- Historic Sites
The Millionaire Reformer
In the era of the Bull Moose, Progressivism became a party; the man behind Roosevelt was, of all things, a Morgan partner
February 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 2
But there was much to learn about politics, Perkins had discovered. Selling a candidate was not like hawking insurance. Some of the personal qualities that had made him a brilliant businessman proved only weaknesses when applied to politics. He found it impossible to subordinate himself to a team effort. The Bulletin had been his idea, and a good one, but he had made it far too much a vehicle for his views rather than for general Progressive policies and opinions. The first issue contained a full-page reprint of an editorial in the New York Journal praising his organizing ability. Two weeks later there was a long account of a petty argument between Perkins and Woodrow Wilson over the difference between Tammany Society and Tammany Hall. Two issues later came a lead article by Perkins on Wilson and the trust question.
It was natural enough for the Bulletin to stress the trust issue; it was central to Perkins’ beliefs, and by 1912 Roosevelt was substantially in accord with Perkins’ idea that government regulation was the proper way to deal with giant corporations. But Perkins erred deeply when he allowed the Bulletin to devote such a disproportionate amount of space to the question and to print his name as often as it did. His aggressiveness irritated many loyal Progressives. The conservation expert Gifford Pinchot, for example, dubbed him “Gabby George,” and another supporter of T.R. claimed that the entire New York organization of the party “consisted of George W. Perkins and a push button.” Such criticism came as a profound shock to the political neophyte.
Another lesson that Perkins had to learn during the campaign was that the rough and tumble of politics is not for the tender-skinned. He had given up all his profitable business connections—his partnership in the Morgan firm alone was probably worth a million dollars a year—in order to work for public betterment. He believed utterly in the soundness of his crusade against the Sherman Antitrust Act; certainly no one should question his motives, he thought. He had remained active in U.S. Steel and in International Harvester not to make money, for he drew no salary from either company, but because he felt that “these organizations are right from the viewpoint of modern ethics, just as I am sure they are necessary from the viewpoint of modern economics.” Yet now he found himself assailed as an unscrupulous and selfish capitalist seeking to use the government to benefit his pet monopolies.
Scarcely had Roosevelt been nominated by the Progressives when a Democratic congressman began to call Perkins “the chief intermediary” between big business and the Justice Department, the “minister plenipotentiary and envoy extraordinary” of the Morgan interests. Even Woodrow Wilson, who did not stoop to mudslinging, was unusually forthright in attacking Perkins and his views. “These gentlemen say that these big combinations are necessary for economy and efficiency,” Wilson said in one speech. “The only answer I can think of that meets the suggestion is: Rats! Go tell all that to the Marines.”
Perkins was naturally angered by these criticisms, most of which questioned not only his beliefs but also his motives. It was particularly exasperating to be called a tool of the House of Morgan when in fact J. P. Morgan, Jr., was trying to force him off the Board of Directors of U.S. Steel! Morgan thought Perkins’ political activities “controversial” and likely to injure the corporation. Many other business leaders, of course, were horrified by Perkins’ views on government regulation of business, which they considered socialistic.
Perkins did not resign from U.S. Steel, then or later, nor did he alter his basic beliefs. Nevertheless, when the campaign was over he changed his political techniques considerably in the light of his 1912 experiences. He made an effort to conciliate Progressives, like Gifford and Amos Pinchot, who had criticized his leadership. In part the objections of these men had been ideological, for they were ardent advocates of trust busting. (Amos Pinchot once tried to write a book exposing the sins of U.S. Steel.) The party structure was revamped and critics of Perkins given important places in it. The Bulletin was transferred to other hands, both the trust question and Perkins’ name disappearing from its pages. A Progressive Service, to provide economic and sociological information useful in drafting legislation, was established.
Nevertheless, even his co-workers found it hard to accept Perkins’ leadership. Prejudices rising from his former business connections would not die down. “Perkins stands for nothing but rights of property,” a disgruntled Progressive from South Dakota complained. Nor could Perkins completely suppress what William Allen White called his “seven-devil lust to grab the drum and get up around to the head of the procession.” The business world had taught him to act decisively, but not how to give others a sense of participation.