Book Review: Politician Extraordinaire

Politician Extraordinaire: The Tempestuous Life and Times of Martin L. Davey. By Frank P. Vazzano. (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2008. xiv, 322 pp. Cloth, $45.00, ISBN 978-0-87338-920-4.)

Nearly all Ohioans are at least somewhat familiar with the Davey Tree Expert Company and its ubiquitous green trucks.  But few are aware that Martin L. Davey, the son of the company’s founder, served in a number of political offices, most notably the Ohio governorship from 1935 to 1939.  Seeking to rectify this gap in the collective knowledge, historian Frank P. Vazzano, who calls Davey “the most interesting man I’ve never met,” has produced a masterfully-written biography of the state’s fifty-third governor.   He draws upon a voluminous collection of primary sources, including contemporary news accounts, Davey Company records, and government documents from the local, state, and national levels to paint a colorful portrait of a controversial man.  Unfortunately, as well-written and thoroughly-researched as this book is, readers may disagree that Martin L. Davey was in any way extraordinary.  On the contrary, what emerges from the pages is a stereotypical portrait of a cynical politician: an ambitious job-seeker climbing the political ladder – vain, hypocritical, self-aggrandizing, and not above employing “mean” campaign tactics, to use the author’s term. Continue reading Book Review: Politician Extraordinaire

Book Review: William McKinley and His America

William McKinley and His America, Revised Edition. By H. Wayne Morgan. (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2003. vii, 488 pp. Hardcover, $55.00, ISBN 0-87338-765-1.)

History has not been kind to presidents elected from Ohio.  The Buckeye State’s native sons are remembered as less-than-stellar chief executives, responsible for sins ranging from scandal to lechery, or as colorless party hacks who left little impact on the nation.  William McKinley has often fallen into this latter category, portrayed as an indecisive and dull-witted puppet of big business.  Four decades ago, H. Wayne Morgan challenged these generalizations with the publication of William McKinley and His America.  What emerged was a refreshingly different McKinley: independent, strong-willed, and sympathetic to the working masses.  Fresh on the heels of the centennial of McKinley’s presidency, Kent State University Press has released Morgan’s revised and expanded biography of America’s twenty-fifth commander-in-chief. Continue reading Book Review: William McKinley and His America

Cleveland’s A.B. duPont: Engineer, Reformer, Visionary

By: Arthur E. DeMatteo

Attempting to synthesize the events, agents, and accomplishments of the years spanning the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries into a neat package labeled “The Progressive Era” can prove frustrating for the modern historian. Reformers of the period were a diffuse and diverse group, often more noteworthy for their disunity and incongruities than for coherence to any set of standards; they included pacifists, municipal ownership advocates, feminists, Single Taxers, civil rights crusaders, efficiency experts, and countless others. This lack of commonality led Peter Filene to assert, in a seminal article published over thirty years ago, that progressivism was merely an artificial creation of historians, and that the dynamics of this period were the result of “agents and forces more complex than a progressive movement.”[1. Peter G. Filene, “An Obituary for the ‘Progressive Movement’,” American Quarterly 22 (Spring 1970), 20-34.]

In an essay of later vintage, historian Daniel Rodgers acknowledged the difficulty of defining progressivism, while offering a useful counter-thesis to Filene. Rodgers suggested that Progressive Era reformers shared at least one of three “idea clusters,” or “shared languages of discontent.”[2. Daniel T. Rodgers, “In Search of Progressivism,” Reviews in American History 10 (December 1982), 113-32.] The first of these languages, antimonopolism, was traceable to the Jacksonian era, and had once been the exclusive domain of “outsiders,” such as farmers and Populists; by the turn of the twentieth century, however, the crusade against inequitable taxation and abusive business practices had gained acceptance among “respectable” segments of American society. The second language, that of “social bonds,” was more specific to the Progressive Era, and encompassed an attack on a “set of formal fictions,” including notions of racial, sexual, or ethnic inferiority; it sought to create a “consciously contrived harmony” among societal groups. The third language of discontent was that of “social efficiency,” and could be applied to a broad range of reformers, from those seeking to rationalize and streamline municipal government to engineers designing modern manufacturing plants.

Like so many reformers of his era, Antoine Bidermann duPont, friend and confidant of Cleveland Mayor Tom L. Johnson, was a complex person who defies easy categorization. Continue reading Cleveland’s A.B. duPont: Engineer, Reformer, Visionary