The House of Truth

A Washington Political Salon and the Foundations of American Liberalism

In 1912, a group of ambitious young men, including future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter and future journalistic giant Walter Lippmann, became disillusioned by the sluggish pace of change in the Taft Administration. They threw informal dinner parties at a Dupont Circle row house that they self-mockingly referred to as the “House of Truth.” The house became the city’s foremost political salon and de facto campaign headquarters for Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party bid for the presidency. Supreme Court justices, ambassadors, generals, journalists, and a future U.S. president frequented their parties. “How or why I can’t recapture,” Frankfurter recalled, “but almost everyone who was interesting in Washington sooner or later passed through that house.” Frankfurter and Lippmann lived in the House and joined Herbert Croly in founding the New Republic in 1914 as an outlet for the group’s ideas. The House’s regular guests included Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, then-lawyer Louis Brandeis, Herbert Hoover, and the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who created Mount Rushmore.

Weaving together the stories of these fascinating, combative, and sometimes contradictory figures, Brad Snyder shows how their ideas shifted from progressivism – the belief that government should protect workers and regulate monopolies – into what today we refer to as liberalism – the belief that government can improve peoples’ lives and protect their civil liberties. After Roosevelt lost the 1912 presidential election, Holmes replaced him as the hero of the house. Holmes’s famous free speech dissents and concern for fair criminal trials showed the House’s liberals how to use the Supreme Court to achieve political and social reform.

The House of Truth helps us understand what being a liberal means. It explores liberalism’s roots from the fall of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 to the rise of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 by telling the stories of four main characters – Frankfurter, Lippmann, Borglum, and Holmes. By today’s standards, they might not be considered liberal. Yet they fought for many liberal ideas that today we take for granted: minimum wage laws, child labor laws, and workman’s compensation laws. They fought for other liberal ideas that remain just as hotly contested today: the rights of organized labor, social welfare legislation often struck down by the Supreme Court, and free speech and fair criminal trials for radicals and racial minorities. They carved iconic monuments like Mount Rushmore that exemplified liberal faith in American democracy. Whatever the ideology of those associated with it, the people at the House of Truth were dreamers – of bigger, better government; protection of civil liberties and fair criminal trials; and gigantic monuments in stone.