Thomas P. Gore - “The Blind Demosthenes” (1879-1949)
How many Oklahomans could identify this man’s picture—or name? Likely very few. Yet Thomas Pryor Gore was known to earlier generations of Oklahomans—and Americans—as the famed “Blind Orator.” Though unable to see, he was a true Oklahoma pioneer who helped raise Lawton from the barren shortgrass prairie of southwest Oklahoma. He and Robert Owen were the first two United States senators elected to represent the Sooner State. And had he not dueled in mortal political combat with two of the most powerful Presidents in American history, only death might have removed him from that exalted office.
Subjected to the additional suffering of having lost the sight he possessed early in life, Gore lost his vision one eye at a time in not one but two freak childhood accidents. The sight in his remaining good eye gradually faded until none remained at age twenty. Yet he rarely if ever complained. “The greatest service which the sighted can render the sightless is to help them to help themselves,” Gore said more than once. “This is better than charity.” Instead, he labored to make something of himself in the still-ravaged post-Civil War and Reconstruction Mississippi of his birth, and he labored until the end of his life that he might contribute good to the lives of his fellow Oklahomans.
Gore moved as a young man to Corsicana, Texas. Then he heard that a final tract of land, formed by the Apache, Kiowa, and Comanche reservations, and comprising most of future southwest Oklahoma, would be opened in 1901. Rather than another rowdy land run, this opening would be conducted by lottery. Envisioning the opportunity to build a great new American state, the blind twenty-two-year old persuaded his father to accompany him north, across Red River and the sprawling Oklahoma prairie, in a small wagon. Gore didn’t win land in the lottery, but he purchased a town lot, and with it, his earthly destiny.
The young pioneer himself wrote a chronicle that later Oklahomans can view as a window to their frontier past, and to those who founded the state of their pride and love. “I located at Lawton before there was any Law-ton,” Gore wrote. “There were only two little shacks on the town-site when I located my tent on the Eastern Boundary which was then called ‘Goo-goo’ avenue. The blue grass was waist high on most of the town-site, particularly where there were ‘hog-wallers.’ The hardy mesquite occupied part of the town-site.” He could see none of it himself, but he could describe it so that generations of later Oklahomans could.
Within months of settling in Lawton, where he became a good friend of famed Oklahoma lawman Heck Thomas (Volume 1, Chapter 10), the first police chief and the first fire chief of the town, Gore attended the territorial convention of the Democratic Party in Enid. His oratorical power already gaining renown, the delegates selected the twenty-two-year-old to speak for them in response to the host’s welcome. Memorable and stirring lines filled the impromptu address, given as only a blind man could give it—with no notes. Gore biographer Monroe Billington wrote that many of the future leaders of Oklahoma who attended considered it “the finest piece of oratory they had ever heard.”
The greatest service which the sighted can render the sightless is to help them to help themselves. This is better than charity.
—Thomas P. Gore
Gore would have the opportunity and motivation to make good on such appraisals of his talent. As the Age of Progressivism and the government-interventionist political leaders it spawned from both major parties, including the Roosevelts and Wilson, ascended, he grew increasingly skeptical of the ability of an increasingly unwieldy—and in his opinion, decreasingly constitutional—federal government to solve the country’s problems better than could its people.
That proved a perilous philosophy to hold in early-20th-century America. Gore served two stints in the U.S. Senate, of 14 and six years, respectively. Both times he eventually rose up to challenge powerful presidents in his own party whom he had initially supported and defended. In each case, he grew to believe they plied the domestic power of the federal government with unprecedented and unwarranted authority, and dragged his country toward war.
The first was Woodrow Wilson, who led the country into World War I, the second, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who led it during World War II. Both times, the Democrats rallied to defend their president, and they raised up well-financed primary opponents who defeated Gore. (Turning on Gore proved unwise, however, as Republicans immediately defeated one of these opponents and trounced the other in the next election in the then-staunchly-Democratic state.) Indicative of the invective he drew was this March 1920 newspaper article from the pro-Wilson Mountain Park Herald entitled “Gore Flooding the State with Dope,” which ridiculed him as a “Blind Demosthenes” and opined:
“He will find that it takes something more convincing than franked ‘political dope’ to patch up his unsavory record of opposition to the Government in its hour of trial. The loyal men and women voters of Oklahoma have already written: ‘Weighed in the balance and found Wanting’ opposite the name of Senator Gore, and on primary election day they will take great pleasure in promoting Scott Ferris to the place in the U.S. Senate which Gore has proven himself unworthy to fill.”
In addition, Gore’s grandson, the famed novelist Gore Vidal, recalled in a 2009 interview with this author that Wilson “offered” Gore (while still Senator) a spot on the U.S. Supreme Court, which the Oklahoman turned down. “To get rid of one of his enemies and put him on the court, a classic move,” Vidal said.
Regarding the second president whom Gore opposed, Vidal mused: “He only differed with Roosevelt on very important things.” Among those things were Roosevelt’s historic New Deal program of vast government control of the national economy and his later aggressive and secretive efforts to involve the pre-Pearl Harbor attack United States in World War II.
“I tell you mothers now,” Gore had declared in 1919 following World War I, his senate seat in jeopardy, “I will never rob your cradles to gorge the dogs of war.” (The Oklahoma History Center features a video recording of those dramatic words.) Two decades later, he opposed Roosevelt from the same political and moral point of view.
Defender of Indians
“He was the Savior of the Indians, even after death,” Vidal recalled. “When the Senator was practicing law in Washington, D.C. after he left the Senate, one case that he just kept on with, even though the tribes had no money—they had been (taken advantage of) so many times by so many different sorts of people—he went after all the federal money that the feds had stolen from the tribes because of the various treaties, which nobody paid any attention to. And the Senator was outraged by it and he did something about it, until the day he died.”
Gore, aided by his younger law partner and former senatorial assistant J. Roy Thompson, who also had Oklahoma roots, crafted a landmark series of claims on behalf of the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache tribes for proper compensation for about twenty million acres of land in Oklahoma and several other states which they claimed the federal government had defrauded them out of through a series of broken treaties dating back to 1865. The city of Lawton, which Gore pioneered and helped build, rose up on land wrested away from these tribes. He harbored a lifelong respect and feeling for them.
Gore and Thompson fought long and hard for the Natives. “When the Senator died, they were moving toward judgment, or damages, from the federal government,” Vidal said. Indeed they were, but it would be 1974, more than thirty years after the cases were filed, before the United States Indian Claims Commission entered a landmark judgment against the U.S. According to the Washington Post newspaper, “persistent lobbying” by Gore and Thompson led to the 1946 creation of the commission by Congress in the first place. The tribes were awarded more than $43 million.
"It has so frequently been stated as to be an aphorism," Thompson told the commission regarding himself and the long-deceased Gore, "that an attorney who prosecutes an Indian claim case against the United States should be as wise as Solomon, have the patience of Job and live to be as old as Methuselah. This case demonstrates its truth.
“I tell you mothers now, I will never rob your cradles to gorge the dogs of war.”
—Thomas P. Gore
Leader and Statesman
By the 1940s, Gore doubted he could carry a single precinct in Oklahoma in a Democratic Party primary election, so out of touch was he with the political and social times. “There was no place on the Oklahoma political scene for one who voiced loud suspicion of President Roosevelt’s leadership,” biographer Billington summarized. As both Democrats (Governor Leon Phillips) and Republicans (U.S. Senator Ed Moore) rendered that statement too sweeping, perhaps more accurate would have been that there was no place for a person in Roosevelt’s own party who so pointedly, powerfully, and fearlessly confronted the President on the national stage over his primary objectives.
But he never gave up, excoriating Roosevelt’s increasingly-aggressive support of the Allies in the years prior to World War II America’s entry. Convinced that the President purposed to maneuver America into the war, perhaps to deliver it from the seemingly-intractable Great Depression, Gore declared that the “Dictator . . . having won all the triumphs and trophies of peace . . . now desires to add martial splendor to his accumulated glories. Selah.”
Like him or not, love him or hate him, Thomas P. Gore’s greatest anachronism was his character, that of an elected leader—some would say statesman—unafraid to hew to his considered course, even in the face of harrowing opposition, ridicule, the looming loss of an office where he passionately wanted to serve, and perhaps worst, irrelevance, at least of the temporary sort.
His face with its unseeing eyes does not grace the front of our money or history books like some of his famous adversaries. For the discerning, however, his legacy bequeaths far richer gifts, including the nobility of overcoming great handicaps and obstacles, standing with courage on behalf of the powerless and against the misguided tide of the majority, and never backing down, no matter the cost to oneself.
He did not believe in paternalism in government, because he believed that it would destroy the self-reliance and self-respect of the individual. He preferred that people in need be made to help themselves rather than be given charity.
— Monroe Billington, Thomas P. Gore: The Blind Senator from Oklahoma