The Elbert Files: Iowa's forgotten political giants
Friday, February 28, 2014 7:00 AM
“The Bully Pulpit,” Doris Kerns Goodwin’s dual biography of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, provides unexpected insights into the roles that a handful of Iowa Republicans played during the politically charged early years of the 20th century.
The Roosevelt and Taft administrations marked the beginning of progressive laws regulating working conditions, transportation rates and food safety. They also launched modern environmental protection and monetary policy.
While Goodwin’s book is primarily about the relationships between Roosevelt, Taft and the muckraking press, the names of four Iowans appear repeatedly. Three were U.S. senators – William Allison, Jonathan Dolliver and Albert B. Cummins – who played key roles in the passage of progressive legislation.
A fourth Iowan, “Tama Jim” Wilson, was the longest-serving U.S. secretary of agriculture, holding that post for 16 years (1897-1913) under Republican presidents William McKinley, Roosevelt and Taft. Goodwin wrote that Wilson had a minor role in the 1909 fallout between Taft and Roosevelt, which began when Taft ordered Wilson to fire Gifford Pinchot, whom Roosevelt had named as the first chief of the National Forest Service.
Taft, who had been Roosevelt’s top aide and handpicked successor, is often portrayed as breaking with his mentor and becoming an ally of big business and betrayer of Roosevelt’s trust-busting.
Goodwin presents a more balanced view. She gives Taft credit for implementing more progressive policies than the volatile Roosevelt, and she shows Taft as the more sympathetic figure.
Political ideology was fluid during those years, especially in states like Iowa, where progressives were taking control of the Republican Party. Sen. Allison was an example.
Goodwin wrote that in 1901, after McKinley’s assassination elevated Roosevelt to president, Allison was one of the Senate’s “Big Four,” conservatives who blocked progressive legislation.
Five years later, the political landscape shifted, and “momentum to regulate the railroads had reached a frantic pitch,” Goodwin wrote, prompting Allison to break with conservatives and help create the Interstate Commerce Commission.
Dolliver was another conservative-turned-progressive, who provided Taft with key support in a 1909 special session to lower tariff rates.
Cummins, who replaced Allison when he died in 1908, was also a factor in the tariff debate, Goodwin wrote. But not nearly so much as Dolliver, who dramatically warned of “moral consequences” when a pro-tariff leader walked off the floor during debate. The real significance of the tariff debate in 1909 was that the only way to replace the revenue lost by lowering tariffs was by creating an income tax. That required a constitutional amendment, which Taft persuaded Congress to pass during the summer of 1909, and which was ratified by the states in 1913.
Dolliver and Cummings were major figures in the Republican Party at the dawn of the 20th century. In 1900, many Republicans had pushed Dolliver to be McKinley’s running mate for his second term. But they were outmaneuvered by New York bosses who wanted Roosevelt out of the governor’s chair and pushed him into the vice presidency. Had Dolliver won the nomination, he, rather than Roosevelt, would have become president when McKinley was assassinated a year later.
In 1908, when both Taft and Roosevelt “hoped to add a progressive from the West” as Taft’s running mate, both Dolliver and Cummins were asked, but each declined. In 1912, Roosevelt did the unthinkable and ran against Taft for the Republican nomination, but he lost, prompting Roosevelt to walk out of the nominating convention and run unsuccessfully as an independent.
Five Republicans received votes at the 1912 convention: Taft, 561; Roosevelt, 344; Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, 41; Cummins of Iowa, 17; and Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, 2.
Although Taft won the Republican nomination, he came in third in the general election behind Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Roosevelt.
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