OSU Libraries | OSU Home

Introduction

It was called the Age of Reform, a restless, searching, idealistic beginning to a new century. It was a time of progressive politicians and muckraking journalists, who joined forces against ruthless corporate bosses and their bought political allies, and ushered in what publisher Henry Luce later dubbed The American Century, with wars hot and cold, a great economic depression, electronic communications and nuclear nightmares. Throughout the turmoil, progressives would draw on the reservoir of idealism from the moral crusade that was the Progressive Era.

The dominant figure in that period was Theodore Roosevelt, rough-rider, trustbuster, big-game hunter and president of the United States from 1901 to 1909. By 1912, Roosevelt had split with his successor, William Howard Taft, and was mounting an insurgent campaign, pulling his forces from the Republican Party to form the ill-fated Progressive Party. In June of that year, Roosevelt spoke to a large group of five thousand followers in Chicago, on the eve of the Republican National Convention. He closed with a ringing call: "We fight in honorable fashion for the good of mankind; unheeding of our individual fates; with unflinching hearts and undimmed eyes; we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord."

Reflecting at half-century, Charles A. Sprague termed those years the "halcyon period."' Sprague was only a foot soldier in T.R.'s army of progress, but the values Sprague brought to the campaign he maintained throughout his public life. In 1912 Sprague was a local leader of the Progressive Party, and during his long life as editor and politician, even in the period when he was most faithful to the Republican Party, he spoke of T.R. with warmth and of progressive causes with approval. As editor, as governor of Oregon, as alternate delegate to the United Nations and in a host of other roles, he was for over half a century a progressive. Analysts may disagree on the extent of Sprague's influence, but from 1943 to 1969, no Oregon journalist approached his stature. He was continuity in an age of transition, for his values remained rooted in the Progressive Era of Theodore Roosevelt, for whom he cast his first vote. But he was also an agent of change, for his life was one of learning by doing, of education gained through public acts.

Charles A. Sprague was shy and reserved, an introspective man who climbed mountains and hiked wooded trails. He possessed a dry wit and a deep sense of loyalty, but throughout his life, particularly his life in politics, he was described as a cold fish, an aloof intellectual without the gift of small talk. He was a Republican partisan who had no use for many of the party's headline stars, yet for many years he loyally stuck with party regulars whose views were far to the right of his own moderate editorials. He first supported Democrats for state office in 1952, and in 1964 he broke with his party and backed Lyndon B. Johnson for president. Fiercely protective of moderate Republicans in Oregon, Sprague in his later years found little to support at the national GOP level.

Sprague was a man of contrasts. He was at home with Eleanor Roosevelt and Arthur Schlesinger, but he could also talk shop with printers, foresters, and farmers. Capable of deciphering the most complex tax legislation, he also was familiar with crop rotations and commodity prices. A man of deeply held religious beliefs, he opposed adding "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. Teetotaler and prohibitionist, he refused liquor advertising in his newspapers but tolerated without comment hard-drinking associates. As governor, he supported internment of Japanese Americans in World War 11; as editor he became their strongest champion in the fevered climate of their homecoming.

Sprague was one of the last of the progressive editors, a contemporary of Walter Lippmann and a survivor of William Allen White. Lippmann wrote his last "Today and Tomorrow" column in 1967; Sprague's last "It Seems To Me" was in 1968. Sprague was a regional rather than national figure, but he was one of the few progressive editors to succeed, if briefly, in a political career. But it was as an editor that he wished to be remembered, and he was clearly the most influential Oregon editor of the 20th century.

Historians have wrestled with definitions of progressivism, but progressives may be broadly described as men and women of the great American middle class, whose interest was reform rather than revolution, who wanted to recapture the American values that they felt were being eroded by urban crowding and immigration, giant corporations and rising labor militancy, and corrupt political establishments at both the local and national levels. They were believers in the moderate virtues of small-town America, its middle class and its Protestant theology, its fear of bigness and foreign influence.

Progressives were well educated and heavily influenced by both natural and social science, but influenced as well by an evangelistic social gospel prevalent in mainstream Protestant churches. Readers, and often writers, the progressives followed Charles Darwin, William James, and John Dewey, as well as the popular reform journalists of the day, the muckrakers. Sprague was influenced particularly by Darwin, often referring to him later in life; an enthusiastic letter home during college days brought the reply, "I suspect you will be an evolutionist before you have finished the study." Sprague also accepted the social gospel and followed the writings of Elbert Hubbard, a flamboyant evangelist for a strange mixture of radical politics, old-fashioned individualism and the virtues of simple living. Hubbard influenced many progressives, particularly as he spoke against the forces of entrenched privilege.

Progressives believed that government, properly democratized, could be a powerful tool against sloth and sin. Richard Hofstadter found that a distinguishing mark of progressives was activism; "they argued that social evils will not remedy themselves, and that it is wrong to sit by passively and wait for time to take care of them." Carried to extremes, the movement instilled its sense of morality through Prohibition. Sprague remained a prohibitionist all his life, sticking to his position long after the great experiment had proven to be a disaster. But the progressive spirit also supported child labor laws, voting rights for women, and the regulation of monopolies; Sprague also supported these causes.

Inherent in the progressive view was a distrust of big-city corruption, often associated with the Democratic Party and immigrant voting blocs. Sprague was never at home in Portland (certainly one of the tamest of America's big cities), and it cost him his political future. Even as he grew more cosmopolitan in later life, he was not drawn to city life; he had all the amenities he needed in provincial Salem and its nearby mountains and streams.

In the area of race relations and civil rights, however, Sprague moved away from his progressive roots, beyond xenophobic Salem with its lack of racial diversity, and became a crusader for civil rights. Most western progressives were not racist in the Ku Klux Klan sense, but they accepted much of the less-violent discrimination of that time, used racial epithets in conversation and even in newspaper columns, and feared foreign influence other than the northern European stock of their ancestors. Sprague was no exception in these areas, and his discovery of other races is one of the fascinating aspects of his life.

Sprague was also a progressive in his outlook on conservation and environmentalism. A disciple of the progressive forester Gifford Pinchot, Sprague championed forest conservation and as governor passed what was at the time the nation's most progressive forest legislation. Reforestation and state ownership of the charred Tillamook Burn was his legacy, but like Pinchot he accepted a "wise use" view of conservation that was later at odds with the rising tide of protectionism inherent in national wilderness legislation. Historian Samuel P. Hays described the essence of the progressive view of conservation as "rational planning to promote efficient development and use of all natural resources." It was a view Sprague shared. His progressive views adapted to modern conditions, but he did not stray far from a path Pinchot and TR. would have endorsed.

Charles A. Sprague was the last of a breed in more than the progressive sense; he was one of the last of the personal editors, men who owned and edited daily papers and simultaneously sat on the councils that ran their cities, counties and states. By the time of his death in 1969, newspaper chains had entered Oregon, one of the last hold-out s, and both Portland dailies were chain-owned. Sprague distrusted newspaper chains as he distrusted concentrated power in many forms but his heirs sold his newspaper to the nation's largest newspaper group.

Too detached and aloof to be a good politician, Sprague took for his political platform the front-page column "It Seems To Me," which he wrote daily for a quarter-century. Personal journalism in every sense, the column was fueled by Sprague's civic life, whether he was at the United Nations, traveling in France, inspecting a forest nursery or visiting an old political friend. The man branded as too intellectual for politics never wrote down to readers; and he never completely set aside the role of schoolmaster, his first career after college.

The column was required reading for legislators of both parties, of whom it was said, "they waited for Sprague to tell them what they thought." That analysis is overdrawn; Sprague wound up on the losing side of many battles. But his presence could, and did, tip the scales, and to quote him in support was considered an important asset in debate. Sprague, said a contemporary, "had more influence through his column on state government after he was governor, than he ever had as governor." Another remarked that politicians and editors might not have always agreed with Sprague, "but they felt they had to cope with what he said. If those in power have to react to you, right or wrong, you have power."

When Charles A. Sprague died in 1969, only weeks after writing his last front-page column, he was eulogized as the conscience of the state and its outstanding statesman. But the kudos were not always there, and Sprague's struggle to survive as a new publisher in the Depression, his political rejection, and his regret at having abandoned civil liberties under stress were also part of the molding of the statesman and his legend.

Like so many leaders of his generation, Sprague had been immersed in the waters of reform, and throughout his life he was a missionary for the cause. From those formative years there was implanted a fear of big cities, big business, big labor, and political bosses. For most of his career, he associated at least three of these forces with the Democratic Party, and remained a dependable Republican partisan.

His views were formed early and were strongly held. If consistency was their virtue, rigidity could be their vice. Sprague could cling to men and ideas long past their proper hold on his loyalty. He was able to discover virtues in the mundane and weak simply because they adopted the Republican label, a loyalty that was not always reciprocated. He clung to fiscal prudence when elderly widows and shoeless children were in need during the Depression. In two wars, his concern for order and support of authority allowed him to trample the rights of ethnic minorities. Yet at other times he was willing to be a lone voice against the crowd, standing on principle when others were expedient.

The human drama of Sprague's inner conflicts ultimately was revealed in print, for his life and experiences were the gist of his writing. A man who found it hard to meet the eve of a visitor and who could terminate conversations with jarring abruptness, he shared his fears and his delights with thousands of strangers through his writing. The ebb and flow of 53 years of printers' ink turned Sprague into a man who, in the eyes of his colleagues, epitomized the title of his newspaper: The Oregon Statesman. To follow his life is to take a voyage through the politics and journalism of 20th-century Oregon. Sprague's life is in effect the life of a state through Depression, war, and recovery, and into a new era.

Member of AAUP