Link to Online Collection Catalog
Link to OHS HOME page
Link to CONTACT OHS page
Link to OHIO HISTORY STORE website
Link to OHS CALENDAR page
Link to OHS PLACES page
Link to OHS RESOURCES page
Link to the ABOUT OHS page
Link to SEARCH OHS page
OHS Online Home
Fundamental Documents of Ohio







1913- 1915, 1917 - 1921

On a bright, crisp January day in 1913 crowds gathered in Columbus to attend the inauguration of the governor-elect, James M. Cox. They lined the approach to the capitol, beating time to the rhythms of the bands, waving flags and streamers, and shouting, "Hello, Jimmy," to the trim, youthful figure, who was about to take the oath of office. Moved by this spontaneous display of enthusiasm, the new governor voiced with brevity and earnest simplicity his own deep emotion: "We are entering upon a new day. ... The forces of human intelligence have carried us to a point of higher moral vision, and it would have been a distinct anomaly of history if government had not been carried on in the progress of the time.... I sense therefore the sublime re- sponsibility of this hour!"

The progressive movement had reached its crest in Ohio. In the three-cornered contest of 1912 Cox had won not only because the new Progressive party had split the Republican ranks but, even more im- portant, because he was more genuinely committed to the cause of reform than either of his opponents. He had run on a platform which embodied every major progressive plank; he had campaigned strenuously for the constitutional amendments submitted to the Ohio voters in September 1912; he entered office dedicated to redeeming the constitu- tional mandate and promoting Ohio to the vanguard of progressive states.

Few men were better equipped by experience, temperament, and ability to perform this task. Reared on his father's farm near Dayton, where he was born on March 31, 1870, he became successively school teacher, printer's devil, newspaper reporter, and secretary to Congressman Paul Sorg. In 1898 he entered upon his lifetime work as the editor- publisher of the Dayton Daily News, adding in 1905 another Ohio paper, the Springfield News. His active political career began in 1908, when he was elected to congress for the first of two terms.

Although born into the Democratic fold he did not take his party allegiance for granted. As a young man he identified himself with the militant wing-dissenters in the conservative Republican environment of Ohio. In his autobiography, Journey Through My Years, he docu- ments his receptiveness to new ideas and new forces: the radical philosophy of the Populists; the jabs of the muckrakers at the old order; the spirit of regeneration introduced by Sam Jones and Tom Johnson in their respective cities of Toledo and Cleveland; and the house of representatives "revolution" of 1909-11, in which he was one of the rebels. The only bar across his record from the progressive viewpoint was his close association with a reactionary Democratic boss in Dayton -a friendship dictated by political necessity, not by ideological com- patability.

By the time Cox was installed in the governor's office he had dispelled the doubts about the genuineness of his progressivism. His first message to the legislature mapped out a fifty-six point program embracing every reform for which there was a popular demand. Conscious of his responsibility for the enactment of these proposals, he boldly assumed leadership of legislative tactics and strategy, brilliantly improvising techniques to assure the success of his campaign.

In preparing the agenda he assigned the work of bill-drafting to experts and called upon Wisconsin reformers, leading penologists, and others for aid. He exercised a strong hand in the organization of the assembly and sought to hold the members in line by persuading that body to adopt an act regulating lobbyists and by witholding the distribution of patronage until the end of the session. A legislative reference bureau was established at the outset to aid in efficient bill- drafting, and the governor kept a personal file on the progress of each proposal in the legislature. Cox's enemies accused him of molding the assembly "until it became as plastic as clay in the master potter's hands." Actually there were remarkably few "clay" figures in the statehouse. The members, many possessed of surpassing ability and integrity, were not servants of but co-workers with the governor, sharing together a community of interest.

At the end of a ninety-day session almost the entire program had been written into statute-proof enough of Cox's extraordinary drive and skill. Tag ends were completed in two short special sessions in 1914. Only the major items can be mentioned in this brief survey. The long sought reforms for more direct democracy were completed by the adoption of a direct primary law and safeguards for the use of the initiative and referendum. The courts were reorganized and judicial procedure was altered. Vast changes were made in the state administration through the extension of the civil service law, authorization of a budget commissioner, centralization of the tax machinery, and the creation of commissions based on the Wisconsin model to insure unified manage- ment of industrial and agricultural policies. Basic conservation legislation and a good-roads program were initiated. An optional municipal charter law was approved for cities which had won the right to home rule by constitutional amendment. The rural school code was rewritten. The most outstanding legacy from this session was the humanitarian legislation: the model workmen's compensation act, mothers' pension law, children's code, bureau of juvenile research act, and laws which produced enlightened changes in the penal system which placed Ohio in the front ranks in prison reform.

Cox was easily renominated in 1914 and ran on his record of "promises fulfilled," proposing, if reelected, "an era of legislative rest." Although contingent reasons contributed, the citizens of Ohio had apparently grown tired of reformers and cast a small plurality for the Republican Frank B. Willis. Two years later Cox again sought a personal vindication of his program, little of which had been altered during two years of Republican rule. By a record-thin margin he defeated Willis, and in 1918 repeated his victory over the same rival and became the first Ohio governor to serve three full terms.

During his last two administrations reform laws were refined in the light of experience but no new ones were added. Our entry into World War I three months after his second inauguration precipitated a new set of problems. The governor had to step into labor disputes which threatened a production stoppage. His uncommon common sense and his trust in labor's good will succeeded in holding industrial strife to a minimum. He was responsible for keeping at a high pitch civilian response to the war effort. As part of the program to strengthen morale he backed the controversial law barring the teaching of German in Ohio schools, which the United States Supreme Court later held unconstitu- tional.

Catapulted into national prominence by his thrice-repeated victories in Ohio, he was nominated for president by his party in 1920 and campaigned in favor of Wilson's program for America's entry into the League of Nations. After Cox's defeat he retired from active politics, occasionally entering party counsels as an elder statesman. In 1933 he was a member of the American delegation to the ill-starred World Monetary and Economic Conference in London. He has added to his newspaper holdings by the purchase of papers in Atlanta, Georgia, and Miami, Florida. Now in his eighty-fifth year, he divides his time between Dayton and Miami, keeping a watchful eye over his journalistic enterprises.

Cox's first administration is considered by many competent judges as the most distinguished in Ohio's recent history. Though many helped, the governor made the greatest single contribution. It was his shrewd political sense, his administrative talent, and his deep humanitarian instinct which made possible the progressive triumph. If he lost his zeal for reform by 1916, so had the Ohio public and many of his party colleagues. As the chief executive during the war years he made good his aim of giving Ohio a war record of which it would be proud.

Governor Cox was married twice and was the father of six children, one of whom died in infancy. Kenyon College


Back to the Ohio Governors index


OHIO HISTORY STORE || CALENDAR || PLACES || RESOURCES || ABOUT || SEARCH || PRIVACY POLICY || Last modified Tuesday, 26-Jul-2005 12:23:38 Eastern Daylight Time
Ohio History Center 800 E. 17th Ave. Columbus, OH 43211 © 1996-2012 All Rights Reserved.