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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
It is extremely significant that, in Perkins, leadership looked more and more like dictatorship. Roosevelt started a third party because he felt that a small clique of professionals had stolen control of the G.O.P. Yet from start to finish, the Progressive organization itself was managed by a tiny inner circle. In the summer of 1912, delegates to the first Progressive convention were hand-picked by local caucuses in the traditional smoke-filled rooms; at the climactic 1916 convention, Perkins and a few other leaders intrigued for days to prevent the delegates from nominating Roosevelt before the Republican convention had committed itself, although nearly every soul among them desired to do so at once. It was the methods, not the program, that soured the rank and file.
Of course there were other reasons why Roosevelt’s Bull Moose organization did not fulfill the high hopes of 1912 in succeeding years. Wilson’s New Freedom undermined the Progressive appeal by putting many of its proposals into effect. And the party lacked the patronage, prestige, and organization at the grass roots to sustain itself while out of power. Its one matchless asset was Roosevelt, yet after the outbreak of the European war the old Rough Rider rapidly lost interest in domestic affairs. First enthusiasm faded, then hope. By 1916 many Progressives were ready to go back to the Republicans on almost any terms. One of Perkins’ strengths was his continuing willingness to contribute time and money to the cause when others drifted away.
The story of the efforts of Progressive and Republican leaders to agree upon a common candidate in 1916 has already been told in these pages ( see “T.R. on the Telephone,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, December, 1957). Perkins arranged for the then-novel private telephone that connected the politicians in Chicago with Roosevelt in Oyster Bay, and paid the bill. But his main role was to keep the Progressives quiet until the Republicans could be persuaded to accept the apostate Roosevelt as their candidate. When compromise efforts failed, and when Roosevelt decided to support the Republican nominee, Charles Evans Hughes, Perkins went along with him reluctantly; personally he had little use for Hughes.
The Progressives now disappeared as a party, and Roosevelt, the leader, devoted himself chiefly to assailing Wilson’s foreign policy. Perkins, on the other hand, was determined to keep fighting for the Progressive program within the Republican ranks. He persuaded Hughes to include six former Progressives—including himself—on the Republican campaign committee. Later, after Hughes’ narrow defeat of 1916, when the Old Guard seized control of the Republican Executive Committee, Perkins tried to organize a liberal revolt, an effort cut short by U.S. entry into the European war. The following year Perkins led the battle that resulted in the election of Will Hays, who was friendly to the former Progressives, as Republican National Chairman. It was in no small part because of Perkins that the Old Guard faction was held in check until the 1920 election. By that time Perkins was no longer alive to fight.
Unlike so many amateur politicians, Perkins was willing to work as hard on local and state questions as on “important” national problems. The 1915 revision of the New York State constitution (which he opposed) and the wartime New York City Food Committee (which he managed) are examples of his activities on these levels. In 1914 he traveled all the way to the Panama Canal Zone simply to try to persuade Colonel George W. Goethals, the engineer in charge of constructing the canal, to accept appointment as New York City Police Commissioner. Goethals did not come.
Perkins’ governing principle, in local and national politics and in business too, was that the people, if given a chance to understand fully, would always do whatever was right. This faith in democracy was typically “Progressive”—Bryan, it will be recalled, possessed it so utterly that he assumed automatically that the truth could be determined by counting noses. What distinguished Perkins’ faith in the people was his willingness to invest vast amounts of his own money in seeing that the public was fully informed. When he was battling for stricter food and price controls during the war, he spent thousands spreading his views.
His dedication to Jefferson’s great principle that the truth, if left to itself, would always prevail, was proved conclusively by an incident that occurred during the fight. He was challenged by Samuel Fraser of the New York Federation of Farm Bureaus. Perkins, Fraser said, was making unfair use of his wealth by flooding the state with huge advertisements which his opponent could not afford to match. Without a moment’s hesitation, Perkins offered to buy space in every paper in the state so that Fraser could present his arguments to the people. On September 27, 1917, Fraser’s indictment of Perkins was spread across the pages of 141 New York newspapers, at a cost to Perkins of $25,000.