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Democratic Leadership Deadlock


January 15, 1920

Photo of Senator Oscar Underwood of Alabama

The death of Senate Democratic Leader Thomas Martin in November 1919 touched off a battle among Senate Democrats that revealed a deeply divided party. A year earlier, the midterm congressional elections had ended six years of Democratic control in the Senate, giving the Republicans a two-vote majority. A week after Martin’s death, the Senate rejected President Woodrow Wilson’s plan for U.S. participation in the League of Nations by refusing to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. When acting Democratic Leader Gilbert Hitchcock visited the White House to discuss a plan to revive the treaty, the bitter president—partially paralyzed following a stroke weeks earlier—refused to see him.

Leaders of both parties wanted the treaty issue resolved so that it would not dominate the 1920 presidential election. With World War I at an end, the American public was losing interest in the treaty controversy and became more focused on domestic issues. Hitchcock eventually gained access to the White House and, with other Senate Democrats, urged the president to soften his opposition in order to salvage the treaty.

In this super-charged political environment, members of the Senate Democratic caucus met on January 15, 1920, to elect a new floor leader. Preliminary headcounts indicated that the two candidates—Hitchcock of Nebraska and Oscar Underwood of Alabama—each had 19 supporters. To break this deadlock, Underwood’s allies sought a ruling that would allow Treasury Secretary Carter Glass to vote. The governor of Virginia had recently appointed Glass to fill Martin’s seat but Glass was not immediately free to leave the cabinet. Sensing that such an arrangement would taint his claim to the leadership, Underwood agreed to postpone the election for several months.

This situation further aggravated the treaty fight and deepened ill feelings among the Democrats. Lacking the status of elected floor leader, neither Hitchcock nor Underwood was in a position to unite the party to forge a compromise.

This stalemate produced a second defeat for the treaty in March 1920. By the time the Democratic caucus assembled in April to choose its leader, Hitchcock had tired of the battle. He withdrew in favor of Underwood, who won by acclamation. Secretary of State Robert Lansing knew both men well and offered an assessment that may have explained Underwood’s victory: “Hitchcock will obey orders. Underwood prefers to give them. One is a lieutenant, the other a commander.”