Monday, April 30, 2012

April 1912

Major Butt

The new luxury liner RMS Titanic, owned and operated by the White Star Line, was en route from Southampton to New York on her maiden voyage when she struck an iceberg and sank off the coast of Newfoundland, taking with her some 1,500 passengers and crew, many of whom perished from exposure in the icy water after the ship went down.  Among the victims was Major Archibald Butt, President Taft's military aide, who was returning from a holiday with his brother who lives in England.  Survivors report that Major Butt acted heroically throughout the emergency, insisting that women and children be given priority and assisting them into the lifeboats. 

Isidor and Ida Straus

Isidor Straus, co-owner (with his brother) of Macy's Department Store, was also on the Titanic, and was lost along with his wife, who was urged to board a lifeboat but refused to leave her husband's side.  Two other wealthy Americans, J. Pierpont Morgan and Alfred G. Vanderbilt, had booked passage on the Titanic, but changed their plans at the last minute.

The Carpathia in New York, Lowering the Titanic's Lifeboats

The Titanic's collision with the iceberg happened late Sunday evening, April 14, and the ship sank bow first in the early morning hours of Monday the 15th.  The Cunard liner RMS Carpathia, en route from New York to Fiume, Austria-Hungary, received the Titanic's wireless distress signals and proceeded at high speed through the ice fields toward the Titanic's last reported location.  She reached the first lifeboats at about 4 o'clock Monday morning, picked up survivors, and returned to New York, arriving late Thursday night.  It appears that the nearest ship when the Titanic was sinking was not the Carpathia but the Leyland Line steamship SS Californian, en route from London to Boston with no passengers.  Although the Californian saw the Titanic's emergency flares, she did not respond at first, and arrived on the scene only after the Carpathia had rescued survivors. It appears that at least some of the lifeboats aboard the Titanic were lowered before they were filled, and that the capacity of the lifeboats was insufficient in any event.  This would have been less serious if the Californian had responded promptly and arrived while the Titanic was still afloat, enabling the lifeboats to ferry passengers and crew from the sinking ship.  As it was, the only survivors (about 700) were those who were in lifeboats when the Carpathia arrived, some two hours after the Titanic had disappeared beneath the surface of the North Atlantic.

 John Jacob Astor IV (left) waiting to board the train that will take him to the Titanic

Another prominent victim of the Titanic tragedy was New York millionaire John Jacob Astor IV, great grandson of the first John Jacob Astor and first cousin of William Waldorf Astor, who emigrated to England in 1891 and became a British subject in 1899.  The cousins' relationship was strained.  In 1890 William tore down his mansion at the corner of 33rd Street and Fifth Avenue, next to John's mother's house, and built a hotel, which he named the Waldorf.  John responded by persuading his mother to move uptown, then tearing down her house and building another, larger, hotel, which he called the Astoria.  The two hotels are now connected by a corridor called Peacock Alley and operated as a unit.

Senator Smith

The day after the Carpathia's arrival in New York, a Congressional hearing was convened to investigate the disaster.  It began, coincidentally, at the Waldorf-Astoria, and has since been moved to the Senate Office Building in Washington.  Senator William Alden Smith (Rep., Mich.), the chairman of the subcommittee conducting the hearing, issued subpoenas to ensure that testimony is obtained while survivors are still in the country and their memories fresh.  The senator has been accused of prolonging the hearings, and has drawn criticism for insensitivity in requiring survivors to remain in this country until the hearings are concluded.  By month's end his fellow committee members had prevailed on him to conclude the hearings in a day or two. The British inquiry, to be conducted by Lord Mersey, is scheduled to begin May 2.

J. Bruce Ismay

Among the survivors of the Titanic's sinking was J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line, who was accompanying his firm's newest and largest vessel on her maiden voyage.  He testified that he stepped into the last lifeboat only when it was ready to be lowered away and he saw no women or children or other passengers on deck.

The Titanic and her sister ship, RMS Olympic, were launched about a year ago in the Belfast shipyards.  After fitting out, she conducted her sea trials on April 2, and departed April 4 for Southampton to board her first passengers.  Newsreel footage recorded the Titanic in Belfast before her departure for Southampton (click to play):

The Titanic's voyage was troubled from the beginning.  As she was getting under way at Southampton, she escaped a collision that could have brought her cruise to a premature end and thereby, ironically, have avoided her far more devastating collision with an iceberg a few days later.  On April 10, after she cast off from her berth in Southampton, the massive suction caused by her movement through the water put such a strain on the hawsers securing the nearby American liner New York to her berth that they parted, causing the New York to swing into the channel toward the Titanic.  A collision was narrowly averted as the Titanic rapidly reversed her engines and tugboats sprang into action to return the New York to her moorings.  The Titanic's ability to continue her voyage was greeted at the time with expressions of relief.

* * * * *
 The Greatest Show on Earth

While the Titanic disaster captured the headlines, the attention of the American political world remained fixed this month on the campaigns for the Republican and Democratic Parties' presidential nominations.  1912 is shaping up to be the most entertaining, though hardly the most edifying, political spectacle in many years.  An editorial cartoon in the Tacoma Ledger summed up the view of many.

 President Taft Speaking in Springfield, Massachusetts, April 25, 1912

After his primary defeat in New York, former President Roosevelt went on the offensive.  Charging that the state Republican machine had rigged the voting by leaving Roosevelt's name off ballots, not delivering ballots on time, barring Roosevelt's election inspectors from polling places, and other election chicanery, he denounced the results as "not only a farce, but a criminal farce."  This month, in the days before the Titanic drove politics off the front pages, Roosevelt swept primaries in Illinois and Pennsylvania, and the following week he added victories in Nebraska and Oregon.  Senator LaFollette, meanwhile, despite his apparent collapse in February, has apparently not abandoned the race after all.  Emboldened by last month's victory in North Dakota, he scored another victory on April 2 in his home state of Wisconsin.  President Taft's primary record has been less successful: he won the New Hampshire primary on April 23, but as the end of the month approached he was otherwise winless in primary contests.  In a major effort to win an important state, he traveled to Massachusetts several days before its April 30 primary, telling crowds he had come "to reply to an old and true friend of mine" and saying "I do not want to fight Theodore Roosevelt, but sometimes a man in a corner fights. I am going to fight."  He delivered a fighting speech in Boston, denying that he had abandoned his progressive principles and denouncing Roosevelt for abandoning his pledge not to seek a third term.  He pointed to his administration's enactment of federal employers liability and other progressive legislation and his strong record of enforcement of the Sherman Act, and criticized Roosevelt for his proposal to empower regulatory agencies to distinguish between "good trusts" and "bad trusts" rather than enforcing the Sherman Act against all "combinations in restraint of trade."

Because of his primary victories, Roosevelt now leads Taft in the number of committed delegates.  Primaries, however, will not be the deciding factor in either party's nominating contest this year because relatively few states have enacted the legislation necessary to conduct them.  Most states, including some that have primaries, ultimately choose their delegates by state conventions.  Many of those states will send uninstructed delegations to the national convention, and most will probably cast their votes for the president.  In New York, for example, last month's primary was followed this month by a state Republican convention, which left the delegation technically uninstructed but consisting mostly of machine-selected delegates who support Taft.  Roosevelt forces have mounted challenges to the party establishment in other state conventions, but the power of presidential incumbency has been difficult to overcome.  Through their control of federal patronage, Taft supporters have been able in most states to control the party machinery and thus the selection of delegates to the state conventions, which in turn select Taft delegates to the national convention.  Presidential control over the party is, ironically, a legacy of Roosevelt's presidency, established by Roosevelt himself and used effectively by him to secure Taft's nomination four years ago.  Roosevelt's attempts to counter Taft's organizational advantage this year have resulted in party turmoil and bitter disputes that will remain unresolved until the national convention in Chicago.  In Michigan, for example, where primary legislation was proposed but blocked by the party establishment, rival sets of delegates appeared at the state convention in Bay City and came to blows until order was restored by local police and the state militia.  Unable to resolve their differences, the opposing factions selected separate delegations to the national convention, where their competing claims to represent Michigan Republicans will be examined by the Credentials Committee.

Looking for a Reliable Driver

The increasingly bitter contest between Taft and Roosevelt for the Republican nomination has caused some to wonder if the party would be better off with another nominee.  The most frequently mentioned alternative is Supreme Court Justice and former New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes.  An editorial cartoon in the Globe and Commercial Advertiser captured the mood of many Republicans.

The struggle between Taft and Roosevelt supporters in state Republican conventions has been repeated in many states, particularly in the South.  In the states of the former Confederacy, where the Republicans are a small minority of voters, the Republican Party establishment has long been dominated by Negroes, federal office holders and seekers of federal patronage.  These "black and tan" Republicans have been challenged in several southern states by insurgent "lily-white" factions who claim to represent the majority of actual Republican voters.  This claim has validity only because Negroes in those states are denied access to the ballot under state laws that, by various means, limit the franchise to whites.  Because whites in those states vote overwhelmingly Democratic, the disfranchisement laws have the effect of solidifying the Democratic Party's control.  Despite the tiny number of Republican voters, southern states are fully represented in Republican conventions, with the result that their delegations wield influence far out of proportion to the number of voters they represent.  It has been estimated that, depending on the state, the convention vote of a southern Republican is equal to between ten and fifty northern Republicans' votes.  For example, Mississippi, which cast only 4,360 votes for Taft in the 1908 general election, will have twenty delegates at the 1912 convention (one for every 218 Republican voters), while Nebraska, which cast 127,000 votes for Taft in 1908, will have only sixteen delegates (approximately one for every 7,938 Republican voters).  For another example, each of the recent primary states of Illinois and Pennsylvania had more Republican voters in 1908 than all the states of the "Solid South" combined, but will have only a fraction of the convention votes.  Republicans, of course, deplore the southern states' denial of the vote to Negroes, but recognize there is little or nothing they can do about it: voting qualifications are essentially determined by state law, and it has been remarkably easy for state laws to circumvent the Fifteenth Amendment's prohibition of denial of the vote on the basis of race.  Some northern Republicans do, however, suggest that the convention representation of southern states should be reduced to reflect the small number of actual Republican voters.  Southern Republicans, of course, object to that proposal, but those who represent the "lily-white" factions argue that they simply recognize the reality that the Republicans who vote in their states, few as they are, are as white as the Democrats.  This year, as in prior election years, the Republican establishment in most southern states will support "black and tan" delegations that are expected to vote for the president's renomination.  Roosevelt's only hope of securing the nomination is to mount successful challenges in those states by supporting the insurgent "lily-white" delegations.  Those competing claims, like those in other states like Michigan, will be resolved by the Credentials Committee, where the outcome of the Republican convention is likely to be decided.

Representative George H. White

In Democratic conventions, as in Republican, the South exercises disproportionate control, though for a different reason.  The Democratic Party in the South openly advocates a policy of white supremacy, a policy that is supported by the vast majority of white southerners, to whom the idea of social, economic and political equality of former slaves and their descendants is unacceptable.  White men are, for all practical purposes, the only voters in the South.  State legislation with the avowed purpose and effect of denying the vote to Negroes (though stopping short of expressly targeting the Negro race in violation of the Fifteenth Amendment) was enacted in most southern states in the 1890's by Democratic legislatures and governors in response to the threat posed by Populist-Republican coalitions.  The result has been to eliminate the Negro vote and solidify Democratic Party control, control that is reflected not only in presidential elections but also in the make-up of Congress.  Between the Civil War and the turn of the century, twenty-three Negroes served as members of Congress, all from southern states and all Republicans.  The last one, George H. White (Rep., N.C.), was defeated in 1900 after North Carolina disfranchised its Negroes in 1899.  Because similar scenarios have played out in virtually every state with a substantial Negro population, it is unlikely that there will be another Negro in Congress in the foreseeable future.

The same history dictates the make-up of the Democratic convention.  The Democrats, unlike the Republicans, confront no racial divide when it comes to choosing delegates.  Although they do not use the expression, it is virtually certain that every delegation to the Baltimore convention this year, without exception, will be "lily-white," just as they have been in every other Democratic convention in history.

The Last Democratic Nominee from the South

The principal source of the power of southern states in Democratic conventions is the party's two-thirds rule.  By requiring a two-thirds vote of the delegates to select a presidential nominee, the party ensures that no nominee can be selected who is unacceptable to the South.  No Southerner since Tennessean James K. Polk in 1844 has actually received the party's nomination, but because of the two-thirds rule the South has always held effective veto power.  That this power is increasing rather than waning is shown by the fact that this year, for the first time since the Civil War, a Southerner is a serious candidate for the nomination: House Majority Leader Oscar W. Underwood is supported not only by his home state of Alabama but also by several other southern states.  And Woodrow Wilson, although he governs a northern state, was born in Virginia, spent his formative years in Georgia and South Carolina, and has much support in the South.  This support may be important or even decisive if no candidate secures the nomination in the early voting and Underwood fails to gain momentum.

The Democratic primaries this month have delivered a split verdict.  Underwood, who is not competing outside the South, carried his own state of Alabama on April 2.  Also on April 2, Governor Wilson scored a victory in Wisconsin, but a week later, in a surprising and impressive show of strength in Illinois, Champ Clark defeated Wilson in a landslide.  Wilson won Pennsylvania later that week, but at month's end Clark appears to be the leading candidate.  Three-time nominee William Jennings Bryan, who says he is not a candidate this year, has not endorsed anyone, but is said to be favorably disposed toward both Clark and Wilson.  He has been critical of Underwood, and is openly opposed to Ohio's conservative governor, Judson Harmon.


Clara Barton

Three famous Americans other than the victims of the Titanic sinking died this month.  Clara Barton is known for her heroic work nursing soldiers during the Civil War and for founding the American Red Cross after the war.  She died on April 12 at the age of 90.  General Frederick Dent Grant, who also died April 12, was the son of Civil War hero General Ulysses S. Grant.  He was graduated from West Point in 1871 and served in the U.S. Army during the Indian and Spanish-American Wars and the Philippine Insurrection.  From 1889 to 1893 he was the United States Minister to Austria-Hungary.  Finally, Calbraith Perry Rodgers, who achieved fame last year as the first person to cross the United States by air, was killed April 3 when his aeroplane flew into a flock of seagulls and crashed off the California coast near Long Beach. Rodgers was a member of a distinguished naval family, one of whom was his ancestor and namesake Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, who led the squadron that opened Japan to American trade in 1853.

On April 3, shortly after becoming the 48th state, Arizona ratified the proposed sixteenth amendment to the Constitution authorizing Congress to assess and collect a tax on incomes.  Arizona is the 32nd state to do so; thirty-six are required to complete ratification.

Al Jolson

The latest Broadway sensation is a singer, comedian and all-around entertainer named Al Jolson, who opened at the new Winter Garden Theater last year and has played there since to sell-out crowds.  He performs most of his routines in blackface, a vaudeville convention that is a carry-over from the popular minstrel shows of the last century.  Jolson's first recording for RCA Victor was released this month (click to play):

"Snap Your Fingers"
(sung by Al Jolson)


Lord Randolph Churchill

British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith introduced the Government of Ireland Act on April 11, and it passed its first reading in the House of Commons on April 16.  The bill, the third legislative attempt since the 1880's to achieve home rule for Ireland, would establish a separate two-house legislature in Dublin with power to legislate for the island, but with a number of exceptions.  The parliament in Westminster would retain control of the army and navy and all imperial affairs as well as matters relating to Irish land tenure and old age pensions and national insurance.  Control of the Irish Constabulary would be transferred to Ireland after six years.  The Irish parliament would have no authority to enact legislation establishing or preventing the free exercise of religion or giving preference to any religion.  Collection of taxes and customs duties would remain an imperial function and be paid into the imperial exchequer.  Ulster would have 59 of the 164 members of the new Irish House of Commons, and the number of Irish members in the imperial parliament would be reduced from 103 to 42.  As with earlier attempts to enact home rule for Ireland, this bill has excited strong feelings on both sides of the issue.  After 100,000 people demonstrated in support of the bill in Dublin on March 31, another 100,000 demonstrated against it in Belfast on April 9.  As he introduced the bill, the Prime Minister defended it from its Unionist detractors, arguing that many comparable examples were to be found in the British Empire:  "There are between twenty and thirty self-governing legislatures under allegiance to the Crown which have solved the problem of reconciliation and local autonomy.  Are we going to break up the empire by adding one more?"  The bill's second reading was moved on April 30.  In a touch of historical irony, the motion came from First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, whose father, Lord Randolph Churchill, led the fight against the first home rule bill in the 1880's with the warning "Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right!"

Robert Falcon Scott

The Terra Nova, Captain Robert Falcon Scott's polar exploration ship, has arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand carrying a report from his expedition to the South Pole.  In a message sent back to McMurdo Sound on January 3, Captain Scott reported that he and his party were within 150 miles of the Pole and still advancing, and that he had decided to remain in Antarctica over another winter "in order to continue and complete my work."  It now appears certain that Captain Scott did not achieve his goal of reaching the South Pole before Norwegian Captain Roald Amundsen, who arrived last month in Hobart, Tasmania, reporting that he had successfully reached the Pole and returned, and that he had seen no sign of the Scott expedition.

 Italian forces landing in Rhodes

The Italian fleet has taken an increasingly active role in the war between Italy and the Ottoman Empire.  This month it seized a number of Turkish islands in the eastern Mediterranean, including the symbolically important island of Rhodes.  The captured islands are near enough to Turkey to pose a threat to the mainland, and on April 18, the opening day of the Turkish parliament, Italian ships shelled the entrance to the Dardanelles.  In response, Turkey closed the Dardanelles, increasing international pressure on the warring nations to reach a settlement.  The main obstacle to negotiation may be the recent Italian annexation of Tripoli, which has angered Arab Muslims.


April 1912 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading
Contemporary Periodicals:
American Review of Reviews, May and June 1912
Literary Digest, April 1912
New York Times, April 1912

Books and Articles:
James Chace, 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs -- the Election That Changed the Country
Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill: Youth 1874-1900
Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill: Young Statesman 1901-1914
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
Lewis L. Gould, Grand Old Party, A History of the Republicans
Sherwood Harris, Coast to Coast in 12 Crashes, American Heritage, Vol. XV, No. 6 (Oct. 1964)
John A Kouwenhoven, The Columbia Historical Portrait of New York
Edmund Morris, Colonel Roosevelt
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
Richard B. Sherman, The Republican Party and Black America from McKinley to Hoover 1896-1933
Hanes Walton, Jr. and C. Vernon Gray, Black Politics at the National Republican and Democratic Conventions, 1868-1972, Phylon (1960-), Vol. 36, No. 3 (3d Qtr. 1975)