Gifford Pinchot: Conservation And Contention

February 19th, 2009 at 9:56 pm | 1 Comment |

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The Republican Party was born fighting – with itself. From its inception, viagra the party has been wracked by factional disputes.  The issues contested have included post-Civil War Reconstruction (with the Radical Republicans pushing for a more aggressive approach), cialis the spoils system (pitting Stalwarts against Half-Breeds), seek Progressive reform, isolationism vs. internationalism, and so on through to the ongoing modern struggles between conservatives and moderates. 

While the issues provoking these battles have shifted over time, the essential reason for the GOP’s stormy history has been that, unlike the Democrats for most of their history, the Republicans have always been a national party. Trying to unite a cross-section of the entire country on even a few basic principles is a more difficult proposition than assembling a coalition of interest groups which agree to disagree for the sake of power. Its existence as a truly national party, however, has driven the GOP’s major accomplishments throughout its history, including saving the Union during the Civil War, emancipation, the Morrill Act creating the land-grant colleges and universities, the establishment of the federal highway system, and the party’s role in passing the Civil Rights Acts of 1964. 

Internal dispute, for the Republican Party, has often been an indication of its vitality as a national party. The total victory in recent years of a conservative and mainly Southern bloc within the GOP, and the near elimination from the party of contesting views and entire regions of the country, is a threat to the party’s essential identity, despite the sunny ideological harmony that now prevails within GOP councils.

At the same time, in considering the turbulent career of Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt’s ally and a leader of the early environmentalist movement, one can’t help but sympathize with the Republican Party leaders that attempted to herd Pinchot and the other quarrelsome cats who made up the Progressive movement. The hard-to-categorize nature of Pinchot’s views, and the vehemence with which he defended them, suggest the messiness that may be in store for the GOP if it would again become a more national and ideologically eclectic party in the future.

After training in Europe, Pinchot was largely responsible for creating the profession of forestry in the United States during the 1890s, helping to establish the nation’s first forestry school (at Yale) and heading all of the federal government’s forestry work for a dozen years starting in 1898. He served as the main advisor to President Theodore Roosevelt on all matters relating to conservation, became the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, and oversaw nearly 200 million acres of forest reserves that had been transferred to the USFS’s control.

Pinchot and TR not only were fellow New York patricians with a love of the outdoors, but also shared the characteristic Progressive belief in objective scientific management and the need for government to act for the general good by restraining corporate greed and sub-national interests. This outlook embroiled Pinchot in conflict with miners, ranchers, and lumber corporations, but also with entire communities and state legislatures (particularly in the West) who felt that their democratic rights were being trampled by overweening executive power and distant experts. Pinchot’s quarrel with interior secretary Richard Ballinger over the latter’s opening of public lands to private commerce led President William Howard Taft to dismiss Pinchot in 1910.  

But Pinchot also outraged environmental preservationists with his utilitarian insistence that forest management should be profitable. He broke with environmentalist John Muir and his Sierra Club by supporting the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in California, believing that the need to provide San Francisco with drinking water outweighed scenic beauty and other aesthetic considerations. 

Pinchot’s dismissal convinced Roosevelt that Taft was a traitor to the cause of conservation, and was one of the factors precipitating TR’s walkout of the 1912 GOP convention to form the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party. But the Progressive movement was so riven by disagreements as to make many historians doubt whether it was a movement at all. Pinchot had written TR’s first speech calling for a “New Nationalism,” in which a powerful federal government would balance Big Business and Big Labor to regulate the economy and promote social justice, but other progressives believed with equal fervor that government, business, and labor should be small. Unlike Roosevelt, Pinchot believed that the essence of progressivism was “class war… a war of the unprivileged classes against the privileged classes.” His truculence carried over to the foreign policy realm as well. While many progressives believed it imperative for the U.S. to steer clear of the Great War that erupted in Europe in 1914, Pinchot castigated Woodrow Wilson’s neutrality during the first years of the conflict, and called for immediate U.S. entrance into the war to vindicate liberty and defeat German militarism.

One of Pinchot’s biographers noted his “tendency to ascribe to his opponent every possible shortcoming,” and he took this quarrelsome attitude into his two terms as the Republican governor of Pennsylvania, from 1923-26 and 1931-35. As governor he promoted a philosophy he called “new conservationism,” applied now to human beings as well as threatened species and limited natural resources. Pinchot acted on his philosophy in ways that might be termed liberal: he overthrew the state’s Republican machines, overhauled its corrupt government, attacked sweatshops and child labor, endorsed equal pay for equal work for women, sent troops to intervene on behalf of striking coal miners, supported minority rights, and devised a road-building program that served as a model for some New Deal programs of unemployment relief. On the other hand, he imposed severe economy measures on the state government, balanced the state’s budget and paid down its debts, enforced Prohibition more vehemently than perhaps any other governor, clamped down on gambling and even mildly suggestive films and literature, and promoted a vision of a sort of Christian commonwealth.

It’s difficult to imagine Pinchot fitting comfortably in today’s Republican Party, but it might be better for the GOP in the long run if it could once again make room for such interesting and turbulent spirits. Unity is not always an important or even a desirable characteristic for a vital national party.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • HollywoodBill

    The author gets it. The dominance of the Southern social conservatives in the GOP is detrimental to the future success of the Republican Party. The present attempts at banishing heretics promote a religious ideology and not a vibrant political party. The results are becoming increasingly evident. The GOP is becoming a regional revival tent instead of a big tent. Barry Goldwater realized and prophesized that the religious right would be the death of the Republican Party.