Featured Post

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Monday, September 06, 2021

Political Life Then and Now

 Many of us have books on our shelves that we have been intending to read for decades.  I got two French novels of that list during and after my recent trip to Paris, and that inspired me to take a very different one down: Albert Beveridge and the Progressive Era, written in the 1920s by the historian Claude Bowers, who also wrote a three-volume set on the life and times of Jefferson.  This book was called to my attention, oddly enough, by Richard Nixon, who in an interview with Gary Wills in 1968 had described it as one of the most interesting books he had ever read.  I apparently bought it at a library sale in the 1980s.  Later, I read Charles A. Beard's argument for isolationism, The Open Door at Home, in which he quoted a Beveridge speech to illustrate his idea of "industrialist statecraft," a form of American imperialism.  The book was neither quite as interesting or inspiring as I had hoped, but it held my interest for more than 500 pages and I learned a lot, in particular, about struggles over progressivism within the Republican Party in the first 15 years or so of the twentieth century.  Beveridge in any case represents a fascinating kind of politician, one which it is fair to say we no longer have in this country, and his career inevitably raises questions about how the nation has changed.

Beveridge was born in 1862 to an Ohio farmer and his wife.  His father lost his farm in the agricultural depression that followed the Civil War, and never regained any substantial means. He continued trying many enterprises, and his son ran a logging camp for him when he was only in his mid-teens. Like so many in 19th century America, he got, or gave himself, an education in high school which no one gets today. "It was during his high-school days," Bowers wrote, "that he read Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," and the novels of Scott, Dickens, George Eliot and William Black." (I don't recognize William Black either.)  So it was before radio, television, smart phones and the internet.  The post-civil war atmosphere--like the post-Second World War atmosphere for me, I suppose--gave him a consuming interest in politics, and he attended every political meeting he could--something that now seems to be impossible even on line.  Desperate to go to college, but without funds, he tried and failed to get an appointment to West Point.  Then he wrote a number of colleges asking how he might attend without money, and received a letter from DePauw University--later the alma mater of Dan Quayle--stating that he would need $50 to do so.  That would amount to between $500 and $1000 in 2021 dollars, I believe, and a lumberman whom Beveridge had worked for staked him the money.  No one can go to college that way today, because its cost has gotten so much higher.  In that way the nation wqas more democratic in the late 19th century than it is now, and it so remained until the last third of the twentieth century.

Once in college, he worked his way through it in large part by entering and winning oratorical contests.  Lectures, political speeches and debates were a prime form of entertainment in late nineteenth century America, and the agnostic Robert Ingersoll became a national celebrity by trumpeting his controversial views around the country.  I suppose the internet might provide the same kind of opportunity for an ambitious twenty-something today but I am not yet aware of any who have turned a podcast into a political career.  Then he apprenticed himself to a prominent lawyer to prepare for the bar--another vanished opportunity for an ambitious youth seeking to become a professional.  By the late 1880s he was practicing law and participating very actively in Indiana politics, and by his 30th birthday he was much in demand all over the state.    He retained very wide intellectual interests, and he once gave a talk to a local literary society arguing in quite compelling fashion (Bowers quotes it in full) that Sir Walter Raleigh was the real author of Shakespeare's plays.  His fame spread and he gave well-attended lectures in New York and elsewhere, often arguing for a strong, centralized federal government such as the new century was destined to create. In 1898 came the Spanish-American War, and Beveridge began making his name as an advocate for a new imperialistic America that would spread its rule to new domains--starting with Puerto Rico and the Philippines--to provide markets for his abundant agriculture and growing industry.  Later in that year the Indiana legislature elected him to the Senate.  

Before taking his seat in December 1897, however, Beveridge took passage to the Far East to see the Philippines and the American attempt to bring them under control first hand. During the same trip he visited Japan and had a remarkable interview with the Prime Minister, Ito, who advised the United States to keep the Philippines in the same way that Japan was keeping Formosa.  This was the first of several ambitious foreign trips that he took.  The next one took him to the Russian Far East, and he wrote a book predicting the imminent war between Russia and Japan.  After the First World War broke out he went to Europe on a newspaper contract and interviewed every leading man he could in Germany, France, and Great Britain.  He had a long interview with the Emperor William II, who made a terrific personal impression on him, but he unfortunately kept a promise never to reveal the substance of their discussion until his own death.  

Beveridge emerged as a leading domestic progressive during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, whose own progressivism, as I have discovered myself, was more rhetorical than real.  Beveridge pushed without success of stricter meat inspection laws, including a label on all canned meats indicating when they had been canned.  He also pushed for a national ban on child labor, arguing that the power to regulate interstate commerce included the power to specify how articles produced for such commerce might be made.  He was not hostile to trusts as such--neither was TR--but he favored stronger regulation.  Beveridge lost his bid for a third Senate term in 1910, but became a leader in Roosevelt's Progressive Party two years later, after Taft had defeated TR for the Republican nomination.  He dreamed of turning that party into a major party, and suffered perhaps the biggest disappointment of his life as it became clear during the next two years that Roosevelt himself had no such plans and was ready to come back into the Republican fold with his tail between his legs if the party would take him.  That they absolutely refused to do in 1916, and TR's death in 1919 from a disease he caught on the Amazon ended any chance of a 1920 run.  

Beveridge meanwhile emerged as a serious historian.  He wrote a four-volume biography of Chief Justice John Marshall during the First World War, and he wrote two volumes on the early life of Abraham Lincoln during the 1920s.  Alas, he died, apparently of heart disease, in 1927 when he was only 64, perhaps a victim, like so many, of the nicotine and high-fat diet of the era.  

While there were some issues I would have agreed with Beveridge on, such as economic regulation, and others where I would not have, such as imperialism, I regret that our society and our educational sytem no longer produces politicians of this type.   They were largely self-educated and rose through society with the help of a nearly free educational system, as my own father did in the 1930s.   They read widely all their lives. They traveled to see the key developments of a rapidly changing world first hand.  And their job was to make sense of both the American present and the American past, relating their own time to those that had gone before and those that would come in the future. Today's politicians, exhorted by their party leadership to raise money four hours ever day, have ceded that function to academics and journalists.  We live now in a world of memes, video clips, sound bites and twitter posts, but we can still retreat into another one at our leisure.


Bozon said...

interesting post on an author of a biography of another.
As you say, TR's progressivism was rhetorical.
So much of politics here and elsewhere has been.

As I have noted, see Nicholas Wade, much of the science of anthropology, biology, and eugenics was considered progressive in its time.

America was also against progressivism associated with imperialism, but it, also, was considered highly progressive in its time.

Cecil Rhodes was called, and called himself, a conservative, but trust me, for his time, he was a progressive.

Think also, for example, of Kipling's "The White Man's Burden".

All the best

Gloucon X said...

Thank you, Professor Kaiser. Students of writing should analyze this essay and try to emulate it. I certainly will. I think this is one of your best since I started reading your blog in 2014. You made an obscure topic engaging in less than 1400 words. It just flows, and I didn't want it to end. It left me sad but hopeful that we can recover the essence of what Beveridge believed an intelligent person should do with his life.