Skip to Top NavigationSkip to ContentSkip to Footer
Ferris State University BulldogFerris State University Logo

My Political Experience

Here and there in different chapters of this book I have made references to politics. The reader will get a better picture of my political activities if I can make a connected story.

When I was principal of the Spencer Academy, 1874, I attended a temperance mass meeting in which the speaker asked all voters to stand who would support in the coming election the prohibition candidate, Mr. Clark, for governor. The majority of the audience made the suggested promise. I presume I was among the number.

As election day approached the campaign became exciting. During my boyhood days I had heard Republican speakers charge the Democrats with most of the drinking. In other words the Republicans belonged to the God and morality party. I was skeptical about the promise made at this political meeting. I told a few of my democratic friends that I intended to vote for the prohibition candidate. Two of this number promised to do likewise. When the election was held just three votes were cast for Mr. Clark. In other words, three Democrats voted the prohibition ticket and not a single normal Republican fulfilled his promise made at the mass meeting. I am aware that I am not worthy of any special commendation for doing this. I recall having taunted them with this proof of their insincerity. Trivial as this illustration is, I have found in my long experience that partisans are loath to step over the political traces.

Ten years passed before I gave any marked attention to politics. In May, 1884, as elsewhere described, I began my long residence in Big Rapids, Michigan. The Mecosta County Democratic convention was held in the village of Mecosta. By chance I was in the village, not as a delegate, on that occasion. I dropped into the convention. My friend William P. Nisbett was the presiding officer. Seeing me enter he at once beckoned me to come forward to the platform to speak to the convention.

From that time on I was known as a radical Democrat. I was frequently invited to speak in villages and rural school houses on the political issues of the Blaine-Cleveland campaign. I did this work without compensation, knowing that my speeches could in no wise further my prospects in organizing and founding a school. There was in the city of Big Rapids and Mecosta County a scarcity of Democrats that made the situation pathetic. It was pure human sympathy that led me to aid the Democrats. Although I was a comparative stranger, my attitude disturbed the Republicans of Big Rapids to a marked degree. They appointed from their number a committee of three to remonstrate with me. The conversation was in substance as follows:

"Mr. Ferris, you came to this city for the purpose of founding a school. Most of your patrons will be Republicans. Can you afford to take an active part in politics as a Democrat?"

I replied by saying, "When I find that your estimate of your fellow townsmen is correct; when I find that simply because I am a Democrat, Republicans will not send their sons and daughters to my school, I will quietly leave Big Rapids and find a more congenial city in which to live and work."

This was not diplomatic language, I admit. No doubt this stand did for ten years affect to no small degree the progress and growth of my school. The Republicans of Big Rapids being intolerant were more or less vindictive. For days and days after this election was held, more or less doubt prevailed as to which candidate had been elected to the presidency. One night the Republicans would be out celebrating the election of Blaine. The next night the Democrats would be marching and yelling their heads off for Cleveland.

In the presidential campaign of 1888 I made very few speeches.

In 1892 the Democrats of my congressional district were unable to find a candidate who was willing to have his name put on the ticket for this high office. It was a foregone conclusion that no Democrat would be elected. It was probably through the influence of my good friend William P. Nisbett that I was nominated.

Without neglecting the Ferris Industrial School, I began a vigorous campaign. There existed in Michigan at that time an organization called the Patrons of Industry and as a party called the Middle of the Road party. This organization endorsed my candidacy. The Ninth Congressional District extended in the form of a shoe string from Grand Traverse County to Gratiot and included both these counties. Mr. John Avery of Greenville was the Republican candidate. In those days candidates traveled a little by rail and largely by the use of horses.

At the end of every week I returned to Big Rapids. Whenever I went to the post office the postmaster, Mr. Charles Crandall, a leading wheel-horse Republican, would remark, "I suppose you have John Avery whipped by this time." After a few repetitions of this greeting I turned on Mr. Crandall saying, "Please inform the chairman of your congressional committee that I am ready to cancel my campaign itinerary to travel with Mr. Avery and conduct a daily joint debate upon the issues of the hour. Furthermore, in order to make my offer an inducement I am willing to allow Mr. Avery to divide the time in joint debate as he chooses. Please accept my offer or forever keep the peace."

The joint debate with L. G. Palmer that followed has already been discussed. From that time the Republicans of Big Rapids treated me with political respect. I then learned for the first time in my life that most people like fair play.

As I anticipated, I was defeated in the election. My only satisfaction was in having performed a civic duty. More than that, I may say that I reduced the normal majority of my opponent Mr. Avery, several thousand. I was also comforted by the fact that the Democrats won in the national election.

In 1896 I was in favor of maintaining the gold standard consequently I made few speeches. I did speak at one meeting in Big Rapids. Dr. Griswold, a Republican in 1884 was now a Bryan Democrat. At this meeting since he discussed the money question, I gave my attention to the other issues. Gold Democrats criticized me severely for supporting Mr. Bryan. My answer was simple. In several Michigan cities I saw during the campaign conspicuously posted, "If Bryan is elected this plant will close down." This form of propaganda angered me. I declared that depriving American citizens of the right to vote for their presidential choice through a dastardly threat was more than I could tolerate. The right to suffrage is far more important than any money policy. For this position I have never been called upon to make an apology.

Politics received little or no attention at my hands during the next eight years. In 1904 the Democrats held their state convention at Grand Rapids. One faction favored the nomination of J. S. Sterns [sic Stearns] of Ludington for Governor. Mr. Stearns was a Republican who had previously held a state office. I do not know on what day or at what hour he became a Democrat. His Democratic supporters felt that the nomination would at least insure a lively, possibly a successful campaign, because they believed that the candidate possessed a barrel of money. I am not attempting an analysis of Mr. Stearn's motives. He may have undergone a sudden conversion to democracy. Such conversions are extraordinarily rare.

Old line Democrats in the convention rebelled. My fellow townsman William P. Nisbett, a delegate, calling me up on the telephone said, "The Democrats are in a hell of a fix; would you accept the nomination for governor?"

I was thunder struck because at no time previous to this conversation had my name been mentioned privately or publicly as a possible candidate for this office. I did the best I could to convince my friend that his request was unreasonable and ridiculous. Mr. Nisbett refused to take "no" for an answer.

I finally said, "If my nomination will result in throwing oil on the troubled waters, go ahead." I hung up the receiver convinced that Mr. Stearns would receive the nomination.

In a few hours a telegram was put into my hands announcing my nomination for Governor. At no time in my life have I been taken so completely off my feet as I was when I received this message.

Permit me to add a word of explanation Mr. Nisbett reported my answer to Daniel S. Davis of Pontiac who presented my name to the convention. I owe this recognition to Mr. Davis one of my life long friends and supporters. For once I faced an experience I never dreamed of.

I was invited to open my campaign on August twenty-third, 1904 in Detroit where I was an absolute stranger, except that I was known by a goodly number of school teachers in that city. Politically I was unheard of. In this campaign my opponent was Fred M. Warner, candidate for reelection. The dominating issue at this time was the state wide primary, which I advocated and Mr. Warner opposed.

I have always believed that the Democrats of Detroit were angry when they called this meeting; possibly they were convinced that the party had made an unpardonable mistake. If they did entertain such an opinion I was sure that they were justified. I never entertained any unkind feelings toward them at any rate.

On August twenty-second, without notifying Detroit Democrats as to the hour I would arrive, Mr. William P. Nisbett accompanied me to Detroit. At the station I was met by my son, Carleton G. Ferris, who was then living in Detroit. He drove me around Belle Isle carefully avoiding putting me in communication with the Democratic committee until time for the arrival of the expected train in the afternoon of the twenty-third. I then discovered that the Democratic mayor, Mr. Mayberry, had telegraphed officials of two railroads, the Michigan Central and Pere Marquette, regarding my presence on either train. Receiving a negative answer he was naturally more or less perturbed. My appearance relieved the tension. I declined his invitation to take dinner with a few select Democrats but did yield to his suggestion that I come to the Armory a few minutes before the hour for the meeting to meet a number of notables. I took dinner with my son, Carleton, Mr. Nisbett and Frank Reed a former student and one of my most ardent supporters in this remarkable campaign.

According to promise I was at the Armory in time to meet the old time Detroit politicians of my party. To my surprise the Armory was filled with one of the most appreciative audiences I ever addressed. The Honorable Don M. Dickinson was the presiding officer. The program had apparently been arranged with reference to a possible partial failure on my part to make good.

After the usual preliminaries I was introduced. On this occasion I used no manuscript, just a brief outline of my carefully prepared address. Before me I saw three reporters representing the three leading newspapers of the city. I was terrified, yes, paralyzed for the time being. I was convinced that for me it was "make or break". I recall my words of introduction: "Fellow Democrats, I am aware that your presence here is due to curiosity. You are wondering what kind of an animal has been caught in the woods of Mecosta County to represent you in this campaign. Let me assure you that my curiosity as to the kind of Democrats living in Wayne County equals yours." Fortunately for me hundreds of my former students had collected in the gallery, and their thundering applause gave me the assurance I so much needed. This address was published in full in all of the Detroit papers and made the backbone of the Democratic campaign book. I had achieved an unanticipated victory in my opening speech.

This was my first statewide campaign. I drove myself into the arena. Speech making has been the terror of my whole life. Few of my acquaintances will believe this, but I wish to assure the reader that I am a competent witness. So far as possible I avoided picnics and county fairs. I traveled chiefly by rail because Democrats could not afford to buy automobiles, much less rent them. In one or two instances I traveled with other associate candidates by special train. This was very exhausting because I have always found open air speaking exceedingly difficult. The press of Michigan is overwhelmingly Republican, consequently all of my publicity was adverse. A few of the leading papers were lukewarm in their support of Governor Warner. Roosevelt-Ferris clubs were formed in several cities of the state.

My greatest asset was the loyal and militant support of twenty thousand ex-Ferris students scattered about the state. They were under the supervision and direction of Frank A. Reed of Detroit. Since the majority of these students were Republicans, their support was invaluable. The girls in particular exerted a powerful influence because they commanded one or more sweethearts, besides leading father and brothers to the ballot box.

In November, Roosevelt carried the state by 210,000 majority and my opponent was elected, notwithstanding he ran behind his ticket 167,000.

In 1908 I attended the Democratic national convention at Denver. I was again tendered the nomination for governor. I declined the honor. Probably I would have been elected because Lawton T. Heamans [sic Hemans], the Democratic candidate, was defeated by less than 10,000 votes. Mr. Heamans [sic Hemans] was a real statesman and worthy of the high position, but he did not have a large student body to support him.

In 1912 I attended the Democratic national convention at Baltimore. On my way to the convention I was asked if I would again accept a nomination for governor. I said, "I would, under certain conditions." I declined to name the conditions. In my own mind I had decided to accept provided Woodrow Wilson received the nomination for president. In the primary I was nominated for governor. My campaign was strenuous to the last degree. I had practically the same support that I had in 1904. Conditions were more favorable because the split in the Republican party induced the Progressives to nominate Whitney Watkins for governor.

I was elected by a plurality slightly less than 25,000. Since I was the only Democrat elected on the state ticket, and both houses in the legislature were Republican, I had no opportunity to secure very much constructive legislation.

In 1914 I was nominated to succeed myself. Honorable Charles [sic Chase] S. Osborn, who was governor of Michigan in 1911 and 1912, was the Republican candidate, and Henry R. Pattingill [sic Pattengill] the Progressive candidate. Several Republican newspapers advocated my election. This was my third statewide campaign. I was elected by a plurality of 35,000.

In the new legislature there were very few Progressives and Democrats. The Republicans were manfully courteous, but they never hesitated to ride rough-shod over any veto I might choose to make.

In January, 1917, after attending the inauguration of my successor, Mr. Albert Sleeper, I returned to my post, the Ferris Institute.

In 1920 against my own best judgment, I accepted the nomination for governor. I said to my Democratic friends. "There isn't even a possibility of my election. The morning after Woodrow Wilson's second victory a wave of hatred swept over the nation. This hatred is now vindictive and will secure an overwhelming Republican victory. Northern Democrats, myself included, will go down to defeat." My prophesy came true. Even hundreds of thousands who had been benefited by Wilson's two administrations deserted James Cox on election day. It was then claimed and is now claimed that the League of Nations was the issue. I believe that a careful analysis of the vote shows that this conclusion is erroneous. Michigan gave Mr. Harding a majority of 524,000 and my opponent, Mr. Alex Grossbeck [sic Groesbeck], a majority of 390,000. This, like all of my preceding campaigns, taxed my strength to the utmost. I was prepared for defeat.

In this campaign the Newberry scandal presented itself. After a long drawn out contest in the United States Senate, Mr. Newberry was seated. In 1922 a Senator had to be elected to succeed Mr. Charles Townsend. In the primary there were three Republican candidates Charles Townsend, Patrick Kelly, and Herbert F. Baker. I was the only candidate on the Democratic side. Mr. Townsend won in the primary, in spite of the fact that his associate candidates assailed him for supporting Newberry.

I entered upon my campaign, making Newberryism the dominating issue. For me it was an experiment in determining the value of a moral issue in politics. I did not, at any time in the campaign, entertain hope in election. It was an "off year" in Michigan, an overwhelmingly Republican state, and the Democrats had very limited funds for carrying on a militant campaign. After I had been speaking for a fortnight even Democrats advised me not to hammer so hard on Newberryism. I gave no heed to this recommendation. Mr. Townsend had condemned himself by voting for the Willis resolution in the Senate. This, probably the most remarkable resolution that ever came before the United States Senate, condemned Newberryism and yet its supporters unhesitatingly voted to seat Mr. Newberry.

I was fortunate in having the full support of the Detroit Evening News. Without the Willis resolution I could not have been elected; without the support of the News I could not have been elected.

In this campaign my opponents resorted to every possible device in order to elect Mr. Townsend. My advanced age was paraded in the newspapers; Mr. Townsend was my junior by two and one-half years. A Republican speaker went so far as to say that I had one foot in the grave; I then asked, "Whose grave?" Further objections were not advanced as to my age.

Then the Republicans resorted to the reactionary slogan, "Vote the Republican ticket straight." When this foolish recommendation was made I did not think that there might be a possibility of my election.

However, I was elected by a majority of 18,000.