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Fundamental Documents of Ohio







1909- 1913

In the presidential year of 1908 the voters of Ohio chose the Republican favorite son, William Howard Taft, for the presidency and a Democrat, Judson Harmon, for the governorship. This anomalous result reflected a popular reaction against a long period of Republican misrule of the state government and a public confidence in the Demo- cratic standard bearer that he would introduce clean, efficient government in Ohio.

Harmon, an elder statesman of the party just turned sixty-two, inspired such trust. His presence was commanding, disclosing a character strong yet benevolent. He was big framed, erect of bearing, with a ruddy complexion and a sandy, cropped mustache. His eyes, set under shaggy brows, had a piercing look, yet frequently were lit with flashes of kindness; his firm mouth broke easily into a smile or hearty laugh. His speech was plain, blunt, easily assimilable. He had a reputation for exemplary probity.

He was born on February 3, 1846, at Newtown in Hamilton County, Ohio, the son of a Baptist minister, and worked his way through Denison University and the Cincinnati Law School. He married Olivia Scobey of Hamilton in 1870.

Settling in Cincinnati in 1869 to practice his profession, he became a prominent attorney and won a reputation as a judge in both the common pleas and superior courts. Although he had been inclined toward the Republican party in the Civil War period, he revolted against the harsh Reconstruction program and eventually became firmly affiliated with the Democratic party. President Cleveland in 1895 appointed him to the attorney generalship where he won renown by preparing and prosecuting two important antitrust suits.

Although politically inactive after retirement from his cabinet post in 1897, he did not disappear from the public eye. He was remarkably successful as a receiver in reorganizing three railroads and nursing them back to financial health. In 1905 he briefly shot into national prominence as a result of his investigations of alleged violations by the Santa Fe Railroad of the law prohibiting rebates. His findings implicated the company officers, and he insisted that they should be indicted. President Theodore Roosevelt refused, ruling that only the corporation should be held responsible for criminal acts. In a public letter Harmon defended his position: "The evils with which we are now confronted are corporate in name but individual in fact. Guilt is always personal."

This principle which applied equally well to officers of government was central to his thinking. Like his chieftain, Grover Cleveland, he also believed that public office is a public trust. Economy and business efficiency in the management of public affairs, fairness towards all, favoritism towards none, and limited exercise of governmental power -these were the political convictions to which he steadfastly adhered. Essentially conservative, he seemed troubled and perplexed by the new political trend, espoused by the Tom Johnson radical Democrats, toward direct democracy, economic equality, and humanitarian reform. Progres- sives commended him for his old-fashioned virtues, but they never accepted him as one of them.

Harmon served as governor for two terms, winning reelection in 1910 by a 100,000 plurality over his Republican rival, Warren G. Harding. During these four years he put in order the state administration, exposing a major scandal in the corrupt handling of state funds, eliminating peculation and waste in a half dozen departments, replacing the incompetent with competent men, and elevating the tone of govern- ment. He counted as his greatest legislative achievements four measures. Three of them increased economy and efficiency: changes in the de- pository laws, making mandatory a proper accounting of the people's money; the centralization of the management of the state's penal and charitable institutions; and a one percent tax limit law. Only the fourth was a humanitarian measure, Ohio's first employers' liability law.

This selection is as instructive for what it omits as for what it includes in revealing Harmon's conservative temper and outlook. Pro- gressives considered of equal, if not greater, importance other major items adopted: the creation of Ohio's first public service commission and a tax commission, both with real powers to correct existing dis- criminations; ratification of the federal income tax amendment; a maximum-hour law for working women; the Oregon plan for electing United States senators; and the initiative and referendum for cities. Although to some of these enactments Harmon was openly sympathetic, to others he was indifferent, even hostile.

By 1912 his political aspirations had soared beyond the governorship to the presidency itself. His record made him a highly "available" candidate. Although he was the choice of Democratic conservatives, many party progressives felt his usefulness had passed and were searching for a point of attack. Harmon made one for them, when on February 8, 1912, he delivered his fateful address to the Ohio Constitutional Con- vention opposing the initiative and referendum and other popular reforms. Admirable as it was to place personal conviction above political expediency, he nevertheless revealed that he was out of tune with the progressive thinking of the day. From that hour his chances for the presidential nomination and continued leadership of the Ohio De- mocracy were doomed.

The story of the 1912 convention is well known. No Harmon boom developed, partly because he entered the convention with a divided Ohio delegation. The nomination of Wilson and the ascendancy of the progressive wing struck the Ohioan's political death knell. In January 1913 Harmon returned to Cincinnati, where he resumed his law practice and taught for many years in the Cincinnati Law School. Efforts to entice him back into politics were unavailing. He died in Cincinnati on February 22, 1927, survived by three daughters. Harmon merits a place among Ohio's outstanding governors. He introduced a tough moral fiber into a government grown flabby; he was fearless in pursuing what he believed to be right policy, offending the spoilsmen of the party when he refused to fire competent Republicans, alarming the Democratic stalwarts by insisting upon the impartial prosecution of corrupt officials regardless of party label. Although his own political thinking harked back to an earlier era, he was flexible enough to accept some of the conclusions of the progressives without agreeing with their premises. In reinvigorating the state administration, he prepared the ground for the ultimate triumph of progressive ideas. He restored to the people a confidence that government could be trusted to play the more vigorous role demanded by the radical humanitarian reformers. Kenyon College


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