John W. Davis, a worthy opponent

John W. Davis, 1873 - 1955

It has been remarked that 1924 was the last time both major U.S. parties nominated a true and undisputed conservative for president. This may be true, and it very likely also was Davis’ undoing as a candidate.

Anathema to most progressive Democrats because of his work as a lawyer for J.P. Morgan, the former Congressman, Solicitor General of the U.S., and Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s had been nominated at the conclusion of a notably chaotic and divisive Democratic convention in New York’s Madison Square Garden. More than 100 ballots were needed at this longest-running convention in U.S. history, as the overwhelmingly “dry”, rural, Protestant and Southern and Midwestern supporters of Williams Gibbs McAdoo battled the mostly “wet”, ethnic and religious minority, urban Eastern supporters of New York Governor Al Smith. Only after the two contenders mutually withdrew was the convention able to settle on a compromise candidate. To give the ticket a little rural flavor, Nebraska Governor Charles W. Bryan, younger brother of the legendary William Jennings Bryan, was nominated for Vice President.

The elder Bryan had previously articulated what many liberals in the Democratic party felt – “This convention must not nominate a Wall Street man!”, even more damningly adding later: “I have no personal objection of any kind to Mr. Davis. He is a man of high character. So is Mr. Coolidge. There is no difference between them.” Swallowing these disagreements, Bryan endorsed Davis after the nomination and campaigned extensively for him.

The choice of Davis also may have played a part in precipitating the Progressive Party candidacy of Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette, who had bolted from the Republicans to form the Progressive Party of Wisconsin. Dismayed that the two major parties offered a choice of two conservatives, La Follette went ahead and accepted the Progressives’ nomination, with Montana Senator Burton Wheeler as running mate.

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More thoughts on Prohibition

A recent post was devoted to the topic of Prohibition. Distant and long ago as it seems, this topic appears to still be of considerable interest, and I would like to add some thoughts and perspectives provided by historian Paul Johnson in his ambitious and exceptional book “Modern Times”, which includes a chapter on the 1920s that Johnson entitled The Last Arcadia.

Johnson links American societal and political discourses on race and immigration to the notion that most early 20th-century Americans thought of their country as the last Arcadia, “an innocent and quasi-Utopian refuge from the cumulative follies and wickedness of the corrupt world beyond her ocean-girded shores.”  There was heated debate about immigration, and many rejected the notion of a “melting pot”, subscribing instead to an ethnic pecking order that placed the Anglo-Saxon “race” supremely above all others, with Northern (but not Eastern or Southern)  Europeans reluctantly included in that select group with only slightly lesser status. Thus Will Hays, as Warren Harding’s campaign manager, proudly summed up the candidate’s lineage as “the finest pioneer blood, Anglo-Saxon, German, Scotch-Irish and Dutch.”

Prohibition, with its moralistic and repressive overtones, was part of an attempt to keep or make Arcadia/America pure,  in that it was clearly directed at the “notorious drinking habits” of immigrant working men. America’s entry into World War I gave a further, enormous impetus to a patriotic xenophobia, which was used to justify varieties of repression, racism and a drive against nonconformity. Not coincidentally, the “Red Scares” of the era focused on Eastern and Southern European immigrants who were easily caricatured as low-lifes or, worse, as anarchists.

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