By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Chapter Eight: The Duty to Revolt
Progressives and the Election of 1924
II. Now is the Time...
Soon thereafter, the heads of the sixteen largest railroad unions in America put out a very similar call to arms. "There has been no common understanding to bind the working of all walks of life together," they declared. "For lack of this common understanding we have been divided and betrayed." As such, the railroad unions invited the "progressive elements in the industrial and political life of our Nation…to discuss and adopt a fundamental economic program designed to restore to the people the sovereignty that is rightly theirs, to make effective the purpose for which our Government is established, to secure to all men the enjoyment of the gain which their industry produces."2
This conference -- the first Conference for Progressive Political Action (CPPA) -- took place at a Masonic Hall in Chicago on February 21st and 22nd, 1922. Attending this meeting were representatives from fifty labor unions, farmers groups such as the Non-Partisan League, delegations from the Socialist and Farmer-Labor Parties, and the progressive Committee of '48, as well as a smattering of other reform organizations ranging from the single-taxers to the National Catholic Welfare Council. From this conference arose a general statement of principles, an "Address to the American People," which followed the form of the Declaration of Independence, including a list of "repeated injuries and usurpations by the servants of…oligarchy in both the dominant parties":
They have stifled free speech, throttled free press and denied the sacred right of assembly."We therefore, CITIZENS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA," concluded the general statement, "declare that…[the] present usurpation by the invisible government of plutocracy and privilege must be broken, that this can be best accomplished by united political action suited to the peculiar conditions and needs of each section and state; and that to this end, we do hereby pledge ourselves to organize for the coming campaign in every state and congressional district so that this may become once more in very truth a GOVERNMENT OF THE PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE, AND BY THE PEOPLE." To this end, the various assembled members of the CPPA went right to work. It "carried on a vigorous fight in the congressional elections of 1922," reported the new organization's secretary, Frederic Howe, three years later. "We prepared political instructions for primaries and elections; unions were circularized; the labor executives sent their best men into strategic States - Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Montana. They demonstrated real political ability. As a result, a half-dozen men were elected to the United States Senate, and nearly fifty to the Lower House."4
While Howe downplayed their importance in Confessions of a Reformer, the Socialists comprised some of the CPPA's most potent shock troops. As historian Kenneth MacKay noted in 1947, "the importance of the Socialists in the CPPA must not be minimized…They had the local organizations which could provide the framework for the construction of the new party, and, moreover, unlike many of the promoters of a progressive party, whose enthusiasm exceeded their experience, they had rich knowledge of how to conduct campaigns, in meeting the tactics of the old parties, in exchanging blow for blow in practical politics." Perhaps most importantly for future purposes, the Socialists were already on the ballot all over the country, meaning the new organization would not have to spend its time handling that time- and work-intensive aspect of a campaign.5
The month after the 1922 midterms, even as the Washington meeting of progressive members of Congress organized by Robert La Follette and Basil Manly of the People's Legislative Service (also on the CPPA's National Committee) drew most of the headlines, the CPPA reconvened in Cleveland, Ohio to begin discussing plans for 1924. This time, the organization adopted a short platform that included establishing direct primaries in every state, abolishing the electoral college, government ownership of the railroads, coal mines, and public utilities, price support for farmers, higher tax rates on the rich, payment of a veterans' bonus, protective legislation for women, "State action to insure maximum benefit of Federal maternity and infancy acts," and, in one of its most controversial planks, "that Congress end the practice of the Courts to declare legislation unconstitutional." The conference also tossed out four delegates sent along by the Worker's Party -- i.e., the Communists -- in order to keep the new organization free from any taint of Bolshevism. ("The "SP" [Socialist Party] is trying to become the tail end of any sort of organization as an excuse to hide from the contempt of the working class of the nation," seethed The Worker after this snub.)6
The biggest issue at the Cleveland meeting was on future strategy, with moderates -- particularly the railroad brotherhoods -- advocating a strategy of running primary candidates in the established parties, and the "Socialists, left-wings and the intellectuals" (including the Forty-Eighters) desiring to establish an official, separate third party. A proposal put forward by the Farmer-Labor Party arguing for "independent political action by the agricultural and industrial workers through a party of their own" was defeated by a vote of 52-64. Peeved by this result, the Socialists' Executive Committee nonetheless voted 38-12 to stay affiliated with the CPPA, and assigned Morris Hillquit, Victor Berger, and Bertha Hale White as official delegates to the new organization. The Farmer-Labor Party, however, left the CPPA and called for a new meeting of organizations interested in a third party to convene in Chicago in July. There, the agrarian-minded FLP was essentially the victim of an organized and well-orchestrated hostile takeover by the Worker's Party, who held marching orders from the Comintern to prevent any endorsement of the bourgeois La Follette.7
The CPPA would not meet again until February 1924. In the meantime, while the more conservative labor elements of the coalition gravitated toward the idea of nominating Democrat William Gibbs McAdoo, J.A.H. Hopkins and the Committee of '48 looked to find an interested progressive standard-bearer for a third party challenge. While Robert La Follette was the natural choice, Hopkins presumed -- based on his 1920 rejection of the nomination in Chicago and a 1921 kerfuffle involving the People's Legislative Service not reprinting articles from the Forty-Eighters' news bulletin -- that the Wisconsin Senator was not interested. And so, in late 1921, Hopkins began to ascertain the inclinations of the next best candidate, William Borah, who was gracious but noncommittal.8
In August 1922, a small public Borah boomlet emerged when The Nation -- disgusted with the special interest grasping that had attended tariff negotiations in Congress -- published an editorial entitled "The Duty to Revolt," urging the Idaho Senator to break away from the Republicans and lead a third party effort. "Who can read the news from Washington," the journal asked, "and not feel that the time has come for men everywhere to raise the banner of revolt?":
Dishonest, incompetent to govern, without vision at home abroad, without any domestic program whatsoever, and without men of any moral or political stature -- this sums up Democrats as well as Republicans. The only question of importance is how much longer the American people are going to be stupid enough sheep to stand it.This editorial did not come completely out of the blue. In May of 1922, as the primary returns began to evince a progressive pattern, Ernest Gruening had told the Senator that "all eyes will be increasingly upon you…we hope the day will not be far off when circumstances will make it possible for you definitely and militantly to assume the leadership, either of a new party or one of the rejuvenated old parties." To Villard, Gruening noted that Borah "thinks he is the man to lead the fight. There is no question about that." In June, Borah confessed to one correspondent that "[e]ither one, or both, of the old parties must undergo a complete rehabilitation…or the people will organize another party." That July, Borah made this same statement in public, telling The Literary Digest that while "maybe "out of the old Parties will come a new party under the old name," he was "convinced…that there must be a new political party." Later that month, after talking with the Senator, Oswald Villard told another correspondent that Borah "is ready to cut loose as soon as the sinews of war can be organized and the plan is laid out."10
And so, after publication of "The Duty to Revolt," Villard passed the editorial along to Borah, with a personal note. "I am still firmly of the opinion that if you will raise the banner of revolt yourself the right means and a great army of workers will flock to you at once," he told Borah. "Please live up to the responsibility which we have put upon you…and sound the tocsin." Letters of support began filing in from across the country, including from newspaper editors Arthur Vandenberg of the Grand Rapids Herald and Frank Knox of the Manchester Union-Leader. "I don't know whether you will ever be President, but I do know you are big enough and courageous enough," Knox wrote Borah. "In these days of wobbling, of indecision and ineptitude it is inspiring to have one clear voice whose tones are never shaded or softened by expediency." In his responses to these, Borah mostly played it coy. "Questions pending here in the Senate have been so pressing and so momentous that I can say to you most candidly I have given my entire time and thought to them rather than to any Party movement," Borah responded to one such missive, rather disingenuously. To Knox, he was more honest. "With reference to the third party, Frank," he wrote, "a person would need about at least a million dollars to pay the actual necessary expenses of the organization. Now, I enjoy a salary of $625.00 a month. It costs me all the way from $800 to $1,000 a month to live. So I have concluded to dedicate the balance to the upbuilding of a third party."11
Also among the letter-writers to Borah after "The Duty to Revolt" was J.A.H. Hopkins, who had continued to work the Senator over on this issue since the previous November. On letterhead reading "The Committee of 48 functioning as The Liberal Party," Hopkins urged Borah to share his thoughts about fronting the effort. "I think I understand perfectly well the reasons why you have refrained so far from stating anything about your future plans," Hopkins told the Senator. "I hope, however, that you will appreciate that anything you care to say to me will be considered purely personal."12
Again, Borah was gracious but noncommittal -- This dance continued until the early months of 1923, when Hopkins thought it time to fish or cut bait. "[I write] very frankly to inquire," Hopkins asked Borah in February, "whether you have reached any conclusion as to when and how the new party campaign for 1924 should be launched, [and] when approximately you will be ready to discuss this with us." "You have assured me that you are thoroughly in harmony with what we are doing," he wrote Borah the following month, "and you will appreciate the importance of putting me in a position of either being able to deny or affirm" the Senator's involvement. Finally, Hopkins got a definitive answer: "With reference to the third party movement and how we can best promote the issues in which I am interested, I am only too anxious to discuss this," Borah replied, putting the onus of the work on the Committee. No "man can afford to join a party and then declare himself a candidate for President…he ought to be drafted and there ought not to be any mistake about the drafting."13
Borah, it seemed, was ready to accept leadership of a new party if it looked to be demanded of him. In a face-to-face meeting in April 1923 -- one which Hopkins afterwards transcribed from memory and had Borah review his recounting -- Hopkins concurred with Borah that "a presidential candidate should not nominate himself but be drafted." Borah, meanwhile, said he was "ready to be of service" to the new party, and was "willing to serve entirely irrespective of whether I am a candidate or not." If the press asked what was going on, Borah would say that "the candidate should be drafted," while Hopkins would say the Committee was "proceeding in a way that it seems to you necessary and that you have drafted me for your candidate." In sum, Borah told Hopkins to "certainly" continue on the path outlined, as it "it will be the means of building up your movement, and I think if we keep in close touch with one another, there will be no difficulty in our agreeing as to what should be done and when we should do it."14
After this meeting, Hopkins had new letterhead printed up that was emblazoned with "William E. Borah for President National Campaign Committee 1924" and included a box reading "Resolved: That the National Executive Committee of the Committee of '48 hereby proposes SENATOR WILLIAM E. BORAH as the Presidential candidate of the Progressive voters of these United States in 1924 on the Platform of the Committee of 48." But the Senator suddenly seemed to catch cold feet. He was not "a candidate for President and did not want to be so considered," Borah wrote Hopkins one week after their April 6th meeting. "[M]y course these days is not the Presidential course." Hopkins at first presumed that Borah "emphasizing the fact that you are not putting yourself forward as a Presidential candidate" was all part of the agreement -- nudge, nudge, wink, wink -- and so continued to proceed on "the matter discussed with you in Washington the other day…I have already made great progress." Over the next few months, Hopkins continued to remind Borah of their arrangement -- "our talk in Washington" -- and tried to push him closer to announcing his intentions. "You may be right in feeling that the time has not yet arrived for speaking out in court," Hopkins wrote in July 1923, "but…don't overlook the fact that the sentiment for you is wide and deep and only requires a public statement from you along the lines we have already discussed to be awakened into action." Hopkins also enlisted his fellow CPPA members, Lynn and Dora Haines of The Searchlight on Congress, to get the Senator on record, to no avail.15
When Borah told Hopkins (and other correspondents) in October 1923 that Henry Ford being the third party nominee was "the most certain thing in politics," an exasperated Hopkins asked the Senator when he would "be in a position to publicly cooperate with us in the organization of our new party convention in 1924?" Two months later, in December, Hopkins -writing on standard "Committee of '48" stationery again - chose to mince words no longer. Noting the "persistent and it seems to me malicious attempt in certain quarters" to name Borah as Calvin Coolidge's likely running mate, Hopkins asked the Senator where he stood on various issues on the Forty-Eighters' platform. The Farmer-Labor Party would be meeting in convention in May, Hopkins noted, "and for my own satisfaction and information I should like an even clearer understanding with you than has resulted from our previous interviews in respect to these developments…I would appreciate a frank statement from you as to when you will consider it appropriate to authorize the introduction of your name…as a candidate for its Presidential nomination, or for a renomination to your present office as the candidate of the Progressive Party in Idaho." To this, Borah responded definitively. "I am not a candidate for President," he wrote Hopkins, "and do not expect to be. I see no facts or circumstances at the present time which would justify my permitting or authorizing my name to be used. As I wrote to you sometime ago, Hopkins, I do not want to encourage any third party, or any other party so far as that is concerned, using my name in connection with the Presidency."16
In effect, J.A.H. Hopkins and the Committee had lost well over a year, much effort, and sizable stationery expenses chasing Borah to be their third-party nominee, only to fall victim to the same vacillating nature that often enraged his Senate colleagues. So, in January 1924, Hopkins moved on to his next possible choice, George Norris. "[N]othing would give me greater pleasure to see you or Sen. La Follette step to the front," Hopkins wrote the Senator from Nebraska, but Norris, while appreciative of the offer, argued that a third party could "do more harm than good. It would have a tendency to increase the already outrageously partisan spirits." With only eleven months until Election Day, Hopkins was back at Square One.17
Why did Borah string along Hopkins for so long? Part of it was likely just the Senator's nature -- his often-maddening tendency to disappear in the clutch. "[W]hen his every previous step indicated that he would be there," The Outlook wrote of him in 1927, "he was not there." Writing about the Senator in 1962, Claude Bowers, who spent the 1920's as a Democratic editor at the New York World, remembered how Borah "would gallantly march up to the enemy's guns and seem about to take them by storm, and then mystifyingly, he would wheel around and march back again." Also, in contemporaneous letters to others, Borah -- who did not follow Theodore Roosevelt out of the party in 1912 -- conceded he would rather fix the Republicans than build a new party out of whole cloth. "A third party may come," he wrote to one correspondent in December 1922, "but I am thoroughly in favor myself of proceeding now along the line of working out things which we want to accomplish inside the old Party. So far as I can see it is quite as practicable to rehabilitate the old Party as it is to build a new one…in my opinion, parties are not made, they grow."18
But, in this case, there were important political developments to factor in as well -- namely the August 1923 death of Warren Harding. Suddenly, it seemed, there was a power vacuum in the Republican Party, and Borah and others thought they could take advantage of the new political calculus. "[T]he situation is acutely alive," Ernest Gruening wrote Borah the week of the president's death. Now was the "strategic moment" for a "definite move toward real political progress...You, Senator are the man to lead it." Borah agreed it was time "to make a most determined effort…to liberalize the political program of the future…I am ready to go into it for all there is in it." That same month, the Senator wrote to one of his key Outlawry allies, Raymond Robins, and argued that "by reason of extraordinary conditions, we are now in a position to put forward a program and, to do so with success, of real progressive principles and policies. I know the country is ready for it. The economic situation is breaking up all party lines and breaking away from all past precedents, and I really believe we have an opportunity to liberalize the whole political situation…I feel very keenly that opportunity is knocking at the door of the liberalists of this country."19
If so, many observers thought Borah had a strange way of showing it. As Hopkins had pointed out in his letters, the Senator spent much of the fall and winter of 1923 cozying up to Calvin Coolidge, whom Borah deemed "a man of ability and courage" in December. Clearly, Borah was trying to get the new president to come around to his views on issues such as the Outlawry of War. This was a two-way street, as Coolidge -- by no means a certainty at first for the 1924 nomination -- wanted to show he was amenable to the left wing of his party, and inviting Borah to the White House for frequent lunches was an easy way to do it.20
Other progressive Republicans, however, could not be wooed so easily.
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. MacKay, 60-62.
3. Mackay, 267-269. "An Address to the American People," CPPA, The Socialist World, February 1922 (Vol. 3, No. 2), 3-4.
4. Ibid. Howe, 335.
5. MacKay, 55.
6. MacKay, 70-71. "Ruthenberg Raises Demand for Seating the Four Delegates of the Workers Party (First Day Proceedings), The Worker, December 23, 1922 (Vol. 5, No. 254), 2. Reprinted at http://www.marxists.org/history/usa/parties/cpusa/1922/12/1211-worker-cppadayone.pdf
7. Weinstein, 295. MacKay, 70-71. "Ruthenberg Raises Demand for Seating the Four Delegates of the Workers Party (First Day Proceedings), The Worker, December 23, 1922 (Vol. 5, No. 254), 2. "Conference of Progressive Political Action," Marxists Internet Archive. (http://www.marxists.org/history/usa/eam/other/cppa/cppa.html)
8. Ashby, 124.
9. "The Duty to Revolt," The Nation, August 9th, 1921 (Vol. 115, No. 2979), 140. Ashby, 120.
10. Ernest Gruening to Borah, May 18th, 1922. WJB Box 120: Political -Misc. Ashby, 120-121. Borah to A.W. Kellogg, June 15th, 1922. WJB Box 120: Political - Misc.
11. Oswald Villard to William Borah, August 9th, 1922. WJB Box 120: 1921-22: Politics: Personal. Frank Knox to Borah, August 9th, 1922.W JB Box 120: Political -Third Party Movement. Borah to Wm T. Clarke, August 29th, 1922. WJB Box 120: Political -Third Party Movement. Borah to Frank Knox, August 11th, 1922. WJB Box 120: Political -Third Party Movement.
12. J.A.H. Hopkins to Borah, August 11th, 1922. WJB Box 120: Political -Third Party Movement.
13. J.A.H. Hopkins to Borah, February 19th, 1923. WJB Box 142: Political - Third Party Movement. Ashby, 125-126.
14. Ashby, 126-128.
15. Ashby, 129-131. J.A.H. Hopkins to Borah, July 20th, 1923. WJB Box 120: Political - 3rd Party Movement.
16. Borah to Frank Johnesse, October 19th, 1923. WJB Box 142: Political - 3rd Party Movement. J.A.H. Hopkins to Borah, December 10, 1923. Borah to J.A.H. Hopkins, December 11, 1923. WJB Box 153: J.A.H. Hopkins. Frank Johnesse, one of Borah's Idaho allies (and a Third Party supporter), called the Senator "entirely wrong when you say that Ford can have the Third Party nomination…You must remember that a Third Party conference will be made up largely of organized labor with which he is not popular. He is very popular of course with the masses, but with the conference delegates it would be quite different." Frank Johnesse to Borah, October 26, 1923. WJB, Box 142: Politics - Idaho, Misc.
17. Ashby, 136.
18. Ashby, 118. Borah to Magnus Martinson, December 15, 1922. WJB, Box 142: Politics - 3rd Party Movement. Sounding the same theme in 1927, Borah declared that "There are times when a complete break with one's party may be justifiable. But my experience and my observation has been that you can fight just as long and more effectively inside your party than you can outside." Ashby, 119.
19. Ashby, 118, 135-136.Borah to Robins, August 25, 1923. WJB, Box 142: Politics - Misc.
20. Ashby, 137.
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