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Spoiled Child Of American Politics

June 2024
11min read

Henry Cabot Lodge was a public man in the old sense—one who was often wrong but never evil

When Henry Cabot Lodge was a lad of sixteen, his mother took him to the studio of a famous American sculptor named William Story. Alter examining a number of Story’s works, she decided to purchase one entitled: “Lybian Sybil.” She asked young Cabot what he thought of it. He replied that the statue was perfectly lovely, but the inscription was all wrong. “It ought to be ‘Libyan’ and ‘Sibyl’,” he announced tartly. “The letters in Greek are Upsilons.”


This tale had a happy ending, for Mrs. Lodge bought the statue anyway (with the inscription altered). But the outcome of other incidents in which Lodge displayed the aggravating, smug, and generally unlovely side of his personality was often disastrous. For Lodge was without an equal among American statesmen at the art of arousing people’s ire. Few politicians have been so cordially hated; certainly none who held office continually for more than 35 years, as he did.

In part his bad reputation today steins from the dim view most people take of his Machiavellian conduct during the fight over the League of Nations in the Senate. But his behavior on that occasion was not as evil as it has been depicted, and, in any case, he was widely disliked long before the League was ever thought of. Yet he was a man of great charm. He seldom harbored a grudge; and if he tended to be somewhat cynical, and often stubborn, these qualities were balanced by many good characteristics. Those who think him completely villainous should remember that among his intimates his nickname was Pinky. The intricacies of his complex character ought to be understood if his public career is to be fairly judged.

Much of Lodge’s trouble derived from his early environment. He was born, in 1850, into a society of privilege and distinction. His was the world of Emerson, Longfellow, and Charles Sumner, an age ripe with the fruits of two centuries of New England endeavor. But by the time he reached maturity that society had passed its peak. Its titans were no more; in the crass, lusty materialism of the post-Civil War decades its values were out of place. Like his teacher and friend, Henry Adams, Lodge discovered that he had been trained for a role in a play whose run was over; but unlike Adams, who settled into a comfortable seat in the audience, whence he could comment sourly upon the passing scenes, Lodge tried to respond to the new cues, to win for himself a part in the drama of life.

Lodge chose to make his place in politics. Fate decreed that he should do so at a time when American politics was approaching moral bankruptcy. To attain success, he had, early in his career, to sacrifice principle to expediency in a way that offended his own society in and around Boston.

In 1884, when he had his first chance to run for Congress, the Republicans nominated James G. Blaine of Maine for the Presidency. Blaine, a good enough man by the standards of the Grant era, had stained his fingers with railroad money while in Congress. Boston respectables were outraged by his nomination. Idealizing somewhat the political heroes of their golden age (as declining civilizations are wont to do), these “mugwumps” thought Blaine a disgrace to the fair name of New England. Lodge agreed that Blaine was “obnoxious,” but his own career depended upon his standing up for the party nominee. So he did.


Boston never forgave him. Friends cut him dead, acquaintances crossed the street to avoid his glance, doors that once had swung open at his approach were slammed in his face. Lodge was a proud man and naturally reserved. The fact that he himself shared in the general contempt of Blaine did not make his ostracism easier to take. But he gave no outward sign of his hurt.

Lodge’s decision changed his whole life and profoundly altered his nature. Bereft of many of his old friends, he found new ones among the politicians who colored his thinking with their own. What is more, to justify his decision to himself he had to make a fetish of party regularity. He became an uncompromising partisan; the only good Democrat, in his clouded vision, became a (politically) dead one.

In addition, the experience hardened and toughened his whole character. He had always had the aristocrat’s disdain for coarseness and ignorance and the intellectual’s horror of third-rate thinking. He was by nature and training a stickler for accuracy and precision. Now he developed an icy contempt for all kinds of inferiority. He became a master of the cutting retort, the sneer, irony, and sarcasm. In debate he infuriated opponents by his cool, devastating insults.

Another side of Lodge that irritated many people was his selfishness and vanity. His father died when he was only twelve; thereafter his mother lavished every imaginable luxury on him. She was completely convinced that he had exceptional talents, and there was enough truth in her estimate for him to accept it as sound. He became accustomed to getting what he wanted early in life, and it never occurred to him that he was not deserving.

When he wished to spend the summer in Europe during the depression year of 1895, and found himself short of ready cash, he “permitted” his mother to “rent” his summer home at Nahant, though he knew that she had no intention of using the place. In 1900 he decided he would like to be permanent chairman of the Republican National Convention. So he simply went to President McKinley and told him that he thought he deserved the honor and would like to have it. “When I came to the conclusion I would like to hold office,” he once explained, “I did not wait to be requested by friends, but I went out and told the men who had much to do with elections that I would like to run.”

All of these qualities made him particularly effective in opposing others. “He was one of those who care more for downing his adversary than for discovering some common ground for possible agreement,” one of his friends once admitted. They also made it particularly difficult for opponents to accept his criticisms with good nature.

There was yet another side to Lodge’s personality, less obvious to the public, which his friends prized highly and which ought to modify history’s judgment of him.

For one thing, despite his narrow political partisanship, he had the true inquiring mind of the scholar. It is fashionable nowadays to disparage Lodge’s historical works and to discount as political propaganda the sobriquet, “The Scholar in Politics,” which was applied to him in his own time. But his histories and biographies (while now outmoded) were the result of much hard work and compare favorably with most of the scholarship of that period, and his miscellaneous essays show real thought.

In addition he loved literature, knew it thoroughly in English, French, and Latin, and possessed a fine, discriminating taste. In 1905 he was a judge for a short story contest sponsored by Collier’s . Out of thousands of anonymous entries he selected as the best a story by Edith Wharton, while the other judges were shouting the praises of writers now ignored.

When he talked about literature, all his cynicism and acerbity vanished. He loved to gather with small groups of friends in his library after a good dinner to talk books. In such company he could be charming—arguing spiritedly but in good temper about some minor point, bounding to a shelf to untangle a debated issue with a telling reference, radiating his own enthusiasm.

Despite his selfishness and vanity, Lodge was capable of strong loyalties and deep friendships. His friendship with Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most famous in American politics. They made a strange pair: Roosevelt explosive, emotional, warm-hearted and aggressive; Lodge stiff, haughty and ironic. Yet their friendship, forged in the heat of the Blaine campaign, was unbreakable. It survived Roosevelt’s meteoric rise to the Presidency, which almost overnight transformed him from junior partner to senior partner in their alliance, and even his dramatic break with the Republican party in 1912.

For a man so proud and ambitious as Lodge the transformation could not have been easy, for one so wedded to party regularity the break a tremendous strain, but in each case his affection for TR never wavered. His lifelong admiration of Henry Adams was subject to similar pressures from time to time. Adams was a caustic critic of much of Lodge’s political career, and he seldom hesitated to speak his mind. Yet Lodge, who considered Adams the most brilliant man he had ever known, cheerfully accepted criticism from him that would have turned many friendships into bitter enmity. After Adams’ death Lodge supervised the publication of his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams , even respecting his wish that the preface (which Adams had himself written) appear over Lodge’s name.


Lodge also displayed many fine qualities in his public life. One was plain hard work. He took his duties seriously. He held strongly to the old-fashioned idea that the intelligent, educated citizen should participate actively in government. In office he never spared himself from routine labors. He attended sessions of Congress faithfully, seldom missing a day when not ill or out of town on public business. He was a good committeeman, putting in long hours of research on public issues. No contemporary legislator was more conscientious than he in attending to the requests of his constituents.

Another easily-ignored aspect of Lodge’s career was his scrupulous honesty. Too often has he been written off as a timeserver for big business. It is true that his generally conservative point of view frequently led him to support measures that business leaders also supported. But he had little sympathy for any selfish interest seeking special privileges from Congress. He was particularly scrupulous (his banker called him “hypersensitive”) about disposing of investments whose value might be increased because of his votes in the Senate.

If Congress was scheduled to take up railroad legislation, he would divest himself of his railroad securities. When the tariff came up for discussion, he would sell all stocks in corporations affected by foreign competition. In 1909, for example, he sold his shares in the National Carbon Company simply because the chemical schedules were due for revision and despite advance knowledge that the company was about to increase its dividend rate. He later repurchased them at a loss of many thousands of dollars.

Lodge was a conservative, but not, as many have argued, a reactionary. His enemies forgot that throughout the Roosevelt administration he supported nearly everything TR advocated.

Lodge’s chief political interest was in foreign affairs, and it is in this field that both his good and bad qualities can be observed most clearly. He was an old-fashioned patriot, with a fierce loyalty to the flag that today might seem almost naive. As he grew old he recognized that most people did not feel as strongly as he, and attributed the difference to his memory of the Civil War.


“Those who lived through the war times have a more tender sentiment about their country,” he said in 1913. “They are less dispassionate no doubt in judging America and the American people than others.” A few years before his death he had this to say to a friend who had lived much of her life abroad:

“Brought up in Italy as you were, nothing was more natural than that you should have the predilection for Europe which has influenced you for so many years, but I am happy to think that after the reflection which those years have brought you have changed your mind. . . . Our defects are obvious enough and so are the defects of democracy, but I honestly believe that we are the best of the great powers now in existence. . . . Democracy . . . has its failings no doubt, but it is better than any other system that we have yet devised and for that reason I have faith in it and especially in the periods of great trial. On the really great issues, the majority of the American people have not yet failed.”

His love of America made him a strong nationalist, but it is absurd to think of him as an isolationist. From the early Nineties on, he wished to see America play a large role in world affairs. Alter the World War he was ready to vote for a treaty guaranteeing the borders of France against any future German aggression. He was not, however, an internationalist. His exaggerated, sometimes belligerent patriotism prejudiced him against schemes involving any surrender of American sovereignty. But this does not mean that he thought America could exist apart from Europe and Asia.

Patriotism to Lodge involved an emphasis on national “honor.” In international affairs, a nation’s word must be its bond. He spoke repeatedy of the “sanctity” of treaties. He thus opposed compulsory arbitration pacts, simply because he felt that certain national interests (such as immigration policy) were not arbitrable. “I will not put my hand to a treaty that promises to do things which we know we would not do,” he once told Theodore Roosevelt. “That is not advancing peace but promoting war and trouble.” Once a treaty was signed it must be lived up to. Therefore never sign one that you are not prepared to carry out to the letter.

This combination of hardheaded practicality and high moral tone goes far toward explaining Lodge’s position in the fight over the League of Nations. He felt that the compact committed the United States to actions it would not always be willing to take. Especailly he was worried by Article X, which guaranteed the political independence and territorial integrity of all members against attack.

Such a broad and general commitment seemed dangerous to him. He was not opposed to intervening to protect others against aggressors; he merely wished to reserve to Congress the right to decide in each case exactly what and how much should be done. He reasoned that public opinion would insist upon this in fact, and that it was far better to limit the scope of the treaty and obey it implicitly than to agree to an idealistic but unrealistic principle and then violate it.

Yet the essential logic of his position in the League battle was marred by his partisanship and by his nonconstructive approach. One cannot escape the conclusion that he was as much interested in embarrassing Woodrow Wilson and the Democratic party as in fighting for the sanctity of treaties. He forced his opponents into a position where they had to compromise with his views or resign themselves to defeat. Yet in the process he aroused such resentment with his devilish cleverness and temper-shattering manner that his opponents chose defeat—at great cost to the nation.

Practicality has its obvious virtues. But sometimes idealism calls for a little chance-taking. During the Great War, when the League idea was first broached, Lodge made a speech in which he argued that world government, though probably impracticable, was nevertheless well worth seeking. In Matthew Arnold’s words, he said:

Charge once more, then, and be dumb! Let the victors, when they come, When the forts of folly fall, Find your body by the wall!

But he soon abandoned this “impractical” philosophy. Later, a Democratic politician was to remark caustically that when the time came to charge “the forts of folly,” Henry Cabot Lodge was AWOL.

An understanding of the great events of history is always complicated by the existence of imponderables. This is particularly true when understanding hangs upon the unraveling of tangled human motives. Surely Lodge’s whole personality had a great deal to do with the defeat of the League. So also did his deep hatred of Wilson. A number of his friends, most notably Elihu Root, believed that Lodge would have acted differently if his wife, Nannie Lodge, had been alive in 1919. They argued that she was his balance wheel, that after her death in 1915 his judgment was not what it had formerly been.

They may well have been right, for Lodge had a vast respect (as well as a great love) for her, and she had qualities that acted to soften the sharp edges of his nature. Her sympathetic warmheartedness checked his frigid intellectualism and his acid tongue. She had great wit, and an impishness that she did not hesitate to use against him in his own interest. She could dismiss as “quite impossible” a draft of a speech he had labored over for days, and finally accept perhaps a third revision with an affectionate “I suppose it is as good as you can do, my poor boy.”

Lodge took such treatment submissively, ft was exactly the sort of deflation he most needed, and could get from no one else. Her influence would not have changed his basic attitude toward the League, but it could well have modified his tactics.

Lodge was at the height of his power and influence in 1920, when the Versailles Treaty was defeated and the Republicans swept back into power behind Warren G. Harding. Yet both his power and influence evaporated quickly in the era of “normalcy,” and his last four years were almost pathetic. He suffered no noticeable loss of his faculties, but he could not adjust to the coarse glitter of the Twenties. He never understood Harding’s vacuity, and struggled to explain away his weaknesses.

Lodge, who had denounced in scathing tones the prose style of the League Covenant as perhaps good enough “to get by at Princeton but certainly not at Harvard,” and to whom a split infinitive was a shattering experience, could write to a friend in 1921: “You speak of Harding’s English. He has an affectation for odd words that I do not share, words like ‘normalcy’ . . . but I should not have said that his writing was all what you seem to think it.” What greater proof that Lodge had lost his grip could be required?

Indeed, he had outlived his time. He did not actually “decline.” He held his seat in the Senate, even fighting and winning a hard-fought election in the Democratic year of 1922, but the noxious Harding scandals, Andrew Mellon’s view of federal financing, and the vapidity of the slogan “Keep Cool with Coolidge,” were simply beyond his comprehension.

He died in November, 1924. Though a strange and difficult character, combining qualities both likeable and exasperating, this at least can be said in his favor: he was a public man in the fine, old sense of the term, aware of his responsibilities, assiduous in the performance of his duty, proud of the power delegated to him under our system of representative government. He loved his country and sought to serve its interests. He was often wrong, but never evil.

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