Text and Context in Ohio’s 1938 Senate Campaign: Race, Republican Party Ideology, and Robert A. Taft’s Firestone Memorial Oration

By: Clarence E. Wunderlin, Jr.

In the spring of 1938, Ohio Republicans were well aware of the erosion of support among the African-American population for the “Party of Lincoln.” Between 1932 and 1936, black voters had transferred their allegiance en masse to the Democratic Party. Although most African Americans had remained with Hoover and the Grand Old Party (GOP) in 1932, a massive electoral “realignment” began with the 1934 mid-term congressional races. The 2.4 million blacks who had migrated to northern cities were no longer willing to accept their lot as second-class citizens. New Deal programs politicized black voters across the nation; numerous measures that augmented black incomes, increased literacy rates and education levels, and engaged citizens in community activities also mobilized African Americans for the Democratic Party. While black political organizing became commonplace in the cities of the industrial North and Midwest, urban blacks in the Upper South likewise registered and voted in increasingly large numbers. For the first time in 1934, a majority of black Americans voted for Democratic candidates.1

Republicans responded with a vigorous effort to win back these voters in 1936. The GOP labeled presidential candidate Alf Landon of Kansas as “a spiritual descendent” of John Brown. In his own efforts to convince black voters, Candidate Landon emphasized his support for civil rights legislation and his aim to reintegrate African Americans into the national economy. Despite the Republican Party’s precedent-setting efforts, however, this electoral realignment could not be halted. The New Deal’s work programs, administered through such popular agencies as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Youth Administration, employed thousands of young blacks. As historian Paul Moreno has shown, black workers benefited significantly from the racial quotas and “racial proportionalism” that had governed federal employment in New Deal relief and public works agencies since the early 1930s. The Roosevelt administration also initiated numerous educational programs, employed African Americans on those federal projects, and appointed many blacks to federal positions, reversing the old Wilsonian policy of racial exclusion. This “new deal” for blacks, plus the impetus of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s civil rights activism, led to the transformative electoral victory of 1936. According to Gallup Polls, 76 percent of northern blacks voted Democratic in the second Roosevelt election. “In every Northern city but Chicago,” observed Harvard Sitkoff, historian of New Deal-era race relations, “blacks voted at least 60 percent for Roosevelt, and even in the Windy Republicans responded with a vigorous effort to win back these voters in 1936. The GOP labeled presidential candidate Alf Landon of Kansas as “a spiritual descendent” of John Brown. In his own efforts to convince black voters, Candidate Landon emphasized his support for civil rights legislation and his aim to reintegrate African Americans into the national economy. Despite the Republican Party’s precedent-setting efforts, however, this electoral realignment could not be halted. The New Deal’s work programs, administered through such popular agencies as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Youth Administration, employed thousands of young blacks. As historian Paul Moreno has shown, black workers benefited significantly from the racial quotas and “racial proportionalism” that had governed federal employment in New Deal relief and public works agencies since the early 1930s. The Roosevelt administration also initiated numerous educational programs, employed African Americans on those federal projects, and appointed many blacks to federal positions, reversing the old Wilsonian policy of racial exclusion. This “new deal” for blacks, plus the impetus of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s civil rights activism, led to the transformative electoral victory of 1936. According to Gallup Polls, 76 percent of northern blacks voted Democratic in the second Roosevelt election. “In every Northern city but Chicago,” observed Harvard Sitkoff, historian of New Deal-era race relations, “blacks voted at least 60 percent for Roosevelt, and even in the Windy City the President more than doubled his support from Negroes, moving from 23 to 49 percent between 1932 and 1936. No other voting bloc shifted so perceptibly.”2

In Ohio, African Americans began their “insurgency” against the Republican Party in the 1920s, reflecting the increasing autonomy of the state’s urban black communities and the mounting opposition to GOP conservatism on civil rights issues. According to William Giffin, the decade-long move toward independence by black voters culminated with the NAACP-led fight against Republican Roscoe C. McCulloch’s 1930 election bid. The successful election of the Democrat Robert J. Bulkley to fill the vacant U.S. Senate seat marked a turning point in the black voter’s relationship with the “Party of Lincoln.” New black leaders who rose to prominence in the Jazz Era without close ties to the prewar white Republican establishment began reassessing party allegiance after that 1930 campaign. The nation’s economic collapse further undermined faith in Republican leadership. Once Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the presidency, Ohio’s elite black leadership began switching allegiance to benefit from federal patronage. In 1936, two thirds of black voters in both Cincinnati and Cleveland voted Democratic.3

The Republican Party renewed its effort to win back black voters in 1938. Cincinnati lawyer Robert A. Taft (1889-1953), son of the twenty-seventh president, William Howard Taft, was a Republican candidate in the 1938 primary campaign for his party’s nomination to challenge incumbent Senator Bulkley. Taft firmly believed that he had to make a good impression on black voters in the populous urban centers of the state to be successful in November. When Candidate Taft received an invitation to speak at a commemoration of the life of Akron industrialist Harvey Firestone (1868-1938) sponsored by that city’s black community, he knew it was an opportunity that he could not pass up.

Situated at the intersection of rhetoric studies and the history of political ideologies, this article will assess the future senator’s effort to impress black voters with his conservative social message that blended elements of two long-standing discursive traditions in American culture with the Republican Party’s partisan critique of the New Deal.4 Thus, Taft’s Firestone Memorial Oration can best be comprehended by placing it within three interlocking contexts of discourse: 1) the discourse on race and civilization as it had been articulated since the late nineteenth century; 2) the discourse on the “idea of progress,” especially as it concerned “material progress,” the centrality of “producerism” to those notions of material betterment, and the particular role of the business entrepreneur as an agent of change; and 3) the partisan political discourse on the New Deal, focused by 1938 on its failure both to generate economic recovery and to improve dramatically the lives of the nation’s African-American citizens. In particular, this article will demonstrate the ideological connections between text (Taft’s rhetoric employed in the memorial address) and context (the discursive traditions in culture and politics) and show that Taft selected key elements of those discourses and forged them into a powerful conservative message.

I. Political Advice

Cleveland attorney Paul W. Walter served as Taft’s principal adviser from Northeast Ohio and the organizer of his campaign in the northern half of the state; he also arranged for press coverage of Taft’s speech and counseled him on the themes to address at the memorial service.5 A graduate of Western Reserve University (1928) and its Law School (1932), Walter volunteered during his school years at Hiram House Social Settlement on Orange Avenue and worked among that neighborhood’s expanding African-American population. After law school, he teamed with D. Rusk Haverfield to establish the law firm of Walter, Haverfield & Poe. By the late 1930s, Walter exhibited a social activist bent, organizing the Municipal Light Plant Association, a citizens’ group, in 1937 and assisting the Friends of the Car Riders lobby for public bus transportation to supplement Cleveland’s streetcars.6

In a letter to Taft, Walter outlined five points that should be emphasized in his oration. First, the candidate should stress the need for greater political rights and protections for minorities, especially passage of federal anti-lynching legislation that would stand the test of constitutionality (even suggesting that Taft, a graduate of Harvard Law School, offer to draft such legislation). Second, Taft should emphasize the belief that economic recovery and sustainable economic growth was the best answer to job discrimination (prosperity and full employment would undercut racism). Third, he should assert the belief that, although African Americans had made considerable progress in the seventy-five years since the Emancipation Proclamation, it was up to the black community’s leaders to continue that progress. Fourth, Taft should praise Dr. George Washington Carver, director of Agricultural Research at Tuskegee Institute, as the best role model of decisive, innovative leadership in the black community. Walter proceeded to argue that by pioneering in the search for industrial uses for agricultural products, Carver had “develop[ed] thousands of jobs for both races.” Finally, candidate Taft should link Carver to Firestone, emphasizing that Firestone “through individual initiative and peculiar abilities was able to develop a new industry which created employment for thousands of people and his entire attitude toward race relationships was one extremely favorable to the colored people.”7

Indeed, the Firestone Tire Company was one of the largest employers of African-American workers in the United States and the first Akron tire maker to make it a policy to hire blacks. In addition, Firestone’s relatively new rubber plantation complex in Liberia employed a large number of African workers by the late 1930s.8 It was not surprising, then, that the Association for Colored Community Work, a local social service and welfare organization that Firestone helped found, was eager to demonstrate its gratitude to the Firestone family by commemorating the man’s life and work.9

Walter strongly suggested that Taft use the Firestone speech to establish the connection between the foundation stones of the interwar Republican Party’s ideology—the concepts of liberty and equal opportunity—and the nation’s economic prosperity during the interwar years.10 “The only method by which absolute freedom and equality may be secured,” Walter wrote his candidate, “is through economic security.” Walter then put a Republican spin on the much-debated concept of “economic security”: it could only be achieved through private sector economic development and “the resultant creation of millions of new jobs.” Although government regulation can and should eliminate the abuses and excesses in the American business system, as it had done for decades, Walter contended that public policy “should be so framed that new industries are created and not stifled.”11

II. The Context

Taft, Walter, and other interwar Republicans had risen to prominence within a partisan political culture shaped by firmly held notions of civilization, race, and progress. Ideas about empire and the “civilizing mission” of industrial nations were central themes of America’s political discourse at the start of the last century. Most Progressive Era political elites embraced the dominant conception of evolution, which emphasized “race development” and the progress of a racial hierarchy as measured on a rough scale determined by the attributes of Western Civilization. For such Republican leaders as Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, that meant the post-Enlightenment “march of progress” was a continuous journey all peoples were making from savagery through barbarism to civilization. Many American imperialists, especially William Howard Taft, appointed civil governor of the Philippines in 1900, perceived themselves as civilizing agents for both the uncivilized races of the world and the disadvantaged majority of African Americans living in the American South. As the historian Kevin Gaines has shown, even many prominent black Americans embraced a similar view, saw themselves as “privileged agents of progress and civilization,” and employed the language of “racial uplift.” In Gaines’ words, this “ethos of racial uplift was generally assimilationist in character, reiterating the so-called progressive era’s stock assumptions of racial Darwinism and of ‘civilization’ as the scale upon which individuals, races, and nations, as contemporaries routinely put it, were ranked.” Because racial uplift shared assumptions with evangelical Protestantism’s global crusade, many thinkers labeled it a “civilizing mission.”12

Unlike Democrats with their solid southern leadership bloc of white paternalists, Republicans believed in the potential for progress of the world’s “lower races.” Governor Taft labored vigorously to lift up those Filipinos in his charge through the creation of a responsive government, a dynamic, modernizing economy, and an effective educational system. Subsequently serving as the Republican Roosevelt’s secretary of war, William Howard Taft lectured white southern leaders that the same colonial policy should be followed to elevate the status of African Americans in the southern states. Emphasizing education, the secretary urged southern whites to provide a wide variety of educational opportunities for African Americans so that the entire race could be elevated.13 Taft proposed a broad-based educational pyramid for the tutelage of southern blacks. Influenced by Booker T. Washington’s “Tuskegee” model, Secretary Taft advocated “industrial education” in a variety of manual trades for the bulk of the black working class in the South. “Academic” and “professional” training was essential, however, for the education of the most important members of the black community. A new generation of ministers, teachers, lawyers, and doctors, according to the former judge, would provide both the elite leadership and the professional services for the entire black community.14

Implicit in the elder Taft’s advocacy was a racial separatist viewpoint that supported self-sufficiency among the segregated, but increasingly more “civilized,” African-American race. In his 1908 presidential campaign, Taft refused to challenge “Jim Crow” segregation and white paternalist rule, or even criticize the outbreak of lynchings across the region. Indeed, the acceptance of paternalism was a distinctive theme in Taft’s political rhetoric regarding southern race relations. “The greatest hope that the Negro has, because he lives chiefly in the South,” Taft claimed, “is the friendship and the sympathy of the white man with whom he lives in that neighborhood.” Although he appointed African Americans to posts outside the region, President Taft admitted that “what I have not done is to force them upon unwilling communities in the South itself.” Thus, “the future is in the hands of the race itself,” he declared, for only a commitment to making the most in a segregated, paternalist system would allow African Americans to develop themselves as a race.15

Intimately related to post-Enlightenment conceptions of race and civilization was the discourse on the “idea of progress.” Over the previous twenty-five centuries, progress has meant steady improvement in a variety of human endeavors: advancement in the social, spiritual, and philosophical realms for some, or development in the sciences, technology, and material productivity for others. During the nineteenth century, the industrializing nations on both sides of the Atlantic adopted an ideology of progress that posited a direct relationship between increases in scientific knowledge and innovations in technology, on the one hand, and, on the other, the satisfaction of human wants and improved living conditions.16 Americans wholeheartedly embraced a “producerist” interpretation of progress, conceiving it not only in “material” terms but placing responsibility for it squarely on the shoulders of those who created value. To antebellum Whigs and later Republicans, economic progress provided the basis for all other categories of progress. Writing at the start of America’s industrial transformation, Whig thinkers believed that the idea of progress meant the interaction of two distinct processes: the exploitation of natural resources across the nation and the simultaneous improvement of both the mind and the spirit of the nation’s citizenry. As the historian Daniel Walker Howe has written, “To make use of the material for ideal or spiritual ends was the doctrine of Whig moral philosophers, and it was a doctrine broadly congruent with the avowed purpose of Whig politicians and businessmen.” The notion that “commerce could nourish virtue,” so abhorrent to the classical-Renaissance-commonwealth tradition in republican political thought and to their opponents in the Jacksonian party, shaped Republican Party thought for the remainder of the nineteenth century.17

To achieve material progress, Whigs and Republicans asserted that it was necessary for government to create the conditions within which each individual could develop his or her fullest potential.18 A political system that secured such positive liberty for individuals, a constitution that protected the fruits of their labor by codifying property rights, and policies that facilitated the growth of enterprise were essential for the encouragement of pioneering men who sought to use the nation’s wealth as capital. In the last half of the nineteenth century, while Democrats extolled labor on the farm and in the factory, Republican orators celebrated all creative work. In the words of political scientist John Gerring: “Republican laborism . . . included all types of labor and valorized the essential role of entrepreneurial and financial ‘labor’ in the functioning of the economy. The National Republican version of the work ethic held that great property, far from being proof of idleness, was proof of industriousness.” Therefore, in GOP rhetoric, architects of the great Gilded Age business empires were dynamic men who mastered their respective industries, accumulating capital and employing hundreds, even thousands, of working men and women in the process. Only through their accomplishments, Republicans asserted by century’s end, could the nation develop as an economic entity—a process that provided the sole means to satisfy the material wants of all citizens and secure the advancement of American civilization to ever higher levels.19

Born into this partisan political culture, Robert Taft (Yale, 1910; Harvard Law, 1913) was the second generation of Taft men to hear a vigorous, natural-law defense of the masters of corporate enterprise from the professors at Yale College. William Howard Taft (Yale, 1878) listened to William Graham Sumner during the years in which the professor was composing the classic Social Darwinist text What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. According to Sumner, the “struggle for existence” cultivated in early humans those “industrial virtues” necessary for survival. In modern society, the competitive struggle for success demanded the same virtues of self-restraint, industriousness, temperance, and initiative.20 In the first decade of the twentieth century, the elder Taft lauded those men with great initiative, relentless industry, imaginative genius, and uninhibited daring who led the great manufacturing concerns that made the United States the most advanced nation on earth. According to Will Taft, secretary of war during his son’s formative years, the vast majority of the great corporation leaders were agents of progress; only the minority that sought to undermine competition, monopolize their industries, and restrict opportunity in their markets deserved prosecution under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.21 From Arthur T. Hadley, Professor of Economics and President of Yale University, Bob Taft heard a similar appraisal, cast in evolutionary terms, of the Gilded Age industrial elite that became known as the “Robber Barons.” Drawing on Darwinian language, Hadley asserted that a complex process of natural selection chose men with the ability to manage great concentrations of capital. The Yale president was careful to note, however, that the process was not merely a simple selection of those men possessing strength of character, industry, intelligence, and prudence, but a choice of men who effectively blended bad qualities with the good: “The control [of business corporations] is often placed in the hands of men who are enterprising and efficient, but often narrow and unscrupulous.”22

By the 1920s, Republican rhetoricians were exalting America as an “equal opportunity society.” The new postwar GOP aimed its political arguments at the prosperous and growing American middle class. No longer were business titans like Carnegie and Rockefeller lauded by party leaders; now small businessmen and entrepreneurs emerging from that middle class became the principal heroes of the party’s rhetoric. Herbert Hoover, chief theoretician of an American “new individualism” in the 1920s, proclaimed that it was government’s purpose to secure equal opportunity for all citizens in society, with the purpose of opportunity being “the emancipation of the individual.” In a major departure from nineteenth-century laissez-faire ideas, however, Hoover advocated associational activities by groups of producers and government’s facilitation of those efforts in order to augment individualism. Progress was certain to follow the encouragement of a nation of entrepreneurs who were able to develop their abilities to the fullest extent of their potential.23

It was within this interwar context and its glorification of social mobility that Robert Taft began his political career. In his stinging critiques of the New Deal in the mid- and late 1930s, the younger Taft put a new spin on the Yale virtue model: it was new men of initiative, industriousness, genius, and daring—the creators of new enterprise emerging from the nation’s small business community, not the executives of entrenched corporations—who were most responsible for the nation’s economic and technological development and, thus, its material progress. For that reason, the federal government should facilitate new enterprise, not bury it under the weight of excessive regulations and burdensome taxation. If freed from government interference, markets would provide incentives for entrepreneurship and economic growth would proceed naturally. Addressing the persistence of high unemployment in the nation, Taft asserted it was new enterprise, not large corporations dedicated to the status quo, that would energize the economy and lead the nation out of depression.24

Taft’s mid-1930s brief against the New Deal was yet another conservative voice contributing to the political discourse on the failures of the New Deal. Beginning in 1934 with such publications as Hoover’s The Challenge to Liberty, conservatives launched an all-out assault on the bureaucratic statism of the New Deal. As the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., observed, conservative rhetoricians targeted two groups of New Dealers in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “revolution”: the “starry-eyed academic” and “his more sinister partner,” the “power-hungry bureaucrat.” Assessing the impact of these radicals on America, conservatives emphasized the political, economic, and moral consequences of the New Deal. In the political realm, the Right charged that the New Dealers had replaced a government by laws with a government by men, ushering in an arbitrary, personal mode of governance. The New Deal had destroyed individual liberty, and established a “totalitarian tyranny” that was extending bureaucratic control over every aspect of American life. In the economic sphere, they charged the administration with hindering recovery by undermining “business confidence.”

Uncertainty over the value of the dollar, over the escalating size of the national debt, over the degree of taxation, and over competition from private enterprise combined to stem any upward movement in employment, production, or investment. Finally, the destruction of such historic patterns of American life as individual responsibility and local initiative, the decline of the states as governing bodies, and the general “decay of self-reliance” constituted the moral consequences of this statist revolution.25

While the 1937 “Conservative Manifesto” expressed their unity in opposition to New Deal economic policies,26 conservatives split along party lines over race relations. Republicans did not hesitate to point to the Democratic majority’s failure to enact civil rights legislation during the 1930s. In the 1936 campaign, Landon urged passage of a federal anti-lynching law, boasted of his role in the elimination of the poll tax in Kansas, and continually reminded black voters that their race would secure few rights from a majority party dominated by white southern conservatives. These Republican political arguments, however, gained little traction, overwhelmed by the black community’s sense of concrete material gains that did accrue to their race through the policies of the Roosevelt administration 27

III. The Text

Aside from not offering to draft specific civil rights legislation himself, Candidate Taft otherwise followed Paul Walter’s advice faithfully. He began with a celebration of Harvey Firestone’s accomplishments. The Cincinnati lawyer explained to his audience that the tire maker possessed all those personal attributes, the industrial virtues that marked the successful entrepreneur in the nation’s business history. Taft asserted Firestone’s central place as “one of the pioneers” of modern America’s continuing industrial development in the twentieth century, “whose ability, genius and industry was instrumental in making Akron the rubber center of the world.” Through his far-flung business efforts, Taft observed, Firestone had created good, high-paying jobs “for thousands of men and women.”28

“But, tonight,” Taft declared, “we honor even more his work in behalf of the colored people.” Although he acknowledged that Firestone gave generously to the black community’s charitable causes, Taft celebrated the tire maker’s belief in and practice of equal opportunity in hiring and promotion at his various businesses. Firestone “took an active interest” in providing opportunities for Akron’s black workers. He continued those progressive hiring practices in the Liberian rubber plantations, “giving work to many thousands of colored people.” Taft informed his audience that the League of Nations report on social conditions in Liberia had praised Firestone’s “humane and progressive policies.” According to the speaker, the tire maker “took active measures to assure the health of his workers and develop measures which were a strong contrast to the conditions of near slavery which preceded him.” By these practices, Firestone had set “an example for every man who truly desires to help colored people.” Firestone’s course of action, Taft declared, “set an example for true progress.”29

After sufficiently praising the Akron tire maker, candidate Taft turned to the real target of his rhetoric that evening, the African-American community. Heeding Walter’s advice, he praised racial uplift since emancipation. Taft declared that “no race, probably, has ever made such progress in 75 years.” He claimed that black Americans had made dramatic advancements in “education, medicine, law, art, music, athletics, industry,” had “proven their ability,” and had developed the “assets and attributes” of their race.30

Sympathetic, as was his father a half-century earlier, to the Tuskegee Institute’s approach, Robert Taft emphasized the need for racial self-help.31 Uplifting the status of African Americans, he declared, can only result from the actions and initiatives of their own race. Indeed, asserting the self-improvement message at the memorial services for Firestone, he argued that blacks should take advantage of job opportunities granted by such liberal white employers as Harvey Firestone, but not depend either on them or on the benevolence of government.32

On the subject of governmental assistance, the candidate offered a scathing critique of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Shifting in tone from celebration to caution, Taft warned African Americans not to depend on those popular New Deal economic policies for material progress. The Cincinnati Republican was especially critical of the administration’s WPA-brand of public employment. He exclaimed that “it has become fashionable to look to government to solve our problems,” and for whites and blacks to “rely on government action and laws to advance the welfare” of both races. But, he cautioned, “that government assistance is a broken reed.” It was clear to Taft that “you cannot create prosperity by passing laws.” Material progress only resulted from the efforts of dynamic individuals possessing those virtues required for success in the competitive marketplace. Furthermore, he charged, “you cannot raise the standard of living of any one by pouring out government money.” As a Republican, he admonished black Ohioans not to trade economic opportunity for the Democrats’ offers of economic security. Speaking specifically of the plight of unemployed African Americans, Taft asserted that the Works Progress Administration was actually “a direct threat to the colored race.” Its living-wage public jobs programs “may reduce them all to a wage basis providing little more than a bare existence.” Dependence on WPA employment and relief “will leave them ultimately in a kind of economic servitude akin to serfdom.” True to Republican ideals, Taft thundered: “The man on WPA has no opportunity to go forward.”33

Taft charged that “the whole movement toward government regulation and regimentation” was a greater threat to “the colored race than it is even to the rest of the nation.” As a minority group with little political influence, they would be at the mercy of the majority in a democracy. Then he linked democracy’s retreat globally to the New Deal’s administrative authority in America: “We have seen democracies turned into dictatorships over night,” he reminded his audience. “Under any dictatorship, minorities get the worst of it, as witness—Germany and Italy.” Returning his focus to America, Taft explicitly criticized FDR’s second term legislative agenda: “If an all powerful Government is going to assign jobs and fix wages, I am afraid the colored people would get the worst jobs and the lowest wages.” Public employment provided no opening for an enterprising young man who possessed those virtues essential for success.34

What should African Americans expect from their government in 1938? Here Taft merged a healthy respect for “constitutionalism” with his individualist economic philosophy. He declared that the federal government must enforce those rights granted all citizens by the Constitution: the right to life, liberty, and property, the right to vote, and the right to a fair trial and “all the other rights which are guaranteed to every citizen by the Bill of Rights and by the 14th and 15th amendments.” Distancing himself from southern conservatives in the opposition party, he asserted that blacks were “entitled to an Anti-lynching Bill” to secure those rights they possessed only in theory. Implicitly criticizing the white, Democrat-dominated southern courts, Taft claimed that African Americans had a special interest in the fairness of the judicial system so that, regardless of majority opinion, a man from the minority population might receive “a fair trial in the protection of his constitutional rights.”35

While not admitting that passage of civil rights legislation was politically impossible in the 1930s, Taft did acknowledge the ideological limits of his vision. To his Akron audience, the candidate confessed that his view of the federal government’s role was “largely negative and defensive.” He recognized that constitutional protections owed all citizens amounted to a profoundly negative construction of freedom, that laws secured a minimum area for the exercise of personal freedom. For Taft, however, such freedom also necessitated certain limits on public authority. The federal government, he informed his audience, should not interfere with those in the private sector seeking opportunity for that “personal advancement” on which material progress depended.36

Yet, there did exist, in Taft’s mind, a constructive course to freedom. Material advancement for any group, he asserted, derived primarily from the achievements of its exemplary individuals in civil society. Thus, the social and economic progress of African Americans depended on their leaders’ efforts “to develop the assets and attributes of the race.” Driving home another of Paul Walter’s points, Taft alleged that George Washington Carver furnished black Americans with their most outstanding model of leadership. Carver’s research, especially on the industrial uses of such crops as cotton and peanuts, led to the development of numerous new industries. Once again, as with Harvey Firestone, “progress has been due to individual enterprise and leadership.” African Americans needed jobs, Taft charged, and “the development of private industry” by men such as Carver was the “only solution to their economic difficulties.”37

Was there a positive role for government in economic development? “Governmental policies should be so framed,” he claimed, repeating Walter’s suggested language, “that new industries are created and not stifled.” Avoiding the thorny question of enforcing equal opportunity in Depression-era America, Taft simply observed that “colored people must be given an equal proportionate part as they were given in the Firestone companies.” “America cannot overlook the rich tradition developed by the colored race,” he intoned, concluding his address, “in the development of the American culture.”

IV. Conclusion

Prompted by Paul Walter’s April 2 talking points, candidate Taft wove together the discourses on civilization and material prosperity to craft a conservative, hierarchical (elite-led) model of progress not only for the African-American community but for the entire American nation. Conservative Republicans of the “Old Right” sought to preserve an American business system that they believed had flourished under the natural laws of the market. If not hindered by government interference, markets governed by the laws of competition naturally expanded as a result of technological innovation that generated growth.38 Conservatives prized a social system that freed individuals who possessed the requisite virtues to create and innovate within the private sector. According to Taft, only these private-sector enterprisers could advance the nation technologically, establish new industries, and employ hundreds, if not thousands, of American workers. Firestone, the man, exemplified that “pioneer” social type among whites; Carver, the same, among blacks. And for Taft, “true progress” derived only from the rising levels of permanent private-sector employment and material prosperity for the entire society that these pioneers could achieve in America. Drawing on the partisan critique of the New Deal, Taft assured his audience that public sector employment, the hallmark of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Second New Deal” of the late 1930s, had failed to create permanent employment and expanding private-sector opportunities. Furthermore, equating economic security with economic dependency, he charged that public employment reduced citizens to a new form of serfdom.

A great gulf existed between conservative freedom rhetoric and the reality of economic life for African Americans. In his 1938 campaign, candidate Taft asserted a dual meaning for “liberty”: one “largely negative and defensive,” the other positive and constructive.39 First and foremost, he avowed an abiding regard for the constitutional rights of all Americans, including African Americans. Although Taft asserted that black Americans should be safe in their persons and entitled to all the rights granted by the constitution, he remained silent on the federal government’s failure to protect the property rights of southern blacks guaranteed, in theory, by the Fourteenth Amendment. In addition, he refrained from drafting federal anti-lynching legislation once he arrived in Washington, D.C., a commitment Paul Walter had urged him to make to his Akron audience.

Second, he maintained that government had a constructive responsibility to promote freedom by facilitating (to create not stifle) enterprise and entrepreneurship; the nation’s progress depended on economic opportunity and the initiative to seize it.40 In privileging “opportunity” over “security,” however, Taft largely dismissed both the economic realities of depression and the crushing burden of culture. With regard to the latter, he slighted the significant impact of barriers to equal opportunity erected by the dominant white race and underpinned by its racism during the seventy-five years following emancipation on African Americans’ ability to advance. While Taft urged the passage of civil rights laws in the late 1930s, he was not willing to use the federal government to legislate “an equal proportionate” share of job opportunities for blacks in the American workforce. Indeed, throughout the Second World War and during the early postwar years, the senator opposed any effort to vest the wartime Fair Employment Practices Committee, established by a Roosevelt executive order, with enforcement powers under federal statute law, or, following the war, to create a permanent commission with such powers.41 Although he clearly disagreed with southern white supremacists of the Democratic Party over the potential of African Americans to “uplift” themselves if given educational and economic opportunities, he steadfastly refused to fight for federal guarantees of those opportunities.42

Finally, for three quarters of a century, the Republican Party has struggled to win back African-American voters. If Alf Landon, the GOP’s 1936 presidential candidate, made the first (obviously unsuccessful) appeal to them, Taft was not far behind. His effort to reach black voters in northeast Ohio during the 1938 campaign also failed. Indeed, his worst electoral performances statewide came in Summit and Cuyahoga counties, regional centers of African-American population and trade union membership.43 Regardless of the impact of the memorial oration on black Ohioans, however, his 1938 electoral victory sent Taft to the U.S. Senate, providing him with a nationwide audience for his powerful conservative social message.

Show 43 footnotes

  1. The author wishes to thank Kenneth J. Bindas for his numerous suggestions for improving the argument and Austin McCoy for his insights into American race relations provided during the Spring Semester 2009 Research Seminar at Kent State University as this work neared completion.  Elizabeth M. Smith-Pryor’s extensive comments on an earlier and much longer assessment of Senator Taft’s views on race were absolutely crucial to this more modest project. Mary Ann Heiss scrutinized the manuscript with her keen editorial eye, made several suggestions to strengthen the conclusion, and improved the work immeasurably.
    Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 84-89.
  2. Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks, 89-95, quote from p. 95; Paul Moreno, “Racial Proportionalism and the Origins of Employment Discrimination Policy, 1933-1950,”Journal of Policy History 8 (1996): 410-39.
  3. On the 1920s “insurgency” and the electoral shift in Ohio’s urban black communities, see William Giffin, “The Negro in Ohio, 1914-1939” (Ph. D. diss., Ohio State University, 1968), 402-42; idem, “Black Insurgency in the Republican Party of Ohio, 1920-1932,” Ohio History 82 (Winter-Spring 1973): 25-45; and chap. 11, “Toward the New Negro,” in Kenneth J. Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976), 235-74.
  4. Some definitions are necessary to clarify the argument of this paper. “Political ideologies” are systems of ideas and concepts that are employed to legitimize political views, positions, or policies. Distinct from the more reflective and evaluative field of political philosophy which concerns itself with both “production” of thought and the “evaluation” of thought, those who engage in ideological discourse use ideas and concepts to legitimize, to justify, and to encourage belief in certain viewpoints.  In contrast, Michael Freeden, professor of politics at Oxford University, has theorized that “rhetoric” is the language used in “the weaving of a narrative tale deliberately employed as a persuasive device.” According to Freeden, rhetoric may be utilized to simplify complex ideologies or their constituent parts for public consumption. Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory: A Conceptual Approach (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 13-23, 35-36, quote at p. 35. This paper contends that Taft’s oration was his conservative rhetorical message within which were imbedded, in accessible, simplified form, elements (the core concepts of liberty, equal opportunity, social mobility, etc.) of the interwar G.O.P. party ideology. On party ideology, see note 10 below.
    The structure of this study’s argument owes much to the interdisciplinary study of political rhetoric by Martin J. Medhurst, especially his “Text and Context in the 1952 Presidential Campaign: Eisenhower’s ‘I Shall Go to Korea’ Speech,”Presidential Studies Quarterly 30 (Sept. 2000): 464-84, which served as a model for the presentation of this evidence.
  5. Paul W. Walter to Robert A. Taft, April 2, 1938, P.W. Walter Papers, Western Reserve Historical Society Library (hereafter Walter Papers, WRHS).
  6. Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, s.v. “Walter, Paul William.” (http://ech.case.edu/ech-cgi/article.pl?id=WPW)
  7. Walter to Taft, April 2, 1938, Walter Papers, WRHS.
  8. On the man and his company, see Alfred Lief, Harvey Firestone: Free Man of Enterprise (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1951) and idem, The Firestone Story: A History of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1951).
    In response to Britain’s 1922 Stevenson Rubber Restriction Act to control the international market for raw rubber and raise prices ten-fold, Firestone led the “Americans Should Produce Their Own Rubber” movement by U.S. tire makers. A Firestone financial stabilization loan of $2.5 million to the Republic of Liberia accompanied the 1926 Firestone-Liberia Planting Agreement that paved the way for the eventual cultivation of approximately 90,000 acres by a workforce of 30,000 (1959 stats.) A model of American “informal empire,” the Firestone Liberia enterprise also invested more than $1.5 million in public health programs, constructing 2 hospitals and 39 dispensaries, spent $700,000 annually on health benefits for its workforce, and donated $325,000 to the American Foundation for Tropical Medicine for construction of a medical research institute in Liberia. The company also took credit for being a stimulus to Liberia’s long-term economic development, asserting that the firm “played a singularly important role” in the creation of Liberia’s “robust economy” in the post-World War II era. The Firestone Plantations Company, Liberia and Firestone: The Development of a Rubber Industry, a Story of Friendship and Progress (Harbel, Liberia: The Firestone Plantations Co., 1959(?)), 4-13; on the establishment of the plantations, see also Lief, Firestone Story, 151-54. A detailed 1956 assessment of Firestone operations in Liberia by the National Planning Association is Wayne Chatfield Taylor, The Firestone Operations in Liberia, 5th case study in NPA series, United States Business Performance Abroad (New York: National Planning Association, 1956).
  9. Regarding the specifics of the memorial events: “More than 1,400 attended a service held in the Second Baptist Church and hundreds later attended the presentation of a beautiful silver plaque to the Firestone family at the annual meeting of the Association for Colored Community Work, local Negro service and welfare organization, of which Mr. Firestone was a founder.” Dayton Forum, July 1, 1938, p. 1.
  10. For a path-breaking study that identifies the ideas imbedded in campaign addresses in order to reconstruct the core concepts of the GOP’s interwar ideology, see John Gerring, Party Ideologies in America, 1828-1996 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), chap. 4.
  11. Walter to Taft, April 2, 1938, Walter Papers, WRHS.
  12. On the late nineteenth-century discourse on civilization and racial uplift, see especially Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995) and Kevin Gaines, “Black Americans’ Racial Uplift Ideology as ‘Civilizing Mission’: Pauline E. Hopkins on Race and Imperialism,” in Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease, eds., Cultures of United States Imperialism (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1993), esp. 435-37. On the changing conceptions of empire and nationhood in the thinking of American elites, see Mary Ann Heiss, “The Evolution of the Imperial Idea and U.S. National Identity,” Diplomatic History 26 (Fall 2002): 511-40.
  13. On southern Democrats and the ideology of white supremacy, see Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), especially chap. 3. Gilmore wrote that the Progressive Era “New White Man” of the South rejected the optimistic view that there existed a potential for equality among the races, especially opposing the provision of a full range of educational opportunities to blacks. During the campaign to disfranchise blacks across the South, these “liberal paternalists” asserted that blacks were too barbaric to take advantage of higher educational opportunities, that “industrial education” both prepared them for work and disciplined them as a race, and that talented individuals could seek opportunities in the North.  (64-67, 134-40)
  14. The fullest statement of Secretary of War Taft’s views on African-American “racial uplift” through education is “The Future of the Negro,” in Political Issues and Outlooks, a volume in The Collected Works of William Howard Taft, ed. David H. Burton, 8 vols. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2001), 2: 52-57; also see President-elect Taft’s address delivered at the Haines Normal and Industrial School, Augusta, Georgia, January 19, 1909, “The Outlook of Negro Education,” Collected Works, 2: 194-98. The following paragraph illustrates President-elect Taft’s view of the colonial project of “racial uplift”: “I suppose that comes to me more strongly because of the responsibilities that I had in the Philippine Islands for the four years that I was there, and the four years that I subsequently exercised some authority over those Islands, in aiding another race in the far-distant Philippines to lift themselves to a higher standard than that which they had then attained, and to make themselves ultimately worthy of complete self-government.” (2: 195.)
  15. Quoted material from Paolo E. Coletta, The Presidency of William Howard Taft(Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1973); see also the discussion of race and the 1908 campaign (where “greatest hope” quote also appears) in Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (New York: Knopf, 2006), 160. For W.H. Taft’s view of his predecessor’s controversial appointments of black officials to federal jobs in the South, see Henry F. Pringle, The Life and Times of William Howard Taft: A Biography, 2 vols. (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1939), 1: 390. In early 1909, President-elect Taft justified his more restrained approach to the appointment of African Americans to federal positions in the South: “I am not going to put into places of such prominence in the South, where the race feeling is strong, Negroes whose appointment will only tend to increase that race feeling; but I shall look about and make appointments in the North and recognize the Negro as often as I can. . . . There is no constitutional right in anyone to hold office. The question is one of fitness. A one-legged man could hardly be selected for a mail carrier, and although we would deplore his misfortune, nevertheless we would not seek to neutralize it by giving him a place he could not fill.” (Quoted from Pringle, 1: 390.)
  16. My thinking on the Enlightenment “idea of progress” has been shaped by a reading of Gabriel A. Almond, Marvin Chodorow, and Roy Harvey Pearce, “Introduction,” and Georg G. Iggers, “The Idea of Progress in Historiography and Social Thought Since the Enlightenment,” in Almond, Chodorow, and Pearce, eds.,Progress and Its Discontents (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 1-8, 41-66; Georg G. Iggers, “The Idea of Progress: A Critical Reassessment,” American Historical Review 71 (Oct. 1965): 1-17; and Robert Nisbet, “Idea of Progress: A Bibliographical Essay,” Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought 2 (Jan.-Mar. 1979): 7-37 (accessed through Online Library of Liberty,www.oll.libertyfund.org).
  17. The most significant recent work on the “producerist worldview” and the evolution of consumerism in American social thought is Kathleen G. Donohue,Freedom from Want: American Liberalism and the Idea of the Consumer (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). For an assessment of labor’s efforts to define a “moral economy” and shape the transition to a consumer-oriented society, see Lawrence B. Glickman, A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997) and Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
    On the American Whig idea of progress, see Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979), 73-75, 101, quoted material on p. 101. American Whigs saw progress as a “pattern of ordered change in which order and change were equally important.” Howe, 74. Antebellum Whigs and later Republicans were influenced by thinkers from Great Britain who cast the idea of progress largely in economic terms, in contrast to French theorists who saw progress in technological terms.
  18. The best treatment of the concept of “self-culture” embraced by key nineteenth-century Whig-Republicans is the late J. David Greenstone’s The Lincoln Persuasion: Remaking American Liberalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993). Greenstone argued that nineteenth-century “reform liberalism” focused on the development of the individual citizen, emphasized the need for the individual to practice self-development by acquiring education and skills according to one’s own pre-determined personal growth plan, and rejected all forms of domination or subjugation of one individual by another. (Pp. 61-62.) Part of the New England heritage of “reform liberalism,” according to Greenstone’s interpretative schema, was the social obligation of citizens not only to practice self-development but to assist others in their efforts to develop themselves.
  19. Gerring, Party Ideologies, 59. Republican neomercantilists received support on this point from nineteenth-century classical liberal theorists. In her sweeping interpretation of producer and consumer ideologies, Kathleen Donohue argues the classical liberals “glorified society’s producers, especially the capitalists, whose efforts, they insisted, were primarily responsible for the phenomenal productivity of the nineteenth-century economy.” Donohue, Freedom from Want, 4.
  20. For Sumner’s understanding of human virtues, the formation of capital, and the progress of civilization, see What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1883), 63-70; Lance Robinson, “Pricking the Bubble of Utopian Sentiment: The Political Thought of William Graham Sumner,” in Bryan-Paul Frost and Jeffrey Sikkenga, eds., History of American Political Thought (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2003), 451-63; Robert Green McCloskey, American Conservatism in the Age of Enterprise, 1865-1910 (New York: Harper & Row, 1951), 22-71.
  21. William H. Taft, “Labor and Capital,” in Present Day Problems: A Collection of Addresses Delivered on Various Occasions (1908; reprint ed.: Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1967), 245-46.
  22. A.T. Hadley, Economics: An Account of the Relations Between Private Property and Public Welfare (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1896), 117.
  23. On the Republican Party’s “equal opportunity society” rhetoric, see Gerring,Party Ideologies, 129-31; for Hoover’s philosophy, see Herbert C. Hoover,American Individualism (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1922); for Hoover’s associational views, the place to start is Ellis W. Hawley’s classic study, “Herbert Hoover, the Commerce Secretariat, and the Vision of an ‘Associative State,’ 1921-1928,” Journal of American History 61 (June 1974): 116-40.
  24. For Taft’s early views on the immutable natural laws that governed the economy, the crucial role of the entrepreneur in the “success of the American business system,” and his version of the Yale “industrial virtue” model, see “Notes on the Great Depression,” Aug. 25, 1933; “Speech to the Chamber of Commerce,” Warren, Ohio, Apr. 9, 1935; and “Speech to the Women’s Republican Club of New Hampshire,” Apr. 30, 1936, in Papers of Robert A. Taft, ed. by C. E. Wunderlin, Jr., et al., 4 vols. (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1997-2005), 1: 447-53; 480-90, 505-15. On entrepreneurship as the key to cyclical economic recovery, see especially 1: 487. A more detailed assessment of Taft’s construction of the entrepreneur as a gendered cultural symbol embodying American industrial success is in Wunderlin, “The Image of the Entrepreneur and the Language of the Market: Senator Robert A. Taft’s Economic Thought, 1935-1944,” unpublished paper in author’s possession.
  25. On “the rise of conservative opposition,” see chap. 30 of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Coming of the New Deal (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959), 471-88, quoted material from pp. 474-77. For the former president’s critique, see Herbert Hoover,The Challenge to Liberty (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934), especially chap. 6, “National Regimentation,” pp. 76-103.
  26. For an assessment of the bipartisan revolt against the New Deal during Roosevelt’s second term, see John Robert Moore, “Senator Josiah W. Bailey and the ‘Conservative Manifesto’ of 1937,” Journal of Southern History 31 (1965): 21-39. On conservatism in the Legislative Branch, see James T. Patterson, Congressional Conservatism and the New Deal: The Growth of the Conservative Coalition in Congress, 1933-1939 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1967).
  27. On the black community’s material gains, see note 2 above.
  28. RT, Firestone Memorial Oration, Apr. 3, 1938, draft in Box 31, Walter Papers, WRHS.
  29. Ibid. Regarding Firestone’s Liberian plantation, Taft was referring to the Report of the International Commission of Inquiry into the Existence of Slavery and Forced Labor in the Republic of Liberia (Geneva, 1930).
  30. RT, Firestone Memorial Oration, Apr. 3, 1938, draft in Box 31, Walter Papers, WRHS.
  31. On William H. Taft’s support for the “Tuskegee Experiment,” and the crucial importance of schools for the young African-American population, see “The Outlook of Negro Education,” Collected Works, 2: 197.
  32. RT, Firestone Memorial Oration, Apr. 3, 1938, draft in Box 31, Walter Papers, WRHS.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Ibid. Taft elaborated on his assessment of the Roosevelt administration’s second term legislative agenda: “If we adopt the Wage Hour Bill permitting a government commission to regulate all wages and hours,–if we put into effect the Farm Bill giving Government commissions the right to tell every farmer what to produce, if we adopt a re-organization bill centering all the power in one man, it is very hard to stop short of a complete regulation of everything and everybody by the government.”
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Michael Freeden has argued that a belief in organic, accumulative development coupled with the notion of the extra-human direction of that progress is central to conservative thought in the modern era. Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory,332-35.
  39. Regarding the distinction between “negative” and “positive” liberty, see Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Anthony Quinton, ed., Political Philosophy(New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 141-52.
  40. It seems obvious from this study that Republican conservatives were in direct opposition conceptually to New Deal Liberalism. In 1938, most liberals believed that there was no freedom without economic security. To achieve that secure livelihood, the New Deal injected mainstream liberalism with a new dose of communitarian and social democratic ideas. In contrast, for Taft and the Republicans, liberty meant much more than merely rights established by fundamental law or statute: liberty without opportunity was no freedom at all. On the conceptual center of New Deal Liberalism (and the continuity in Democratic Party ideology connecting  Bryan’s “Christian Liberalism” and Wilson’s “New Freedom” to the New Deal), see Gerring,Party Ideologies, chap. 6, especially the section “The Party of Humanity,” 213-21; for an assessment of  “cooperative” or communitarian thought in New Deal political rhetoric, see Alan Lawson, A Commonwealth of Hope: The New Deal Response to Crisis (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).
  41. On Taft’s opposition to an FEPC “with teeth” (enforcement powers), see James Patterson, Mr. Republican, 304-5,  and Clarence E. Wunderlin, Jr., “’Be Satisfied with Their Progress thus Far’: Senator Robert A. Taft’s Opposition to a Permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, 1938-1950,” unpublished paper in author’s possession.
  42. In the South, the rise of a new conservatism, led by advocates of Anglo-Saxonism and critics of harmonious race relations, challenged dominant “liberal paternalists” in the 1930s and 1940s. Their defense of segregation, disfranchisement, and racial purity solidified white supremacist conservatism in the years after the Second World War. On this shift from “liberal paternalism” to white supremacist conservatism, see Elizabeth Gillespie McRae, “To Save a Home: Nell Battle Lewis and the Rise of Southern Conservatism, 1941-1956,” North Carolina Historical Review 81 (2004): 261-87; my thinking about the challenge to white supremacy has been shaped by Nan Woodruff’s review essay of J. Douglas Smith,Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia,” in Georgia Historical Quarterly 88 (2004): 292-95. See also the fascinating account of the white supremacist Colonel E. S. Cox by Jason Ward, “’A Richmond Institution’: Earnest Sevier Cox, Racial Propaganda, and White Resistance to the Civil Rights Movement,” Virginia Magazine of History & Biography 116 (2008): 262-93.
  43. Voting results for all counties in the state can be found in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Nov. 9 and 10, 1938. In Summit County, Taft received 47,531 to his opponent Robert Bulkley’s 55,453; in Cuyahoga County, 151,173 to Bulkley’s 204,368. (Plain Dealer, Nov. 10, 1938, p. 3.)

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