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The Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, Volume I online

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his character; any shortcomings of this sort are due, not to any failing
in sympathy, but to the fact that Page's zeal was absorbingly
concentrated upon certain glaring abuses. And as to the accuracy of his
vision in these respects there could be no question. The volume was a
welcome antidote to the sentimental Southern novels that had contented
themselves with glorifying a vanished society which, when the veil is
stripped, was not heroic in all its phases, for it was based upon an
institution so squalid as human slavery, and to those even more
pernicious books which, by luridly portraying the unquestioned vices of
reconstruction and the frightful consequences which resulted from giving
the Negro the ballot, simply aroused useless passions and made the way
out of the existing wilderness still more difficult. So the best public
opinion, North and South, regarded "The Southerner," and decided that
Page had performed a service to the section of his birth in writing it.
Indeed the fair-minded and intelligent spirit with which the best
elements in the South received "The Southerner" in itself demonstrated
that this great region had entered upon a new day.


Nor was Page's work for the South yet ended. In the important five years
from 1905 to 1910 he performed two services of an extremely practical
kind. In 1906 the problem of Southern education assumed a new phase. Dr.
Wallace Buttrick, the Secretary of the General Education Board, had now
decided that the fundamental difficulty was economic. By that time the
Southern people had revised their original conception that education was
a private and not a public concern; there was now a general acceptance
of the doctrine that the mental and physical training of every child,
white and black, was the responsibility of the state; Aycock's campaign
had worked such a popular revolution on this subject that no politician
who aspired to public office would dare to take a contrary view. Yet the
economic difficulty still remained. The South was poor; whatever might
be the general desire, the taxable resources were not sufficient to
support such a comprehensive system of popular instruction as existed in
the North and West. Any permanent improvement must therefore be based
upon the strengthening of the South's economic position. Essentially the
task was to build up Southern agriculture, which for generations had
been wasteful, unintelligent and consequently unproductive. Such a
far-reaching programme might well appall the most energetic reformer,
but Dr. Buttrick set to work. He saw little light until his attention
was drawn to a quaint and philosophic gentleman - a kind of bucolic Ben
Franklin - who was then obscurely working in the cotton lands of
Louisiana, making warfare on the boll weevil in a way of his own. At
that time Dr. Seaman A. Knapp had made no national reputation; yet he
had evolved a plan for redeeming country life and making American farms
more fruitful that has since worked marvellous results. There was
nothing especially sensational about its details. Dr. Knapp had made the
discovery in relation to farms that the utilitarians had long since made
with reference to other human activities: that the only way to improve
agriculture was not to talk about it, but to go and do it. During the
preceding fifty years agricultural colleges had sprung up all over the
United States - Dr. Knapp had been president of one himself; practically
every Southern state had one or more; agricultural lecturers covered
thousands of miles annually telling their yawning audiences how to farm;
these efforts had scattered broadcast much valuable information about
the subject, but the difficulty lay in inducing the farmers to apply it.
Dr. Knapp had a new method. He selected a particular farmer and
persuaded him to work his fields for a period according to methods
which he prescribed. He told his pupil how to plough, what seed to
plant, how to space his rows, what fertilizers to use, and the like. If
a selected acreage yielded a profitable crop which the farmer could sell
at an increased price Dr. Knapp had sufficient faith in human nature to
believe that that particular farmer would continue to operate his farm
on the new method and that his neighbours, having this practical example
of growing prosperity, would imitate him.

Such was the famous "Demonstration Work" of Dr. Seaman A. Knapp; this
activity is now a regular branch of the Department of Agriculture,
employing thousands of agents and spending not far from $18,000,000 a
year. Its application to the South has made practically a new and rich
country, and it has long since been extended to other regions. When Dr.
Buttrick first met Knapp, however, there were few indications of this
splendid future. He brought Dr. Knapp North and exhibited him to Page.
This was precisely the kind of man who appealed to Page's sympathies.
His mind was always keenly on the scent for the new man - the original
thinker who had some practical plan for uplifting humankind and making
life more worth while. And Dr. Knapp's mission was one that had filled
most of his thoughts for many years; its real purpose was the enrichment
of country life. Page therefore took to Dr. Knapp with a mighty zest. He
supported him on all occasions; he pled his cause with great eloquence
before the General Education Board, whose purse strings were liberally
unloosed in behalf of the Knapp work; in his writings, in speeches, in
letters, in all forms of public advocacy, he insisted that Dr. Knapp had
found the solution of the agricultural problem. The fact is that Page
regarded Knapp as one of the greatest men of the time. His feeling came
out with characteristic intensity on the occasion of the homely
reformer's funeral. "The exercises," Page once told a friend, "were held
in a rather dismal little church on the outskirts of Washington. The day
was bleak and chill, the attendants were few - chiefly officials of the
Department of Agriculture. The clergyman read the service in the most
perfunctory way. Then James Wilson, the Secretary of Agriculture, spoke
formally of Dr. Knapp as a faithful servant of the Department who always
did well what he was told to do, commending his life in an altogether
commonplace fashion. By that time my heart was pretty hot. No one seemed
to divine that in the coffin before them was the body of a really great
man, one who had hit upon a fruitful idea in American agriculture - an
idea that was destined to cover the nation and enrich rural life
immeasurably." Page was so moved by this lack of appreciation, so full
of sorrow at the loss of one of his dearest friends, that, when he rose
to speak, his appraisment took on a certain indignation. Their dead
associate, Page declared, would outrank the generals and the politicians
who received the world's plaudits, for he had devoted his life to a
really great purpose; his inspiration had been the love of the common
people, his faith, his sympathy had all been expended in an effort to
brighten the life of the too frequently neglected masses. Page's address
on this occasion was entirely extemporaneous; no record of it was ever
made, but those who heard it still carry the memory of an eloquent and
fiery outburst that placed Knapp's work in its proper relation to
American history and gave an unforgettable picture of a patient,
idealistic, achieving man whose name will loom large in the future.

During this same period Page, always on the outlook for the exceptional
man, made another discovery which has had world-wide consequences. As a
member of President Roosevelt's Country Life Commission Page became one
of the committee assigned to investigate conditions in the Southern
States. The sanitarian of this commission was Dr. Charles W. Stiles, a
man who held high rank as a zoölogist, and who, as such, had for many
years done important work with the Department of Agriculture. Page had
hardly formed Dr. Stiles's acquaintance before he discovered that, at
that time, he was a man of one idea. And this one idea had for years
brought upon his head much good-natured ridicule. For Dr. Stiles had his
own explanation for much of the mental and physical sluggishness that
prevailed in the rural sections of the Southern States. Yet he could not
mention this without exciting uproarious laughter - even in the presence
of scientific men. Several years previously Dr. Stiles had discovered
that a hitherto unclassified species of a parasite popularly known as
the hookworm prevailed to an astonishing extent in all the Southern
States. The pathological effects of this creature had long been known;
it localized in the intestines, there secreted a poison that destroyed
the red blood corpuscles, and reduced its victims to a deplorable state
of anæmia, making them constantly ill, listless, mentally dull - in every
sense of the word useless units of society. The encouraging part of this
discovery was that the patients could quickly be cured and the hookworm
eradicated by a few simple improvements in sanitation. Dr. Stiles had
long been advocating such a campaign as an indispensable preliminary to
improving Southern life. But the humorous aspect of the hookworm always
interfered with his cause; the microbe of laziness had at last been

It was not until Dr. Stiles, in the course of this Southern trip,
cornered Page in a Pullman car, that he finally found an attentive
listener. Page, of course, had his preliminary laugh, but then the
hookworm began to work on his imagination. He quickly discovered that
Dr. Stiles was no fool; and before the expedition was finished, he had
become a convert and, like most converts, an extremely zealous one. The
hookworm now filled his thoughts as completely as it did those of his
friend; he studied it, he talked about it; and characteristically he set
to work to see what could be done. How much Southern history did the
thing explain? Was it not forces like this, and not statesmen and
generals, that really controlled the destinies of mankind? Page's North
Carolina country people had for generations been denounced as
"crackers," and as "hill-billies," but here was the discovery that the
great mass of them were ill - as ill as the tuberculosis patients in the
Adirondacks. Free these masses from the enervating parasite that
consumed all their energies - for Dr. Stiles had discovered that the
disease afflicted the great majority of the rural classes - and a new
generation would result. Naturally the cause strongly touched Page's
sympathies. He laid the case before the ever sympathetic Dr. Buttrick,
but here again progress was slow. By hard hammering, however, he half
converted Dr. Buttrick, who, in turn, took the case of the hookworm to
his old associate, Dr. Frederick T. Gates. What Page was determined to
obtain was a million dollars or so from Mr. John D. Rockefeller, for the
purpose of engaging in deadly warfare upon this pest. This was the
proper way to produce results: first persuade Dr. Buttrick, then induce
him to persuade Dr. Gates, who, if convinced, had ready access to the
great treasure house. But Dr. Gates also began to smile; even the
combined eloquence of Page and Dr. Buttrick could not move him. So the
reform marked time until one day Dr. Buttrick, Dr. Gates, and Dr. Simon
Flexner, the Director of the Rockefeller institute, happened to be
fellow travellers - again on a Pullman car.

"Dr. Flexner," said Dr. Buttrick - this for the benefit of his
incredulous friend - "what is the scientific standing of Dr. Charles W.

"Very, very high," came the immediate response, and at this Dr. Gates
pricked up his ears. Yet the subsequent conversation disclosed that Dr.
Flexner was unfamiliar with the Stiles hookworm work. He, too, smiled at
the idea, but, like Page his smile was not one of ridicule.

"If Dr. Stiles believes this," was his dictum, "it is something to be
taken most seriously."

As Dr. Flexner is probably the leading medical scientist in the United
States, his judgment at once lifted the hookworm issue to a new plane.
Dr. Gates ceased laughing and events now moved rapidly. Mr. Rockefeller
gave a million dollars to a sanitary commission for the eradication of
the hookworm in the Southern States, and of this Page became a charter
member. In this way an enterprise that is the greatest sanitary and
health reform of modern times had its beginnings. So great was the
success of the Hookworm Commission in the South, so many thousands were
almost daily restored to health and usefulness, that Mr. Rockefeller
extended its work all over the world - to India, Egypt, China, Australia,
to all sections that fall within the now accurately located "hookworm
belt." Out of it grew the great International Health Commission, also
endowed with unlimited millions of Rockefeller money, which is engaged
in stamping out disease and promoting medical education in all quarters
of the globe. Dr. Stiles and Page's associates on the General Education
Board attribute the origin of this work to the simple fact that Page,
great humourist that he was, could temper his humour with
intelligence, and could therefore perceive the point at which a joke
ceased to be a joke and actually concealed a truth of the most
far-reaching importance to mankind.

[Illustration: Walter H. Page (1899), from a photograph taken when he
was editor of the _Atlantic Monthly_]

[Illustration: Dr. Wallace Buttrick, President of the General Education

Page enjoyed the full results of this labour one night in the autumn of
1913, when Dr. Wickliffe Rose, the head of the International Health
Board, came to London to discuss the possibility of beginning hookworm
work in the British Empire, especially in Egypt and India. Page, as
Ambassador, arranged a dinner at the Marlborough Club, attended by the
leading medical scientists of the kingdom and several members of the
Cabinet. Dr. Rose's description of his work made a deep impression. He
was informed that the British Government was only too ready to coöperate
with the Health Board. When the discussion was ended the Right
Honourable Lewis Harcourt, the Secretary of State for the Colonies,
concluded an eloquent address with these words:

"The time will come when we shall look back on this evening as the
beginning of a new era in British colonial administration."


[Footnote 5: A memorandum of an old _Atlantic_ balance sheet discloses
that James Russell Lowell's salary as editor was $1,500 a year.]

[Footnote 6: A member of the firm of Houghton, Mifflin & Company.]




It was Page's interest in the material and spiritual elevation of the
masses that first directed his attention to the Presidential aspirations
of Woodrow Wilson. So much history has been made since 1912 that the
public questions which then stirred the popular mind have largely passed
out of recollection. Yet the great rallying cry of that era was
democracy, spelled with a small "d." In the fifty years since the Civil
War only one Democratic President had occupied the White House. The
Republicans' long lease of power had produced certain symptoms which
their political foes now proceeded to describe as great public abuses.
The truth of the matter, of course, is that neither political virtue nor
political depravity was the exclusive possession of either of the great
national organizations. The Republican party, especially under the
enlightened autocracy of Roosevelt, had started such reforms as
conservation, the improvement of country life, the regulation of the
railroads, and the warfare on the trusts, and had shown successful
interest in such evidences of the new day as child labour laws,
employer's liability laws, corrupt practice acts, direct primaries and
the popular election of United States Senators - not all perhaps wise as
methods, but all certainly inspired with a new conception of democratic
government. Roosevelt also had led in the onslaught on that corporation
influence which, after all, constituted the great problem of American
politics. But Mr. Taft's administration had impressed many men, and
especially Page, as a discouraging slump back into the ancient system.
Page was never blind to the inadequacies of his own party; the three
campaigns of Bryan and his extensive influence with the Democratic
masses at times caused him deep despair; that even the corporations had
extended their tentacles into the ranks of Jefferson was all too obvious
a fact; yet the Democratic party at that time Page regarded as the most
available instrument for embodying in legislation and practice the new
things in which he most believed. Above all, the Democratic party in
1912 possessed one asset to which the Republicans could lay no claim - a
new man, a new leader, the first statesman who had crossed its threshold
since Grover Cleveland.

Like many scholarly Americans, Page had been charmed by the intellectual
brilliancy of Woodrow Wilson. The utter commonplaceness of much of what
passes for political thinking in this country had for years discouraged
him. American political life may have possessed energy, character, even
greatness; but it was certainly lacking in distinction. It was this new
quality that Wilson brought, and it was this that attracted thousands of
cultivated Americans to his standard, irrespective of party. The man was
an original thinker; he exercised the priceless possession of literary
style. He entertained; he did not weary; even his temperamental
deficiencies, which were apparent to many observers in 1912, had at
least the advantage that attaches to the interesting and the unusual.

What Page and thousands of other public-spirited men saw in Wilson was a
leader of fine intellectual gifts who was prepared to devote his
splendid energies to making life more attractive and profitable to the
"Forgotten Man." Here was the opportunity then, to embody in one
imaginative statesman all the interest which for a generation had been
accumulating in favour of the democratic revival. At any rate, after
thirty years of Republican half-success and half-failure, here was the
chance for a new deal. Amid a mob of shopworn public men, here was one
who had at least the charm of novelty.

Page had known Mr. Wilson for thirty years, and all this time the
Princeton scholar had seemed to him to be one of the most helpful
influences at work in the United States. As already noted Page had met
the future President when he was serving a journalistic apprenticeship
in Atlanta, Georgia. Wilson was then spending his days in a dingy law
office and was putting to good use the time consumed in waiting for the
clients who never came by writing that famous book on "Congressional
Government" which first lifted his name out of obscurity. This work, the
product of a man of twenty-nine, was perhaps the first searching
examination to which the American Congressional system had ever been
subjected. It brought Wilson a professorship at the newly established
Bryn Mawr College and drew to him other growing minds like Page's.
"Watch that man!" was Page's admonition to his friends. Wilson then went
into academic work and Page plunged into the exactions of daily and
periodical journalism, but Page's papers show that the two men had kept
in touch with each other during the succeeding thirty years. These
papers include a collection of letters from Woodrow Wilson, the earliest
of which is dated October 30, 1885, when the future President was
beginning his career at Bryn Mawr. He was eager to come to New York,
Wilson said, and discuss with Page "half a hundred topics" suggested by
"Congressional Government." The atmosphere at Bryn Mawr was evidently
not stimulating. "Such a talk would give me a chance to let off some of
the enthusiasm I am just now painfully stirring up in enforced silence."
The _Forum_ and the _Atlantic Monthly_, when Page was editor, showed
many traces of his interest in Wilson, who was one of his most frequent
contributors. When Wilson became President of Princeton, he occasionally
called upon his old _Atlantic_ friend for advice. He writes to Page on
various matters - to ask for suggestions about filling a professorship or
a lectureship; and there are also references to the difficulties Wilson
is having with the Princeton trustees.

Page's letters also portray the new hopes with which Wilson inspired
him. One of his best loved correspondents was Henry Wallace, editor of
_Wallace's Farmer_, a homely and genial Rooseveltian. Page was one of
those who immensely admired Roosevelt's career; but he regarded him as a
man who had finished his work, at least in domestic affairs, and whose
great claim upon posterity would be as the stimulator of the American
conscience. "I see you are coming around to Wilson," Page writes, "and
in pretty rapid fashion. I assure you that that is the solution of the
problem. I have known him since we were boys, and I have been studying
him lately with a great deal of care. I haven't any doubt but that is
the way out. The old labels 'Democrat' and 'Republican' have ceased to
have any meaning, not only in my mind and in yours, but I think in the
minds of nearly all the people. Don't you feel that way?"

The campaign of 1912 was approaching its end when this letter was
written; and no proceeding in American politics had so aroused Page's
energies. He had himself played a part in Wilson's nomination. He was
one of the first to urge the Princeton President to seize the great
opportunity that was rising before him. These suggestions were coming
from many sources in the summer of 1910; Mr. Wilson was about to retire
from the Presidency of Princeton; the movement had started to make him
Governor of New Jersey, and it was well understood that this was merely
intended as the first step to the White House. But Mr. Wilson was
himself undecided; to escape the excitement of the moment he had retired
to a country house at Lyme, Connecticut. In this place, in response to a
letter, Page now sought him out. His visit was a plea that Mr. Wilson
should accept his proffered fate; the Governorship of New Jersey, then
the Presidency, and the opportunity to promote the causes in which both
men believed.

"But do you think I can do it, Page?" asked the hesitating Wilson.

"I am sure you can": and then Page again, with his customary gusto,
launched into his persuasive argument. His host at one moment would
assent; at another present the difficulties; it was apparent that he was
having trouble in reaching a decision. To what extent Page's
conversation converted him the record does not disclose; it is apparent,
however, that when, in the next two years, difficulties came, his mind
seemed naturally to turn in Page's direction. Especially noticeable is
it that he appeals to Page for help against his fool friends. An
indiscreet person in New Jersey is booming Mr. Wilson for the
Presidency; the activity of such a man inevitably brings ridicule upon
the object of his attention; cannot Page find some kindly way of calling
him off? Mr. Wilson asks Page's advice about a campaign manager, and
incidentally expresses his own aversion to a man of "large calibre" for
this engagement. There were occasional conferences with Mr. Wilson on
his Presidential prospects, one of which took place at Page's New York
apartment. Page was also the man who brought Mr. Wilson and Colonel
House together; this had the immediate result of placing the important
state of Texas on the Wilson side, and, as its ultimate consequence,
brought about one of the most important associations in the history of
American politics. Page had known Colonel House for many years and was
the advocate who convinced the sagacious Texan that Woodrow Wilson was
the man. Wilson also acquired the habit of referring to Page men who
offered themselves to him as volunteer workers in his cause. "Go and see
Walter Page" was his usual answer to this kind of an approach. But Page
was not a collector of delegates to nominating conventions; not his the
art of manipulating these assemblages in the interest of a favoured man;
yet his services to the Wilson cause, while less demonstrative, were
almost as practical. His talent lay in exposition; and he now took upon
himself the task of spreading Wilson's fame. In his own magazine and in
books published by his firm, in letters to friends, in personal
conferences, he set forth Wilson's achievements. Page also persuaded
Wilson to make his famous speechmaking trip through the Western States
in 1911 and this was perhaps his largest definite contribution to the
Wilson campaign. It was in the course of this historic pilgrimage that

Online LibraryBurton Jesse HendrickThe Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, Volume I → online text (page 8 of 32)