By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The Duty to Revolt
Progressives and the Election of 1924
V. Schism in the Democracy
After losing the 1920 nomination primarily on account of his indecision -- which arose from a sense of duty to his ailing father-in-law, Woodrow Wilson -- William Gibbs McAdoo was determined not to make the same mistake in 1924. Now based in California, where he gained the favor of local boss James D. Phelan, McAdoo spent the 1922 election season campaigning for congressional Democrats in the West and building up both his name recognition and his bullpen of potential allies. As soon as the midterms were over, he began to build his organization for the coming fight, comprised mostly of fellow former Wilson men, the most notable of which was Baruch. By June 1923, H.L. Mencken lamented that the coming presidential election was undoubtedly going to be a McAdoo versus Harding contest, which, Mencken thought, "would bring us one step nearer…to the goal toward which American politics have been moving for years past: the amalgamation of the two great parties. Both have lost their old vitality, all their old reality…[their only difference] is their division on sectional lines. In the South the morons still vote the straight Democratic ticket."2
Mencken's "moron" comment speaks to the significant cultural divide that McAdoo, or any Democratic contender, would have to bridge. While Mencken was a proud and avowed Baltimore Wet, McAdoo was particularly popular in the South and West on account of his steadfast Dryness over the years. From America's earliest days, saloons had been the political meeting place of choice for parties out of power, be they colonial revolutionaries or Irish immigrants, and so the Dry vs. Wet issue had never been just about alcohol. But by the mid-1920's it had become a loaded signifier for other deep cultural schisms in American life.3
In effect, the real question was about who was really in the driver's seat in modern America. Supporters of Prohibition in rural America often viewed themselves as the hardy, Protestant, and 100% American native stock that comprised the backbone of the republic - men and women who stood for respecting the law, the flag, and the literal truth of the Bible. By contrast, Wets were thought be lawbreakers, the teeming immigrants of the festering cities, or at best, the intellectuals and parlor Bolsheviks who thought themselves too smart and all-knowing to heed the Word as it was written. A list of bootleggers, evangelist Billy Sunday argued in 1921, "reads like a page of directories from Italy and Greece." Conversely, urban Wets saw themselves as modern, tolerant, and cosmopolitan folk, and -- not unlike Mencken -- looked on rural Drys as ignorant and backwards "Booboisee" who spent their leisure time doing ridiculous things in white hoods.4
That these stereotypes were broad (and often misleading -- as historian Kenneth Jackson has noted, the Ku Klux Klan emerged in many a Northern city as well) did not diminish the intensity of feeling behind them. In effect, the passions that animated the anti-German and anti-Red sentiment of the war and post-war eras became sublimated into the liquor issue, and the question of Prohibition became fraught with geographic (urban vs. rural), religious (Protestant vs. Catholic), and racial (native vs. immigrant) import. Compounding matters even further, Prohibition also took on the quality of a religious crusade, with notable speakers like Sunday and William Jennings Bryan, the longtime kingmaker of the Democratic Party, freely invoking the Bible to make the case for casting out the demon rum. One did not compromise with the Devil, or his consorts.5
Another indicator that the lines between Wet and Dry were not as well demarcated as stereotypes suggest was the presidential candidacy of Senator Oscar Underwood of Alabama. Hailing from the Deep South, Underwood was for state's rights, the League of Nations, and the World Court and resolutely against Big Government, women's suffrage, the Ku Klux Klan, and Prohibition. To Bryan, Senator Underwood was an "anti-progressive" and a "tool of Wall Street," a "New York candidate living in the South." To the Klan, he was the "Jew, jug, and Jesuit" candidate. While never pulling much of a following outside of his native state, Underwood would be a particular thorn in the side of McAdoo, particularly once he vowed to get an anti-Klan plank into the Democratic platform of 1924.6
When it came to the Klan, McAdoo at times wasn't shy about voicing an oblique criticism of the organization. (After all, his principal benefactors, James Phelan and Bernard Baruch, were Catholic and Jewish respectively.) When specifically asked about his stance at a Georgia campaign stop in March 1923, he replied that he stood "four-square with respect to this and every other order, on the immutable guarantee of liberty contained in the first paragraph of the Constitution of the United States, that is, for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religious worship, and the right of peaceable assemblage." That being said, McAdoo never castigated the Klan by name either. Upon his official announcement that he was running in 1923, The Nation thought him a decent choice on some issues. "Unfortunately, he has hitherto avoided the issue of the Klan, and he cannot be unaware that in the South he is coming to be generally regarded as the Ku Klux Klan's candidate."7
The Klan issue would continue to nettle McAdoo, but it would be a slicker substance than beer that would cause his campaign to truly start unraveling. On February 2nd, 1924, upon hearing the news that Woodrow Wilson was at death's door, McAdoo and his wife Eleanor boarded a train in Los Angeles for Washington to pay their last respects. If McAdoo was looking forward to being free of his father-in-law's shadow at last, he did not have long to savor the moment. At a stop in Albuquerque, the McAdoos were informed that President Wilson had perished. What's more, newspapers were breaking the story of Edwin Doheny's testimony before the Walsh Committee the week before, when the oilman had admitted to keeping McAdoo on the payroll to the tune of $250,000. Urban newspapers immediately began dancing on McAdoo's grave -- the joke being that McAdoo would now be attending two Washington funerals this week, Wilson's and his own - while party leaders began asking him to withdraw from the field. "You are no longer available as a candidate," a grieved Thomas Walsh told his friend.8
Having been derailed in 1920, McAdoo refused to cede the field without a fight this time. "McAdoo is mad," wrote one of his advisors, Breckinridge Long, in his diary on February 8th. "He is full of fight. He is swearing mad. He is just as profane as I get when I get mad. He is cursing and swearing, damning every opponent and every obstacle." As such, the campaign immediately went on the offensive. McAdoo himself appeared before the Walsh committee on February 11th, arguing that the payments were for proper legal services and nothing more. A week later, on February 18th, McAdoo gave a fire-and-brimstone speech in Chicago to three hundred supporters gathered from forty states, promising, in the words of the resolution passed at the event, to "accept the leadership of the Progressive Democracy of the nation."9
But even after the successful Chicago pep rally, the air began to let out of the McAdoo balloon over the next few months. In his review of Mary Synon's election-year bio McAdoo: The Man and his Times, A Panorama in Democracy -- entitled "McAdoo, Plunger" -- Nation writer Harry Elmer Barnes joked that"the unforeseen ramifications of the oleaginous archaeology initiated by Senator La Follette and executed by Senators Walsh, Wheeler, and others seem likely to have converted this book, intended as a prompt and opportune campaign biography, into a political obituary." To fight this emerging storyline, the McAdoo camp began to campaign aggressively everywhere for delegates, thus -- much like General Leonard Wood in 1920 -- aggravating several of the favorite son candidates in the 1924 hunt. When McAdoo marched into Georgia in March 1924 and, with the aid of the Klan, subsequently thumped Alabama's Oscar Underwood by a two-to-one margin in the state, he both gained a lasting enemy in Underwood and fueled the whispers nationwide that he was in fact the Ku Klux's Kandidate. McAdoo stoked further animosities by rushing headlong into Missouri (Senator James Reed's territory), Illinois (the backyard of Chicago boss George Brennan), and Ohio, where he was decisively defeated by the presidential candidate of 1920, Governor Cox, by a count of three to one.10
While McAdoo's forays into everyone else's territory made him the delegate leader heading into the Democratic convention in New York City, it didn't alter progressive opinion of his candidacy. "We must state our opinion," The Nation editorialized in June 1924, "that Mr. McAdoo's nomination would be a moral disaster for the whole country. It would mean that a great party had overlooked offenses against good taste and decency which ought never to be overlooked. He sold his influence as the son-in-law of the President to Doheny and to others." As for the legal services claim, "no legal services could be worth such a fee." In short, McAdoo's continued bid was "another proof of that decay of moral sensibility in America which tolerates the candidacy of Calvin Coolidge, who never lifted a finger to drive the rascals out. Surely the next proper step if such as these prevail would be to auction off the Presidency from the steps of the Capitol at Washington to the highest bidder."11
In addition, the oil gusher soaking McAdoo's candidacy encouraged several other favorite sons to enter the presidential contest, including the esteemed Senator Carter Glass of Virginia, the Klan-backed Governor of Indiana, Samuel Ralston; the younger brother of the Great Commoner, Charles Bryan of Nebraska, and the relatively unknown former Ambassador to Britain, John W. Davis of West Virginia. But the person it most helped was the candidate that urban Wets had rallied around from the start, and who McAdoo's followers most despised, Governor Al Smith of New York.12
As soon as Smith decisively took back the New York governorship in 1922, his name started being mentioned among the possible presidential candidates. That being said, however enamored he was in New York, the governor's baggage in a national race was considerable. "We have frequently expressed our admiration of Governor Smith as a man and as an executive," wrote TNR in November 1923. "He is courageous, honest, and a genuine democrat. We regard as unworthy of America the religious intolerance that would dismiss forthwith his claims to consideration as a candidate for the presidency on the one ground that he is a Catholic. But a Roman Catholic candidate on a wet platform is about as good a definition of unavailability as could be devised. Anybody could beat such a combination -- even Nicholas Murray Butler."13
Charles Francis Murphy, the boss of Tammany Hall, wanted to make a go of it regardless. For decades, Tammany had backed Smith -- as a backbencher state assemblyman in 1903, as Democratic floor leader in 1911, as Speaker of the Assembly in 1913, as sheriff of New York City in 1915, President of the Board of Aldermen in 1917, and as Governor in 1918. But the organization, recognizing Smith's talent, had also kept him from the dirtier side of the patronage business and instead gave him free rein to do what he did best. In the wake of the 1911 Triangle Fire, a disaster which saw 146 garment workers, mostly women under the age of 25, consumed by fire or forced to leap to their death -- all because the factory's owners had locked the doors of their ninth floor sweatshop on the way out -- Smith proved that the Tammany machine and progressive reform could co-exist together. Working with State Senator Robert Wagner and social worker Frances Perkins, who would become one of Governor Smith's key aides, Smith publicized the disaster and pushed through worker protections and fire safety laws that would become models for the nation.14
By 1924, Smith was a nationally-known figure with impeccable progressive credentials -- and yet, as a Catholic, Wet New Yorker of Irish, German, and Italian descent, he was also the worst nightmare of a not-inconsiderable percentage of the Democratic Party. Moreover, Smith was not the type of fellow to tone it down for potentially hostile audiences. Quite the contrary, the Governor was proud of who he was and from where he hailed -- Wherever Smith went after 1920, a band would strike up "The Sidewalks of New York" soon enough. He claimed to hold a degree of FFM (Fulton Fish Market), wore his trademark derby hat everywhere he went, consistently pronounced words in Noo Yawkese (for example, "orspital" (hospital), "foist" (first), "poisun" (person), "soivice" (service), "woik" (work) and "raddio" (radio)), and proudly proclaimed he'd "rather be a lamppost on Park Row than the Governor of California." If all this weren't frightening enough to the hinterlands, Smith was also very publicly Wet. "Wouldn't you like to have your foot on the rail," he once waxed nostalgic to a reporter, "and blow the foam off some suds?" Smith thought he was off the record then, but, in 1923, he was certainly on the record when he signed the repeal of the Mullan-Gage Act, which was New York's state-level version of the Volstead Act. Prohibitionists across the nation were aghast that the Empire State, so often a trend leader across the nation, had taken the first step toward repeal. "Governor Smith has simply dishonored his office and disgraced himself," declared William Jennings Bryan, "he cannot lead the nation back to wallow in the mire."15
All of that being said, Boss Murphy still wanted to see Smith in the White House, if nothing else than as an example to the nation that a Catholic could be President. So, from 1922 to 1924, he met with some of his fellow Northern Democratic bosses, like George Brennan of Chicago, James McGuffey of Pennsylvania, Albert Ritchie of Maryland, and Tom Taggart of Indiana, in an attempt to build an anti-McAdoo coalition around Smith. But before Murphy could see his plans come to fruition, he perished of a heart attack in April of 1924.16
With Murphy's death, "the brains went out of Tammany Hall," noted journalist Arthur Krock, and consensus in the political media was that Smith's brief foray into the presidential field was now over. But, while visibly distraught at the loss of his mentor, Smith had no plans to stand down. He and his close-knit political team -- Joseph Proskauer, Belle Moskowitz, and Robert Moses, all of whom were of Jewish descent, and thus as suspect as their candidate to the eyes of many -- knew they needed to find someone new to front the Smith candidacy. They needed a Dry, WASP-y Protestant that could mend fences with the rest of the party. They needed Franklin Delano Roosevelt.17
Despite his bungling of the Haiti issue, Roosevelt's energetic performance on the campaign trail had been one of the few silver linings for the Democratic Party coming out of 1920. But in August 1921, while vacationing at his usual family retreat on Canada's Campobello Island, fate struck an unkind blow. One day after a long, strenuous sail to the island, the 39-year-old Roosevelt fell into the cold waters of the Bay of Fundy. "I never felt anything so cold as that water," he later recalled. The day after that, the Roosevelt family spent several exhausting hours fighting a nearby forest fire, which the hardy Franklin followed up with a two-mile jog and swim. ("I didn't get the usual reaction, the glow I'd expected.") Sorting through the mail that evening in his wet bathing suit, Roosevelt suddenly felt light-headed -- "I'd never felt quite that way before" -- and retired to bed, believing he had contracted a "slight case of lumbago." The next morning, he woke up feverish, aching all over, and with his left leg feeling sluggish. By the afternoon, that leg was dead weight. By the next morning, both legs had gone numb - yet also extremely sensitive to even the slightest touch - and the fever-wracked Roosevelt could no longer stand.18
As it happened, one of the most eminent surgeons in America, William Keen, was vacationing nearby. A pioneer in brain surgery, Dr. Keen had secretly operated on Grover Cleveland in 1893 to remove a cancerous lesion from the then-president's jaw. Now, he diagnosed the ailing Roosevelt with "a clot of blood from a sudden congestion - settled in the lower spinal cord." In the weeks to come, as Roosevelt remained feverish, paralyzed from the waist down, and in intense pain, doctors at Presbyterian Hospital in New York diagnosed the President with paralytic poliomyelitis, or polio, a viral scourge that would prey on thousands of Americans a year before Dr. Jonas Salk's development of a vaccine in 1955. In 2003, doctors reviewing Roosevelt's case suggested that his condition might well have been Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder after an infection in which the body's immune system attacks the patient's nervous system instead. In either case, the remainder of 1921 and 1922 would be some of the bleakest days Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt would ever know, and, despite his best efforts, Roosevelt would never walk unassisted again.19
By early 1924, Roosevelt -- after years of physical therapy and soul-searching -- had begun to take an active interest in Democratic politics once more. "It seems to me that we have got to nominate a really progressive, if not a radical Democrat," he wrote one friend. "[I]f I did not still have these crutches I should throw my own hat in the ring." Although he originally supported his fellow Wilson alumnus McAdoo, Roosevelt was among those who thought the taint of Teapot Dome would be impossible to overcome. Roosevelt also thought Smith was too parochial a candidate to win the nomination in 1924 -- "we might be able to get him the nomination in 1928" -- and that signing the Mullan-Gage repeal had been a political mistake. (Despite his secret stash of "Old Reserve," Roosevelt was publicly Dry.) But the Smith candidacy still presented him an opportunity to get back into the game, and to repair relations with the Tammany wing of the New York Democratic Party, whom Roosevelt had often feuded with during his brief time in the State Senate. (In fact, Roosevelt had run against the Tammany candidate for Senate in the 1914 Democratic primary, and had gotten thrashed by a three to one margin.) And so, on May 1st, 1924, Roosevelt accepted the post of Smith's national chairman.20
While Roosevelt and Smith tried to temper the Governor's image some for national consumption -- "No matter what we think of the Volstead Law," Smith now said, convincing no one, "it is the law of the land and we must support it" -- the Governor still remained very much a local candidate. Wetness and Catholicism were each high hurdles on their own for a potential nominee - Taken together, they seemed nearly insurmountable. Even H.L. Mencken, who, as in 1920, believed the Democrats could win if they got behind "a safe and incurable wet of national reputation…and make the campaign on a beer-wagon," thought Smith's candidacy "obviously hopeless: the day he was nominated the Methodist Ku Kluxers of every State south of the Potomac would begin building forces along the coast to repel the Pope." It didn't help matters that, while possessing an impressive mastery of issues affecting the urban realm, Smith could barely feign interest on topics like the League of Nations or agricultural policy.21
Still, Smith mustered his own cache of delegates before the convention, most of them from the Northeast Corridor, but also from a primary win in the Wet state of Wisconsin. ("I don't even know anybody way out there," remarked the Governor, "I've never been there, nor in Minnesota.") In Minnesota, Colorado, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, Smith was also strong enough to fight McAdoo to a draw, usually forcing either uninstructed or split delegations or declarations in favor of a neutral favorite son. And, unlike the hyper-aggressive McAdoo, Smith's more laid-back candidacy hadn't made enemies of favorite sons like James Cox in Ohio, and Oscar Underwood in Alabama, or powerful bosses like George Brennan in Illinois and Tom Taggart in Indiana - suggesting that if the balloting continued for awhile, Governor Smith would be in a better opportunity to capitalize.22
By the eve of the Democratic convention in New York City, McAdoo was the clear frontrunner with 270 delegates, but Smith was in the hunt with 126 of his own, and the vast majority were either with favorite sons (220) or uncommitted (over 1000). In short, anything could happen. Since "Smith is too wet [and] McAdoo is too oily," The Nation predicted "a compromise agreement by exhaustion upon some man whom the American people would never in the world of their own free choice pick for the Presidency." H.L. Mencken also guessed -- as early as October 1923, in fact -- the Democrats would likely find themselves impaled and writhing on the horns of Wet and Dry. "Whoever is nominated by the Democrats will be a palpable fraud," Mencken mordantly predicted. "No even half-honest man has any more chance of getting the nomination than a Chinaman." But, as cynical as he was, even Mencken couldn't have predicted that the assembled Democrats in New York would so publicly and appallingly commit political suicide.23
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 40-43. Mencken, 59.
3. Kevin C. Murphy, "Public Virtues, Public Vices: Republicanism and the Tavern," 2001 (http://www.kevincmurphy.com/RepublicanTavern.htm)
4. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 9.
5. Kenneth Jackson, The Ku Klux Klan in the City (New York: Oxford University Press), 1967.
6. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 50-53.
7. Ibid, 88. "National Affairs: A Flat Reply," TIME Magazine, March 24, 1924. The Nation, November 28, 1923 (Vol. 117, No. 3047), 593.
8. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 45.
9. Ibid, 46-48.
10. Ibid, 48-49, 53-54, 86-87. Harry Elmer Barnes, "McAdoo, Plunger," The Nation, June 25th, 1924 (Vol. 118, No. 3077), 741.
11. "The Case for Mr. McAdoo," The Nation, June 25th, 1924 (Vol. 118, No. 3077), 741.
12. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 72-75.
13. "The Week," The New Republic, November 28th, 1923 (Vol. 37, No. 469), 3-4.
14. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 59-60. "The Triangle Fire,' The American Experience (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/introduction/triangle-intro/) According to Franklin Roosevelt, "Murphy always made it a point to keep Al honest. He never let Smith get smeared or tangled up with any of the dirty deals…because he thought he was a capable fellow and could go far." Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 62.
15. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 59, 63, 65. Robert Slayton, Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith (New York: Free Press, 2001), 109, 166, 194. Goldberg, Discontented America, 175.
16. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 66-68.
18. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 367. Armond S. Goldman et al, "What was the cause of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's paralytic illness?," Journal of Medical Biography, Vol. 11, November 2003, 232-240.
19. Goldman, et al. "When the President is the Patient," College of Physicians of Philadelphia (http://www.healthmedialab.com/html/president/index.html) "Polio Disease: Questions and Answers," Centers for Disease Control (http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/polio/dis-faqs.htm) Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 368-376.
20. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 376. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 68, 89. Finan, 238-239.
21. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 70-71. Mencken, 72.
22. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 85-91.
23. Ibid. "Editorial Paragraphs," The Nation, July 2nd, 1924 (Vol. 119, No. 3078), 1. Mencken, 72.
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