Herbert Seely Bigelow: Reformer and Politician

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1 Herbert S. Bigelow

2 BULLETIN of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio CINCINNATI Herbert Seely Bigelow: Reformer and Politician by DANIEL R. BEAVER Herbert Seely Bigelow was a provocative public figure whose activity disturbed Cincinnati political life for half a century. From the day in 1895 when he became pastor of the Vine Street Congregational Church of Cincinnati until his death in 1951, the eloquent minister was a crusader in politics who fought courageously for social and economic reform. He was among the original supporters of the Initiative and Referendum movement in Ohio. He championed the cause of old age pensions and supported the fight for municipal ownership of public utilities and transportation. He helped to defeat the Cox machine in Cincinnati and aided in forming in that city the Charter Party that stood for honest and efficient government. An advocate of the single tax on land values, he labored to place that legislation on the statute books of Ohio. He was an anti-militarist and opposed American participation in both the First and Second World Wars. Though his methods disturbed many people during his lifetime, a significant number of Cincinnatians never questioned his devotion to improving the condition of the underprivileged. Bigelow was born January 4, 1870, on a small farm near Elkhart, Indiana. Befriended as a youth by Alpheus and Emma

3 4 The Bulletin Bigelow of Cleveland, Ohio, Herbert consented while in college to take their last name as his own. The Bigelows financed his education at Oberlin Preparatory School and at Western Reserve University where he was graduated in In that year he left Cleveland to attend Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, the city that remained his home for the rest of his life. The minister was a big man, of medium height but powerful build. His fair complexion, blue eyes and unruly blond hair made more effective a speaking ability that many claimed surpassed that of William Jennings Bryan in persuasive power. His compassion for the underprivileged led him, on occasion, to empty his pockets on the street to buy a suit of clothes for an unemployed worker or to buy food for an indigent mother and child. In the privacy of his home or among men he trusted, his personality was warm and outgoing. At other times, however he could be harsh and brutal toward men, even his own followers, who opposed his plans. The minister was reared in mid-nineteenth century rural America, and one of the abiding elements in his thought was the ideal of agrarian virtue. He believed a society of small holders was the only stable foundation for a democratic nation. Like the followers of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, he upheld the virtue of "productive" labor and championed equality of opportunity. His support of the "producing" classes during his political campaigns led him to make strong and sometimes unwarranted attacks upon bankers and investors, while his consistent opposition to "Wall Street" led many conservatives to label him a socialist. In this, his opponents did him an injustice, for they seldom noticed that he consistently supported the interests of small entrepreneurs as well as those of the laboring classes. As Bigelow saw factories casting their smoky shrouds over Chicago, Cleveland, or. Cincinnati, he felt that he was witnessing the devastation of a once golden Arcadia. His opposition to "Big Business" was but the logical consequence of a belief that the industrialization of the United States threatened the existence of traditional American rural values. The Social Gospel was another important factor in shaping Bigelow's thought. This important religious innovation contributed in no small measure to the humanitarian spirit characteristic of the Progressive movement in America. The marrow of traditional nineteenth century American Protestantism revealed

4 Herbert Seely Bigelow: Reformer and Politician 5 itself in the relationship of the individual to God. It was concerned with personal salvation rather than social reform and offered little comfort to those interested in ameliorating the condition of the oppressed. Supporters of the Social Gospel believed there was a message in Christianity for this world as well as the next and demanded that the churches of the country speak out condemning social and economic practices in conflict with Christian ethical principles. They denied the doctrine of original sin, insisted that man was essentially good, and claimed that evil in this world resulted from faulty institutions rather than from the intransigence of human beings. Carrying their attack further, they denounced war as an anachronism brought about by unsound economic methods and were among the most vigorous opponents of imperialism and militarism. More radical disciples claimed that the voice of the church should be more than merely a whisper of conscience and demanded that religious institutions in America take an active part in political life in order to improve the lot of the underprivileged. As a youth, Bigelow had received orthodox Presbyterian training, and as a college student he had apparently taken little interest in problems of the day. However, shortly after his arrival in Cincinnati to attend Lane Theological Seminary, he began to work in one of the settlement houses of the basin area of Cincinnati. Here, he became convinced that the poverty and disease he saw every day did not reflect divine punishment for sin or sloth, but mirrored some basic dislocation in society that must be found and rooted out. Unable to reconcile theology as taught at Lane with the realities of "rat row," the young student began to look for a less traditional answer to his dilemma. Through further experience at the settlement house and through reading contemporary criticisms of society, he was converted to the Social Gospel and found a new creed. He would labor "less for the gospel of heaven above and more for justice here on earth." His awakening social conscience brought Bigelow to seek a way by which a better society might be created. In this quest he was led to the writings of the California reformer, Henry George. Progress and Poverty, George's most influential work, was an economic analysis of late nineteenth-century American industrial society. In it the author advanced the theory that profit made through holding land merely to gain the increased value given it by

5 6 The Bulletin society was unjust, destroyed competition, and led to monopoly or undue concentration of wealth. If these profits were taxed away and returned to society, he wrote, monopoly would be made unprofitable, equality of opportunity would be restored, and small businessmen rescued from approaching oblivion. Though the work was of little value as an economic tract, the paradox implied in its title and the tone of moral outrage that permeated the book made the "Single Tax" an attractive answer to the problem posed by the accumulation of money in the hands of the few. In 1897, two years after he had become associated with the Vine Street Congregational Church, Bigelow began to investigate the possibilities of this intriguing panacea. A meeting with Tom Johnson, Mayor of Cleveland and one of the leading advocates of the "Single Tax" in America, confirmed the pastor's belief in the measure. Bigelow's sermons quickly took on a social significance that offended his more conservative parishioners. After several attempts to remove him from the pulpit, most of them left the church to become members of more traditional flocks. By 1900, Bigelow was left with a small but devoted band of followers who had made clear their belief in him and their determination to support him in any endeavor he believed morally justified. Aided by his original disciples and those later attracted to his banner, he organized the "People's Church" which, after some time, adopted the following creed: The sole article of faith which the People's Church of Cincinnati requires is the belief that the great work of all human beings and of all organized religion as their representative is to aid in the establishment of the brotherhood of man in a world of social justice. Matters of theology and philosophy it leaves to the individual, inviting him to write his own creed and rewrite it as often as new experience brings him new light. Between 1900 and 1920, the church under the leadership of its dynamic pastor championed popular reform measures and provided a public platform for well known reformers including William Jennings Bryan, Jane Addams, Brand Whitlock, and Bigelow's old friend, "Golden Rule" Jones. It sponsored discussions of contemporary problems, worked for the adoption of the Initiative and Referendum, and formed the core of the Municipal Ownership League, an organization that supported Reverend Bige-

6 Herbert Seely Bigelow: Reformer and Politician People's Church The old Congregational Church on Vine Street where The Reverend Herbert Bigelow preached. low's early campaigns for public control of utility companies and streetcar lines. Bigelow himself was quickly caught up in Ohio Democratic politics and joined Tom Johnson in the latter's attempt to wrest control of the state from the Republican party. Although the minister was defeated in 1902 in a race for Secretary of State, his name became associated with the reform impulse throughout the state. During the next decade, Bigelow campaigned to bring about the adoption of the Initiative and Referendum, a measure designed to give more power to the people in controlling legislation, and he was influential in creating the progressive climate of opinion that

7 8 The Bulletin culminated in the Constitutional Convention of Chosen as president of that body, he succeeded with the help of associates from all parts of the state in having the coveted "I and R" included among the amendments to the State Constitution to be submitted to the people. Indeed, his intervention at a crucial moment in the debates at the convention swung wavering delegates to the support of the measure and made its passage possible. Bigelow drove himself to the limit of endurance in the months that followed in a successful campaign to insure that the amendments he had sponsored would be adopted. Success at the Constitutional Convention seemed to mark Bigelow for future political honors. He was easily elected as a Democrat to the Ohio Legislature in November, 1912, and there was talk among political leaders of supporting him for Governor or for United States Senator. However, a series of events served to destroy the pastor's chances for higher office and to render even his loyalty to the United States suspect. By 1912, reform-minded elements in Cincinnati had swept the Cox machine temporarily from office and brought about the election of a coalition party composed of Democrats, middle-class reformers, and representatives of organized labor, led by Henry Hunt. Mayor Hunt showed little interest in root and branch municipal housecleaning but desired to effect fiscal and civil service reform and make the city administration as efficient as possible. He believed that the alliance of partisan Democrats, reformers, trade unionists and intellectuals that had secured his election would, if subjected to strain, fall apart through its own inner conflicts of interest. Bigelow had been interested in the cause of municipal reform for some time, but had been too involved with state reform to take an active part in the movement. However, aware of his own role in bringing about the reform atmosphere, he expected the new city government to be sympathetic to a plan he had devised to bring about municipal ownership of public utilities and streetcar lines. He made little effort to take into account Hunt's position. When the administration showed no interest in his idea, Bigelow strove to drive a measure through the state legislature without the Mayor's support and brought about a controversy that split the progressive coalition. Civil war among the Progressives without doubt paved the way for the Republican party's return to power in A campaign begun by the minister

8 Herbert Seely Bigelow: Reformer and Politician 9 in 1915 to prevent the Green Line Transit Company from renewing its franchise, though successful at the time, further alienated moderate opinion in Cincinnati from his cause. The next blow came as the result of the entry of the United States into the First World War. Bigelow was a vigorous antimilitarist and, in accord with his convictions, opposed to the last moment America's entry into that conflict. After the declaration of war on April 6, 1917, his position remained so equivocal that it was difficult even for friends to decide if he opposed or supported his government in the struggle against Imperial Germany. In reality, Bigelow supported the conflict, but opposed the decision of the Wilson administration to adopt selective service and to send conscripted forces abroad. He temporarily joined with midwestern Socialists to fight for a volunteer army and to demand that the national government give adequate protection to the civil rights of its citizens during the war. The minister's outspoken attitude aroused the opposition of many patriotic organizations around Cincinnati and finally brought about a physical attack on him October 28, Bigelow was kidnapped as he was about to address a meeting of the Socialist Party in Newport, Kentucky, taken to a deserted field and horsewhipped, "In the name of the women and children of Belgium." By the end of the war, he was mistrusted by both major parties, his name was associated in the public mind with radicalism or treason, and his influence in Cincinnati politics for the time being was destroyed. Bigelow's personality was badly scarred by the degradation and humiliation he suffered during the war. Convinced that the public utility and transit companies of Cincinnati were responsible for his horsewhipping, he became even more intolerant toward them than he had been prior to He vowed eternal hostility toward the "interests" and viewed suspiciously any endeavor, regardless of its merits, which had the support of the businessmen of the city. His attitude was clearly shown in 1924 when a battle was begun by moderate Cincinnatians led by Murray Seasongood to introduce the city charter form of government into the political life of Cincinnati. He distrusted the motives of the reformers because of their business connections and remained aloof until it became obvious that he and his followers were needed to circulate petitions for a charter election. Though subsequent events are disputed, it seems that he and his associates exacted from the

9 10 The Bulletin Charterites a promise to include a plan for proportional representation in their bill in return for the support of Bigelow's organization. The ensuing campaign for a new city charter received significant support from the minister, but it did not indicate that he had changed his attitude or had become less suspicious of the motives of the business and professional classes of the Queen City. The struggle for the new charter renewed Bigelow's interest in politics. In 1928 he launched an effort to establish an old age pension law in Ohio, and in 1933 aided the American Federation of Labor and the Fraternal Order of Eagles in bringing about a successful referendum election on the measure. It was the Great Depression, however, that opened the way for his re-emergence as a power in Cincinnati politics. For the first time in over a decade, he had an opportunity to direct personally a significant segment of public opinion. His first move was to begin a series of weekly radio broadcasts calculated to reach the largest possible number of people. In 1934 he joined forces with the National Union for Social Justice led by Father Charles Coughlin. At this point, many of his oldest friends warned him that they distrusted the motives of the Coughlinites and feared he was being used as a tool to gain ends antipathetical to his own ideals. Despite their warnings, he continued to accept Coughlin's assistance and with his active support was first elected to the City Council of Cincinnati and later sent to the United States House of Representatives. He persisted in supporting Father Coughlin until the latter's open attack on the Jews in The following year, deprived of the support of the National Union for Social Justice, he was defeated in his second race for Congress and returned home, according to local commentators, a broken and defeated man. Contrary to expectations, the minister was soon at work on another idea to increase old age pensions. He embarked upon a campaign, similar to the successful one in 1933, for a referendum to put the plan into effect. Unfortunately, Bigelow had inserted a provision into the act that raised fears among many Ohioans that he was using the pension plan to institute the "Single Tax." A campaign spearheaded by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce blanketed the state with propaganda and brought the proposition to overwhelming defeat in November Defeat of the old age pension plan occurred shortly after the outbreak of another European war and the minister was soon de-

10 Herbert Seely Bigelow: Reformer and Politician 11 voting much time to speaking against American participation. He feared that war would mean the end of reform at home and more than once expressed the opinion that intervention abroad would mean the end of American democratic government. Like other antimilitarists, he became aware of the menace of German and Japanese aggression quite late in the course of events. Not until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor did Bigelow awaken to the totalitarian threat, but thereafter he supported the American war effort to the limit of his ability. In 1946, Bigelow faced a world far more frightening than the optimistic one of his earlier life. Despite the changed environment, however, he adhered to his former principles. Disillusioned by the results of the Second World War, he was convinced that it had been brought about through a conspiracy of munition makers and its fruits sacrificed for the sake of profits. Wholesale evidence of man's inhumanity to man made public during and after the war made little impression on him, and his religious beliefs remained the same as they had been during the years before the First World War. Unable to realize that the old America was gone forever, he still labored for a country where the agrarian dreams of his youth might be fulfilled. When he fought his last municipal campaign in 1949, younger Cincinnatians thought his voice seemed an echo from a distant and less sophisticated epoch. The minister died in 1951, as secure in the justice and righteousness of his own cause as he had been as a young man embarking on his first crusade in It is obvious that the career of such a man as Bigelow is difficult to assess. Though he was able to create an atmosphere favorable to the cause of reform, he lacked, in most instances, the support necessary to lead a sustained political effort to put particular reforms into effect. His inability to share leadership compounded the problem and led to unfortunate situations such as the one in 1913 when his fruitless campaign for municipal ownership of public utilities helped to destroy the progressive coalition that had defeated the Cox machine. The pastor's doctrinaire opposition to all "Big Business" cost him much support among thoughtful Cincinnatians. In the heat of election campaigns, he found it necessary to make promises that led some of his supporters to expect results that he was incapable of achieving. Especially during his later life, he was not as meticulous in choosing means as one who espoused the cause of moral reform might have been.

11 12 The Bulletin He lacked, in many cases, the ability to discriminate between what ought to be and what was possible at the moment. As one warm friend put it, he could paint the picture of the promised land, but he could not build the road to get there. In other ways the life of the minister was quite fruitful. He was the most effective proponent of the Initiative and Referendum movement in Ohio. His tenacity, courage and devotion helped bring about the triumph of humanitarian reform in his home state and indirectly aided in creating a climate of opinion favorable to assisting, on a national scale, aged people no longer able to cope with the problems of machine civilization. Though his ideal of an agrarian arcadia was unattainable, he strove to make industrial society more secure and more equitable for the factory worker and his family. In this respect, he lived to see other men take up most of the measures that he had championed and put them into effect throughout the United States. BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE For a more complete sketch of Bigelow see Daniel R. Beaver, A Buckeye Crusader. See also Herbert Bigelow, The Religion of Revolution. The Proceedings and Debates of the Ohio Constitutional Convention of 1912 is indispensable in understanding the minister's role at the constitutional convention of that year. For differing views concerning the formation of the Charter Party, see Charles P. Taft, The Cincinnati Experiment and Edward Alexander, "An Epic in City Government." An older work by Arthur T. Young, A History of the Single Tax Movement in the United States, is still the best study of the "Single Tax." For local affairs, see the Cincinnati Post, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune. Footnotes extensively documenting this article are available on request from the author.

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