Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,168

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,168


This is the grave of Richard Ballinger.

Born in Boonesboro, Iowa in 1858, Ballinger grew up wealthy. He got to go to Williams College in Massachusetts, today often considered the best college in the country (whatever that actually means) and even then was a pretty great school. He was ambitious, passed the bar in 1886, and decided to try his hand in a place where he could break in pretty easily. That was the city of Seattle, a growing but still small town in Washington Territory. He opened a practice there and as an active Republican with ties to conservative business but also a reputation for cleanness (which would later receive a severe challenge), he managed to rise fast and was elected to be mayor of the city in 1904.

Ballinger was a Gilded Age pro-business hack’s Gilded Age pro-business hack. He despised labor unions, which made him attractive to the city’s wealthy powerful employers. He came into office on the back of a really corrupt mayor that made him seem very clean by comparison. He went after vice, but not too hard–after all, the rich needed brothels too. He disliked the rise of Progressivism and things such as municipal utility ownership he found to be too socialist for his taste by far.

In 1907, although he was pretty conservative, Theodore Roosevelt named Ballinger to head the General Land Office, the agency in charge of moving public domain lands into private hands when appropriate, which was less common under TR and thus not common enough for Ballinger’s tastes. He did that for a year and then left to go back to Seattle to help run the Yukon-Alaska-Pacific Expedition, the city’s World Fair and an attempt to put it on the map as a major city.

Now, Roosevelt didn’t care much about Ballinger really. He was a minor league player, a locally important guy but not really much more than that. But William Howard Taft was a big step more Gilded Age than Roosevelt. On policies, the two presidents weren’t really that different and a lot of our opinion about Taft today is shaped by Roosevelt’s slanders of him in his Autobiography. But Taft was more comfortable with the nineteenth century ways and Roosevelt’s ideas of conservation did not fit that very well. Roosevelt had expected fealty from Taft when he hand chose him for the presidency. But that seriously underestimated Taft, who was not going to be bossed around by a bully. Taft’s interest in conservation was not particularly high. So Roosevelt assumed Taft would continue with his Cabinet appointments and his policies.

But when James Garfield, son of the assassinated president and now the Secretary of Interior, stepped down, Taft named Ballinger to replace him, even though Ballinger was not at all known for his interest in conservation. That showed quickly. Ballinger quickly moved to reverse the policies of Roosevelt’s conservationist team, including Garfield and Forest Service head Gifford Pinchot. He quickly moved to cut off any public power projects, wanting to return that kind of project to private hands. He was very close to already huge companies such as General Electric and Westinghouse and he favored them in the handing out of federal contracts. This soon got the attention of reporters. He responded by first denying it and then accusing reporters of not understanding how to develop the West.

This was bad enough for Roosevelt and friends. But then Ballinger started messing with the national forests. One of Roosevelt’s creations was the Chugach National Forest in Alaska. Ballinger gave a sweet coal leasing deal in the middle of the forest. Ballinger was already the representative for the company involved before he became Secretary of Interior and was lobbying Garfield on their behalf. This company had its ultimate roots in the hands of J.P. Morgan, as did so many at the time. So this was just a corporate giveaway. Given that reporters were already on the corruption of Ballinger, it didn’t take them long to discover some serious shenanigans were happening here. Moreover, Pinchot was outraged and he wasn’t quiet about it. A Collier’s Weekly article appeared and then another in Hampton’s. But Taft was a loyal man, to a fault. His own brother Charles, often an advisor, told him that he needed to fire Ballinger. This was becoming a real problem in the administration.

Taft did not fire Ballinger. He just refused to do so. Pinchot continued to sound the alarm about what was happening in Interior. Ballinger threatened to sue Collier’s for libel, even though, to say the least, the magazine had not committed libel. Collier’s hired Louis Brandeis just in case. It was not messing around. A national scandal had erupted. The Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry began an investigation. Meanwhile, Roosevelt, who had taken a strong interest in the case and saw his legacy at risk, went to Africa to kill a lot of animals in the name of showing the white manhood of the Anglo-Saxon race. Taft used the opportunity to have his larger-than-life former mentor out of the country to fire Pinchot for being disloyal and getting in the way of the functioning of business. By now, Taft wasn’t just ignoring advice to fire Ballinger. He was all-in for his appointee.

This was the main issue that broke the Republican Party by 1912. Roosevelt was furious. This violated two of his most closely held beliefs–good government and conservation. He was probably moving toward breaking with Taft anyway for reasons that he missed the power of the presidency and desperately wanted back in power. But this was Taft’s biggest political error and it broke him. Taft was not a very good politician and this is a prime example of how. Roosevelt was close to Pinchot and they led the move to the Progressive Party of 1912, which caused Taft to finish a very distant third in the Electoral College and ushered in the Wilson presidency.

As for Ballinger, he was soon persona non grata. Tainted with corruption, he finally resigned in 1911. He was a senior Republican, but he was too toxic for any politics at this point. He had tried to recover his reputation by helping Taft push through a bill that significantly increased the public lands in the country, but that move, as good as it was, wasn’t enough to make up for his tainted reputation. He went back to Seattle and his law practice for the rest of his life. That ended in 1922. He was 63 years old.

Richard Ballinger is buried in Lake View Cemetery, Seattle, Washington.

If you would like this series to visit other Secretaries of the Interior, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Walter Fisher is in Hanover, Indiana and John Payne is in Washington, D.C. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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