November 11, 1924. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
9. Steel, 226-227. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 102-104.
10. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 102-104, 376-378. Levine, 322.
11. "The Week," The New Republic, November 19th, 1924 (Vol. 40, No. 520), 282-283.
12. The Possible Consolation," The New Republic, November 19th, 1924 (Vol. 40, No. 520), 285.
14. "Business Wins," The Nation, November 12th, 1924 (Vol. 119, No. 3097), 510.
15. Mencken, A Carnival of Buncombe, 123, 105.
16. Lewis, 241-242. The Crisis, December 1924 (Vol. 29, No. 2), 55-56.
17. Wheeler, Yankee from the West, 264-265. Hays, 275.
18. La Follette, 1146-1147, 1150-1151.
19. La Follette, 1166-1174.
20. Ibid. Leuchtenburg, Perils of Prosperity, 139-140. Frederic Babcock, "Norris of Nebraska," The Nation, December 21, 1927 (Vol. 125, No. 3259), 705. Lowitt, 287. Unger, xix.
21. Mackay, 231, 235. Zinn, La Guardia in Congress, 159-160.
22. MacKay, 233-234.
23. Mackay, 238-241. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 102.
24. Salvatore, 338-341. "Eugene Debs," The Crisis, December 1926, 65. One month before his execution, Vanzetti wrote Debs' brother Theodore, telling him that "[s]ince my mother's death, very few women gave me a sense of mothernal love and protection as the one I felt in Gene's presence, and no other man." Salvatore, 343.
25. "Senator Lodge Dies, Victim of Stroke," The New York Times, November 10th, 1924. Rowland Hill Harvey, Samuel Gompers: Champion of the Toiling Masses (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1935), 335-336. Levine.
26. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 102.
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