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

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the American masses obtained their first view of a previously too-much
hidden figure.

On election day Page wrote the President-elect a letter of
congratulation which contains one item of the greatest interest. When
the time came for the new President to deliver his first message to
Congress, he surprised the country by abandoning the usual practice of
sending a long written communication to be droned out by a reading
clerk to a yawning company of legislators. He appeared in person and
read the document himself. As President Harding has followed his example
it seems likely that this innovation, which certainly represents a great
improvement over the old routine, has become the established custom. The
origin of the idea therefore has historic value.

_To Woodrow Wilson_
Garden City, N.Y.
Election Day, 1912. [Nov. 5]


Before going into town to hear the returns, I write you my
congratulations. Even if you were defeated, I should still
congratulate you on putting a Presidential campaign on a higher
level than it has ever before reached since Washington's time. Your
grip became firmer and your sweep wider every week. It was
inspiring to watch the unfolding of the deep meaning of it and to
see the people's grasp of the main idea. It was fairly, highly,
freely, won, and now we enter the Era of Great Opportunity. It is
hard to measure the extent or the thrill of the new interest in
public affairs and the new hope that you have aroused in thousands
of men who were becoming hopeless under the long-drawn-out reign of

To the big burden of suggestions that you are receiving, may I add
these small ones?

1. Call Congress in extra session mainly to revise the tariff and
incidentally to prepare the way for rural credit societies.

Mr. Taft set the stage admirably in 1909 when he promptly called an
extra session; but then he let the villain run the play. To get the
main job in hand at once will be both dramatic and effective and it
will save time. Moreover, it will give you this great tactical
advantage - you can the better keep in line those who have debts or
doubts before you have answered their importunities for offices and
for favours.

The time is come when the land must be developed by the new
agriculture and farming made a business. This calls for money.
Every acre will repay a reasonable loan on long time at a fair
interest rate, and group-borrowing develops the men quite as much
as the men will develop the soil. It saved the German Empire and is
remaking Italy. And this is the proper use of much of the money
that now flows into the reach of the credit barons. This building
up of farm life will restore the equilibrium of our civilization
and, besides, will prove to be one half the solution of our
currency and credit problem. . . .

2. Set your trusted friends immediately to work, every man in the
field he knows best, to prepare briefs for you on such great
subjects and departments as the Currency, the Post Office,
Conservation, Rural Credit, the Agricultural Department, which has
the most direct power for good to the most people - to make our
farmers as independent as Denmark's and to give our best country
folk the dignity of the old-time English gentleman - this expert,
independent information to compare with your own knowledge and with
official reports.

3. The President reads (or speaks) his Inaugural to the people. Why
not go back to the old custom of himself delivering his Messages to
Congress? Would that not restore a feeling of comradeship in
responsibility and make the Legislative branch feel nearer to the
Executive? Every President of our time has sooner or later got away
with Congress.

I cannot keep from saying what a new thrill of hope and tingle of
expectancy I feel - as of a great event about to happen for our
country and for the restoration of popular government; for you will
keep your rudder true.

Most heartily yours,

To Governor Wilson,
Princeton, N.J.

Page was one of the first of Mr. Wilson's friends to discuss with the
President-elect the new legislative programme. The memorandum which he
made of this interview shows how little any one, in 1912, appreciated
the tremendous problems that Mr. Wilson would have to face. Only
domestic matters then seemed to have the slightest importance.
Especially significant is the fact that even at this early date, Page
was chiefly impressed by Mr. Wilson's "loneliness."

_Memorandum dated November 15, 1912_

To use the Government, especially the Department of Agriculture and the
Bureau of Education, to help actively in the restoration of country
life - that's the great chance for Woodrow Wilson, ten days ago elected
President. Precisely how well he understands this chance, how well, for
example, he understands the grave difference between the Knapp
Demonstration method of teaching farmers and the usual Agricultural
College method of lecturing to them, and what he knows about the rising
movement for country schools of the right sort, and agricultural credit
societies - how all this great constructive problem of Country Life lies
in his mind, who knows? I do not. If I do not know, who does know? The
political managers who have surrounded him these six months have now
done their task. _They_ know nothing of this Big Chance and Great
Outlook. And for the moment they have left him alone. In two days he
will go to Bermuda for a month to rest and to meditate. He ought to
meditate on this Constructive programme. It seemed my duty to go and
tell him about it. I asked for an interview and he telegraphed to go
to-day at five o'clock.

Arthur and I drove in the car and reached Princeton just before five - a
beautiful drive of something less than four hours from New York.
Presently we arrived at the Wilson house.

"The Governor is engaged," I was informed by the man who opened the
door. "He can see nobody. He is going away to-morrow."

"I have an appointment with him," said I, and I gave him my card.

"I know he can't see anybody."

"Will you send my card in?"

We waited at the door till the maid took it in and returned to say the
Governor would presently come down.

The reception room had a desk in the corner, and on a row of chairs
across the whole side of the room were piles of unopened letters. It is
a plain, modestly but decently furnished room, such as you would expect
to find in the modest house of a professor at Princeton. During his
presidency of the college, he had lived in the President's house in the
college yard. This was his own house of his professorial days.

"Hello, Page, come out here: I am glad to see you." There he stood in a
door at the back of the room, which led to his library and work room.
"Come back here."

"In the best of all possible worlds, the right thing does sometimes
happen," said I.


"And a great opportunity."

He smiled and was cordial and said some pleasant words. But he was
weary. "I have cobwebs in my head." He was not depressed but
oppressed - rather shy, I thought, and I should say rather lonely. The
campaign noise and the little campaigners were hushed and gone. There
were no men of companionable size about him, and the Great Task lay
before him. The Democratic party has not brought forward large men in
public life during its long term of exclusion from the Government; and
the newly elected President has had few opportunities and a very short
time to make acquaintances of a continental kind. This little college
town, this little hitherto corrupt state, are both small.

I went at my business without delay. The big country-life idea, the
working of great economic forces to put its vitalization within sight,
the coming equilibrium by the restoration of country life - all
coincident with his coming into the Presidency. His Administration must
fall in with it, guide it, further it. The chief instruments are the
Agricultural Department, the Bureau of Education, and the power of the
President himself to bring about Rural Credit Societies and similar
organized helps. He quickly saw the difference between Demonstration
Work by the Agricultural Department and the plan to vote large sums to
agricultural colleges and to the states to build up schools.

"Who is the best man for Secretary of Agriculture?"

I ought to have known, but I didn't. For who is?

"May I look about and answer your question later?"

"Yes, I will thank you."

"I wish to find the very best men for my Cabinet, regardless of
consequences. I do not forget the party as an instrument of government,
and I do not wish to do violence to it. But I must have the best men in
the Nation" - with a very solemn tone as he sat bolt upright, with a
stern look on his face, and a lonely look.

I told him my idea of the country school that must be and talked of the
Bureau of Education. He saw quickly and assented to all my propositions.

And then we talked somewhat more conservatively of Conservation, about
which he knows less.

I asked if he would care to have me make briefs about the Agricultural
Department, the Bureau of Education, the Rural Credit Societies, and
Conservation. "I shall be very grateful, if it be not too great a

I had gained that permission, which (if he respect my opinion) ought to
guide him somewhat toward a real understanding of how the Government may
help toward our Great Constructive Problem.

I gained also the impression that he has no sympathy with the idea of
giving government grants to schools and agricultural colleges - a very
distinct impression.

I had been with him an hour and had talked (I fear) too much. But he
seemed hearty in his thanks. He came to the front door with me, insisted
on helping me on with my coat, envied me the motor-car drive in the
night back to New York, spoke to eight or ten reporters who had crowded
into the hall for their interview - a most undignified method, it seemed
to me, for a President-elect to reach the public; I stepped out on the
muddy street, and, as I walked to the Inn, I had the feeling of the
man's oppressive loneliness as he faced his great task. There is no pomp
of circumstance, nor hardly dignity in this setting, except the dignity
of his seriousness and his loneliness.

* * * * *

There was a general expectation that Page would become a member of
President Wilson's Cabinet, and the place for which he seemed
particularly suited was the Secretaryship of Agriculture. The smoke of
battle had hardly passed away, therefore, when Page's admirers began
bringing pressure to bear upon the President-elect. There was probably
no man in the United States who had such completely developed views
about this Department as Page; and it is not improbable that, had
circumstances combined to offer him this position, he would have
accepted it. But fate in matters of this sort is sometimes kinder than a
man's friends. Page had a great horror of anything which suggested
office-seeking, and the campaign which now was started in his interest
greatly embarrassed him. He wrote Mr. Wilson, disclaiming all
responsibility and begging him to ignore these misguided efforts. As the
best way of checking the movement, Page now definitely answered Mr.
Wilson's question: Who was the best man for the Agricultural Department?
It is interesting to note that the candidate whom Page nominated in this
letter - a man who had been his friend for many years and an associate on
the Southern Education Board - was the man whom Mr. Wilson chose.

_To Woodrow Wilson_

Garden City, N.Y.
November 27, 1912.


I send you (wrongly, perhaps, when you are trying to rest) the
shortest statement that I could make about the demonstration
field-work of the Department of Agriculture. This is the best tool
yet invented to shape country life. Other (and shorter) briefs will
be ready in a little while.

You asked me who I thought was the best man for Secretary of
Agriculture. Houston[7], I should say, of the men that I know. You
will find my estimate of him in the little packet of memoranda. Van
Hise[8] may be as good or even better if he be young in mind and
adaptable enough. But he seems to me a man who may already have
done his big job.

I answer the other questions you asked at Princeton and I have
taken the liberty to send some memoranda about a few other men - on
the theory that every friend of yours ought now to tell you with
the utmost frankness about the men he knows, of whom you may be

The building up of the countryman is the big constructive job of
our time. When the countryman comes to his own, the town man will
no longer be able to tax, and to concentrate power, and to bully
the world.

Very heartily yours,

_To Henry Wallace_

Garden City, N.Y.
11 March, 1913.


What a letter yours is! By George! we must get on the job, you and
I, of steering the world - get on it a little more actively. Else it
may run amuck. We have frightful responsibilities in this matter.
The subject weighs the more deeply and heavily on me because I am
just back from a month's vacation in North Carolina, where I am
going to build me a winter and old-age bungalow. No; you would be
disappointed if you went out of your way to see my boys. Moreover,
they are now merely clearing land. They sold out the farm they put
in shape, after two years' work, for just ten times what it had
cost, and they are now starting another one _de novo_. About a year
hence, they'll have something to show. And next winter, when my
house is built down there, I want you to come and see me and see
that country. I'll show you one of the most remarkable farmers'
clubs you ever saw and many other interesting things as well - many,
very many. I'm getting into this farm business in dead earnest.
That's the dickens of it: how can I do my share in our partnership
to run the universe if I give my time to cotton-growing problems?
It's a tangled world.

Well, bless your soul! You and the younger Wallaces (my regards to
every one of them) and Poe[9] - you are all very kind to think of me
for that difficult place - too difficult by far, for me. Besides, it
would have cost me my life. If I were to go into public life, I
should have had to sell my whole interest here. This would have
meant that I could never make another dollar. More than that, I'd
have thrown away a trade that I've learned and gone at another one
that I know little about - a bad change, surely. So, you see, there
never was anything serious in this either in my mind or in the
President's. Arthur hit it off right one day when somebody asked

"Is your father going to take the Secretaryship of Agriculture?"

He replied: "Not seriously."

Besides, the President didn't ask me! He knew too much for that.

[Illustration: Charles D. McIver of Greensboro, North Caroline, a
leader in the cause of Southern Education]

[Illustration: Woodrow Wilson in 1912]

But he did ask me who would be a good man and I said "Houston." You
are not quite fair to him in your editorial. He does know - knows
much and well and is the strongest man in the Cabinet - in promise.
The farmers don't yet know him: that's the only trouble. Give him a

I've "put it up" to the new President and to the new Secretary to
get on the job immediately of _organizing country life_. I've drawn
up a scheme (a darned good one, too) which they have. I have good
hope that they'll get to it soon and to the thing that we have all
been working toward. I'm very hopeful about this. I told them both
last week to get their minds on this before the wolves devour them.
Don't you think it better to work with the Government and to try to
steer it right than to go off organizing other agencies?

God pity our new masters! The President is all right. He's sound,
earnest, courageous. But his party! I still have some muscular
strength. In certain remote regions they still break stones in the
road by hand. Now I'll break stones before I'd have a job at
Washington now. I spent four days with them last week - the new
crowd. They'll try their best. I think they'll succeed. But, if
they do succeed and survive, they'll come out of the scrimmage
bleeding and torn. We've got to stand off and run 'em, Uncle Henry.
That's the only hope I see for the country. Don't damn Houston,
then, beforehand. He's a real man. Let's get on the job and tell
'em how.

Now, when you come East, come before you need to get any of your
meetings and strike a bee-line for Garden City; and don't be in a
hurry when you get here. If a Presbyterian meeting be necessary for
your happiness, I'll drum up one on the Island for you. And, of
course, you must come to my house and pack up right and get your
legs steady sometime before you sail - you and Mrs. Wallace: will
she not go with you?

In the meantime, don't be disgruntled. We can steer the old world
right, if you'll just keep your shoulder to the wheel. We'll work
it all out here in the summer and verify it all (including your job
of setting the effete kingdoms of Europe all right) - we'll verify
it all next winter down in North Carolina. I think things have got
such a start that they'll keep going in some fashion, till we check
up the several items, political, ethical, agricultural,
journalistic, and international. God bless us all!

Most heartily always yours,


Though Mr. Wilson did not offer Page the Agricultural Department, he
much desired to have him in his Cabinet, and had already decided upon
him for a post which the new President probably regarded as more
important - the Interior. The narrow margin with which Page escaped this
responsibility illustrates again the slender threads upon which history
is constructed. The episode is also not without its humorous side. For
there was only one reason why Page did not enter the Cabinet as
Secretary of the Interior; and that is revealed in the above letter to
"Uncle Henry"; he was so busy planning his new house in the sandhills of
North Carolina that, while cabinets were being formed and great
decisions taken, he was absent from New York. A short time before the
inauguration, Mr. Wilson asked Colonel House to arrange a meeting with
Page in the latter's apartment. Mr. Wilson wished to see him on a
Saturday; the purpose was to offer him the Secretaryship of the
Interior. Colonel House called up Page's office at Garden City and was
informed that he was in North Carolina. Colonel House then telegraphed
asking Page to start north immediately, and suggesting the succeeding
Monday as a good time for the interview. A reply was at once received
from Page that he was on his way.

Meanwhile certain of Mr. Wilson's advisers had heard of the plan and
were raising objections. Page was a Southerner; the Interior Department
has supervision over the pension bureau, with its hundreds of thousands
of Civil War veterans as pensioners; moreover, Page was an outspoken
enemy of the whole pension system and had led several "campaigns"
against it. The appointment would never do! Mr. Wilson himself was
persuaded that it would be a mistake.

"But what are we going to do about Page?" asked Colonel House. "I have
summoned him from North Carolina on important business. What excuse
shall I give for bringing him way up here?"

But the President-elect was equal to the emergency.

"Here's the cabinet list," he drily replied. "Show it to Page. Tell him
these are the people I have about decided to appoint and ask him what he
thinks of them. Then he will assume that we summoned him to get his

When Page made his appearance, therefore, Colonel House gave him the
list of names and solemnly asked him what he thought of them. The first
name that attracted Page's attention was that of Josephus Daniels, as
Secretary of the Navy. Page at once expressed his energetic dissent.

"Why, don't you think he is Cabinet timber?" asked Colonel House.

"Timber!" Page fairly shouted. "He isn't a splinter! Have you got a time
table? When does the next train leave for Princeton?"

In a couple of hours Page was sitting with Mr. Wilson, earnestly
protesting against Mr. Daniels's appointment. But Mr. Wilson said that
he had already offered Mr. Daniels the place.


About the time of Wilson's election a great calamity befell one of
Page's dearest friends. Dr. Edwin A. Alderman, the President of the
University of Virginia, one of the pioneer educational forces in the
Southern States, and for years an associate of Page on the General
Education Board, was stricken with tuberculosis. He was taken to
Saranac, and here a patient course of treatment happily restored him to
health. One of the dreariest aspects of such an experience is its
tediousness and loneliness. Yet the maintenance of one's good spirits
and optimism is an essential part of the treatment. And it was in this
work that Page now proved an indispensable aid to the medical men. As
soon as Dr. Alderman found himself stretched out, a weak and isolated
figure, cut off from those activities and interests which had been his
inspiration for forty years, with no companions except his own thoughts
and a few sufferers like himself, letters began to arrive with weekly
regularity from the man whom he always refers to as "dear old Page." The
gayety and optimism of these letters, the lively comments which they
passed upon men and things, and their wholesome and genial philosophy,
were largely instrumental, Dr. Alderman has always believed, in his
recovery. Their effect was so instant and beneficial that the physicians
asked to have them read to the other patients, who also derived
abounding comfort and joy from them. The whole episode was one of the
most beautiful in Page's life, and brings out again that gift for
friendship which was perhaps his finest quality. For this reason it is
a calamity that most of these letters have not been preserved. The few
that have survived are interesting not only in themselves; they reveal
Page's innermost thoughts on the subject of Woodrow Wilson. That he
admired the new President is evident, yet these letters make it clear
that, even in 1912 and 1913, there was something about Mr. Wilson that
caused him to hesitate, to entertain doubts, to wonder how, after all,
the experiment was to end.

To Edwin A. Alderman

Garden City, L.I.
December 31, 1912.


I have a new amusement, a new excitement, a new study, as you have
and as we all have who really believe in democracy - a new study, a
new hope, and sometimes a new fear; and its name is Wilson. I have
for many years regarded myself as an interested, but always a
somewhat detached, outsider, believing that the democratic idea was
real and safe and lifting, if we could ever get it put into action,
contenting myself ever with such patches of it as time and accident
and occasion now and then sewed on our gilded or tattered garments.
But now it is come - the real thing; at any rate a man somewhat like
us, whose thought and aim and dream are our thought and aim and
dream. That's enormously exciting! I didn't suppose I'd ever become
so interested in a general proposition or in a governmental hope.

Will he do it? Can he do it? Can anybody do it? How can we help him
do it? Now that the task is on him, does he really understand? Do I
understand him and he me? There's a certain unreality about it.

The man himself - I find that nobody quite knows him now. Alas! I
wonder if he quite knows himself. Temperamentally very shy, having
lived too much alone and far too much with women (how I wish two of
his daughters were sons!) this Big Thing having descended on him

Online LibraryBurton Jesse HendrickThe Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, Volume I → online text (page 9 of 32)