Franklin Knight Lane epitomized the reform impulse that pervaded the American experience during the late 1880s and continued through the early 1900s. Political reformer, labor activist, municipal legal advocate, political party leader, public administrator, statesman, humanitarian, and conservationist describe Lane's notable public life and many achievements. A Canadian by birth, Lane's career catapulted him to the pinnacle of American political power as a trusted presidential advisor, federal regulator, cabinet official and leading national voice for progressive reform and good government. His life was a testimony to dedication to public purpose, patriotism, and the democratic ideals of equality and opportunity.
Lane was born in a minister's home near Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada, on July 15, 1864. His parents, Christopher and Carolina, were Presbyterian prohibitionists of Scotch-Irish heritage. His father, at the time of Franklin's birth, was a Presbyterian minister who suffered from recurrent attacks of bronchitis which weakened his preacher's voice. Reverend Lane's bad health caused him to abandon the ministry for a career in dentistry. To escape the rigor of the harsh Canadian climate, Franklin's father moved the family to California in 1871, settling in Napa. In 1876, the Lanes moved to Oakland, an area that offered greater professional opportunity for a dentist and better schooling for the children. Franklin enter Oakland High School where he impressed his teachers as bright, confident, and gregarious, traits that won him the honor of serving as class valedictorian in 1880.
Upon finishing high school, Lane flirted with entering the ministry but instead took a job as a printer's devil with the Oakland Times and quickly earned reporter status with a keen interest in political reporting. He attended the University of California, Berkeley, 1884-86, as a special student, putting himself through college by working part-time as a reporter for several San Francisco newspapers. In the Spring of 1886, he left Berkeley to enroll at the Hastings Law School in San Francisco and passed the California bar exam in January 1888. As a young attorney, Lane considered moving east but was offered a staff reporting job with the San Francisco Chronicle which he accepted. In his spare time, Lane joined the Young Men's Democratic League, one of many San Francisco civic groups committed to bringing about ballot reform. Lane quickly rose to a leadership position in the League and was instrumental in drafting its statewide bill to adopt the Australian ballot reform that he personally argued before the California State Assembly's Committee on Election Laws in February 1889.
Lane was 24 years old and restless. Not wanting to lose the energetic and talented Lane, the San Francisco Chronicle offered him a position as a correspondent in its New York City bureau. Lane joined the Reform Club of New York and became a protégé of the reformer Henry George, then at the zenith of his popularity and influence. In 1891, Lane was drawn to the challenge of owning a newspaper so he moved West and took editorial control of the Tacoma Daily News. As a newspaper editor, Lane championed Democratic and Populist Party causes such as adoption of the initiative and referendum, direct election of US senators, graduated income tax, and anti-tariff free trade. In April 1893, he married Anne Wintermute of Tacoma and by June 1894 his newspaper went bankrupt, a victim of his pro-labor politics and the depression of the 1890s. Still restless and ambitious, the 34 year old Lane decided to return to San Francisco.
In the course of the next 11 years, 1895 to 1906, Lane shifted his profession from journalism to law and changed from a political reform advocate to elected official. Lane's entry into the rough and tumble of San Francisco politics came from his efforts to help elect his lifelong friend James D. Phelan as mayor of San Francisco. The election of Mayor Phelan ushered in a new municipal reform era for San Francisco and Lane was in the forefront of this movement. In 1898, Lane was instrumental in leading the successful effort for adopting a new city charter that included civil service reform, increased power of the mayor, greater home rule, and the local initiative and recall. Galvanized by this victory, Lane decided to seek the Democratic nomination for city-county attorney running on a platform that was pro-labor and progressive. His campaign style was novel as Lane was the first San Francisco politician to climb upon a wagon and give campaign speeches outside the city's factories. The election of 1898 was a statewide Republican sweep with the exception of Lane who won by 832 votes.
Lane worked hard as city attorney and was reelected two more times. Lane's popularity as a campaigner and high approval by San Francisco voters made him a logical candidate for state office. In September 1902, Lane was nominated by the state Democratic Convention to run for governor of California on a progressive platform fueled by the clout of organized labor. Lane's prospects for winning the governorship were dim given California's political dominance by the Republicans who controlled the state's congressional delegation and legislature. The state Republican's nominated George C. Pardee, the mayor of Oakland, who quickly won the endorsement of most major newspapers and the financial backing of the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad. Lane's campaign for governor was noteworthy for its strong appeal to labor, condemnation of the influence of the railroads in state politics, and for its lack of party unity. During the campaign Lane labeled himself a "Roosevelt Democrat" reaching out to independent voters but he was unable to defeat the well financed and better organized Pardee campaign. Pardee defeated Lane by 2,549 votes and the Republicans won every state office and increased their numbers in both Congress and the State Legislature.
The election of 1902 gave Lane high name recognition with voters and made him the most popular Democrat in California. Against his better judgement. Lane reluctantly accepted his party nomination to run for mayor of San Francisco in 1903. The mayoral election turned into a bitter three-way contest splitting the labor vote between Democrat Lane and the incumbent Mayor Eugene Schmitz as the Union Labor Party candidate. Lane was defeated by Mayor Schmitz and suffered the humiliation of placing third. In 1904, Lane stepped down as San Francisco City Attorney to return to his private law practice leaving behind a strong legacy of integrity and reform that caught the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. Lane realized his political fortunes lay east in Washington, DC, not in Republican controlled California.
Lane admired Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican progressive, more than any other American political figure. Their friendship was genuine and lasting. Lane owed his personal introduction to Roosevelt to their mutual friend- Benjamin Ide Wheeler, president of the University of California. Wheeler, a Democrat, was a trusted political adviser to Roosevelt dating back to Wheeler's prior career as a Cornell University professor and Roosevelt's tenure as Governor of New York State. In March 1903, when Lane traveled to Washington to argue a San Francisco city case before the US Supreme Court, he carried with him a letter of introduction from Wheeler to President Roosevelt. Roosevelt took an instant liking to the Californian who had campaigned the year before as a "Roosevelt Democrat". Before Lane left Washington, the President promised him a seat on the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). On December 6, 1905, Roosevelt formerly submitted Lane's nomination to the US Senate for the vacant seat on the ICC which met with immediate opposition from the Republican controlled upper chamber. Senate opposition to Lane subsided when Roosevelt agreed that he would appoint Republicans to the next two commission vacancies.
Lane moved to Washington and served on the ICC for the next seven years, 1906-1913, being reappointed by President Taft in 1909 and elected chairman in 1913. Lane quickly became recognized as one of the most able members of the commission. Lane's work on the commission was significant as he guided the implementation of the Hepburn Act, ended the practice of railroad rate discrimination, crafted the regulation of railroad securities, and assured supremacy of federal control over transportation. Lane viewed the ICC presence as a moral force that could make the nation's railroads behave in a more equitable and rational fashion. Intellectual independence, breadth of vision, and fine mastery over details characterized his seven years' service as a federal railroad regulator.
Lane was somewhat reluctant to leave the Commission to accept Woodrow Wilson's offer in February 1913 of the secretaryship of the interior. Though the post of Secretary of the Interior was one of the most exacting in the cabinet, Lane could hardly have asked for one better adapted to his talents, or enabling him to draw more effectively upon the stores of his experience in the West. In 1913, the Department of the Interior was a collection of unrelated bureaus, miscellaneous federal institutions, and field offices scattered as far away as Hawaii. Among Lane's many new cabinet responsibilities were control over territories and insular possessions, such as Alaska, and stewardship over vast federal natural resources. As an ardent conservationist, Lane consistently maintained that the resources of the West should be used to develop the West.
Lane was a gifted public administrator who immediately introduced agency reforms aimed to streamline, make more efficient, and create a more service-oriented federal bureau. He issued directives designed to improve the quality of writing within the agency and its responsiveness. Lane cautioned his staff against using "legalese" and mandated that any communication be answered within five days after receipt in a short, simple and cordial manner. To the employees who worked under him in Washington he was an inspirational leader. He aimed to kindle in them the glow of his own enthusiasm for public service. To promote fellowship, improve morale, and foster the spirit of teamwork in the department, he organized the "Home Club", an establishment intended to provide a wholesome place for his staff to relax, socialize and take pride in their agency.
As the nation's chief conservationist, Lane achieved several remarkable feats. His policies toward Alaska aimed at centralizing federal control over its vast untapped resources. To show his practical interest in the welfare of Alaska, he nominated an Alaskan as its governor. He recommended to Congress the construction of a 471 mile federal railway from Seward to Fairbanks which his department completed in 1919 without a trace of graft. Lane's secretaryship turned out to be a major turning point in the history of national parks. On his urging, Congress enacted the National Park Service Act of 1916 that removed the parks from the political arena and institutionalized the concept of wilderness preservation as a vital component of the federal conservation program. During his eight year tenure as Secretary of the Interior, Lane established six new national parks, including Rocky Mountain and Mt. McKinley.
As interior secretary, Lane held guardianship over 300,000 American Indians living on tribal reservations. The objective of his Indian policy was the release of every Native American from the guardianship of the federal government in favor of self-sufficiency. Lane was determined to suppress Indian liquor traffic, improve reservation health conditions, and favored the preservation of Indian culture and property. In every Native American he only saw potential.
Lane's dedication to duty was legendary. In April 1913, the University of California invited him to receive an honorary doctor of laws degree but Lane deemed his new duties too demanding so declined. In 1914 and 1916, Wilson strongly considered Lane for appointment to the US Supreme Court. In 1916, Lane's nomination was endorsed by the national press corps and both California US Senators, but he was withdrawn due to congressional interference in favor of the distinguished lawyer Louis Brandeis. Lane's reputation back home in California also soared as he was urged to run for governor in 1914 and against Hiram Johnson for the US Senate in 1916. However, his wife's poor health compelled Lane to decline the rigors of campaigning.
Lane showed an interest in foreign affairs during his cabinet years that led Wilson to appoint him to the American-Mexican Joint Commission. This binational commission was charged with shaping an agreement between the two countries on border pacification and a plan for American troop withdrawal from Mexico with the goal of normalizing relations between the two neighboring nations that had been strained by upheavals and revolution in Mexico.
During World War I, Lane willingly did everything in his power to support it, both within and outside the Interior Department. He served on commissions and committees that helped keep the machinery of war oiled, promoted the sale of Liberty Bonds, and fostered patriotism. Wilson appointed Lane to the Council of National Defense in which he directed the nation's civil defense mobilization. To lend assistance to returning servicemen, Lane championed a program to provide farms for veterans as a strategy to ease postwar unemployment and reverse the national trend towards urbanization. This farms for veterans plan, plus his personal crusade to promote American values, Lane believed would result in a better postwar nation. The draft brought to Lane's attention the high rate of adult illiteracy. He campaigned for additional federal funding for educating the native and foreign-born to read and write and was an advocate for improving the teaching profession. Lane saw education as a national priority and concern.
The decline of the Wilson administration, the Senate's refusal to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, and the death of his beloved hero Theodore Roosevelt appeared to Lane as signs of the end of era. After the armistice, Lane devoted himself to winning acceptance of Wilson's League of Nations believing the league would serve as a watchful eye and early warning system against uncivilized actions. Wilson looked to Lane for a national solution to the labor unrest that swept the nation in 1919, appointing Lane as chairman of the Industrial Conference because representatives of both business and organized labor respected him.
On February 7, 1920, a grateful President Wilson accepted Lane's resignation from his cabinet leading the Washington Post editorial page to proclaim the following day: "Mr. Lane is recognized as one of the best equipped men identified with the Wilson administration. Were Mr. Lane of American birth there is little doubt that he now would be seriously considered for the leadership of his party in the approaching campaign." Lane was 57 years old and in debt. His health was declining, and his private means were so small that he felt a sense of urgency to accept lucrative private employment as the vice-president of the Pan-American Petroleum Company. Once outside of government employment, Lane accepted appointment to the governing boards of the Salvation Army, the European Relief Council, and the John D. Rockefeller trusts that reflected his continuing interest in public service.
During the Summer of 1920, Lane's health began to fail. On May 18, 1921, Franklin K. Lane died while recovering from an operation at the Mayo Clinic at Rochester, Minnesota. Lane's accomplishments included reform activities, issue-oriented election campaigns, efficient administration, and influence on legislation that earned him widespread national praise. His life and legacy reflected the major public concerns of his generation.
The Lane Endowment
On May 19, 1921, the day after Lane's death, the New York Times paid tribute in the following editorial page eulogy: "... it would be hard to find a man who illustrated better the best qualities of American character and public service than Franklin K. Lane." Individuals and organizations honored Lane's memory by giving his name to a peak in the Mount Ranier National Park, to a redwood grove in California, to a high school in Brooklyn, and christened a World War II Liberty Ship in his honor.
However, several friends honored Lane in an unusual fashion. Stephen T. Mather and Adolph C. Miller, two Californians, quietly endowed a trust fund to provide a lifelong income for his widow, Anne. By personal letter they asked for additional contributions from other friends, including Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Within four months, his friends donated $100,000. News of the fund spread to the press, and as a consequence, the general admiring public also sent contributions. Hoover, Miller, and Roosevelt served as trustees for the memorial fund which they decided should go to the University of California, Berkeley after the death of Anne Lane.
On March 15, 1939, the Regents of the University of California accepted control over the Franklin K. Lane Memorial Foundation which consisted of $107,539. The ultimate purpose of the foundation was to promote: "(1) the better understanding of the nature and working of the American system of democratic government, particularly in its political, economic, and social aspects; (2) the study and development of the most suitable methods for its improvement in the light of experience." Today, 50 years later, this endowment is administered by the Institute of Governmental Studies and has a net worth of $1,880,506. IGS uses these funds to sponsor public affairs lectures, to support special conferences, and as scholarships for persons of outstanding promise.