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Harvey, Maker of Presidents

ISSUE:  Spring 1930

George Harvey, a Passionate Patriot. By Willis Fletcher Johnson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $5.00.

Mr. willis fletcher johnson likes to challenge his readers, as one may see from the title of his biography of Colonel George Harvey; for there will be few students of this important book who will not lay it down and ask themselves: was Harvey a patriot or a buccaneer? But patriotism like taste is not a fit subject for dispute.

In the hectic days when William J. Bryan disturbed the peace of the great republic, George Harvey, then an intimate of William C. Whitney of New York corporation fame, of the house of Morgan, and the incomparable Thomas F. Ryan, sought to save the country by, means of a reconciliation of Mr. Bryan and Mr. Ryan. The former was in London on July 4, 1906, the latter in New York, both anxious about the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1908, Colonel Roosevelt daily troubling the waters at Washington. Harvey journeyed all the way to London to persuade Bryan that he might have an interview with Ryan in Paris or elsewhere in order to patch up a peace between the two: Bryan to have the presidential nomination of 1908, Ryan to fill the Democratic war chest—nothing to be said about party policies in case the terrible Roosevelt should be knocked into a cocked hat.

This was unquestionably one of the patriotic endeavors of the then editor of Harper’s Weekly. But Bryan would not meet Ryan anywhere except upon the understanding that Ryan should sell all his goods and invest the proceeds in Government bonds at three per cent interest; and Ryan would not meet Bryan if he were expected to engage in such a quixotic performance. And the young man Harvey went away sorrowing. Bryan returned from his world tour via London with great eclat, Harvey, Ryan, and William C. Whitney not honoring the great parade through the streets of New York with their presence. The letter, which Harvey wrote from London on July 5,1906, to his friend Ryan and here reproduced in full, is an interesting document. It explains much.

It enables one to understand a little better the ardent enthusiasm with which Colonel Harvey turned with hope to the possible candidacy, of Woodrow Wilson for the presidency of the United States even before the Bryan defeat of 1908. No part of this book is quite so valuable as those chapters which describe the amazing story of Harvey’s “predestination” of the President of Princeton University. Never was man so coy as Woodrow Wilson, never kingmaker so persistent as Harvey. The interviews, the maneuvers, the journeys to Chicago, the contrivances of Roger Sullivan and James Smith covering the long and exciting years of 1908 to 1912 are given in some detail and with more satisfaction in these pages than they have ever been given before or elsewhere. I am only waiting till Ray Stannard Baker brings out his story of the other side of these intrigues and contrivances before revising my published account. Johnson shows Harvey to have been motivated by a faith that removes mountains and a patience which equalled that of the most ancient of all pessimists. Wilson does not appear to great advantage. He was about to be put out of the charmed circle at Princeton; he was plainly a trained public man and an opponent if not an enemy of Bryan, the bugaboo of all the eastern leaders of high finance and high politics; and he dreaded to be seen in the company of Colonel Harvey. The editor could not understand his “find”; he was disgusted when Woodrow Wilson showed so little enterprise as not to think of a train that might take him from Lyme, Connecticut, to Deal, New Jersey, about the middle of June, 1910 to dine with Harvey, James Smith, and the redoubtable Henry Watterson of the Louisville Courier-Journal. The want of interest is revealed in the fact that Harvey sent William O. Inglis all the way from northern New Jersey to eastern Connecticut in order to make sure that the President of Princeton sit down to dinner that Sunday in the charming house of the editor of Harper’s Weekly, Mrs. Harvey quite a little peeved that her husband should persist in trying to make “that man” president of the United States. Mr. Johnson thinks it was all sheer, unpersonal patriotism. I wish I could share his optimism.

And so goes the book all the way through: the story of Wilson’s career as Governor of New Jersey; his sad break with Harvey, and Watterson, not to mention Ryan and Morgan, at the Manhattan Club in December, 1911, and the telltale letters of Harvey, Mrs. Wilson, Watterson; and the stormy convention at Baltimore — a mass of facts and straightforward narrative for which the historian of our time must be grateful. But the sorrows of those years and the disappointments of Colonel Harvey must be omitted here, genuine as they must have been. The great day of the Chicago Republican convention of June, 1920, beckons.

In the summer of 1917 Colonel Harvey seems to have lost all faith in his “predestined” President of the United States and hence he set up the vitriolic weekly to be known as Harvey’s Weekly. That organ was designed wholly in the interest of patriotism and in support of the President. Mr. Johnson was one of its early writers and he says it was designed simply to assist Wilson in doing right. A curious fact is noted, however. Dr. Fabian Franklin, a hostile critic of the President; Charles W. Tyler of the very unfriendly New York Sun; and Willis Fletcher Johnson of the bitter New York Tribune, with artists and cartoonists of similar attitudes, were selected to edit and manage the new organ of patriotism.

In the years 1904 to 1916 the most ardent opponent of Colonel Harvey and his particular friends had been President and ex-President Roosevelt, who took occasion in public and in private to denounce “that crowd in New York” (Harvey). Johnson says (p. 258): “One of the most interested and sympathetic readers of ‘The Weekly’ to the end of his life was Theodore Roosevelt. . . . There was a cordial and confidential friendship between the two men. . . . They literally saw eye to eye. Harvey celebrated in a jubilant cartoon Roosevelt’s reconciliation with Taft.”

No one ought to regret the healing of broken friendships. But there was something historically important about this reconciliation which took place in New York in September, 1918, if memory serves right. Harvey’s Weekly was in those years, according to the Chicago Journal of Commerce (itself unfriendly, to Wilson), “a humdinger and a rip snorter.” Its objective was to break the power of the “predestined” man in the White House, put real patriots on the majority benches of congress, and end the war in Europe with all the Germans in padded cages. That was what Colonel Roosevelt declared to be the real patriotism of the time; and Harvey declared Roosevelt to be the greatest of patriots. This weekly which Harvey and his friends circulated industriously, and about which there was considerable rumor as to personal and financial support, might have received more attention in this book.

There can be no doubt that the then President of the United States was planning one of the great programmes of history, a programme which ex-Senator Beveridge used to say would have ruined the Republican party for a generation to come, if permitted to be realized; and he was generous enough to say that it was a noble programme. But the President’s power must be broken. And Colonel Roosevelt, great as he may have been at times in his life, lent himself wholly to that enterprise. He made a campaign through the great industrial centres of the country in October, 1918. What he said of the then President has not been collected and published in a volume; but those speeches constitute a part of the ineffaceable record. They surpassed anything ever said against any president, good or bad. They were matched only in the pages of Harvey’s Weekly. And what was said about the necessity of the total obliteration of Germany and the enthronement of France upon the ruins of her enemy matches the words of David Lloyd George in December following. The campaign against Wilson, right or wrong, and the campaign of the British Prime Minister that fatal year gave Clemenceau the prestige in the Paris conference which should have been Wilson’s and the victory which should have been America’s. Harvey had a great share in sending Wilson to Paris without a popular mandate. Harvey played a leading role in all this and in preparing the agenda for the Republican campaign of 1920.

Mr. Johnson relates with more than passing pride the events of the convention which nominated President Harding. It was June, 1920. Every hotel in Chicago was filled with the great of the land. The number of millionaires who sat in the convention, watched from the galleries, or met in private conferences would have done honor to any gathering of financiers that ever met anywhere. Some were of the oldest and the most discreet; some were of the newest mintage; and others came up reeking with oil from the fields of the southwest and of Mexico. They gave atmosphere and tone. But the men who really decided the contest, who in turn and due time selected the circle of friends who administered the great affairs of the United States for some years, canvassed and looked over in a private room of the Blackstone Hotel, after two o’clock one hot and sultry night, the plans of the Ohio leaders. Colonel Harvey was the master of ceremonies that night; Medill McCormick, since deceased in a strange way; James E. Watson, known far and near in our day; Frank B. Brandegee, likewise strangely deceased in comparative youth; Joseph Grundy, recently appointed to a seat in the Senate on a most interesting record; James W. Wadsworth, William N. Calder, Henry Cabot Lodge, and one or two others were his confreres. At the right moment Harvey sent for Warren G. Harding and said to him in the presence of his little con* ference:

Tell us upon your sacred honor and before your God, that you know no reason, arising out of your past life, why y.ou should not stand with confidence before the American people as a candidate for the highest office within their gift. (p. 278)

The eager candidate knew no reason and was glad to receive the endorsement of such eminent patriots. He was nominated and then elected by a majority hitherto unknown in American history. In the summer of 1923, after a record in the White House till then unmatched and on the eve of revelations not yet forgotten, the remains of George Harvey’s second holder of the highest honors of the land were borne to his grave, the “broken” Wilson driving slowly behind the hearse. History and patriotism and . . .?

But meanwhile Colonel Harvey had been two years in London occupying the place which had broken Walter Page. He was in intimate correspondence the while with the President; and the letters here reproduced make interesting and important matter for the historian; never a mention, however, of those choice souls who had surrounded the man whose remains were borne away to Ohio that August day, 1923. The author does not traverse so closely these latter and unforgettable years: the make-up of the Harding cabinet, the Washington conference, the advent of Calvin Coolidge, the investigations which led to the destruction of many private papers, and the last years of the editor of Harvey’s Weekly. William Allen White says that Harvey was a little brother of the rich. I cannot think that he felt himself to be such. His career, as revealed in this book, is strange, unmatched in American or English history; but it is not the career of a patriot, nor one of which one’s descendants are apt to be proud when the decades shall have revealed men and things as they were. A subject fit for tears.


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