Weekend Reading: Sam Acheson (1932): Joe Bailey: The Last Democrat: Preface: "SENATOR BAILEY of Texas...
...one of the most conspicuous and influential Democrats in official life at Washington during the Administrations of McKinley, Roosevelt and Taft, has often been called the last Democrat. As elected head of the minority in the House during the fateful years leading to the Spanish-American War, and later as the real leader of the opposition in the Senate during the first twelve years of the new century, he went far toward meriting the arrogant phrase. Master of the Democratic party of Texas, he became the most powerful voice of the Southern wing of the Democratic national party and as such played a determining role in its councils. Time alone tends to sustain the phrase, for he survived all of the three great antagonists with whom he disputed the course which Democracy should take: Cleveland, Bryan and Wilson.
But the phrase implies a break in the tradition of the oldest political party in the United States, and Joseph Weldon Bailey would be the first to reject the characterization. Before his death he saw the rise of a younger generation of party leaders whom he saluted and acknowledged to be true modern disciples of Mr. Jefferson.
He was, rather, a pivotal link in the chain that binds the past to the present and to the future; if in a certain rhetorical sense he was the final spokesman of the Confederacy, the last major prophet after John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis, he died with his face to the future, holding confidently to the belief that the Democratic party is as necessary to the preservation of American liberties and ideals as it was a century ago when the Hamiltonians sought to erect the first Fascist State.
Born in the Deep South in the latter part of 1863 at an hour when the fortunes of the Confederacy had reached their zenith and were just begirming to set, he lived until the Spring of 1929. Thus his life spanned three significant epochs in the history of the American Union: the Gilded Age that came to full bloom by the third decade after Appomattox; the Social Revolution heralded by the trumpets of free silver and halted only by the deluge of the World War; and, finally, the New Economic Era, that period of barren and prosperous reaction which Warren Gamaliel Harding was privileged to dedicate and which Herbert Clark Hoover, with incredulous eyes, saw crumble suddenly in a great roar of dust and fury on a Black Friday in the first year of his presidency.
Bailey's service in Congress lay almost wholly within the middle phase. Except for four years during Cleveland's last term he was a member of the minority, yet it would be an error to assume that he had no part in the positive legislative results.
It is true that his name is not officially stamped on any act of Congress; unlike McKinley or Grundy, no radical revision of the tariff is popularly named for Bailey; unlike Volstead or Mann no Federal statute affecting the intimate lives of millions of Americans is known as the Bailey Act; he does not have even such a paternal distinction as that which has gently but irrevocably settled upon his successor in the Senate, the Hon. Morris Sheppard, who will be known forever as the father of national prohibition.
But the lack of obvious mementoes should not be confusing. Bailey's legislative career coincided roughly with what Prof. Charles A. Beard has called the movement toward social democracy, that great ground swell of revolt and reform which swept eastward in an effort to curb the excesses of the Gilded Age.
This vast, often subterranean ferment, first symbolized on a nation-wide scale by Bryan, worked through and across party lines under Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson to effect more than a partial transformation in American life.
Of all the fruits of that movement three are seen in retrospect to have been basic; in two of these Bailey played a determining part.
The first was the subjection of the railroads to social control by the empowerment of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1906 to regulate the rates and services of the carriers. Bailey shares equally with Roosevelt and Tillman in the final enactment of the Hepburn Rate Bill, that Magna Charta of American economic liberty on which has been built the whole structure of control of more than one fifth of the industrial wealth of the United States.
The second major fruit was the final imposition of a Federal income tax. The real victory was won in 1909 when a tax on the earnings of corporations was imposed by law and the Seventeenth Amendment was submitted by Congress to the individual States, thereby paving the way for the tax on personal incomes as well which a Democratic majority imposed in 1914. In so far as any one person may be said to be responsible for this formidable advance against plutocratic power, the victory may be said to have been a personal triumph for the Texan.
The third fundamental assault on the anarchy of American economic life, and likewise that accompanied by the greatest beating of drums, was the reform of the currency and banking system. It is, perhaps, a far cry from the discontent of farmers and small business men in the '80's of the last century to the modern and elastic Federal Reserve banking system. Yet it was the initial driving force of the free silver enthusiasts, among whom was originally Bailey, that brought about the final solution of fiscal disorder. And if Bailey was not so influential here as in the railroad regulation and income tax reforms, his views and those of his party were not without weight in shaping the form and ultimate control of the central banking system.
As an adult Bailey saw his country twice go to war. Now the making of war by Congress is a positive, if not always constructive, measure, and Bailey as the party leader opposed to Speaker Thomas B. Reed in 1897-98 was one of the authors of the Spanish-American War. That he quickly regretted his approval and his promotion of this step toward the Manifest Destiny of the American people is seen in his almost immediate about face and in his long and magnificent fight up-stream against the excesses of Chauvinism which that holy crusade unleashed.
Later, as a much wiser and lonely elder statesman, he saw his country once more embark on a crusade, this time to make the world safe for democracy. From the porticoes of private life he sought unsuccessfully to arrest the forward surge of his countrymen. Bailey was, perhaps, never more constructive than when in the days before America's intervention in Europe, he inveighed Cassandra-like against that step.
The last decade and one half of his life was spent outside of public office. It was largely one prolonged protest against the course which his country and his party took on questions of public concern. Because of his unremitting criticism of Federal prohibition and enfranchisement of women by Fed- eral amendment, he came to be regarded by many as a negative if not a carping influence.
But such were the cogency and soundness of his views, particularly upon the more disputed achievement of Federal prohibition, that they may yet gain a place in that renewed radicalism which threatens, that literal cutting back to the roots of the original American system of government which he espoused so consistently and courageously. The keystone of his political creed was a belief in the system of dual sovereignty around which the Constitution of the United States was formed. He continued to champion a just safeguard of the right of local self-government at a time when it became fashionable to deride the doctrine of States' Rights as an archaic fetish; yet he lived to witness a reaction in favor of this first principle, even among certain leaders of the Republican party.
No foreword would be complete without a reference to the long, dominant and passionate part which Bailey had in the internal affairs of Texas. The political history of the State in the last fifty years may be written largely around three personalities who rose in turn to first place: James Stephen Hogg, Joseph Weldon Bailey, and James E. Ferguson. Here again Bailey occupies the middle panel. Although he never held an office in the State government, he was for more than ten years the center of a cyclonic storm in the life of Texas. No political figure since the days of the Republic was capable of inspiring greater loyalty and devotion among his followers; nor, at the same time, more capable of arousing bitter and unrelenting hatred.
The Bailey controversy in Texas stemming out of the Waters-Pierce Oil Company episode and Bailey's part in it, necessarily occupies a fair-sized, but it is hoped a proportionate, part in this chronicle. The facts remain as an invitation alike to both those who believed Bailey guilty of the most heinous charges brought against him and those who believed him innocent ofall imperfection.
What manner of man was Bailey? The facets of his personality were many; to the legal student he will remain one of the great Constitutional lawyers of his age whose prowess was such that Taft offered him a place on the Supreme Court of the United States; others, perhaps, will remember him as the premier orator of his generation. And yet others will hold to their earlier skepticism of his abilities and his achievements, agreeing with his most widely quoted critic, Samuel G. Blythe, that Bailey was a sophist at the core of a huge and undeserved political myth.
But even the obscurest human life is far too complex to be pinioned with a phrase, and it is hoped that the pages which follow give a better answer to the question than some telling but over-simple label...