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

I. Terror Comes to R Street

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

"The inevitable letdown in idealism after the war, deepened by Wilson's surrender to such reactionaries in his cabinet as Attorney-General Mitchell Palmer and Postmaster-General Burleson and, of course, the ending of the democratic dream at Versailles, left the country in an ugly mood." - Arthur Garfield Hays, 19421

"From our recent experience, it is clear that the traditional liberties of speech and opinion rest on no solid foundation." - Walter Lippmann, November 19192

"I regard it one of the most serious results of the War - the manner in which we utterly came to disregard the fundamental principles of the Constitution." - William Borah, 19213

You believe in votes for women? Yah!
The Bolsheviki do.
And shorter hours? And land reforms?
They're Bolshevistic, too.
"The Recall" and other things like that,
Are dangerous to seek;
Don't tell me you believe 'em or I'll
Call you Bolshevik!
Bolshevik! Veek! Veek!
A reformer is a freak!
But here's a name to stop him, for it's
Like a lightning streak!

- Edmund Vance Cooke, 19194

The failures at Versailles and the rejection of the League of Nations would have been enough to send a generation of progressives into a slough of despond. But these foreign policy events, disillusioning as they were, did not happen in a vacuum. They took place during what was, aside from the Civil War and arguably the late 1960's, the most tumultuous two-year period in American history. From strikes and bombings to raids, race riots, and repression, America erupted into confusion and hysteria in 1919 and 1920. Those hoping for a progressive post-war reconstruction saw their plans, and their nation, disintegrate into chaos.
Terror Comes to R Street

On Monday, June 2nd, 1919, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor returned to their Washington home at 2131 R. St NW rather late in the evening. Their home lay in the sleepy, ritzy Dupont neighborhood known as the West End -- home to past president William Howard Taft and future presidents Warren Harding and Dwight Eisenhower -- and far from the hustle and bustle of other parts of the capital. Franklin parked the car in the garage a few blocks away and the two began walking home. Three minutes later, at around 11:15pm, a loud explosion thundered outside the house, blowing in all of the Roosevelt home's windows and raining glass, debris, and flesh all over the quiet confines of R St.5

After rushing up the stairs to check on his eleven-year-old son James, Franklin Roosevelt ran outside, past the fragments of bone and body on his doorstep, to the center of the blast- the home across the street. "The front door of the house was blown in and the façade is a wreck," Roosevelt told journalists later that night. "The front sitting room, or library, was badly shattered." Standing amidst the wreckage, deeply shaken to his core, was the intended target of the attack: Woodrow Wilson's Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer. In a state of shock, Palmer -- who had avoided certain death by only minutes by leaving that shattered first floor library and heading upstairs for bed -- had taken on the cadences of his Quaker youth. "He was 'theeing' and 'thouing' me all over the place," FDR recalled, 'thank thee, Franklin, and all that.'"6

Eleanor Roosevelt's cousin, and the daughter of Franklin's fifth cousin Theodore Roosevelt, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, returned home not much later and witnessed the same carnage. "As we walked across R Street," she said, "it was difficult to avoid stepping on bloody hunks of human being. The man had been torn apart, fairly blown to butcher's meat. It was curiously without horror…a large number of pieces had been assembled on a piece of newspaper, and seemed no more than so much carrion."7

And it seemed everywhere. A scalp was later found on the Roosevelts' roof. Body fragments and broken glass littered the nearby homes of Senator Claude Swanson and Representative Ira Copley. Down the block, at 2137 R St, a body fragment sailed through the window of the Minister Plenipoteniary of Norway and landed next to a sleeping child's cot. There were so many dismembered parts scattered about the neighborhood that police could not at first tell how many bombers - or even passers-by - had perished in the blast, although Franklin Roosevelt noticed that at least one of the deceased was a poorly dressed ne'er-do-well from the quality of his socks. No head was found - it was presumably eviscerated in the blast - but authorities did find a size fifteen collar with a Chinese laundry mark, tattered scraps of a black suit with green pin stripes, and a brown fedora hat, bought in Philadelphia.8

And then there were the papers. "Blackhand literature and dodgers [6x10 inch placards] were found among the wreckage of the neighborhood," Roosevelt told the press. Signed by "The Anarchist Fighters," they sounded the tocsin of class war: "The powers that be make no secret of their will to stop here in America the worldwide spread of revolution. The powers that be must reckon that they will have to accept the fight they have provoked:
The challenge is an old one, O 'democratic lords of the autocratic republic. We have been dreaming of freedom, we have talked of liberty, we have aspired to a better world, and you jailed us, you clubbed us, you deported us, you murdered us whenever you could. Now that the great war, waged to replenish your purses and build a pedestal to your saints, is over, nothing better can you do to protect your stolen millions, and your usurped fame, than to direct all the power of the murderous institutions you created for your exclusive defense, against the working multitudes rising to a more human conception of life. The jails, the dungeons you reared to bury all protesting voices, are now replenished with languishing conscientious workers, and never satisfied, you increase their number every day…

Do not say we are acting cowardly because we keep in hiding; do not say it is abominable; It is war, class war, and you were the first to wage it under cover of the powerful institutions you call order, in the darkness of your laws, behind the guns of your bone-headed slaves…

Our mutual position is pretty clear. What has been done by us so far is only a warning that there are friends of popular liberties still living. Only now are we getting into the fight; and you will have a chance to see what liberty-loving people can do. Do not seek to believe that we are the Germans or the devil's paid agents; you know well we are class-conscious men, with strong determination and no vulgar liability. And never hope that your cops and your hounds will ever succeed in ridding the country of the anarchistic germ that pulses in our veins.9
"We know how we stand with you and know how to take care of ourselves," the dead man's missive concluded. "Besides, you will never get all of us, and we multiply nowadays."10

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was ready and willing to try regardless. "We could not take a step without seeing or feeling the grinding of a piece of flesh,' he told a Senate Committee in 1920, remembering the abattoir that had been made of his front porch. In fact, this was the second attempt on Palmer's life in 1919. Along with eight other bombs that went off June 2nd around the country, one of which killed night watchman William Boehner in New York City, someone had dispatched mail bombs to Palmer and thirty-five other financial and political luminaries in late April. After one of the first bombs to arrive, intended for Senator Thomas Hardwick of Georgia, blew off the hands of his maid, almost all of the rest were identified before they left the post office.11

Before tragedy had struck, Palmer had been considered a left-leaning, well-meant fellow who supported progressive initiatives like women's suffrage, the child labor law, and the eight-hour day during the war, and who advocated leniency for political dissidents like Eugene Debs after it. Indeed, Palmer had been the point man for organized labor during Wilson's 1916 presidential campaign, and was considered both a friend to labor and to newly-arrived immigrants at the time of his ascension to the Attorney General's office three months earlier.12

But with this explosive attempt on the lives of him and his family, something snapped, and Palmer was transformed. "I remember…the morning after my house was blown up, I stood in the middle of the wreckage of my library with Congressmen and Senators, and without a dissenting voice they called upon me in strong terms to exercise all the power that was possible…to run to earth the criminals who were behind that kind of outrage."13

While few progressives would be as viscerally transformed by the harrowing experiences of 1919 as A. Mitchell Palmer, hardly any would leave the year unscarred. Writing the President, who at the time was beginning the last, dismal, grinding month of Versailles negotiations in Paris, Joseph Tumulty told Wilson that "[w]hat happened in Washington last night in the attempt upon the Attorney General's life is but a symptom of the terrible unrest that is stalking about this country…growing steadily, from day to day, under our very eyes, a movement that, if it is not checked, is bound to express itself in attack upon everything we hold dear." Tumulty was both right and wrong. There was indeed a terrible unrest that threatened everything Wilson and Tumulty held dear -- but its seeds had been sown several years earlier, and by the hand of the president himself.14

Continue to Chapter 3, Pt. 2: The Storm Before the Storm.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. Arthur Hays, City Lawyer: The Autobiography of a Law Practice (New York: Simon & Schuster,1942), 249.
2. Walter Lippmann, Liberty and the News (New York: Harcourt Brace, and Howe, 1920), 19. Ross Evans Paulson, Liberty, Equality, and Justice: Civil Rights, Women's Rights, and the Regulation of Business, 1865-1932 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 184. Reflecting in 1930 on the passing of Herbert Croly, Lippmann remarked: "The most exhilarating experience we had, as I now look back, was the resistance of the New Republic in 1919 and 1920 to the Red hysteria." Paul L. Murphy, The Meaning of Freedom of Speech: First Amendment Freedoms from Wilson to FDR (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972), 110.
3. Borah to H.M. Peckham, June 27, 1921. WJB, Box 98: Misc.
4. Edmund Vance Cooke, "Bol-she-veek!," Public, XXII (July 19, 1919), 772. Quoted in Robert K. Murray, Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 169.
5. "Palmer and Family Safe," New York Times, June 3rd, 1919. Kenneth Ackerman, Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties (New York: Da Capo Press, 2007), 12-14.
6. NYT, 6/3/19. Pietrusza, 145-146. I'll never forget how uncommonly unnerved Father was when he dashed upstairs and found me standing at the window in my pajamas,' James Roosevelt remembered later. 'He grabbed me in an embrace that almost cracked my ribs." Pietrusza, 145-146.
7. Pietrusza, 146.
8. NYT, 6/3/19. The hat, and a train ticket found at the scene, led to Philadelphia, where William Flynn, Acting Director of the Bureau of Investigations, would set up operations. Through the use of BOI informants, the dead man was eventually determined to be Carlo Valdinoci, former editor of the anarchist publication Cronaca Sovversiva (Subversive Chronicle) and a close associate of anarchist Luigi Galleani. As it happen, Galleani and many of his closest associates were deported three weeks after the June 2nd bombings, for reasons unrelated to them. Charles McCormick, Hopeless Cases: The Hunt for the Red Scare Terrorist Bombers (Lanham: University Press of America, 2005), 51-52. FBI: 1919 Bombings (http://www.fbi.gov/philadelphia/about-us/history/famous-cases/famous-cases-1919-bombings)
9. NYT, 6/3/19.
10. Ibid.
11. Stephen Puleo, Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), 147. While they would become deeply antagonistic to Palmer in the year to come, TNR editorialized at the time of the incident that eight bombs in eight different cities "are conclusive evidence of a really serious criminal conspiracy, and the quicker the men are caught, tried, and punished the better." "Terrorism," The New Republic, June 14, 1919, 201-202.
12. Noggle, Into the Twenties, 106. Leuchtenburg, 76.
13. Hagedorn, 221-222. Pietrusza, 146.
14. Howard Zinn, The Twentieth Century (New York: Perennial, 2003), 96-97. Wilson had cabled Palmer as soon as he heard about the bombing. "My heartfelt congratulations on your escape. I am deeply thankful that the miscreants failed in all their attempts." Hagedorn, 224.

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