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Congressman Jerry Voorhis: Mr. Integrity


Jerry Livingston Voorhis


I wish to acknowledge the importance of the following works that I used in writing this book about my father, Jerry Voorhis. Two works are without doubt the most valuable: Paul Bullock's Jerry Voorhis: The Idealist As Politician, published by Vantage Press. After the Bullock biography, the second most important work that I used is my father's own Confessions of a Congressman, published in 1947 by Doubleday and Company. A third work which I used, particularly in gathering statistical material, is the Congressional Quarterly's Guide to U.S. Elections, published in 1985 by Congressional Quarterly, Inc. And finally, I have utilized rather extensively the Congressional Directory for January 1943 and for August 1945.



This is the biography of a man from the Great Plains Region of the United States. You cannot understand my father, Horace Jeremiah Voorhis, without knowing what it was like growing up in the plains.

The Great Plains have alternatively been referred to as the Great American Desert, the Dust Bowl, and the Empty Quarter. It is vast open, endless and wild. Winters are bitterly cold, summers are sultry and oppressively hot. Highly destructive tornadoes are a frequent occurrence, and the wind blows almost all the time.

The Great Plains spawned bloody border raids along the Kansas-Missouri frontier before and during the Civil War, vicious wars between white settlers and Native Americans, populism, prohibitionism, pacifism and isolationism. The climate is extreme, the geography immense and dramatic; economic conditions are frequently chaotic; and the politics is often wild and woolly.

My father was born in Ottawa, Kansas, on April 6, 1901. Ottawa is the county seat of solidly Republican Franklin County in the eastern part of the state, close to the Missouri border. During the late 1850s and the Civil War, Ottawa citizens were Free-soilers and Abolitionists from New England and other Northern states. Towns like Ottawa were raided several times by the pro-slavery Missouri Roughians, as they were called, while fanatic Abolitionists, like John Brown and his men, would attack people who were friendly or tolerant toward slavery.

My father spent the first ten years of his life in either Kansas, Colorado or Oklahoma. This early conditioning put an indelible stamp on his personality and character. Like the weather and politics of the Great Plains, he was passionate. He held passionate convictions. He had passionate likes and dislikes. And he was passionately devoted to what be believed. For him, the world was divided into what was good and what was evil. Like his colleague in Congress, Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota, my father believed there could be no compromise with evil. Senator Nye spoke about the Merchants of Death, who he believed were responsible for America's involvement in the First World War. In like manner, my father spoke out on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Charles Brown, my grandfather, my father's father, was an incredibly astute salesman who started his career as manager of a hardware store in Ottawa. He grew up in Russell, Kansas, a rough-and-ready frontier town near the Colorado border. When he was born, in 1870, the buffalo were roaming unmolested across the plains, literally by the millions. The land was unfenced. Native Americans and cattle drivers roamed freely across a vast expanse of land that resembled the Pacific Ocean in its emptiness. By the time my grandfather had settled in Ottawa during the 189Os, the buffalo had almost completely disappeared; cattle drives had ended; Native Americans were either dead or confined to reservations; the plains were crisscrossed by railroads and farmers' fences.

My grandfather lived through the most revolutionary years in world history (1870-1961). His father, Aurelius Lyman Voorhis, my great grandfather, was a soldier in the Union Army. He served with distinction throughout the four years of the Civil War. He was at Vicksburg when it fell, and he was at Shiloh. Unlike his more conservative comrades-in-arms, he was a Lincoln supporter and an Abolitionist. The U. S. Government rewarded him for his service with a virtually free homestead on the Kansas frontier. Both my grandfather and great-grandfather were familiar with the Civil War, the frontier experience, and the early industrialization of America.

By 1908, my paternal grandfather was working for the Kingman Plow Corporation in Oklahoma City, selling agricultural equipment to the growing number of farmers in Kansas and Oklahoma. In 1911, he moved to Kansas City, Missouri, to a branch office of the Kingman Plow Corporation, where he rose to an executive position. During this entire period, my grandfather worked as a sales representative. He was a born salesman. In addition, my grandfather was a very shrewd investor of his money. Unlike so many men of the frontier, he was not a reckless speculator. If he took risks, they were calculated and they usually paid off handsomely.

Immediately prior to the onset of the First World War, the Voorhis family moved to Peoria, Illinois, where C. B. Voorhis continued to work for Kingman Plow, this time as assistant manager for the entire company. Later, my grandfather moved further east to Michigan, where a brand new growth industry, automobile manufacturing, was already beginning to revolutionize America and the world.

The Voorhis family settled in Pontiac, on the edge of Detroit, where my grandfather immediately started to work for the Oakland Motors Branch of the then financially troubled General Motors Corporation. He was on the ground floor of the auto industry, just as he had been on the crest of the wave of the agricultural implement business two decades earlier. My grandfather was chosen by Charles W. Nash, then President of GM, to be Vice President and Sales Manager of Oakland Motors. This was in 1913. After four years of service at Oakland Motors, my grandfather moved with Mr. Nash to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where the two men founded the highly successful Nash Motors Corporation. There my grandfather served as Vice President and General Sales Manager. He continued in that post until he retired in 1925. Soon after retirement, he and his wife, Ella Smith Voorhis, moved to Pasadena, California.

During my grandfather's active years as a business executive, my father attended grade school, high school, and finally Yale University. He had a deep interest in the history of this time and would follow the progress of the Balkan Wars with his grandfather, who knew quite a bit about military affairs because of his four-year service in the Union Army. During the First World War, my father tended to favor the Germans, mainly because they seemed to be the underdogs. Also, by the time my father graduated from college, like many reform-minded young people, he admired Germany because it was the first country to adopt a social insurance program, providing government coverage for workers who were elderly, sick, or victims of industrial accidents. Germany was not only a pioneer in the fields of social insurance and public health, but that country also led the way in academic and scientific achievement.

The First World War, more than anything else, made my father a pacifist and a socialist. He graduated from Yale University in 1923, a Phi Beta Kappa scholar, having written an honors paper on the British Labor Party. His training at Yale and his background in the Great Plains convinced my father that true wealth came only from the land and the labor of the people who worked. on farms, in factories, or in offices. He believed that stocks, bonds, or investments represented a fictitious and illusory kind of wealth that could vanish in an instant1 as it frequently did in the panics of the late 19th century.

After graduating from Yale, my father worked for the Winchester Repeating Arms Factory in Connecticut as a freight handler, and for the Ford Motor Company in Charlotte, North Carolina, as an assembly line worker. Earlier, during 1922 and 1923, my father was active in the YMCA and other Christian organizations as a teacher of immigrant workers and as a traveling representative of the American Christian Social Gospel Movement in Germany, England, and Czechoslovakia. During his visits to Europe he saw firsthand the poverty, inflation and social unrest which plagued the ordinary German and English people, especially during the years immediately following World War I. He concluded from this experience that the two greatest evils in the world were monopoly capitalism and war. He campaigned against both for the rest of his life.

A real turning point for my father occurred in 1924. This was a presidential year, which saw the nation divided into three camps. Republicans supported incumbent President Calvin Coolidge. Democrats were bitterly divided to the point where, after 124 ballots, they finally nominated John W. Davis, a lackluster Wall Street lawyer, as a compromise candidate. Progressives, socialists, and other reformers rallied. around the third party presidential candidacy of Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin.

Virtually nobody in my father's family supported Davis, and they probably would not have supported either William Gibbs McAdoo of California or Governor Al Smith of New York, the major but unsuccessful contenders for the Democratic nomination that year. My grandparents were for Coolidge. My father voted for LaFollette. Symbolically, it was his first presidential vote.

In November of 1924, my father married Alice Louise Livingston. She came from Washington, Iowa, in the southeastern corner of that state, near the Mississippi River. Her family was conservative, rock-ribbed Republican, and devoutly Presbyterian. This background made her a moderating influence my father, crucial for his political career.

Almost immediately after their marriage, my parents moved first to Charlotte, North Carolina, and shortly afterwards to Lake Villa, Illinois. At Lake Villa, my father found work at the Allendale School for Homeless Boys. He taught there for approximately a year. Then he felt it was time to move on. At the behest of the then Episcopal Bishop of Wyoming, my parents spent a year in Laramie, Wyoming, where they ran Dray Cottage, a residence and school for homeless boys. Both Allendale and Dray Cottage were strongly religious institutions, as the Voorhis School for Boys soon would be.

After a year and one bitterly cold winter in Wyoming, my parents decided to move to California. My grandparents had already retired there, and my father and grandfather planned to establish the boys' school there. My mother and father arrived in Claremont, California, with approximately a dozen homeless boys in 1927. These boys were to be the nucleus for the new school.

My father took courses at the newly established Claremont Graduate School, and by 1928, received a Masters Degree. His Masters Thesis was the plan for the Voorhis School. My grandfather purchased 150 acres of land in neighboring San Dimas. It had been a wheat field located on top of a mesa. It would soon become the Voorhis School.

Construction on the school started in 1928 and was completed by 1932, during the depths of the Great Depression. The two main structures were the Chapel and a large Administration Building. Both were located in the center of the campus. The Chapel had a large picture window behind the altar with a breathtaking view of Mt. Baldy in the distance. The Administration Building, like all structures on the campus, was built in the Spanish-Mediterranean style with thick white stucco walls and a red tile roof. This main center, with its offices, library, game rooms, dining roans and kitchen, was crisscrossed with beautiful shady loggias reminiscent of a monastery in Spain. Altogether there were approximately a dozen structures on the campus, including two large two-story cottages, about a half dozen smaller cottages, a large shop building, and houses for caretakers. The campus had its own water supply in the farm of a reservoir near the Administration Building.

During the years when the school was being built, the stock market crashed. Unemployment soared to 25%; banks, insurance companies, and other financial institutions were failing right and left; and the Great Okie migration to Southern California had begun. By 1932, California had became a haven for the thousands of farmers from Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas,

Kansas, and Texas who had lost their land, either because of the dust bowl or due to a drastic decline in farm prices brought about by the Depression. My father was painfully aware of the plight of these and other homeless, unemployed and destitute Americans, who only a few years previously had either owned businesses or at least were able to rent farms and homes. What had happened to Germany in 1923 was now happening to America.

In the election of 1928, the Voorhis family was once again divided politically, as it would be four years later. My grandparents voted for Herbert Hoover, a man whom my grandfather admired very much. Both had very similar backgrounds, interests and personalities. They even shared a common ethnic origin, each being of Dutch descent. Hoover, who made his money as a mining engineer, later spent most of his life as an active and successful philanthropist. Millions of starving people in World War I Europe owed their lives to the Hoover Relief Programs. Hoover distinguished himself as Secretary of Commerce under President Coolidge. My grandfather had become wealthy during the years of Republican ascendancy, from 1921 to 1925. There was no reason not to vote for Hoover.

My father's situation was entirely different. He greatly admired the idealism and Christian philosophy of people like Harry Emerson Fosdick, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate for president in 1928. My mother and father voted for Thomas. Virtually nobody in the Voorhis family voted for Al Smith, the Democratic presidential candidate.

The Great Depression produced a mood of anxiety and frustration in the Voorhis family with this three-way division. My grandparents remained loyal to Hoover principally because my grandfather felt the experienced Hoover was better able to deal with the Depression than were the relatively inexperienced Democrats like the newly elected Governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Depression made my father a more convinced Socialist than ever. In his view, capitalism had given humanity both the First World War and the Great Depression. He had struck up a friendship with the noted economist Paul H. Douglas, who would later become a liberal Democratic senator from Illinois. Both Douglas and my father were looking for a viable Socialist alternative to what were to them the hopelessly conservative, if not reactionary, Democrats and Republicans.

My mother had a third and different point of view. She had been a music major at Monmouth College and later at Northwestern University. She was an accomplished pianist and organist, as well as a singer. However, in part due to a cleft palate, she shifted her interest to social work. It was as a social worker in Kenosha that my mother first met my father.

My mother's interest in social work drew her to Governor Roosevelt and his social program in New York State. She admired both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1932 my mother's conviction that Roosevelt would make a good president finally convinced my father to vote Democratic for the first time in his life. My mother's pragmatism had a great deal to do with making my father a successful mainstream politician. It may also have at least had some impact on my paternal grandparents: they became Democrats by 1936.

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