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Trappings of a Tin God

ISSUE:  Spring 1933

Beveridge and the Progressive Era. By Claude G. Bowers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $5.00.

It may be the privilege, as it is certainly the practice, of each generation to regard its immediate predecessor with a marked lack of enthusiasm. Perhaps this prejudice has something to do with the impression, but from the point of view of 1933 the tin gods of the first decade of the century do seem to be the tinniest in all history. The original Roosevelt, full of sound and fury signifying nothing, was the Jupiter upon that tomato-can Olympus; and in his train marched such worthies as Pinchot, Perkins, Munsey, Dixon, Clapp, Cummins, McHarg, Wood, and so on. After twenty years, which of these names survives significantly? Pinchot remains as a politician clever enough to be a thorn in the side of Bill Vare; but each of the rest is no more than a shadow of a shade. Why, silly old Bryan has ten times as much substance as the whole group, with one exception.

The exception is Albert Jeremiah Beveridge, whom Carter Glass might very well have called “the strutting trumpeter” of the Rooseveltian era. For he was the official Silver Tongue of his time. Incidentally, in that role he was fine. We don’t breed such orators in these days, perhaps because the country has moved a trifle beyond an adolescent delight in eloquence. But he survives, not because of the March of the Flag speech with which he began his political career, nor because of the Bull Moose Keynote, with which he ended it, but because, thanks to defeat at the polls, he finally employed his admirable brain to turn out something more enduring than the fustian in which he and his political colleagues habitually dealt. The “Life of John Marshall” means something even today when Progressivism has become grotesque and incomprehensible; and it is probable that it will continue to mean something when only the encyclopaedia can tell what the term “Bull Moose” signified.

Apparently this is not the opinion of Claude G. Bowers, who has turned out a fat volume about Beveridge. Nevertheless, it is glaringly apparent even in the book; for Mr. Bowers, although he may be a bit bemused by the glamour surrounding a man who was one of the heroes of his youth, is still an honest biographer, who sets down the facts as he finds them. Furthermore, he is himself a Jeffersonian, utterly out of sympathy with Beveridge’s Hamiltonian ideas. He likes the man, but not his political philosophy. He is anxious to do Beveridge justice, even when his ideas seem nonsensical. The result is a biography that is clear-cut in the extreme. Of necessity the bulk of it is devoted to that part of Beveridge’s career which was fruitless and futile— his participation in politics. But how could it be otherwise? The gigantic achievement of the man does not lend itself to biographical treatment. What Beveridge went through while writing the life of Marshall, and that magnificent fragment, the unfinished life of Lincoln, can only be guessed by anyone else. That is to say, the really important part of the man’s life escapes us; only the play-acting in politics is public property.

The quality of the man whom Indiana sent to the United States Senate in 1898, when he was thirty-six years old, is sufficiently illustrated by an excerpt from his speech in the Senate advocating an imperialistic policy in the Philippines:

We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustees, under God, of the civilization of the world. And we will move forward to our work, not howling out regrets like slaves whipped to their burdens, but with gratitude for a task worthy of our strength and thanksgiving to Almighty God that He has marked us as his chosen people, henceforth to lead in the regeneration of the world.

Imagine such stuff being accepted gravely by the country! The army knew better. The army, even as Beveridge was speaking, was using the water cure, burning villages, and singing:

Damn, damn, damn the Filipinos!
Cross-eyed kakiak ladrones! Underneath the starry flag
Civilize ‘em with a Krag,
And return us to our own beloved homes.

Beveridge in politics did do one good job for the country. After a terrific and resounding fight with all the organized thievery of the packing industry he got a fairly good meat inspection law passed. It is not as good as he wished it to be, but it does prevent the sale on the American market of meat that the British would not allow to be sold to the British army.

Nor was he a fool. After all, the man who wrote the “Life of Marshall” must have had, even in his youth, more brains than the Philippine speech would lead one to believe he had. As a matter of fact, he habitually thought about two years ahead of most of his colleagues in the Republican Party. A careful reading of the Bowers book leads to the belief that this is the secret of his progressivism—this and nothing else. He perceived that the policy of Nelson W. Aldrich and his gang was leading the Republican Party to destruction; and for this reason he advocated a more decent policy. He was beaten, and in 1912 the Republican Party met the fate he had foreseen. Incidentally, eight years later the successors of Aldrich recaptured command, and in twelve years they had led the party again to a holocaust infinitely worse than that of 1912.

Beveridge, after much hesitation, followed Roosevelt into the Bull Moose adventure, and encountered there the fate he had apprehended from the first. He knew Theodore, and had dreaded what actually happened — he, and the rest of the Progressives, were promptly sold down the river when Theodore could no longer hope to recapture the Presidency through their agency. At that, Beveridge, thoroughly disgusted with politics, definitely withdrew and proceeded to perform a miracle — he changed himself from a tin-horn statesman into a biographer of the very first rank.

The proof that he was never more than an exceptionally shrewd politician as long as he remained in public life is to be found in his record during and immediately after the war. He went to Europe as a reporter for Collier’s and some other magazines, and did exceptionally good work there. But unfortunately he wrote of conditions in Germany as they actually were, and organized British propaganda at home destroyed the effectiveness of his work. He succeeded only in convincing the country that he was pro-German. The truth is that he probably never knew what the war was all about and had no great preference among the combatants. But when the slaughter ceased he had no faintest glimmer of an idea how to efface the results of the tragedy. All he could think of was to oppose the League of Nations because, as he wrote to Roosevelt, “If we are to abandon the issue of Nationalism versus Internationalism, as exemplified in Mr. Wilson’s League of Nations scheme, what issue have we?”

Bowers claims that Beveridge’s opposition to the League was based upon his ingrained belief in imperialism, which is, perhaps, a somewhat more respectable motive than mere party advantage. But there the sentence stands.

However, Beveridge performed the miracle because he had, after all, the means of performing it. His politics may have been shoddy, but from the day when he arrived at De-Pauw University, so poor that he carried his trunk on his back from the railroad station to his room, not having money enough to hire a porter, there was nothing shoddy about his industry. He always worked tremendously, and he usually worked intelligently. He worked the same way when he began to study Marshall; and this time there was no question of partisan advantage or personal preferment to distract him. Bowers has done all that a biographer could do with this phase of the man’s life, and the result is the most interesting chapter in the book. Incidentally, it is a blistering commentary on public education in this country. Beveridge was a college graduate, but he found, when he began to work on Marshall, that most of his United States history was wrong; and when he began to work on Lincoln he found that it was not only wrong, but deliberately and viciously wrong. He had only what is taught to school children and undergraduates, which he discovered to be a pack of lies from start to finish.

But this appalling handicap, instead of defeating him, merely inspired him to renewed endeavor. Then the man throttled the cheap politician and Beveridge became great.

Thus the story of his life, which begins with all the earmarks of a typical American log-cabin-to-White-House mess of sentimental mush, turns into a story of real achievement. The trappings of the tin god fall away, and there is revealed no myth, solar or otherwise, but a man of respectable stature, a man of strength, a man who contributed something of lasting value to his country, therefore a man of more real worth than three-fourths of the gentry who have occupied the White House to which he aspired in vain.


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