National Civic FederationVariant names
1 - National Civic Federation Records. Civic Federation of Chicago, boxes 155-168. 2 - Regulation of Industrial Corporations Department, box 241, folders 5 and 6; box 242, folders 1-6; and box 246, folders 5-10. 3 - . Trade Agreements Department, box 255, folder 4, enclosures to form letter dated May 11, 1906, from [Jeremiah Jenks]. Jenks was a political economist, a student of the combinations movement (he was the chairman of the NCF sub-committee that drafted a bill to amend the Sherman Anti-Trust Act), chairman of the Immigration Department, and one of NCF's theorists. The specific reform and patriotic objectives of NCF during the Progressive Era are spelled out in the enclosures of the letter, which was sent to businessmen, unions, and others interested in NCF's plans. Included in the enclosures are a prospectus outlining the purpose of the Industrial Economics Department, particularly in its anti-socialist activities. For more details on this subject see also Industrial Economics Department, box 193, folders 1-8; and for information on Jenks and the NCF bill to amend the Sherman Anti-Trust Act see the Regulation of Industrial Corporations Department, boxes 241-247. 4 - The NCF bill of 1908 to amend the Sherman Anti-trust Act was drafted by a sub-committee chaired by Jeremiah Jenks. Members of the sub-committee included Nicholas Murray Butler, Albert Shaw, Elward H. Gary, Isaac N. Seligman, August Belmont, Seth Low, and representing labor, Samuel Gompers, John Mitchell, and James O'Connell. Gompers, Low, and Jenks championed the bill in a hearing before the Congressional Sub-Committee on the Judiciary. Also speaking for the NCF bill was Theodore Marburg, publicist and consultant to NCF, who testified before the House Sub-Committee on the Judiciary that, “the principle of this [NCF] bill is regulation not ruin”. See Regulation of Industrial Corporations Department, box 246, for the Minutes of the House hearing on the NCF amendments to the Sherman Anti-trust Act. There are also testimonies in behalf of the NCF bill by Low, Jenks, Gompers, Marburg, and others. 5 - Industrial Department, box 183. There is additional material on the subject of trusts and combinations during this period in the Commission on Industrial Inquiry, boxes 381-382. 6 - Avery's correspondence is in the Industrial Economics Department, Box 186, Folders 1 and 2, and her writings on socialism are in the Subversive Activities Files, Box 438, Folders 1 and 2. 7 - See Personal Papers of Ralph Easley and Gertrude Beeks Easley, Correspondence re: Woman Suffrage, Box 488, folder 9. 8 - See the Personal Papers of Ralph and Gertrude Beeks Easley, box 495, folders 7-11, box 496, and footnote 13, for material relating to the Gaston Means Affair, into which Mrs. Shepard was drawn when she gave Ralph Easley the money to purchase several trunks containing alleged evidence of communist subversion which turned out to be forgeries. 9 - NCF's well-oiled administrative machinery was used by the Council of National Defense to prepare labor, capital, and business for the entry of the United States into World War I. Samuel Gompers was the chairman of the Council's Committee on Labor, and Gertrude Beeks Easley, was the committee's secretary. Louis Coolidge was the chairman of the Committee on Welfare Work. Other notable members of NCF who were involved in the war work of the Council were Ralph Easley (apparently only as an advisor), Hayes Robbins, V. Everit Macy, and Otto Eidlitz. See Council of National Defense, boxes 159-162. 10 - See Easley's correspondence with Lucien Wheeler, a private detective, in the Personal Papers of Ralph Easley and Gertrude Beeks Easley, Box 488, folder 2. 11 - Subversive Activities Files. Box 439, Folders 13 and 14, Communist Domination of the Works Progress Administration. 12 - Subjects Files. Box 418, Folders 7-11, Leases, 1931-1939 and Rent Arrears Correspondence. Extraordinary correspondence with NCF's landlord, the General Electric Realty Corporation, revealing the Easleys' poverty and attempts to keep NCF alive. 13 - Subversive Activities Files. Box 444, Folder 4, Boxes 445-448, Means Affair. Gaston Means was one of sixteen undercover agents and informants involved in Easley's anti-communist campaign in the 1930s. Means sold to Easley for $25,000 documents passed off as evidence of massive communist subversion in the United States. The documents turned out to be forgeries. Subsequently, Easley suspected that it was a plot by the Soviet secret police to discredit him. 14 - Subversive Activities Files, boxes 435-457, documenting Easley's approach to combating anarchism, socialism, communism, and liberalism.
The Origin of NCF in the Clash Over Combinations
The National Civic Federation (NCF) was an alliance of reformers and political activists characteristic of the turn of the nineteenth century when the economic ideal of free competition collided with the reality of dominant industrial corporations. The new alliance had its roots in the National Conference on Trusts and Combinations hosted in 1899 by the Civic Federation of Chicago which was formed in 1893 by Ralph Easley. [ 1 ] Near the close of his first term President McKinley was forced by popular protest to respond to the growing number of combinations formed since 1895, his first year in office. McKinley's chief legal means in the conflict was the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890. The Act capped years of campaigning by trust-busters, but was thought by many lawyers to be too loosely written to be of use. Easley's experiences as a municipal reformer and the success of the 1899 conference on trusts and combinations convinced him that effective long-term change was possible only at the national level. Shortly after the end of the conference, Easley began piecing together the nucleus of NCF.
Following McKinley's assassination, his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, moved carefully in dealing with the issue of trusts and combinations which he tended to see not as an economic or political question but as a moral question. Like McKinley, Roosevelt was eventually forced to deal with the trust-busters' contention that, owing to their combined wealth, large industrial corporations wielded too much power, and were a danger to free enterprise and democratic opportunity. After Roosevelt's election in 1904, Attorney General Charles Bonaparte began legal actions against Standard Oil, American Tobacco, and Union Pacific, which were among the richest and most powerful combinations. Bonaparte supported NCF, but was not as active in its affairs as Elihu Root, Lyman Gage, Oscar Straus, and George Cortelyou, four other members of NCF serving in Roosevelt's Cabinet.
The thorny question for Roosevelt and Bonaparte was how far they should go. For NCF, however, the issue seems to have been more a question of whether industry should be free to follow its tendency to merge vulnerable companies with dominant corporations. Easley, Seth Low, and Jeremiah Jenks, the ideological leaders of NCF during this period, were persuaded that there had been progress in reaping the benefits of combinations, and they argued that incorporation was the principle that would rationalize and eventually end industrial strife. For reformers and activists alike, trusts and combinations formed a core issue around which other critical economic and social issues orbited.
In 1907, three years after Roosevelt's election, NCF hosted a four-day national conference in Chicago on trusts and combinations that was a triumph for big business. [ 2 ] Speaker after speaker defended large-scale enterprise and attacked the wastefulness and destructiveness of free competition. Jeremiah Jenks hailed the rise of industrial combinations as a welcome instrument of control. On labor's side, Samuel Gompers gave it his support because it made organizing and negotiating less complicated. [ 3 ] In the following year NCF, led by Seth Low, attempted to replace the Sherman Anti-Trust Act with a bill that was more in line with the aims of big business. (Andrew Carnegie summarized these aims in his celebrated advice to put all the eggs in one basket and then watch the basket.) At first, Roosevelt endorsed the NCF bill, remarking that industrial combinations were essential. [ 4 ] Roosevelt made an about-face, however, and support for the proposed bill collapsed, when Low and Jenks were unable to show convincingly how their bill would be an improvement over the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.
Over the years NCF pushed for an amendment of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Seth Low proposed another bill which was voted down in Congress; and in 1931, the Industrial Department promoted an unsuccessful bill drafted by James W. Gerard. [ 5 ] Ironically, the National Recovery Act of 1933 made redundant NCF's activism on the trusts and combinations question. According to Easley, the NRA accomplished virtually overnight the elimination from the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of the objectionable sections dealing with trusts and combinations, something which NCF had been trying to do for thirty years. When the National Recovery Act expired in 1935 these features were restored to the Sherman Act by legislators Easley described as radicals.
The gain, and then loss, of the support of a President of the United States on an issue as historically resonant as the conflict over trusts and combinations can be seen as NCF's grand moment on the national stage. Although NCF did not succeed in amending the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, it did gain from its attempts a large measure of reform credibility, which helped to fund social and industrial welfare projects that were more humanitarian and useful. Two surveys, both undertaken in 1914 by the Industrial Economics Department, contradict the progressive picture of reality that NCF promoted in its anti-socialist campaign. The more wide-ranging survey was of social, economic, industrial, and political improvements since the 1870s; the other survey dealt with the socioeconomic effects in the United States of the war in Europe. More compact in scope than the others, the latter survey eloquently conveys the fear of economic depression and unemployment experienced by employers and employees throughout the United States. The completed questionnaires for the 1925 survey of old age dependency challenge the mythology of Jazz Age liberation and happy times. NCF's surveys, national conferences, studies, and reports addressed, but did not emphasize, the social and economic inequalities and anxieties of the Progressive Era. Some of NCF's collaborative work with other organizations helped to improve working conditions for men, women, and children in the industrial system. But none of these activities reached the same high level of public prominence as the war of words over the question of trusts and combinations.
The Making of NCF
From the evidence in the records, it is clear that the founders of NCF never intended it to be merely a reform association, although it was publicized as one. Easley, NCF's spokesperson, was an experienced activist committed to advancing the political program of the Republican Party, and generally ignored the important distinction between disinterested independent reform and partisan political activism.
Easley saw NCF as a patriotic coalition of labor and capital. Behind this patriotic vision was the basic conviction that a prosperous and democratic society was possible. Easley also insisted that industrial strife was not caused by class struggle, but by the failure of employees and employers to recognize the existence of a partnership of labor, capital, and government that was initiated during the Civil War. Easley, together with Gompers and Mitchell (labor's chief representatives in NCF's hierarchy), believed that a partnership of labor and capital could advance a nation grappling with problems triggered by historic developments such as rapid industrialization and massive immigration. The confidence needed to compete with Great Britain, France, and Germany for global markets was feasible only in a unified nation with focused and coordinated political and economic objectives. The emergence of the United States as a world power would not happen as long as there were conflicts between labor and capital over fundamental economic issues such as the distribution of the national wealth created by industry.
Starting at the end of 1899, Easley attracted to NCF the financial support and active participation of businessmen and public figures predisposed to a mix of reform and political activism. Among them were, to name only a few, Vincent Astor, William Baldwin, August Belmont, Jr., Charles J. Bonaparte, Andrew Carnegie, Marcus A. Hanna, Jeremiah Jenks, Seth Low, Cyrus H. McCormick, Alton B. Parker, George W. Perkins, Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root, and William H. Taft. Many of these prominent men served as presidents of the Federation, and chaired departments, committees, and national conferences created to study and report on a wide spectrum of significant social, economic, and political issues. Over the years almost all served, in various combinations, on the Executive Council, NCF's ruling body, where they defined the broad lines of policy they hoped would determine the relationship of government to capital and labor.
Easley also sought to build a conservative labor base to serve as a bulwark against socialism. The foremost recruit was Samuel Gompers, the president of the American Federation of Labor, who hoped that his connection with NCF would gain for the labor movement a better relationship with business. The principle spokesman for labor in NCF, and NCF's advocate in the labor movement, Gompers also served as both president and vice-president, and as a member of the important Industrial Economics Department. Gompers was Easley's close friend and advisor, and made use of Ralph and Gertrude Beeks Easley, and other NCF stalwarts, when he served during World War I as chairman of the Committee on Labor of the [United States] Council of National Defense. Another labor recruit was John Mitchell of the United Mine Workers of America, who chaired the Trade Agreements Department and was a key figure in the campaign to establish industrial peace. In 1911 Mitchell was forced to resign from NCF by the union rank and file who believed that he and Gompers were lending their names to an essentially conservative and anti-union movement.
The male-dominated federation attracted women social reformers such as Easley's eventual wife, Gertrude Beeks (see biographical note below), the civic worker Maude Wetmore, the wealthy socialite Lolita Van Rensselaer, and the feminist and historian of Chinese immigration, Mary Roberts Coolidge, who corresponded with NCF's Immigration Department. Martha Moore Avery, a former socialist, director of the Boston School of Political Economy, and articulate leader of a group of Boston anti-socialist consultants and lecturers, was deeply involved in NCF's anti-socialist work. [ 6 ] Other conservative women involved in NCF were Jennie Dewey Heath, a staunch anti-suffragist and secretary of the National League for the Civic Education of Women [ 7 ], and the philanthropist, Helen Gould Shepard, who contributed large amounts of money to the Easleys' anti-communist campaign in the 1930s. [ 8 ]
NCF's Loss of Influence after World War I
The enactment of federal legislation favorable to industries, and the merger of the peacetime reform ideology into the war organization (notably the Council of National Defense [ 9 ], War Industries Board, the War Policies Labor Board, and the Housing Corporation) inadvertently undercut NCF's role as a reform body. The war years also saw the beginning of the rapid decline of NCF's relationship with big business, which had been the organization's main source of financial support. NCF's influence with labor all but vanished when Samuel Gompers died in 1924. The Easleys had to endure as well the growth of the Soviet Union as a global power. These were shocks from which NCF did not recover.
The early 1930s saw Easley's growing obsession with internal subversion and the demonization of the union movement. In 1930 Easley was involved with plans for making an anti-communist feature film in Hollywood. [ 10 ] Easley was an early advocate of the National Recovery Act of 1933 because it revised the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. But he soon became a staunch foe of all federal projects which he saw as collectivist in spirit and dominated by communist ideology. [ 11 ] Easley condemned the New Deal in a series of harsh weekly letters to President Roosevelt, campaigned against the Mexican government's expropriation of American-owned property, was publicly hostile to the British Labor Party, opposed taxation in the securities field, and in 1937 led a drive against sit-down strikes.
The Depression Era was not NCF's time. In the eyes of many other conservatives and ardent anti-communists, Easley, NCF's chief spokesman, had become merely a megalomaniac. By the time of Easley's death in 1939, he and Gertrude Beeks Easley had suffered through years of poverty, [ 12 ] and public scandal, personal defeat, and humiliation linked to the so-called Means Affair. [ 13 ] NCF had been pushed aside by rising liberalism and had become almost exclusively a weapon in Easley's personal crusade to bring down the Soviet Union. [ 14 ] Gertrude Beeks Easley inherited NCF after her husband's death, and, despite the nearly complete loss of financial support, gamely carried the discredited organization into the Cold War Era. In 1949, NCF was evicted from its New York headquarters by the General Electric Realty Corporation for non-payment of rent. In 1950, humiliated and beset by debts that she could not hope to pay, Gertrude Beeks Easley closed down NCF's operations and declared bankruptcy. She died later that year.
1 - Beeks [Easley], Gertrude. In Southern Cotton Mills, SWTE, August 11, 1906. Beeks quotes a cotton mill president as having said, "industrial employee welfare work is a cold blooded business".
Ralph Easley and Gertrude Beeks Easley
Ralph Easley and Gertrude Beeks Easley played critical roles in NCF, and the organization is unimaginable without them. Ralph Easley, a former mathematics teacher, newspaper reporter, editor of the political-economics department of the Chicago Inter-Ocean, publisher, postmaster of Hutchinson, Kansas, activist in the anti-woman suffrage movement, and staunch mid-western Republican activist and patriot, was born in Frederick, Illinois in 1856, and educated in public schools in Quincy. In 1875 Easley moved to Hutchinson, Kansas where he taught in the public schools in 1877 and 1878, was postmaster from 1882 to 1887, and proprietor and editor of the Hutchinson Daily News, 1883-1891. He was in charge of the Politico-Economic Department of Chicago Inter-Ocean and was one of the founders in 1893 of the Civic Federation of Chicago. Easley left the Civic Federation of Chicago in 1900, and moved to New York City where he established NCF's central office. In between he promoted national conferences in 1898 on the reform of primary elections, and also on the future foreign policy of the U.S., and in 1899 on trusts and combinations. Reputedly a persuasive writer and talker, Easley also had a talent for organizing, and was not overly obsequious when courting the wealthy and powerful men whose support was crucial to NCF's work. NCF's director and chief spokesperson until his death in 1939, Easley had a hand in everything in which NCF was involved.
Formerly a director of the course in welfare work at New York University, Gertrude Beeks Easley was, in her own right, an important social-welfare advocate. Mrs. Easley was born in Greenville, Tennessee in 1867, and educated in the public schools in Fort Wayne, Indiana and Chicago. Before coming to NCF, Mrs. Easley was sent by William H. Taft to Panama to suggest improvements in the condition of employees, organized and directed the welfare scheme for the International Harvester Company, and wrote about Southern cotton mills. [ 1 ] From 1898 to1909 Mrs. Easley was the president of the National Association of Women Stenographers and the National Association of Business Women. From 1903 Mrs. Easley was the director of NCF's Welfare Department. Mrs. Easley was the durable director of NCF's Industrial Welfare Department, which was commissioned in 1910 by the Executive Council of NCF to examine the question of old age dependency. Mrs. Easley also organized departments to examine other social-welfare issues such as workmen's compensation, unemployment insurance, health insurance, and profit sharing. In 1917 she was appointed Secretary of the Executive Committee of the Council of National Defense, and was an assistant to Louis Coolidge, the chairman of the Council's Welfare Committee. Mrs. Easley was also involved with her husband in the anti-woman suffrage movement. After her husband's death, Mrs. Easley, despite the nearly complete loss of financial support, led NCF into the Cold War Era before declaring bankruptcy. The full magnitude of Mrs. Easley's role in NCF and conservative reform and political activism is evident in these records. The Easleys were married in 1917. It was his second marriage, and her first. For further details of Mrs. Easley's work for NCF consult the series notes for the Council of National Defense, Industrial Welfare Department, Woman's Department, and the Subversive Activities Files. For additional biographical information on Mr. and Mrs. Easley see Series XV, Personal Papers of Ralph Easley and Gertrude Beeks Easley, 1876-1938.
From the guide to the National Civic Federation records, 1894-1949, 1900-1920, (The New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division.)
|Place Name||Admin Code||Country|
|Old age pensions|
|Progressivism (United States politics)|
|Labor laws and legislation|