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

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Chapter Three: Chaos at Home

Progressives in the Crucible of 1919

XIII. The Fever Breaks

I. Terror Comes to R St.
II. The Storm Before the Storm
III. Enemies in Office, Friends in Jail
IV. Mobilizing the Nation
V. The Wheels Come Off
VI. On a Pale Horse
VII. Battle in Seattle
VIII. The Great Strike Wave
IX. Steel and Coal
X. The Red Summer
XI. The Forces of Order
XII. Mr. Palmer's War
XIII. The Fever Breaks
XIV. The Best Laid Plans

1920. "It will not be an easy year," remarked the cover of The New Republic's first issue of the twenties. "[T]he world over schism and distrust, at Washington a deadlock of office holders, no single measure of Reconstruction achieved, a Presidential year…It will not be a possible year if thought is suppressed and terrorized, if the censors, the propagandists and bigots have their way. 1920 will leave the world better than it found it only if free men insist upon their freedom."1

They would have to. On January 2nd, Palmer and Hoover, dreaming of a fleet of Soviet Arks to follow the Buford into the Red sunset, initiated their second wave of raids. This time, the target was ostensibly the new Communist and Communist Labor parties, which the GID essentially attempted to liquidate. Law enforcement officials around the country were urged by the Justice Department that "every effort should be made by you to definitely establish the fact that the persons arrested" were members of one or the other party, since "the grounds for deportation will be based solely upon membership." The warning did not count for much. Nationwide, the day saw as many as ten thousand arrests across 23 states and 33 cities -- Among those rounded up in the wide net were thirty-nine bakers in Lynn, Massachusetts attempting to organize a bakery, 800 men and women in Detroit who were then forced to sleep in a windowless hallway for five days and share one toilet, and a New Jersey man who "looked like a radical." But in this huge haul, only three pistols were confiscated, two of them .22 caliber, and in the end only 556 men and women were deported, mostly for run-of-the-mill immigration violations.2

Even allowing for Palmer's previous excesses, progressives were shocked by the flagrant illegality of the January raids. "Deporting a political party," TNR argued, was thought to be "abhorrent to that 'fierce spirit of liberty' which Burke once proclaimed as America's chief characteristic." Palmer had not only violated that creed, he had given the platform of the Communist party an enormous PR boost. "Fortunately the new sedition law has not yet been enacted by Congress, or Mr. Palmer might find himself, together with some very respectable newspapers, liable to prosecution for circulating seditious matter." In The Nation, Frederick Barkley covered in detail the dismal confinement of the 800 in Detroit, 400 of whom were "confined for one to two weeks under conditions of horror, confined because of their peaceful assemblage, guaranteed by the Constitution, led the Department of Justice to suspect that their beliefs, also protected under the Constitution, were inimical to the peace and safety of 110,000,000 people. Nearly 400 men are free after a taste of 'Americanization'…that bodes ill for any future Americanizers who do not come backed by the clubs of the police and the constabulatory. Nearly 400 men, and hundreds more women and children, have had the seeds of hatred sown in their breasts."3

And while the Washington Post argued that '[t]here is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberty," this time legal officials also balked at the scale and scope of Palmer's attack. Feeling "out of sympathy with the anti-radical policies of Mr. Palmer and his method of carrying them out," Francis Fisher Kane, a US Attorney in Philadelphia, resigned. "As I read the manifestoes of the Communist Party," Kane wrote in his resignation letter, "the party does not expressly stand for the overthrow of this government by force, and it was surely a question of policy - not one of law" that prompted the raids. Moreover, Palmer's tactics, Kane averred, are "generally unwise and very apt to result in injustice…Are we really in danger in this country from the presence of a handful of foreign 'radicals'?" Kane doubted it.4

Naturally, the Attorney General was incensed. In a public letter of reply, he laid out a case for why he believed the Communist parties were "pledged to the sole purpose of obtaining the overthrow of the government of the United States by force and violence." He also rather dubiously declared that he had "carefully studied the procedure followed by the Department of Labor in the deportation cases and fail to find any single instance where any injustice has been done to an alien." "In view of your misunderstanding of the real facts," Palmer concluded, "I am bound to say that your resignation seems to me to be quite the proper step for you to take."5

But Kane wasn't the only lawyer to take umbrage at Palmer's January actions. In Boston a few months later, a federal judge decried the raids as the work of a mob. "I refrain from any extended comment on the lawlessness of these proceedings by our supposedly law-enforcing officials," declared Judge Anderson in the case of Colyer et al v. Skeffington. "The documents and acts speak for themselves. It may, however, fitly be observed that a mob is a mob, whether made up of government officials acting under instructions from the Department of Justice, or of criminals, loafers, and the vicious classes." He also excoriated the "pains [that] were taken to give spectacular publicity to the raid[s], and to make it appear that there was great and imminent public danger." To Sidney Howard in The Survey, Judge Anderson had "hit directly at the fallacy of the panic."6

Also concurring with Judge Anderson's assessment of the situation was Acting Secretary of Labor Louis Post, who, upon review of the January arrests, re-imposed the attention to constitutional detail that Caminetti and Hoover had earlier sidestepped and began voiding almost half of the arrests. A livid Palmer urged Post be reprimanded for his "'tender solicitude for social revolution," and for this seeming coddling of the radical element, impeachment hearings were initiated against Louis Post in the House of Representatives in April. These backfired massively. Post proved an able and personable witness, and, in early May of 1920, he eloquently dissected the many illegalities at the heart of Palmer's approach in official House testimony. TNR exulted to see Post run circles around the "hearing-hearers of Washington," "lineal descendants" to the "witch-burners." Post "anticipated attack, he welcomed it, he ran to meet it with every weapon of fact, of humor, of legitimate pride." As such, the Committee "had very much the aspect of a group of gentlemen who had picked up a very hot poker and were looking for some place to cool it."7

It helped Post's case that Attorney General Palmer's star was dimming of its own accord in the same week. As with Independence Day 1919, Palmer - now with a definite eye at the coming presidential election - had prophesied a wave of Bolshevik terror to occur on May Day 1920. When nothing of note happened that day despite another ramp-up of police and law enforcement in major American cities, Palmer the "Fighting Quaker" began to seem more a "Quaking Fighter," and the ground was laid for a Senate investigation into his own actions in the year to come.8

The second wave of Palmer Raids was not the only grievous overreach for anti-radical forces in America that January of 1920. Five days later, on January 7th, the New York State Assembly voted to expel five of its members- Samuel DeWitt, Samuel Orr, Louis Waldman, Charles Solomon, and August Claessens - for being representatives of the Socialist party and thus, in the words of Speaker of the House Thomas Sweet, "elected on a platform that is absolutely inimical to the best interests of the state of New York and the United States." The resolution which determined their fate, which accused all five members of being "pledged to the forcible and violent overthrow of all governments now existing," passed 140-6.9


This was not the first time Socialists had been fired or expelled by virtue of their ideology. Earlier in the year, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt had to admonish Rear Admiral S.S. Robinson for attempting to fire three Socialists at Newport Naval Yard. "Now, my dear Admiral," Roosevelt wrote, "neither you nor I can fire a man because he happens to be a Socialist. It so happens that the Socialist party has a place on the official ballot in almost every state in the union." And, earlier in 1919, Congress had refused to seat Socialist Victor Berger of Milwaukee on account of his conviction under the Espionage Act. An unrepentant Berger, who had told his constituents "[y]ou got nothing out of the war except the flu and prohibition," was re-elected in a special election in November 1919. Three days after the incident in Albany, January 10th, 1920, Congress refused to seat him again, and the seat stayed empty until the following session.10

In that case, however, Congress at least had the fig leaf of Berger's conviction. The New York Assembly had no such cover for their vote. Speaker Sweet had argued that the Socialist Party was "not truly a political party…[but] a membership organization admitting within its ranks aliens, enemy aliens, and minors." But to many onlookers, it seemed like a political hit by a majority against an unprotected minority. Progressives, as usual, voiced their displeasure at this turn of events. "Socialists," argued Senator Hiram Johnson, "acting within the Constitution, have the right to preach their doctrine. When they are elected by their constituents they must be protected." TNR spoke of "The Mob in High Places" and argued "Sweet, Lusk, and Stephenson" had made New York "the first democratic commonwealth in history to proscribe a political party which was seeking by orderly constitutional agitation to bring about changes in its political and economic institutions." Quoting Jefferson and Hamilton, The Survey honored the "Keepers of the Faith" who "Recently Broke Silence and Revealed a Great Body of Public Opinion Ready to Uphold the Liberties of the Founders" Among them were Hiram Johnson, Frank Cobb, Jane Addams, and Frances Fisher Kane. 11

This time, however, progressives were joined by figures on the right, including Senator Warren Harding of Ohio, American Legion founder Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (also a member of the assembly), and, most notably, former Republican presidential candidate Charles Evans Hughes. Disgusted with the turn of events, Hughes argued the vote was "a serious blow to the standards of true Americanism and nothing short of a calamity." He pushed the New York Bar to advocate re-admission, and even offered the five expelled Socialists legal counsel. "It was like a breath of fresh air," wrote Harold Ickes to Hughes in gratitude for his stance. "Your petition must commend itself to every sober-minded citizen who has not allowed himself to be swept off his feet by the present wave of hysteria which, in the name of 'law and order' and the 'preservation of our institutions,' is doing more to encourage lawlessness and undermine our institutions than all of the Socialists, Communists, and so-called 'Reds' could do." A few months later, in April 1920, the Assembly voted to make the expulsion of the five Socialists permanent, but minds and the national mood were changing. This time, the votes were 116-28 (against three of the members) and 104-40 (against the other two.) When all five accused were overwhelmingly re-elected that September, the Assembly voted again to expel three of the members, but seated the other two (who refused to sit anyway, in solidarity.)12

At long last, the tensions of the war and post-war periods were beginning to slacken. As The Survey argued in February 1920, "the sedition bills, the dragnet raids, and plans for wholesale deportation have seemed to indicate that public intemperance is at its height. That is misreading the situation. These things are but the reflex of a public trepidation that has perceptibly waned." The labor strikes had been broken, and, while the economy had not improved, production had, in the fall of 1919, suddenly increased past its wartime high. Perhaps most importantly, the prophesied revolution had not seemed to come. For this relative calm, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was happy to take credit. "Like a prairie fire, the blaze of revolution was sweeping over every American institution of law and order a year ago," he reminded the nation in 1920, "It was eating its way into the homes of the American workman, its sharp tongues of revolutionary heat were licking the altars of the churches, leaping into the belfry of the school bell, crawling into the sacred corners of American homes, seeking to replace marriage vows with libertine laws, burning up the foundations of society."13

But, at this point, the nation had begun to tune Palmer out -- much to the delight of H.L. Mencken. "The American people, as a general thing, enjoy the public pursuit of criminals," he wrote. "They esteem and respect a prosecuting officer who entertains them with gaudy raids…But Palmer went a bit too far. He carried the farce to such lengths that the plain people began to sympathize with his victims, nine-tenths of whom were palpably innocent of any worse crime than folly. Today he faces a public conviction that he is a silly fellow, despotic and without sense. That conviction does little violence to the truth." To Mencken as to many others, it was good riddance to bad rubbish, for Palmer "has probably done more than any other one man, save only Mr. Wilson himself, to break down democratic self-government in America and substitute a Cossack despotism, unintelligent and dishonest…In brief, the fellow is a hollow charlatan."14

As Palmer himself could testify, there had been real dangers in 1919: Galleanists had tried to murder him twice. But, not for the first or last time in American history, the government response to the acts of terror in April and June 1919 had been wildly disproportionate to the actual threat. And so it was ironic, that, when this small band of foreign-born anarchists actually launched their most violent and successful attack on September, 16th, 1920 -- a bomb in downtown Wall Street that killed 39 and wounded hundreds - America, after the initial shock, mostly reacted with an exhausted shrug. "Attorney General Palmer is convinced the Wall Street explosion was the result of a bomb plot," deadpanned The New York World after the tragedy. "In spite of the Attorney General's opinion, it probably was the result of a bomb plot."15

Continue to Chapter 3, Pt. 14: The Best Laid Plans.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. The New Republic, January 7, 1920, Vol. XXI, No. 266.
2. Law and Labor, August 1920, 193-194. Capozzola, 202-204. Hagedorn, 420-421.
3. "Deporting a Political Party," The New Republic, January 14, 1920, 186. Frederick Barkley, "Jailing Radicals in Detroit," The Nation, January 31, 1920, Vol. 110, No. 2848, 136.
4. Capozzola, 204. Hagedorn, 422. Murray, Red Scare, 218. "The Documents in the Case," The Survey, January 31. 1920, 501.
5. "The Documents in the Case," The Survey, January 31. 1920, 503.
6. Law and Labor, August, 1920. Zinn, The Twentieth Century, 97. Sidney Howard, "Judge Anderson's Decision," The Survey, July 3, 1920, 489.
7. Murray, Red Scare, 248-249. Leuchtenburg, 79. Pietrusza, 148. "On Behalf of Louis F. Post," The New Republic, April 28, 1920, 264-265. "The Louis Post Case," The New Republic, May 26, 1920, 411.
8. Pietrusza, 148.
9. State of New York: Proceedings of the Judiciary Committee of the Assembly, Vol. II (Albany: J.B. Lyon, 1920), 2053. Charles Solomon, The Albany Trial (New York: Rand School Press, 1920), 3-4. Louis Waldman, Albany: The Crisis In Government (New York: Boni & Liverwright, 1920), 7. Margaret Blanchard, Revolutionary Sparks: Freedom of Expression in Modern America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 120-121. Pietrusza, 150. Murray, Red Scare, 236.
10. Pietrusza, 150-151. Eric Dregni, Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 128.
11. "The Mob in High Places," The New Republic, February 4th, 1920. "Keepers of the Faith," The Survey, February 7, 1920.
12. Leuchtenburg, Perils of Prosperity, 77-78. Pietrusza, 150, 179. Ickes to Charles Evans Hughes, January 10, 1920, HLI, General Correspondence, 1903-1933. Murray, Red Scare, 238.
13. Soule, 84. "Vigilance," The Survey, February 7, 1920, 556. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 42-43.
14. Mencken, 8.
15. Beverly Gage, The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Pietrusza, 154.

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