Commentary Magazine

The Autobiography of William Allen White; and Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Movement, by George E. Mowry

Where Progressivism is Vulnerable

The Autobiography of William Allen White.
New York, Macmillan, 1946. 669 pp. $3.75.

Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Movement.
by George E. Mowry.
University of Wisconsin Press, 1946. 405 pp. $4.00.


In 1912, a wave of political reform was sweeping the country. Woodrow Wilson, proponent of the New Freedom (a program in many respects like the New Deal), was nominated for the presidency by the Democratic party. The progressives in the Republican party were not so fortunate. Their clear majority in the Republican convention of 1912 was eliminated when the reactionary National Committee refused to seat certain progressive delegations. Outraged, Theodore Roosevelt, leader of the progressives, withdrew from the convention and formed the Progressive party.

Essential to the success of the Progressive party as a separate political organization in 1912 were three things. First, the party needed local patronage. “Without the pecuniary rewards accruing from the petty office,” says Dr. Mowry, “the courthouse politician, whose hand is necessary to maintain a permanent organization, soon finds other fields for his endeavors.” Secondly, it needed the kind of money that is usually possessed by persons neither progressive nor liberal. Finally, it needed the leadership of national figures unqualifiedly devoted to the cause.

Roosevelt possessed tremendous popular appeal and was an ardent fighter for causes in which he believed, but he was also ambitious and a shrewd politician, and when his sympathies for the underdog clashed with his personal ambitions, the former generally came off second best. However, Roosevelt could get money from Frank Munsey, the erratic publisher, and especially from George W. Perkins, a Morgan partner. This helped him to topple the more sincere if less colorful LaFollette from the leadership of the Progressives.

Perkins, handsome, bright, and quite slick, was looked upon by the rank and filers as Wall Street’s trojan horse in the Progressive camp. These suspicions were not altogether unjustified. Perkins had, at the first Progressive Convention in 1912, with Roosevelt’s approval, prevented adoption of a strong platform resolution condemning the abuses of trusts and monopolies. In 1916, it was he and Roosevelt, far more than the mass of Progressives, who were discouraged at the prospect of another unsuccessful campaign. Now obsessed by the martial spirit and filled with hatred of Woodrow Wilson for his failure to plunge into the war immediately on the side of Allies, Roosevelt also had his weather eye cocked for a favorable political wind that might blow in 1920. Consequently, he was quite prepared to join Perkins in bringing an end to the Progressive party in 1916, refusing to be drafted as a candidate and not even showing up for the Progressive convention. The net effect of Roosevelt’s assumption of leadership and subsequent desertion was to reduce liberal influence in the Republican party and prepare the way for the nomination of Warren G. Harding in 1920.

Mowry’s book is a carefully documented study of the Progressive movement and Roosevelt’s relationship to it. It is the conventional academic treatment that covers the field conscientiously, even though it is lacking in depth and sufficient reference to earlier and later liberal movements in our history. William Allen White’s Autobiography, on the other hand, is quite the opposite in its approach. It is full of garrulous recollections of men and events, important and unimportant. A rambling affair, it begins with birth and ends with death and is as strangely misshapen as only life itself can be.



White was one of those who followed Roosevelt into the Progressive camp and, after the suicide of the Bull Moose movement, experienced no difficulty in rejoining the Republican stalwarts. He achieved a nationwide reputation in 1896 when, in an editorial in the Emporia, Kansas, Gazette, entitled “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” he advised the farmers to raise more wheat and less hell and, incidentally, to vote for McKinley in preference to Bryan. Except for his Progressive aberration, White consistently served the most reactionary elements in the Republican party. He opposed the nomination of Harding, but later estimated him as “honest and courageous.” He found leadership traits in Calvin Coolidge and regarded Hoover as his great friend. He had some sympathy with the social aims of the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, but advised Kansans to vote for Landon in 1936. Four years later, White became chairman of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies.

It is apparent that White’s liberalism, like Theodore Roosevelt’s, was hardly consistent. Yet, the American liberal movement took them both in and raised them to high position. That it could do so was because American liberalism was and is a loose and sprawling doctrine synthesizing good intentions, economic heresy, political reformism, and the Protestant conscience. The fact is, American liberalism is such a confused hodgepodge that almost anyone can borrow a heritage from it: fascist, Communist, or democrat. Once this quality in American liberalism is recognized, the careers of men like Tom Watson and John T. Flynn are somewhat more understandable.

It also explains why White could consider himself a “patient liberal.” He did in the course of his long career express some liberal views, but his main ideological moorings were in the Republican camp. “Our American experiment,” he wrote in 1938, “has succeeded in bringing comfort, some luxuries, to probably 85, certainly 80 per cent of the American people.” But apart from the issue of whether or not White was a liberal, what is most significant about him is that in over forty years of editorial writing, although he expressed an opinion on almost every conceivable subject, one seeks in vain for the basic philosophic framework guiding these opinions. It may be argued that White from his editorial office in Emporia was giving Main Street’s opinion of the passing parade—and Main Street is notoriously unlikely to take the long-range view. However, neither Main Street nor its spokesmen, because of their deliberate and even boasted short-sightedness, have given us anything by way of heritage to cope with the problems of the atomic age.



What lessons for political action can the liberals of today derive from the experience of the Progressives? First, to beware of the political glamor boy who likes a fight, but who cannot withstand the frustration of temporary setbacks. Second, to beware of those who join to wreck you. Third, to be mindful of the difficulties involved in a third party—organization on a nationwide basis, financing, traditional voting habits. Fourth, to remember that the effect of deserting the two major parties is to effectively turn them over to the reactionaries.

Beyond these, liberals must reckon with the fluctuation of what might be described as the liberal cycle in American history. The appreciation by the American public of liberalism and liberal political movements seems to be limited to a certain span of years, after which a period of reaction sets in. Liberalism and liberal political plans, regardless of how well-laid, must adjust themselves to the cycle. Even as it did in 1920, contemporary liberalism appears to have run its course, and to attempt to have a third party effort coincide with the ebb of the liberal cycle is to invite disaster.

If liberals are disconcerted by this pessimistic view of the possibilities of third party action, let them be heartened by the realization that the ultra-reactionary camp is also hampered by the difficulties of forging a dissident political organization. Moreover, the possibility of a third party is greater from the Right than it is from the Left, because it is not today’s liberals who have captured the traditional spirit of third party movements in America—but the reactionaries. Henry Wallace does not sound like William Jennings Bryan or any of the other leaders of the important Populist revolt of the nineties; but Dr. Townsend does, and so does John T. Flynn. Compare the publications and appeals of the Populist demagogues of the nineties with those made by Fascist orators today, and you will find some striking similarities. In fact, their main point of difference is that the Fascist orators are more often anti-Semitic.

But both Populism and Progressivism were intensely nationalistic movements within the Anglo-Saxon Protestant American tradition. The fact that Western farmers were Populists and Progressives did not make them more tolerant of Negroes, Jews, and Catholics. Nor does willingness to unite on a program of opposition to the grinding exactions of trusts, monopolists, and bankers necessarily induce a more enlightened attitude toward one’s fellow man. There is undoubtedly an important relationship between liberalism and the rights of minorities. But it should also be remembered that a major bulwark in protecting minorities against political action from the Right is certain of the undemocratic features in our governmental system against which liberals perennially crusade.



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