The following is an excellent excerpt from the book “AMERICA’S BANK: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve” by Roger Lowenstein from Part Two “The Legislative Arena” from Chapter Nine “The Great Campaign” on page 147 and I quote:
“The Democratic members of the committee are absolutely unfit to ever produce anything.”
“No one class can comprehend the country; no one set of interests can safely be suffered to dominate it.” –Woodrow Wilson
“As the 1912 presidential campaign unfurled, the candidates sought to curry favor with progressives, and progressives continued to regard banking reform with profound suspicion. Thrust onto the defensive, the reformers in the Aldrich gang would be forced to angle for position with whoever emerged as the winner. From a political standpoint, their times could not have been worse.
During the first week of the new year, Professor Piatt Andrew and Senator Nelson Aldrich worked around the clock getting the National Monetary Commission report (the Aldrich Plan) ready for submission to Congress, which had set a deadline of January 8. Since Congress was not in session, confusion arose over how the report should be “filed.” Hours before the deadline, Andrew drove signed copies to the residences of the vice president (representing the Senate) and the Speaker of the House. Brimming with pride, he wrote to his folks in Indiana, “I got in the motor and tore around Washington in a storm of sleet and rain.” Elated from finally finishing the long labor, the young professor hyperbolically described their report as “probably the most farreaching [sic] and most scientifically prepared legislative proposal upon any subject in the country’s history, at least since the early days.” With the report submitted, the Monetary Commission promptly went out of business.
Coincidentally, while Andrew was negotiating the wet streets of the capital, Woodrow Wilson was also in Washington, at the Jackson Day dinner, where he called for public oversight of banks. The governor, a careful politician, did everything to fulfill William Jennings Bryan’s request that he condemn the Aldrich Plan–except refer to it by name. “This country,” said Wilson, “will not brook any plan which concentrates control in the hands of the bankers. . . . The bankers of the country may have the highest and purest intentions, but no one class can comprehend the country; no one set of interests can safely be suffered to dominate it.”
In the presence of newspapermen, Bryan put an arm around Wilson, signaling that the governor had made important strides. However, Wilson faced three rivals for the nomination, the most formidable of whom was Champ Clark, the progressive-leaning Speaker of the House, who had the support of the Hearst newspaper chain and of many organization Democrats. Another contender, Oscar Underwood, the Alabama representative and House majority leader, drained support from Wilson’s natural base, the South. Wilson needed Bryan, who let it be known he would favor whichever of the candidates was most opposed to “predatory wealth,” a phrase as charged then as a later day’s “the 1 percent.”
However, Wilson’s condemnation of the Aldrich Plan was less than absolute. He objected to banker control but, unlike Bryan, he said nothing about centralization, which was the core idea. In fact, back-channel sources suggested that Wilson–a lifelong student of the machinery of government–was intrigued by the prospect of a reforming institution. Soon after the Jackson dinner, Paul Warburg heard from a well-connected journalist:
“In conversation with Mr. William F. McCombs, 96 Broadway, who is Governor Wilson’s manager, told me this morning “not to be quoted” that the Governor was in sympathy with the Aldrich plan. The matter of control and the board of Governors was the one question still undecided in his mind.”
While Wilson’s position on banking remained something of a mystery, Warburg found an opportunity to lobby Theodore Roosevelt at the end of January. He and Andrew were invited to a luncheon hosted by the Outlook magazine, where Roosevelt was a contributing editor. The former president, who had yet to commit to a position on the Aldrich Plan, subjected Warburg to a battery of questions. Warburg’s replies were smoothly persuasive. Victor Morawetz, who advocated regional banks and was also present, protested it would be impossible in a country as expansive as the United States to manage a single central bank. Roosevelt burst out, “Why not give Mr. Warburg the job? He would be the financial boss, and I would be the political boss, and we could run the country together!” Although Roosevelt’s budding radicalism frightened bankers, Warburg concluded that the Rough Rider would at least be open to considering a central bank.
In February, Roosevelt formally declared his candidacy for the White House. Even though the news was expected, Taft took it hard. Years earlier, his wife, Nellie, had warned him not to count on Roosevelt’s loyalty. But she had suffered a devastating stroke, and the President no longer had the full support of his closest companion as he headed into a wrenchingly personal battle.
The challenge from Roosevelt effectively nullified Taft’s ability to advance legislation. Banking reform became a hostage to the campaign. Republicans were embarrassed by the Aldrich Plan and Democrats were beholden to oppose it. As a formality, the bill was introduced in the Senate, but no committee considered or discussed it. With the movement backed into a corner, Aldrich’s allies played for time. They concentrated on lobbying the parties to at least refrain from including language in their platforms that would preclude legislation later on.
Meanwhile, the country was gripped by an anti-Wall Street and anti-banking fever. In a new book aimed specifically at the Aldrich Plan, U.S. Money vs. Corporation Currency, Alfred Owen Crozier posited that control of the money system would be the political campaign’s “secret issue.” Crozier championed a signature belief of Bryan: that only government currency could be trusted, and that banknotes (the currency endorsed by Aldrich) were strictly a means of enriching bankers.
Reasonable arguments could be made for either private or government money, but Crozier, the son of an abolitionist preacher, did not make them. He was more interested in the supposed evils that lurked behind the Aldrich Plan, which was depicted in the book as a coiled cobra, ready to sink poisons into the bloodstream of the people. Crozier’s method was to assume a sinister motive and look for a guilty party. He blithely deduced that financiers had an interest in fomenting panics, and therefore must have concocted them. “Why should not Wall Street have panics once in a while” Crozier rhetorically mused. “And if Providence won’t send a panic, why not make one, when it is so easy and will be so useful and profitable.” Crozier further averred that financiers had caused the Panic of 1907 in the full knowledge that it would bequeath the Aldrich Plan, which he termed “a huge private money trust to monopolize and forever control the entire public currency. . . of the United States.” It had all been planned–the Panic, the European expedition, Aldrich’s conversion–down to the last detail.
Crozier belonged to a long line of American conspiracists, arguably stretching from the witch-hunters in the Massachusetts Bay Colony to Oliver Stone. The shared link was that they saw in history’s unpredictable twists and turns a carefully plotted script. No misfortune could ever be random; every happenstance had to have a culprit. Such arguments had a powerful grip on the American heartland, further poisoning public sentiment against the Aldrich Plan.
Thoroughly tired of such controversy, Nelson Aldrich himself quietly withdrew. He turned down all speaking invitations, although he nourished the hope that Taft would be reelected along with a Republican Congress and that they would then pass his plan. Meanwhile, he tended to his stock portfolio and to his now finished mansion, whose centerpiece was a great marble stairway in the entrance hall. The exterior, a rather “grim granite and slate,” his descendant was to write, seemed to have been designed to withstand a “siege.”
With public passions so inflamed against Wall Street, Representative Charles Lindberg’s resolution for an inquest into the Money Trust obtained new urgency. Democrats in the House had opposed Lindberg, on partisan grounds, but they needed some alternative to the Aldrich Plan–that is, they needed a banking program that was more than just oppositional. The Money Trust hearings would be their response.
The Democrats wrangled over the scope of the inquiry. Bryan favored wide-ranging hearings under the mantle of Robert L. Henry of Texas, the populist chairman of the House Rules Committee. Conservative Democrats resisted, fearing this would lead to a circus that would taint the party with “Bryanism.” Bryan prevailed–mostly.
The House approved a broad mandate to investigate concentration in banking, braced by subpoena powers to compel testimony. However, the hearings were assigned to the Banking and Currency Committee, whose chairman, Arsene Pujo of Louisiana, was less provacative than Henry. Pujo was president of a small bank and had served under Aldrich on the Monetary Commission. Since Pujo was not very forceful, much would depend on whom he picked as committee counsel.
It is hard to overestimate the fear of bankers at the prospect of being put on the stand. Doubtless, some had secrets to hide. And bankers were not accustomed to being held accountable. In the modern era such hearings have become a familiar ritual; in 1912, however, neither Morgan nor Baker nor Vanderlip had ever had to face the public. J. P. (Jack) Morgan Jr., being groomed as heir to his father’s business, perceptively wrote to Davison, “The questions will be put in such a way that no answers that we could make could do us any credit.”
Nevertheless, Vanderlip saw a potential upside. He reckoned that nothing could emerge from the hearings that would be as bad as the “wild imaginings that seem to have taken possession of a great many people.” And whatever the committee uncovered, the drama would reignite interest in reform. Indeed, he confidently, if curiously, predicted that the investigation would “plow the ground for the proper consideration of the Aldrich Plan next Fall.”
In March, the Banking Committee made a decision that did seem to revive the reformers’ chances. While a subcommittee under Pujo’s direction would conduct the Money Trust inquiry, a separate subcommittee would be in charge of drafting remedial legislation. Splitting the committee would hopefully insulate the legislative work from the high political theater of the hearings.
The chair of the legislative panel was Carter Glass, a newcomer to the monetary debates who was suddenly thrust into a leading role. Despite his decade in the House, the fifty-four-year-old Virginian was little known. He was combative and hot-tempered, but a pragmatist underneath. He was partisan but not ideological.
Glass was a Bryan Democrat and a Jackson Democrat, but he was also a successful newspaper publisher, sensitive to the value of credit. He identified with the small businessmen and farmers in his district (the white ones, at any rate). After his stirring experience at the 1896 Democratic convention, he had entered politics more actively, serving as a delegate to rewrite the Virginia constitution, in 1901-2, for the express purpose of disenfranchising voters of color, whom Glass unashamedly referred to as “misguided Negroes.” He was elected to Congress soon after, thanks to the Democrats’ stranglehold on Virginia politics, which was founded on ironclad racial discrimination. For Glass, every political issue was interpreted through the narrow prism of its potential effect on white supremacy. Any position that might drive southern bankers into the arms of the Republicans threatened to uproot the system of racial exclusion–and was to be avoided at all costs.
When Glass went to Washington, D.C., he was assigned to the House Banking Committee–a topic on which he knew nothing. However, he had no false pride, and set to educating himself. By the time the Democrats claimed the majority in 1910, Glass had been in the House for eight years. Although he had little to show for it, he had read more than a hundred books on banking and chewed over the system’s defects with countless businessmen and bankers.
Glass’s first move as subcommittee chair was to hire a legislative aide, H. Parker Willis, the banking expert who had studied under Laughlin and who, in turn, had taught economics at Washington and Lee University to Glass’s two sons. Willis’s regular job–writing about banking for the New York-based Journal of Commerce–obviously conflicted with his legislative assignment, but neither Glass nor his newspaper cared.
The important point to Glass was that, in the thirty-seven-year-old Willis, he had snared a technician familiar with the salient ideas for reform. Since Willis was close to Laughlin, having collaborated with him recently on the handbook for the Citizens’ League, he was also quite familiar with the Aldrich Plan. Although Willis did not support the plan (in public, at any rate), it is significant that as the Democrats assumed an active role, the person charged with drafting a bill was at least open to the Jekyl Island notion of a central authority. Warburg, who did not put much faith in the Democrats, seized on this connection to protect his “baby.” “The Democratic members of the committee,” he fretted to Laughlin, “are absolutely unfit to ever produce anything; they simply have not got the knowledge.” The only option, Warburg cynically advised, was for Laughlin to control Willis and Willis to control the subcommittee.”
(THIS SEGMENT TALKS ABOUT TEDDY ROOSEVELT, THE TRUST BUSTER BATTLING PAUL WARURG, A GERMAN IMMIGRANT BANKER WHO BELIEVED IN CENTRALIZATION OF THE BANKING INDUSTRY. SOMETHING THAT TEDDY ROOSEVELT AND WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN DIDN’T BELIEVE IN. THIS IS AN INTERESTING PART OF HISTORY THAT IS REALLY NOT DISCUSSED BECAUSE I, MYSELF, WHO IS INTENSELY INTERESTED IN PRESERVING A SAFE BANKING SYSTEM FOR ALL THE PEOPLE, EVEN TODAY, DIDN’T REALIZE THIS SAME BATTLE TOOK PLACE OVER 100 YEARS AGO IN THIS COUNTRY.
LaVern Isely, Progressive, Overtaxed, Independent Middle Class Taxpayer and Public Citizen Member and USAF Veteran
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