Freshman Mistake

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On April 7, 1913, Emmett Wilson was sworn in as the youngest representative from Florida’s Third Congressional District, and the youngest congressman in the United States.

Emmett knew that upon taking office, he was expected to resolve several pressing issues, namely:

  • Reopening the Pensacola Naval Station.
  • Procuring funding to renovate the U.S. Customs House in Pensacola.
  • Replacing Internal Revenue Collector and Republican Joe Lee with a Democrat.

Emmett also knew that the party bosses were going to be watching him closely. There were stories that he was too young and inexperienced to get anything done; that he was unreliable — he drank too much, and would disappear for days. This was Emmett’s moment to prove the rumors false.

Of the three main issues before him, the one he could probably resolve quickly was the removal of Joe Lee. But there were a few problems: Woodrow Wilson preferred to allow political appointees from the previous administration to finish their term, and not to boot them unceremoniously, especially if they had been doing a decent job. The state party bosses didn’t care: They wanted a Democrat tax collector ASAP.

The other problem was that Emmett was unknown in Washington. If he was going to be successful removing Joe Lee, he’d have to make his case directly with the political elite. So, why not go directly to the top? The party bosses would be impressed. He’d also show he was comfortable dealing with the Washington, D.C. political elite.

Emmett calls on President Woodrow Wilson literally within hours of being sworn in, to do the bidding of the part bosses. Source: The Pensacola Journal, April 10, 1913, page 1.

Emmett calls on President Woodrow Wilson literally within hours of being sworn in, to do the bidding of the party bosses. Source: The Pensacola Journal, April 10, 1913, page 1.

The last sentence in the clip, above, is important.

According to several articles published in the weeks after Woodrow Wilson was sworn in (on March 4, 1913), the president was quite specific in a message to congress that he was not interested in resolving patronage issues. He said that those wishing to recommend individuals for positions were to go through the proper channels, and wait their turn for review. He was too busy with important matters of state.

Senator Duncan Fletcher. Source: www.old-picture.com

Senator Duncan Fletcher. Source: http://www.old-picture.com

But, our Emmett was anxious and ambitious. I think he missed this directive in the excitement of moving to Washington, D.C., in being feted and congratulated in the weeks leading up to his own swearing-in ceremony.

Literally within hours after being sworn-in, Emmett secured a meeting with Woodrow Wilson to discuss the issues of his district. How he got an appointment so quickly is a good question; I would guess that Senator Duncan Fletcher went to bat for Emmett on this one. I wouldn’t be surprised; Fletcher and Emmett’s father, Dr. Francis C. Wilson, were longtime close friends.

According to another article I have about this meeting, Woodrow listened politely to what Emmett had to say about removing Joe Lee, but the president only gave Emmett a tight-lipped smile, thanked him for visiting him that afternoon, and wished him a good day.

It was as Emmett was ushered out of the Oval Office that it either dawned on him what happened — or, more likely — one of Woodrow Wilson’s aides reminded him (as he was leaving) of the president’s directive regarding patronage requests.

I wonder what it was like for Emmett, walking back to the Cannon House Office Building, kicking himself all the way up Capitol Hill? I’d like to have seen that.

Despite the freshman goof-up, Woodrow Wilson didn’t hold it against Emmett. In fact, he liked Emmett, and used to call him “Cousin Emmett” whenever he visited the White House. (They weren’t related.) Maybe the president thought: “Emmett’s a good man; he’s new. I remember what it was like being the new kid on the block, wanting to make a good impression.”

Hayes Lewis was appointed collector in place of Joe Lee within a few weeks of his meeting with Emmett at the White House.

Lee out, Lewis in. Source: The Pensacola Journal, April 25, 1913, p.1

Lee out, Lewis in. Source: The Pensacola Journal, April 25, 1913, p.1

Joseph E. Lee has an interesting story, and one worthy of a biography. I’ll share his story in the next blog installment.

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