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

Click HERE to return to the full Table of Contents

Chapter Five:
The Politics of Normalcy

Progressives and the Fight for Good Government

II. Organizing in Opposition

I. The Harding White House.
II. Organizing in Opposition
III. Lobbies Pestiferous
IV. The Taint of Newberryism
V. The Harding Scandals
VI. Tempest From a Teapot

Perhaps the only people left cold by Harding's charms in his first few months were progressives still reeling from the ascendance of normalcy. "What a period of reaction we're in!" Hiram Johnson exclaimed to Harold Ickes two months after inauguration day. "Everything dear to progressives seems to be under attack, and worse than this, progressives are often found with the attacking party. It begins to look as if the long hard fight of the past two years has been for naught…I will continue fighting, although with repeated defeats one's capacity for accomplishment by fighting dwindles." Ickes tried to encourage his friend. "We grow strong and maintain ourselves only by fighting," he replied to the Senator. "You wouldn't be yourself if you didn't and I confidently believe that in the end you will be justified in the opinion of the country." Johnson saw the wisdom in Ickes' words. "You are quite right in what you say. There is nothing to do but to fight on, and it goes without saying that is exactly what I will continue to do." This would be the first of many mutually reinforcing pep talks between the two men during a long, discouraging decade.1

It went without saying that Robert La Follette remained of a fighting bent as well. When President-Elect Harding had returned to the lame duck session of the Senate in December 1920, he joked to his colleague, "Now, Bob, be good." Replied the Senator from Wisconsin: "I'll be busy, making you be good." And even as Warren Harding worked to form a Cabinet of presidential timbre, Senator Robert La Follette was attempting to organize independents and progressives in Congress into a unified bloc that could stand against any reactionary tendencies in the new administration.2

In October 1920, as Harding's victory looked inevitable, The Nation had called for the formation of just such a "Progressive Bloc" - "a saving remnant of individuals," who "without necessarily breaking party ties, yet recognizing the unreality of the issues separating the parties" could come together on behalf of the public interest. "[I]f the progressive thought of the country is not to be voiceless in the next two years," men like La Follette, Norris, Borah, Johnson, and others had to come together to "prevent the enactment of reactionary special-interest legislation that will otherwise slip through." Most important "by far," thought The Nation, "is the education which a battle waged by such a group would give to the public…it is almost impossible to get before the people the facts on which they might form intelligent opinion and base intelligent action. An informed and courageous minority group could make of these facts news that the dailies could not afford to ignore."3

Bringing the progressives in Congress together and finding a way to better educate public opinion - Ever since his possible Third Party bid had collapsed, Robert La Follette had begun working on both of these projects. Soon after the fiasco in Chicago, Basil Manly -- director of the Scripps Economic Bureau, former head of research for the Commission on Industrial Relations, former co-chair of the War Labor Board, and a La Follette confidant - wrote the Senator that he perhaps had " evolved an idea…Why shouldn't we follow the analogy of the Republican and Democratic parties and create an Independent Congressional Campaign Committee made up exclusively of Representatives and Senators anxious to see men elected to Congress who would vote independently of the dictates of big business and the old party machines?" Such a committee could be funded by farmer and labor groups and "avoid the enormous difficulties involved in bringing groups like the Railroad Brotherhoods, the American Federation of Labor, the Non-Partisan League, and other similar organizations in one working unit."4

La Follette was clearly taken with the idea, for soon thereafter he pitched just such an organization to a number of left-leaning House and Senate members. "The developments of the presidential campaign make it clear," he argued, "that the only effective fight against blind reaction and special privilege during the next four years must be waged by fearless independent members of Congress." Since "neither the presidential candidates nor the platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties offer any hope of sound and rational progress," and the "vital domestic issues of utmost consequence to the people of the United States [are] being ignored," it fell to these men to come together and stand in the breach. "These forces of reaction and exploitation," La Follette argued, "can be checked or defeated only by building up in Congress a group of Senators and Representatives who will act independently and aggressively to protect the public interest":
It is proposed, therefore, that an Independent Congressional Campaign Committee be formed immediately, composed of those Senators and Representatives who have proved their independence and integrity, in order that they may co-operate effectively with organizations and independent citizens in the election of men pledged to public service…

The purposes of the Independent Congressional Campaign Committee… are four-fold.

1. To elect progressive candidates regardless of party.
2. To defeat notorious reactionaries.
3. To arouse the nation to the vital economic and social questions ignored in the present campaign…
4. To form the nucleus of an independent progressive movement which may conceivably hold the balance of power in the 67th Congress. 5
This ICCC, La Follette argued, could bring together the "powerful progressive organizations of farmers, industrial, and railroad workers, and other independent citizens" and coordinate them "so as to form an effective political force of enormous power. I need not dwell upon the potentialities of such a movement for the future. During our time there has never been such an opportunity to bring together the progressive forces of the country."6

Several of La Follette's colleagues misconstrued the plan, and thought the Senator was trying to create an official third party in Congress. "I do not think it would be wise, at this juncture," replied Senator George Chamberlain of Oregon, a Democrat. "[T]o undertake to organize such a committee…would be likely to result in the election of a reactionary Republican or Democrat, taking away from each of the old parties a proportionate number of independent voters." As he saw it, "[i]nterference…would be resented" by both Republicans and Democrats, and "instead of helping promote the things that are near to your heart and to mine as well…we would really retard them." Another Democratic Senator, James Owen of Oklahoma, was inclined to agree. "I have always been a dedicated progressive and shall remain so," he wrote in response, "and will support progressive measures and progressive men wherever I can without leaving my own party, within which I have felt better qualified to render service than if I should put myself outside of my party lines. The time is so short and my obligations of such character that I do not know what I could do."7

For his part, Democratic Congressman George Huddleston, of the Alabama Ninth, was conflicted. "I am usually averse to making pledges," he wrote La Follette, "particularly when I am not permitted to phrase them." And, besides, "the race issue here is vital in a sense that one not a seasoned resident of this section cannot realize. It is a factor which cannot be ignored, and makes any independent movement well-nigh impossible." As such, Huddleston though that "hope for reform and liberalism rests upon action within the Democratic organization, and not upon an independent movement." At the same time, a "group of disinterested Senators and Representatives of enlightened and progressive sentiments, who would know each other's attitude, hold conferences together and act in concert, would be of great public value. I would gladly become one of such a group."8

La Follette also received favorable responses from a few of his progressive-minded Senate colleagues, like George Norris, David Walsh and Joseph France of Maryland. As for Borah, who given his national profile would have to be a lynchpin of such a group, he was intrigued, but thought himself currently "occupied in assisting the irreconcilables against a terrific fight which is being made against them…I am under great moral obligation to go to their assistance."9

As the first step, La Follette and Manly worked to convene a small, private group of interested parties "to generally talk out questions pertaining to the coming legislative program, and also to discuss plans for the organization of a bureau of research and publicity which will be available to all progressives." This new bureau, Manly told Bob La Follette, Jr., "would compile the data necessary for the fights which will have to be made, and also to see that the work of the progressive group secured effective publicity." The month after Harding's election, "a number of Senators, Congressmen, leaders of railroad labor organizations, representatives of farm organizations, and some fifty progressive men and women of national reputation" gathered in Washington, and the People's Legislative Service (PLS), a new "non-partisan, non-lobbying service" was born, with La Follette as Chairman, George Huddleston as Vice-Chairman, and Basil Manly as director. Also represented on the executive committee were the International Association of Machinists, the Railroad Trainmen, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, and the Farmer's National Council. Eventually joining them were progressives like Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, John Ryan, and Frederic Howe, who also became the head of the PLS's Resolutions Committee.10

Four months later, in April 1921, the People's Legislative Service held its "coming out party" at the New Ebbit Hotel in Washington, before a crowd of three hundred. "We are met here tonight," began La Follette in his keynote address, "in a critical hour of the history of the country:
The great issue before the American people today is the control of their own government. A mighty power has been building in this country in recent years, so strong yet so insidious and far-reaching in its influence that men are gravely inquiring whether its iron grip on government and business can ever be broken. Again and again it has proved strong enough to nominate the candidates for both political parties. It has dominated the organization of legislative bodies, state and national, and the committee which frame legislation…It fixes the prices of the necessaries of life and imposes it burdens upon the consuming public in defiance of the law…In finance its power is unlimited…This great power which has taken from the American people the control of their own government is the product of Monopoly and Organized Greed.11
"Never before," La Follette argued "in a generation of time, has the national capital attracted so menacing an army of lobbyists seeking from the representatives of the people unjust concessions to special interests." Among those he cited were the United States Chamber of Commerce, The National Association of Manufacturers, the National Petroleum Association, the National Coal Association, and the American Railway Association. If these organizations "maintained their agents at the capital to safeguard their legitimate rights," La Follette, "no complaint could justly be directed against them. But organized greed does not recognize the dividing line between proper agitation and the active influence and coercion of government for purposes of private gain."12

These organizations, argued La Follette, used vast sums of wealth and "personal influence" with people in high places to "present an accumulated mass of arguments and material," to "obstruct remedial legislation" and "set afoot a national propaganda" that encourages "millions of individuals in the land" to "immediately respond by sending letters and telegrams to the members of Congress." "To meet this intolerable situation, in which representative government cannot long survive," the People's Legislative Service was established. This "is not a lobby," La Follette emphasized. "It is a fact service":
But by its influence it can resist the power of the lobby and insure legislation in the interests of all the people. It will furnish facts to all members of the House and Senate who will use them in the public interest. It will furnish facts to representatives of affiliated organizations so that they may present their cases more effectively. It will furnish facts to the public requiring pending legislation. It will encourage the new member, honestly aspiring to represent his constituents, to maintain his independence in the service of the public.13
"It is true," La Follette concluded, "that the power of the great interests that today control our property and our government is overwhelming." But "[r]ising up against them is the confused voice of the people. Their heart is true, but they cannot find all the intricate sources of power to destroy them…To aid the people in this contest the People's Legislative Service has been organized." Making the case for the Service in The Searchlight, a paper put out by the National Voters' League, Manly called its creation "one of the biggest facts in the political history of the present age" and "one of the most important and practicable movements yet initiated in the fight to restore the Government of the people by attacking reaction in its very stronghold - the Congress of the United States."14

In its first two years of existence, the People's Legislative Service essentially served as a research and publicity arm for La Follette's and other progressives' activities in Congress. Like the Washington think tanks of a later era, it compiled statistics and talking points for the Senator's speeches on issues ranging from the wages and purchasing power of various laborers to the price of gasoline to the cost of legislation like the Esch-Cummins law, restoring the railroads to private ownership, and Harding's much-desired ship subsidy bill, to help grow the nation's merchant marine. The PLS also worked to support the interests of its farmer- and labor-intensive executive committee on matters ranging from fighting the open shop to blocking anti-strike bills to the immigration fight, where it "contributed material service in behalf of salutary immigration restriction laws." One of its more notable accomplishments was in providing La Follette with "the facts and figures" to block a foreign trade tax exemption - supported by Standard Oil, United States Steel, "and other great corporations engaged in foreign trade and exploitation of foreign resources" - that saved the American people an estimated $300 million in tax revenue.15

The People's Legislative Service also became a fixture in La Follette's Magazine beginning in February 1922, with a column by Basil Manly entitled "On Guard for the People," as well as a monthly journal of its own entitled The People's Business. Still, it is hard to argue that the Service made much headway in the broader national discussion, nor did it become a tool that many members of Congress other than La Follette ever relied on. In 1922, the PLS brought farm and labor groups, as well as the Socialists, together for a Conference for Progressive Political Action, which would eventually become the foundation for La Follette's independent campaign in 1924. By the time of the 1924 election, the Service became more obviously a mouthpiece for the campaign, with Manly working directly as La Follette's speechwriter. "[T]his Service," The Survey noted in December 1922, "has been thought of largely as La Follette's personal affair." And tied to La Follette as it was, the PLS did not persist very long after the Senator's death in 1925 - The Service eventually closed its doors in 1927.16

Nor did La Follette's Independent Congressional Campaign Committee idea ever really take root as hoped. Then as now, organizing all of the progressives in Congress in a bloc tended to be an exercise in herding cats. When a seeming progressive resurgence occurred in the 1922 midterms that saw the likes of Burton Wheeler of Montana and Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota join the Senate and Fiorello La Guardia join the House (as well as Gifford Pinchot and Al Smith respectively taking the governorships of Pennsylvania and New York), the idea of cross-party progressive coalition was broached again, this time with more fanfare in the press. "The time has now come," La Follette declared to the press, "for the organization of a well-defined group, cooperating in support of accepted progressive principles and policies." Seventeen senators and thirty-eight congressmen attended a December 1922 meeting to form such a bloc, along with the ACLU's Roger Baldwin, progressive editors such as Herbert Croly of TNR, and labor representatives like Samuel Gompers of the AFL and John Moore of the UMW. "The purpose of this conference," one Wisconsin Congressman told the Washington Post, "is to give every progressive the opportunity to know his fellow progressives, to cement progressive forces in a harmonious fellowship…We are going to be tried as gold in a furnace. All real progressives will be put to the acid test."17

Once again, however, the potential of such an organization far overshadowed the operational reality. This newly expanded progressive bloc enjoyed the most success in the House of Representatives. At the beginning of the 1923-24 session, House progressives - arguing that "the Old Guard will soon wake up, rub their eyes, and learn that we are living in a new day" - were able to join with the Democratic minority to block the reelection of Speaker Frederic Gillett, a Massachusetts Republican, until the rules of the House were liberalized to facilitate the passage of progressive legislation. Specifically, the Rules Committee Chairman lost his "pocket veto" power, the requirement that any amendment to a revenue bill be "germane" to the topic was struck, and the number of Members' signatures needed to discharge a bill from the committee to the floor was lowered to 150, from 218.18

This show of strength drove regular Republicans to distraction. "[A] small number in this House calling themselves Progressives - and God save the word - are not progressives at all but radicals," intoned Rep. Walter Lineberger of California, "and we should not mince words but call a spade a spade." Unfortunately, aside from making it easier for progressives to amend Mellon's tax plan with a higher surtax on wealthy incomes, the liberalized rules did not result in any concrete legislative gains for progressives in the 68th Congress, and they were soon rolled back by the more conservative caucus that rode Calvin Coolidge's coattails to victory in 1924. The following January, the emboldened Republican caucus, as in the Senate, disinvited thirteen House members who had supported La Follette, including Fiorello La Guardia of New York and ten members from Wisconsin, among them Henry Allen Cooper, then the oldest member of Congress. "We will welcome them back at the first opportunity," said the new speaker, Nicholas Longworth, of the purge, "when they evince any desire to come back and qualify as Republicans." (Responded La Guardia: "I hope that my Progressive friends will not worry unduly. If these Republicans will not invite us to their conference or caucus we will not invite them to ours.")19

A more successful attempt at counter-organization in Congress, and a model that inspired La Follette in his second attempt at forging a progressive bloc, was the farm bloc organized and led by Senator William Kenyon of Iowa in May 1921. Along with around twenty other agrarian senators (including La Follette and George Norris, but usually not Borah) and one hundred congressmen, the farm bloc came for a time to control the balance of power in Congress by effectively neutralizing the ability of the Republican majority to control the floor or end a session. In the first year of Harding's presidency, the farm bloc managed to successfully lobby for and pass several bills reflecting farmer's interests, including an emergency tariff to raise duties for farm products, broader access to federal farm loans, and an exemption for farmer's cooperatives from anti-trust legislation. By February 1922, TNR deemed it "the most powerful single influence in national legislation." To retake control of the agenda and cut off the head of the farm bloc, Harding offered William Kenyon a federal judgeship on the Circuit Court of Appeals in January of 1922. Kenyon accepted, and his successor atop the farm bloc, Senator Arthur Capper of Kansas, was not nearly as adept at holding the coalition together.20

Both the strength and weakness of the farm bloc for the remainder of the decade is encapsulated by the fate of the McNary-Haugen Farm Relief bill, which in effect tried to raise farmers' purchasing power by establishing federal price supports for farm goods. (The government would set a higher domestic price for farm goods, while selling off excess supply to the world at market rates.) While supported by farm groups, as well as Harding Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, the McNary-Haugen bill was vociferously opposed by the decade's Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover. ("I have done more of it than any other man who lives," Hoover said, citing his tenure as Food Administrator, "and I would not propose price-fixing in any form short of again reentering the trenches in a World War.") First introduced in 1924, the McNary-Haugen bill managed to pass Congress twice - in 1927 and 1928 - but neither time could it overcome a presidential veto.21

While the Senate progressives were never as successful as the farm bloc in organizing a unified coalition during the Harding era, standpatter Republicans inadvertently gave the formation of such a bloc a big boost in the wake of Coolidge's sizable 1924 victory. In no mood to brook party disloyalty anymore, Senate Republicans tried in late November 1924 to throw Robert La Follette, and three senators who had supported his independent presidential candidacy - Lynn Frazier and Edwin Ladd of North Dakota and Smith Brookhart of Iowa - out of the GOP caucus. (La Follette, Frazier, and Brookhart missed the caucus meeting where this was decided, as did Borah, Norris, and Johnson.) The following March, when the new Congress convened, Republicans attempted to strip the four offending Senators of their seniority. "Senator La Follette has gone out of the Republican party and has gone voluntarily," argued Senator George Moses of New Hampshire, the president pro tem of the Senate. "He has headed the national ticket of a new party which he undoubtedly hopes to perpetuate. Therefore it seems to me wholly within reason that we should assume that La Follette has abdicated his Republicanism in the Senate on the same footing."22

Both Borah and Norris balked at this move by their party. They blocked the unanimous consent request, and Borah began making the useful political case that this move was less about punishing La Follette and more just "a demotion of the West…[I]t is diminishing the power of the West in this Chamber. I know it is a distinct political action against our part of the country." The Senate still voted 65-11 to accept the new committee assignments, but now Borah had the makings of a political bloc of his own - one that went immediately into effect to block Coolidge's choice of Attorney General, Charles Beecher Warren.23

Coolidge had picked Warren to replace Attorney General, and soon to be Justice, Harlan Fiske Stone (who in turn had replaced Harry Daugherty after he was forced to step down for the Ohio Gang's multiple transgressions.) A former Ambassador to Japan and Mexico, Charles B. Warren would seem to have a sterling record for the position - particularly given Daugherty's recent occupancy at Justice. Except, during his time as the president and counsel of the Michigan Sugar Company, a combination of six beet sugar companies, Warren had run afoul of antitrust laws during the Roosevelt administration. And Borah, who "felt then and felt a thousand times afterwards I did not do my duty" when Daugherty has been appointed in 1921, was now "determined I would not escape responsibility again."24

Charles Warren's nomination passed the Senate Judiciary Committee relatively easily on a vote of 9-4, but Senator Borah's no vote there (along with three Democrats) infuriated Coolidge, who felt he had just spent eighteen months courting the notoriously fickle Idaho Senator. The recently formed "Borah bloc" - which included Norris, Ladd, Frazier, as well as other Western senators looking for payback - then sided with Democrats to block a closed-door confirmation process, 38-39. Over the next few days, Borah managed to swing more western votes, including Senators Peter Norbeck and William H. McMaster of South Dakota, to the anti-Warren cause.25

On March 11, 1925, the progressives got their first revenge on Republicans for their own vindictive caucus of several months prior. The week before, in his first time presiding over the body, new Vice-President Charles "Hell and Maria" Dawes - so nicknamed after one of his favorite exclamations - had urged a revision of cloture rules in the Senate to prohibit filibusters. (At the time, 66 votes were needed to end debate.) This was anathema to the Senate progressives, who depended on their ability to keep open debate to have any power in the body. As Burton Wheeler of Montana remembered in his memoirs, "Old Bob La Follette, the master of the use of the filibuster to arouse public opinion, warned me never to vote for cloture…arguing it would destroy the most useful weapon a liberal minority possesses against a conservative coalition. He insisted that cloture must be opposed as a matter of principle…[I]f I voted for it once I could hardly oppose it another time." Dawes' attack on the prerogatives of the Senate, on his very first day, also infuriated the regular members of his party, who sat in stony-faced silence during the general's embarrassing harangue. "It was the most acrobatic, gymnastic speech I have ever heard in the Senate," remarked Democrat Henry Ashurst of Arizona.26

The following week, Dawes, after talking with Senate leaders, thought six speakers were scheduled before the Warren vote and, already knowing well senators' disposition for bombast and long-windedness, headed over to the Willard Hotel for a nap. Then, five of those six scheduled speakers canceled, and the Majority Leader, hearing more and more grumblings about sugar trusts on the floor, called for a vote and then called the vice-president. Dawes leapt from bed and traveled frantically across town to break the ensuing 40-40 tie, but the moment he arrived at the Senate, the one pro-Warren Democrat, Lee Overman of North Carolina, switched his vote to make it 39-41. Senator Norris subsequently amused his colleagues with a satirical take on "Sheridan's Ride," Thomas Read's Civil War poem about Union General Phillip Sheridan twenty-mile ride to rally his troops - this time about Dawes. "Be it said in letters bold and bright / Oh, Hell an' Maria, he has lost us the fight."27

Calvin Coolidge was not amused. Enraged that such a "man of high character, eminence at the bar and great ability" had been brought low by the Senate due to "partisan politics," he resubmitted the nomination. He then called Borah to the White House and urged him to do his part for the Party. As a further sign of good faith, Senate Republicans met with Norris and Borah and got the La Follette defectors' seniority reinstated. But Borah was the type of fellow who, once he sniffed out a stand on principle, was hard to shake.28

This time, Warren got out of the Judiciary Committee on a 9-7 vote, with Borah and Norris joining five Democrats in opposition. Before the floor vote, Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts - as of 1924, a Senator instead of House Speaker - argued that the opposition to Warren was solely due to "a combination of Democrats and radicals." This insult prompted Borah to give one of his usual constitutional barnburners about the importance of advice and consent. "I think it has come to the time when a radical is a man who believes in the Constitution of the United States," Borah asserted in a thirty-minute speech. "I am trying to meet my constitutional obligations as a Senator." As for Warren himself, Borah argued the nominee had clearly taken part in "a combination…formed for the purpose of controlling the production of sugar." This was "open, deliberate, and unmistakable." And so Borah was "unwilling to vote for the confirmation of a man, however high may be his intellectual attainments or his capacity" who had been part of a "conspiracy which had for its purpose peculating from the pockets of the people of the United States concerning one of the necessaries of life."29

After Borah's address, Charles Warren's bid went down 39-46. (Among the votes against him this time was Robert La Follette's, who had been in Florida trying to recuperate from the disease that would soon claim his life.) Even after all the many yokels in the Harding administration that America had endured, Charles B. Warren became the first Cabinet member since 1868 to be rejected by the Senate.30

Political observers of all stripes saw in the Warren fight a new balance of power centered around the progressives. "From this distance," a "pleased and encouraged" Harold Ickes wrote Hiram Johnson, "it looks to me as if there is the makings of a combination that on proper occasion can hold the lines in the senate when necessary to block improper legislation or to resist undue encroachments by the executive." This "insurgent group, beside which the little La Follette clique of the last session is a feeble memory," wrote Charles Michelson in the New York World, illustrated that Borah now "wields an influence in the Senate superior to that of any other member, regardless of party." The Lion of Idaho, Frederick Wile of the Washington Evening Star agreed, "seems to have succeeded Mr. La Follette in the leadership of the progressive bloc in the Senate." Now a new "hydraheaded nightmare in the Senate, with names like Borah, [James] Couzens, Johnson, McMaster, Norbeck, and Norris as its outstanding terrors" had subsumed the La Follette "nightmare that kept the GOP writhing in maddening dreams." After the discouraging events of the 1924 election, progressives like Basil Manly, who relished this "body blow" against Coolidge, and Oswald Villard, who wanted to "throw up one's hat and give three hearty cheers," were ecstatic about thus unexpected showing of power. On Wall Street, meanwhile, talk of a "bloc-locked Congress" in the New York Post, sent stocks tumbling to their worst day since Coolidge took office.31

The Warren fight, coupled with the June 1925 death of La Follette, propelled William Borah to the forefront of the progressive movement. While Hiram Johnson and George Norris did not have the same cachet, The New Republic's TRB argued, "Borah is the real hope - the one best bet…His friends here have a feeling, which I fully share, that the La Follette death will force him forward as the real Progressive leader." Others, such as columnist Mark Sullivan, who had always looked askance at the ravings of La Follette, thought Borah's ascendancy meant progressivism could finally be made respectable to Americans' eyes. Borah himself, according to Frank Knox, thought "that possibly the removal of La Follette and Bryan from the stage may pave the way to the organization of a real liberal movement in America." Now, Borah had told him "there is an opportunity for tremendously big things."32

After the Warren vote, Vice-President Charles Dawes tried to forestall any further progressive shenanigans by the Borah bloc in the Senate by introducing the majority cloture rule he had called for on day one. Borah, for one, was not having it. "I am opposed to cloture in any forum," he told Lynn Haines of Searchlight on Congress. "I have never known a good measure killed by filibuster or a debate. I have known of a vast number of bad measures, unrighteous measures, which could not have been killed in any other way except through long discussion and debate." If "sinister and crooked interests," he argued "succeed in reducing the situation to a point where they only have to see one or two men, either to put through or kill a measure, they are masters of the situation." For various reasons, most of the other Senators agreed. A New York Times poll of the Senate found only six Senators in strong support of Dawes' proposal, while forty-five strongly disagreed with it. The proposal, the Times concluded correctly, would go down in "almost certain defeat."33

In the end, filibuster reform or no, the Borah bloc turned out to be as ephemeral an antagonist as La Follette's earlier attempts at progressive organization. When the Democratic Party joined the Republicans, as it often did, to cement the foundations of Coolidge prosperity, the Borah bloc were lonely lions in the wilderness. "[P]rogressives can do nothing but protest," wrote one of the Senate's newest members, young Bob La Follette, Jr., to a friend, "unless the Democrats are willing to offer some resistance to the Coolidge program." In the end, the Idaho Senator's powerlessness was made particularly evident by his inability to prevent the Senate from voting, 76-17, to join the World Court, one of Borah's long-time bête-noires.34

Borah himself -- always happier taking a lone principled, irreconcilable stance than he was putting forward constructive legislation -- was never temperamentally suited to be the head of a constructive bloc regardless. Walter Lippmann argued in 1926 that "the career of Borah is built upon opposition…He is an instinctive conscientious objector, and his mind seizes swiftly upon the reasons why anything that is about to be done should not be done." Hiram Johnson, who knew him as well as anyone, eventually derided him as a "spearless leader." Borah, Johnson told Harold Ickes, "is variable as the wind and as fickle as a maiden" who "if you notice…never attacks power except in the abstract." (The variability at least is a charge to which the Senator from Idaho, a devoted fan of Ralph Waldo Emerson, pled guilty. "I lay no particular claim to consistency," he once said, "indeed I do not know that consistency is a virtue of particular worth.") George Norris, meanwhile, thought Borah had a penchant for "shooting until he sees the whites of their eyes." By late in the 1920's, Harold Ickes came to think of Borah as a man "who has no disposition to make a last ditch fight for progressive principles. It makes me boil to hear him constantly acclaimed as the outstanding progressive by such journals as The New Republic and The Nation which ought to know better. If he has ever gone through I don't know when it was or on what issue." Whatever the Idaho Senator's foibles, he in the end was no more successful than La Follette at forming a progressive bloc that could stand against the Harding and Coolidge agendas.35

Continue to Chapter 5, Pt. 3: Lobbies Pestiferous and Progressive.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. Johnson to Ickes, May 10, 1921. Box 33: Hiram Johnson.. Ickes to Johnson, May 12, 1921. HLI Johnson to Ickes, May 14, 1921. Box 33: Hiram Johnson. As Ickes had been with Pinchot and Robins before the election, Johnson was particularly irritated by seeming Progressive defections into the Harding camp. "When I observe men like William Allen White," he told Ickes, "whom I used to believe in as implicitly as I believe in you, or myself, become the mere chronicler of royalty, bending and bowing, as power nods, I get sick at heart." Johnson to Ickes, May 10, 1921. Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
2. La Follette, 1020.
3. "A Progressive Bloc," The Nation, October 13, 1920 (Vol. 111, No. 2884), 394.
4. Basil Manly to La Follette, August 6, 1920. RLF Box B-85: Special Correspondence. La Follette, 1026.
5. La Follette to Borah, August 13, 1920. WJB, Box 87: Politics - Wisconsin.
6. Ibid.
7. George Chamberlain to La Follette, September 4, 1920. RLF Box B-85: Special Correspondence. Robert Owen to La Follette, September 3, 1920. RLF Box B-86: Special Correspondence.
8. George Huddleston to La Follette, August 16, 1920. George Huddleston to La Follette, August 27, 1920. RLF Box B-85: Special Correspondence.
9. Borah to La Follette, October 12, 1920. WJB, Box 87: Politics - Wisconsin.
10. La Follette to Borah, September 28, 1920. WJB, Box 87: Politics - Wisconsin. Basil Manly to Bob La Follette, Jr, September 15, 1920. RLF Box B-85: Special Correspondence. La Follette, 1026, 1066. "Pro Bono Publico," The Survey, April 2, 1921 (Vol. XLVI, No. 1), 19. The People's Legislative Service, "Review of Principal Activities During the Two Years, 1921 and 1922," undated. RLF Box 195: "People's Legislative Service." Alan Dawley, Changing the World, 317.
11. La Follette, 1026. Robert La Follette, "People's Legislative Service Dinner," April 16, 1921. RLF Box 222: Speeches 1920-1921.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid. Basil Manly, "The People's Legislative Service," The Searchlight , April 1921 (Vol. V, No. 11), 15-16.
15. Review of Principal Activities During the Two Years, 1921 and 1922," undated. RLF Box 195: "People's Legislative Service."
16. Ashby, 56. Jan Onofrio, "Basil Manly," South Carolina Biographical Dictionary (St .Clair Shores: Somerset, 2000), 48-49. "progressivism," The Survey, December 15, 1922, 358. Perhaps one of the reasons the PLS never took off is because, when it came to research, La Follette and Manly were reinventing the wheel. The progenitor of today's non-partisan Congressional Research Service, the Legislative Reference Service, had been established in 1914 - based on the same LRS La Follette had established in Wisconsin as Governor.
17. Thelen, 168, 172. Eric Schickler, Disjointed Pluralism: Institutional Innovation and the Development of the United States Congress (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 106. Kenneth MacKay, The Progressive Movement of 1924 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1947), 66-67. "Statement of Senator La Follette," November 18th, 1922. RLF Box 195: Progressive Conference 1922. Two men who did not attend La Follette's conference were editor William Allen White and Senator William Borah. "La Follette invites me," White telegrammed Borah, "Don't want go unless conference has your approval and presence if it binds together group ultraprogressives who can master only few liberal votes I hesitate." Borah, who had a speaking engagement in Boston regardless, advised "it may be just as well to let matters develop here…ultimately matters will resolve themselves into a condition of affairs where we can all get together behind a sane progressive program, a real constructive program. I do not mean to disparage anything Senator La Follette may do because in some matters I think he has some splendid ideas; upon others, of course, I would likely differ from him. But the fact is that I do not enough about this particular program to advise you to come - and your coming would be considered an endorsement of almost everything which might arise." White to Borah, November 27th, 1922. Borah to White, November 28th, 1922. WJB Box 120: Political - Misc.
18. Schickler, 102-107. Zinn, La Guardia in Congress, 76-77.
19. Ibid. Zinn, 159.
20. Ashby, 35-36. Schickler, 98-101. Daniel Carpenter, The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy: Reputation, Networks, and Policy Innovation in Executive Agencies, 1862-1928 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 305. "Can the Farmer Be Bought Off," The New Republic, February 15th, 1922 (Vol. 29, No. 376), 322-323.
21. Carpenter, 305, 324. Leuchtenburg, Perils of Prosperity, 101-102. Joan Hoff Wilson, "Herbert Hoover's Agricultural Policies, 1921-1928," in Ellis Hawley, ed. Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce 1921-1928: Studies in New Era Thought and Practice (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1981), 115-121.
22. Ashby, 183-184. Clarence A. Berdahl, "Some Notes on Party Membership in Congress, II," The American Political Science Review, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Jun., 1949), 492.
23. Ashby, 185-186.
24. Ibid, 186-187. "How the Trust Got Beet Sugar Plants," New York Times, June 22, 1911. Borah to W.H. Taylor, March 21, 1925. WJB Box 193: 1924-25 Warren Confirmation.
25. Ibid.
26. Burton Wheeler with Paul F. Healy, Yankee from the West (New York: Octagon, 1977), 268-269. Robert Sobel, Coolidge: An American Enigma (Washington: Regnery, 1998), 321. Dawes gained his moniker as the brigadier general overseeing army supplies during the World War. When, in February 1920, a congressional inquiry asked him why the army had paid such exorbitant prices, Dawes exclaimed, "Hell'n Maria! We were winning the war, not keeping books!" Miller, New World Coming, 91. Sobel, 289-290.
27. Ashby, 187-188. "The Midday Ride of Charles Dawes," US Senate (http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Midday_Ride_Charles_Dawes.htm).
28. Ashby, 189-191.
29. Ibid, 191-193. William Borah, "The Warren Appointment," March 16, 1925. Congressional Record 37654-1749.
30. Ashby, 191-193.
31. Ickes to Johnson, May 28, 1925. HLI. Box 33: Hiram Johnson. Ashby, 188, 194.
32. Ashby, 198-199.
33. Borah to Lynn Haines, May 2, 1925. WJB: Box 780: Speeches. Gregory Kloger, "Cloture Reform and Party Government in the Senate," The Journal of Politics, Vol. 68, No. 3, August 2006, pp. 708-719.
34. Ashby, 201-203.
35. Walter Lippmann, Men of Destiny (New York: MacMillan Company, 1927), 142-144. Johnson to Ickes, October 8, 1923. HLI. Box 33: Hiram Johnson. Johnson to Ickes, March 3, 1928. Box 33: Hiram Johnson. HLI. Ashby, iv, 4. Vinson, 160. For what it's worth, Senator Borah did not think too kindly of Hiram Johnson either. "The difference between Johnson and me is that I regard questions from the point of view of principles, while he regards them from the point of view of personalities. When a man opposes me, I do not become angry at him. On the next issue he may agree with me. When a man opposes Johnson he hates him. He feels that the opposition is directed personally against him, not against the policy that separates them." Pietrusza, 177. Ickes to Johnson, July 17, 1925. HLI. Box 33: Hiram Johnson.

[Download Uphill all the Way: The Fortunes of Progressivism, 1919-1929 as a PDF.]

Main Page/Family/Links/Gallery/Biography/Soapbox/Resume/Writings/Weblog

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.