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Fall 1997, Volume 14.3



Leonard Schlup

William H. King and the Question of League Membership

Leonard Schlup (Ph.D., U of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne) is an independent historian, who has published numerous articles in historical and political science journals such as
Presidential Studies, South Atlantic Quarterly, Ohio History, and Illinois Historical Quarterly. He is currently working on a book on (Grover Cleveland's) Vice President, Adlai E. Stevenson.


William H. King (1863-1949), United States senator from Utah from 1917 to 1941 and one of the founders of the Democratic party in the Beehive State, supported United States participation in the League of Nations. He was one of President Woodrow Wilson's allies in the great struggle to redefine for America its place in post-World War I foreign affairs. In this endeavor, King was more practical and realistic in 1919 and 1920 than the president in predicting the obstacles to securing Senate ratification of the Versailles peace treaty and the League of Nations. Pleading with his Senate colleagues not to be misled by prejudice or dwarfed by partisan bias, King, who sponsored clarifying amendments to the covenant, displayed a wise and moderate attitude on a controversial subject. His role in that debate constituted an important phase in his political career.

King's background had well-prepared him to serve as Utah's senator for twenty-four years. Born in Fillmore, Millard County, Utah, King, a son of early Utah pioneers and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, attended Brigham Young University and the University of Utah. After serving as a church missionary in Great Britain from 1880 to 1883, he returned to Utah where he held various city and county offices, which launched a political career that lasted fifty-five years. He subsequently earned a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1887. King began practicing law in Fillmore, but relocated to Provo, where he formed a partnership with Samuel R. Thurman and George Sutherland, the former later becoming chief justice of Utah and the latter a senator and justice of the United States Supreme Court. A member for three years of the Territorial council, the upper house of the legislature, King was one of the sponsors of "sagebrush democracy" which evolved into the Democratic party of Utah. President Grover Cleveland appointed him associate justice of the Utah Supreme Court, in which capacity he served from 1894 to 1896, then Utah entered the Union and King became associated with Arthur Brown and P. Henderson in a practice in Salt Lake City. In 1897, King went to Washington as Utah's representative-at-large to the Fifty-fifth Congress. His unsuccessful attempt to enter the Senate in 1898 prevented him from seeking renomination to the House, but two years later he won an election to fill the seat vacated by Brigham H. Roberts. King held this position for a year, being defeated in an era of

Republican ascendancy in his bid for the office in 1900 and 1902 and for the United States Senate in 1905 and 1909. After the adoption of a constitutional amendment providing for election of senators by popular vote, King succeeded in his ambition to represent Utah in the Senate. He was elected in 1916 and re-elected in 1922, 1928, and 1934.1

King's election to the Senate in 1916 coincided with Wilson's re-election as president. As a senator, King gained fame for his extemporaneous speaking ability and for his interest in foreign affairs. He strongly supported President Wilson during the First World War and warmly welcomed the president's decision to participate in the Paris peace conference in 1919. Various Republican senators, including Lawrence Y. Sherman of Illinois, not only condemned the exclusion of members of the upper house and prominent Republicans from the American peace commission but also assailed the secret diplomacy at the Paris conference. King quickly defended the president. "There is a real difference," he explained, "between preliminary talk and actual discussion upon the peace terms. I do not think the position of the President in favor of open negotiations and his opinion as to secret diplomacy would prevent preliminary conversations between representatives at the Peace Conference. I do not see how it would be possible to proceed in an orderly way and reach concrete and definite results within a reasonable time without preliminary discussion and quasi negotiations between all, or a part, of the delegates" (New York Times 17 Jan. 1919).

After a careful reading of the provisions of the covenant to establish a League of Nations, King joined several colleagues in expressing initial skepticism over certain features but guarded optimism as to the outcome. Senators individually combed the document, pointing out weaknesses and strengths. Like Republican Senator Harry S. New of Indiana, King at first entertained doubts that the proposal might adversely affect the Monroe Doctrine which had been a cardinal aspect of American foreign policy and nationalism since 1823. Adamantly opposed to sacrificing this diplomatic framework toward Latin America, King in February, 1919, issued his first public statement on the League. "The American people," he observed, "are never going to abandon the Monroe Doctrine. They never are going to abdicate any of their sovereign rights. In my opinion, the Sermon on the Mount, the Ten Commandments, and the Monroe Doctrine are good enough for them. Even a cursory reading of the document reveals any grave dangers" (NYT 16 Feb. 1919). King agreed with Senator Hoke Smith, a Georgia Democrat, that the Senate needed more time to analyze the document and listen to Wilson's arguments in favor of the world organization .

So concerned was King by March over the proposed League that he sent to Wilson at Paris a revised draft of the covenant for a League of Nations in which he embodied four amendments that represented the changes he wanted before he could endorse the pact. Because King had generally been regarded as a strong supporter of Wilson's administration and wartime measures, this action clearly foreshadowed the problems the president would endure over the League project. Wanting to guarantee the sanctity of the Monroe Doctrine and prevent outside interference with the nation's immigration policy, King sought to relieve the fear of the League opponents, on the one hand, and assist Wilson in clarifying matters for peace, on the other. It was a shrewd gamble. In fact, King believed so firmly in his amended draft that, in addition to forwarding the text to Wilson, he announced plans to journey to Paris to persuade the president and others to adopt his idea.

In his redraft of the covenant, Senator King attempted to simplify the original draft. His four amendments provided that the Monroe Doctrine would not be impaired, that member nations of the League would acknowledge that the scope of the covenant would not include the proper domestic, internal, and national policy of any nation, that nations entering the League could, after ten years from ratification of the covenant, and upon one year's notice, withdraw from the League, and that the League covenant would take effect upon ratification by the five nations specifically represented in the Executive Council and by four other countries. King delineated each matter in detail and emphasized that the League must acknowledge the principal purpose of the Monroe Doctrine and give to the nation of the Western Hemisphere the primary duty in executing the measures of the League in that region (NYT 22 Mar. 1919). King's proposals deserved attention, but they failed to dissuade the rigid isolationist stand of those who vehemently opposed the League. Nor was Wilson eager to accept advice from those outside his inner circle. In any event, by the end of March, King had become convinced that ultimately sufficient safeguards would be expressed or implied in the covenant to overcome his objections. He canceled his plans for a European sojourn, endorsed the League, and hoped those unreconciled senators would change their views (NYT 22 Mar. 1919).

The Senate, having a constitutional obligation to approve or reject treaties, divided into four groups on the League issue in 1919 and 1920. First, the pro-League senators and supporters of Wilson, headed by Senate minority leader Gilbert M. Hitchcock of Nebraska, favored United States participation in the League to resolve international disputes and promote peace. King belonged to this group. Second, the mild reservationists, such as Senator Frank B. Kellogg of Minnesota, were willing to accept the treaty with minor alterations and clarifications. Third, the strong reservationists would approve the treaty only with major amendments to protect American interests and traditional policies, thereby proposing certain nullifications far beyond those suggested by King. Their leader was Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and majority leader. Fourth, the sixteen senators who advocated complete rejection of the covenant were known as the irreconcilables, among whom were William E. Borah of Idaho, Hiram W. Johnson of California, and Robert M. LaFollette of Wisconsin.

King participated in the Senate debates on the League during the summer and fall of 1919. On October 3, he delivered a brief discourse on the topic. Endeavoring to reassure the irreconcilables and strong reservationists that he too would not support a treaty that created a "supergovernment" or one that permitted interference with American internal affairs, King stated his conviction that their fears were groundless in that regard. "While I am not satisfied with many of the provisions of the treaty," he confessed, "and while I regard some provisions as very objectionable, I have been able to reach the conclusion that under all the circumstances it would be best for our country and for the world for our Nation to approve it" (Cong. Rec. 3 Oct. 1919: 6332). He added that with the overthrow of autocracy and with the departure of absolutism in the world, the side of humanity would rise. Caught in the euphoria of the time and succumbing to Wilson's wartime passion to make the world safe for democracy, King allowed his idealism momentarily to outweigh his realism.

On November 7, King again spoke to his Senate colleagues on the League of Nations, which Wilson had made an indissoluble part of the Treaty of Versailles. While making his remarks that day, King engaged in periodic debates over the fine tuning of the League with Senator Borah and Missouri Senator James A. Reed, a Democratic irreconcilable. They sought, for example, to distinguish differences between legal documents imposing contractual obligations upon individuals on the one hand, and treaties between a number of nations, on the other. King also affirmed his belief that there "must be either an acceptance of the entire instrument or a repudiation of the entire instrument." Accordingly, "if any of the provisions in the treaty are susceptible of any misconstruction, so far as possible we ought to eliminate the possibility of such misconstruction" (Cong. Rec. 7 Nov. 1919: 806373).2

On November 19, 1919, twelve days after King's speech, the Senate voted on the treaty. King arrived early at the Capitol that day. He had heard the irreconcilables inveigh against the document, and after studying the Lodge reservations, he had gone on record at that time in favor of the treaty without reservations. King no doubt knew the outcome even before the tally began that morning . The Senate rejected the treaty in three tests on November 19. First, on the question of ratification with reservations, the senators voted 39 in favor to 55 against. Next, a second vote occurred on the same question, revived by a motion to reconsider. This time the result was 41 to 50. Third, on the question of ratification without reservations, the outcome was 38 to 53, falling far short of the two-thirds vote necessary to approve treaties.3 The Anti-Leaguers had scored an overwhelming triumph over the Pro-Leaguers, including King, who voted with the League Democrats each time.

Nearly a month after the Senate vote, King fashioned a set of compromise proposals that he submitted to Senator Charles L. McNary of Oregon and other mild reservationists. Knowing that this group held the key to the successful ratification of the treaty, King wisely patterned his resolutions upon Senator Lodge's program. In doing this, he turned away from those unyielding Democrats who blindly followed Wilson's adamant stand against compromise. King reluctantly concluded that Wilson, an embittered man, had become a polarizing president. For this reason, King, pursuing a policy of all to gain and nothing to lose, relied upon his judgment and his firmness of conviction that the League was more important than any one person.

The King plan involved several alterations. One dealt with changes in the wording of the preamble regarding the acceptance of the reservations by the members of the League. Another called for more explicit definitions relating to the Monroe Doctrine so that nothing in the covenant or the treaty would impair the doctrine, which in no way would come within the League's jurisdiction. King aimed his other major reservation directly at the controversial tenth article of the covenant, which pledged member nations to preserve and guarantee the political independence and territory of all members under attack from external aggression. Seeking middle ground on this vexatious subject, King, without either acknowledging that an obligation existed nor denying it, proposed that any future binding duty would not become effective until Congress had passed upon the question.4

King's reservations met with a chilly reception from mild reservationists and Wilsonians. The former contended that King had not gone far enough while the latter accused him of betrayal. McNary ignored the Utah senator that his proposal on Article X dodged the fundamental issue of the obligation. He suggested that King tighten the wording so that any refusal of Congress to accept the advice of the League on Article X would not become a violation of the treaty. While King pondered his next move, Lodge conferred with Senator Atlee Pomerene of Ohio, a leading Democratic advocate of compromise.5

Senator King's enthusiasm for compromise accelerated in January, 1920, when William Jennings Bryan, the former Democratic presidential nominee and secretary of state, broke with Wilson on the treaty issue. At a Jackson Day dinner in Washington, Bryan urged that the treaty be kept out of politics. He also argued that the treaty should be ratified without delay and that Democratic senators should be willing to compromise to achieve the outcome. Bryan's speech at the Jackson Day dinner on January 8 counterpoised Wilson's letter the previous day in which the president declared that the Senate must not alter the treaty's meaning. The president's unbending stand stiffened the lines of the Lodge reservationists, but Bryan's concessionary stance opened the door or more Democrats to join King, Bryan, and the apostles of accommodation.6

Like Bryan and Senator Henry L. Myers, a Montana Democrat, King maintained that it would be a great mistake to make the treaty a party issue either in the Senate or in the approaching presidential campaign. Fearing that Wilson had a fight on his hands that could break the ranks of Democrats, King wanted quick action. He clearly sensed more accurately than Wilson the temper of both the party and the country (Bailey 221). Blaming neither Wilson nor Republicans for the stalemate, King pleaded with his colleagues to take a decisive and definitive position. "A solemn obligation rests on the Senate to dispose of the treaty," he said, "which is still an issue of transcendent importance. The country is stirred as seldom before, and the question of ratification grips the people of every section by reason of the important issues involved. The obligation rests on us now to take the treaty from the table and proceed with consideration of the ratification resolution. There ought to be prompt and speedy action, for conditions in Europe and the world demand it" (NYT 9 Jan. 1920).

After lecturing his colleagues in January, King offered one final substitute proposal in February in an endeavor to find some common ground between Lodge's terms and Hitchcock's plans. This interpretive amendment provided for an understanding that the League would not possess the jurisdiction, authority, or power "over the proper domestic, internal or national policy of any member of the League" and that the United States would not submit "to arbitration or to consideration" any question "which in its judgment is a question within its domestic jurisdiction and sovereignty" (NYT 28 Feb. 1920). King's suggestion went nowhere. The hour was late, and the time had arrived for another tabulation.

The fourth and final vote on the treaty took place on March 19, 1920. A substantial majority favored approval with reservations, but they fell seven votes short of the necessary two-thirds margin needed for ratification. By a vote of 49 to 35, the Senate defeated the treaty. Ironically, a combination of Wilsonians and irreconcilables found themselves on the same side as they voted against the covenant with reservations. This time King joined twenty other Democrats who voted to accept the treaty with the Lodge reservations.7 Other western Democrats who put country above Wilson included John F. Nugent of Idaho, James D. Phelan of California, Henry F. Ashurst of Arizona, Key Pittman of Nevada, Charles B. Henderson of Nevada, Thomas J. Walsh of Montana, and John B. Kendrick of Wyoming. These men were more willing to compromise and accept reservations than were southern Democrats. King's Republican senatorial colleague from Utah, Reed Smoot, voted with King and most Republicans to approve the Lodge resolution of ratification (See Merrill).

A disappointed Wilson hoped to recover from his paralytic stroke, suffered in the autumn of 1919, and seek an unprecedented third term in 1920, hoping for a solemn referendum on the League.8 He was not seriously considered for the nomination, which went to Governor James M. Cox of Ohio, who favored American membership in the League. The Republican presidential candidate, Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio, fudged the international issue but spoke vaguely of an international association of nations to prevent war. Impartial observers distinguished few differences between the two Ohio newspaper editors who were seeking the presidency. "I understand the perplexity of your friends between two such candidates as Cox & Harding. I am glad not to have to make the choice," James Bryce, a British historian and statesman, wrote to James Ford Rodes, an American historian.9

Harding's landslide victory on November 2, 1920, reinstated the Republicans in the White House. The new president promptly abandoned all endeavors to have the United States enter the League, stating his personal view that nothing could be stamped with more finality than American nonparticipation in the world body.10 The dream of Wilson and King crumbled in the ashes of overwhelming electoral defeat.

King and Wilson emerged in 1919 and 1920 as two prominent Democratic politicians inextricably caught in the panorama of a great transformation in the nation. Wilson failed to translate his ideals for American involvement in international affairs into reality. He sustained defeat not only because of internal opposition, but also because of his misunderstanding of the modern world. The president tried to internationalize Americans too quickly. His impracticality and intransigence only compounded the dilemma for himself, his party, and the nation. Distracted by fantasies about making a peaceable kingdom from a violent and divisive postwar world, Wilson experienced great difficulty reconciling his visionary altruistic instincts with the realities of human hatred and brutality. There existed within the chief executive and in King a tug of war between altruism and pragmatism, but King displayed a better balance of pragmatic realism in the distended society of 1919 and 1920.11

King recognized that the League debate represented a pivotal episode in American history. He witnessed in the Senate one of the most important foreign policy initiatives ever undertaken in the upper chamber. Unlike the irreconcilables, King had never overlooked the fact that the long peace after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, not a strict adherence to isolationism, had enabled Americans to abstain from European conflicts for a century. But like Wilson, King at times was too optimistic about the possibilities of the League. United States membership in that organization would not have prevented the horrors of the 1930s; those catastrophes had their roots in the treaty, not in the League. King and others in the end were trapped in the fervor of the times, which culminated with postwar disillusionment and conservative retrenchment in the 1920s. The role that King played in the fight for America's participation in the League of Nations constituted one important part in the long career of a fascinating figure in Utah history.12



1Salt Lake Tribune 28 Nov. 1949, 1 Dec. 1949; New York Times 28 Nov. 1949; Mormon Democrat 220-21; Hauptman.

2See also William H. King to Woodrow Wilson. 1 Nov. 1919, Wilson Papers.

3NYT 20 Nov. 1919; SLT 20 Nov. 1919.

4NYT 30 Dec. 1919; Desert Evening News 30 Dec. 1919; SLT30 Dec. 1919; and King to Wilson, 30 Dec 1919, Wilson Papers.

5NYT 30 Dec. 1919; Atlee Pomerene to Wilson, 28 Nov. 1919, Wilson Papers; Elihu Root to Henry Cabot Lodge, 1 Dec. 1919, Lodge to Pomerene, 30 Dec. 1919, and Lodge to Albert J. Beveridge, 3 Jan. 1920, Henry Cabot Lodge Papers.

6NYT 9 Jan. 1920; Gilbert M. Hitchcock to William Jennings Bryan, 30 Nov. 1919, William Jennings Bryan Papers; Bryan to Hitchcock, 14 Jan. 1920, Gilbert M. Hitchcock Papers; and Hitchcock to Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, 5 Jan. 1920, Wilson Papers.

7NYT 20 Mar. 1920; Boston Transcript 20 Mar. 1920; Baltimore Sun 20 Mar. 1920; DEN 20 Mar. 1920; and SLT 20 Mar. 1920 . Also, Hitchcock to Wilson, 20 Mar. 1920 and King to Wilson 25 Mar. 1920, Wilson Papers.

8See Wimer, "Woodrow Wilson's Plan" 279-93, "Woodrow Wilson and a Third Nomination" 193-211; and Bagby.

9James Bryce to James F. Rhodes, 8 Nov. 1920, James Ford Rhodes Papers.

10Warren G. Harding to Frederick Gillett, 30 Aug. 1920, Warren G. Harding Papers; Lodge to Harding, 10 Nov. 1920, Lodge Papers, and William Allen White to Ray Stannard Baker, 28 Dec. 1920, William Allen White Papers.

11Numerous book and articles have been written on the United States and the League of Nations controversy. See Fleming, Knock, and Ambrosius.

12In a letter to the author dated 1 Dec. 1994, former Congressman David S. King of Utah, son of Senator King, wrote about his father and the League debate: "He did, indeed, immerse himself in that firestorm of controversy with the enthusiasm of a true believer, butthe immediate post-war isolationist backlash killed the League, as far as the United States was concerned, even thoughthe seeds were sown which made possible, ultimately, the creation of the more effective United Nations." Some of Senator King's correspondence, letters, campaign materials, and miscellaneous items may be found in various manuscript collections. The largest holdings are in the papers of Karl V. King, a nephew of the senator. See also William H. King, Speeches. Senator King's stand during the New Deal period is another aspect of his political career that merits scholarly assessment.


Works Cited

Ambrosius, Lloyd E. Woodrow Wilson and the American Diplomatic Tradition: The Treaty Fight in Perspective. New York: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Bagby, Wesley M. The Road to Normalcy: The Presidential Campaign and Election of 1920. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1962.

Bailey, Thomas A. Woodrow Wilson and the Great Betrayal. Chicago: Quadrangle, 1963.

William Jennings Bryant Papers. Division of Manuscripts. Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Cong. Rec. 1919.

Fleming, Denna Frank. The United States and the League of Nations, 19181920. New York: Putnam, 1932.

Gilbert M. Hitchcock Papers. Division of Manuscripts, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Warren G. Harding Papers. Ohio Historical Society, Columbus, OH.

Hauptman, Lawrence M. "Utah's Anti-Imperialist: Senator William H. King and Haiti, 19211934." Utah Historical Quarterly 41 (1973): 11627.

King, David S. Letter to the author. 1 Dec. 1994.

Karl V. King Papers. Marriott Special Collections Department, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT.

William H. King. Speeches 19211940. Department of Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.

Knock, Thomas J. To End All War: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.


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