History Matters - Paul Harris and Politics


Among the treasured stories of Rotary is the dinner Paul Harris had in 1900 with a fellow lawyer. Afterwards, they walked around the local neighborhood where his friend introduced Paul to several business owners. The results of this walk started Paul thinking, “My friend seemed to know almost everybody and I realized that such an acquaintance must be very beneficial to a man. I felt that it ought to be possible to have the advantages of acquaintance and friendship and business opportunities which he would have in a small community where he could know everybody.” A few years later, Paul followed through on these ideas and started Rotary. Or so the story goes.


However, this tale has been told so many times that many of the specifics have changed with the telling.  A review of some of the renditions show that both the time frame of the walk range from autumn to summer and the locations move from Edgewater to Roger’s Park, two totally different community in Chicago. Interestingly, there are no indications Paul ever designated who he had dinner with that evening in any of his writings. This revelation was made by his good friend Sylvester Schiele in an article written for the Rotarian magazine in 1938, where he identified Robert J. (Bob) Frank as Paul’s dinner companion.


Let’s take a minute and presume Sylvester is correct in identifying Bob Frank as the mysterious lawyer of this famed tale.  Who was this man who unwittingly influenced Paul Harris to eventually start Rotary?


 Frank was born in 1865, a couple of years before Paul. He began his legal practice in Chicago in 1897, a couple of years after Paul had hung his shingle in that town.  By 1900, Paul was a thirty-three years-old with little or no serious prospective female companion to share his thoughts and desires with. He was surviving on his meager resources and was only now starting to make some financial headway. He had expected some resistance setting up his law office but was truly amazed at how slowly and how competitive it was to cultivate new business or make different acquaintances.


Frank, on the other hand, had been married for several years before being widowed in 1899. As relatively new attorneys, both men dealt with comparable cases of debt collection or incorporation. 


Where Paul joined a number of organizations in an effort to build his business, Frank seemed to have an easier path. With support from his wife’s family Bob was able to become a member of the prestigious Hamilton Club, a politically active association composed mostly of Republicans. The Hamilton Club along with other organizations was engaged in a vigorous campaign to clean-up and investigate corrupt city officials, judges, and representatives by supporting the election of men who were above reproach. They believed that honest government could lead to social and political reform and change.


At the turn of the 20th century, the Chicago City Hall was run by a group of aldermen known as “the Grey Wolves.” These notoriously legislators were skilled at trading their votes for favors and making municipal decisions designed to profit themselves.


Political corruption reached down to the Ward and precinct politicians, who were in league with those who contributed funds for their reelection.  Police selectively enforced the laws depending on who paid them the most in bribe money. Most attempts at reform were successfully thwarted.   The complexity and makeup of the Chicago political scene were as far from the simple bucolic Wallingford, Vermont where Paul Harris was raised, as anyone could imagine.


So as a member of the Hamilton Club, Bob Frank possessed a wide range of knowledge regarding public affairs, along with a thorough understanding of modern business relations and conditions.  His friends were among some of the better-known political, social, and civic leaders of the community. These connections, along with the fact he was a member of the Republican political action committee made Bob Frank a fast rising star in the Chicago political machine.


It may never be known what truly occurred or what conversations were had between the two lawyers during their after dinner stroll that fateful day. However, it is entirely possible Robert Frank was interviewing the young, politically naïve Paul Harris as a potential candidate to run for office. Paul later wrote he had tried his hand at politics, but neither liked the game nor the company he found there.


Is it possible that Paul actually did contemplate a political career only to find the unbridled greed of unregulated business and the government’s concept of laissez-faire that allowed the creation of fabulous wealth for a few mega-titans, along with the systematic exploitation of the general population who were often kept living in extreme poverty, took him in another direction?


What we do know is Paul’s ideas about politics and religion in Rotary was absolute. Rotary was not to be a political advocate for any person, group or movement nor based on any religious concepts other than the Golden Rule.  Tolerance of other people’s ideals was to be the guiding principle. In addition, it was the duty of Rotarians to learn as much about their political environment as possible, if only to make a balanced and educated vote.


Only once, in 1940 did Rotary International clarify its position with regards to political movements in reaction to the onset of World War II.


“Where freedom, justice, truth, sanctity of the pledged word, and respect for human rights do not exist,

Rotary cannot live nor its ideals prevail. “


Fred Carvin PDG 02-03

Author “Paul Harris and the Birth of Rotary.”