How did a sculptor with neo-Confederate leanings find a home in one of the twentieth century’s most influential liberal salons?

How did a sculptor with neo-Confederate leanings find a home in a leading liberal salon? Gutzon Borglum in his studio, 1910 (Library of Congress)

The House of Truth: A Washington Political Salon and the Foundations of American Liberalism
Brad Snyder
Oxford University Press, 2017, 811 pp.

Gutzon Borglum, a middle-aged sculptor of modest reputation, liked to dominate the imaginations of others. Once in 1918, after dinner in a Washington, D.C. row house, where the guests included the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Borglum “pushed not only his plates, but his next-door neighbor’s plates into the center of the table.” The liberal lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who recalled the dinner in his Reminiscences, added that Borglum “then began to draw on our white tablecloth.” What he drew, “to the great excitement of Mr. Justice Holmes and everybody else,” was his new project: an enormous bas-relief to be carved into the face of Stone Mountain in Georgia, which would memorialize the leaders of the Confederacy. Frankfurter and Holmes were excited by the sculpture’s scale, but Borglum could barely contain himself. “If I can create this memorial in America,” he told his wife Mary in a monomaniacal moment, “I will do the greatest possible service to the Heart and Soul of this great part of America and will do the most important service to the honest belief in greatness and our place in great annals of this world that has been undertaken or done.”

Brad Snyder’s The House of Truth is a history of the house that Borglum sometimes dominated, and the setting seems a surprising place to find such enthusiasm for the Confederacy. For the house in question was a leading liberal salon, which Frankfurter and others established after Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 campaign for the presidency, and which Holmes, with dubiously successful irony, called “the House of Truth.” Snyder’s central argument is that “the House of Truth built a professional network that shaped the foundations of American liberalism,” and his book is populated by the various luminaries who called it home over a vibrant two decades, including the journalist Walter Lippmann and the poet-bureaucrat Robert Valentine.

Here, “American liberalism” is mostly a matter of group biography, and Snyder does not delve deeply into the writings of his protagonists (the readings of Frankfurter’s jurisprudence or Lippmann’s political thought cannot be called new). Nor does Snyder engage closely with the large secondary literature on the ideological content of liberalism in the early twentieth century, beyond identifying it with a belief in state power, an emphasis on expertise, and a concern for civil liberties. But the book does detail a sprawling network of liberal elites, and, among other things, the network sheds new light on the relationship between neo-Confederate politics and American liberalism in the early twentieth century. For the figure who comes to haunt The House of Truth is Borglum, who hardly features in existing accounts of American liberalism.

Borglum lived hundreds of miles from Washington on a large Connecticut estate he called “Borgland,” and cared little for politics before 1912. But Roosevelt’s presidential campaign resonated with his sensibility and introduced him to the House of Truth, through which he was able to meet leading figures in the Wilson administration and to argue about military preparedness during the First World War. After the war Borglum returned to the Confederate memorial on Stone Mountain and began working with the Ku Klux Klan, which had been revived on the mountain, and which partly funded the memorial. Borglum may or may not have worn a white hood himself, but, as John Taliaferro’s 2004 biography of him shows, “he attended Klan rallies, served on Klan committees, and endeavored to play peacemaker in several Klan leadership disputes.” He grew close to (and borrowed money from) D. C. “Steve” Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of Indiana, who provided some of the patronage necessary for carving the head of Robert E. Lee into Stone Mountain; Borglum announced himself “very very happy” upon its unveiling. But presidential politics had grown vexing in the meantime, and he lamented the lack of “A SANE CLEAN ANGLO SAXON PROGRESSIVISM” in the 1924 election. After a dispute with the Klan about money, Borglum was fired from the memorial committee in February 1925.

It is striking that Borglum does not disappear from The House of Truth after the Confederate memorial episode. Indeed, when in the late 1920s Frankfurter turns the executions of the Italian-American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti into a liberal cause célèbre, it is Borglum who makes the bas-relief in their memory. “Fear not,” he tells Frankfurter in 1928, “I will take up the cause. . . . I will do anything I can to make the martyrdom of these men a burning, living protest against the injustice practiced in the name of modern jurisprudence!” Borglum’s sculpture then gets unveiled at a ceremony featuring contributions from professors at Harvard and Columbia, editors of the Nation and the New Republic, and novelists from Europe. “We are profoundly moved by the work you have done,” they tell him. “The symbolism is perfect.” No one seems to mind that he had recently attended rallies about cleansing America of immigrants and anarchists. Snyder doesn’t see much incongruity either, and prefers to portray Borglum as a maverick among the liberal elite: “one of the oddest yet most compelling figures in American history.”

More implicitly than explicitly, then, Snyder shows how the upper echelons of American liberalism have long been able to accommodate and even celebrate nationalists who pal around with white supremacists. As The House of Truth proceeds and its dinner parties mount, it becomes clearer and clearer that Borglum thrived in an environment that rewarded brash male sociability and defiant pronouncements about the political scene. “He had the eloquence and the attractiveness of not qualifying his speech,” reminisced Frankfurter, “none of the whereases, aforesaids, and howevers—no buts in his speech. It was all clear, black and white, passionate, uncompromising.” Borglum could raise eyebrows, and Frankfurter spoke of “his—what shall I say—exciting imagination.” But he occasioned little opposition at the House of Truth. The liberals knew he was a bit of a fraud, but few in Washington were innocent of self-promotion, and, in the end, they thought he was fun. They liked Borglum, liked to gossip about him, and liked to advance his career.

The House of Truth thus raises a question: are the foundations of American liberalism defined by white cultural nationalism, or were these liberals simply susceptible to Borglum’s charismatic narcissism? Snyder’s emphasis on group biography suggests the latter, and his evasion of more substantive intellectual history makes the former hard to assess here. But the answer is surely some combination of both. In the early twentieth century (and not only then), many of the leading lights of American liberalism preferred to avoid talking about race and to distance themselves from more conservative strands of nationalism. At the same time, they premised their politics on the idea that progressive reform could only be achieved through the institutions and culture of the national democracy. So their liberalism was fraught, seeking to embrace an acceptable version of American nationalism while avoiding the implications of American racism. In this context, the “new nationalism” of Roosevelt’s 1912 campaign could serve as a vehicle for sundry liberal hopes and progressive policies, while also appealing to Borglum’s much starker argument that “we have our own story, we ought to write it in our monuments, and when we do not we are lying.”

This argument culminated in the largest monument to American nationalism ever made: Mount Rushmore. Soon after being fired from the Confederate Memorial in Georgia, and just before he made the bas-relief for Sacco and Vanzetti, Borglum began to carve four presidents into the Black Hills of South Dakota. He explicitly chose “a group of the Empire Makers”: George Washington (“the founder”), Thomas Jefferson (“the first expansionist”), Abraham Lincoln (“the savior”), and Theodore Roosevelt (“who completed commercial control by securing Panama”). Their faces emerged slowly, with the construction dependent on bits of New Deal money and lots of hustling from Borglum. In Georgia, some tried to get him back for the memorial on Stone Mountain, but they didn’t succeed, and Borglum died in 1941.

Snyder, then, shows that the figure who designed America’s largest Confederate Memorial and was not only the person most responsible for Mount Rushmore, but can also be placed on the margins of an emerging liberal tradition. Yet The House of Truth does little with these facts. Snyder concedes that “both the House of Truth and Mount Rushmore had dark sides,” even as they “created legacies that are worth celebrating.” But beyond invoking the belief “that government was good,” he does not really specify what these legacies might be. And despite acknowledging that his characters “often neglected issues of race,” Snyder offers few resources for understanding how this might relate to those aspects of American liberalism he wants to celebrate. In the end, the book spends more time chronicling the lives of liberal heroes than analyzing the content of their thought. “Whatever the ideology of those associated with it,” writes Snyder in the final paragraph, “the people at the House of Truth were dreamers. . . . They believed that if they worked hard and dreamed big, they could make lasting contributions to our nation’s history.”

Reading The House of Truth, it’s hard to avoid the sense that Snyder wrote for a world in which liberal elites continued to shape American history through the presidency of Hillary Clinton and into the years beyond. We learn that Franklin Roosevelt also had his “2 a.m. courage” questioned in a national election, and that only Merrick Garland waited longer than Louis Brandeis for a committee hearing after his Supreme Court nomination. Yet it is doubtful that liberal salons matter much in Washington today. Meanwhile, the presence of someone like Borglum in the history of American liberalism is vexing. His narcissism and his nationalism, moreover, continue to shape the culture of American democracy. Millions of citizens visit Mount Rushmore every year, and they look up at faces that seem both terribly great and somehow blank.

Tom Arnold-Forster is a research fellow in history at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

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