Part 6: Chapter XXII - Page 142 - 1916 RNC
The Republican Convention at the Chicago Coliseum, June 1916 - Source: Wiki Commons
During the Presidential Contingent Election in 1913, Senate Republicans set a new and unorthodox tone by casting their votes for the Progressive vice-presidential nominee, Hiram Johnson. Press guesswork regarding cooperation between the Columbian and GOP managers was in no short supply since the initial rise of Theodore Roosevelt as a prospective contender on the national stage, but nothing definitively materialized until the Cullom-La Follette compromise. The two political parties disagreed vehemently over implementation of the Square Deal and the constitutionality of each individual policy therein, yet President Roosevelt achieved a greater share of cross-over, bipartisan support for his legislation than any elected leader in recent memory. The incumbent strode that political tightrope well and indeed secured some degree of respect among even the toughest partisans lining the aisles of Congress.
A varied assortment of Republican bigwigs gradually arrived at a novel idea, a shot in the dark, to name Roosevelt president on the Republican ticket. These "fusionists", named so by historians after the Democratic/Populist phenomenon of the 1890s, supported the president's war effort in an absolute fashion. Henry Cabot Lodge, for example, sharply disapproved of intrusive regulation into private enterprise, but he and the executive lined up on foreign affairs like peas in a pod. Lodge feared that a presidential swap in this historic moment risked an uncertain outcome in the war. In this the senator was not alone. Seeking a temporary truce for the purpose of settling international scores, some Republicans kickstarted a genuine movement for the nomination of Roosevelt in the lead-up to their convention, and for a time their path seemed tangible.
The rightmost section of the Republicans never let their anger and frustration over the contingent election results fade from memory. Figures like Representative William S. Greene (R-MA), who failed thrice to be elected GOP House minority leader, let bitterness block pragmatism from view. Refusing to allow Roosevelt to characterize them as foolish or subservient, they openly disapproved of his nomination and sought after it themselves. Curiously, historical accounts do not name conservatism as the dominant thread running through the Republicans' 1916 anti-Roosevelt current. Although it is fair to assume that staunch conservatives preferred a White House occupant more attentive to financial "soundness" and raising tariffs, the tide of war, as insinuated above, overwrote that inclination. Whether liberal or conservative, the politicians most displeased with Roosevelt were agitated exclusively over the war issue. These were no pacifists. On the contrary, they wholeheartedly supported Preparedness. The matter of contention squared down to which side the U.S. was on.
A steady stream of Northeastern Republicans, namely attorneys, bankers, and academics, belonged to a foreign policy school of thought dubbed "Atlanticism". This cadre, albeit a somewhat contrarian and out-of-place philosophy in the 1910s to the average American, strongly believed in cooperative internationalism with the United Kingdom and European democracies. Some trusted in this brand of Anglophilia over concerns of how a post-war Europe could operate under the thumb of the German Empire and earnestly feared for the future of Europe. Others had a vested, monetary interest in the success and profitability of the Entente and simply wagered on the wrong horse. Manhattan lawyer Paul Drennan Cravath was particularly influential in this field of thought and had been a guiding figure of Atlanticism within the Republican Party. Cravath detested Roosevelt not for military engagement, as he desired U.S. entry just as fervently as the president, but for performing the heathenish act of joining with the Central Powers. Atlanticists bristled at the mere thought of a third term Roosevelt presidency.
These disparate factions settled in at the Republican National Convention in Chicago. The scene was lighthearted enough to distract from the tumultuous state of the world, though somber in recognition of the lives lost thus far in the war. Attendance had also fallen from its 1912 height, probably due to a combination of lacking interest in Republican politics at the peak of the Progressive Era and a sharp reduction in donor expenditures. High-dollar donors were a mainstay of the Republican Party, and they always sent out commissaries for the conventions at the state and national level, but as a consequence of the unstable economy and in the knowledge that their wealth hinged on success in Europe and Canada, financial investment in the party was low.
Platform debates were tempered. Atlanticists did not stress the inclusion of a pro-Entente sentiment, obviously fearing that doing so would jeopardize their electoral chances come November, and instead voted approvingly on a more neutral and concealed foreign relations plank. The section read, "We believe that the dignity and influence of the United States cannot be preserved by shifty expedients, by phrase-making, by performances in language, or by attitudes ever changing in an effort to secure votes or voters. The present Administration has destroyed our influence abroad and humiliated us in our own eyes." Elsewise, the Republicans supported peacemaking missions in Mexico, a rigid defense of hegemony in the Pacific, a heightened tariff, a lowered income tax, a federal child labor law, and women's suffrage. This middle-of-the-road, even reformist, platform reflected the changing landscape of the country and the shifting of acceptable political philosophy ever slightly to the left.
Sparks finally flew on the third day of the convention as mixed reactions to the nominating speeches quickly produced a spotlight on factional division.
Seeds planted from the Roosevelt-Fairbanks Bargain sprouted at last at the national convention. J.P. Morgan partner and an on-again, off-again ally to the Progressives, George W. Perkins, organized divergent tendencies of the party into a single, loud advocacy for fusion. Campaigns running counter to the fusionist strategy struggled at first to match the energy and momentum of the Perkins' and Fairbanks' of the time, but by June they did stand on equal footing. [...] Senator Root nominated Theodore Roosevelt for president. "The first duty of the Republican Party in the coming campaign is to retain the material prosperity of the Republic, which has been built up during the last half century. Prosperity cannot exist without exerting our influence and position beyond our own borders. To do this we must have a candidate who will command support beyond the strict limits of the party..." At Root's conclusion, half of the convention cheered, and half hissed. Senators Lodge, Fairbanks, and Hale, Minority Leader James Mann, Governor Charles Evans Hughes, and former Vice President William Howard Taft were among those who applauded the speech.
Of the four Republicans industriously competing for the nomination, only one carried substantive delegate support and shone above the field: Senator [John W.] Weeks of Massachusetts. His colleague, Representative Frederick Gillett, presented the nominating speech. "Not long ago, our party was still the majority party," Gillett said. "In numerical strength, in mental and moral force, and in adaptability to and in experience with the affairs of government, it was by far the superior party, and it ought to have won in that election. By unfortunately bitter antagonisms and an underhanded ploy thrust defeat upon us. We are now assembled to formulate an alternative for a madness that has taken hold of the government. It is a grave responsibility that rests upon us. The time is a serious one. Almost the entire world is ablaze with the fires of war, and the continent on which we stand is not exempt. We must make the world safe for democracy." Now it was the other half of the room that rose and delivered a standing ovation. Weeks, they assumed, wielded the political chops necessary to challenge an incumbent and win.
Jay R. Morgan, The American Elephant: A Study of the Republican Party, 1980
Conservatives and Atlanticists alike held Weeks in high regard. Opposing candidates simply did not carry the same appeal with state delegates and thereby fell to the wayside. Former Speaker Thomas Butler, the Republican presidential nominee four years earlier, was on the fence on fusion tactics and reportedly spoke at length with George Perkins on the subject. Gillett's remarks seemed to change his mind, however, and Butler thenceforth quietly supported Weeks for president. Each of the supposed rising stars in the party did the same, like Senator Warren G. Harding and Congressman James Wolcott Wadsworth (R-NY). Former President Depew, now aged 82 yet still beloved in Republican circles, also emerged opposed to a unity plea with the Progressives. He drove home support for the Weeks Campaign during a brief in-person appearance and professed admiration for Gillett's exuberant words on the convention floor. Perkins, meanwhile, struggled to preserve his movement's own momentum, but he was not blind to the writing on the wall. The financier ceded the win to the senator as the first roll call finalized the nomination, but fusionists nonetheless maintained their reservations.