Monday, October 7, 2019

Hoosier Imperialist: Albert J. Beveridge

On September 16, 1898, at Tomlinson Hall in Indianapolis, a Hoosier lawyer and would-be politician opened the election season for the Republican Party by addressing an issue the entire country had been pondering: Should the United States become an imperial power by maintaining control of such countries as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines captured in the Spanish-American War? Such prominent voices as writer Mark Twain counseled against such foreign adventures, but for staunch imperialist Albert J. Beveridge, it was America’s destiny to see its flag fly throughout the world.

In what came to be known as “The March of the Flag” speech, Beveridge, selected by the Republican-controlled Indiana General Assembly for election to the U.S. Senate in 1899, pointed out that if England and Germany could govern “foreign lands,” so could America. Also, distance and oceans were no impediment to the march of the flag. “We cannot fly from our world duties; it is ours to execute the purpose of a fate that has driven us to be greater than our small intentions,” Beveridge told his audience. “We cannot retreat from any soil where Providence has unfurled our banner; it is ours to save that soil for liberty and civilization.”

Although known during his early senatorial career as an advocate on behalf of U.S. economic growth, Beveridge later supported the progressive measures pushed by the progressive wing of his party, including stricter control of big business by the federal government, pure food laws, the direct primary, and leading the fight against child labor in the nation’s factories. Losing his seat in the Senate in 1911 when the Democrats took control of the Indiana legislature, Beveridge joined Theodore Roosevelt’s insurgent Progressive (Bull Moose) Party, delivering the keynote address at the party’s national convention. Beveridge ran as the Progressive candidate for Indiana governor in 1912, but finished second, losing to Democratic candidate Samuel M. Ralston. Beveridge tried to regain his Senate seat in 1914 and 1922 but failed in both contests.

Born on a farm in Highland County, Ohio, Albert was the child of Frances Eleanor and Thomas Beveridge, a Union army veteran whose venture as the owner of a general store in Level, Ohio, ended in bankruptcy, forcing the family to move to Illinois. As a young man Albert held a series of jobs, including helping to build a railroad, clerking in a post office, and as a teamster for a lumber company. Encouraged by a teacher, however, Beveridge decided to pursue a career in law. “Lawyers were the biggest men in our own and neighboring counties,” he recalled, “and they were regarded as a very superior type of human being.”

After graduating from high school in 1881, Beveridge attended Indiana Asbury University (renamed DePauw University in 1884), earning a reputation as a gifted orator and becoming a fixture in the library, where he read such authors as William Shakespeare, Robert Burns, Charles Dickens, and William Makepeace Thackeray. “I would be willing to go to hell,” Beveridge told a fellow student, “if I could make a reputation as great as that of Napoleon.”

In the fall of 1884 Beveridge took a month off from school to campaign for GOP candidates in the state, winning for him the title “young man eloquent” from the Indianapolis Journal. “I was a partisan Republican of that white hot kind that in those days resulted from being the son and brother of Union soldiers,” said Beveridge, who spoke in other states as well. After graduating from DePauw in 1885 with a bachelor of philosophy degree, he read law in the Indianapolis firm McDonald, Butler and Mason and also served as a clerk in the Republican-controlled Indiana House. Shortly before being admitted to the bar, Beveridge, on November 24, 1887, married his college sweetheart, Kate Maude Langsdale; she died in 1900 and in 1907 he married Catherine Eddy and the couple had two children.

Beveridge left the McDonald, Butler and Mason firm to start his own practice in 1899. His firm prospered and he became active in a variety of civic organizations, including the Commercial Club, Young Men’s Christian Association, the Indianapolis Art Association, and the Indianapolis Literary Club. These associations, and his skill as a speaker, won the attention of GOP leaders, who offered Beveridge the nomination as the Republican candidate in 1894 for the state’s attorney general position—an offer he declined. “It is firing off my gun too soon,” he noted. “I think there may be something higher ahead for me—but I shall not care even for that unless I can [do] good for my country—good in the better and nobler sense.”

In 1899, with Republicans in control of the Indiana legislature, Beveridge had his chance to gain a higher office, that of U.S. senator. Young friends of his who had been active in the Republican Party rallied around his candidacy over that of better-known, and older, candidates, including J. Frank Hanly, Robert S. Taylor, and George W. Steele. When he heard rumblings of discontent about his being too young (thirty-six at the time) for such a high office, Beveridge told a friend to remind his opponents that Thomas Jefferson had been only thirty-three when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Alexander Hamilton was thirty-two when he became Secretary of the Treasury, and Henry Clay was only thirty when he joined the U.S. Senate.

After numerous rounds of balloting by the eighty-nine GOP members of the legislature on January 10, Beveridge captured the nomination, and he was formally elected by the general assembly on January 17, 1899. “Appreciation is a poor word for the honor that you have conferred upon me,” he said in remarks at the Statehouse following the balloting, “obligation does not adequately describe the duty which your kindness has placed upon me.”

Reelected to the Senate in 1905, Beveridge made his mark as a progressive with his support of two key pieces of legislation. Reacting to the unsanitary practices in the meatpacking industry exposed by Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle, Beveridge sponsored the Meat Inspection Act. Alarmed by the harm it might do to the country, he also campaigned vigorously in the Senate for a bill that banned the interstate commerce of goods made by child labor. “When these children grow up and understand they are ruined for life,” he told a friend, John C. Shaffer, “there is developed the classes which we all fear and have reason to fear.”

Thwarted in his political career by the 1912 election that saw Democrats win control of the Indiana legislature and Woodrow Wilson capturing the presidency, Beveridge decided to pursue writing a biography of John Marshall, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835. The project resulted in a four-volume work published by the Houghlin Mifflin Company to glowing reviews and gaining for Beveridge the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography in 1920. He turned next to another anticipated four-volume biography, this one on the life of Abraham Lincoln.

Beveridge’s death on April 27, 1927, however, saw him only up to the 1858 debates between Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Historian Worthington S. Ford finished the work on Beveridge’s behalf, and it was published in two volumes in 1928 by Houghton Mifflin. Thanks to a contribution from Beveridge’s widow, Catherine, the American Historical Association in 1939 established the Albert J. BeveridgeAward to promote and honor outstanding historical writing.