IV THE WILSONIAN ERA BEGINS
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 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]
MY DEAR MR. PRESIDENT-ELECT:
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 privilege.
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,
WALTER H. PAGE.
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."
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 sacrifice."
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 qualified 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.
MY DEAR WILSON:
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 he ready in a little while.
You asked me who I thought was the best man for Secretary of Agriculture. Houston,I should say, of the men that I know. You will find my estimate of him in the little packet of memoranda. Van Hise()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 thinking.
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,
WALTER H. PAGE.
To Henry Wallace
Garden City, N. Y.
11 March, 1913.
MY DEAR UNCLE HENRY:
What a letter yours is! By George I 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---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 him:
"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.
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 chance.
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,
WALTER H. PAGE.
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 advice."
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.
MY DEAR ED ALDERMAN:
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 before he knew or was quite prepared for it, thrust into a whirl of self-seeking men even while he is trying to think out the theory of the duties that press, knowing the necessity of silence, surrounded by small people---well, I made up my mind that his real friends owed it to him and to what we all hope for, to break over his reserve and to volunteer help. He asks for conferences with official folk ---only, I think. So I began to write memoranda about those subjects of government about which I know something and have opinions and about men who are or who may be related to them. It has been great sport to set down in words without any reserve precisely what you think. It is imprudent, of course, as most things worth doing are. But what have I to lose, I who have my life now planned and laid out and have got far beyond the reach of gratitude or hatred or praise or blame or fear of any man? I sent him some such memoranda. Here came forthwith a note of almost abject thanks. I sent more. Again, such a note---written in his own hand. Yet not a word of what he thinks. The Sphinx was garrulous in comparison. Then here comes a mob of my good friends crying for office for me. So I sent a ten-line note, by the hand of my secretary, saying that this should not disturb my perfect frankness nor (I knew it would not) his confidence. Again, a note in his own hand, of perfect understanding and with the very glow of gratitude. And he talks---generalities to the public. Perhaps that's all he can talk now. Wise? Yes. But does he know the men about him? Does he really know men? Nobody knows. Thus 'twixt fear and hope I see--suspense. I'll swear I can't doubt, I can't believe. Whether it is going to work out or not-whether he or anybody can work it out of the haze of theory---nobody, knows; and nobody's speculation is better than mine and mine is worthless.
This is the game, this is the excitement, this is the doubthope and the hopedoubt. I send this word about it to you (I could and would to nobody else: you're snowbound, you see, and don't write much and don't see many people: restrain your natural loquacity!) But for the love of heaven tell me if you see any way very clearly. It's a kind of misty dream to me.
I ask myself why should I concern myself about it? Of course the answer's easy and I think creditable: I do profoundly hold this democratic faith and believe that it can be worked into action among men; and it may be I shall yet see it done. That's the secret of my interest. But when this awful office descends on a man, it oppresses him, changes him, you are not quite so sure of him, you doubt whether he knows himself or you in the old way.
And I find among men the very crudest ideas of government or of democracy. They have not thought the thing out. They hold no ordered creed of human organization or advancement. They leave all to chance and think, when they think at all, that chance determines it. And yet the Great Hope persists, and I think I have grown an inch by it.
I wonder how it seems, looked at from the cold mountains of Lake Saranac?
It's the end of the year. Mrs. Page and I (alone I) have been talking of democracy, of these very things I've written. The bell-ringing and the dancing and the feasting are not, on this particular year, to our liking.
We see all our children gone---half of them to nests of their own building, the rest on errands of their own pleasure, and we are left, young yet, but the main job of life behind us! We're going down to a cottage in southern North Carolina (with our own cook and motor car, praise God!) for February, still further to think this thing out and incidentally to build us a library, in which we'll live when we can. That, for convention's sake, we call a Vacation.
Your brave note came to-day. Of course, you'll "get " 'em----those small enemies. The gain of twelve pounds tells the story. The danger is, your season of philosophy and reverie will be too soon ended. Don't fret; the work and the friends will be here when you come down. There's many a long day ahead; and there may not be so many seasons of rest and meditation. You are the only man I know who has time enough to think out a clear answer to this: "What ought to be done with Bryan? " What can be done with Bryan? When you find the answer, telegraph it to me.
I've a book or two more to send you. If they interest you, praise the gods. If they bore you, fling 'em in the snow and think no worse of me. You can't tell what a given book may be worth to a given man in an unknown mood. They've become such a commodity to me that I thank my stars for a month away from them when I may come at 'em at a different angle and really need a few old ones----Wordsworth, for instance. When you get old enough, you'll wake up some day with the feeling that the world is much more beautiful than it was when you were young, that a landscape has a closer meaning, that the sky is more companionable, that outdoor colour and motion are more splendidly audacious and beautifully rhythmical than you had ever thought. That's true. The gently snow-clad little pines out my window are more to me than the whole Taft Administration. They'll soon be better than the year's dividends. And the few great craftsmen in words who can confirm this feeling---they are the masters you become grateful for. Then the sordidness of the world lies far beneath you and your great democracy is truly come---the democracy of Nature. To be akin to a tree, in this sense, is as good as to be akin to a man. I have a grove of little long-leaf pines down in the old country and I know they'll have some consciousness of me after all men have forgotten me: I've saved 'em, and they'll sing a century of gratitude if I can keep 'em saved. Joe Holmes gave me a dissertation on them the other day. He was down there "on a little Sunday jaunt" of forty miles---the best legs and the best brain that ever worked together in one anatomy.
A conquering New Year-that's what you'll find, begun before this reaches you, carrying all good wishes from
W. H. P.
To Edwin A. Alderman
Garden City, New York,
January 26, 1913.
MY DEAR ED ALDERMAN:
This has been "Board"week, as you know. The men came from all quarters of the land, and we had a good time. New work is opening; old work is going well; the fellowship ran in good tide---except that everybody asked everybody else: "What do you know about Alderman?" Everybody who had late news of you gave a good report. The Southern Board formally passed a resolution to send affectionate greetings to you and high hope and expectation, and I was commissioned to frame the message. This is it. I shall write no formal resolution, for that wasn't the spirit of it. The fellows all asked me, singly and collectively, to send their love. And we don't put that sort of a message under whereases and wherefores. There they were, every one of them, except Peabody and Bowie. Mr. Ogden in particular was anxious for his emphatic remembrance and good wishes to go. The dear old man is fast passing into the last stage of his illness and he knows it and he soon expects the end, in a mood as brave and as game as he ever was. I am sorry to tell you he suffers a good deal of pain.
What a fine thing to look back over---this Southern Board's work! Here was a fine, zealous merchant twenty years ago, then fifty-seven years old, who saw this big job as a modest layman. If he had known more about "Education" or more about "the South, bygawd, sir!" he'd never have had the courage to tackle the job. But with the bravery of ignorance, he turned out to be the wisest man on that task in our generation. He has united every real, good force, and he showed what can be done in a democracy even by one zealous man. I've sometimes thought that this is possibly the wisest single piece of work that I have ever seen done---wisest, not smartest. I don't know what can be done when he's gone. His phase of it is really done. But, if another real leader arise, there will doubtless be another phase.
The General Board doesn't find much more college-endowing to do. We made only one or two gifts. But we are trying to get the country school task rightly focussed. We haven't done it yet; but we will. Buttrick and Rose will work it out. I wish to God I could throw down my practical job and go at it with 'em. Darned if I couldn't get it going! though I say it, as shouldn't. And we are going pretty soon to begin with the medical colleges; that, I think, is good---very.
But the most efficient workmanlike piece of organization that my mortal eyes have ever seen is Rose's hookworm work. We're going soon to organize country life in a sanitary way, the county health officer being the biggest man on the horizon. Stiles has moved his marine hospital and his stall to Wilmington, North Carolina, and he and the local health men are quietly going to make New Hanover the model county for sanitary condition and efficiency. You'll know what a vast revolution that denotes!---And Congress seems likely to charter the big Rockefeller Foundation, which will at once make five millions available for chasing the hookworm off the face of the earth. Rose will spread himself over Honduras, etc., etc., and China, and India! This does literally beat the devil; for, if the hookworm isn't the devil, what is?
I'm going to farming. I've two brothers and two sons, all young and strong, who believe in the game. We have land without end, thousands of acres; engines to pull stumps, to plough, to plant, to reap. The nigger go hang! A white boy with an engine can outdo a dozen of 'em. Cotton and corn for staple crops; peaches, figs, scuppernongs, vegetables, melons for incidental crops; God's good air in North Carolina; good roads, too---why, man, Moore County has authorized the laying out of a strip of land along all highways to be planted in shrubbery and fruit trees and kept as a park, so that you will motor for 100 miles through odorous bloom in spring !---I mean I am going down there to-morrow for a month, one day for golf at Pinehurst, the next day for clearing land with an oil locomotive, ripping up stumps! Every day for life out-of-doors and every night, too. I'm going dasheens. You know what a dasheen is? It's a Trinidad potato, which keeps and tastes like a sweet potato stuffed with chestnuts. There are lots of things to learn in this world.
God bless us all, old man. It's a pretty good world, whether seen from the petty excitements of reforming the world and dreaming of a diseaseless earth in New York, or from the stump-pulling recreation of a North Carolina wilderness.
Health be with you!
W. H. P.
To Edwin A. Alderman
Garden City, L. I.
March 10, 1913.
MY DEAR ED ALDERMAN:
I'm home from a month of perfect climate in the sandhills of North Carolina, where I am preparing a farm and building a home at least for winter use; and I had the most instructive and interesting month of my life there. I believe I see, even in my life-time, the coming of a kind of man and a kind of life that shall come pretty near to being the model American citizen and the model American way to live. Half of it is climate; a fourth of it occupation; the other fourth, companionship. And the climate (with what it does) is three fourths companionship.
Then I came to Washington and saw Wilson made President---a very impressive experience indeed. The future ---God knows; but I believe in Wilson very thoroughly. Men fool him yet. Men fool us all. He has already made some mistakes. But he's sound. And, if we have moral courage enough to beat back the grafters, little and big---I mean if we, the people, will vote two years and four years hence, to keep them back, I think that we shall now really work toward a democratic government. I have a stronger confidence in government now as an I instrument of human progress than I have ever had before. And I find it an exhilarating and exciting experience.
I have seen many of your good friends in North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington. How we all do love you, old man! Don't forget that, in your successful fight. And, with my affectionate greetings to Mrs. Alderman, ask her to send me the news of your progress.
Always affectionately yours,
WALTER H. PAGE.
To Edwin A. Alderman
On the Baltic, New York to Liverpool,
May 19, 1913.
MY DEAR ED ALDERMAN:
It was the best kind of news I heard of you during my last weeks at home---every day of which I wished to go to Briarcliff to see you. At a distance, it seems absurd to say that it was impossible to go. But it was. I set down five different days in my calendar for this use; and somehow every one of them was taken. Two were taken by unexpected calls to Washington. Another was taken by my partners who arranged a little good-bye dinner. Another was taken by the British Ambassador---and so on. Absurd---of course it was absurd, and I feel now as if it approached the criminal. But every stolen day I said, "Well, I'll find another." But another never came.
But good news of you came by many hands and mouths. My congratulations, my cheers, my love, old man. Now when you do take up work again, don't take up all the work. Show the fine virtue called self-restraint. We work too much and too hard and do too many things even when we are well. There are three titled Englishmen who sit at the table with me on this ship---one a former Lord Mayor of London, another a peer, and the third an M. P. Damn their self-sufficiencies! They do excite my envy. They don't shoulder the work of the world: they shoulder the world and leave---the work to be done by somebody else. Three days' stories and political discussion with them have made me wonder why the devil I've been so industrious all my life. They know more than I know; they are richer than I am; they have been about the world more than I have; they are far more influential than I am; and yet one of them asked me to-day if George Washington was a born American! I said to him, "Where the devil do you suppose he came from---Hades? " And he laughed at himself as heartily as the rest of us laughed at him, and didn't care a hang!
If that's British, I've a mind to become British; and, the, point is, you must, too. Work is a curse. There was some truth in that old doctrine. At any rate a little of it must henceforth go a long way with you.
A sermon? Yes. But, since it's a good one, I know you'll forgive me; for it is preached in love, my dear boy, and accompanied with the hearty and insistent hope that you'll write to me.
This last letter apparently anticipates the story. A few weeks before it was written President Wilson had succeeded in carrying out his determination to make Page an important part of his Administration. One morning Page's telephone rang and Colonel House's well-known and well-modulated voice came over the wire.
"Good morning, Your Excellency," was his greeting.
"What the devil are you talking about?" asked Page. Then Colonel House explained himself. The night before, he said, he had dined at the White House. In a pause of the conversation the President had quietly remarked:
"I've about made up my mind to send Walter Page to England. What do you think of that?"
Colonel House thought very well of it indeed and the result of his conversation was this telephone call, in which he was authorized to offer Page the Ambassadorship to Great Britain.
- Mr. David F. Houston, ex-President of the University of Texas, and in 1912 Chancellor of the Washington University of St. Louis.
- Charles R. Van Hise, President of the University of Wisconsin.
- Clarence Poe, editor of The Progressive Farmer.
- The reference is to the meeting of the Southern and the General Education Boards. Back to text.