The Setting for John W. Davis



No one, I think, can understand the deeper issues of this campaign who has not first understood how that passionately popular convention in New York turned against all its own preconceptions to nominate John W. Davis. For when it assembled very few delegates thought that he could be chosen. The jinxes of politics had apparently done their best to destroy him. He came from a small border state; he had been Ambassador to the Court of St. James; he was a Wall Street lawyer. Thus he violated all the tabus in the political ritual, and he was impossible. Yet two weeks later he was the inevitable choice of a convention which had displayed more unvarnished popular feeling than any important assembly of our time.

The delegates did this extraordinary thing because they had gone through an extraordinary experience. They had learned more at first hand about the really dangerous problems of America, they had learned more of the actual motives which move the great masses of men, than anyone of this generation had thought it possible to learn. In the face of what they saw, the standardized rules of the political game, reactionary, conservative, liberal, or radical, seemed remote and inconsequential.

For they saw the oldest American conflict renewed once more. There in Madison Square Garden was that same sectional division which arose over the adoption of the Constitution and the fiscal policy of Alexander Hamilton, took on the character of a social revolution in the victory of Andrew Jackson, played a determining part in the Civil War, and has since then inspired every important expression of political discontent from the Greenbackers through the Populists to Bryan, the Bull Moose, and La Follette’s candidacy in 1924. It is the division first between town and country, generalized into a conflict between those sections where the towns are dominant and those where the rural counties are dominant. The distress of the agrarian West during the last few years would in any case have revived this old sectional conflict. But it had been embittered by the historic coincidence that the old economic, social, and cultural division corresponds roughly to a new racial and religious division. The ancient suspicions of the countryside against the bankers, the wholesalers, and the magnates of the towns fused with the dislike of the older Protestant villages for the Catholic, Jewish, and foreign-born populations of the great cities. It happened that Mr. McAdoo became the rallying point of the antipathies of the West and South, Governor Smith for those of the North and East. They brought an historic conflict to a dramatic issue.

This conflict was suppressed in the Republican and in the La Follette conventions for the simple reason that neither was a true sample of the nation. The Republican Party is a sectional party. It does not exist in the South, and its Southern delegates are picked from rotten boroughs owned bv absentee political landlords in the Northeast. There is no possibility, therefore, in a Republican Convention, of a coalition of South and West against the East. The West fights alone, and in such a contest it has no chance. It is easily overridden by the Eastern politicians whenever they are not engaged, as they were in 1912, in a factional quarrel which leads one faction to form a temporary alliance with the insurgent West. That is why the sectional conflict which prevails as truly in the Republican as in the Democratic Party came to nothing at Cleveland but an hour of jeering at the Wisconsin delegates. The Republican managers had no South to consider and, rather than debate with the West, they invited La Follette to leave the party. The President would have preferred not to appear as candidate of a purely sectional party, and at the eleventh hour attempted to cross the Mississippi in search of a Vice-President. But the sectional feeling of the Northeast, even in his own Massachusetts delegation, was too powerful to turn the convention toward any Western candidate who would accept its nomination. Thus the Republican Party avoided an open conflict in its convention by identifying itself entirely with one section of the country.

The La Follette Convention was in this respect the complement of the Republican. It, too, had no representation from the South; it had no significant connections with the East. The core, as distinguished from the fringe, was the most frankly sectional of all the conventions. Senator La Follette’s managers refused to allow debate on any popular issue, much less on such burning issues as the Klan, Prohibition, and foreign policy, which would have revealed the actual emotional alignments within the convention. I am not criticizing them. They did what any politician would do if he could. I am simply trying to point out that Chairman Butler and Mr. La Follette could avoid the issue of sectionalism because the country was not truly represented in the conventions they had to deal with; and that it was not easy, probably it was impossible, for the Democrats to follow their example. For the Democratic Party is actually national in scope, and in its convention the main antagonisms within the nation were correctly represented.


The forces arrayed there were not two factions in the Democratic Party, but two cultures in America. They were divided by the suspicion that is engendered between divers communities, blind suspicion and misunderstanding and profound self-righteousness. They were not quarreling about the Mellon Plan, the Fordney-McCumber Tariff, the McNary-Haugen Bill, the League of Nations, Prohibition, or any other seizable, arguable, concrete thing. Should the Ku Klux Klan be denounced by name, or denounced not by name? A ridiculous issue to a cold observer, but a passionate one to those engaged, for on that triviality deep distrust was expended. The sheer emptiness of the ostensible issue made the passion engendered all the more significant to those who managed to look beyond the heat and noise, and the little personal destinies involved, to the meaning. For here, still within the bounds of a common patriotism and the narrower bounds of party loyalty, were the makings of exactly the sort of antagonism that lies between Ulster and the Irish Free State.

There were times when it seemed as if the Democratic Party must split, as the Republican Party had split, under the strain of the conflict. It would, I think, have been a bad day for America had that happened. The breakdown of the only remaining national party would have left the government at the mercy of three or four sectional parties, no one of them responsible for accommodating the differences that must of necessity exist in a continental nation. It would have surrendered American politics to that most wretchedly corrupt of all systems, the coalition of logrolling blocs. We may still arrive at that. But as long as one party remains national in scope, the other cannot long remain divided. By some kind of realignment and accommodation, perhaps within both parties, unity will be restored, and while that unity exists the sectional conflict will remain under control. The danger point would have arrived were each party wholly identified with a section, and if every ambitious politician’s personal interest lay in outbidding his rival by sharpening sectional complaints and sectional demands. But as long as one party bids for votes in every part of the country, the other party must do the same. And in the need to make a diverse appeal, though it means much ambiguity and hypocrisy, lies also the necessity of tolerance and moderation. And on the will to live and let live depends the ultimate safety of a varied commonwealth.

In the Democratic leaders who finally assumed control after ten days of factional warfare, the principle motive, of course, was to save the party. They had very little time to formulate conscious judgments. They obeyed an intuition which told them that in an extreme crisis only the ablest man is good enough. They were shocked into an agreement on John W. Davis by the realization that in such a storm the thing which counted was not what somebody might say of him, but what intrinsically he was. And every man of them knew, and had known long before he was seriously considered, that in sheer equipment, breadth of experience, and dignity of utterance he was the outstanding Democrat of his time.

That is how a most disorderly convention came to select a man with a deep sense of order; how a convention boiling with passion selected a man of serene temper; how a convention charged with ignorance and prejudice selected a man of lucid and judicious intelligence; how a convention filled with crusaders selected a man who has no trace of fanaticism in him; how a convention in which two factions utterly distrusted each other united at last on a man who gives at once a sense of assurance. I am no believer in the doctrine of the mysterious rightness of the popular will, but in this case men who had looked into a witches’ cauldron of hatred and disunion yielded to a half-conscious judgment which was far more reliable than their common sense. For they turned to the one candidate who embodied preëminently those very qualities for lack of which the party had almost destroyed itself.


His nomination was the result of confidence in his character rather than of studied agreement with his views. He was assumed to be in the orthodox sense a conservative, partly because of his professional associations in the last three years, and partly because of his personal bearing. He had made no active campaign for the nomination, and had nearly broken the hearts of his friends by a cavalier refusal even to make one gesture which would seem to reflect on his clients, or to betray the slightest distrust of the soundness of the legal services he was engaged in. I have seen a good many men under the awful temptation of the Presidency. I have never seen another who had such absolute self-respect. The practice of hanging your soul out on the clothesline for an airing was not the fashion in West Virginia when John Davis’s character was formed.

It was formed apparently in a society where itching ambition and the need to push did not prevail. He has retained that more old-fashioned tempo of soul. And this is, I think, the quality which causes people to call him distinguished. He is singularly distinct in a gathering of successful New Yorkers, for example, by the absence of that stress in his face and in his manner, which success under modern conditions costs most men. He seems more reserved, and gives a sense of having arrived without losing his breath. Yet he has made his own way in the world. Only he has made it somehow without wrenching himself, as a man might in a smaller community where outstanding ability and great personal charm advertise themselves. He has ambition, of course, for worldly things. But it does not torture him. Success has come to him in the ordinary course of events. He has little lust of power. He has exercised power in every community where he has lived from the time he was a country lawyer, and it seems to fascinate him far less than it does most men. He has a natural composure within him, which is a less tricky thing than self-control, in a man who sets out to deal dispassionately with the problems of the modern world.

The framework of his mind was formed in West Virginia. It is that of the traditional Democrat with the Jeffersonian distrust of centralization, a powerful dislike of bureaucracy, and a strong prejudice in favor of home rule. Ten years ago this was conservatism, for ten years ago progressivism was pledged to the aggrandizement of the federal power as the only quick and sure way of curing social evils. The war came, and the federal power was aggrandized with a vengeance. It ‘took over’ everything down to advising the cook how to cook. It told the farmer what to plant, and it told the workingman where to work. It managed credit, and imports and exports, and production and consumption, and wages, and hours and prices, and personal opinions, and school textbooks, and the hymns to be sung in church. It was all in a good cause and done, no doubt, with the noblest motives, but it concentrated upon the Federal Government a terrifying burden of expectations, ambitions, and complaints. You settled nothing at home after a while by agreement with your neighbor. You boarded a train for Washington and demanded a law compelling him to agree with you. And the more laws you had the more patriotic you were, and the more inspected you were the more moral you were, and the more laws you passed to ‘curb’ the other fellow the more progressive you were.

In the post-war world government has been the last thing to demobilize. It has remained inflated, pretentious, overnationalized, quarrelsome, and a perpetually tempting prize for quarrelsome people to seize. John Davis is a radical opponent of this whole tendency toward the aggrandizement of government. That makes him an opponent of some things that are no doubt in themselves desirable, and of many more things that are undesirable. Whether this is to be called progressive or conservative, I do not know, but that in the maladies of the modern world it is wise and liberal, I have little doubt.

And by the same token, Mr. Davis seems to me the only one of the three candidates whose mind actually deals with the post-war world. He alone in the last ten years has had direct experience of it, first as Solicitor-General and then as Ambassador to Great Britain. Mr. La Follette had a deep experience of the vindictive intolerance of war; he had no first-hand experience of its great problems. Mr. Coolidge was removed throughout from the main experience so far as it involved the taking of the important decisions. Mr. Davis was in the thick of it from start to finish. It is not surprising, therefore, that his mind defies classification as conservative, like Mr. Coolidge’s, or as progressive, like Mr. La Follette’s. If that seems unsatisfactory to anyone, let him try to classify under pre-war categories a man like Lord Robert Cecil, or Lord Haldane, or even Mr. Ramsay MacDonald. He will find it difficult because the postwar world does not submit to the formulæ of orthodox progressivism and conservatism.

This is what makes Mr. Davis so bewildering to both camps of his opponents. American progressivism has not reconsidered its position for ten years, and American conservatism for about twenty-five. To both, the war was an interlude, and its conclusion a signal for the conservatives to return to Mark Hanna, and for the La Follette Progressives to return to the unfinished task of busting the unbustable trusts.

The real problems of government in the world after the war lie elsewhere. What government can do toward the actual ‘solution’ of post-war problems is, I believe, comparatively little. By means of high tariffs, armaments, adventures in security, and dishonest fiscal policies, it can do an enormous lot to prevent people from making the necessary post-war adjustments. It cannot direct them to make the right ones, because nobody in public office knows enough. The main task of government is, in the largest sense, so to police the world that individual and corporate arrangements can be made without resort to force. In that sense the Jeffersonian Doctrine is for the circumstances in which we find ourselves the most apt.

Mr. Coolidge’s conservatism, involving economic concentration of power under a high tariff and political isolation through a refusal to share the burden of preserving order in the world, seems to be inspired by no sense of responsibility for any appreciable future. Mr. La Follette’s progressivism is at least gallant, but from my point of view it is more the expression of pain than a cure for the malady. It is, of course, a movement of protest without a programme meant to be carried out, and it would not be fair to pick out this plank or that in the platform as the considered demand of all his followers. But if they have yet to draw up their programme, their tendency is evident. It is to increase the managing activity of government by entrusting it with a leading rôle in the solution of economic questions. That was the hopeful course ten years ago. Is it so to-day?

For to do that is to make the control of government a prize of such enormous consequence that men will contend for it fiercely. Is that desirable? Ten years ago we should have said that in such contention democracies are educated. To-day, with our experience of how the mind of the mass of men can be moved, with our enormously increased electorate and our greatly complicated life, we should be less certain that we wish to accentuate the fierceness of the struggle for power. For if it came, it would not come, I think, as a debate on the merits of economic issues. It would come, as it came in the Democratic Convention, in tidal waves of anger and sectional distrust, and I do not think the self-discipline of this country, or of any other, is sure enough to stand the strain of a fiercely prolonged sectional struggle to control the government because there are the levers which fix wages and prices, and raise or lower the standards of living.

They do a poor service to the country who provoke that struggle. They are blind, I think, to the experience of ten years, and blind to a plain truth that we all easily forget. It is a truth as old as Aristotle: you must not complicate your government beyond the capacity of its electorate to understand it; if you do, it will escape all control, turn corrupt and tyrannical, lose the popular confidence, offer real security to no man, and in the end it will let loose all the submerged antagonisms within the state. We have ignored that truth in the last ten years, partly because the war forced us to do it, partly because, as in the Eighteenth Amendment, many people demanded it. We are paying the price in a more embittered sectionalism than we have ever known in this generation. Anyone who proposes to go further into the jungles of centralization, bureaucracy, government interference, with all that they mean in the accentuating of conflict, is a hopeful person, but he is no modern Progressive, whatever he may call himself. He is inviting on an increasing scale that ominous antagonism which was revealed at something like its real intensity in the Democratic Convention.


It follows that John W. Davis offers no support to those who think that the inequalities of wealth can be reduced by an increasing economic activity of the Federal Government. He looks for relief in the opposite direction, to the reduction of governmental activity, both where it favors the specially privileged and where it attempts to regulate and moralize the population at large. He would reduce the tariff privilege. He would throw the burden of taxation where it will least interfere with the standard of living. He would remove legislative and judicial interference with voluntary adjustment, such as the abuse of the injunction in labor disputes. His whole philosophy is to place the emphasis on voluntary, coöperative, state, regional, and local settlement of disputes and treatment of social evils.

He would expect by this political deflation to make government less intricate and much purer, less heady at the centre and more alive in the parts. To such a government, he would say, people might look again with sufficient confidence to keep their antagonisms within bounds and to face at last the almost unconsidered problem of their place in a new world.