15. Tom L. Johnson and Progressive Reform in Cleveland
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N THE first decade of the twentieth century, visitors passing through the foyer of the large house at 2343 Euclid Avenue in Cleveland entered a great hall dominated by a massive twelve-foot fireplace. Among the array of couches and seats surrounding the fireplace was an armchair off to the side reserved for Tom L. Johnson , owner of the house and mayor of the city of Cleveland. From this comfortable perch, Johnson presided over many lively conversations ; here the mayor and his wife, Maggie, welcomed politicians and journalists, such as William Jennings Bryan, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Mae Tarbell, Henry George, Samuel L. Jones, and Clarence Darrow; and here Johnson met with his “kitchen cabinet” of advisers , including Peter Witt, Newton Baker, and Frederick Howe. Beyond the great hall, guests and their families enjoyed suppers, picnics, masquerade balls, and skating on an ice rink. Adding to the excitement were the Johnson children, Loftin and Bessie, who were devoting their twenties to experimenting with a range of careers and diversions. Loftin and Bessie came by their enthusiasms naturally. Weighing just under 230 pounds and standing 5’ 7” tall, Tom Johnson was incapable of restraining himself. He was perpetually busy with one ambitious project after another. If he wasn’t inventing a magnetic railway car in his basement, he was developing a trout farm in the countryside , playing golf, or following professional baseball. One of the first people in Cleveland to own an automobile, Johnson liked to careen around the city with more speed than caution. At the end of the day, nothing interested the mayor more than the combination of good food and stimulating conversation. Some people found the 15 192 Tom L. Johnson and Progressive Reform in Cleveland ANDREW R. L. CAYTON  I vantne_3rd_chap15.qxd 11/10/2003 3:32 PM Page 192 TOM L. JOHNSON mayor exhausting. But the young men who joined his administration and visited his home admired him as much for his energetic engagement with the world around him as for his political achievements. Johnson broke the mold of Ohio reformers. Most of the many men and women who had advocated change in the nineteenth century were northerners; either they or their parents were from New England. Most were devout Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Methodists who infused their calls for the improvement of mankind with deep emotional fervor. Viewed from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, Ohio’s nineteenth-century reformers seem humorless at best. Much as we admire their opposition to slavery, their zeal sometimes resembled fanaticism and their insistence on self-discipline a call for repression. For them, the reform of human beings and their surroundings was a moral imperative. If only individuals would choose to control themselves, to learn through education , religion, and self-restraint to behave in a respectable fashion, they would become model citizens interested not simply in their own welfare but in the welfare of the larger political communities of 193 FIG. 11 Tom L. Johnson. Courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society. vantne_3rd_chap15.qxd 11/10/2003 3:32 PM Page 193 which they were members. Ohio’s future depended on the personal morality of its citizens. Tom Johnson also believed in the importance of creating good citizens . Like several U.S. mayors at the turn of the twentieth century, he wanted the people of Cleveland to think of themselves as participants in a larger world that extended far beyond their families and neighborhoods. Johnson worried that corruption and monopoly were destroying the promise of the American dream of a land of relatively equal opportunity for decent white men. But, unlike most nineteenth-century Ohio reformers, Johnson concentrated on economic rather than moral change as the best way to improve the world. Rather than exhort people to make themselves better citizens through self-restraint, Johnson sought to transform the environment in which they lived. The key to reform was the creation of a public world that would attract and sustain the commitment of its members. A Cleveland freed of monopoly and corruption, a Cleveland dotted with public buildings and public parks, a Cleveland famous for museums and music as well as industry and commerce, would be a Cleveland that its citizens would embrace and cherish. While Johnson was only moderately successful in achieving his goals and died shortly after being defeated for reelection in 1907, he embodied an alternative model of reform that anticipated the popularity of less ascetic ideas of twentieth-century American life. Johnson behaved in public as...