Wednesday, December 7, 2011

December 31, 1911

The United States Capitol, 1911

As required by Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution, the 62nd Congress assembled in Washington on December 4, the first Monday of December.  Earlier this year, President Taft convened Congress in a special session to consider the ill-fated reciprocal trade agreement with Canada, but this is its first and only regular session before the 1912 election.  There will be a second session (dubbed the “short” or “lame duck” session) starting on the first Monday of next December, after the election.  That session will end when the newly elected 63rd Congress takes office on March 4, 1913, but unless there is another special session that Congress will not meet until the first Monday of the following December.

Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution states that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”  It has been the custom for over a hundred years for the president to discharge this duty by sending a written message to Congress at the beginning of its annual session to be read by the clerk.  This year President Taft divided his message into several parts, each dealing with a different subject.  His first message, dealing with the trust question, arrived and was read to both houses of Congress on December 5.  His message on foreign policy was delivered on December 7.

 Congressman William Sulzer

The president’s foreign policy message this year addressed a subject at the top of Congress’s agenda, the nation’s 1832 treaty with Russia.  That treaty provides that American citizens are to be treated like all other citizens traveling abroad, but Russia refuses to permit entry of American Jews or to exempt American Jews already in Russia from the country’s harsh anti-Semitic laws.  In response to American complaints, Russia insists that this is a domestic matter with which the United States has no legitimate concern.  Although the United States itself has a Chinese Exclusion Act on the books, the Russian policy has aroused a strong political response in this country.  On the evening of December 6, New York’s Carnegie Hall was packed with people demanding support for a resolution pending in Congress urging the president to abrogate the treaty with Russia.  The speakers included Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey, Speaker of the House Champ Clark, Senator James A. O’Gorman of New York and publisher William Randolph Hearst, as well as Representative William Sulzer of New York, the sponsor of the resolution in the House.  The president, in his foreign policy message the next day, stated that he was attempting to renegotiate the treaty to more securely protect Americans’ rights and promised “a further communication on the subject” after the Christmas holidays.  Russian intransigence on the subject was clear, however, and on December 13 the House of Representatives approved the resolution with only one dissenting vote.  Senate approval appeared certain, and on December 17 Taft advised Russia that the treaty was no longer in effect.  The Senate speedily and unanimously ratified the president’s action.

Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall was again the scene of a political rally on December 12, this one called by prominent citizens including Andrew Carnegie and Joseph Choate, to express support for President Taft’s proposed arbitration treaties with Great Britain and France.  On this occasion, however, the meeting was infiltrated by hundreds of German sympathizers.  When one of the scheduled speakers, to the apparent surprise of the rally's organizers, denounced the treaties as aimed at Germany, the infiltrators rose to their feet cheering, and disrupted further proceedings by loudly interrupting speakers who attempted to speak in support of the treaties.  The president himself, who was not at the Carnegie Hall rally, had better luck a week later when he spoke forcefully in defense of the treaties at the Hotel Astor.

Senator William E. Borah

The Republican National Committee, meeting in Washington on December 12, designated Chicago as the location and June 18 as the date of the 1912 Republican Convention.  There will be 1,076 delegates, with 539 votes required to nominate a candidate for president.  The Committee’s rules stipulate that each state’s delegates are to be selected by convention, except that in states with laws that require delegates to be chosen by primary vote the state committees may determine how they are to be selected.  They may decide, in other words, whether to comply with or ignore the state law.  The Committee rejected a rule proposed by Senator William E. Borah that would have allowed state committees in every state to choose delegates by primaries rather than conventions.  This outcome is seen as a clear victory for the Taft forces and a defeat for those who would prefer another candidate, such as former President Theodore Roosevelt or Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin.  The Taft forces on the Committee have been strengthened, unfairly some say, by their control of the state committees in the southern states, where memories of the Civil War and Reconstruction ensure that the Republican Party remains a decided minority.  Southern Republicans seem resigned to their minority status (the "Solid South" has voted Democratic in every election since the end of Reconstruction in 1877), but they are a force to be reckoned with in party affairs.  A northern Republican said of them, “They don’t want any more Republicans down there.  So long as they have enough to fill the [federal patronage] offices and man the machine that is all they are after.”  Progressives are frustrated.  After the Borah proposal was rejected, a spokesman for the LaFollette campaign charged the Committee with “insolent contempt” for the laws of the states that provide for primaries.  The committee’s next meeting will be in Chicago a few days before the convention.  Although Roosevelt continues to deny that he is a candidate for the nomination, his availability if called is increasingly taken for granted.

 Booker T. Washington

Early in Roosevelt's presidency, he created a firestorm of controversy when he invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House.  This was the first time such an invitation had ever been extended to a member of the Negro race, and it has not been repeated.  Because of widespread disenfranchisement of Negroes in southern states (where most of them live), no Negroes have been elected to Congress in recent years.  Representative George H. White (Rep., N.C.), who was defeated in 1900 after a successful campaign by North Carolina Democrats to deny the vote to Negroes in that state, was the last of his race to serve in Congress.

Meanwhile, there has been a small but potentially significant movement of Negro Americans away from the South and into big cities of the North.  On December 1, the New York Times carried a front page story with the headline “Invasion of Negroes Cuts Harlem Values.”  The article reported the loss of real estate values due to the movement of Negroes into areas of Harlem “which hitherto have been free of colored people” and the formation by white property owners of restrictive associations designed to “check the encroachment.”  The president of one of the associations said he believed the encroachment was part of a plan by the New York Central Railroad to drive down property values to facilitate the purchase of land for the construction of a railroad tunnel under Manhattan and the Harlem River to Long Island.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

One of the greatest tragedies in New York City’s history occurred earlier this year when a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, a garment factory on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of a building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, one block east of Washington Square.  The doors to the stairwells and exits were locked, trapping hundreds of young women workers.  Over a hundred died, many of them leaping to their deaths on the sidewalks below before the eyes of horrified onlookers.  The owners of the company were indicted on charges of manslaughter.  The trial took place this month, and ended with a verdict of not guilty.  Observers attribute the surprising result in part to the trial judge’s instructions to the jury, which required them to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the owners knew the doors were locked at the time of the fire, and in part to the cross-examination of a key prosecution witness by defense attorney Max Steuer, who damaged the girl’s credibility by asking her to repeat her story several times, which she did using many of the same words each time, suggesting that she had been told what to say.  The jurors left the courthouse under police protection.

The Los Angeles Times After the Bombing

Another headline trial ended this month in Los Angeles with surprise guilty pleas from the McNamara brothers, labor activists and members of the International Association of Bridge & Structural Ironworkers.  James McNamara pled guilty to the dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times building, which started a fire that killed 21 people and injured over a hundred.  His brother John, the union’s secretary-treasurer, pled guilty to bombing the Llewellyn Iron Works, a local iron manufacturing plant.  Both bombings were apparently part of the union’s attempt to organize the iron workers in the Los Angeles area, an effort vigorously opposed by the Times and its proprietor Harrison Grey Otis.  James was sentenced to life imprisonment and John to fifteen years.  After the sentencing, it was announced that a federal grand jury would investigate the full scope of the conspiracy.  The labor movement is divided, having strongly supported the McNamaras prior to the trial and funded their defense.  The nation's largest labor union, Samuel Gompers' American Federation of Labor, has issued a statement expressing satisfaction that “the culprits have been punished for their crime.”  Clarence Darrow, the McNamaras’ defense attorney, said he advised them to change their plea to guilty because the evidence against them “presented a stone wall.”  The guilty plea came in the wake of the recent arrest of one of the defendants’ investigators for attempting to bribe a prospective juror.  The week after the guilty pleas were entered, Job Harriman, the Socialist candidate for mayor of Los Angeles who had assisted Darrow in the McNamaras' defense, was defeated by 36,000 votes in an election in which some 70,000 women took advantage of their new right to vote.

The Victor Talking Machine Company

1911 has been a good year for popular music.  Americans are singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “Down by the Old Mill Stream,” “I Want a Girl (Just like the Girl Who Married Dear Old Dad),” and “Put Your Arms around Me, Honey.”  Sheet music sales are still the principal measure of a song's popularity, but thanks to advances in recording technology, it is now possible for those who have the right equipment to listen to professional performances at home.

 Irving Berlin

The most popular song of the year was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” written by a young Tin Pan Alley songsmith named Irving Berlin (click to play):

Alexander's Ragtime Band
(sung by Collins and Harlan)

The nation's fascination with flight is reflected in another song’s popularity this year (click to play):

Come, Josephine, In My Flying Machine
(sung by Ada Jones and Billy Murray)

The public's fascination has been focused since September on the transcontinental flight of Calbraith P. Rodgers, who reached Pasadena in November and continued this month to the Pacific Ocean.  On December 10, still recovering from his recent injuries, he piloted his Vin Fiz Flyer to the beach at Santa Monica and dipped its wheels in the surf as thousands of onlookers cheered.  Because of the many repairs it had undergone since leaving New York, very little of the original Flyer remained.

Emiliano Zapata

General Bernardo Reyes, back in Mexico after his arrest last month in San Antonio, raised the flag of rebellion in his home state of Leon.  Following a brief skirmish in Burgos, he surrendered to federal authorities, saying "I called on the people and the army, and they did not respond, so I must give up."  He is now imprisoned in Mexico City.  The main threat to President Madero's rule now appears to be the guerrilla forces led by Emiliano Zapata, operating in southern Mexico.

Delhi Durbar

For the first time since the crusades, a reigning British monarch has left Europe.  King George V and Queen Mary are in India, where on December 12 they were installed as Emperor and Empress at the Delhi Durbar.  Over 500 Indian princes attended and paid homage as the King-Emperor reviewed a grand parade of British and Indian troops.  During the ceremonies, it was announced that the capital of India is to be moved from Calcutta to Delhi, the old capital of the Mughal Empire.

Andrew Bonar Law

Meanwhile, there has been activity back home in the British Parliament.  In the House of Commons, Conservative (Unionist) party leader Andrew Bonar Law has announced, to no one's surprise, that his party will oppose the Irish Home Rule Bill, which the Liberals under Prime Minister Herbert Asquith have promised to enact in 1912.  Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George’s Insurance Bill, providing government-funded insurance for the sick and unemployed, became law when it passed its third reading in the House of Lords on December 15.

The House of Lords has rejected the Naval Prize Bill, effectively killing legislation that would have made possible Britain’s participation in the Declaration of London.  The Declaration was the product of the London Naval Conference, which was called by Great Britain and attended by major maritime powers including Germany and the United States in 1908-09.  The Declaration outlined a set of agreed principles of international law regarding neutral rights in wartime, expanding those rights in some respects.  For example, it limited the definition of contraband (goods that could be seized if discovered aboard a neutral vessel en route to the enemy) by adopting a “free list” and distinguishing between absolute and conditional contraband.  It also limited the doctrine of “continuous voyage” (contraband aboard a neutral vessel en route to a neutral port may be seized if it is eventually bound for an enemy port) to absolute contraband (war material such as weapons and ammunition); and it restated the old rule against "distant blockades" (those extending beyond the ports and coasts of the enemy).  Great Britain's repudiation of an agreement it sponsored less than three years ago may seem surprising, but may simply reflect a changed international landscape.  In 1909 Britain regarded itself as a likely neutral in any future war; now it sees itself as a possible belligerent, and as such less interested in protecting neutral rights on the high seas given its dominant naval power.  Whatever the reason, because the Declaration provides that it is effective only if ratified by all signatories, Great Britain's rejection means it will have no legal effect in the event of a future war.

Justin de Selves

The Morocco (Agadir) crisis, though formally resolved by agreement last month, continues to dominate the politics of France and Germany.  On December 14, French Foreign Minister Justin de Selves in a speech to the Chamber of Deputies reviewed the French government's actions in the crisis.  He stated that Germany had been conciliatory in the negotiations and defended the French government against charges that it should not have agreed to cede French territory in Africa as part of the settlement.  The Chamber of Deputies ratified the agreement on December 20.

Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg

In Germany, the Reichstag was dissolved on December 8 at the expiration of its regular five-year term.  The elections, set for January 12, will be conducted in an atmosphere of lingering hostility toward Great Britain and France in the wake of Germany's perceived humiliation in the Morocco crisis.  Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg will continue as Chancellor, a position that is filled by appointment of the emperor.

 Enver Bey

In North Africa, neither side has made much progress in the war between Italy and the Ottoman Empire.  With its naval presence in the adjacent seas and some 50,000 troops ashore, Italy controls most of the Libyan coast, while Turkey, because of its relatively weak navy and its inability to move troops overland through British-controlled Egypt, has been unable to reinforce its forces there.  Still, Arab and Turkish forces control most of the interior, and guerrilla resistance is strong on the outskirts of the coastal cities.  The Turkish resistance has been organized and led by Enver Bey and Mustafa Kemal, members of the "Young Turks" party that recently came to power in Constantinople.

Morgan Shuster

November ended with Russia’s ultimatum to Persia demanding that William Morgan Shuster, the American hired by Persia as its Treasurer-General, be dismissed for being insufficiently sensitive to Russian interests in the country.  On December 1, the Majlis rejected the ultimatum, and Russian troops already stationed in northern Persia marched on the capital.  In an address to the House of Commons on December 14, British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey said that the Anglo-Russian agreement dividing most of Persia into Russian and British spheres of influence was not intended to guarantee the country's independence.  He stated that Britain did not object to Russia’s ultimatum and agreed that Shuster should be removed.  On December 25, bowing to superior diplomatic and military pressure, Persia notified Shuster of his dismissal and declared martial law in Tehran to forestall popular unrest.

Sun Yat-Sen

In China, an armistice has been declared between government and revolutionary forces.  On December 28, revolutionary leader Sun Yat-Sen was selected by the revolutionary forces as president of the "Republic of China," and Premier Yuan Shi-kai announced the emperor's assent to a national convention to decide China's future form of government.  Meanwhile, the Chinese provinces of Mongolia and Turkestan have taken advantage of the government's weakness to declare their independence.  They are likely to become, in effect, Russian protectorates.

December 1911 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading

Contemporary Periodicals:
American Review of Reviews, January and February 1912
Current Literature, January 1912
New York Times, December 1911

Books and Articles:
James Chace, 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs -- the Election That Changed the Country
Patrick Devlin, Too Proud to Fight: Woodrow Wilson's Neutrality
Lewis L. Gould, Four Hats in the Ring: The 1912 Election and the Birth of Modern American Politics
Lewis L. Gould, The William Howard Taft Presidency
Sherwood Harris, Coast to Coast in 12 Crashes, American Heritage, October 1964
Edmund Morris, Colonel Roosevelt
Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex
Patricia O'Toole, When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House
Michael Perman, Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South 1888-1908
Henry F. Pringle, The Life and Times of William Howard Taft