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

XIV. The Best Laid Plans

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

"Any spring is a time of overturn," wrote John Dos Passos, looking back years later at 1919, "but then Lenin was alive, the Seattle general strike had seemed the beginning of the flood instead of the beginning of the ebb, Americans in Paris were groggy with theatre and painting and music; Picasso was to rebuild the eye, Stravinsky was cramming the Russian steppes into our ears, currents of energy seemed breaking out everywhere as young guys climbed out of their uniforms, imperial America was all shiny with the new idea of the Ritz, in every direction the countries of the world stretched out starving and angry, ready for anything turbulent and new, when you went to the movies you saw Charlie Chaplin."1

Dos Passos was not alone in this retrospective assessment of the time. "I suppose that from 1919 to 1921," remarked journalist and economist George Soule, "the world seemed more in flux, more ready for fundamental changes, than it has ever since." From the modern perspective, it is hard to overstate how epoch-changing and, to some, traumatic, the experiences of that year would be. Even notwithstanding all of the other shocks to the system already described, 1919 and 1920 saw all manner of calamity and transformation.2

On midday January 15th, 1919, before anyone in Seattle had breathed a word of a general strike, a tank holding 2.3 million tons of molasses in the North End of Boston, Massachusetts suddenly exploded, sending a 25-foot-tall, 160-foot-wide wave of brown, suffocating liquid charging through the streets at 35 miles an hour. When all was said and done, the Great Boston Molasses Flood would leave 21 dead and 150 hospitalized. (The owner of the defective tank, Purity Distilling Company, naturally tried to shunt blame for the disaster on anarchists. Not until the mid-twenties, after a lawsuit, would it come to rest on the company's lack of oversight.)3

A biblical and deadly tsunami of molasses was only one of the seeming indignities committed upon the basic laws of nature in 1919. In June, British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown would fly from Newfoundland to Ireland, thus making the first non-stop transatlantic flight in history.4 In December, the Smithsonian would publish Robert Goddard's A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, which outlined Goddard's early experiments in solid-fuel rocketry and explained how such a rocket could reach outer space.5 And in late May 1919, a team of astronomers led by Arthur Stanley Eddington took simultaneous photographs of a total solar eclipse from Brazil and the island of Principe off the coast of West Africa. These findings, published the following year, showed a predicted displacement of stars due to light bending nearing the sun, thus confirming Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity.6

Even time and space itself, it seemed, were now in flux, and nothing was safe from transformation - not even America's favorite leisure activities. For one, October of 1919 saw not only great strikes in the workplace, but dubious strikes in the ballpark - The Chicago White Sox lost the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in eight games and, to many observers, ten iffy plays by White Sox players like Lefty Williams, Eddie Cicotte, and "Shoeless Joe" Jackson. That series was soon eclipsed by the offseason acquisition of star hitter Babe Ruth by the New York Yankees from the Boston Red Sox (an event which would rankle Bostonians for almost nine decades.) But, to the horror of baseball fans, it would come out the following year that the Series had likely been fixed by mobsters, with the aid of eight White Sox players. "The revelations," argued a writer in The New Republic, "shocked the entire nation and wrecked the faith of millions of boys."7

As baseball was besmirched, boozing was outright banned. During the War, advocates of Prohibition had taken the opportunity to tie alcohol reform to the war effort. "German brewers in this country,' argued the powerful Anti-Saloon League, "have rendered thousands of men inefficient and are thus crippling the Republic in its war on Prussian militarism." In December 1917, Congress approved the Eighteenth Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, transportation, or export of alcohol, and sent it to the states. By January 1919, a little over a year later -- the fastest turnaround in history, even if Connecticut and Rhode Island refused to have any part of it -- thirty-six states had approved the amendment.

At so at the stroke of midnight on January 17th, 1920, Prohibition went into effect, beginning America's thirteen-year long "Noble Experiment." "Slums will soon only be a memory," proclaimed Billy Sunday, "We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent!" William Jennings Bryan was no less enthusiastic, quoting Matthew 20:2: "For they are dead which sought the young child's life." "King Alcohol has slain more children than Herod ever did," the Great Commoner told a Washington DC rally. Now "the revolution that rocked the foundation of the Republic will be felt all over the earth." For his part, Franklin Roosevelt set up a secret stash of "Old Reserve" in his New York home before the midnight hour struck. "47 East Sixty-Fifth Street is for the time being on the 'wet' list," he proclaimed, much to the consternation of his more committed prohibitionist wife, Eleanor, whose father Elliott had been a troubled alcoholic.8

Of course, prohibition was not the only major constitutional change in 1920. Another came to a climax in Knoxville in mid-August. There, the state legislature set about determining whether or not Tennessee should be the thirty-sixth and decisive state to support women's suffrage. Anti-suffrage forces had been fighting a rearguard action tooth and nail throughout the past year. Mary Kilbreth, head of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage - an organization that stood for "HOME and NATIONAL DEFENSE against Woman Suffrage, Feminism, and Socialism…MAN-POWER in Government, because Democracy must be STRONG to be SAFE," and for the "FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES of Morality…Patriotism…and World Progress" - believed earnestly that "the interests of Womanhood, Childhood, and Civilization [should] be advanced FREE from the strife and division of politics, factions, and parties." In January, she had begged Senator William Borah to block "the ratification stampede" so NAOWS could "kill the amendment in the courts." "I am convinced," Kilbreth wrote, "you are the only one in the United States who can do this and it will be nothing less than a second Declaration of Independence."9

Now, in August, Carrie Chapman Catt and pro-suffrage forces, amassed in Knoxville for the last battle, watched in "helpless despair" as well-funded anti-suffragists appealed to racism "and every other cave man's prejudice" to stop the amendment in Tennessee. In the end, the difference came down to one vote. The youngest member of the legislature, 22-year-old first-term Republican Harry T. Burn of McMinn County, was thought to be a staunch anti-suffragist, and he had earlier voted to table the amendment. But, when the moment of decision arrived, Representative Burn looked to a note in his pocket from his widowed mother. It read: "Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don't keep them in doubt. I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don't forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the 'rat' in ratification." So he did, and the Tennessee legislature ratified the Amendment, 50-49. Explaining his vote, Burns said, "I know a mother's advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification." 10

And so, after a century of struggle and just in time for the presidential election of 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was enacted, granting all twenty-six million women in America the right to vote. "At last the work of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass is crowned," editorialized The Crisis, noting "how slowly the world moves in the commonest matters of elementary righteousness...[And yet] A civilization that required nineteen centuries to recognize the Rights of Women can confidently be expected some day to abolish the Color Line." In this one instance, unlike the hopes of labor, African-Americans, and many others, the promise of the war was realized. And, as a result, the former suffragists were some of the only progressives to emerge from the post-war years with a spring in the step. Now that women were full participants in the elections of the land, it was time to transform American government as well.11

It was meant to be like this on so many other fronts. In 1940, Lewis Mumford recalled how he and his fellow progressives had expected "that at the end of that fierce and rancorous conflict, in which other men had been engaged for four searing years, the beat of angels' wings would at once be heard in the sky and concord and brotherly love would immediately settle over the earth." In the words of Mary White Ovington in the February 1919 Crisis, "[e]very oppressed group, workingmen, carving out other's fortunes while they themselves remain in poverty; women, deprived of their rights as citizens; small nationalities, disrupted by the ambitions of aggressive empires; so-called 'inferior races,' persecuted by the race at the moment in power; each and every one of these groups is [now] engaged in a separate struggle to secure something of value for itself in the chaos that comes at the close of a great war."12

Spurred by the promises of a war to end all wars and a new world order to come, many progressive organizations had assembled grand plans for what postwar America should look like. For the NAACP, the future lay in universal suffrage, better educational facilities in the South, the abolition of Jim Crow, peonage, and lynching; penal reform, and a living wage. At a 1918 convention chaired by Secretary of War Newton Baker, the National Consumer League announced a Ten-Year Program of reform, which included expanded government powers over consumer goods, fact-finding boards to help settle labor disputes amicably, a living wage, health and maternity insurance, and more effective regulations over the workplace.13

Others also looked to the principles of wartime cooperation as a guide for future action. "Why not continue on into the year of peace," asked Robert A. Wood at the 1918 National Conference of Social Work, "this close, vast wholesome organism of service, of fellowship, of creative power?" Donald Richberg concurred. "No man of any political intelligence and economic vision," he argued, "has been able to defend the existing economic order since the World War laid bare its utter inadequacy and its insane consequences." Bernard Baruch, meanwhile - noting that the business world had tasted "the tremendous advantages, both to themselves and to the general public, of combination, cooperation, and common action, with their natural competitiors" - argued for a continuation of the public-private partnership of government and trade associations that had defined the WIB. The war, argued the American Federationist, "has opened the door of opportunity through which the more sound and progressive policies may enter." "What we have learned in war," Walter Weyl concluded, "we shall hardly forget in peace…The new economic solidarity, once gained, can never be surrendered."14

Along with the war experience, the postwar agenda of the British Labour party, which advocated "the Universal Enforcement of a National Minimum," "the Democratic Control of Industry," "A Revolution in Finance," and "the Surplus for the Common Good" - in other words, full-employment public works programs, progressive taxation, a minimum wage, public ownership of utilities like mines, railroads, and electricity, and universal education - also inspired progressives' agenda for change. This, argued The New Republic, in a special February 1918 issue on the subject, was "probably the most mature and carefully formulated programme ever put forth by a responsible political party" and was "worthy of patient and painstaking examination" - "[I]t will go ill with us unless a party is formed in America which will formulate and fight for a programme of American reconstruction which, however different from the following document, will at least not fall below it in courageous, scientific, and thorough-going radicalism."15

A year later, just as the postwar trials of 1919 were starting to pick up momentum, the National Catholic War Council published its "Bishop's Program of Social Reconstruction," written by Father John Ryan and based heavily on the Labour model. It pushed, in TNR's words, for "permanent retention of the National War Labor Board and the National Employment Service…equal pay for equal work for women and men, insurance against old age, sickness, unemployment, heavy taxes on incomes and excess profits." It also upheld the right to collective bargaining, argued for cooperation between management and labor, and urged a ban on child labor and redresses to the problem of income inequality. "If this sort of thing goes on unchecked," said TNR, "we shall soon arrive at a pass where the real standpatter will be quite unable to find a spiritual fold."16

It did not go on unchecked. By the middle of 1919, progressives found themselves knocked back on their heels by the forces of reaction. By the year's end, many would be scrambling just to make sense of the across-the-board retrenchment. "It was as though a hard frost overnight had killed the rank growth of emotions and ideals," lamented Donald Richberg. For some, this experience was just too much. "The world was never in such a state of disorganization and demoralization," wrote Ray Stannard Baker in October 1919. "It seems only possible to get prohibition, oppositions, negative actions, out of our leaders. They abolish liquor, they legislate against and enjoin workmen, they hold endless futile inquiries, they [fight] the treaty and President to no good purpose whatever."17

Meanwhile Palmer and his kind were "raiding, beating up, and arresting alleged radicals -- and thus spreading the fires of radicalism." "It looks black in America these days," he concluded. Almost a year later, Baker remained in the doldrums. "I have a hard time getting over this war," he wrote July 1920. "My old world died; I have had trouble [creating] my new one." Eventually, he decided the best solution was to give up the progressive dream. I was "terribly serious, borne down by the Problems of the world," he wrote, until he registered the "absurdity" that he and "most other people" had been "trying to regulate the lives of other people and had stopped trying to regulate our own lives."18

Similarly, in January 1920, a month after leaving Wilson's cabinet, Secretary of the Interior (and close friend to Franklin Roosevelt) Franklin Lane lamented how "the whole world" had become "skew-jee, awry, distorted and altogether perverse. The President is broken in body, and obstinate in spirit…Einstein has declared the law of gravitation outgrown and decadent. Drink, consoling friend of a Perturbed World, is shut off; and all goes merry as a dance in hell!" Two months after Harding's inauguration, as he lay in a Mayo Clinic sickbed with fatal heart disease (and after a heart operation without anesthesia), Lane imagined his life after death. "I think I'd rather loaf with Lincoln along a river bank," he mused, "Yes, we would sit down where the bank sloped gently to the quiet stream and glance at the picture of our people, the negroes being lynched, the miners' civil war, labor's hold ups, employers' ruthlessness, the subordination of humanity to industry..." Those were the last words he ever wrote. He was found dead the following day.19

Walter Lippmann and The New Republic agreed with Ray Baker that the world suffered from a vacuum of political leadership, but, to them, the problem resided squarely with Wilson. "For one year we have tried to drift somehow back to a peace footing. Instead we have drifted into a severe internal conflict," Lippmann wrote in November 1919. "In these last months, it has directed itself to the edge of disaster":
This was not accomplished by the comparatively insignificant people who wish to overthrow the government. It was accomplished by the office-holders who have been too absent-minded to behave like a government. They have refused to look ahead, refused to think, refused to plan, refused to prepare for any of the normal consequences of a war. The attack on the government is nothing as compared with the paralysis of the government. Can anyone name a single piece of constructive legislation carried through since the armistice?...

Compared to those of any other nation our difficulties were small. But they were difficulties, and they required action and policy and leadership. There has been none. For the government of the United States resides in the mind of Mr. Wilson. There are no other centers of decision. Whatever thinking is done he does. If he is always away the thinking apparatus is away. Because for the last year he found himself more than occupied with the treaty of peace, there has been no government at home able or willing to deal with those things that we have neglected at our peril. For this neglect a most fantastic excuse has been put forward. It is that nothing could be done until the treaty of peace was ratified.

It is pointed out that labor's productivity is low. It remains to be pointed out that the productivity of the government in respect to leadership is lower still. There has been no example from Washington to inspire handiwork, prevision or prudence…There has been no program on which men could loyally unite, no line of policy defined which they could follow, no purposes set before them to which they could apply their energies. In great matters it has been a year of wasting around.20
As The New Republic, in keeping with Lippmann's fascination with "drift", bemoaned the lack of top-down leadership in America, Oswald Villard and The Nation looked to the grassroots for sustenance. "The most extraordinary phenomenon of the present time," he argued in October 1919, "the most incalculable in its after effects, the most menacing in its threat of immediate consequences, and the most alluring in its possibilities of ultimate good, is the unprecedented revolt of the rank and file." The "common man," he continued, was "losing faith in the old leadership" and experiencing "a new access of self-confidence, or at least a new recklessness, a readiness to take chances on his own account." As a result, "authority cannot any longer be imposed from above; it comes automatically from below."21

To Villard, writing a month earlier, the "old restraints…breaking down" was a extremely promising development, because most of the terrible events of the past year were, in his mind, top-down creations. "Who has made war on Russia…? Not the plain people of the United States":
Who has shaped at Paris a League of Nations deftly fashioned to 'insure peace' among all the questioning peoples gathered about the throne of the great god of things as they are? Not the plain people…Who is demanding huge armies and unmatchable navies and eighteen-inch guns and shrapnel and poison gas? Not the plain people….Who is insisting on repressive laws, on jailings and deportations? Not the plain people. Who has taken the initiative in the systematic campaign of hatred that for years has filled our press and pulpits and universities, turning its poisoned darts first against the Germans, then against the Bolsheviks, the Nonpartisans, and finally against everyone whose ideas hold aught of menace for the privileges embalmed in the existing order? Not the plain people.22
"If we look more keenly," he argued, "we shall see, not an old society crumbling but a new society coming into being." Villard would argue much the same in 1920: "[W]e have not witnessed the beginning of a new era of liberal domestic reform of which Woodrow Wilson seemed to be the prophet," he wrote. "We have witnessed the end of the old system and have no exact light as to just what shape the new will take." In other words, all the sordid follies of the leaders no longer mattered. The plain people of the United States would decide the future.23

Unfortunately for Villard and other progressives, it would soon become abundantly clear what the plain people of the United States wanted from the future.


Continue to Chapter 4: The Triumph of Reaction.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. Leuchtenburg, 69.
2. Dawley, Changing the World, 220.
3. Hagedorn, 51. Puleo, ix-xi, 96.
4. Charles Lindbergh's much-heralded flight in 1927 was the first solo transatlantic flight. As it happens, Alcock would be dead before the end of the year - He would perish in a December 1919 plane crash. Hagedorn, 234-246, 423.
5. The New York Times scoffed at the notion, arguing that Goddard did "not know the relation of action and reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react." In other words, "he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools." In a second editorial published in 1969, three days before the moon landing, the Times would regret the error. "Frequently Asked Questions about Dr. Robert H. Goddard," Clark University, http://www.clarku.edu/research/archives/goddard/faqs.cfm#question8
6. Hagedorn, 210-216. Writing in The New Republic in July 1921, philosopher Morris Cohen would fret about what relativity would mean for democracy. "Free civilization," he argued, means that everyone's reason is competent to explore the facts of nature for himself, but the recent development of science, involving ever greater mastery of complicated technique, means in effect a return to an artificial barrier between the uninitiated layman and the initiated expert." "Roads to Einstein," July 6, 1921, 172. Dumenil, 147.
7. Hagedorn, 384-385. Douglas Linder, "The Chicago Black Sox Trial," University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/blacksox/blacksox.html Hugh Fullerton, "Baseball on Trial," The New Republic, October 20, 1920, 184.
8. Dumenil, 230. Mark Edward Lender and James Kirby Martin, Drinking in America: A History (New York: Free Press, 1987), 129-130. Edward Behr, Prohibition: Thirteen Years that Changed America (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1996), 82-83. Noggle, Into the Twenties, 165. Pietrusza, 159.
9. Mary Kilbreth to Borah, January 25, 1920. WJB, Box 87: Woman Suffrage.
10. Brown, 49-50. "Remember the Ladies! Women Struggle for an Equal Voice," Tennessee State Library and Archives, http://tennessee.gov/tsla/exhibits/suffrage/beginning.htm
11. "Triumph," The Crisis, October 1920 (Vol. 20, No. 6), 261.
12. Dawley Changing the World, 220. Chambers, 3. Mary White Ovington, "Reconstruction and the Negro," The Crisis, February 1919, Vol. 17-No. 4, 169.
13. Ovington. Chambers, 7.
14. Neil Wynn, From Progressivism to Prosperity (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1986), 198. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 38-39. Wynn.
15. Wynn, 198. "Labour and the New Social Order," The New Republic, February 16, 1918.
16. Wynn. "Editorial Notes," The New Republic, February 22, 1919, 99.
17. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 42. Noggle, Into the Twenties, 187-190.
18. Noggle, Into the Twenties, 187-190.
19. Franklin K. Lane, The Letters of Franklin Lane, Personal and Political (New York: Houghton & Mifflin, 1922), 391. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 93.
20. Walter Lippmann, "Unrest," The New Republic, Nov. 12, 1919, Vol. XX, No. 258, p. 315-322.
21. "The Revolt of the Rank and File," The Nation, October 25, 1919, Vol. 109, No. 2834, 540.
22. "The Forces of Disorder," The Nation, September 20, 1919, Vol. 109, No. 2829, 390.
23. "Ibid. Zinn, The Twentieth Century,103.

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