Object of the Month

President of the Massachusetts Historical Society in a Fistfight: War Declared

Letter (retained copy) from Henry Cabot Lodge to Theodore Roosevelt, 4 April 1917

Letter (retained copy) from Henry Cabot Lodge to Theodore Roosevelt, 4 April 1917


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  • In this letter from Senator Henry Cabot Lodge to his friend (and former President of the United States) Theodore Roosevelt, Lodge relates his version of an altercation that took place in the halls of the Senate between the 66-year-old Lodge and a 36-year-old peace activist named Alexander Bannwart.

    The Last Days of American Neutrality

    On 2 April 1917, as President Woodrow Wilson prepared to address a joint session of Congress in which he called for a declaration of war against Germany, Massachusetts Senator (and Massachusetts Historical Society president) Henry Cabot Lodge, a strong supporter of U. S. intervention to aid the Allies, not only dismissed a delegation of pacifists who attempted to meet with him, but in the hallway outside of his congressional office, exchanged first insults and then blows with Alexander W. Bannwart, a former minor league baseball player and rather pugnacious pacifist. Bannwart had travelled from Massachusetts to petition Lodge to stand against the rush to war. A mêlée followed that ended with Bannwart bloodied and under arrest and Lodge a somewhat embarrassed national celebrity.

    "He Said/He Said": the Battle over the Fistfight

    In the days leading up to the decision of Congress to declare war on Germany on 6 April 1917, representatives of the Emergency Peace Federation from Boston traveled to Washington to meet with members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation including Senator Henry Cabot Lodge in a last, forlorn effort to keep the United States out of the "European War"—what we know today as the First World War. As Lodge described their meeting in a letter to Theodore Roosevelt written two days later, he went out into the corridor outside his crowded office where a "very violent and abusive" group of one woman and six men confronted him, one of whom, "the German," called him "a damned coward." According to Lodge, he replied, "'You are a damned liar' and he hit me and I hit him." Lodge thought he was "in for a bad time" (six against one) but his secretaries "sallied forth" and rescued him. He did have the good grace to reflect that "At my age there is a certain aspect of folly about the whole thing," but he was glad that he had hit his unnamed opponent—and constituent—Alexander Bannwart.

    Lodge was writing in reply to a congratulatory telegram that he had received from Roosevelt—one of many that he received from all over the United States beginning on the evening of 2 April as the story spread—praising him for striking the "first blow against Germany." Over the next few days, Lodge retold his version of the fight many times in letters and interviews where other details emerged: the pacifist delegation supposedly abandoned Bannwart and it was a passing messenger who had enthusiastically waded into the fight and inflicted most of the damage on Bannwart who was badly beaten (Lodge was a rail-thin, 66-year-old grandfather). Although it was suggested that Bannwart was in contempt of Congress when he assaulted a senator, he was held only briefly and released when Lodge refused to press charges against him.

    There the story stood until 12 May 1917 when Lodge received a carefully-worded, polite but firm letter from Bannwart. Writing from his home in Dorchester, a neighborhood of Boston, Bannwart described a mirror image of what he called "our little affair": that the discussion had been "entirely respectful up to the point when you [Lodge] said, 'all those working for peace are cowards' Thereupon I retorted, 'it's the war party who are cowards'."

    It was then, according to Bannwart, that Lodge called him a "damned liar" and, without warning, slugged him. Bannwart described the "regretable affair" as something that neither man was proud of, but that Lodge could not, after passions had cooled, let stand a description of the event that would, "perhaps irreparably" injure "a fellow mortal" "by permitting a bad matter to appear infinitely worse than it is." Two days later, E. T. Clark (Lodge's private secretary who had taken part in the fracas) replied for the senator "that your version of what was said when you called at his office is an erroneous one and not in accordance with the actual facts."

    Lodge's letter did not end the dispute. Bannwart filed a lawsuit against Lodge in Massachusetts claiming that he had "falsely and maliciously charged and accused the plaintiff of making an assault upon the defendant by causing to be printed in … the Boston Evening Transcript a certain false and malicious libel concerning the plaintiff." At first, nothing came of the lawsuit. Bannwart was reported to have had a change of heart and, inspired by President Wilson's 2 April 1917 speech (he greatly admired the president), enlisted in the army when war was declared. Ironically, a slightly-battered Senator Lodge, who loathed Wilson, witnessed the speech (Bannwart was still in the lockup) and heaped public praise on the president.

    Apparently—as revealed in the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor of the FBI) file opened on Bannwart on 5 April 1917—he did not enlist (or may have been too old—he was 36), but soon was employed in a naval shipyard near Boston. The federal agents who picked around in his private life were puzzled by his "erratic behavior": while they were reduced to reporting that his German-born mother spoke German at home, they also noted his vocal support for President Wilson that seemed to undercut any case that could be built against him. They did correct one repeated error that had crept into almost all press reports of the Washington fisticuffs: Bannwart was almost always described as a "husky" former professional athlete who was pummeled by the "90-pound" Lodge. In fact, in his dossier Bannwart is described as five feet seven inches tall (although he claimed he was an inch taller) and weighing 160 pounds—he did not tower over Lodge.

    In April 1919, long after the war fever of 1917 had subsided, Bannwart's Bureau of Investigation case file finally was closed and the lawsuit "Alexander Bannwart v. Henry Cabot Lodge" was settled when it was about to go to trial. The senator made a public statement that Bannwart's description of the events of 2 April 1917 accurately reflected what had happened, although denying that his statements at the time were accurately reported. In the aftermath of war the details of the affair must have seemed more than a little absurd. The editors of the Boston Globe, quoting from the Brooklyn Eagle, reminded their readers of Lodge's age and noted that the "hot blood of youth demands reasonable allowances."

    Even in death, Lodge had a last word about the controversy. He died in 1924 before the 4 April 1917 letter appeared in Selections from the Correspondence of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge. In the published version of the letter he corrected a typographical error, changing "I walked up tp hit" in his typescript to read "I walked up to hit him." In spite of his public statement in the lawsuit, Lodge maintained that Bannwart had struck first, but clarified that he (Lodge) had intended to fight.

    Henry Cabot Lodge

    Henry Cabot Lodge was born in Boston in 1850, the son of John Ellerton and Anna Cabot Lodge. He attended Harvard College where he fell under the spell of Henry Adams and seriously considered a career as a historical writer. For a time Lodge followed in Adams's footsteps and in 1876, he received one the first PhDs awarded by Harvard, but in1880 he turned away from the "historico-literary line" for a career in politics. From 1887 until his death in 1924, he represented Massachusetts in Congress, first for three terms in the House of Representatives and then for six terms (31 years) in the Senate. In April 1917 he was the "historian of the Senate" and the 66-year-old chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

    Senator Lodge also was one of former president Theodore Roosevelt's most unlikely friends. They began to work together in the 1880s as young Republican Party reformers. In temperament they could not have been more different, but for 35 years Lodge was Roosevelt's closest friend (see a letter from "TR" to "Cabot" written in 1909 from a safari camp in Africa.

    Alexander Bannwart

    While he is almost always described as "German" in 1917 press reports, Alexander William Bannwart was born in Basel, Switzerland, on Christmas Day, 1880, to a Swiss father and German mother. He came to the United States when he was a child and studied at elite Massachusetts schools before graduating from Princeton in 1906. An avid participant in a range of sports, he attended Harvard Law School for two years, but also played minor league baseball for a Lowell, Massachusetts, team under the name of "Al Winn" (his coach thought that when Bannwart joined the team they would start winning). Bannwart left law school to devote himself to professional baseball, serving as the manager and owner of minor league teams and the secretary/operator of first the Greater Boston Baseball League and then the Federal League of Base Ball Clubs.

    After the First World War Bannwart failed in an attempt to run for the Massachusetts state legislature, although he remained active in political reform and civil liberties organizations. By the time of the Second World War, he was working as a tennis and golf coach in New York where he is remembered as a founder and benefactor of the library of the United States Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point.

    Further Reading

    Capazzola, Christopher. Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    Garraty, John A. Henry Cabot Lodge: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953.

    Kazin, Michael. War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

    Lodge, Henry Cabot. Henry Cabot Lodge Papers, 1775-1966. Massachusetts Historical Society.

    Henry Cabot Lodge’s correspondence about the Bannwart affair (except for his separate correspondence with Theodore Roosevelt) is scattered through his general correspondence files for 1917-1919, although there are also are files under “Bannwart.” There also is a separate file of congratulatory telegrams (including the telegram from Roosevelt that Lodge refers to in his letter) in volume 55 (disbound) of the collection.

    Lodge-Roosevelt Correspondence, 1884-1924. Massachusetts Historical Society.

    The Correspondence of Henry Cabot Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt, including the 4 April 1917 letter from Lodge to Roosevelt and Roosevelt’s reply, 6 April 1917, have been separated from the large collection of Lodge’s papers (above) and published in part as the Selections from the Correspondence of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge (see below).

    "Lodge Knocks Down Pacifist Assailant," The New York Times (vol. 64, no. 21,619) April 3, 1917, page 5. 

    While carried on an inside page (the front page of the April 3 issue of the Times is given over almost completely to the text of President Wilson's Congressional address) the newspaper published a long, detailed account of "the battle" between Lodge and Bannwart the day before. Although favorable to Senator Lodge, the article contains interviews with several eyewitnesses and participants.

    "Lodge on Top in Fist Fight," Boston Daily Globe, April 3, 1917, page 1 and 2.

    The Boston Globe presented a detailed description of the "affair" at the Capitol, both the "official story" that favored Senator Lodge and an interview with a pacifist who supported Alexander Bannwart's account. The front page story also made clear that Bannwart was not German.

    The settlement of the Bannwart v. Lodge lawsuit received one paragraph of coverage on page 13 of the 15 April 1919 issue of the Globe. An editorial note on the case appeared three days later.

    Roosevelt, Theodore. Selections from the Correspondence of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, 1884-1918. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925. 2 vols.

    Henry Cabot Lodge edited and expurgated his correspondence with Theodore Roosevelt so the published transcriptions of their letters should be used with caution.

    United States. National Archives. NARA M1085: FBI Case Files. "Old German Files, 1909-1921."

    Alexander Bannwart's Bureau of Investigation case file is number 8000-5637 on microfilm roll: boi_german_257-850_0080. Declassified FBI case files are available online from Fold3.com.

    Wiggins, Robert P. The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs: This History of an Outlaw Major League, 1914-1915. Jefferson, N. C.: McFarland & Co., 2009.