Edwin A. Van Valkenburg brought gusto to the Progressive Movement in Pennsylvania a century ago, and he did it in a way that is almost inconceivable to us today.
For Valkenburg, known to everyone simply as “Van”, was a newspaper editor who was also heavily involved in politics and relished nothing more than an all-out partisan battle.
The blurring of these two roles was more common during a time when many more newspapers were published. They often served as a house organ for one political party or even a faction of a party.
Several Pennsylvania governors in the mid-19th century launched their careers in the newsroom.
Valkenburg (1869-1932) was one of the most colorful of the lot. What is intriguing about him is that he first drew attention as the editor of the Wellsboro Republican Advocate, a small country paper in the northern tier. But it was Van’s 25-year stint as editor of the Philadelphia North American where he exerted his greatest influence.
Valkenburg’s politics were Republican politics. He identified with Republican reformers and was one of Theodore Roosevelt’s most ardent backers when the ex-president made a third-party bid for president in 1912.
This was all in the future when Valkenburg came to Harrisburg in 1894 as a Quay man; that is political boss Matthew S. Quay.
Quay had an eye for young talent and Valkenburg’s efforts on behalf of GOP candidates while putting out the Advocate impressed him.
Valkenburg needed a steady sinecure to help keep the paper afloat and that led to his Quay-engineered appointment as clerk of the House Appropriations Committee. Valkenburg’s job didn’t stop him from sending accounts of Harrisburg spending practices back to Wellsboro.
Valkenburg’s break with Quay came early when Boies Penrose and former Postmaster General John Wanamaker fought for legislative appointment to an open U.S. Senate seat in 1896.
Penrose prevailed in the Legislature with Quay’s support, but the fight was transformed into a larger battle between Quay and Wanamaker for control of the state GOP party.
Valkenburg fired many salvos in this battle using his inside knowledge from the appropriations committee.
In a semi-farcical episode, Valkenburg was indicted on charges of trying to bribe lawmakers to vote for Wanamaker. The case was quickly dropped amidst signs it was an effort by Quay’s allies to obtain a list of lawmakers who supported Wanamaker.
Valkenburg moved to a bigger stage in Philadelphia in 1899 when Wanamaker’s son Tom purchased the North American.
Valkenburg became editor and launched a campaign for municipal reform criticizing a proposed sweetheart sale of the city-owned gas works and helping get reform mayor Rudolph Blankenburg elected in 1910.
Here is how the muckracking journalist Lincoln Steffens who wrote about corruption in Philadelphia in his “The Shame of the Cities” described Valkenburg.
“He knew everybody and everything. He printed everything,” wrote Steffens. “Threatened with assassination, he simply moved his desk out of range of the window and went right on getting and publishing the evidence, the libelous, uncontradicted facts.”
TR’s win of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes in the 1912 campaign despite the loss overall was a high-water mark for Vandenburg and the progressive movement.
But the return to normalcy with Warren Harding’s election as president in 1920 and TR’s death a year earlier marked an era’s passing. The North American steadily lost circulation and faded away in 1924.
“Van” spent his final years as a gentleman farmer pursuing scientific advances in agriculture at his estate named Vanacres near Wellsboro.
A contemporary Pennsylvania newsman, E.J. Stackpole in his autobiographical work “Behind the Scenes with a Newspaper Man” depicts Vandenburg as a modern Cincinnatus down on the farm.
The book has pictures of Van in a straw hat and white starched shirt plowing the field with a huge draft horse in the lead.
“Now that Quay and Penrose have passed on,” wrote Stackpole in 1926, “it may be told that Van Valkenburg could easily have sat among the mighty in the “regular” organization, but he preferred to go down, if necessary, with the flag of revolt flying proudly. He is essentially the Roosevelt type and the political arena has always drawn him as a magnet.” — Robert Swift
Harrisburg Bureau Chief for Times-Shamrock Newspapers