S. Parker Gilbert (3rd of 3)

S. Parker Gilbert in 1931, as partner at J.P.Morgan

S. Parker Gilbert in 1931, as partner at J.P.Morgan

In Parts 1 and 2, we have seen S. Parker Gilbert apply his financial brilliance to tax reform and to the reconstruction of war-torn Europe. The last glimpses we now get of him are as a commentator on the intraparty struggles leading up to the 1928 Republican convention.

Part 3: In opposition to Hoover

Herbert Hoover won his party’s nomination for the Presidency in 1928 overwhelmingly on the first ballot, and to many this seemed a foregone conclusion, a mere ratification of Hoover’s foreordained role as standard bearer. But in reality his grasp of the nomination had been shaky until days before the party met in Kansas City. While he was popular with independents, progressives, and liberals, there was, in fact, widespread opposition to Hoover within the GOP. His Republican credentials were uncertain – as late as 1920 he had not unequivocally denied Democratic attempts to name him a presidential candidate and had actually won the Democratic primary in Michigan that year.
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Coolidge and the Klan

One of the more vexing slanders that somehow persist in unmoderated internet forums is the totally baseless falsehood that Calvin Coolidge was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I’m not going to increase traffic to those sites by putting links here, but anyone who googles “Coolidge” and “KKK” gets to those pages where someone states this nonsense as fact; sometimes a History Channel documentation is cited as the source. This post is one more attempt to set the record straight.

President Coolidge shaking hands with Mississippi river hero Thomas Lee, 1925

Not only does not one of Coolidge’s biographers mention this, but the very idea runs counter to everything in Coolidge’s upbringing and indeed his actions as president. While some may wish that Coolidge had spoken out more forcefully against racism from the “bully pulpit”, he was never silent on the question of religious and racial intolerance, and his public statements are numerous. Coolidge biographer McCoy opines that Coolidge viewed the Klan as an organization that would shrivel and die when denied publicity. He therefore seldom denounced it by name, but consistently chose venues where he could demonstrate his sympathy for and solidarity with the Klan’s intended victims. Dedicating a hospital for African-American veterans in the heart of the South – Tuskegee, Alabama – the president closed his remarks by saying,

“Those who stir up animosities, those who create any kind of hatred and enmity are not ministering to the public welfare. We have come out of the war with a desire and a determination to live at peace with all the world. Out of a common suffering and a common sacrifice there came a new meaning to our common citizenship. Our greatest need is to live in harmony, in friendship, and in good will, not seeking an advantage over each other but all trying to serve each other.”

Similarly, in 1924, Coolidge reprimanded a man complaining by letter from New York about the Republican Party having nominated an African American for Congress:

“During the war five hundred thousand colored men and boys were called up under the draft, not one of whom sought to evade it,” and reminded the correspondent that the Constitution “guarantees equal rights to all (…) citizens, without discrimination on account of race or color.”

During that same campaign, Coolidge’s running mate Charles G. Dawes spoke out forcefully against the Klan while in Augusta, Maine, expressly against the wishes of local Republican Party officials, but apparently with the backing and approval of the president.

All in all, it must be admitted that Coolidge’s response on civil rights was not vigorous, although it was as good as Harding’s and certainly better than Wilson’s. He requested Congress on several occasions to use its power to punish lynchings, he referred complaints of voting rights violations to the Department of Justice, and he did secure some increases in appropriations for the education of African Americans. While stopping short of ending segregation in government offices as a matter of policy, he did intervene in  individual cases and issued directives to stop segregation. He often was in touch with a number of African American leaders, particularly Dr. Robert R. Moton, the principal of the Tuskegee Institute, and James Weldon Johnson, secretary of the NAACP, but only rarely followed up on their concrete suggestions. It has been suggested that inaction by Republican presidents in the 1920s was a factor in the abandonment of the GOP by blacks in favor of the Democrats, which has endured to this day.

I have mentioned before my understanding that Coolidge was a leader of the “hedgehog” type, focusing on a very few big things he wanted to accomplish. It is possible that his interest in matters such as antilynching legislation had to be sidetracked in order to focus on the central themes of efficiency in government, debt reduction and tax reduction.

More on Coolidge and his views on tolerance h e r e.

Wielding a wicked budget axe…not

Reading as I am a history of the Bureau of the Budget, and being swept up a little by the budget-cutting enthusiasm of the early 1920s budgeteers under Charles G. Dawes, I am a little underwhelmed by the pusillanimous stance taken by today’s Office of the Management and Budget under its current head, Jacob Lew. Arguably, the state of the nation’s finances is in a worse mess today than it was following WW I. But at least at that time, there was a wide consensus that the national debt had to be brought under control. Anyway, read and weep the somewhat scathing account by Peter Suderman over at www.reason.com of the courageous assault by Lew and his cohorts on the calamitous deficits.

The Business Organization of the Government

Incredible as it may seem, procedures for government spending up until the early 1920s were mostly fairly haphazard. The Treasury Department submitted yearly estimates of expenses for all government departments, which resulted in as many as fourteen separate appropriations bills. In 1919, President Wilson had called for the establishment of a national budget system as Congress was separately working on such a proposal, but a compromise worked out between a House and Senate bill was not satisfactory and ultimately vetoed by Wilson.

Wilson’s successor Warren G. Harding had the good fortune to secure from Congress a budget measure that gave the president complete authority over all budget matters. Charles  G. Dawes, who had been Harding’s first choice as Secretary of the Treasury, was named as the first ever Commissioner of the Budget. Dawes warned Harding that “you must realize that you are the first president to tackle the job of a coordinated business control over the departments. I doubt if you recognize the strength of the 150 years of archaisms which you must fight.” Nevertheless, Dawes accepted the job, on the proviso that it be for only one year.

Successive budget directors Charles G. Dawes (left) and Herbert M. Lord in 1922

Harding and Dawes inaugurated the Business Organization of the Government, which first met on June 29, 1921. All members of the cabinet and 1200 bureau and divison chiefs met in the auditorium of the Interior Department. Harding told the assembly that “there is not a menace in the world today like that of growing public indebtedness and mounting public expenditures…we want to reverse things.” With something close to evangelistic fervor, Dawes then spoke for an hour, indicating his specific goal as the removal of “fat” and extravagance from the government. He concluded by requesting all those in the audience upon whom he could depend in this quest to rise – the entire audience rose. Harding later commented that Dawes was the only man he had ever seen who while talking could keep “both feet and both arms in the air at once.”

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The Harding Memorial

It is difficult to imagine a President falling from grace quite as rapidly as Warren G. Harding. Elected by the largest popular majority up to that time, and assuming the presidency in 1920 at a time when the affairs of the government were in a disastrous shambles following the illness-ridden final years of Woodrow Wilson’s tenure, Harding had pledged to return the operations of government, and the affairs of the nation, to a state of normalcy. While his administration was superior in accomplishments to a sizable portion of those in the nation’s history, as his biographer Robert K. Murray states, the record is overshadowed by the scandals that began to unravel at the time of Harding’s death. Although the president himself was never remotely thought culpable, his judgment especially in matters of appointments, must be severely questioned, even if the mythical proportions that tales of wrongdoing and easy living in the Harding White House have been and continue to be vastly overstated. Polls of presidential greatness have constantly placed Harding at or near the bottom, testimony to the power of historians and journalists to perpetuate myth over reality.

Shortly after his death, with the oratory from his eulogies still in the air, the Harding Memorial Association was formed with the objective of raising money for a suitable presidential tomband monument. President Coolidge accepted the honorary chairmanship and many top government official, including all cabinet members, were on the association’s executive board.

President Coolidge chairs meeting of the Harding Memorial Association Executive Board, looking appropriately glum

In mid-1924 Coolidge appointed a committee made up of Charles Schwab and Secretaries Mellon and Weeks to determine the location, plans, and allotment of funds for the memorial; they selected Harding’s hometown of Marion, Ohio, and ground for the memorial, a circle of 46 Tuscan and Ionic columns in white Georgia marble, was broken in 1926. By that time, Republicans were not eager to associate themselves with the Harding name, and on the occasion of the laying of the cornerstone, the only Republican official who was willing to attend and deliver an endorsement of his former boss was Vice-President Dawes.

(read on after the cut)

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