Being rich doesn’t make somebody a natural at politics. Take, for instance, Joseph Newton Pew Jr. of Ardmore—an oil baron, shipbuilder and big-time Republican donor—who missed his chance to be a kingmaker at the 1940 GOP convention in Philadelphia. The problem? At that critical moment, Pew was home in Lower Merion and, um, indisposed—too indisposed to accept a frantic phone call from the convention floor.
“Over time, Joe’s ineptness acquired a comic quality,” wrote historian Paul B. Beers. “At the 1952 Republican convention, he stood up to cast his vote for Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Absentmindedly, he announced his vote for ‘that great General of the Army, Ulysses S. Grant!’”
As a result, Pew and his politically active brothers at Sun Oil never did get much of what they wanted—specifically, the erasure of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Instead, the GOP went on to nominate moderate Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said of the “oil millionaires [and] occasional politician or businessman” still pressing to abolish Social Security: “Their number is negligible, and they are stupid.”
Born in Pittsburgh, Pew was the son of Joseph Pew Sr. and his wife, Mary Anderson. Pew Sr. grew up on a Pennsylvania farm in Mercer County, about 40 miles east of Titusville, where the first American oil well was struck in 1859. He worked as a real estate broker, eventually invested in oil fields, and began pumping natural gas. He was among the first to see the utility of gas for heating and lighting in private homes and also in industry.
Pew Sr. became a millionaire after the Spindletop strike in Texas in 1901. Spindletop was the first Gulf Coast oil field and was immensely rich. The oil it produced, however, could not be sold on the heavily populated East Coast, then in the grip of a monopoly by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. The solution? Pew’s Sun Oil Co. shipped the oil to Philadelphia—specifically, Marcus Hook, where the company built an 82-acre refinery. The refinery’s products were then sold in Europe.
Pew Jr. attended Cornell, where he was on the track team and earned a degree in mechanical engineering in 1908. He then promptly joined Sun Oil, where his first accomplishment was persuading Dad to lay pipelines—the first long-distance pipelines—from Marcus Hook to distribution points in Ohio, New York and New Jersey. By then, Standard Oil’s monopoly was under attack, and young Pew saw potential.
The company’s foresight was rewarded in 1911, when a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court finally broke up Standard under the Sherman Antitrust Act. It was a formative moment in the development of the Pew brothers’ conservative political views. “It reinforced their conviction that industry thrives best when markets and competition are free,” wrote one historian.
Sun later perfected the catalytic cracking method to produce high-octane fuel. In 1919, the company got into gasoline retailing, and Pew Jr. was credited with devising the trademark “Blue Sunoco.” But it wasn’t just the Sunoco signs that were blue—the company tinted the gasoline itself to distinguish it from competing brands. Pew Jr. picked the color because it matched some blue tile that he and his wife had seen on their honeymoon in China.
Pew Sr. had died in 1912. So, only four years after leaving Cornell, Pew Jr. found himself vice president of Sun Oil. His brother, J. Howard Pew, became president. “J. Howard was the business genius and social leader,” wrote Beers. “He smoked cigars, put salt on ice cream, and was, said the Rev. Billy Graham, ‘probably the best-informed layman in the United States on the Bible and religious matters.’”
In 1916, on the eve of World War I, Sun Oil expanded into shipbuilding, and Joseph Pew became president of the new entity, Sun Shipbuilding. According to a 1945 issue of Our Yard, Sun Shipbuilding’s employee newsletter, “The shipyard had a two-fold purpose: one was to help the government during the First World War when shipyards were very scarce, and the other was to meet the natural growth of the Sun Oil Company’s business which demanded more tankers.”
If others saw irony in the Pews’ later vociferous criticism of Washington spending after they had made a fortune from that particular source, the Pews themselves never did. J. Howard Pew, on one account, “would bristle if anyone suggested that his beliefs were anything less than disinterested.”
During the 1920s, Sun Shipbuilding became a major yard, producing tankers for competitors and Sun’s own needs. By 1941, it had eight slipways and, during World War II, added another 20, on which it produced more than 250 ships—hospital ships, cargo ships and escort carriers—for the U.S. Maritime Commission.
According to Beers, the Pew brothers had similar politics and religious commitments, and were both “Union Leaguish” in their choice of friends. But Joe was better known as “the profane, worldly Pew who did the politicking.”
Pew political activism dated to the early years of the Roosevelt administration. Both brothers had initially supported FDR but, repelled by New Deal policies that included price-fixing and support for organized labor, soon retreated to their native, ardent Republicanism.
The Pews were proudly paternal and, therefore, were offended at the very idea of organized labor. The company had anticipated and prepared for the stock-market crashes of the 1930s. During the Depression, Sun never laid off an employee or even cut salaries. The Pews were proud of that and didn’t want outsiders dictating their relations with their workers.
By 1934, Democrats in Pennsylvania controlled nearly every political office. They had won the General Assembly, the governorship and even the mayor’s office in Pittsburgh. George H. Earle III was the first Democratic governor in more than 40 years. “The state Republican Party,” observed one writer, “had basically fallen apart.”
In the Pews’ home state, where a minister once opened a Senate session by praying for “those two towers of strength, Sun Oil and the Pennsylvania Railroad,” it was unnerving. What most galvanized Joe Pew was the New Deal’s Petroleum Code, an agreement written by industry representatives to shore up falling gas prices and set production quotas. It was all price-fixing, declared Pew.
According to leftist journalist I.F. Stone, Pew “went into politics as he might have gone into a new line of business, by investing a large sum of money and buying up a going concern.” In 1936, he helped fund a national PR campaign against Roosevelt. He personally picked the GOP party chairman and hired a publicist for 20,000 per year. “Mr. Pew put his convictions and dollars to work,” wrote Time magazine. “He became Pennsylvania’s GOP boss by the simple but tremendous expedient of putting up the money.”
To provide the Pennsylvania GOP with a suitable headquarters, Pew bought the Harrisburg Club, a stately mansion on Front Street in the state capital, and turned it over to the party rent-free. In 1935, the Pews bought the Farm Journal, a monthly magazine with a circulation of 1 million, to help bring “the truth, which is something all the politicians most assiduously steer away from,” to rural America. Pew believed that “only the Anglo-Saxon people are conditioned for representative government, which requires sportsmanship and a sense of fair play to maintain.”
The Pews also funded the American Liberty League, a political organization focused on stopping the New Deal. J. Howard Pew served on its advisory board. In future years, the brothers would assist the John Birch Society and the American Enterprise Institute.
Sometimes, Joe Pew didn’t grasp that politics involved more than just writing checks. In Philadelphia, he picked a candidate, put up $200,000 for the race, and then went on vacation. When he got back, Pew was surprised to discover that his candidate had been scared out of the race with threats like: “Before I get through, I’ll take all the oil out of Pew—pew!”
In October 1936, Roosevelt responded with a speech at New York’s Madison Square Garden, declaring, “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hatred for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
Despite the Pews’ efforts, Roosevelt trounced GOP candidate Alf Landon, winning 60 percent of the vote and 46 states.
In 1938, determined to take the governor’s office back for the Republicans, Pew put $250,000 into the campaign of Arthur James, a Superior Court judge who promised to “make a bonfire of all the laws passed by the (Democratic) 1937 legislature.”
James won, and Republicans also recaptured both houses of the legislature, a majority of the congressional delegation, and both seats in the U.S. Senate. It was hugely encouraging. So, naturally, Pew was out for bear in 1940.
His preferred candidate that year was Robert Taft, a conservative U.S. senator from Ohio. Taft was an isolationist in foreign policy and a prominent critic of the New Deal. In particular, he was an effective opponent of labor unions. In 1947, Taft was a co-sponsor of the Taft-Hartley Act, which still bans “unfair” union practices and outlaws the closed shop.
The favored candidate, however, was Wendell Willkie, a lawyer and corporate executive with positions considerably more liberal than those of Taft and the Pews.
Pew’s “Stop Willkie” plan involved committing Pennsylvania’s delegates to vote for Gov. James, the state’s “favorite son.” If Taft supporters could prevent Willkie from being nominated on the first ballot, the convention might lose interest and look for an alternative.
It took six ballots, though the movement toward Willkie had been apparent on the fifth. Politicians want to be on the winning side, so it made no sense to stick with other candidates too long. “The Pew delegates at the Philadelphia convention needed their boss’s order to switch votes on the fifth ballot, but Joe Pew couldn’t be reached,” wrote Beers. “His butler at Ardmore wouldn’t disturb the master in his bath.”
On the sixth ballot, Willkie won Missouri 26-4, New Jersey 32-0, and New York 78-7. Ohio stayed with Taft 52-0, but Oklahoma and Oregon went for Willkie. Pennsylvania was Taft’s last chance of stopping a stampede. But, with still no word from Ardmore, Pennsylvania passed. It fell to West Virginia to put Willkie over the top.
Too bad, Joe.
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