Part 4: Chapter XI - Page 72
"The Treason of the Senate," Cover from Cosmopolitan Magazine, April 30th, 1905 - Source: Starkman/Cosmo
Speaker Cannon's spectacular fall from grace appeared to embody yet another political earthquake courtesy of President Roosevelt. The House Revolt and its subsequent passage of the Sulzer Resolution proved an intense blow to the Old Guard and its notion of congressional invincibility. Congress had pulled the brakes on Bryan's radical proposals - Why was Roosevelt immune? The keen New Yorker, as became apparent early on in his tenure, possessed a knack for putting together informal coalitions regardless of political party. Bryan, for all his base popularity, did not carry an equivalent degree of professional statesmanship and blanket progressive appeal. He would not have been able to accomplish such a bipartisan feat, but Roosevelt represented its possibility.
The president won a substantial battle over effective command of the House of Representatives, illustrated through the election of the unprincipled, conciliatory Speaker Butler, but succeeding in a duplicate manner for senatorial control would require nothing short of a miracle. Even in the period following the enactment of the 16th Amendment, the United States Senate did not contain the same democratic expectations of accountability that the House had. Many long-serving senators, like Senators Thomas Platt, Nelson Aldrich, and John Spooner, skillfully established that they could win direct elections to the legislature. Unlike in the lower chamber, the Senate did not designate official leadership positions (aside from the vice president), but the Republican Party ceremoniously recognized an appointed conference chairperson as their de facto floor manager. In the 59th Congress, this post was awarded to fierce anti-progressive Senator Charles Fairbanks.
Fairbanks, commander of the Indiana Republican Party since the death of President Beveridge, validated his worth to the Old Guard from the moment of his 1896 senatorial ascension. He played a key part the organization of the 1904 Depew Campaign (famously bowing out of the race to support Depew's renomination alongside Foraker) and was nominated vice president by the Republican Party that same year. Fairbanks was granted a seat at the table with fellow influential conservatives, and at only 52 years of age was designated Chairman of the U.S. Senate Republican Conference. With the future of his career at stake, Fairbanks paid close attention to the House Revolt and took steps to ensure an identical scenario would not play out in the Senate.
At about the same time Cannon was facing removal from power, Senate Republicans were placing the finishing touches on a vital new piece of legislation. Looking to spurn Roosevelt and cast revenge for the electoral degradation of President Depew, Fairbanks authorized the creation of a bill, co-authored by Senator Nelson Aldrich, intended to repeal in its totality the American Safeguards Act. This, the law which forbade the issuing of injunctions by courts to breakup labor strikes, was widely viewed as the final vestige of anarchic pro-labor reform passed by President Bryan. Depew reportedly planned to go forward with such a repeal if he were to be elected, but Roosevelt had no such inclination. Fairbanks needed support from two-thirds of the Senate in the likely outcome of a presidential veto, and, by all historical accounts of this moment in history, he may have been on the verge of attaining it. Conservatism, as well as the fortitude of the Republican Old Guard, evidently thrived in the upper chamber far more so than the lower.
However, fewer than 48-hours prior to the initial vote on the repeal at the tail end of April 1905, a Cosmopolitan magazine article ominously entitled, "The Treason of the Senate," reached store shelves. Written by "muckracker" (a slang term for a reform-minded anti-corruption journalist) David Graham Phillips, this editorial was a toxic exposé on the corrupt tendencies of Senator Aldrich. "Treason is a strong word," the article began, "but not too strong to characterize the situation in which the Senate is the eager, resourceful, and indefatigable agent of interests as hostile to the American people as any invading army could be." Phillips accused Aldrich of possessing close ties with the vast Rockefeller interests, and that "the millions for watchers, spellbinders, halls, processions, posters, pamphlets, that are spent in national, state and local campaigns" were paid in full by that wealthy dynasty. The article went on, claiming that the Rhode Island senator controlled his state legislature, bribed his electoral opponents, forged an unholy alliance with Arthur Gorman, and guided public policy to systematically benefit the Rockefeller trusts via tariff legislation.
Yet again, the nation was captivated with the outrageous dealings in Washington. With the powerful Aldrich name ran through the theoretical muck, the American public questioned why his likeness was attached to the Safeguards repeal. The simple answer was, of course, that Rockefeller interests would benefit tremendously by the (re)legalization of strike injunctions. A deafening outcry for the bill's defeat followed suit, threatening to relegate its fate to the historical dustbin. Fairbanks and the Republican leadership, albeit shaken by the ordeal, retained the party line that such yellow journalism was untrustworthy and "ridiculous falsehoods masterminded by Bill Hearst." Ironically, Hearst did assist Phillips with the sensationalist story, but historical evidence, not conjecture, backs up many of the aforementioned claims.
Flagrantly ignoring the demand of the people and the command of the president, Fairbanks reiterated his intent to see the vote take place. In spite of his wish to see it through, the senator's staff discovered, upon further examination, that the odds of overriding Roosevelt's anticipated veto were very poor. About a dozen Republicans announced their intent to vote against the measure, and nearly the entire Democratic delegation readied itself to sink the bill. Forgoing the embarrassment of a failed vote, Fairbanks scuttled the effort and declared the Aldrich bill dead. As Senator Tillman relayed to the press that day, "Poor Johnny [Rockefeller] will have a good long cry into his wallet."
Nevertheless, the base issue of blocking the majority of Roosevelt's Square Deal endured. Phillips pressed on, printing monthly iterations of "The Treason of the Senate" as its revealings continuously pummeled self-righteous senators. As it went on, the series highlighted the blatant corruptibility of Senator Gorman taking bribes from the sugar industry, Senator Spooner's sketchy connections with the Great Lake railway barons, Senator Knox silently working against the prosecution of banking trusts, and Former President Depew's dealings with the Vanderbilt family. 20 senators (and one president) in all were criticized by the Phillips articles. Although some notable incumbents treated the accusations as frivolous yellow journalism, others feared electoral consequences and gradually softened their anti-Roosevelt stances. "The 'Treason'," explained historian Gus J. Thompson in The Political Press, "had a profound effect on the tenable ability of the Senate leadership to maintain order and discipline among the ranks. Moderates who sought to distance themselves from any remote association with the increasingly unpopular Old Guard broke ranks and called for a debate on the Square Deal."
Fortunately for the president, he did manage to enact part of his ambitious legislative agenda as planned. The 59th Congress passed several Rooseveltian proposals in 1905 and 1906. First, the Patterson Agricultural Reclamation Act was signed in mid-July, appropriating federal funds for the construction of irrigation projects in the American West and placing 230 million acres of land under federal protection. Congress also agreed to vote affirmatively on the American Antiquities Act in 1905, a measure granting the president newfound executive authority to create national monuments to protect natural or cultural environments. Roosevelt secured passage, narrowly in the Senate but rather easily in the House, of the Federal Employers Liability Act in 1906, compensating railroad workers injured on the job due to "legally negligent" conditions. Last, and perhaps the initiative which required the most arm-twisting, was the reinstatement of the Sulzer-Hepburn Act (reintroduced as the Hepburn Rebate Act of 1906) with finer guidelines that more broadly affected consolidation. The HRA passed 287-99 in the House, 46-45 in the Senate (Taft broke the tie).