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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Cummins, Albert Baird
(February 15, 1850–July 30, 1926)

–attorney, governor, and U.S. senator—was a highly influential politician at the state, regional, and national levels for more than three decades. His odyssey from Gilded Age stalwart to moderate progressive to New Era conservative was a virtual microcosm of that experienced by legions of middle-class Americans. At his zenith, Cummins was second only to Robert M. La Follette Sr. as the champion of the midwestern Republican Insurgents who successfully challenged the hegemony of the party's northeastern Standpat leadership, and who played a major role in the achievements of Democrat Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom. At the same time, Cummins and his cohorts fiercely contested Wilson's handling of World War I and were instrumental in the ultimate defeat of the Versailles Treaty and American membership in the League of Nations. President pro tempore of the U.S. Senate from 1919 to 1925, Cummins cosponsored the controversial Esch-Cummins Transportation Act of 1920, which reorganized the nation's railroad system, and he was a member of the "Farm Bloc" that sought to have the federal government purchase surplus agricultural products for sale abroad.

    Cummins was born in Carmichaels, Green County, Pennsylvania, the son of Thomas L. Cummins, a carpenter/farmer, and Sarah Baird (Flenniken) Cummins. Raised in a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian tradition that valued both individual independence and education, he had accumulated enough credits to graduate from Waynesburg (Pennsylvania) College at age 19. Because he vociferously backed the valedictorian of his class in a dispute with the college's president over Darwinism, however, Cummins left school without being awarded his degree. Having no clear sense of direction, he moved first to Elkader, Iowa, with a maternal uncle, and then to Allen County, Indiana, in 1871, working variously as a railway clerk, carpenter, construction engineer, express company manager, and deputy county surveyor. Relocating to Chicago, Cummins clerked for an attorney, studied law on his own, and passed the Illinois bar in 1874. That same year he married Ida Lucette Gallery, with whom he had one child, a daughter. Still unsettled after practicing law in Chicago for three years, Cummins hung his shingle in Des Moines, where he specialized in railroad and patent law.

    Taking on a variety of clients from many walks of life, Cummins manifested little proclivity to use the law as an instrument for reform. Most of his clients were corporations or businessmen, an orientation that made him fairly wealthy by the early 1890s. According to historian Leland Sage, Cummins "had no special appeal for or contact with small farmer and the working classes.... On the contrary, he was a rather aloof, fastidious man of elegant tastes and patrician manner, a member of Des Moines' most exclusive clubs, who somewhat symbolically drove to his office daily in a fine carriage drawn by spirited horses driven by a liveried coachman, a custom which he continued long after the coming of the automobile."Cummins gained his greatest fame as a lawyer by representing the Iowa Grange in its suit against the "barbed wire trust" in 1884, a seemingly classic case of championing "the people vs. the interests."Although Cummins and his followers perpetuated that image, many historians regard the incident as an aberration or anomaly, especially since Cummins had represented the Moen Barbed Wire Company in an earlier action and withdrew from the legal team before a verdict was rendered in the Grange's case.

    At the same time, Cummins became increasingly active in Republican politics. He was a delegate to every state and national party convention from 1880 to 1924, a state legislator from 1888 to 1890, a presidential elector in 1892, and a member of the Republican National Committee from 1896 to 1900. Gradually, he emerged as a leader of the Insurgent faction of the Iowa GOP that contested the leadership of the prorailroad, probusiness Regulars headed by U.S. Senator William Boyd Allison and Congressmen David B. Henderson and William P. Hepburn. The founder of that Insurgent faction was two-term governor William Larrabee (1886-1890), a wealthy banker, landowner, and industrialist who became a staunch advocate of railroad regulation in the 1880s. Although this internecine conflict was largely a power struggle between two elite groups, Larrabee transformed it into a movement to curtail the economic and political power of the state's railroads. Larrabee's Railroad Commissioner Law of 1888 remained the defining issue between Regular and Insurgent Republicans for the next two decades, and Cummins, the governor's chief legislative lieutenant, became the leader of the younger group.

    Defeated in campaigns for the U.S. Senate in 1894 and 1900, Cummins was elected governor in 1901, serving three consecutive terms. Associating himself with the larger Insurgent movement emerging in the Midwest, he ran on an antimonopoly, populist platform that stressed increased railroad taxation and regulation and support for the "Iowa Idea": the removal of tariff protection for any industry dominated by a "trust."Even though he was not present at the convention that adopted the Iowa Idea, Cummins popularized the notion so widely that most people assumed that he was its progenitor, a perception that Cummins made little effort to dispute. As governor, he pressed for a prohibition of free railroad passes to public officeholders, a two-cents-per-mile limit on railroad fares, the regulation of insurance and investment companies, prison reform, a pure food law, the curtailment of child labor, primary elections, and the election of U.S. senators by popular vote. A firm believer in partisan competition, he unsuccessfully opposed adoption of the "Des Moines Plan" for a nonpartisan commission form of municipal government.

    Defeated as a candidate for the U.S. Senate in the legislature in 1908, Cummins won the Republican nomination in a primary election that same year and was selected by the legislature to fill the vacancy created by Allison's death. In the Senate, he quickly became second only to Robert La Follette as the point man in the Insurgent revolt by supporting tariff reductions, the federal income tax, the popular election of U.S. senators, and Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot in his public land dispute with Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger, while opposing trade reciprocity with Canada. In 1911 Cummins participated in the formation of the National Progressive Republican League, designed to support a Progressive challenger to Taft in 1912. However, Cummins and several of his cohorts switched their allegiance to Theodore Roosevelt, creating a rift between themselves and La Follette that gradually destroyed Insurgent solidarity. In spite of his personal support for Roosevelt, Cummins refused to leave the Republican Party.

    Although personally affronted by President Woodrow Wilson's manner and his highly partisan tactics in pushing legislation through Congress, Cummins eventually supported many of the landmark measures of the administration's "New Freedom," authoring the "Magna Charta" provision of the Clayton Antitrust Act, which proclaimed that "the labor of human beings is not a commodity or article of commerce."Although that provision supposedly exempted labor unions from prosecution as "combinations in restraint of trade" under the antitrust laws and recognized their right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike, it failed to permit secondary boycotts and was vague enough to allow antilabor judges great latitude in issuing injunctions. Always a strong supporter of the railroad brotherhoods, he opposed the Adam-son Act limiting most railroad workers to an eight-hour day as too weak.

    In favor of neutrality and opposed to Wilson's efforts to strengthen U.S. military forces with the outbreak of World War I, Cummins was one of what Wilson called that "little group of willful men" who filibustered against the arming of merchant ships in 1917. Although he voted for Wilson's declaration of war and generally supported the Wilson administration's prosecution of the conflict, the Iowan was part of the "loyal opposition" that demanded strict accounting, restraints on governmental authority, and measures to restrict profiteering. Like the rest of the Insurgents, Cummins opposed U.S. membership in the League of Nations and thus helped to defeat the Versailles Treaty twice in 1919. His role in drafting the 1920 transportation act that bears his name, however, greatly upset fellow Insurgents, liberals, and the unions by effectively returning the railroads to private operation, ending their wartime control by the federal government.

    A personal friend and golfing companion of Warren G. Harding, Cummins frequently sided with the new president in his desire to "return to normalcy."Increasingly sympa thetic to the antigovernment, probusiness orientation of Harding and the other "New Era" Republicans, he nevertheless voted with the midwestern "Farm Bloc" in favor of the various McNary—Haugen bills for federal subsidies to agriculture. When La Follette resurrected the Progressive Party during the 1924 election campaign, Cummins denounced his former close ally as a radical and campaigned for Calvin Coolidge and his "the business of America is business" orientation. Cummins's growing conservatism cost him a great deal of progressive political support in his native state, causing him to lose the 1926 Republican primary to La Follette protégé Smith Wildman Brookhart, leader of a new progressive movement. Within a few months of his defeat, Cummins died in Des Moines and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.
Sources Cummins's papers are housed at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines. They constitute the major source for the only full-scale biography, Ralph Mills Sayre, "Albert Baird Cummins and the Progressive Movement in Iowa" (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1958). Elbert W. Harrington has written helpful analyses of two important aspects of Cummins's career: "A Survey of the Political Ideas of Albert B. Cummins," Iowa Journal of History and Politics 39 (1941), 339–86; and "Albert Baird Cummins as a Public Speaker," Iowa Journal of History and Politics 43 (1945), 209–53. Important insights into Cummins's activities and ideas can also be gained from James Holt, Congressional Insurgents and the Party System, 1900– 1916 (1967); Thomas Richard Ross, Jonathan Prentiss Dolliver: A Study in Political Integrity and Independence (1958); and Kenneth W. Hechler, Insurgency: Personalities and Policies of the Taft Era (1964).
Contributor: John D. Buenker

Cite as: Buenker, John D. "Cummins, Albert Baird" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 30 September 2014