The Millionaire Reformer

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It is the evening of June 20, 1912; the scene, a large room in the Congress Hotel in Chicago. About twenty men are present. Perhaps a dozen of them are seated around a large table. Others sprawl wearily in armchairs or lean against the walls. One, a solid, determined-looking fellow with thick glasses and a bristling mustache, paces grimly back and forth in silence, like a caged grizzly. He is Theodore Roosevelt, and these are his closest political advisers. All of them are very, very angry.

In a nearby auditorium, the Republican National Convention is moving with the ponderous certainty of a steamroller toward the nomination of well-fed William Howard Taft for a second term as President of the United States. All of the men in the hotel room believe that this nomination rightfully belongs to Roosevelt, and that it is being “stolen” by a cynical band of reactionary politicians who have used their control of the party machinery to seat enough illegally chosen delegates to insure the selection of their man Taft. The Roosevelt men do not want to take this lying down; they would like to run their candidate on a third-party ticket. But they realize that without a great deal of money such a plan would be impossible. Frustration thus feeds and intensifies their anger.

It is growing late, and everyone is weary. Conversation lags. But gradually attention is centered on two men who have withdrawn to a corner. They are talking excitedly in rapid whispers. One is the publisher Frank Munsey; the other, George W. Perkins, a former partner in J. P. Morgan & Company. Neither has had much political experience, but both are very rich and very fond of Theodore Roosevelt. Now everyone senses their subject and realizes its importance. All eyes are focused in their direction. Suddenly the two millionaires reach a decision. They straighten up and stride across the room to Roosevelt. Each places a hand on one of his shoulders. “Colonel,” they say simply, “we will see you through.” Thus the Progressive party—“Bull Moose,” some will call it—is born.

Of these two, Munsey has relatively little importance in the story of modern American reform. He was neither entirely in sympathy with Progressive aims nor even particularly interested in them. His attachment to Roosevelt was personal, and it did not last much beyond the 1912 campaign. Perkins, however, went on to become a central figure in the history of the Progressive movement.

A central figure, but not a typical one, for no single human being can be said to represent fully that multifaceted, contradictory, and disorganized mass drive for change. For example, Perkins was not, like William Jennings Bryan, the representative of disgruntled farmers frightened by loss of status and the rise of giant corporations, nor was he, like Roosevelt, an aristocrat striking out at the crass commercialism of the new industrial tycoons. Indeed, he was part of the new power elite that the Bryans, born poor, and Roosevelts, born rich, found so offensive and incomprehensible in the Progressive era. But Perkins was a businessman with a highly developed social conscience and a feeling that the times called for change if past progress was to continue in the future. This, certainly, was characteristically “Progressive.” Without accepting the arguments of the socialists, he had learned not to be afraid of government regulation or of the thought of “tampering” with the economy.

In the early years of this century many businessmen also shared this general point of view. But most confined their political activities to signing checks at campaign time; few were willing or able to put aside money-making, climb up on a soapbox, and campaign among the politicians and plain people for what they thought was right. Perkins did these things. He paid a high price, and not only in money, but he did not mind; he had the spirit of the crusader. This, too, was typically “Progressive.”

Nevertheless, in 1912 many people, including some of those in Roosevelt’s hotel room in Chicago, considered Perkins utterly out of place in such a gathering of advanced liberals. They knew him as the right-hand man of the hated plutocrat J. P. Morgan; as a slick, smooth-talking apologist for monopolistic corporations like U.S. Steel and International Harvester; as a powerful insurance executive whose “crimes” had been “exposed” by Charles Evans Hughes in the famous Armstrong insurance investigation of 1905. With his handsome, clean-cut features, his wavy brown hair only beginning to be flecked with gray at the temples, and his trim mustache, he looked too much like what in fact he had been; a typical boy wonder of Wall Street. This man was many times a millionaire while scarcely forty—a driving, aggressive manager of men and money. He owned a palatial estate, Glyndor, overlooking the Hudson at Riverdale; he belonged to the New York Yacht Club and other exclusive organizations. What was Perkins doing posing as a reformer, associating with a liberal like Teddy Roosevelt?