Theodore Roosevelt and the Almost Second Civil War



Theodore Roosevelt never made any secret of his detestation of Woodrow Wilson, thus it was small wonder that his campaign for President in 1920 was a crusade to eradicate the legacy of his successor in the White House.  This was congenial to almost all Republicans, and Roosevelt was coronated, rather than inaugurated, at the Republican national convention in 1920.  Forgotten was the schism in the Republican Party in 1912 between Progressives and Conservatives.  Roosevelt, in his acceptance speech, proclaimed that he knew not either Progressives or Conservatives, but only Republicans.  He sealed the deal by having Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding as his running mate, the man who had given the nomination speech for Taft at the bitterly divided Republican national convention in 1912.  The Democrats nominated Governor James M. Cox of Ohio, and, in one of the more flat footed moves in American political history, nominated as Vice-President former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a distant relative of Theodore Roosevelt, who was married to the niece of the former President.  Democrats earned ridicule with the campaign slogan:  Vote for our Roosevelt! and an embarrassed Franklin Roosevelt quickly announced that he held his uncle by marriage in the highest esteem and that he would not think of comparing himself to him.  Theodore Roosevelt campaigned like a human cyclone, and won in a historic landslide with 65% of the popular vote and 417 electoral votes, breaching the Old Confederacy by taking the state of Tennessee.  Roosevelt said on election night that he had never felt so good since the charge up San Juan Hill.

Behind the scenes however, concerns were being raised about the health of the President Elect.  Since 1918 rheumatism had plagued him, and the assorted injuries and illnesses of a tempestuous lifetime were grinding him down.  In public he still projected an air of robust vigor.  In private he was often exhausted and frequently unwell.

Nonetheless his administration started well.  He negotiated separate peace treaties with Germany, Austria and Hungary so the US was no longer technically at war with these former members of the Central Powers.  He sent an American observer to the League of Nations, and announced that the US would join in League actions if such actions were in the interests of the US.

On the domestic front he once again made a strong plea for a Federal anti-lynching law, only to see it die in the Senate, once again, at the hands of Democratic Southern senators. This had happened before during his first go round as President, but he was not going to tolerate this outcome now.  Roosevelt had been deeply moved by the sight of the hundreds of thousands of blacks who served faithfully in the military during the Great War.  He had been disgusted by the segregation of the Federal civil service by Wilson, and he had been alarmed by the bloody race riots that occurred during the Great War and its aftermath.  Roosevelt was convinced that the nation could no longer afford the evil luxury of treating its black citizens as fifth class Americans.  Conferring with his old friend Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, President Roosevelt had the Republicans use their 9 seat majority in the Senate to do away with the Senate filibuster, which caused a considerable uproar around the nation, particularly in the South.  The uproar increased markedly in volume when the Senate passed the anti-lynching law and rose to typhoon level when the House and Senate passed what was popularly known as the Lodge Force Bill of 1921, which basically put the Federal government in charge of elections, the purpose of which was to ensure the right of blacks in the South to vote.  This was a revival of a bill that Senator Lodge first had proposed in 1890.

President Roosevelt expected that these moves would be unpopular in the South among whites, but he was stunned by the reaction that resulted.  Southern governors meeting in Richmond, Virginia drew up a proclamation that stated that the South would resist the Federal election takeover in the courts, and by force if necessary.   The proclamation further recited that Southern National Guard units would never be used against the white citizens of the South and that any efforts to federalize the Southern National Guard to enforce the will of the Federal government on white citizens would be null and void.  A conference of all Southern states was scheduled for January 19, 1922, the birthday of Robert E. Lee, in Montgomery, Alabama to consider what further efforts to make in response to the actions of the Roosevelt administration.

Never a man to back down from a fight, Roosevelt had Congress pass what became known as the Roosevelt Force Bill on November 1, 1921, which authorized the President to call for a million volunteers in the event of a domestic insurrection.  At the same time he gave a speech on November 11, 1921 in which he noted that the North and the South had spilled their blood together on the battlefields of the Spanish-American War and the Great War and that present passions must not allow them to see in their own day the horrible bloodshed of the Civil War played out again.

Who knows what might have happened if TR had not died in his sleep on November 15, 1921, worn down by the cares of office and his own poor health.  Vice President Warren G. Harding spoke for many Americans when he said:  Death had to take him in his sleep, for if he was awake there’d have been a fight. 

As President, Harding now had to deal with a nation on the brink of a second civil war, less than sixty years after the first Civil War.  The newly formed American Legion began the process of compromise that ultimately led to the avoidance of War.  American Legion posts around the nation passed resolutions calling on Congress to resolve the differences between North and South peacefully, further announcing that no member of the post would ever fight against fellow Americans.  Veterans of Foreign War posts swiftly followed suit, as did the elderly veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic and the various Confederate veteran organizations.  The American Peace Society was founded, dedicated to the proposition that Americans would never fight against each other again.  Black Republicans were aghast, afraid that their long awaited deliverance from disenfranchisement in the South was to be taken away from them.  Their fears were prescient.

President Harding met with leaders of Congress from December 26, 1921 to January 1, 1922 and hammered out what came to be known as the Compromise of 1922.  The main provisions  were as follows:

  1.  The anti-lynching law would remain in effect.
  2. The Lodge Force Bill would be repealed.
  3. A Commission appointed by the President would be set up to study the issue of the civil rights of negroes in the South.
  4. The Senate filibuster would be reestablished and a constitutional amendment passed enshrining the Senate filibuster in the Constitution, with the proviso that the filibuster could be overridden in regard to legislation which would have passed in three consecutive Congresses, absent the use of the filibuster.

As with all compromises, no one was completely happy with it, especially black Republicans, but with the alternative being civil war the measure was passed overwhelmingly by Congress, and the Filibuster Amendment was approved by the requisite number of the states by Thanksgiving of 1922.  In his State of the Union address of December 8, 1922, President Harding praised the return to normalcy, a new word the President coined, in the nation.

Almost unnoticed in all the political furor over civil war, the nation had recovered from the post war slump, and the economy was roaring along.  In reaction to the avoidance of civil war and the good economy, an ebullient mood swept across the nation, and what historians called the Second Era of Good Feelings began.

Political prognosticators were predicting a landslide win in 1924 for the popular President Harding when a dazed country woke up on August 3, 1923 to learn that Harding had died of a heart attack in San Francisco the day before.  Two Presidents dying in a period of less than two years struck most Americans as an ill omen.  The new President, Senator Albert B. Cummins of Iowa, the President Pro Temporare of the Senate, would have his work cut out for him.

Published in: on April 1, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Theodore Roosevelt and the Almost Second Civil War  
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