Catacombs of His Immoral Nature and Political Patronage

Jul 09, 2015

It's that time of year again! Every summer, interns from around the country join us in our work on the TR Digital Library. We often ask them to share their experiences in the blog. Mary Frances Angelini examines political patronage and the joy of cataloging.

There are some documents you read that are just so much fun. The person writing the letter is so passionate about what they are saying that you just can’t stop reading. For me, this letter is one of these. It was written by William Allen White and sent to James Canfield, with the instructions that Canfield was to use all or any portion of the letter in any way he liked—which was probably how it ended up in President Roosevelt’s files.

Most of us have a view that ‘people who lived back then’ were generally polite and wrote nice letters to each other, and, while there might have been the occasional firebrand, they were generally well-mannered people. Reading this letter, it’s clear that someone forgot to tell William White that. The first line of the third paragraph is…well, not temperate:

“I know Burton so well, having been through…the catacombs of his immoral nature with a lantern so many times, that I know any one whom the President might name who is not a Burtonite from Burtonville would make him as angry as Leland.” And later; “…there is absolutely no doubt that Burton will find the money in the Canal lobby and fight the President whether Leland is appointed or not. To buy him now with the defeat of Leland is folly. He won’t stay bought.”


Letter from William Allen White to James Hulme Canfield, November 8, 1901.
From the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

There is more in this vein, although the majority of the rest of the letter is taken up with a name-by-name listing of which Kansas politicos are backing Leland and which are backing Burton. White likewise lists which newspapers are for one side or the other, but notes that the majority of the people of Kansas support President Roosevelt.

Once you recover from the mud-slinging and the name-dropping, you might wonder what was the issue that got William White so riled up? And who was William White, anyway? William Allen White, who lived in Kansas, was an author, newspaper editor, politician, a leader of the Progressive Movement, and a friend of TR. James Canfield had been a professor at the University of Kansas, climbed the ranks and became Chancellor of the University of Nebraska, then President of Ohio State University, a position which he left to become Librarian of Columbia University. White and Canfield were good friends, and they both were friends with TR, and they all shared a similarity of political outlook—although White was far more left than TR.

This is a story of political patronage—which was normal and accepted in the early 20th century. Joseph Ralph Burton was the junior Senator from Kansas, serving his first, and only, term in office; and Cyrus Leland was a political appointee to the offices of collector of Internal Revenue for Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Indian Territories, and then Missouri Valley pension agent, a position which he held until 1901. Senator Burton wanted to have George Findlay appointed to a lucrative position, one that McKinley had promised to Leland. The letters—and this is only one of many—on this topic from White and others are all being made available for everyone to read and follow the story of how the system of political patronage worked on a personal level, with the jobs and incomes at stake. Search the records for authors (use the ‘creator’ tag) or do a keyword search for Burton, Leland, and Findlay, put the results in date order, and read your way through. It is a fascinating look at a system that was once thought normal and is now thought to be nearly akin to corruption.

Mary Frances Angelini is the Librarian of the Grossman Library at Harvard University's Extension School. She is currently working towards a Post Masters Certificate in Archives Management through San Jose State University's online program. Her internship with the Theodore Roosevelt Center offers her the opportunity to use many of the practical skills she needs to start her second career as an archivist, as well as the opportunity to work with the records of her favorite president, TR. 

Posted by Mary Frances Angelini on Jul 09, 2015 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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