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The Colonel’s Dream Of Power

May 2024
8min read

In a little-known novel President Wilson’s private adviser depicted a benevolent American dictator

“In the year 1920, the student and the statesman saw many indications that the social, financial and industrial troubles that had vexed the United States of America lor so long a time were about to culminate in civil war.

“Wealth had grown so strong, that the few were about to strangle the many, and among the great masses of the people, there was sullen and rebellious discontent.

“The laborer in the cities, the producer on the farm, the merchant, the professional man and all save organized capital and its satellites, saw a gloomy and hopeless future.”

These are the opening lines of a novel that appeared in 1912 under the title Philip Dru: Administrator . The tale that followed is quickly told: Philip Dru, a graduate of West Point, incapacitated for a military career through illness, sees the plight of the masses of his fellow countrymen and becomes the leader of a popular insurrection against a corrupt and reactionary administration in Washington. The rebellion meets with success, and Dru emerges as dictator of the country. Under his rule the Republic is saved from selfish interests, sweeping reforms are introduced, and democracy is restored. After almost eight years of benevolent despotism Dru turns over his powers to the people and modestly retires from the scene.

The author of this political fantasy was as self-effacing as his hero: the work was published anonymously. “The authorship of Philip Dru: Administrator,” said the New York Times in January, 1913, “still remains a puzzle to those persons, not uncommon, who like to establish the association between a man and his work. Philip Dru is a real enigma …” In reality, the author of the enigma was one of the most remarkable men in American history—the man whom Woodrow Wilson once called “my second personality … my independent self“—Colonel Edward M. House of Texas.

For Edward Mandell House, who relished political intrigue, the public bewilderment over the authorship oi Philip Dru must have been a source of delight. It must also have been pleasing to B. W. Hnebsch, the publisher. Anonymity made good advertising copy, and the element of mystery was played to the hilt. While Huebsch laboriously typed his own letters to House lest even his stenographer discover the true author, the advertisements announced that the anonymous writer was “a man distinguished in political councils. He knows,” the ads said, “the entire woof and warp of politics and finance; he discloses the methods of the men who are today pulling the wires which make the government move; he shows just how and why it is that Washington sneezes when Wall street takes snuff. If a great political ‘boss’ were suddenly to tell all that he knows , it would sound very much like this book.”

House took pleasure not only in the mystified reception ol his novel, but in the writing ol it as well. “I was … surprised,” he later wrote, “to find how much I was interested in doing this kind of work.” The reasons why House, in the midst of a busy campaign to win the Democratic presidential nomination for Wilson, should have enjoyed indulging in 300 pages of political fantasy are not far to seek, indeed, the Colonel (the title was purely honorific) revealed them himself. Sending a copy of Philip Dru to a friend in 1915 he wrote: “It was written by a man I know.… My friend—whose name is not to be mentioned—told me … that Philip was all that he himself would like to be but was not.” House was unimpressive at first glance, a poor orator, a subtle persuader in private councils but ineffective in the public forum. Dru, on the other hand, was a handsome, dashing, popular leader. More important, whereas House’s influence (which in time would be enormous) depended in large measure on his obscurity, Dru was the heroic champion of the masses. Where House murmured wisdom from behind the throne, he seated his literary hero firmly on the throne.

House was acutely aware of his shortcomings, and, realizing that a successful career as a public figure was closed to him, resigned himself to remaining in the shadows of the great. ”… I had no ambition to hold office …” he reminisced, “because I felt … that I would fall short of the first place, and nothing less than that would satisfy me … My ambition has been so great that it has never seemed to me worth while to strive to satisfy it.” And yet by modifying that ambition House succeeded in satisfying it to a remarkable degree. For as a backstage organizer, political sleuth, confidential adviser and agent, House was superb. He could, it was said, “walk on dead leaves and make no more noise than a tiger.”

Between 1892 and 1902 House had served as the campaign manager and adviser of four governors of Texas—while characteristically refusing any official title. Growing bored with the narrow scope of state politics, he began to look about for a rising national figure to whom he could attach himself. Then, on November 24, 1911, the Governor of New Jersey, presidential aspirant Woodrow Wilson, called on House at his room in the Hotel Gotham in New York. The two men took to each other at once. House’s opportunity had arrived. The following day he wrote his brotherin-law: Wilson “is not the biggest man I have ever met, but he is one of the pleasantest and 1 would rather play with him than with any prospective candidate I have seen … It is just such a chance as I have always wanted for never before have I found both the man and the opportunity.”

Shortly after meeting Wilson, House began writing Philip Dru . He had thought of writing a novel some months earlier and was now surprised at how rapidly he turned out his tale. In a month the first draft, written in longhand on hundreds of small sheets of yellow paper, was finished. If House knew that his opportunity had arrived in his meeting with Wilson, he could not have known what a glorious opportunity it was or that for seven years he was to be one of the most influential men in the United States and, indeed, the world. And so, on the eve of his triumph, House might still get vicarious pleasure from putting his own ambition in the hands of Philip Dru. Outlining Dru’s reasons for assuming dictatorial power, House has him say: “In the long watches of the night, in the solitude of my tent, I conceived a plan of government which, by the grace ol God, I hope to be able to give to the American people.” Years later, House could say for himself: “In the silent watches ol the night and in the quieter moments ol the day, I dreamed great dreams, many of which have since come true .”

It was not only House’s personal ambitions that were to be realized. He poured into Philip Dru , albeit in maudlin and condescending phrases, his bitterness at the appalling condition ol American labor, at the systematic despoilment ol the public by powerful private interests, and at the corruption that prevailed in American politics. Philip Dru stands in the long tradition ol social criticism ranging from Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle to the articles of muckrakers like Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens. What makes House’s novel unique is that it was written by a man who was in a position to have a direct influence on government and that, without the revolution to which Dru resorted, the reforms his creator envisioned were in large measure realized.

In some respects Administrator Dru’s approach to the problems besetting America appear, in retrospect at least, rather grandiose and extreme. “Our government is, perhaps, less responsive to the will of the people than that of almost any of the civilized nations,” Dru announces. “Our Constitution and our laws served us well for the first hundred years of our existence, but under the conditions of to-day they are not only obsolete, but even grotesque. It is nearly impossible tor the desires of our people to find expression into law.” House, it should be recalled, was writing in an era in which, with disturbing frequency, a highly conservative Supreme Court was striking down reform legislation as unconstitutional. Dru proposes the compulsory retirement ol judges at seventy—a step that will call to mind Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt at “court-packing” over two decades later. But Dru goes further: he calls upon a group of legal experts—what would later be called a “brain trust”—to redefine the powers of the courts. He directed that the Supreme Court should be deprived of its power to declare legislation unconstitutional. Later, he intended to rewrite the federal and state constitutions altogether.

If some aspects of Philip Dru’s program seem extreme, most of it has become quite familiar over the years. Under Dru’s administration, tariffs are sharply reduced from the heights they had reached at the turn of the century. An income tax is introduced. (The rates are modest by today’s standards: incomes between $10,000 and $20,000 are subjected by Dru to a tax of 6 per cent; incomes of ten million dollars or more, to a maximum of 70 per cent.) A new banking law is enacted, providing for a flexible currency and designed to “destroy the credit trust, the greatest, the most far reaching and, under evil direction, the most pernicious trust of all.” Prohibitions of combinations in restraint of trade are tightened. Female suffrage is accepted. In one form or another, all of these measures that House advanced in fiction became realities during Wilson’s administration. One can understand the amazement of Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, who wrote: “All that book has said should be comes about.… The President comes to Philip Dru in the end.”

Still more of Philip Dru’s reforms had to wait for the New Deal two decades later. “Labor,” Dru promises, “is no longer to be classed as an inert commodity to be bought and sold by the law of supply and demand … It is my purpose to establish bureaus throughout the congested portions of the United States where men and women in search of employment can register and be supplied with information as to where and what kind of work is obtainable … I desire to make it clear that the policy of this Government is that every man or woman who desires work shall have it, even if the Government has to give it, and I wish it also understood that an adequate wage must be paid for labor.” Federal employment agencies and government work projects, as well as social security, disability insurance, compulsory collective bargaining, regulation of securities and exchange, governmentsponsored co-operative loan societies, and a host of other things that Dru advocated were to be realized in the 1930’s under Franklin Roosevelt.

The extent to which House and his novel contributed to the accomplishment of this reform program is difficult to estimate. In 1917 House confided to his diary: “Philip Dru expresses my thought and aspirations and, at every opportunity I have tried to press rulers, public men, and those influencing public opinion, in that direction.” During Wilson’s administration such pressure from House was unquestionably effective and substantial. Indeed, Wilson read Philip Dru while vacationing in Bermuda between his election and his inauguration.

On the other hand, House’s influence on Roosevelt was at best remote. He knew the young F. D. R. as Wilson’s assistant secretary of the Navy. And on occasions during the early days of the New Deal the Colonel was called to the White House for consultations. These visits led the press to suggest that Roosevelt was basing his program on House’s novel—the authorship was by then known. “The conclusion seems inevitable,” wrote one journalist, “that Edward Mandell House was, if not the father of the New Deal, at least the grandfather.” And another announced that Philip Dru “may well be called the Code Book of the Roosevelt Administration.” But this is very dubious. The program that had been wild-eyed fantasy in 1912 seemed a prudent and necessary development to millions of Americans in 1932. Within another twenty years it would be accepted by both major parties. If Philip Dru anticipated the New Deal by twenty years, it must be credited more to House’s prophetic powers than to his political influence.

Except for the brief flurry of activity at the outset of the New Deal, House’s own reappearances on the political scene were few. He was in the social columns now and again, and through annual trips to Europe he maintained his friendships with such diverse individuals as Clemenceau, Paderewski, Balfour, and the French philosopher Henri Bergson. He wrote an article or two (one, in the January, 1933, issue of Liberty , warned against dictators), but on the whole he remained in retirement until he died, of pleurisy, in 1938. It was as though he had been born only for the self-effacing task for which history remembers him.

It was the same with Philip Dru. As he nears the end of his benevolent dictatorship, a majority of the newly elected House of Representatives urges him to accept the Presidency, but Dru nobly declines, feeling that he can best serve the people by retiring to some obscure corner of the world, thus “freeing them from the shadow of my presence and my name.” Surprisingly, for he has thus far had little time for women, he proposes to his lovely co-worker, Gloria Strawn.

“Come with me, dear heart, into this unknown land and make it glad for me,” he pleads. “Come because I am drunken with love of you and cannot go alone.”

Naturally Gloria, who has “loved him from the very moment she first saw him,” accepts his proposal and the newlyweds go to San Francisco, where they board a “queenly sailing craft, manned and provisioned for a long voyage.”

“The wind has freshened,” we are told as the novel ends, “the sails were filled, and she was going swift as a gull through the Golden Gate into a shimmering sea.… Where were they bound? Would they return? These were the questions asked by all, but to which none could give answer.”

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