CHAPTER XXI. POLITICS, 1908-1912
Coincidently with the disagreement over the Payne-Aldrich act, there raged the unhappy Pinchot-Ballinger controversy. One of the last acts of President Roosevelt had been to withdraw from sale large tracts of public land which contained valuable water-power. The purpose and the effect of the order was to prevent these natural resources from falling into private hands and particularly into the hands of syndicates or corporations who would develop them mainly for individual interests. President Taft's Secretary of the Interior, Richard A. Ballinger, took the attitude that the withdrawals were without statutory justification and he therefore revoked the order for withdrawals immediately after coming into office. Upon further investigation, however, he re-withdrew a part of the land, although somewhat doubtful of his power to do so.
During the summer of 1909, Gifford Pinchot, the Chief Forester, addressed an irrigation Congress in Spokane and asserted that the water-power sites were being absorbed by a trust. Much interest was aroused by the charge, which was looked upon as an attack on the Secretary of the Interior and his policy. Within a short time the idea became widespread, through the press, that Ballinger was associated with interests which were desirous of seizing the public resources and that this fact lay back of his partial reversal of the policy of his predecessor. This impression was deepened by the charges of L.R. Glavis, an employee of the Department of the Interior, concerning the claims of a certain Clarence Cunningham, representing a group of investors, to some exceedingly valuable coal lands in Alaska. Glavis asserted that the Cunningham claims were fraudulent, that many of the Cunningham group were personal friends of Ballinger and that the latter had acted as attorney for them before becoming Secretary of the Interior. President Taft, with the backing of an opinion from Attorney-General Wickersham, upheld Ballinger and dismissed Glavis. The press again took the matter up and the controversy was carried into Congress, where an investigation was ordered. About the same time Pinchot was removed for insubordination, and additional heat entered into the disagreement. The majority of the congressional committee of investigation later made a report exonerating Ballinger, but his position had become intolerable and he resigned in March, 1911. The result of the quarrel was to weaken the President, for the idea became common that his administration had been friendly with interests that wished to seize the public lands.
Republican complaint in regard to the tariff and the Pinchot-Ballinger controversy were surface indications of a division in the party into conservative or "old-guard," and progressive or insurgent groups. The same line of demarcation appeared in a quarrel over the power of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Joseph G. Cannon. Cannon had served in the lower branch of Congress almost continuously for twenty-seven years, and in 1910 was filling the position of speaker for the fourth consecutive time. Much of his official influence rested on two powers: he appointed the committees of the House and their chairmen, a power which enabled him to punish opponents, reward friends and determine the character of legislation; and he was the chairman and dominant power of the Committee on Rules which determined the procedure under existing practice and made special orders whenever particular circumstances seemed to require them. It was widely believed that Cannon, like Aldrich in the Senate, effectually controlled the passage of legislation, with slender regard to the wishes or needs of the people. "Cannonism" and "Aldrichism" were considered synonymous. For several years an influential part of the Republican and Independent, as well as the Democratic press had attacked Speaker Cannon as the enemy of progressive legislation. Many of them laid much of the blame for the character of the Payne-Aldrich act at his door. The Outlook decried "government by oligarchy"; The Nation declared that he belonged to another political age; Bryan queried what Cannon was selling and how much he got; Gompers, the head of the American Federation of Labor, pointed him out as the enemy of all reforms.
The outcry against the Speaker in the House itself, reinforced by the gathering opposition outside, found effective voice in a coalition of the Democrats and the insurgent Republicans. In mid-March, 1910, an insurgent presented a resolution designed to replace the old Committee on Rules by a larger body which should be elected by the House, and on which the speaker would have no place. The friends of Cannon rallied to his defence; other business fell into the background; and debate became sharp and personal. One continuous session lasted twenty-six hours, parliamentary fencing mingling with horse-play while each side attempted to get a tactical advantage over the other. Eventually about forty insurgent Republicans joined with the Democrats to pass the resolution. The result of the change was to compel the speaker to be a presiding officer rather than the determining factor in the passage of legislation. About the time that Cannon's domination in the House was being broken, the announcement that Senator Nelson W. Aldrich and his staunchly conservative associate, Eugene Hale, of Maine, were about to retire indicated a similar change in the Senate. These men had served for long periods in Congress and were looked upon as the ablest and most influential of the "reactionary" element in the upper house.