Victory over the bosses — The schoolmaster in politics — Giving the politicians a new view of the administration of the people's affairs — No foe of the organization when it named best man — Cut down the jungles
"Up from the common soil, up from the quiet heart of the people, rise joyously to‑day streams of hope and determination bound to renew the face of the earth in glory." — Wilson
It was not a far cry from battling in ancient academic shades of Princeton for educational democracy to becoming Democratic candidate for Governor of New Jersey. Every now and then after Woodrow Wilson's "Congressional Government" appeared, college-mates and friends would say to political leaders: "Keep your eyes on Woodrow Wilson." When Parker was nominated, more than one journal suggested "For President — Woodrow Wilson," but it got no further. In 1910 it was evident to Wilson that his fight to democratize university life had made him persona non grata to many at Princeton. He was in a receptive mood for a call to public service. He had won victory at Princeton, but the call to official life gave opportunity to put in practice his long study of Government. It appealed strongly. How much of political history is influenced by what happens on the side-lines! If Princeton was in danger of the conflict of coming under the control of influences that were undemocratic, the State of New Jersey was hopelessly in the hands of p96the big corporations, particularly the public service companies and allied "big business." The Democratic party had long been out of power and "the interests" dominated the Republican state administration and New Jersey was regarded as "the home of trusts." If the Republicans were the agents of privilege, Democratic leadership held little hope for relief. The "bosses" of both parties were dominant, and there was no insistent and commanding note of revolt in either party, but there was a growing dissatisfaction in the ranks of both parties. Securely entrenched, the Republicans paid no heed to what the bosses contemptuously called a "visionary reformer." The Democratic bosses, out of power, were looking for an opportunity to win a long desired victory. At that time the name of Princeton's President was brought forward. Echoes of his fight for educational democracy had gone beyond the campus and had won approval. If this foe of privilege could fight and win for democracy in a college, why should he not be drafted to fight for the rule of the people in Jersey? That question was asked and the suggestion reached ex-Senator James Smith, the recognized leader of the Democratic party. The leaders were looking for a winning candidate. The need was for one who would make a popular appeal, a new man who would catch the imagination of those voters who wished to overthrow their machine-made government.
The idea of "the scholar in politics" or high-brow government was no more attractive to many Democratic than to the Republican bosses. But successive defeats and the desire for offices made the Democrats willing to take a chance with the Princeton scholar. They made overtures to him. Some one about that time asked Bob p97Davis, the Jersey City boss, if he thought Woodrow Wilson would make a good Governor.
"How the hell do I know whether he'll make a good Governor?" the boss replied; but he put his foot on ground he knew how to tread when he said, "he'll make a good candidate, and that is the only thing that interests me."
The "bosses" wished to win the election and they saw many county and state offices coming if Wilson could lead them to victory. Still they feared the very thing that did happen to the Big Boss. It was that, if the college president should be elected, he would throw down the organization men. "The Princeton sage is the man of the hour," ex-Senator James Smith, the Big Boss, was quoted as saying, "and the medium by which the Democratic party is to have its hunger for the plums of victory appeased after so long a wait."
The bosses wished to have the glamour of a scholar at the head of the ticket, but wanted him to be a show-window Governor while they held the real direction of affairs for themselves. Therefore, they asked Mr. Wilson to meet them at a club in New York to talk over the matter of his possible acceptance of the nomination for the Governorship. A leading lawyer, afterwards and always influential as friend and supporter of Wilson, turned to Mr. Wilson in the meeting and said, "Dr. Wilson, there have been some political reformers who, after they have been elected to office as candidates of one party or the other, have shut the doors in the face of the organization leaders, refusing even to listen to them. Is it your idea that a governor should regard himself free of all obligation to his party organization?"
That was the crux with the organization men. They p98were ready to go down the line for Wilson, but they wanted some assurance that when he was elected he would feel he owed them the right of conference and recognition. Mr. Wilson assured them on this point and enunciated his view of what course a party leader and chief executive (he regarded them as one and inseparable) should pursue. Moreover, it was the policy he marked out for himself as Governor of New Jersey and President of the United States. He said:
"Gentlemen: I have always been a believer in party organizations. If I were elected Governor of New Jersey, I would be very glad to consult with the leaders of the Democratic organization. I should refuse to listen to no man, but I should be especially glad to hear and duly consider the suggestions of the leaders of my party. If, on my own independent investigation, I found that the recommendations for appointment made to me by the organization leaders named the best possible men, I should naturally prefer, other things being equal, to appoint them, as the men pointed out by the combined counsels of the party."
That was on July 12, 1910. On July 15, Mr. Wilson issued a statement that if it were the wish "of a decided majority of the thoughtful Democrats of the State" that he should be their nominee, he would accept. He issued the statement and did not turn a hand to affect the result.
The "bosses," aided by those who felt confident Mr. Wilson would usher in a new day in government, nominated him. However, a large element of the anti-boss Democrats, seeing the bosses favored him, organized to nominate a man not acceptable to the organization. The speaker who presented Wilson for the nomination p99said Wilson would accept "without any private obligations or undertakings whatever." Nominated by a small majority, when the news reached him at Princeton, he responded and drove to the Convention Hall and made a speech that thrilled his hearers and the State, and insured his election.
"I did not seek this nomination," he said. "I have made no pledge and given no promise. Still more, not only was no promise asked, but, as far as I know, none was desired. If elected, as I expect to be, I am left absolutely free to serve you with all singleness of purpose. It is a new era when these things can be said."
Upon that he was elected. In 1908 the Republican candidate had carried the state by 82,000 majority. Wilson's majority was 49,150. The Democrats carried the Legislature also, and it had to elect a United States Senator. The story of Wilson's matchless campaign even now stirs the pulses when it is recalled. The "high-brow" candidate in his first campaign speech captured the voters. It was a triumphal march of compelling oratory. It was in a speech to a packed house in Jersey City where his famous limerick was first given public applause. He was speaking with great earnestness, arousing enthusiasm, when a man in the gallery called out:
"Go it, Woody. You are all right. But you ain't no beaut."
Quick as a flash, Wilson quoted his limerick, and it made a hit:
"For beauty I am not a star;
There are others handsomer, far;
But my face, I don't mind it,
For I am behind it;
'Tis the people in front that I jar."
p100 Soon the test came which caused Richard Croker, in answer to the question what he thought of Wilson, to say "an ingrate is no good in politics." New Jersey had a primary to select a Senator. James E. Martine was the only candidate and he received 54,000 out of 73,000 votes cast for Senator. Not long after the election ex-Senator James Smith called to see the Governor-elect. He stated that Martine lacked the qualifications, and said he himself would be candidate for Senator.
"The primary selected Martine," said Wilson, "and there is nothing for the Legislature to do but ratify that selection."
"The primary was a joke," replied Smith. "Martine received only 54,000 votes, while in the election you received 233,683 votes. Nobody regarded the primary as binding."
"It was very far from a joke," said Wilson. "The question of who is to serve as Senator one term is insignificant compared to whether the voters of New Jersey are to have the right to choose their Senator."
The fight was on. It can be truly said that no such issue was ever fought in American commonwealth. Martine had no organization and only Wilson saved him. Smith had the "organization." Wilson had only the principle that a primary choice was sacred and should not be violated. The whole country looked on to see if the schoolmaster in politics, an amateur at the game, could defeat the ablest professional. The answer as to whether Wilson was an ingrate is complete, for before he consented to run for Governor he was given the assurance that Smith would not stand for Senator. Before he was nominated he had written a friend: "I have been asked by the men most influential in the Democratic party in New p101Jersey whether I would accept the nomination for Governor if it came to me unsought, unanimously, and without pledges of any kind, and I have felt obliged to say that I would." He felt that Smith's candidacy before the people would defeat the party. Wilson had said when assured Smith would not run, "Were he to do so while I was Governor, I should have to oppose him. He represents everything repugnant to my convictions."
When legislators, desirous of ending Boss Rule in Jersey, seemed to waver under pressure, Wilson heartened them with this declaration: "Do not allow yourselves to be dismayed. You see where the machine is entrenched, and it looks like a real fortress. It looks as if real men were inside, as if they had real guns. Go and touch it. It is a house of cards. Go and put your shoulders against the thing and it collapses."
It collapsed. The conflict had attracted national interest. The bosses everywhere said: "Wilson is a dangerous man." The people who had been hitherto hopeless were cheered and strengthened. That victory turned thousands to him with admiration. It had large part in sending him to the White House. Immediately after the senatorial contest was won, Wilson presented a program of legislation. It was progressive and so radical as to make timid legislators hold their breath. "I am accused," he said, "of being a radical. If to seek to go to the root is to be a radical, I am. I tell you the so‑called radicalism of our times is simply the effort of nature to release the generous energies of our people. The need of the hour is just that radicalism that will clear a way for the realization of the aspirations of a sturdy race."
© Keystone View Co.
A group portrait during his term as Governor of New Jersey. Standing beside the Governor is his first wife, and in the back row, from left to right, are his daughters Jesse (now Mrs. Francis Sayre), Eleanor (now Mrs. W. G. McAdoo), and Margaret
p102 Some legislators suggested that they were elected to pass laws, he to enforce them. He declared that the theory of "the three co-ordinate branches, as it had been pedantically exaggerated in practice" ought not to bring a stalemate to action. He asserted party leadership. By superior generalship he secured good legislation long desired, but which the bosses had thwarted. As party leader, he summoned the Democrats to the program to end the rule of special interests, and he challenged the Republican legislators to prove themselves the true representatives of the people by giving aid. The executive office was open to all legislators who came in and out. Wilson attended conferences and caucuses. Questioned as to his right to be in a conference of legislators, discussing a pending measure — a conference he had called — Governor Wilson replied: "You can turn aside from the measure if you choose; you can decline to follow me; you can deprive me of office and turn away from me; but you cannot deprive me of power so long as I steadfastly stand for what I believe to be the interests and legitimate demands of the people themselves."
© Underwood & Underwood
Governor Wilson at Sea Girt
At Mr. Wilson's left is Champ Clark, Speaker of the House; and Senator Hughes, of New Jersey
When the General Assembly adjourned, it had to its credit an entirely unprecedented range of progressive legislation. This included several splendid welfare laws, the best of regulatory measures for public service corporations — the "seven sisters," as laws to end trusts were called — measures of employers' liability and the most intelligent organization to regulate primaries and elections that any state had enacted in such a period, and other wise and necessary laws. Pressing for honest primaries and elections, he declared "back of all reform, lies the means of getting it," and he added: "The p103people are determined at last to take over the control of their politics. We are going to cut down the jungles in which corruption lurks." The victories were hard won. One rich concern, which had an employee in the Assembly, threatened him with reduction of pay, and there was a persistent lobby of the interests. One Senator, whose vote was essential for a reform measure, said:
"Governor, I would vote for the measure, but my constituents are against it."
"How do you know your constituents are against it? I will tell you what I will do. I will speak at your county seat next Thursday night for the measure. You speak against it. If they are for the measure, you will then vote for it. If they are against it, I will not ask you to vote for it. Do you accept my proposition?" The legislator voted for the measure without a debate with the Governor before his constituents.
The leader of the Democratic organization was invited by the Governor to come to his office to "talk things over." He had promised to call in the organization leaders. He was keeping his promise. Soon the leader lost his temper.
"I know you think you've got the votes," he exclaimed in a loud tone insultingly. "I know how you got them."
"What do you mean?" asked Governor Wilson.
"It's the talk of the State House that you got them by patronage," he flung out the insult.
"Good afternoon," said the Governor, pointing to the door.
"You are no gentleman," cried back the enraged political boss.
p104 "You are no judge," was the answer as the angry leader made his exit.
Wilson had said that a political machine was "a house of cards." Soon his statement was proved. That boss, still Democratic State Chairman, who had tried to insult Governor Wilson, was a short time after, with some friends at a dinner in the same dining room with a party of officers of the New Jersey National Guard at Sea Girt. The Chairman asked them to join his party in a toast. The diners at both tables rose to their feet.
"I give you," he cried, "the Governor of the State of New Jersey" — and all glasses were raised — "a liar and an ingrate."
Those who had risen to drink the toast upon his invitation lowered their glasses, stupefied by the suggested toast.
"Do I drink alone?" he asked. He did. The following day a Wilson supporter was chosen State Chairman. He had "licked the gang to a frazzle." A study of the record of Woodrow Wilson as Governor of New Jersey convinced the American people that he was the type of man needed in the White House.
It was only 163 miles from Trenton to Washington, but there were many bridges to cross before like policies on a larger scale were to have a national application.
He had won promotion.
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Life of Wilson
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Page updated: 16 Aug 08