Prophets True and False
By Oswald Garrison Villard
A. A. Knoff, 1928
“For a good many years now," wrote a Washington correspondent in 1908, "the demand for Philander Chase Knox has greatly exceeded the visible available supply. Mr. Knox is five feet five inches high most highly finished domestic product. The incoming, like the out-going, Secretary of Slate has made a specialty of brains. The thing Mr. Knox does best is to accomplish what he sets out to do. It has become a habit." From 1901 until his death in 1921 Mr. Knox was Attorney General in the Cabinets of McKinley and Roosevelt, Secretary of State under Mr. Taft, and thrice Senator from Pennsylvania. During that time he twice declined appointment to the Supreme Court of the United States and refused the Governorship of Pennsylvania. More than that, he came much nearer to being nominated for President of the United States at the convention of 1920 than all but a few people understood. For instance, had Senator Johnson of California been clear headed enough to realize his defeat at that convention and thrown his strength to Knox before the early morning conclave which nominated Harding, and had Senator Penrose not been kept away from the convention by ill health. Senator Knox might easily have been the nominee and the United States been spared the most disgraceful administration in its history.
Curiously enough there were many liberals and progressives in Chicago who earnestly hoped that Senator Knox might be chosen even though during a large part of his career he had been anathema to them andhad borne the brunt of many an attack upon the conservative wing of the party. In the first place this "sawed-off cherub," as Mr. Roosevelt once dubbed Him, was, like Mr. Root and Mr. Spooner and many another lawyer-leader of the Republicans, a product of big business. His wits were sharpened in their workshops, his experience acquired over their briefs. They counted him their own when he entered McKinley's Cabinet and later rejoiced that he was to be a "steadying influence” when the "wild man," Roosevelt, came to Presidential power by the accident of an assassin's shot. Mr. Knox was, and for a long time had been, of Andrew Carnegie's counsel when he look office, and Mr. Carnegie testified that he urged William McKinley to make Mr. Knox his Attorney General at the same time that he put Mr. Reed, Mr. Knot's law partner, into the directorate of the United States Steel Corporation. But if Mr. Carnegie, or anybody else, expected that that would make things comfortable for big business, he experienced some sad shocks. When President Roosevelt asked Mr. Knox if the elder J. Pierpont Morgan could not be omitted from the list of defendants to the Government's suit against the Northern Securities Company, Mr. Knox replied: "Well, Mr. President, if you direct me to leave his name out
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the Roosevelt corporation policies belongs to Mr. Knox. It is certain that his Pittsburgh speech of 1902 ushered in a new era in the relations of the Government and the large corporations, which was bitterly resisted at the time by the latter. His Northern Securities case was started and won. The Beef Trust prosecutions were begun and the first moves made against Standard Oil. It was because he was particularly the agent of Roosevelt that his nomination as President was urged by a number of newspapers in 1908. It may well be asked now how effective this anti-trust campaign really was. Not only have the dissolutions of the Standard Oil and other trusts failed to check abuses, but in the latest railroad policies we are moving directly in the opposite direction from the Northern Securities decision and are even trying to put together the very Pacific railroads Mr. Knox separated. By many it has now been recognized that our economic evils call for much more radical remedies than the Sherman Anti-Trust Law. None the less, Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Knox are entitled to great credit for a course which, at the time, called for personal and political courage.
Mr. Knox was never afraid to talk back to the impetuous President he served. Mr. Roosevelt once said in his presence that the Attorney General could give a complete criticism of Gibbon's "Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire" in three hundred words. Quick as a flash Mr. Knox replied: "And of recent Presidential messages in less!" In the middle of the Panama theft - which Mr. Knox subsequently defended on the ground that the "interests of the world imposed upon this government an imperative mandate to build the Canal” - he was asked by Mr. Roosevelt for his advice. "I am sorry that you have asked for my opinion,” replied Mr. Knox, "because, up to the present time, the proceedings have been free from any taint of law!” In 1912 Mr. Knox naturally stood by Mr. Taft in whose Cabinet he sat and said of his former chief, Mr. Roosevelt, that he would be defeated "unless the Republican Party has become the plaything of one man, prompted by his whims, his imperious ambitions, his vanities, and mysterious antipathies," On October 2, 1904, Mr. Knox had taken a very different view of Mr. Roosevelt. Then he found him to be one "endowed by the Creator" with "high menial and temperamental qualifications for his great office," “a peculiarly fit public servant," who had achieved "lasting benefits to the nation and to humanity."
As Attorney General Mr. Knox made himself so obnoxious to the corporations that three corporation magnates, A. J. Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, John D. Archbold, of Standard Oil, and Henry C. Frick, of the Steel Corporation, paid $500,000 to have him appointed to the vacancy in the Senate caused by the death of Senator Quay, He was too effective a "trust busier" for these men and so they took up notes of the managers of the State machine, aggregating a half million dollars, which notes were held by the estate of the then recently deceased Henry W, Oliver of Pittsburgh. In return Mr. Knox's appointment to
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arbitration treaties and as he urged the international court which the world must and shall have, and then made American capitalists masters in Central America, so he tried to induce Russia and Japan to neutralize the Manchurian Railway, and then turned around and joined lie Six-Power group for the financial exploitation—and aid—of China. President Wilson promptly took us out of the Six-Power group declaring—how odd it sounds! —that there should he "no entangling foreign alliances even in respect to arrangements for supervising the financial compacts of weaker governments . . . the responsibility of the United States in the Six-Power group is obnoxious to the principles upon which this government rests." (That master of inconsistencies, Mr. Wilson, later joined the Four-Power group to do the very thing for China which Mr. Knox proposed and Mr. Wilson denounced in the above language.) Mr. Knox was always friendly to the Japanese and the Chinese. A group of reporters on one occasion asked him whether he favoured a war with Japan. "I do favour it,” he replied, "provided, however, that there are no soldiers on either side except newspaper reporters." The London Times once remarked that there was a marked conflict "between the American people's high ideals of humanitarianism and justice, their ready response to any noble cause, their almost quixotic impulses of altruism and the inevitable result in practical politics of their vigorous nationalism and ambitions of expansion." Under the false liberal, Woodrow Wilson, it was precisely this conflict of aims and impulses which has got the United Slates into such trouble both abroad and in the Caribbean. Sometimes one asks whether, until we reach the day of a square deal in international relations, we should not be better off in the hands of an honest imperialist like Philander Knox than of a faithless liberal. For his fight against the Treaty of Versailles Senator Knox deserves the highest credit because, despite the charges to the contrary, he made his fight against it not on partisan or merely nationalistic grounds but on principle, and because of a deep sense of outrage at the entire Versailles treaty - yes, because of a genuine idealism. The drafter of the Senatorial round robin which correctly served notice on Woodrow Wilson in February, 1919, that the treaty would never be ratified if intertwined with the Covenant of the League of Nations, Mr. Knox was one of the three or four men to whom belongs the chief credit of having kept the United Slates from the dishonour of ratifying a treaty which history will surely record as the self-inflicted defeat of the Allies and one of the greatest disasters to humanity. Mr. Knox’s legal skill, his parliamentary experience, his natural acumen and ability, the power of his speeches, all contributed enormously to the result of what seemed at first a hopeless fight against impossible odds. Probably no liberal could have accomplished as much in some directions. Certainly it made the business and political world take notice to find a rich conservative like Philander C. Knox voicing sentiments that came also from such "flighty" Senators as McCormick, Reed, La Follette, Johnson, Norris, and Borah, and were so singularly like those advanced by such "dangerously radical" journals as The Nation and the New Republic, albeit from a different point of view.
What gave Mr. Knox even greater power was his ability to formulate constructive suggestions. His opposition to the Versailles Treaty was not merely opposition; he had alternatives. It isnow permissible to say that the constructive plan for an alternative to the League of Nations, published in The Nation of November 17, 1920, was, save in one or two respects, identical with a memorandum prepared by Mr. Knox and held in reserve by him for use at a future time. This was the case whenever he was in opposition; his portfolio always contained an alternative proposal.
It is finally to be pointed out that on all the great social issues, on the vital questions of labour and capital, Mr. Knox either expressed himself not at all or voted with the standpatters. If he had a program for domestic social reform, or a plan for our economic regeneration, the world is as yet ignorant of it. Nor did he make any fight for our gravely jeopardized personal liberties or the Constitution which is daily spat upon by the constituted authorities sworn to honour and respect and enforce it. Yet the disappearance from the Senate of this intellect was a genuine loss to the nation and not merely because there are now few Senators of first-rate intellectual ability and distinction. So it happened that Mr. Knox's untimely death was mourned alike by conservatives and by all the liberals who knew and understood him and valued his downright honesty and courage.
The Forgotten Statesman: Philander Knox and the Politics of the Early 1900s by Mike Bertram, TEHS Quarterly, vol. 47 #1 (March 2010)