Robert Taft’s Conservative Proposal for Civil Rights

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman sent shockwaves through the Democratic Party when he announced his support for civil rights legislation. He was the first president of his party to do so, supporting anti-lynching legislation, banning the poll tax for federal elections, and a permanent “mandatory” Fair Employment Practices Committee. This was a marked change from the Democratic Party of a quarter century ago that overwhelmingly opposed anti-lynching legislation and a change in Truman himself. As a senator, Truman had backed anti-lynching legislation but it was strictly for the purposes of winning the black vote as privately he didn’t care for it. Truman’s change was partly motivated by his own sense of horror at the fact that black veterans were getting shot in the South for trying to vote and also partly a recognition of a new constituency in the Democratic Party. Until 1936, blacks overwhelmingly voted Republican, but the GOP’s low prioritization of civil rights left an opening for a Democratic Party willing to court their interests, and FDR did so through the New Deal.

Although FDR had pointedly maintained silence on the question of anti-lynching legislation to not cause a schism in the Democratic Party, he did create a wartime agency called the Fair Employment Practices Committee after being pressured to do so by black union leaders such as A. Philip Randolph of the Sleeping Car Porter’s union. This committee tackled cases of discrimination in businesses contracted by the government for the war and was bitterly opposed by Southern Democrats. Congress extended the agency until 1946, when a Southern filibuster felled legislation that would have made the agency permanent.

Taft’s Substitute for FEPC Resurrection

In 1948, the GOP’s share of the black vote was less than the Democrats, but they were still able to win around a third of that vote. In 1944, the Republicans actually embraced a “mandatory” FEPC with the power to bring action against businesses for discrimination but, as House Leader Joseph W. Martin Jr. (R-Mass.) stated with striking candor, it was a one-time offer for this election. Because Dewey didn’t win and black voters voted a fourth term for FDR, they dropped support for it as it wasn’t worth causing a conflict with the business interests that supported the GOP. For Republicans, however, this wasn’t the end of their thinking on the FEPC.

Senator Robert Taft (R-Ohio) recognized the discrimination black workers faced in employment and thought that before a major federal committee be created to tackle discrimination claims that a conservative and educative approach should be tried first. This would come in the form of the “voluntary” FEPC. This committee would have the power to investigate businesses and report findings and recommendations, but not force businesses to any course of action. I call this measure a “conservative” approach as conservatism doesn’t necessarily oppose change but prefers gradual change and limited uses of federal power, of which the Taft measure satisfied both. The key vote on this subject occurred in the House in 1950, when the measure’s House sponsor, Samuel McConnell (R-Penn.), proposed to substitute the “mandatory FEPC” with the “voluntary FEPC”. His proposal passed, with the conservative coalition lining up behind it. Bear in mind of course that part of this coalition were Southern Democrats, who simply were voting for what was in their minds the “lesser of two evils”, which was demonstrated when they lined up against the bill’s passage. Some conservative Republicans opposed this measure as well out of fear that it would lead to another “New Deal” type of agency. In the Senate, although Taft managed to persuade all but six of his fellow Republicans to support this bill, it went down to defeat in a filibuster.

Given future action on civil rights, the measure’s opponents, at least those who were interested in limiting federal power as opposed to maintaining white hegemony, seem short-sighted in retrospect: by 1964 Taft had been dead over a decade and the nation’s political climate had changed to the extent that the ship had sailed for the idea of a voluntary agency. It is possible that had Taft’s proposal had become law that gradually discrimination would lessen through educating businesses and the public about its effects, and a law as sweeping as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 wouldn’t have been needed. However, we will never know if this would have worked as the voluntary FEPC was never tried.

The “Wild Man from Sugar Creek” and “Hummon”: The Talmadges of Georgia

Eugene Talmadge - Ga Dept of Agriculture

Eugene “Gene” Talmadge (1884-1946) was the central figure of Georgia state politics in the Great Depression. After a few false starts, his political career on the statewide level kicked off in 1926 when he was elected Commissioner of Agriculture despite the incumbent’s organizational and funding advantages. In his post, he used his power in a highly autocratic manner. Talmadge, who was popularly known as the “Wild Man from Sugar Creek” (the name of his plantation) used the department’s newspaper to give advice to farmers but also to spread his political views, which extolled the virtues of the market economy. Corruption prevailed in his department and an investigation by the Senate determined that he had violated the law by failing to deposit fertilizer fees in the State Treasury. He had also improperly used funds in an effort to raise the price of pigs. Responding to hecklers claiming that he committed theft in the latter incident, he retorted, “Sure I stole, but I stole it for you!” (Hill) However, the Great Depression was a time in which many voters were turning to unconventional political leaders. In Louisiana, the voters turned to Huey Long, and in Georgia they turned to Gene Talmadge. His talent for demagoguery and his image as a farmer who fights for the little guy had prevailed, and he was elected governor in 1932.

One promise Governor Talmadge followed through on that appealed to poor farmers was lowering vehicle license plate fees to $3, as the current rates made it difficult for poor farmers to legally drive. When the state legislature balked at his advocacy, he just did it by proclamation when the legislature was out of session! When the Public Utilities Commission refused to lower utility rates as Talmadge wanted, he simply created a new board that approved. When textile workers went on strike right before the 1934 election, he had them arrested and held in a former prisoner of war camp. Talmadge was not shy about using his power to get his way, even if this meant breaking and bending rules. Georgians were strongly divided on him, and his critics accused him of being a dictator, much like Long in Louisiana. Both Talmadge and Long also served as antagonists to FDR, but he came from a bit of a different place. He made clear his opposition to the New Deal and unsuccessfully tried to get other prominent Southern Democrats to back him, regularly engaged in racist demagoguery, and claimed to have read Mein Kampf seven times, for which he was praised by the press of Nazi Germany. In 1936, he was ineligible to run for reelection as governor so he tried to win the Democratic Senate primary but lost to incumbent Richard Russell. In 1938, he tried again with incumbent Walter George who was also fending off President Roosevelt’s candidate, Lawrence Camp. Talmadge lost to George, but he came in second. In 1940, he won yet another gubernatorial election, and would double down on his racism.

In 1941, he seriously considered granting clemency to several Klansmen who had been convicted of flogging a black man to death with a bullwhip, but backed off after the prosecutor, Dan Duke, publicly waved the whips used in his face. Talmadge also demanded the firing of the dean of the University of Georgia after he suggested that white and black students should attend class together. After the Board of Regents rejected this idea, he employed his usual MO, creating another board that did his bidding. This time, however, he had gone too far: The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools revoked accreditation for Georgia’s institutions of higher education. Talmadge lost the 1942 primary to Ellis Arnall, a racial moderate who managed to restore accreditation. His 1946 campaign focused on preventing black people from voting and condemnation of the Supreme Court decision Smith v. Allwright (1944), which ruled the “white primary” unconstitutional. As I wrote in my last post, Talmadge was in poor health by this time, as his affinity for hard liquor and cigars had caught up with him. While this didn’t doom his ability to win, it doomed his ability to govern, as he died less than two months after the election from cirrhosis of the liver. This prompted one of the most comical political controversies the state of Georgia ever saw.

The Three Governors Controversy

Civil Rights Movement timeline | Timetoast timelines

Talmadge’s death resulted in confusion as to who should be governor. Ellis Arnall, the outgoing incumbent, claimed he should remain governor until a replacement could be elected. His claim was hampered quickly when his son and campaign manager, Herman “Hummon” Talmadge (1913-2002), had changed the locks to the governor’s mansion and managed to lock Arnall out. Melvin Thompson, the Secretary of State, claimed he should be governor as he was next in the line of succession. Supporters of Talmadge in the Georgia State Legislature wrote in Herman, asserting that he was rightfully governor. The Georgia State Legislature ultimately elected “Hummon”, but the State Supreme Court subsequently ruled this as improper and ordered the seating of Thompson to serve until after the 1948 election. Talmadge was out, but not for long: he defeated Thompson in the 1948 Democratic primary. As governor, “Hummon” imposed a sales tax, built roads, and signed into law a measure requiring all voters to re-register as a means of keeping down the black vote. In 1956, he announced a run for the Senate, which caused the elderly and respected Walter George, who was not a racial demagogue, to call it quits.

As a senator, he often followed the views of his father, particularly in the 1960s. However, he supported a few key measures of the Great Society, including the Economic Opportunity Act (while supporting weakening amendments), Medicare, and food stamps. His support for the latter policy helped attract black support after passage of the Voting Rights Act despite his segregationist record. Despite gaining this support, Talmadge continued to vote against civil rights legislation up until the Carter Administration. He supported the Nixon Administration’s Vietnam War policy and socially conservative legislation. Talmadge’s national moment in the spotlight, however, was the recognition and praise he gained from his questioning of witnesses as a member of the Senate Watergate Committee. Ideologically, by the 1970s, his conservatism had started to wane despite his public image: his American Conservative Union life score, which accounted for 1971-1980, was only 54%. Unfortunately for Talmadge, right after the peak of his career in the Watergate hearings, life would get significantly worse.

He frequently struggled with alcoholism and after his son drowned in 1975 he hit the bottle hard. In 1977, Talmadge filed for divorce from his wife, Betty, which became public and contentious, with her alleging cruel treatment and routine drunkenness. She won a massive settlement, which included ownership of 100 acres of their plantation and access to the 1200 remaining acres. He was also the subject of a Senate ethics investigation, which found that he had improperly received $43,435.83 in reimbursements for non-existent expenses and had falsely reported them as campaign expenditures. Talmadge was censured by the Senate on October 11, 1979.

1980: The End of the Road

Talmadge sought another term in office, but rivals saw their opportunities. He attracted a challenger in the Democratic primary in Zell Miller, who received the endorsement of Coretta Scott King. Although he managed to fend off the Miller challenge, he faced a spirited Republican challenger in political activist Mack Mattingly. In a twist of events that merely twenty years ago was thought to have been impossible, a Republican defeated a Talmadge. It was the first time since Reconstruction that the state had elected a Republican to the Senate.


The Talmadges had a major impact on the state of Georgia, and although neither of them achieved the respectability and national prominence that Senators Richard Russell and Walter George did, Gene Talmadge stands as one of only two people to win four gubernatorial elections in the state and Herman served four terms in the Senate and played a role in taking down a president.


Buchanan, S.E. (2018, 13 July). Herman Talmadge (1913-2002). New Georgia Encyclopedia.

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Commissioner Eugene Talmadge, 1927-1933. Georgia Department of Agriculture.

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Henderson, H.P. (2018, October 31). Eugene Talmadge (1884-1946).

Hill, R. Georgia’s Wild Man: Eugene Talmadge. The Knoxville Focus.

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Lawrence “Dan” Duke Sr., 86, former chief judge… (28 March, 1999). The Baltimore Sun.

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People Who Ran for Political Office Despite Being Near Death

Like Supreme Court justices, some politicians just don’t know when to call it quits for their health, or shall we say, “give up the ghost”. Below are examples of politicians who sought to be elected despite a high risk of or certainty of death in the near future.

Nevada’s Key Pittman, who died only five days after being reelected.

Key Pittman

There is a legend in Nevada politics that Senator Key Pittman died before his reelection in 1940 and that the Democratic leadership had kept his corpse in a bathtub full of ice in Reno’s Riverside Hotel until the election was over. This isn’t the truth, but the truth is no less scandalous.

A few days before the 1940 campaign, Pittman, who had served as a senator from Nevada since 1917, went on a drinking binge. He was what is known as a “functional alcoholic”, being able to carry on his regular duties while binging from time to time. Unfortunately for him, this latest binge triggered a massive heart attack. Although he survived the heart attack itself, it had done so much damage that his physicians reported that death was imminent. The Democratic leadership chose to keep him on the ballot despite knowledge of his pending demise. Pittman died five days after the election.

John Moses

A popular governor of North Dakota whose budget-cutting regime attracted support from both sides of the aisle, Democrat John Moses was in a good political place in 1944. The incumbent senator, Republican Gerald P. Nye, had wagered his reputation on leading the cause of non-interventionism. He also, despite a turn to the right in his record, couldn’t get conservatives to back him as they remembered his previous support of the New Deal. Unfortunately for Moses, he was not in such a good place regarding his health. During the campaign he was hospitalized, and was in need of an operation on his heart. Although he survived to be elected, he died exactly two months into his term during open heart surgery.

Daniel A. Reed

Times had changed greatly since New York Republican Daniel A. Reed of Dunkirk first assumed his seat in Congress in 1919. The Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War all happened during his time in office and he had resisted most of the changes in government that came with it, including Social Security. By the 1958 election, he had served in Congress for almost forty years and had served as chair of the Ways and Means Committee. The 83-year old’s health was declining, yet he chose to run for reelection. He died less than two months into his final term of a heart attack.

William V. Chappell Jr.

Chappell served in Congress for 20 years from Florida as a conservative Democrat, but in 1988, he decided to run for reelection despite fighting a losing battle against bone cancer. He lost reelection after he was linked to a scandal, and the cancer killed him merely two months after leaving Congress.

Eugene Talmadge

Eugene Talmadge was a polarizing figure in Georgia’s political history to say the least. He was a racist and a foe of the New Deal. I won’t go into full detail as I intend to write more about him in the future. By 1946, Talmadge had served three terms as the state’s governor and decided to give it one more go despite suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. His condition was such that friends privately questioned whether he would survive the campaign. Although he survived the campaign and was elected, the 62-year old Talmadge died less than two months after being elected, which sparked what became known as the “Three Governors Controversy”, which again, the details I save for another post.

Chester A. Arthur

President Chester A. Arthur attempted to win (not full-heartedly) the Republican nomination in 1884 despite a diagnosis of Bright’s Disease (kidney failure), which he knew would kill him. He died a despondent man in 1886, issuing forth one of the most depressing last words ever uttered: “After all, life is not worth living. I might as well give up the struggle for It now as at any other time and submit to the inevitable”.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

FDR is our longest serving president, and he served too long. In 1944, Roosevelt was in failing health, which had been brought on by his heavy smoking and affinity for fried food. His blood pressure was dangerously high, reaching a peak of 210/110, more than necessary to damage blood vessels. Roosevelt, who was regularly short of breath, had been diagnosed with heart failure. Despite his physician telling him he wouldn’t survive another term, he pushed forth. Roosevelt lived less than three months into his final term.

Bonus: Mel Carnahan Wins a Senate Seat Despite Death

In 2000, freshman Republican Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri was running for reelection, but had a tough opponent in popular Democratic Governor Mel Carnahan. Unfortunately for Carnahan, he died in an airplane crash weeks before the election and his name remained on the ballot. Despite this fact, he still unseated Ashcroft. His widow, Jean Carnahan, served for two years in his place. Ashcroft’s career was not over, however…he would become George W. Bush’s controversial Attorney General. Side note: I shook his hand when I was in college when he spoke before a Young America’s Foundation conference in Santa Barbara.

The Senator from a Feuding Clan

From 1863 to 1891, an active feud existed between the Hatfields of West Virginia, led by William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, and the McCoys of Kentucky, led by Randolph “Ole Ran’l” McCoy. Most men from both families fought for the Confederacy, including both patriarchs. However, the conflict originates from the Civil War and the death of Unionist Asa Harmon McCoy, at the hands of a Confederate band led by Jim Vance, Hatfield’s uncle. The height of the blood feud, in which multiple Hatfields and McCoys were murdered and executed, even resulted in political conflict between the states of West Virginia and Kentucky. Although the McCoys didn’t have a politician in the family, the Hatfields did. Henry Drury Hatfield (1875-1962) was one of Devil Anse’s nephews but took no part in the killings, as he was away at school. He pursued a career in medicine, becoming a surgeon for the Norfolk and Western Railway as well as Chief Surgeon of State Hospital #1 in Welch, West Virginia. He also rose in his political career, eventually being elected to the State senate and serving briefly as president of the senate. In 1912, Hatfield was elected governor of West Virginia as a Republican and took a different tone to the violent coal strikes at Paint Creek and Cabin Creek than had his predecessor, fellow Republican William Glasscock.

Henry Hatfield.jpg

Hatfield visited the mines himself despite receiving death threats and advice from his aides not to, treating injured miners and pardoning Mother Jones and strikers who had been imprisoned by military tribunals. He negotiated a settlement that operators and United Mine Workers agreed to, which included the right to organize, no discrimination against union men, and a nine-hour day. The terms were on balance positive for labor, but the socialists among the miners still opposed the settlement. This provoked the ire of Hatfield, who sent the military to force recalcitrant miners to agree to the settlement and had presses for socialist newspapers in Huntington and Charleston destroyed. During his tenure, he pushed for and signed into law a worker’s compensation measure, mine inspections, and restrictions on the use of mine guards. Hatfield served in World War I after his term as governor was up, providing services as a surgeon.

In 1928, Hatfield was elected to the Senate, defeating incumbent Matthew Neely, the political boss of the state Democratic Party. As senator, his record was conservative, but he sometimes took stances favorable to labor, such as his support for the Norris-LaGuardia Act in 1932. Hatfield also supported retaining Prohibition. However, after the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he became one of the Administration’s leading foes. Hatfield opposed all major items of FDR’s “First One Hundred Days” legislation, stood strongly for high tariffs, and opposed his efforts to cut veterans benefits to fund the New Deal. He denounced the New Deal, stating “The country is being run by a group of college professors…This Brain Trust is endeavoring to force socialism upon the American people” (Bethell, 118). Hatfield’s opposition to the New Deal played poorly at home, and he lost reelection in 1934 by over 10 points to Democrat Rush Dew Holt, who would himself become a critic of the New Deal. He didn’t seek office again, practicing medicine and farming for the remainder of his life.


Bethell, J.T. (1998). Harvard observed: An illustrated history of the university in the twentieth century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Magazine, Inc.

Henry D. Hatfield. The West Virginia Encyclopedia.

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Tsesis, A. (2012). For liberty and equality: The life and times of the Declaration of Independence. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


The Foes of Social Security: Right…and Left!

The signing of Social Security into law, August 14, 1935

I have another tax-themed post for you since tis the season. One of the taxes employees pay is the Social Security tax to fund their retirement. This law was actually quite popular in its time, with the vote on it being 372-33 in the House and 77-6 in the Senate. Although the vote was overwhelmingly favorable, one can expect opposition to the Social Security Act from the right, even if this side was mostly confined to the most conservative elements of the Republican Party. Some of the leading spokesmen against it were a trio of upstate New York Republicans: John Taber (previously covered for curing a Congressman’s deafness through shouting), James W. Wadsworth Jr. (covered in a recent post), and Daniel A. Reed.

Taber warned “Never in the history of the world has any measure been brought here as insidiously designed as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers and to prevent any possibility of the employers providing work for the people” (Bortz).

Wadsworth, who fully acknowledged that his opposition was futile in the face of the measure’s popularity, warned “This bill opens the door and invites the entrance into the political field of a power so vast, so powerful, as to threaten the integrity of our institutions and to pull the pillars of the temple down upon the heads of our descendants” (Bortz).

Reed warned “The lash of the dictator will be felt and 25 million free American citizens will for the first time submit themselves to a fingerprint test” (Bortz).

Although all of these warnings seem to the casual observer exaggerated if not outright false today, there is more truth in them than people think. Taber, for instance, may have been referring to the Social Security tax, which collected money while none was being paid out until 1940. This served as a short-term drain on the economy and was a contributing factor to the Roosevelt Recession in 1937. Wadsworth’s prediction of the political power base that arose from Social Security is undoubtedly correct, and the threat he states it portends may still come to pass if Social Security’s sustainability issues aren’t resolved. Reed’s is the most hyperbolic with the “lash of the dictator” bit, yet Social Security may prove oppressive in its spending growth as it crowds out other options for spending and will force tax raises in the future, limiting economic growth.

This kind of opposition was to be expected from this absolutist trio. However, what is more interesting was the small opposition that arose from the left.

In the final vote for Social Security, three members of the progressive wing of the Republican Party voted against: Vito Marcantonio of New York, and Usher Burdick and William Lemke of North Dakota. Marcantonio, who I covered in a previous post, was a communist fellow traveler and Burdick and Lemke were “agrarian radicals”. The three supported the Townsend Plan over Social Security, which would have allocated $200 a month for every citizen 60 and older, to be paid by a 2% sales tax. Others who opposed in the name of supporting the Townsend Plan included Democrats John Tolan, Henry Stubbs, John McGroarty, and John Hoeppel of California, Compton White of Idaho, and Joseph Monaghan of Montana as well as Farmer-Laborers Ernest Lundeen and Paul Kvale of Minnesota. California had so many Democrats in opposition since the Townsend Plan was quite popular in the state: in 1938 Townsendite Sheridan Downey would oust former Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo in the Senate Democratic primary despite Roosevelt’s endorsement of him.  Townsendite opposition didn’t manifest itself in the Senate, as all eight senators on record against it were not part of the progressive wings of their parties. Even Huey Long, who often posed (the truth is more complicated) as a Democratic foe of Roosevelt from the left, voted for it.

Of course, any opposition to Social Security from the left dropped after the measure became law. The small group of leftists simply stood their ground in their desire for a more generous plan than offered by the Roosevelt Administration. Indeed, Social Security was pushed by FDR in part to stymie a potential challenge in 1936 from the ambitious Senator Huey Long. He may still have tried anyway had an assassin’s bullet not felled him in 1935. Social Security has since served as a system of automatic retirement savings for Americans and is one of the most popular (and expensive) programs in existence.


Bortz, A. Lecture on the History of Social Security. Social Security Administration.

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Epic Backfire! How the Income Tax Amendment Was Ratified

On Monday, many Americans will pay one of the most controversial taxes in our history: the income tax. There is no one alive who remembers a time before the existence of an income tax and April 15th is ingrained in the American mind as “Tax Day”. However, what if I told you the income tax amendment to the Constitution was the result of a failed scheme? Well, buckle up, because its true!

Senator Nelson Aldrich (R-R.I.), the sponsor of the 16th Amendment, which he hadn’t intended to be ratified.

The year is 1909, and the Republicans had been in control of both the Executive and Legislative branches of government for 12 years, and with this came the highest average tariffs in American history as the result of the 1897 Dingley Tariff. Although President Theodore Roosevelt pushed his “Square Deal”, Congress was controlled by conservative Republicans, who only permitted regulatory legislation acceptable to business. However, by this time there was a popular cry for reform, including the lowering of tariffs and the reenactment of the income tax. Although there had been an income tax imposed during the Lincoln Administration, this was for funding the Union Army rather than redistribution of wealth, and by 1872 the tax had been phased out of existence. In 1894, the Gorman-Wilson Tariff Act provided for a 2% income tax on incomes over $4,000 (the equivalent of $88,100 today), yet this provision was struck down by the Supreme Court 5-4 in Pollock v. Farmer’s Loan & Trust Company (1895), finding it in violation of the Constitution as it wasn’t directly appointed among the states. Republican Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, the Senate’s leading conservative, knew he couldn’t stop everything given a growing minority in his party that was progressive. This contingent was led by Robert La Follette of Wisconsin in the Senate and wanted to go even further than Theodore Roosevelt had pushed for. Given this situation, Aldrich thought he had devised a solution.

Instead of legislatively enacting an income tax and enacting major reductions of tariffs, Aldrich, along with Speaker of the House Joe Cannon (R-Ill.) and Rep. Sereno Payne (R-N.Y.) managed to only get Congress to agree to an average 5% reduction in tariffs and the enactment of a corporate tax in lieu of an income tax in the Payne-Aldrich Tariff of 1909. At the same time, he sponsored a constitutional amendment for an income tax. Aldrich and many conservative Republicans voted for this amendment to appease income tax advocates under the belief that the state legislatures would reject it. What they failed to anticipate was the outcome of the 1910 election.

Tea Party Election – Progressive Edition

The 2010 election was known as the “Tea Party Election” for its wave of Tea Party candidates who were elected to the House. 100 years earlier, however, its progressive counterpart occurred. I have covered the 1910 election before when I made the case that it was the most significant midterm in American history, and one of the reasons this was such a significant election is that, like the Tea Party election, not only did the opposing party take the House but it also swept state legislatures. These legislatures, now constituting majorities of Democrats and progressive Republicans who favored an income tax amendment, managed to ratify the 16th Amendment. The first permanent income tax would come into effect with the Underwood-Simmons Tariff of 1913, which lowered average tariff rates from 40 to 26% (the greatest reduction since before the Civil War) and established a 1% tax on incomes over $3,000. This rate would steeply rise to fund the war effort in World War I. After the conflict, the top income tax rate would never fall below 25%.

World War I: When American Failure to Build Up Arms Resulted in War

Although this is not exactly the 100th anniversary (sorry, I wasn’t writing this particular blog in 2017), the U.S.’s entry into World War I is roughly 102 years in the past. Thus, I figured it was appropriate to write some about it from the American perspective. In 1915, the people of the United States looked wearily upon a Europe in full-scale war. Woodrow Wilson was eager to stay out of the conflict, but he had a prominent foe who wanted to use the “bully pulpit” once more to get his agenda through: Theodore Roosevelt. Unlike Wilson who tried to maintain unarmed neutrality, Roosevelt regarded Germany as the bad actor in the conflict and wanted the United States to build up its navy to prepare for war. He, with former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, General Leonard Wood, campaigned for increased military training in response to the threat of war. This plan would require every 18-year old man to spend six months in military training and subsequently be assigned to reserve units. The problem the movement had was that its advocates tended to be wealthy and didn’t make efforts to reach out to working class voters. This lent to the perception that the preparedness movement was elitist and contributed to opposition from Democrats and Socialists. Additionally, the movement had the support of bankers and industrialists who made steel (Bethlehem) and gunpowder (DuPont), which resulted in populists claiming there was a corporate conspiracy to reap profits through war. Senator Robert La Follette (R-Wis.), a leading leftist, claimed that there was an unnamed “world-wide organization” dedicated to “stimulating and fomenting discord in order that it may make profit out of the furnishing of munitions of war” (Kazin, 95). Peace activists like Jane Addams of Hull House took to the streets to protest conscription and arms buildups, and President Wilson remained wary of the idea of a standing army when the United States was not officially at war.

Image result for Woodrow Wilson

Poor Woodrow Wilson couldn’t catch a break here. He was thought by different groups to be too weak and a warmonger.

Although the Preparedness Movement’s proposal for universal military training failed as did Theodore Roosevelt’s big navy proposal, they took matters into their own hands and set up their own training camps in which 40,000 men participated and ultimately made up the bulk of the officer class during World War I. The sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, started turning American opinion against Germany and although Wilson finally gave way in 1916, legislation passed to this end came too little and too late to stop war. It turns out the efforts of peace activists had backfired: on February 1, 1917, Chief of Staff of the German Navy, Henning von Holtzendorff, figuring the United States was too weak for its participation in the war to be effective, resumed unrestricted submarine warfare. Both passenger and merchant ships with American flags were now targets of U-boat attacks. Although von Holtzendorff realized this would mean war with the United States, he didn’t think the nation a major threat given its lacking military strength. Apparent American weakness had encouraged German aggression. This action combined with the exposure of the Zimmermann Telegram that promised Mexico Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico if they allied with Germany in the event the U.S. goes to war produced a popular American demand for war.

On April 4, 1917, the Senate voted to declare war on Germany by a vote of 82-6. The dissenters were three Republicans (Asle J. Gronna of North Dakota, Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, and George W. Norris of Nebraska) and three Democrats (Harry Lane of Oregon, William J. Stone of Missouri, and James K. Vardaman of Mississippi), all affiliated with the progressive wings of their parties. Two days later, the House voted to do so on a vote of 373-50. One of the “nay” votes was the first woman to serve in Congress, Jeanette Rankin (R-Mont.). This vote would ensure she didn’t win an election in the next year, as did her vote against participation in World War II in 1941. Powerful Democrat Claude Kitchin of North Carolina, a future Minority Leader, also voted against, stating “I am unwilling by my vote to-day for this nation to throw away the only remaining compass to which the world can look for guidance in the paths of right and truth, of justice and humanity, and to leave only force and blood to chart the path for mankind to tread” (Gamble). Although the Allies prevailed, the conflict would cost approximately 116,516 American lives (modest compared to other nations), resulted in a disillusionment with extensive involvement in world affairs, and shaped the international politics of the 20th Century.


Gamble, R. Claude Kitchin (1869-1923). North Carolina History Project.

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Kazin, M. (2017). War against war: The American fight for peace 1914-1918. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Von Holtzendorff’s Memo, 22 December 1916.

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The Financial Services Bailout: The Catalyst of Today’s Politics?

In 2008, the economy was crashing, and although there were many factors involved, the primary catalyst was the subprime mortgage crisis. I remember that year the economic news was all bad and everything seemed to be in freefall. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson proposed to buy out $700 billion in mortgage-backed securities. This plan would be crafted into legislation called the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008. Although this plan had the backing of President Bush, his party was divided. More critically, the bailout was deeply unpopular among the public. Although Pew Research Center found a 57-30 support for the bailout, Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times found 55-31 opposed, and USA Today found only 22% support for Paulson’s proposal, with a majority preferring an alternative plan. The Republican base despised it, and Republicans who voted for it were “2.5 times more likely than Republicans who voted nay to be out of the House by 2010” (Ekins, 2014).

Advocates of the legislation, however, had the ears of the senators when they warned of a catastrophic collapse in the absence of bailouts. In the Senate, the legislation was approved 74-25, with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain voting for it. Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell voted for the measure as did 69% of the chamber’s Republicans and 80% of its Democrats. More dissent came from the right than the left, but this stood as one the few issues that Jeff Sessions and Bernie Sanders can agree on. The House was a bit more difficult, with the legislation passing 263-171, with 54% of GOP members opposed (including future VP Mike Pence) while 73% of Democrats favored. Again, the leadership of the parties voted for this legislation, including future Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. This could be thought of as an early manifestation of the establishment/populist split we see among the parties today. This bailout led to more measures to bailout people and businesses impacted by the crisis, such as TARP. It finally came to a head on February 19, 2009, when in one of the Obama Administration’s first moves, they proposed to bailout mortgages undergoing foreclosure. CNBC’s Rick Santelli just wouldn’t have it, and delivered one of the more consequential rants of American history on the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange to the cheers of onlookers:

“Government is promoting bad behavior. . . . Do we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages? This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage? President Obama, are you listening? We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July…All you capitalists show up to Lake Michigan, I’m going to start organizing.”



Santelli’s rant was heard far and wide, and one of the listeners was Jenny Beth Martin. She and her husband had turned down a federal loan to save their house from foreclosure, and the message motivated her into action. In the course of four months she had formed Tea Party Patriots with Amy Kremer and Mark Meckler. Tea Party rallies protesting Obamacare, the Stimulus, and TARP were underway. The following year, the “Tea Party Election” netted the GOP 63 House seats and control of the chamber. Rightist populism was now in vogue and the Tea Party Caucus formed to push policies for reduced federal government and taxation. However, organizational leaders chose not to emphasize social issues to maintain unity on economics. Conservative social issues at the time I recall not being terribly popular and the same-sex marriage movement was rapidly gaining converts. This was before the right was able to pull off “cool” on social media. The loss of the 2012 election convinced many in the GOP that running “safe” candidates such as John McCain and Mitt Romney was not a winning strategy. There was also some leftover frustration from the social right for the GOP’s deemphasis on social issues despite Romney speaking of “self-deportation” for illegal immigrants. This leftover frustration manifested in the candidacy of Rick Santorum in the GOP primary. This would come back with a vengeance and the focal issue would be immigration. On June 16, 2015, real estate mogul and celebrity Donald Trump announced his run for president as a Republican, yet another candidate in the clown car that was the 2016 GOP primary. Defying all mainstream political expectations as well as ridiculous estimates from HuffPo holding that he had a 1% chance of winning the election, he not only won the GOP primary, but the presidential election itself in the greatest American election upset in modernity.

This populist surge in this case was a bit different than the Tea Party version, although many of the same people who supported the Tea Party embraced Trump during the primary. Tea Party leaders, such as Martin, preferred Ted Cruz. Trump ironically had stated support (albeit qualified) for Paulson’s plan at the time as he believed as did many political leaders that letting the banks fail was not an option. Yet, he managed to capitalize on widespread frustrated populism from the same people who despised the bailouts for Wall Street and banks. What Trump’s candidacy did was effectively extend populist appeal beyond the Republican base to people who normally don’t feel like they are heard in the ebb and flow of American politics. Many people identified with third party movements endorsed Trump, including Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan. Notably, InfoWars gained much more attention as did its host, Alex Jones, a rightist who had previously been known for his promotion of conspiracies about:


The Oklahoma City Bombing

New World Order

The Bohemian Club

Sandy Hook


FEMA Camps


Gay Frogs

Jones, a man who regarded Bush as an evil warmonger responsible for 9/11 and Obama as a Muslim communist, found a man he could support in Trump. Jones supporting a candidate of any major party, a winning candidate at that, means something massive changed. In truth, I still like to entertain the idea that in 2016 we entered an alternate timeline.

So far, this story has been fairly one-sided, and by one-sided I mean has focused on the GOP. The Democrats, although more supportive of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, were far from universally backing it. However, the growth of Democratic populism was stunted by the election of President Barack Obama. Although a fresh face in politics in 2008, he was ideologically your standard-issue New Deal/Great Society Democrat. Obama represented a return to pre-Reagan Administration politics in his proposal of a massive expansion and creation of entitlements, now popularly known as “Obamacare”. The ways in which he was a dissenter during the Bush Administration were twofold: his opposition to the Iraq War at its start and the usual partisan politics. Obama did not represent a challenge to the establishment, for he was part of his party’s establishment wing even if it didn’t seem that way in 2008. He would have, however, been able to pass more sweeping legislation and spent more than in the first two years had the midterm in the House not been such a “shellacking”, as Obama himself put it. Yet, he was popular and liberal enough to keep the populist wing of the Democrats mostly satisfied.

By 2016, although the economy had recovered, the economic recovery had been quite uneven nationally and cultural issues were making a reappearance, as the prosperous cultural elite left of the coasts went on the offensive on issues regarding transgenderism, intersectionality, radical feminism, and socialism. My personal hypothesis is that this offensive began because its adherents were emboldened by Obama winning reelection in 2012, but diving into that is for another day. Although Hillary Clinton was seemingly the destined choice for Democrats that year, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an Independent and self-admitted socialist, threw his hat in the ring. Although he lost the primary, he outperformed expectations and excited the populist left, which may prove a much greater factor in the 2020 Democratic primary.


The creation of the Tea Party, the Trump presidency, and Bernie Sanders’s level of support in the Democratic primary can be traced to the enactment of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act. I am not alone in this thought, as Emily Ekins (2014) of Reason states: “While many think of the tea party as beginning with President Obama’s stimulus plan, TARP under President Bush was the initial catalyst”.

How did I feel about the matter? At first, I thought that perhaps this exception to free market principles was necessary to save many, many jobs, but by the time of the vote I was opposed to the bailout because I, like many Americans, thought that profits and losses should be private. Perhaps if the disaster happened, these institutions would think twice before engaging in the overly risky behavior that resulted in their downfall. Don’t get me wrong, I think not bailing out Wall Street and the banks would have hurt like hell in the short run for everyone, but I think we would have recovered and a recurrence would be much less likely. How did you feel about the bailouts? Has your view changed?


Ekins, E. (2014, October 3). Today’s Bailout Anniversary Reminds Us That the Tea Party Is More Than Anti-Obama. Reason.

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Etheridge, E. (2009, February 20). Rick Santelli: Tea Party Time. The New York Times.

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The Changing Democratic Perception of Reconstruction

The Reconstruction Era has been one of the most litigated eras among American historians. At the turn of the century, a certain historian became prominent for his writings on Reconstruction. William Archibald Dunning (1857-1922) was a professor at Columbia University who authored The Constitution of the United States in Civil War and Reconstruction: 1860-1867 (1897). This work as well as Reconstruction (1907) and his teaching influenced a generation of historians. Although he was not a Southerner, his politics fit right in with the Northern Democrats of the 1860s, who were universally opposed to the Radical Republicans as well as the 14th and 15th Amendments. He cast the Radical Republicans as the vengeful villains of the story of Reconstruction, portrayed “carpetbaggers” as corrupt (in fairness, some were), denounced “scalawags” (white Southerners who cooperated with Reconstruction), and regarded freedmen as moral and intellectual inferiors. In Dunning’s view, this justified severe restrictions on basic civil rights. This portrayal of history elevated the presidential reputation of Andrew Johnson while trashing Ulysses S. Grant, the latter interpretation which has only recently undergone some reevaluation. This interpretation of history influenced such films as Birth of a Nation (1915), Gone with the Wind (1939), and Tennessee Johnson (1942). In the latter film, the main villain is Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a prominent Radical Republican who led the impeachment push against President Andrew Johnson. American culture was greatly influenced by this interpretation of history, and this included presidents. Although this cultural trend’s most notable president was Woodrow Wilson, there are others who followed this interpretation as well, and one of them was John F. Kennedy.

Image result for John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage (1957) (ghostwritten by Theodore Sorensen), detailed the acts of eight senators that constituted courage and put their careers in jeopardy or ruin. One of the eight is Senator Edmund G. Ross of Kansas, the deciding vote to acquit Andrew Johnson (who probably had been bribed for this vote). Although Kennedy didn’t necessarily agree politically with all of the eight senators, as he often voted against the stances of Senator Robert Taft of Ohio while the latter was alive, but he similarly praised other Republican senators of the 1860s who broke with the Radical Republicans. On January 10, 1956, he spoke before the Philadelphia Inquirer Book and Author Luncheon, in which he praised Senator Edgar Cowan, a Pennsylvania Republican who had a penchant for bucking the GOP on matters both economic and related to the civil rights of freedmen and was punished for it by being denied reelection in 1866 as well as a post as Ambassador to Austria. Similar praise was given to Wisconsin’s James Rood Doolittle and Missouri’s John Brooks Henderson in Profiles in Courage, who opposed the Radical Republicans and Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. He stated his agreement with historian Claude Bowers on Reconstruction as an “age of hate”, who was one of the leading promoters of the Dunning School. It is interesting to note that Bowers was a staunch Democrat who condemned the Federalist, Whig, and Republican Parties as parties of aristocrats. Kennedy also believed in Bowers’ interpretation of the Democratic Party as it started under Jefferson, one meant to fight privilege and oppression, to support democracy, and to ensure equal opportunity for Americans regardless of class.

Kennedy himself wasn’t bad at all on civil rights, as he supported ending the poll tax, the first two civil rights laws under Eisenhower, and work on what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 started during the Kennedy Administration with its support. Additionally, his record in the Senate was mostly in line with New Deal liberalism. It is fascinating to me that he still operated from a historical viewpoint that the Radical Republican crusade for the rights of freedmen was a negative for the country. This just goes to show how greatly the times and historical interpretation have changed since Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. They changed so much that some Republicans claim that Kennedy would have been one of them today, Thomas Jefferson was for a time embraced by Tea Party Republicans, the Democrats of today would identify with the Radical Republicans (stances on other issues notwithstanding), and Alexander Hamilton is one of the Democratic Party base’s most popular Founding Fathers thanks to a certain Broadway play. A hundred years ago, most people would never have believed developments of this sort could have occurred, but truth is stranger than fiction.


Professor D.W. Houpt, review of Democracy’s Muse: How Thomas Jefferson Became an FDR Liberal, a Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party Fanatic, all the while being Dead, (review no. 1850)

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“Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the Philadelphia Inquirer Book and Author Luncheon, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, January 10, 1956”. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

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Smith, R.C. (2013). John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, and the politics of ethnic incorporation and avoidance. Albany, NY: State University of New York.