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The Millionaire Reformer

June 2024
17min read

In the era of the Bull Moose, Progressivism became a party; the man behind Roosevelt was, of all things, a Morgan partner


It is the evening of June 20, 1912; the scene, a large room in the Congress Hotel in Chicago. About twenty men are present. Perhaps a dozen of them are seated around a large table. Others sprawl wearily in armchairs or lean against the walls. One, a solid, determined-looking fellow with thick glasses and a bristling mustache, paces grimly back and forth in silence, like a caged grizzly. He is Theodore Roosevelt, and these are his closest political advisers. All of them are very, very angry.

In a nearby auditorium, the Republican National Convention is moving with the ponderous certainty of a steamroller toward the nomination of well-fed William Howard Taft for a second term as President of the United States. All of the men in the hotel room believe that this nomination rightfully belongs to Roosevelt, and that it is being “stolen” by a cynical band of reactionary politicians who have used their control of the party machinery to seat enough illegally chosen delegates to insure the selection of their man Taft. The Roosevelt men do not want to take this lying down; they would like to run their candidate on a third-party ticket. But they realize that without a great deal of money such a plan would be impossible. Frustration thus feeds and intensifies their anger.

It is growing late, and everyone is weary. Conversation lags. But gradually attention is centered on two men who have withdrawn to a corner. They are talking excitedly in rapid whispers. One is the publisher Frank Munsey; the other, George W. Perkins, a former partner in J. P. Morgan & Company. Neither has had much political experience, but both are very rich and very fond of Theodore Roosevelt. Now everyone senses their subject and realizes its importance. All eyes are focused in their direction. Suddenly the two millionaires reach a decision. They straighten up and stride across the room to Roosevelt. Each places a hand on one of his shoulders. “Colonel,” they say simply, “we will see you through.” Thus the Progressive party—“Bull Moose,” some will call it—is born.

Of these two, Munsey has relatively little importance in the story of modern American reform. He was neither entirely in sympathy with Progressive aims nor even particularly interested in them. His attachment to Roosevelt was personal, and it did not last much beyond the 1912 campaign. Perkins, however, went on to become a central figure in the history of the Progressive movement.

A central figure, but not a typical one, for no single human being can be said to represent fully that multifaceted, contradictory, and disorganized mass drive for change. For example, Perkins was not, like William Jennings Bryan, the representative of disgruntled farmers frightened by loss of status and the rise of giant corporations, nor was he, like Roosevelt, an aristocrat striking out at the crass commercialism of the new industrial tycoons. Indeed, he was part of the new power elite that the Bryans, born poor, and Roosevelts, born rich, found so offensive and incomprehensible in the Progressive era. But Perkins was a businessman with a highly developed social conscience and a feeling that the times called for change if past progress was to continue in the future. This, certainly, was characteristically “Progressive.” Without accepting the arguments of the socialists, he had learned not to be afraid of government regulation or of the thought of “tampering” with the economy.

In the early years of this century many businessmen also shared this general point of view. But most confined their political activities to signing checks at campaign time; few were willing or able to put aside money-making, climb up on a soapbox, and campaign among the politicians and plain people for what they thought was right. Perkins did these things. He paid a high price, and not only in money, but he did not mind; he had the spirit of the crusader. This, too, was typically “Progressive.”

Nevertheless, in 1912 many people, including some of those in Roosevelt’s hotel room in Chicago, considered Perkins utterly out of place in such a gathering of advanced liberals. They knew him as the right-hand man of the hated plutocrat J. P. Morgan; as a slick, smooth-talking apologist for monopolistic corporations like U.S. Steel and International Harvester; as a powerful insurance executive whose “crimes” had been “exposed” by Charles Evans Hughes in the famous Armstrong insurance investigation of 1905. With his handsome, clean-cut features, his wavy brown hair only beginning to be flecked with gray at the temples, and his trim mustache, he looked too much like what in fact he had been; a typical boy wonder of Wall Street. This man was many times a millionaire while scarcely forty—a driving, aggressive manager of men and money. He owned a palatial estate, Glyndor, overlooking the Hudson at Riverdale; he belonged to the New York Yacht Club and other exclusive organizations. What was Perkins doing posing as a reformer, associating with a liberal like Teddy Roosevelt?

Actually, Perkins was perfectly sincere in his Progressivism. As we shall see, he did have serious personal weaknesses as a political leader, but this suspicion of his motives reflects only the confusion, jealousy, fanaticism, and small-mindedness of other Progressive reformers. Fifty years old in 1912, he had begun his career at fifteen as a $25-a-month office boy in the vast corporate anthill of the New York Life Insurance Company. Although he lacked even the beginning of a high school education, he had demonstrated powers of salesmanship and management that won him a vice-presidency at thirty.

From insurance he moved on to corporate finance. So engaging and convincing was his personality that Pierpont Morgan offered him a partnership worth millions the first time they met. As right-hand man to Morgan, Perkins supervised the organization of the Northern Securities Company (the first great corporation attacked by Roosevelt under the Sherman Antitrust Act). He wrested control of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad from the grasp of John W. “Bet-you-a-million” Gates. He represented Morgan at the White House conference where the great coal strike of 1902 was settled. He was in the thick of the fight in which Morgan stopped the Wall Street panic of 1907, and he was Morgan’s man in U.S. Steel, where for years he was chairman of the all-powerful finance committee ( see “Charlie Schwab Breaks the Bank,” and “A Lion in the Street,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, April and June, 1957).

In 1902 Perkins also created the agricultural machinery “trust,” the International Harvester Company. In a brilliant maneuver he brought the principal owners of the four leading companies manufacturing farm machinery to New York. All of these men favored a merger, but personal rivalries in the intensely competitive harvester business had frustrated all their efforts to work out an agreement. Installing each group in a different hotel to discourage them from seeing one another, Perkins scurried back and forth settling the details of the new combination. Such was the eventual confidence of all parties in his fairness that when the final critical allotment of stock in the new corporation was made, the heads of the four companies simply signed their names to this statement addressed to Perkins: “We place in your hands the final determination of our appraisal values, special good will, scaling, etc., etc.” McCormicks and Deerings held the top offices, but Perkins was the real manager of the destinies of International Harvester for many years. It was prizes like this, the not unrewarded amenities of a partnership in the House of Morgan, that Perkins gave up when he set out as a crusader for reform.

Was it really so surprising? Perkins had always possessed, or, if you will, suffered from, a “do-good” streak. His father, an insurance man also, had been a social worker deeply involved in the management of boys’ reform schools. He developed in young George an interest in the Y.M.C.A. and in various religious organizations. To the Perkins family, selling insurance had been a way of performing a useful social service as well as making a good livelihood. Later, when Morgan first offered him the prospect of great wealth if he would enter the firm, Perkins actually turned him down. Only when the banker described the opportunities that the job would offer for dealing with the complex social and economic questions posed by the rise of giant corporations did Perkins lend a sympathetic ear.

Perkins’ experience in managing large businesses gave him a special interest in labor relations. At New York Life he had developed a pension and profit-sharing program for agency directors and salesmen. This program he greatly expanded in the steel and harvester companies. Recognizing long before the idea was common that the lack of contact and understanding between worker and employer was a prime cause of bad labor relations in big corporations, he tried to interest workers in buying stock in the companies that employed them. He developed a plan for U.S. Steel whereby a worker who invested $82.50 in a share of Steel Preferred cleared $125.0 in five years—and still owned the stock. Critics on the left charged that this was a subtle way of preventing the growth of unions. Perkins rejected the unions’ basic belief that there was a fundamental conflict of interest between capital and labor, but he was not unsympathetic to organized labor. At one point he suggested that a steelworker should be on the Board of Directors; it was all very advanced for the time.

The new reformer’s labors with giants like New York Life and U.S. Steel had convinced him that mere bigness in business was not a crime, as the “trust busters” were arguing, but a necessity. The savings resulting from large-scale operation, the ability to take the long-range view, to plan, to engage in expensive research —these made the large corporation efficient and hence socially desirable. Competition, the law of tooth and claw, was crude, cruel, uncivilized, Perkins believed. Antitrust laws were out of date; instead of breaking up the giants, government should simply regulate their activities. Modern technology and mass markets were making older forms of business organization obsolete. Instead of competition, co-operation should be the byword of the modern world. Perkins believed that large corporations, with their thousands of stockholders, were truly “public” businesses. The function of corporate managers like himself, he said in a lecture at Columbia University in 1908, was to decide “what is fair and right between the public’s capital, which they represent, and the public’s labor, which they employ.”

Beginning early in 1911, Perkins devoted most of his time to advocating these ideas. He accepted speaking engagements all over the country and wrote unceasingly on the subject. Inevitably his crusade involved him in politics, although he had not conceived of becoming a politician when he cut loose from his business ties.

Perkins had always been a Republican. As late as 1908 he had worked actively for William Howard Taft against Bryan. But after 1910 he became increasingly dismayed by Taft’s attitude toward big business. Although the President allied himself generally with the conservatives, he was a confirmed trust buster. “We must get back to competition,” he said. “If it is impossible, then let us go on to socialism, for there is no way between.” Perkins was convinced that there was a “way between”: regulation of large corporations by the federal government. When Taft ordered antitrust suits against both U.S. Steel and International Harvester, Perkins went definitely into the opposition. Like most liberal Republicans, he thought Roosevelt the most attractive alternative.

Despite his lack of political experience, Perkins became chairman of the new Progressive or “Bull Moose” party’s executive committee. In effect he was Roosevelt’s campaign manager, and he tried to run the campaign the way an insurance man conducts a drive for new business. To him, voters were like the policy-holders and “prospects” of the insurance world. One of the Progressive party’s great handicaps was that it had only “prospects” at the moment, and so a great sales campaign commenced.

Directing the fight from New York headquarters, Perkins was soon flooding the mails with torrents of campaign literature. Three million copies of Roosevelt’s “Confession of Faith” were distributed. Countless other pamphlets followed. Perkins established a weekly magazine called the Progressive Bulletin, copied from a bulletin he had edited for years while working for New York Life. Like its prototype, it was full of slogans designed to inspire confidence in the faithful, along with “up-to-date, sledge-hammer arguments” to convince the doubtful. “What are you doing to help the Progressive party? Are you telling our story to every man and woman you meet?” Under Perkins the political “hard sell” reached a new peak.

It made for an exciting and hard-fought, if inevitably unsuccessful, effort. The fundamental fact of 1912 was that the Republicans had split while the Democrats remained united. Had the Democrats nominated a conservative like Champ Clark of Missouri, who almost won out at their convention, Roosevelt might have been elected, for 1912 marked the highwater mark of the Progressive wave. But with Woodrow Wilson in the fight, fresh from his triumphs as Governor of New Jersey, Progressives could choose between two appealing candidates. Wilson collected his full share of their votes, and together with the solid South and the “regular” Democrats of the North, this made an unbeatable combination.

The Bull Moosers were far from discouraged, however. Roosevelt ran a strong second, winning over 4,126,020 votes (to Wilson’s 6,296,547) and carrying six states, including California, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. He overwhelmed Taft, despite all the President’s advantages, so that the ample champion of the orthodoxy won only 3,486,720, or eight electoral votes.** The future looked bright. “Progressive seed has been sewn on such a large area of soil that a pretty fair crop is bound to be the result ere long,” Perkins announced after the election.

But there was much to learn about politics, Perkins had discovered. Selling a candidate was not like hawking insurance. Some of the personal qualities that had made him a brilliant businessman proved only weaknesses when applied to politics. He found it impossible to subordinate himself to a team effort. The Bulletin had been his idea, and a good one, but he had made it far too much a vehicle for his views rather than for general Progressive policies and opinions. The first issue contained a full-page reprint of an editorial in the New York Journal praising his organizing ability. Two weeks later there was a long account of a petty argument between Perkins and Woodrow Wilson over the difference between Tammany Society and Tammany Hall. Two issues later came a lead article by Perkins on Wilson and the trust question.

It was natural enough for the Bulletin to stress the trust issue; it was central to Perkins’ beliefs, and by 1912 Roosevelt was substantially in accord with Perkins’ idea that government regulation was the proper way to deal with giant corporations. But Perkins erred deeply when he allowed the Bulletin to devote such a disproportionate amount of space to the question and to print his name as often as it did. His aggressiveness irritated many loyal Progressives. The conservation expert Gifford Pinchot, for example, dubbed him “Gabby George,” and another supporter of T.R. claimed that the entire New York organization of the party “consisted of George W. Perkins and a push button.” Such criticism came as a profound shock to the political neophyte.

Another lesson that Perkins had to learn during the campaign was that the rough and tumble of politics is not for the tender-skinned. He had given up all his profitable business connections—his partnership in the Morgan firm alone was probably worth a million dollars a year—in order to work for public betterment. He believed utterly in the soundness of his crusade against the Sherman Antitrust Act; certainly no one should question his motives, he thought. He had remained active in U.S. Steel and in International Harvester not to make money, for he drew no salary from either company, but because he felt that “these organizations are right from the viewpoint of modern ethics, just as I am sure they are necessary from the viewpoint of modern economics.” Yet now he found himself assailed as an unscrupulous and selfish capitalist seeking to use the government to benefit his pet monopolies.

Scarcely had Roosevelt been nominated by the Progressives when a Democratic congressman began to call Perkins “the chief intermediary” between big business and the Justice Department, the “minister plenipotentiary and envoy extraordinary” of the Morgan interests. Even Woodrow Wilson, who did not stoop to mudslinging, was unusually forthright in attacking Perkins and his views. “These gentlemen say that these big combinations are necessary for economy and efficiency,” Wilson said in one speech. “The only answer I can think of that meets the suggestion is: Rats! Go tell all that to the Marines.”

Perkins was naturally angered by these criticisms, most of which questioned not only his beliefs but also his motives. It was particularly exasperating to be called a tool of the House of Morgan when in fact J. P. Morgan, Jr., was trying to force him off the Board of Directors of U.S. Steel! Morgan thought Perkins’ political activities “controversial” and likely to injure the corporation. Many other business leaders, of course, were horrified by Perkins’ views on government regulation of business, which they considered socialistic.

Perkins did not resign from U.S. Steel, then or later, nor did he alter his basic beliefs. Nevertheless, when the campaign was over he changed his political techniques considerably in the light of his 1912 experiences. He made an effort to conciliate Progressives, like Gifford and Amos Pinchot, who had criticized his leadership. In part the objections of these men had been ideological, for they were ardent advocates of trust busting. (Amos Pinchot once tried to write a book exposing the sins of U.S. Steel.) The party structure was revamped and critics of Perkins given important places in it. The Bulletin was transferred to other hands, both the trust question and Perkins’ name disappearing from its pages. A Progressive Service, to provide economic and sociological information useful in drafting legislation, was established.

Nevertheless, even his co-workers found it hard to accept Perkins’ leadership. Prejudices rising from his former business connections would not die down. “Perkins stands for nothing but rights of property,” a disgruntled Progressive from South Dakota complained. Nor could Perkins completely suppress what William Allen White called his “seven-devil lust to grab the drum and get up around to the head of the procession.” The business world had taught him to act decisively, but not how to give others a sense of participation.

It is extremely significant that, in Perkins, leadership looked more and more like dictatorship. Roosevelt started a third party because he felt that a small clique of professionals had stolen control of the G.O.P. Yet from start to finish, the Progressive organization itself was managed by a tiny inner circle. In the summer of 1912, delegates to the first Progressive convention were hand-picked by local caucuses in the traditional smoke-filled rooms; at the climactic 1916 convention, Perkins and a few other leaders intrigued for days to prevent the delegates from nominating Roosevelt before the Republican convention had committed itself, although nearly every soul among them desired to do so at once. It was the methods, not the program, that soured the rank and file.

Of course there were other reasons why Roosevelt’s Bull Moose organization did not fulfill the high hopes of 1912 in succeeding years. Wilson’s New Freedom undermined the Progressive appeal by putting many of its proposals into effect. And the party lacked the patronage, prestige, and organization at the grass roots to sustain itself while out of power. Its one matchless asset was Roosevelt, yet after the outbreak of the European war the old Rough Rider rapidly lost interest in domestic affairs. First enthusiasm faded, then hope. By 1916 many Progressives were ready to go back to the Republicans on almost any terms. One of Perkins’ strengths was his continuing willingness to contribute time and money to the cause when others drifted away.

The story of the efforts of Progressive and Republican leaders to agree upon a common candidate in 1916 has already been told in these pages ( see “T.R. on the Telephone,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, December, 1957). Perkins arranged for the then-novel private telephone that connected the politicians in Chicago with Roosevelt in Oyster Bay, and paid the bill. But his main role was to keep the Progressives quiet until the Republicans could be persuaded to accept the apostate Roosevelt as their candidate. When compromise efforts failed, and when Roosevelt decided to support the Republican nominee, Charles Evans Hughes, Perkins went along with him reluctantly; personally he had little use for Hughes.

The Progressives now disappeared as a party, and Roosevelt, the leader, devoted himself chiefly to assailing Wilson’s foreign policy. Perkins, on the other hand, was determined to keep fighting for the Progressive program within the Republican ranks. He persuaded Hughes to include six former Progressives—including himself—on the Republican campaign committee. Later, after Hughes’ narrow defeat of 1916, when the Old Guard seized control of the Republican Executive Committee, Perkins tried to organize a liberal revolt, an effort cut short by U.S. entry into the European war. The following year Perkins led the battle that resulted in the election of Will Hays, who was friendly to the former Progressives, as Republican National Chairman. It was in no small part because of Perkins that the Old Guard faction was held in check until the 1920 election. By that time Perkins was no longer alive to fight.

Unlike so many amateur politicians, Perkins was willing to work as hard on local and state questions as on “important” national problems. The 1915 revision of the New York State constitution (which he opposed) and the wartime New York City Food Committee (which he managed) are examples of his activities on these levels. In 1914 he traveled all the way to the Panama Canal Zone simply to try to persuade Colonel George W. Goethals, the engineer in charge of constructing the canal, to accept appointment as New York City Police Commissioner. Goethals did not come.

Perkins’ governing principle, in local and national politics and in business too, was that the people, if given a chance to understand fully, would always do whatever was right. This faith in democracy was typically “Progressive”—Bryan, it will be recalled, possessed it so utterly that he assumed automatically that the truth could be determined by counting noses. What distinguished Perkins’ faith in the people was his willingness to invest vast amounts of his own money in seeing that the public was fully informed. When he was battling for stricter food and price controls during the war, he spent thousands spreading his views.

His dedication to Jefferson’s great principle that the truth, if left to itself, would always prevail, was proved conclusively by an incident that occurred during the fight. He was challenged by Samuel Fraser of the New York Federation of Farm Bureaus. Perkins, Fraser said, was making unfair use of his wealth by flooding the state with huge advertisements which his opponent could not afford to match. Without a moment’s hesitation, Perkins offered to buy space in every paper in the state so that Fraser could present his arguments to the people. On September 27, 1917, Fraser’s indictment of Perkins was spread across the pages of 141 New York newspapers, at a cost to Perkins of $25,000.

This use of widespread advertising for political purposes was a new thing. Perkins, the trade paper Editor and Publisher commented in 1915, had “uncovered the 42-centimeter gun that from now on must be considered the master of the situation when it comes to carrying the redoubts of public opinion.” In all his political activities, as earlier in business, he was noted for boldness, imagination, and a willingness to use new and unconventional methods. When battling to keep down New York food prices in 1917, he discovered that there was a great run of smelts on the Pacific coast and bought over 100,000 pounds at four cents a pound. These he shipped to New York and sold to retailers at four and a half cents, on condition that they sell them to the public for not more than six. At that moment, Atlantic coast smelts were selling at about eighteen cents a pound.

The Great War affected Perkins profoundly, although not really until it was all over. Like any public-spirited citizen he worked hard during the conflict—at his Food Committee job and in raising money for the Y.M.C.A. But two events in late 1918 hit him with staggering force. One was the death of his son’s young wife in the flu epidemic. The other was an investigation he made of Y.M.C.A. activities overseas right after the Armistice. His experiences in France and Germany broadened and tempered his Progressivism. When first he saw the devastated areas of France he had seethed with rage against the Germans. But anger and revenge were futile in the face of so much misery and destruction.

When he stepped off the boat on his return to America, he told reporters that economic reconstruction seemed far more urgent than political. They asked him about the menace of Russian communism, and he said: “I don’t know what to say about Bolshevism in Europe. There are deep-seated troubles there. In Paris … people are paying $1 apiece for apples, and $3 a pound for butter.” When asked if, by feeding Russians and Germans, the Allies were not “nursing a viper in the breast,” he replied: “How are we going to cut out any one group of people?”

Realizing that the world was at a great turning point, Perkins searched hard for the path that “the man of the future” should take through the morass of postwar readjustment. There was much labor unrest; a bitter strike was convulsing the steel industry; and angry radicals were talking of sweeping changes in the order of things. “The questions that took me out of the banking business,” Perkins wrote his old friend Albert J. Beveridge, “are now coming to a head.” In December, 1919, in a lecture at Columbia University, he argued that the politicians of the future must “so frame our laws as to permit co-operative effort … conducted under proper regulation and control.”

Where national politics was concerned, Perkins was moved by the same vague and somewhat authoritarian desire to get at fundamentals and by a conviction that intense partisanship was out of place in modern society. When one politician suggested to him that the trend was running so strongly toward the Republicans that they could elect a “yellow dog” President in 1920, he replied by asking him icily “what use … a yellow dog would be to our country and the world at large in the handling of the momentous questions presenting themselves at this time.” And he lectured Senator Reed Smoot of Utah about the importance of “constructive thought” and the futility of “hot-air speeches.”

Such words had little effect on Smoot and the other leaders of the Republican party, who were then not at all interested in Perkins’ ideas about “proper regulation and control” of the economy. They gave the country Warren G. Harding and “normalcy.” But Perkins did not live to see what followed, for his health failed rapidly in the spring of 1920, and in June he died, victim of acute encephalitis complicated by a heart condition.

George Perkins had brains, money, enthusiasm, self confidence, and faith in the cause of reform. Even his enemies acknowledged his winning nature, his sincerity, his vivacity. “Anyone who knows him cannot help liking him,” his relentless foe Amos Pinchot confessed. Why then did he fail at reform? In part, the prejudices of lesser men undid him: they called him a tool of the “interests.” “If I had built a hospital “ or endowed a library with the money I spent,” he told one critic toward the end of his career, “many people would have risen up and called me blessed...I prefer to spend what money I am able in advancing measures that I believe are thoroughly in the public interest, and I intend to pursue this course.”

But Perkins was also partially responsible for his own failure. He was too headstrong to be successful in politics. His decisiveness and his dedication often led him to ignore others. When called to account, he liked to reply that every business must have a single head, and he could cite examples from his experience in industry to prove his point. The real nature of political democracy still escaped him: this was the paradox of Perkins’ life. He believed that progress depended upon men learning to work together, but he could not work in harness with others at the task of making a better world.

*The charges were later dismissed in a federal court after the politicking was over.

**In this election, the Socialist Eugene V. Debs received about 900,000 votes, the highest percentage of the total vote that party ever won.


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