The Millionaire Reformer

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The new reformer’s labors with giants like New York Life and U.S. Steel had convinced him that mere bigness in business was not a crime, as the “trust busters” were arguing, but a necessity. The savings resulting from large-scale operation, the ability to take the long-range view, to plan, to engage in expensive research —these made the large corporation efficient and hence socially desirable. Competition, the law of tooth and claw, was crude, cruel, uncivilized, Perkins believed. Antitrust laws were out of date; instead of breaking up the giants, government should simply regulate their activities. Modern technology and mass markets were making older forms of business organization obsolete. Instead of competition, co-operation should be the byword of the modern world. Perkins believed that large corporations, with their thousands of stockholders, were truly “public” businesses. The function of corporate managers like himself, he said in a lecture at Columbia University in 1908, was to decide “what is fair and right between the public’s capital, which they represent, and the public’s labor, which they employ.”

Beginning early in 1911, Perkins devoted most of his time to advocating these ideas. He accepted speaking engagements all over the country and wrote unceasingly on the subject. Inevitably his crusade involved him in politics, although he had not conceived of becoming a politician when he cut loose from his business ties.

Perkins had always been a Republican. As late as 1908 he had worked actively for William Howard Taft against Bryan. But after 1910 he became increasingly dismayed by Taft’s attitude toward big business. Although the President allied himself generally with the conservatives, he was a confirmed trust buster. “We must get back to competition,” he said. “If it is impossible, then let us go on to socialism, for there is no way between.” Perkins was convinced that there was a “way between”: regulation of large corporations by the federal government. When Taft ordered antitrust suits against both U.S. Steel and International Harvester, Perkins went definitely into the opposition. Like most liberal Republicans, he thought Roosevelt the most attractive alternative.

Despite his lack of political experience, Perkins became chairman of the new Progressive or “Bull Moose” party’s executive committee. In effect he was Roosevelt’s campaign manager, and he tried to run the campaign the way an insurance man conducts a drive for new business. To him, voters were like the policy-holders and “prospects” of the insurance world. One of the Progressive party’s great handicaps was that it had only “prospects” at the moment, and so a great sales campaign commenced.

Directing the fight from New York headquarters, Perkins was soon flooding the mails with torrents of campaign literature. Three million copies of Roosevelt’s “Confession of Faith” were distributed. Countless other pamphlets followed. Perkins established a weekly magazine called the Progressive Bulletin, copied from a bulletin he had edited for years while working for New York Life. Like its prototype, it was full of slogans designed to inspire confidence in the faithful, along with “up-to-date, sledge-hammer arguments” to convince the doubtful. “What are you doing to help the Progressive party? Are you telling our story to every man and woman you meet?” Under Perkins the political “hard sell” reached a new peak.

It made for an exciting and hard-fought, if inevitably unsuccessful, effort. The fundamental fact of 1912 was that the Republicans had split while the Democrats remained united. Had the Democrats nominated a conservative like Champ Clark of Missouri, who almost won out at their convention, Roosevelt might have been elected, for 1912 marked the highwater mark of the Progressive wave. But with Woodrow Wilson in the fight, fresh from his triumphs as Governor of New Jersey, Progressives could choose between two appealing candidates. Wilson collected his full share of their votes, and together with the solid South and the “regular” Democrats of the North, this made an unbeatable combination.

The Bull Moosers were far from discouraged, however. Roosevelt ran a strong second, winning over 4,126,020 votes (to Wilson’s 6,296,547) and carrying six states, including California, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. He overwhelmed Taft, despite all the President’s advantages, so that the ample champion of the orthodoxy won only 3,486,720, or eight electoral votes.** The future looked bright. “Progressive seed has been sewn on such a large area of soil that a pretty fair crop is bound to be the result ere long,” Perkins announced after the election.