By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The Duty to Revolt
Progressives and the Election of 1924
I. Indian Summer
"I like Silence and Success better than Socialism and Sovietism. Brains mean more to Business than a Brainstorm. They produce results without making so much noise. I prefer Coolidge to Chaos, and according to the present political situation, there isn't any other choice in this election." -- E. Bliss, Regal Shoe Company advertisement, 19242
"The La Follette movement has never died." -- Rexford Tugwell, 19373
Spurred by a seeming revival in progressive fortunes in the 1922 midterms and the unfurling revelations of systemic corruption in the White House, progressives in both the Republican and Democratic parties began to believe a sea change was possible in the election of 1924. But the death of Harding and ascent of Coolidge, the disastrous Democratic convention in Madison Square Garden, and the formation of an independent third party bid behind Robert M. La Follette would each work to scramble the political picture. The American electorate, seemingly on the verge of a repudiation of normalcy in 1922, would have to make a decade-defining choice between "Coolidge or Chaos" in 1924.
As good a day for Warren Harding and the Republicans had been Election Day 1920, the midterm elections of November 1922 saw much of their earlier landslide undone, effectively knocking normalcy and the Grand Old Party squarely back on their heels. "The more than seven million majority given to President Harding has been wiped out," lamented the New York Times. "The demonstration of disapproval for the Administration was unmistakable." While they retained control of the House and Senate, Republicans lost seven Senate seats and seventy seats in the House, cutting their Congressional majorities to ten and twenty-three respectively. TNR noted, with no small amount of schadenfreude, that "there will have to be a remarkable overturn in the next two years to make it possible for the Republicans even to consider Mr. Harding for the presidency again." The GOP, they argued the following week, "can no longer count on putting through anything it pleases, with surplus votes to spare. It will have to look to its defences, through the next two years." Democrats, meanwhile, were ecstatic at being back in the game, thanks in large part to yeoman's work by their National Chairman, Cordell Hull of Tennessee. "What a wonderful victory we won in November!" exclaimed William McAdoo to Franklin Roosevelt. "But this is mere circumstance to what we can do to the Republican reactionaries and standpatters in 1924 if the Democratic Party convinces the country during the next two years that it is truly a liberal and progressive party."4
McAdoo wasn't the only person who saw a revival of progressivism in the 1922 returns. Old Guard Republicans were as troubled by the character of the returns as much as the sheer losses they absorbed. The first signs of trouble for the Harding administration emerged during the primary season, when Roosevelt Progressive Albert Beveridge knocked out Harding ally Harry New in the Indiana Senate primary, Gifford Pinchot squeezed out a Pennsylvania gubernatorial victory over the Penrose and Mellon machines, and Porter McCumber of North Dakota -- namesake of the 1922 Fordney-McCumber tariff -- lost his primary to Lynn Frazier, who quickly took a place alongside the Senate peace progressives. Also joining him on the left wing of the Senate in 1922 were Democrats Burton Wheeler of Minnesota and Clarence Cleveland (C.C.) Dill of Washington, Henrik Shipstead of the Farmer-Labor Party, and Republicans Robert Beecher Howell of Nebraska and Smith Wildman Brookhart of Iowa. (Brookhart, who had won a special election to fill the seat vacated by William Kenyon when the farm bloc leader took a federal judgeship, explained that his middle-name "is my mother's name, but it is also notice to the standpatters that I am one Progressive who won't be tamed.") And even as most Republicans struggled, Hiram Johnson and Robert La Follette coasted to easy victories. Now, bemoaned the New York Times, "the balance of power will be held by the progressive-radical group led by Senator La Follette."5
The same dynamic held in the House as well. Veteran congressman Joseph Fordney, the other namesake of a tariff that many agrarian interests despised, lost the Michigan seat he had been holding for twenty-four years. In New York, meanwhile, Fiorello La Guardia -- after fighting last-minute charges from his opponent that he was a secret Anti-Semite -- won back the East Harlem seat he had resigned in 1919 to serve as President of the New York City Board of Aldermen. While nominally a member of the Republican Party, La Guardia explained to the New York World that "I stand for the Republicanism of Abraham Lincoln, and let me tell you that the average Republican east of the Mississippi doesn't know anything more about Abraham Lincoln than Henry Ford knows about the Talmud. I am a Progressive." To further underline the point, La Guardia declared on the day of La Follette's primary victory in Wisconsin that "he was always known as a radical, yet three-fourths of every reform and every forward-looking piece of legislation ever advocated by him have been written into the laws of this country."6
Another New Yorker returning to his old job on Election Day 1922 was Al Smith, who destroyed sitting Governor Nathan Miller, the man who had beaten him two years earlier, by close to three to one. "Nowhere except in Wisconsin," noted The Nation, "where the badgers seem to have tried to make it unanimous for their Bob La Follette -- early returns gave him a ten-to-one lead -- did any candidate ride on such a tide of personal popularity." (La Follette ended up winning 80% of the vote.) "The overwhelming personal triumph of Al Smith," wrote a similarly enthused TNR, "is a testimony to the good judgment of men that a democracy exhibits when it gets a chance…It is not to be forgotten that Smith vetoed the Lusk bills when the panic over the imaginary revolution was at its height, while Miller signed them when the panic was abating and it would have been safe for him to follow the dictates of common sense."7
In short, the 1922 midterms, in historian David Joseph Goldberg's eloquent phrasing, seemed an "Indian Summer" of progressivism. And while clearly happy about the results, the editors of TNR were at a loss to describe exactly what had happened on Election Day. On one hand, they deemed it "a convictionless, Tweedledum election - a triumph, not of liberalism or any other body of conviction, but of personalities and local issues, diverse and conflicting." At the same time, they conceded "the voting is heartening and encouraging to all Liberals, for its shows not only the spread of the agrarian movement but that all through the land the voters are thinking."8
Agrarian discontent certainly had a lot to do with the intensity of the Republican rollback. By 1922, the economy had begun to recover from its post-war slump, but the general prosperity for which the decade is usually remembered had not yet begun in earnest. And regardless of the overarching trends, the nation's farmers were in particularly dire straits, and would remain so throughout the decade. (Hence, the creation of William Kenyon's farm bloc in the first place.)
After a prosperous wartime for farmers, 1920 and 1921 saw over a million farmsteads undergo foreclosure or bankruptcy, as the purchasing power of farmers effectively collapsed thanks to domestic overproduction -- a trend that would only be exacerbated by the adoption of farm machinery like tractors in the 1920s -- and lessening European demand with the end of the war. Wool dropped from 60 cents a pound in 1918 to less than 20 cents a pound in 1920. Corn, at $1.88 a bushel in August 1919, was 42 cents a bushel by late 1921. Wheat, once $2.50 a bushel, was less than a dollar a bushel by the same time. In this environment, the pro-business posture of the Harding administration was not looked kindly upon by the nation's farmers, even at times when their interests seemed to coincide. Farmers had split on the Republicans' high tariff policy: While much of the farm bloc supported it, the American Farm Bureau Federation thought it would raise the prices of farm equipment and raw materials, while discouraging crop exports. In the end, high tariff policy would not succeed in restoring agricultural prosperity.9
But it was not just agrarian interests angry at the Harding administration in 1922. While the White House scandals would not break until the following year, already the Republicans had been tainted by the Newberry case. In September, Harding had taken a stand for fiscal discipline and vetoed a widely popular $4 billion "Bonus Bill" providing all World War veterans with a bonus of $1 a day for time served in the army and $1.25 per day served overseas. (The attempt to override the veto fell four votes short in the Senate. Standing with the president on this issue were Borah and the farm bloc.) That same month, Congress passed the Fordney-McCumber tariff, opening up fault lines throughout the country as every business and farm interest in America lobbied to secure the most favorable rates for their given industry. Eastern seaboard Republicans and the Western farm bloc also spent much of the summer dueling over one of Harding's personal pet projects, a proposed ship subsidy bill allocating $30 million to support a private merchant marine. And, perhaps most importantly, the summer and fall of 1922 had seen both the coal and railroad strikes flare up across the country and the administration respond with the Daugherty injunction, alienating laborers and suggesting to everyone that perhaps normalcy was not taking root. Once one factors in that the sitting president's party normally loses congressional seats in a midterm election, and that 1918 and 1920 had both been wave elections for the Republicans, some level of GOP retrenchment in 1922 was inevitable.10
Nonetheless, progressives were recharged by the apparent repudiation of normalcy at the ballot box. "We are really elated at the outcome of this election," Oswald Villard wrote to Senator Borah, "and with the exception of one or two States, the results seem exactly what we should have wished. It's a magnificent beginning, isn't it?" Borah agreed "It was a most significant election indeed…We ought to get ready to do some great things during the next two years." "The recent election gave promise of renewed vitality for a force in American politics which has been submerged for many years," TNR declared in an editorial entitled "Progressivism Reborn." While the electoral reaction to Harding was definitely inchoate and not "a permanent conversion to progressivism…because it did spring up spontaneously in so many different localities without the benefit of any national agitation or any central direction, it may well prove to be the expression of a permanently effective popular political and social impulse. It may endure as no other revolt against stand-pattism has endured since the formation of the Republican Party."11
But, for this "New Birth of Progressivism" to achieve anything, progressives had to organize. "[T]oday the three most conspicuous insurgents in the Senate, Johnson, Borah, and La Follette, all play lone hands," TNR had argued in an earlier editorial. This would not do anymore. "When Theodore Roosevelt became President he…nationalized progressivism by identifying in the minds of many of his fellow citizens American national fulfillment with a progressive outlook and program...It is the job of progressive leaders to undertake this conversion [once more]. Until they restore to progressivism the common meaning and impulse which it possessed in 1911-1912, the American nation will remain politically stalled.12
The three potential leaders earmarked by TNR agreed, but they themselves were not sure of the path forward. "[T]here will be stirring times in the next year or two," wrote Hiram Johnson to Harold Ickes after the election, and "the way is open for Progressive activity and Progressive leadership." But the "lines of the Progressive activity ought to be well marked…I have grown very accustomed to hearing people talk about a 'constructive program,' but in the last few years, I have observed none. I would like a constructive program that would solve our economic ills and cure the pain of the world, but as I have said to you more than once, I haven't either the ability or vision to perfect one. Unfortunately, my fellows seem to be in the same category." The month after the election, to figure out that potential program, Senator La Follette convened his summit of congressional progressives in Washington in the hopes of forming a new controlling bloc. "There is an amount of political circumspection and good sense about this procedure which is rare in American progressive politics," thought TNR. This "was a gathering of cool-headed and hard-headed politicians," not woolly-headed dreamers, and that boded well for the future.13
Along with organizing in Congress, progressives also thought it was time once again to think about forging a third party comprised of farmers and laborers and fused together by progressivism. "Labor is getting into a fighting mood," suggested The Nation in August 1922, after the first wave of primaries. "The farmers are slowly beginning to awaken to their real opportunities." "The farmers and the industrial laborers are suspicious of each other," noted TNR. "Yes, but in less degree than formerly. The election of Shipstead in Minnesota shows that farmers and laborers can work together…The material for a new national democratic political movement is available." William Allen White, who saw his frenemy, Governor Henry Allen of Kansas, go down to defeat for supporting the railroad strike, also thought it looked like "the discontented farmer and the aspiring laborer have got together." So too did Frederic Howe, who a few years later noted that "[t]he election of 1922 showed that labor could mobilize its power. It showed the possibility of union with the farmers."14
By January 1923, TNR was even more strident for a new party along these lines. "As long as the progressives carry on their fight within the Republican and Democratic folds, they will find themselves frustrated…Progressivism has no meaning and no future, unless it becomes a permanently aggressive, challenging and leavening influence in American society and politics…All the important constructive movements in American politics have used new parties as their indispensable instruments." In short, "it may take a long time to bring about an effective farmer-labor coalition, but come it eventually will…In order to accomplish its purposes the farmer-labor coalition will have gradually to broaden and nationalize its program…It cannot succeed unless it works a progressive outlook into the American national consciousness."15
As it happens, some people were already working on it.
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. MacKay, 164-165.
3. MacKay, 260.
4. Zinn, La Guardia in Congress, 65-66. Murray, Politics of Normalcy, 84-85. "The Threat of a Third Party," The New Republic, November 15, 1922 (Vol. 32, No. 415), 288. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 95.
5. Murray, Politics of Normalcy, 84-85, 118. Miller, Gifford Pinchot, 256-257. Johnson, Peace Progressives, 106-110. Zinn, La Guardia in Congress, 65-66. While Albert Beveridge won the Indiana primary, he lost the general election to former Governor Samuel Ralston, who enjoyed considerable Klan support, and was one of the few progressives to lose in 1922. "The defeat of Beveridge is painful to everyone who bears in mind the sacrifices Beveridge has made to the progressive cause," TNR eulogized when the returns were in. "Yet in a way it clears the air. The progressivism of 1912, which Beveridge represents, is not the progressivism of 1922, and still less that of 1924." "The Week," The New Republic, November 15, 1922 (Vol. 32, No. 415), 286.
6. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 30. Zinn, La Guardia in Congress, 63.
7. The Nation, November 15, 1922 (Vol, 115, No. 2993), 511. "The Week," The New Republic, November 15, 1922 (Vol. 32, No. 415), 286-287.
8. Goldberg, Discontented America, 57. "The Outs are In Again," The New Republic, November 15th, 1922, 285. "The Week," The New Republic, November 15, 1922 (Vol. 32, No. 415), 286.
9. Soule, 99-100. Brinkley, American History, 646. Edward S. Kaplan, "The Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922," Encyclopedia of Economic History, February 2010 (http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/kaplan.fordney)
10. Murray, Politics of Normalcy, 65-70, 74-75.
11. Oswald Villard to Borah, November 16th, 1922. WJB Box 120: Political - Misc. Borah to Oswald Villard, November 17th, 1922. WJB Box 120: Political - Misc "Progressivism Reborn," The New Republic, December 13, 1922 (Vol. 33, No. 419), 56-57.
12. "A Nation Stalled," The New Republic, November 8, 1922 (Vol. 32, No. 414), 264-266.
13. Johnson to Ickes, November 14, 1922. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson. "Progressivism Reborn," The New Republic, 56-57. Johnson took particular relish at the defeat of Senators Frank Kellogg of Minnesota (soon to be Coolidge's Secretary of State) and Miles Poindexter of Washington, "both of whom in 1912 were rated as progressives. I wonder if the fact the fact that they forgot their progressivism had anything to do with their defeat?" Ibid.
14. "The Duty to Revolt," The Nation, August 9th, 1921 (Vol. 115, No. 2979), 140. "New Parties for Old," The New Republic, November 22nd, 1922 (Vol 32, No. 416), 320-322.Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 31. Howe, 336.
15. "Why a Progressive Party?" The New Republic, January 3rd, 1923 (Vol. 33, No. 422), 134-136.
If you found this dissertation useful or entertaining, please consider contributing to the tip fund.
Alas, history isn't the wildly remunerative discipline it used to be.