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Philander Chase Knox

Date: unknown

History of US Senate: Philander Chase Knox


Ex-Secretary of State; b. Brownsville, Pa., May 6, 1853; Educ. A.B., Mt. Union Coll., Ohio, 1872; read law in office of H. B. Swope, Pittsburgh; (LL.D., U. of Pa., 1905, Yale, 1907, Villanova, 1909); Admitted to bar, 1875; asst. U. S. dist. atty., Western Dist. of Pa., 1876-7; Atty.-Gen. in cabinets of Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt, Apr. 9, 1901-June 30, 1904; apptd. U. S. senator by Governor Pennypacker, June 10, 1904, for unexpired term of Matthew Stanley Quay, deceased; elected U. S. senator, Jan., 1905, for term, 1905-11; Sec. of State in cabinet of President Taft, Mar., 1909-13: Reelected U. S. senator, for term 1917-23 . . .


"I LIKE Knox and I admire him tremendously, but I will not ask him to be my Secretary of State. He is too indifferent."

This characterization of the junior Senator from Pennsylvania, attributed to his late colleague President Harding, summarizes very aptly his strength and his weakness. One can very easily admire him and, when he drops the mask of dignity, which seems almost pompous in so diminutive a figure, one cannot help liking him. But in spite of his successes,--which his enemies attribute to luck, and he probably attributes to intellectual superiority,--he has never quite achieved greatness and will probably go down in history as one of the lesser luminaries in the political heavens.

Knox is indifferent, especially to those who do not know him intimately. It is not because he has been without ambition. On the contrary he has longed to soar like the eagle but he has the wings of the sparrow and whatever exertion he has made has ended in a feeble and futile fluttering.

I doubt if any man in public life has had so many honors thrust upon him. He has held three great offices of the Republic without so much as raising a hand for any of them. Unlike most men he did not travel the mucky road of politics to reach Washington nor compromise with circumstance to gain distinction. Three Presidents invited him to sit at their cabinet tables. Three times the Republican machine in Pennsylvania invited him to sit in the Senate. With graceful dignity he accepted all of these invitations not, indeed, unconscious of the fact that the selection in each case was a very happy one.

I do not mean by this that he is conceited. He is merely conscious of the fact that intellectually he is somewhat superior to his colleagues, most of whom, strangely enough, quite agree with him. They consult him and accept his counsel with almost childlike faith. To the mediocre politicians and provincial lawyers who constitute the bulk of the Senate and House of Representatives, he is a figure apart, who looks upon their antics with a kindly, but never amused, tolerance.

"I know nothing of politics," he said to me a short time ago. "I have never been interested in politics as such."

This remark is rather enigmatical to the average member, who would, ordinarily, look upon the author as a dolt or pretender. They do not dare to do either in the case of Mr. Knox; therefore, the conclusion that he is indifferent. Never have the men associated with Mr. Knox questioned his capacity.

Robert Lansing, when he was Secretary of State, said of him; "Senator Lodge will not understand the treaty but he will fight for it for political reasons. Senator Knox will understand it thoroughly."

The observation seems almost prophetic in the light of what has since been disclosed. Mr. Lansing's faith in Mr. Knox's judgment seems to have been fully justified. I know of no one who has held more steadfastly the respect of colleagues in the Senate or at the Cabinet table, nor who has been more easily successful up to a certain point or so singularly unsuccessful beyond it. He has done valiant service for his country but he has failed lamentably to reach the heights from which he could look upon broader horizons.

In the early days of his career no one strove more whole heartedly. Destiny smiled upon him and the White House seemed to beckon. He was not unaware of the opportunity nor was there anyone more eager to grasp it. But he discovered that he could not stir the enthusiasm that begets political power. The secret, which enabled many other men, many of whom he despised, to succeed, was not his.

A temperamental dislike of the methods of politicians was followed by a strong animosity towards those who crossed his political path and some of those who went along beside it. He became hypercritical of those with whom he associated and allowed a natural germ of cynicism to develop and flourish within him. Little by little he has with-drawn from the active combat, a philosopher in politics enamored of public life but unwilling to suffer the inconveniences it involves.

It is no wonder then that his colleagues in the Senate, especially the younger members, are somewhat in fear of the incisive tongue, for he wields it frequently and contemptuously. When after his election, Mr. Harding went South with Senator Frelinghuysen, Senator Davis Elkins, and Senator Hale, the older Senators, not, perhaps, without a tinge of disappointment at having been left out, marveled at the entourage the President had selected for himself, but Knox was cynically undisturbed.

"It is quite simple," he said, "I see nothing mysterious about it at all. The President wants relaxation--complete mental relaxation."

No less biting was his comment on Robert Lansing when that gentleman started on the high road of public service as Counselor of the State Department. The bandy-legged messenger who guards the door of the Secretary of State is the negro, Eddie Savoy. Eddie, in his way, is a personage. For forty years he has ushered diplomatists in and out of the Secretary's office; his short bent figure gives the only air of permanence to an institution which seems to be in a constant state of flux. When the Lansing appointment was announced Mr. Knox observed: "I would as soon ask Eddie Savoy an opinion on foreign affairs as Robert Lansing."

The roots of Mr. Knox's superciliousness dip down deep into the relationships begun a score of years ago. To understand him as he is it is necessary to understand him as he was when his career was before him. William McKinley asked him to become Attorney General in his Cabinet. He was then forty-two years old, a political nobody. What reputation he had was confined to Pittsburg and a selected few of the steel millionaires in Wall Street, but among the selected few were names to be conjured with, such as Andrew Carnegie and Henry C. Frick. Whether President McKinley's interest in Knox was spontaneous or prompted by Mr. Frick I do not know. Mr. Knox likes to believe that Mr. Frick did not enter into the equation. Mr. Knox declined, saying that he could not sacrifice his lucrative practice but that in four years he would accept the invitation if the President cared to renew it.

It was renewed. At the age of forty-six, Mr. Knox quit the bar for politics, or, as he would say, statecraft. His appointment evoked a storm of protest from such immaculate journals as the New York World. They dubbed him, "Frick's man," and predicted that the Department of Justice would be turned into a Wall Street anteroom for the convenience of the capitalistic combinations then flouting the Sherman anti-trust law. The charges, of course, were as wide of the mark as most of the ebullitions of the yellow journals.

Mr. Knox began his public career by attacking the Northern Securities merger, against the judgment of some of the highest-paid lawyers of the country. The Supreme Court sustained him. It was the greatest victory the government ever won under the Sherman law. Thereafter Mr. Knox, who had been labeled a corporation lawyer, was proclaimed a trust buster. By the time he was fifty he had become the greatest Attorney General in a half century. Certainly the mark he set has never been reached by any of his successors.

When Mr. Roosevelt came into the White House Mr. Knox was at the pinnacle of his career and was as much admired by his new chief as by his martyred predecessor. In ability Mr. Roosevelt considered him next to Elihu Root,--for which Mr. Root was never quite forgiven. It is generally known that President Roosevelt believed that Mr. Root was the best qualified man in the country to succeed him, but at the same time, being an astute politician, he knew that he could not be elected. His attitude to his Secretary of State was the same as Senator Lodge's toward himself, when he said in 1920: "I know that I would make an excellent President, but I realize that I would make a poor candidate."

Root being out of it because of this obvious defect, President Roosevelt proceeded to groom Mr. Knox for the nomination. Mr. Knox at the President's suggestion, prepared and delivered several speeches in the hope that he would awaken popular enthusiasm. The attempt failed dismally.

There was not a responsive throb, not even a vague echo. Mr. Knox knew that he possessed not the merest shred of the leadership necessary to a presidential candidate.

He went back to the Senate, where he had succeeded Matthew Quay upon his resignation from the Cabinet, sadder if wiser, while William H. Taft draped upon his broad shoulders the mantle of Roosevelt.

Mr. Knox has never quite recovered from that disappointment, but he did not altogether abandon hope. He accepted a place in the Taft Cabinet as Secretary of State, more for the opportunities it offered than for the pleasure of the associations, for Mr. Knox's attitude toward President Taft was never more than passive tolerance tinged with contempt. This new venture was no more successful than the old. He made it quite evident that a new regime was to be established in the State Department. The policies originated by John Hay and developed with singular brilliancy by Mr. Root were shunted into the background and a new era was proclaimed. It is unnecessary to comment on the dismal essay at "dollar diplomacy" and the Mexican policy of that period. The simple fact is that Mr. Knox's name is not associated with a single successful foreign policy. Some might have succeeded but unfortunately the energy displayed at the outset of his career in this new field was soon dissipated. Mr. Knox disliked the methods of diplomacy. He lacked both the patience and the finesse. He went to the Department, over which he was supposed to preside, but rarely. For weeks at a time Washington saw nothing of him. The administration of the Department was left largely to Huntington Wilson, whose ineptitude was colossal.

Fortunately for Mr. Knox the extent of his failure was somewhat screened from public view by the dust and clatter of the collapse of the Taft Administration, but it left its mark on him. He had failed dismally to eclipse his predecessor, Elihu Root. He had eliminated himself from all consideration as one of the very great statesmen of his period. He was a bitterly disappointed man. Not only his associates but the members of the diplomatic corps were made to feel the sting of his resentment against overwhelming circumstances. Such references as that directed at the French Ambassador, M. Jules Jusserand, now dean of the diplomatic corps, whom he called "the magpie," cost him many friends.

Upon the inauguration of President Wilson Mr. Knox slipped quietly away to Valley Forge. Public life, however, still had for him its attractions, and when Senator Oliver retired, he returned to the Senate. During the war his great talents were dormant. He merely came and went, a curious little detached figure apparently quite unresponsive to the emotions which swept the country during that eventful period.

With the signing of the armistice he aroused himself from his apparent torpor. Although he was quite without feeling during the stress and storm, the situation created by the presentation of the Treaty of Versailles with its interwoven League of Nations stirred his intellectual interest. He became the leader of the little band of "irreconcilables" who girded their armor to prevent what they regarded as a catastrophic sacrifice of American interests. At the same time Mr. Knox narrowly missed another opportunity to lift himself conspicuously above the heads of stump speakers who, for the most part, to-day comprise the Senate.

During that memorable fight Senator Lodge incurred the enmity at one time or another of every faction in the Senate. He could not be trusted to maintain the same position over night, shifting as expediency demanded until most of his colleagues, particularly the irreconcilables, were exasperated beyond endurance. At one of the most critical periods Senator Borah appealed to Senator Knox to wrest the leadership from the Massachusetts Senator, with intimations that he would have the support of the "bitter enders" at the forthcoming convention at Chicago. Mr. Knox does not love Mr. Lodge but he refused to consider the proposal. He was indifferent. His last great political opportunity went glimmering.

As I have said Mr. Knox can be very charming but I doubt that he sincerely admires any of the public men with whom he has been associated, or can call any of them, from the purely personal viewpoint, his friends, with the possible exception of Andrew Mellon, whom he caused to be appointed Secretary of the Treasury. Of course, he likes many of his colleagues, after a fashion, especially those who admire him, but that is another matter. The intimacy usually implied in the term friendship does not enter into such relations.

For some of the more important men he has known, he has shown a very distinct dislike. It is said of him that he thought President Harding overlooked a real opportunity when he failed to invite him to become Secretary of State, but his disappointment was somewhat mollified by the fact that Mr. Root was not asked to take the post.

Mr. Knox prefers to look upon Mr. Root as a lucky lawyer who has taken to himself much of the credit of John Hay's great work. He shows an even less regard for Mr. Lodge's talents. And he is doubtful of Mr. Hughes.

His attitude towards the Secretary of State dates back to the insurance scandals. At that time Mr. Frick asked Mr. Knox to make an investigation and suggest a course of action to avert a national disaster. This Mr. Knox did in his thorough and painstaking way. A little later, when Mr. Hughes was appointed to make a public inquiry, the Knox report was laid before him, and according to the author of it, he followed precisely the lines therein indicated creating for himself a national reputation and laying the foundation of a public career. Credit was not given Mr. Knox. It has been suggested that the incident might have been an illustration of two great minds seeking the same channel. Mr. Knox does not think so.

In spite of his disappointments and failures, the dignified little Senator from Pennsylvania who has been so many times on the verge of greatness, seems to think that he could have done just a little better than any of those who have achieved it, had circumstance given him the opportunity. Perhaps he might. It is a compliment that few men merit to be called merely indifferent.

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The Forgotten Statesman: Philander Knox and the Politics of the Early 1900s by Mike Bertram, TEHS Quarterly, vol. 47 #1 (March 2010)