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Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him
Chapter XXXV - Appeal For A Democratic Congress
by Tumulty, Joseph P.

The President's appeal to the country of October 24, 1918, asking for the election of a Democratic Congress, brought down upon him a storm of criticism and ridicule. Many leading Democrats who had strongly urged an appeal by the President as a necessary and proper thing in the usual war situation which confronted him, as the criticism directed toward it grew more bitter, turned away from it and criticized what they said was the ineptitude and lack of tact of the President in issuing it. As a matter of fact, opinion in the Democratic ranks as to the wisdom and necessity of a general appeal was unanimous prior to the issuance of the statement. What the President was seeking to do when he asked the support of the country through the election of a Democratic Congress was to prevent divided leadership at a moment when the President's undisputed control was a necessity because of the effect a repudiation of his administration would work upon the Central Powers. He realized that the defeat of his administration in the midst of the World War would give aid and comfort to the Central Powers, and that the Allied governments would themselves interpret it as a weakening of our war power and while the enemy would be strengthened, our associates would be distressed and disheartened.

He looked upon it, therefore, not as a partisan matter but as a matter involving the good faith of America.

At previous elections the White House had been inundated with requests from particular senators and congressmen, urging the President to write letters in their behalf, and this had resulted in so much embarrassment to the Chief Executive that as the critical days of the November elections of 1918 approached, the President was forced to consider a more general and, if possible, a more diplomatic method of handling this difficult situation. The gentlemen who criticized the appeal as outrageously partisan evidently forgot that for months Will Hays, chairman of the Republican National Committee, had been busily engaged in visiting various parts of the country and, with his coadjutors in the Republican National Committee, openly and blatantly demanding an emphatic repudiation of the Administration from the country.

The President and I discussed the situation in June, 1918, and I was asked by him to consider and work out what might be thought a tactful, effective plan by which the President, without arousing party rancour or bitterness, might make an appeal to the country, asking for its support. I considered the matter, and under date of June 18, 1918, I wrote him a letter, part of which was given over to a discussion of the way the matter might discreetly be handled:

June 18, 1918.


I think the attitude of the leaders of the Republican party, as reflected in the speeches of Will Hays, National Chairman, and Senator Penrose, on Saturday last, will give you the opportunity at the psychological moment to strike and to define the issue in this campaign. I think for the present our policy should be one of silence and even a show of indifference to what the leaders on the other side, Messrs. Hay and Penrose, are saying and doing. This will, no doubt, embolden them to make rash statements and charges and by the time you are ready to make your general appeal, the whole country will realize how necessary it is for you frankly to ask for the reelection of the Democratic Congress. In a speech on Friday night, delivered at Philadelphia, in urging the election of a Republican Congress, Will Hays said: "We will bring the Government back to the limitations and principles of the Constitution in time of peace and establish policies which will again bind up the wounds of war, renew our prosperity, administer the affairs of government with the greatest economy, enlarge our strength at home and abroad, etc...."

Senator Penrose at the same time urging a Republican Congress said: "Let us keep up an efficient Republican organization in Pennsylvania and all through the United States, and make a successful Republican contest at every opportunity in every congressional district and at the next Presidential election, and endeavour to assure the election of Republican candidates."

I think these speeches will give you an opportunity some time in September or October frankly to state just what your attitude is toward the coming campaign, and thus lay before the country what the Republicans hope to gain by bringing about the election of a Republican Congress. I would suggest that some man of distinction in the country write you a letter, calling your attention to partisan speeches of this character, emphasizing the parts I have mentioned, and ask your opinion with reference to the plan of the Republican party to regain power. In other words, we ought to accept these speeches charging incompetency and inefficiency as a challenge, and call the attention of the country to the fact that the leadership of the Republican party is still reactionary and standpat, laying particular emphasis on what the effect in Europe would be of a divided leadership at this time. I think a letter along the lines of the Indiana platform which I suggested a few weeks ago would carry to the country just the impression we ought to make. This letter should be issued, in my opinion, some time in September or October.


In view of the unprecedented record or this Congress, doesn't the President wish to make some statement?

The Secretary.

(Transcriber's note: also contains two manuscript letters.)
Incidents in the daily routine at the White House.]

While it would seem from a reading of my confidential letter to the President that we were engaged in preparing the way for an appeal, we were simply doing what other administrations had done.

Some time after this the President communicated with Colonel House, and when I next discussed the matter with the President, he informed me that he and Colonel House had finally agreed that the thing to do was frankly to come out without preliminaries of any kind and boldly ask for the election of a Democratic Congress. I told him that I thought the method I had proposed for bringing him into the discussion was one that would be most effective and would cause least resentment; but he was firm in his resolve to follow the course he finally pursued. He was of the opinion that this was the open and honourable way to ask for what he thought would be a vote of confidence in his administration.

It has often been stated that in this matter the President had acted upon the advice of Postmaster General Burleson, and many of those individuals throughout the country who criticized the President's appeal, pointed an accusing finger at General Burleson and held him responsible for what they said were the evil consequences of this ill-considered action. Simply by way of explanation, it can be truthfully said, in fairness to General Burleson, that he had nothing to do with the appeal and that he had never been consulted about it.

These facts are now related by me not by way of apology for what the President did, for in openly appealing to the country he had many honourable precedents, of which the gentlemen who criticized him were evidently ignorant. As Mr. George Creel, in his book, "The War, the World, and Wilson," says: "In various elections George Washington pleaded for 'united leadership,' and Lincoln specifically urged upon the people the unwisdom of 'swapping horses in midstream.'"

In a paragraph in Herndon's "Life of Lincoln," I find the following appeal:
He did his duty as President, and rested secure in the belief that he would be reflected whatever might be done for or against him. The importance of retaining Indiana in the column of Republican States was not to be overlooked. How the President viewed it, and how he proposed to secure the vote of the state is shown in the following letter written to General Sherman:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, September 19, 1864.


The State election of Indiana occurs on the 11th of October and the loss of it to the friends of the Government would go far toward losing the whole Union cause. The bad effect upon the November election, and especially the giving the State Government to those who will oppose the war in every possible way, are too much to risk if it can be avoided. The draft proceeds, notwithstanding its strong tendency to lose us the State. Indiana is the only important State voting in October whose soldiers cannot vote in the field. Anything you can safely do to let her soldiers or any part of them go home and vote at the State election will be greatly in point. They need not remain for the Presidential election, but may return to you at once. This is in no sense an order, but is merely intended to impress you with the importance to the army itself of your doing all you safely can, yourself being the judge of what you can safely do.

Yours truly,
Mr. Creel shows that the precedents established by Washington and Lincoln were followed by Presidents McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft:
In a speech delivered at Boone, Iowa, October 11, 1898, President McKinley pleaded for a Republican Congress in these words:

This is no time for divided councils. If I would have you remember anything I have said in these desultory remarks, it would be to remember at this critical hour in the nation's history we must not be divided. The triumphs of the war are yet to be written in the articles of peace.
In the same year Theodore Roosevelt, argued for a Republican Congress as follows:
Remember that whether you will or not, your votes this year will be viewed by the nations of Europe from one standpoint only. They will draw no fine distinctions. A refusal to sustain the President this year will, in their eyes, be read as a refusal to sustain the war and to sustain the efforts of our peace commission to secure the fruit of war. Such a refusal may not inconceivably bring about a rupture of the peace negotiations. It will give heart to our defeated antagonists; it will make possible the interference of those doubtful neutral nations who in this struggle have wished us ill.
Ex-President Benjamin Harrison besought the people to "stand behind the President," saying:
If the word goes forth that the people of the United States are standing solidly behind the President, the task of the peace commissioners will be easy, but if there is a break in the ranks--if the Democrats score a telling victory, if Democratic Senators, Congressmen, and governors are elected--Spain will see in it a gleam of hope, she will take fresh hope, and a renewal of hostilities, more war, may be necessary to secure to us what we have already won.
When Colonel Roosevelt himself became President, he followed the usual precedent without even the excuse of a war emergency. In a letter dated August 18, 1906, to James E. Watson, he wrote:
If there were only partisan issues involved in this contest, I should hesitate to say anything publicly in reference thereto. But I do not feel that such is the case. On the contrary, I feel that all good citizens who have the welfare of America at heart should appreciate the immense amount that has been accomplished by the present Congress, organized as it is, and the urgent need of keeping this organization in power. To change the leadership and organization of the House at this time means to bring confusion to those who have been successfully engaged in the steady working out of a great and comprehensive scheme for the betterment of our social, industrial, and civic conditions. Such a change would substitute a purposeless confusion, a violent and hurtful oscillation between the positions of the extreme radical and the extreme reactionary for the present orderly progress along the lines of a carefully thought out policy.
Is it not clear in the light of the events that followed the repudiation of the President and his administration in 1918 that he was justified by reason of the unusual circumstances of a great world war, in asking for a "team" that would work in cooperation with him? Some of those who most indignantly criticized him for his partisan appeal attacked him and the measures which he recommended for the peace of the world with a partisanship without parallel in the history of party politics. Some who most bitterly condemned what he did gave the most emphatic proof that what he did was necessary. Nor can they honestly defend themselves by saying that their partisan attacks on the treaty were justifiable reprisal. Before he ever made his appeal they were doing all in their power to undermine his influence at home and abroad, and he knew it. The appeal was no reflection on Republicans as such, nor any minimization of the heroic service rendered in the war by Republicans and Democrats alike in the fighting and civilian services, but the President knew that Republicans organized in party opposition in Congress would not assist but obstruct the processes of peace-making under his leadership. And all the world now knows that his judgment was correct. It will be interesting to read the President's appeal to the country, written by him on the typewriter:
My Fellow Countrymen: The Congressional elections are at hand. They occur in the most critical period our country has ever faced or is likely to face in our time. If you have approved of my leadership and wish me to continue to be your unembarrassed spokesman in affairs at home and abroad, I earnestly beg that you will express yourself unmistakably to that effect by returning a Democratic majority to both the Senate and the House of Representatives. I am your servant and will accept your judgment without cavil, but my power to administer the great trust assigned me by the Constitution would be seriously impaired should your judgment be adverse, and I must frankly tell you so because so many critical issues depend upon your verdict. No scruple of taste must in grim times like these be allowed to stand in the way of speaking the plain truth.

I have no thought of suggesting that any political party is paramount in matters of patriotism. I feel too keenly the sacrifices which have been made in this war by all our citizens, irrespective of party affiliations, to harbour such an idea. I mean only that the difficulties and delicacies of our present task are of a sort that makes it imperatively necessary that the nation should give its undivided support to the Government under a unified leadership, and that a Republican Congress would divide the leadership.

The leaders of the minority in the present Congress have unquestionably been pro-war, but they have been anti-Administration. At almost every turn, since we entered the war, they have sought to take the choice of policy and the conduct of the war out of my hands and put it under the control of instrumentalities of their own choosing. This is no time either for divided counsel or for divided leadership. Unity of command is as necessary now in civil action as it is upon the field of battle. If the control of the House and Senate should be taken away from the party now in power, an opposing majority could assume control of legislation and oblige all action to be taken amidst contest and obstruction.

The return of a Republican majority to either House of the Congress would, moreover, certainly be interpreted on the other side of the water as a repudiation of my leadership. Spokesmen of the Republican party are urging you to elect a Republican Congress in order to back up and support the President, but even if they should in this way impose upon some credulous voters on this side of the water, they would impose on no one on the other side. It is well understood there as well as here that the Republican leaders desire not so much to support the President as to control him. The peoples of the Allied countries with whom we are associated against Germany are quite familiar with the significance of elections. They would find it very difficult to believe that the voters of the United States had chosen to support their President by electing to the Congress a majority controlled by those who are not in fact in sympathy with the attitude and action of the Administration.

I need not tell you, my fellow countrymen, that I am asking your support not for my own sake or for the sake of a political party, but for the sake of the nation itself, in order that its inward unity of purpose may be evident to all the world. In ordinary times I would not feel at liberty to make such an appeal to you. In ordinary times divided counsels can be endured without permanent hurt to the country. But these are not ordinary times. If in these critical days it is your wish to sustain me with undivided minds, I beg that you will say so in a way which it will not be possible to misunderstand either here at home or among our associates on the other side of the sea. I submit my difficulties and my hopes to you.
[Illustration: The President's appeal for a Democratic Congress, as he wrote it on his typewriter and with his corrections. [Transcriber's note: contains a reproduction of the first page of the above-quoted letter.]]

In an address at the White House to members of the Democratic National Committee, delivered February 28, 1919, which was never published, the President expressed his own feelings with reference to the defeat of the Democratic party at the Congressional elections a few months before. Discussing this defeat, he said:
Personally, I am not in the least discouraged by the results of the last Congressional election. Any party which carries out through a long series of years a great progressive and constructive programme is sure to bring about a reaction, because while in the main the reforms that we have accomplished have been sound reforms, they have necessarily in the process of being made touched a great many definite interests in a way that distressed them, in a way that was counter to what they deemed their best and legitimate interests. So that there has been a process of adaptation in the process of change. There is nothing apparently to which the human mind is less hospitable than change, and in the business world that is particularly true because if you get in the habit of doing your business a particular way and are compelled to do it in a different way, you think that somebody in Washington does not understand business, and, therefore, there has been a perfectly natural reaction against the changes we have made in the public policies of the United States. In many instances, as in the banking and currency reform, the country is entirely satisfied with the wisdom and permanency of the change, but even there a great many interests have been disappointed and many of their plans have been prevented from being consummated. So that, there is that natural explanation. And then I do not think that we ought to conceal from ourselves the fact that not the whole body of our partisans are as cordial in the support of some of the things that we have done as they ought to be.

You know that I heard a gentleman from one of the southern States say to his Senator (this gentleman was himself a member of the State Legislature)--he said to his Senator: "We have the advantage over you because we have no publication corresponding with the Congressional Record and all that is recorded in our state is the vote, and while you have always voted right we know what happened in the meantime because we read the Congressional Record." Now, with regard to a great many of our fellow partisans in Washington, the Congressional Record shows what happened between the beginning of the discussion and the final Vote, and our opponents were very busy in advertising what the Congressional Record disclosed. And to be perfectly plain, there was not in the minds of the country sufficient satisfactory evidence that we had supported some of the great things that they were interested in any better than the other fellows. The voting record was all right and the balance in our favour; but they can show a great many things that discount the final record of the vote.

Now, I am in one sense an uncompromising partisan. Either a man must stand by his party or not. Either he has got to play the game or he has got to get out of the game, and I have no more sufferance for such a man than the country has. Not a bit. Some of them got exactly what was coming to them and I haven't any bowels of compassion for them. They did not support the things they pretended to support. And the country knew they didn't,--the country knew that the tone of the cloakroom and the tone of the voting were different tones. Now, I am perfectly willing to say that I think it is wise to judge of party loyalty by the cloakroom, and not by the vote and the cloakroom was not satisfactory. I am not meaning to imply that there was any kind of blameworthy insincerity in this. I am not assessing individuals. That is not fair. But in assessing the cause of our defeat we ought to be perfectly frank and admit that the country was not any more sure of us than it ought to be. So that we have got to convince it that the ranks have closed up and that the men who constitute those ranks are all on the war-path and mean the things they say and that the party professes. That is the main thing.

Now, I think that can be accomplished by many processes. Unfortunately, the members of Congress have to live in Washington, and Washington is not a part of the United States. It is the most extraordinary thing I have ever known. If you stay here long enough you forget what the people of your own district are thinking about. There is one reason on the face of things. The wrong opinion is generally better organized than the right opinion. If some special interest has an impression that it wants to make on Congress it can get up thousands of letters with which to bombard its Senators and Representatives, and they get the impression that that is the opinion at home and they do not hear from the other fellow; and the consequence is that the unspoken and uninsisted-on views of the country, which are the views of the great majority, are not heard at this distance. If such an arrangement were feasible I think there ought to be a Constitutional provision that Congressmen and Senators ought to spend every other week at home and come back here and talk and vote after a fresh bath in the atmosphere of their home districts and the opinions of their home folks.


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