November 7, 1929
Political factions have gained some very colorful labels through the years—often given to them by their opposition. There were the Nullifiers of the1830s and the Barnburners of the 1840s. We had Copperheads in the Civil War, Mugwumps in the Gilded Age, and Goo-Goos in the Progressive Era. The Republican Recusants saved President Andrew Johnson from removal from office in 1868. The Irreconcilables opposed Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to join a League of Nations in 1919. More recently, Tennessee senator Howard Baker led a group known as the Young Turks in a 1969 challenge to Republican leadership. In 1929 Republican senator George Moses of New Hampshire referred to a group of western progressives as the “Sons of the Wild Jackass.”
At the time, the Senate was embroiled in a contentious debate over the proposed Smoot-Hawley protective tariff, which pitted senators from eastern manufacturing states, sometimes called the Regular Republicans, against Progressive Republicans from the midwestern and western agrarian states. Into this volatile situation stepped George Moses—the Senate’s witty but caustic president pro tem. On November 7, 1929, Moses addressed a group of New England manufacturers and voiced his frustration with the independent-minded progressives. “The sons of the wild jackass now control the Senate,” he complained, accusing the western senators of undermining the efforts of the dedicated old guard. By the next day, his comment was headline news in cities across the nation.
Moses’ denunciation of his progressive colleagues further inflamed a long-standing rift between the eastern political establishment and the western insurgency. Although Moses tried to defuse the situation by suggesting his remark had been a biblical allusion that actually complimented the senators for their stubborn behavior, his attack on the westerners helped to unify a loose coalition of progressives into a powerful political force. “Mr. Moses has inspired in the Progressives . . . an even more mulish spirit than they possessed in the past,” noted one contemporary. “He has imbued them with a donkey-like desire to bear the responsibilities as well as the burdens of the worthy beast to which he likened them.”
Just who were these “wild jackassians” who so infuriated Moses? Leading the pack, or more accurately the herd, was George Norris of Nebraska, soon to be known as the Father of the Tennessee Valley Authority. William Borah of Idaho, an old progressive, would become the leading isolationist of the 1930s. There were young upstarts, too, like Gerald Nye of North Dakota, whose 1934 investigation of the munitions industry would fuel the neutrality acts of the late 1930s.
The influence of the Sons of the Wild Jackass reached its peak in the mid-1930s, and then died by the end of that decade, leaving Regular Republicans like Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg to carry the work of Senate Republicans into the 1940s. And what of George Moses? His 15-year Senate career came to an end with the 1932 election, but he left his mark on Senate history. To this day, the New Hampshire senator is remembered by his colorful nickname—“Mule-skinner Moses.”