Charles R. Crane and Wilsonian Progressivism

by Zacharie Leclair (Author)
Monographs XVIII, 328 Pages


This book presents a study of the career of Charles R. Crane, a central player in President Woodrow Wilson’s entourage. In the wake of the U.S. intervention in the Great War, Crane participated in important diplomatic and fact-finding missions. Leclair follows Crane through revolutionary Russia and on the Western front, in the emerging countries born out of the Ottoman Empire, and then in postwar China. In the process, Leclair’s book offers original insights into some of the major domestic and international decisions that define Wilson’s presidency and its legacy in the history of the United States and of international relations, most notably Wilson’s motivation and effort to bring about a new world order under American political and moral leadership. Leclair convincingly portrays Crane as a proponent of the principle of self-determination –one, indeed, whose aversion to colonialism predated Wilson’s international vision as formulated in his Fourteen Points. While a convergence of reform interest and humanitarian concerns brought Crane and Wilson together on some of the most complex issues of the time, Crane’s vision –propelled by a genuine philanthropic commitment—adds substance to what has largely been derided as empty Wilsonian idealism. The thematic structure of this book, the quality of its narration, and the wealth of information it contains, are added elements that make it an excellent contribution to the field of U.S. history. It could be used as a an assigned reading in college or university courses, especially in advanced American history, American Political thought and international relations courses.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Preface (Greg Robinson)
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Social and Intellectual Foundations of Charles R. Crane: From the Crane Company to Woodrow Wilson’s Election, 1858–1912
  • Chapter 2. Charles R. Crane and the Wilson Administration: A Time of Domestic Reforms, 1912–1916
  • Chapter 3. Charles R. Crane and Revolutionary Russia, 1917
  • Chapter 4. “Godfather of Czechoslovakia”: Charles R. Crane and the “New Central Europe,” 1917–1918
  • Chapter 5. Charles R. Crane and Versailles: Toward the Emancipation of the Ottoman Peoples, 1919
  • Chapter 6. Charles R. Crane’s Ministership in China: “To Promote Chinese-American Friendship,” 1920–1921
  • Conclusion: Charles R. Crane in a Post-Wilsonian Era
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii →


As is the case with many historians, the direction taken by my research and analysis at the start of my university career was shaped by one defining event. I had just started my B.A. in history at the Université de Montréal in 2001 when two planes collided with the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York and a third crashed into the Pentagon, destroying these prime symbols and instruments of America’s economic and military supremacy. The American government quickly declared a “war on terrorism” and justified it with a renewed wave of puritanical rhetoric inherited from the “republican revolution” in the mid 1990s. Beyond feeling compassion for the shocking images of the September 11 attacks, however, the world also acknowledged how, with its arrogant hegemony, the American empire had certainly brought upon itself the condemnation of those who had been left behind among the nations.

The contrast between the unilateral conservatism (“neither isolationist nor arrogant”) of President Bush’s foreign policy during his presidential campaign in 2000 and his simultaneously religious and belligerent language after the event demonstrates the importance of the tragedy that took place on September 11. Yet the efficiency of his tone, confirmed by his dramatic increase in popularity since the invasion of Afghanistan, suggests that this moralistic approach to foreign policy, coupled with a clear desire for security, struck a ← vii | viii → chord in the American population. The success of this neo-Puritan rhetoric in the United States, for its part, can be explained by its strong historical roots.

As a French Canadian, my first studies in U.S. history were thus influenced by this new place moral fundamentalism had taken in American politics, and Woodrow Wilson emerged as a particularly interesting figure in his capacity as the founder of an internationalist diplomatic approach which was both messianic and policing in its tenor. It seemed to me, however, that Wilson’s rigor and his sense of authority and moral responsibility set him apart from the contemporary heads of the world’s greatest power and made them look rather deficient in comparison. In this regard, the discovery, during my master’s degree research, of a philanthropist and international reformer like Charles R. Crane at Wilson’s side helped nuance my understanding of this president who, in a spirit of reform typical of American progressivism, saw diplomacy as a way of building humanitarian relations between peoples.

During a speech given in the 2008 primary, Barack Obama expressed his desire to “end the mindset that got us into Iraq.” Such a program would clearly be inherently difficult—if not impossible—to realize. Yet over the years, the deterioration of political language and the precedence of image over meaning have been directing the candidates and leaders toward simplistic diplomatic solutions that are politically rewarding in the short term but untenable and therefore irresponsible in the long term. One is forced to admit that even eight years later, this “mindset” still conditions the reflexes of American voters. They are ready, for instance, to watch their recently elected leader insult a powerful industrial giant who also happens to be the country’s primary commercial partner or sabotage the delicate relations with a nuclear and sensitive regime which the previous administration spent eight years painstakingly rebuilding. They do not seem to object to this leader courting an old power nostalgic about its past hegemony and flattering the fringe radical groups of a fragile democratic country in the volatile context of the Middle-East. In an era when many Americans seem suspicious of moderate and nuanced ideas and one wonders whether they still adhere to the foundations of Republicanism which shaped Woodrow Wilson and Charles Crane’s political thought, one cannot help but dread the diplomatic jolts of a White House inhabited by such an impulsive and short-tempered figure. Even George W. Bush’s naive and erratic morality seems preferable to the spectacle—for that is indeed what it has become—of 2017. A hundred years after America’s intervention in World War I, its responsibility in international events is greater than ever and the question to intervene or not to intervene now has even more substantial and ← viii | ix → terrifying consequences than it did back in 1917 when the United States still had a practically clean slate in international affairs. It goes without saying that the country’s image is no longer immaculate and that America carries with it the weight of many geopolitical misdemeanors. Does it still have sufficient moral leeway to act in accordance with its own political weight? A new wave of isolationism is sweeping across the Western world, spurred on by the threat of radical Islam. Meanwhile, distrust toward the system is growing among the population and political outlooks are deteriorating along with the underlying principles of social life. How can we build a just, efficient, legitimate, and popular foreign policy amidst these issues when our own human arsenal has the morbid ability to destroy all life on earth? In such a context, the greatest stumbling block seems to be the inconsistency of diplomatic decisions and the general direction they are taking. Nothing discredits a country’s foreign policy more than double standards and suspicious paradoxes that work in favor of commercial interests. Much like in 1917, our world today appears to be at a crossroads. What lessons can we learn from America’s entry into World War I, from the Fourteen Points, from Wilsonian diplomacy, and from the system of postcolonial mandates? What is there to glean from Wilson and Crane’s response to revolutionary Russia, a blatant case of diplomacy complacently based on illusion and ignorance? In an age when the UN Security Council is constantly hindered, how can we combine moral principles and collective participation with foreign policy? Is it possible to reconcile national interest with internationalism? This issue practically caused the failure of the Treaty of Versailles before the U.S. Senate in 1920 and continues to haunt debates on America’s role in an increasingly complex world. I hope that, through the political journey of a man who was both exceptional and typical of his time, and while experiencing the joy of watching this figure participating, in his own way, in the great events of his time, this book will fuel informed, historically-based conversations on the past and on issues that were current then and are still just as current a hundred years later. ← ix | x →

← x | xi →


I have known Zacharie Leclair since the moment several years ago when he met with me to describe his idea for a doctoral thesis on Charles R. Crane, and asked me to serve as his adviser, to which I swiftly agreed. Only much later did Zacharie reveal to me how alternately impressed and disconcerted he was by the speed of my positive reply! With my friend Professor Bruno Ramirez serving as co-director, we proceeded to guide Zacharie along the research and writing of his thesis. Throughout the process, I enjoyed our interactions, and I was impressed by his development from a neophyte into a mature historical researcher. Now Zacharie has undertaken the transformation of his work into a book, and he has invited me to write the preface. It is a great privilege for me to serve as godfather at the christening, as it were, of this firstborn product of his historical talent.

Zacharie Leclair’s book uncovers the unheralded career and contributions of Charles R. Crane. A philanthropist, reformer, and American diplomat, Crane was one of the few rich men of the day to throw himself into political reform, from promoting science and technology to laboring in favor of international democracy and freedom. Rescuing Crane from his existing near-total obscurity, the author reveals with brio the different ways in which ← xi | xii → Crane operated as supporter and advisor to President Woodrow Wilson during the years from 1912 to 1921.

Although Crane refused service in an official capacity throughout most of the Wilson years, and possessed a certain amount of the “passion for anonymity” that a later President would demand of his advisers, it is fascinating (and fun) to discover the manifold nature of his activities inside the Wilson Administration as well as the remarkable set of international actors with whom he interacted. First, as fundraiser and idea man of sorts for Wilson as candidate and then as president, Crane worked behind the scenes to influence the selection of members of the administration, and served as a point of contact between the executive and outside reform forces. As a former supporter of Wisconsin progressive Republican senator Robert La Follette, he was able to help bridge the distance between the president and the Senator. As such, he played an important if unofficial part in solidifying the administration’s legislative agenda, notably on antitrust laws and on the Seamen’s law of 1916, and eventually helped clear the way for Wilson’s appointment of Crane’s ally Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court.

After the outbreak of World War I, Crane became an increasingly close advisor to Wilson on international politics, and a bearer of the spirit of “Wilsonianism” throughout the world. Crane’s diplomatic service extended in multiple directions: a longtime supporter of Russia and Russian folk culture, he pushed for recognition of the February Revolution and served as a member of the Root Commission, a special committee of inquiry. He championed Czech nationalist Tomáš Masaryk, to whom he furnished entrée to President Wilson, and played a major role in the creation of the Czechoslovak state. During the Versailles Peace Conference, he persuaded Wilson to engage with Chinese diplomat Wellington Koo, and to provide diplomatic support for China.

One highlight of the book is its discussion of Crane’s involvement with the famous King-Crane Commission. At the time of the Versailles Peace Conference, Crane was named by Wilson to co-direct the commission, which was created to report to the President on the future of the Ottoman Empire, including Armenia, and the Middle East. In particular, the author describes Crane’s complex (and anti-Semitic) attitude toward the question of Palestine and his opposition to the Balfour Declaration, which he convincingly links to Crane’s opposition to Anglo-French secret treaties and his fear that the Zionists would represent a Trojan horse for French and British interests at the expense of the self-determination of Arab peoples. ← xii | xiii →

The last chapter of the book covers Crane’s official entry into the government and his service as American minister to China from 1920 to 1921. His appointment came at a time when the invalid Woodrow Wilson was subjected to the domination of his wife Edith, who remained jealous of the influence of Wilson’s advisers. In that sense, the fact that the appointment was even made testifies to the reputation Crane enjoyed within the Wilson family for disinterested service. Moreover, it came at a decisive moment for the nation’s Chinese policy, in the aftermath of World War I and of the movement of May 4, 1919. The author draws a complex and admirable portrait of Crane’s work as American minister to China, exploring with finesse how Crane, in his first official position, was able to apply the principles he long supported informally by organizing humanitarian responses to the huge 1921 northwest famine.

Zacharie Leclair’s study offers new approaches to several different areas of U.S. history: the historical literature on the progressive movement in the United States; the history of philanthropy and the relationship between the nonprofit sector and public policy; and most importantly, the history of the Wilson administration, its domestic policy and its various initiatives in international relations. The author opens up a wider understanding of the history of “Wilsonianism” and the complex relationship between Woodrow Wilson’s principles and the implementing of policy by his supporters at the international level. In his study of Crane’s service in China, he not only probes the intersection of Crane’s philanthropic and political ideas, but reflects on this early use of what one might call “soft power” in the service of American diplomatic interests.

For all these reasons, I consider that Zacharie Leclair’s book well deserves the title of “masterful,” and I am very glad to welcome it into print.

Greg Robinson

Université du Québec à Montréal ← xiii | xiv →

← xiv | xv →


This work is the fruit of a long journey which involved many people and asked of them much more than I would have liked. Therefore, it is my responsibility to properly and sincerely thank those who supported this project until its culmination.

As this book was originally a doctoral dissertation, I first and foremost want to thank my thesis supervisors, Bruno Ramirez and Greg Robinson. Bruno, without knowing it, sparked my interest for American history and Wilsonianism and inspired me to start this project. Greg, for his part, became a patient mentor, an insightful editor, and an excellent intermediary who worked tirelessly to integrate me into this little circle of historians, while also proving to be an exceptionally generous friend. He has honored me today by writing the preface to my first book. Greg and Bruno, this book also belongs to you.

Furthermore, I wish to highlight the kindness and edifying feedback provided by my dissertation committee: Frédérick Gagnon, Bernard Lemelin, and François Furstenberg. I must also recognize Thomas Crane’s warm generosity in allowing me to consult the Crane family archives.

I feel indebted to the historians, researchers, and writers who preceded me in the study of Wilsonianism. Any revision or contradiction of their work, ← xv | xvi → new or old, should not be seen as an attempt to discredit their conclusions but rather as part of the perpetual dialogue between researchers for the purpose of better understanding of history and its actors.

Thank you to Elizaveta Vandalovsky for translating this document, a lengthy task with a deadline which turned out to be tighter than we had hoped for. Her questions about the text also helped me to clarify its meaning.

I am eternally grateful to my parents, Claude and Lucie, and to my sister Rachel, for their love and their interest in everything I do. More than anything, I can imagine what this book means to my father, who was forced by circumstance to study at the harsh “school of life.” I also want to thank my parents-in-law, Anne and Manuel, for their support and particularly for giving life to the person I am about to mention.

Where would I be without my wife, Élisabeth, a true grace, a pillar of stability, love, and encouragement in my life as an “independent scholar”? Her keen intellect, her critical spirit, her shrewdness, and her insight have also made her an invaluable reader of my work whom I would not—and could not—have done without. Over the last few months, she has devoted a considerable amount of her free time—and there has not been much of it—to reading and rereading the text both before and during the translation process. I am not lending her to anyone.

Though I am indebted to all these people, I am naturally responsible for all of my ideas and for any mistake that may have inadvertently slipped into the text.

← xviii | 1 →


Framework and Purpose

To historians, World War I generally appears, in a rather paradoxical manner, as both the height of the Progressive movement in the United States and the start of its decline. American Progressives of the time, particularly Wilsonian Progressives, generally construed the war as the beginning of a new era in human history. In that sense, the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, with Woodrow Wilson’s preeminent figure at the head of an imposing American delegation, created a very particular setting for this transformation. From it emerged both traditional forces—like the decidedly active and aggressive imperial interests—and new forces, well illustrated by the presence of various diplomatic specialists from the countries that determined the outcome of World War I. In the midst of the main issues surrounding the German question and the planned dissolution of “blameworthy” empires, the United States presented themselves as the only disinterested1 party in Paris. By its insistence on peoples’ right to aspire to and achieve political and economic freedom (and liberalism), President Wilson’s message bolstered various national movements, fuelled by the interempire conflicts of 1914–1918, and acted as a major inspiration in the victorious powers’ efforts to mend international relations ← 1 | 2 → after the war. This political message rested on various moral and ideological considerations attributable not only to Wilson’s own character and mind but especially to the specific context of American society in the Progressive Era and to the late nineteenth century intellectual sphere in which it originated.

In this context of foreign policy specialization in the dominant countries, one of the United States’ diplomatic endeavors during the Versailles negotiations consisted in establishing a commission of inquiry called the King-Crane Commission. Its aim was to identify the potential challenges posed by the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, accumulate data on the population and geography of the concerned regions and suggest solutions to territorial and political problems inherent to the imperial system and intensified by its collapse. As its name suggests, the King-Crane Commission was headed, along with a certain Henry Churchill King, by Charles Richard Crane, who will be the focus of this book.

Born in Chicago in 1858, Charles R. Crane was by then neither a novice to the American diplomatic services nor a stranger in President Wilson’s entourage. In fact, without ever having been previously appointed to an official position, Crane had acquired extensive experience in American political circles and had a reputation that reached beyond the borders of his country. Trained in the industrial sector and heir to his father’s fortune with the Crane Brass & Bell Foundry (which later became the Crane Plumbing Company), he devoted himself throughout his life to philanthropic activities and voyages. Crane consistently used his affluence to gain access to important circles and cultivate friendships wherever he went. He was on good terms with Russian and other European aristocrats as well as with the Chinese elite and could secure private meetings with any emir or Arab prince. Beyond his worldly occupations, Crane also harbored a great interest in the advance of science and technology and was a strong proponent of democracy and freedom in all areas, both locally and internationally. He belonged to a tradition of urban reform typical of American progressivism at the turn of the twentieth century, and his work can be situated more specifically in the very particular atmosphere that reigned in Chicago, which was then struggling with municipal corruption and purported moral decline.

Given that his career was based on a formidable network of relations, it comes as no surprise that a lasting friendship developed between Crane and Woodrow Wilson when the latter was chosen as the democratic candidate in the 1912 presidential election. While preferring to remain behind the scenes, Crane had long been a political player both locally in Chicago and ← 2 | 3 → in several Midwestern states. Though he was a Democrat by family tradition, he had indiscriminately supported Progressive leaders, be they Democrats or Republicans. Before turning to Woodrow Wilson of the Democratic Party in 1912 and becoming one of his main campaign contributors, Crane financially supported Wisconsin’s Progressive-Republican senator Robert M. La Follette. In fact, he assisted many politicians over the years, both in the United States and elsewhere, and shared his assets liberally as long as a candidate embodied his progressive ideals. As he once explained to a young Canadian politician named William Lyon Mackenzie King while talking about Senator La Follette’s importance in the Progressive movement, his priority was for democratic reform to prevail, even if this entailed rising above partisan divisions.2 Here, Crane was referring to the 1913 Railway Valuation Bill, and he viewed La Follette’s presence in the Senate as a powerful force in the Progressive movement capable of supporting Wilson’s democratic program, the New Freedom.

Despite his multiple allegiances over the years, Crane’s support for Wilson, once pledged, became unshakable and exclusive. After financing his presidential campaign, Charles Crane acted as a special advisor in an informal cabinet regularly called upon by Wilson which included other philanthropists as well as Colonel Edward M. House. This cabinet was, among other things, responsible for the Supreme Court nomination in 1916 of progressive lawyer Louis D. Brandeis, who had also supported Wilson during his campaign in 1912 and greatly contributed to the president’s reform agenda, especially in regard to antitrust measures.

Charles Crane’s role in Wilsonianism cannot be analyzed without considering Woodrow Wilson’s other close collaborators like Louis D. Brandeis, Edward M. House, John R. Mott, and Cleveland H. Dodge. Crane and Brandeis’ close relationship, for instance, attests to the “radical” nature of the progressivism endorsed by Crane and Wilson. Brandeis was at the time seen by both conservative Republicans and moderate progressive Democrats as difficult to control, incorruptible (like La Follette), and an advocate for unorthodox and potentially even dangerous ideas. Crane, on the other hand, operated primarily behind the scenes and appeared considerably less threatening to the opposition. When Theodore Roosevelt began competing against La Follette for the 1912 Republican nomination, Brandeis and Crane remained La Follette’s two last major supporters. They only turned toward the Democratic convention and Wilson’s candidacy after La Follette pulled out of the race to make way for Roosevelt, who had gained traction by rallying most of ← 3 | 4 → La Follette’s supporters like Amos Pinchot (who would later regret his change of heart) under his banner. Wilson’s Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels mentioned in The Wilson Era that Brandeis and Crane were anticipated to become part of the new cabinet in 1912, but this idea was opposed by the Democratic establishment, namely by House, primarily out of geographic (“sectional”) and ideological concerns. The Democratic Party needed more conservative southerners, and Wilson was consequently forced to rather reluctantly appoint James C. McReynolds, a notorious Kentucky traditionalist and racist, Attorney General instead of Brandeis, whom, incidentally, McReynolds despised as much for his Jewish heritage as for his radical views. On the subject of Crane, Josephus Daniels mentioned that he was an “unofficial tower of strength” for Wilson’s cabinet. As for Brandeis and Wilson, Daniels said that “their minds ran together” and that his Supreme Court nomination in 1916 was “a blow full in the face for the forces of Privilege.”3 These two key figures of the Wilson administration thus attest to the relative radicalism of Wilsonian progressivism. Like Crane, House acted discretely—under cover—as the organizer of Wilson’s campaigns. Crane primarily took care of the financial questions and of unifying the Progressives, whereas House was in charge of strategy and private persuasion. Both of them, with Brandeis at the forefront, participated in the drafting of the New Freedom and in forming Wilson’s first cabinet. From the outset, House and Crane mutually appointed each other to ministerial posts, but both declined, preferring to operate more freely behind the scenes. Of note here is the fact that all three chose Wilson as the one who could best achieve their progressive ideals (in comparison with a fallen and controversial La Follette, an unreasonable, chatty and narcissistic Theodore Roosevelt or a William H. Taft associated with “Privilege”). Both Brandeis and Crane had no interest in an official position unless it could serve their desire for reform. They rallied around Wilson, seeing in him the talent and ambition to represent them in national politics at that particular point in time. Interestingly enough, however, both House and Brandeis lost practically all contact with Wilson in 1919, while Crane’s role in Wilsonian diplomacy increased and he kept his privileged relationship with the president until the latter’s death in 1924.

Since most of this book concerns Crane’s involvement in international affairs at Wilson’s side, we can note that he remained a devoted emissary and was relatively important at the time given the embryonic stage of American diplomatic services. After having first been appointed special commissioner in Russia during the Revolution of 1917, he was part of the American delegation ← 4 | 5 → at Versailles through the King-Crane Commission. In 1920, he embarked on his last political venture when Wilson offered him the crucial and highly coveted post of diplomatic minister to China, which he kept until June of 1921.

Crane’s involvement reveals some crucial facts about Wilsonianism in an international context. He represented a very progressive and forward-thinking element in the American delegation that traveled to Versailles. More importantly, he was fairly critical of Western imperialism and had from the start suggested innovative and creative solutions to the colonial problem in Asia. He supported the complete emancipation of Arabs, Armenians, and Greeks in the Ottoman Empire and even supported India’s emancipation from Great Britain. Conversely, most anti-imperialist Progressives had not yet dared to consistently apply Wilson’s principle of self-determination to all nations. This principle was first created to redefine European borders based on “more or less” ethnic criteria at the whim of geopolitical concerns. Crane’s decision to apply a concept derived from the West’s presumed ability to govern itself to populations under imperial rule was thus a considerably avant-garde gesture at the time. In this sense, his discourse on human and political rights foreshadowed the coming of the United Nations era, despite the fact that large parts of his philosophy remained rooted in the intellectual context of the social gospel.


XVIII, 328
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XVIII, 328 pp.

Biographical notes

Zacharie Leclair (Author)

Zacharie Leclair was born in 1981 in Montréal. He studied American history and earned his PH. D. at the Université du Québec à Montréal.


Title: Charles R. Crane and Wilsonian Progressivism
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