Dickinson College, Spring 2024

Author: Will Nelligan

The Campaign of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt and the Election of 1912

The River of Roosevelt – Rio Da Roosevelt – runs 400 miles through western Brazil, finally meeting the Amazon River. It is among the harshest tributaries of the Amazon, and until  less than one century ago, was thought to be unchartable by all but the Amazonian natives.  Unsurprising to those who knew him and to those who study him, President Theodore Roosevelt thought differently. Equally unsurprising, Teddy Roosevelt would soon seek to ‘do’ differently.

Theodore Roosevelt observes a snake fight in Sao Paolo, May 1914.

Considering the rich and varied narrative of his own life, it is not unlikely that Teddy Roosevelt’s plans for the River of Doubt were hatched late on the night of November 5th, 1912.

His November 5th would have seemed quiet from all perspectives: a day spent at home, closeted away from the public and the press with staff, friends, and family.

The Theodore Roosevelt family home, on Oyster Bay Harbor in New York.

In the life of a former Colonel in the Spanish-American War, New York City Police Commissioner, and two-term President of the United States, November 5th was an exceptionally quiet day. On this day, of course, Theodore Roosevelt was not merely ‘former President;’ he was the Progressive – colloquially, Bull Moose – Party’s nominee for the White House, and on the night of November 5th, he would see his hopes for a third term in office stand against those of Democratic and Republican candidates.

The New York Times reported that Theodore Roosevelt watched 1912’s election day unfold from his home on New York’s Oyster Bay Harbor. He spent much of the morning avoiding all manner of publicity, whether it was a local trying to catch a glimpse of a famous neighbor or a reporter trying to get an exclusive scoop. The Boston Daily Globe reports Roosevelt finally leaving Sagamore Hill for an engine house on the eastern side of Long Island, where he would cast his ballot. The Globe’s reporter ascribes anxiety to the crowd observing Roosevelt at the polls, stating “he took so long that some of his party wondered whether he could be scratching candidates.” Exiting the booth, he took a few minutes to speak with a crowd of supporters and voters, before returning home to Sagamore Hill.  A few hours later, in what would be his last appearance as a candidate before votes were finally tallied, he met with Progressive Party secretary George Perkins.  Perkins was so surprised as to be “peeved” at the lack of interest displayed by Roosevelt in his election, having spent a significant portion of the conversation with him listening to gossip about Sagamore Hill and the nature surrounding it.

Regardless of Roosevelt’s personal interest in the election of 1912 – and his true feelings on the subject will likely forever remain a mystery – this was a formative election year in United States history. It marked the beginning of the end, as Alexander Keyssar explains in The Right to Vote, of female disenfranchisement from the vote, with states from Oregon to Illinois beginning to allow woman to participate in Presidential elections. Equally important, it marked the last truly viable third-party candidacy in a Presidential election until Ross Perot in 1992. Though Roosevelt sought to remove a Republican President he saw as far too conservative, he incidentally inserted a Democratic President he likely saw as far too liberal, all the while bolstering the unchallenged sanctity of the two-party system.

More than a year later, as the former President set out to chart a different kind of course in the Amazon, he may have been less interested in avoiding the American public’s eye or interest, and more focused on forgetting the story of his candidacy for a third term in his own heart and mind.

“Ring the Bell Twice:” Honey Fitz and the 1905 Boston Mayoral Election

An Advertisement Placed in the "Boston Daily Globe" on December 12, 1905

As he took the oath of office in the shadow of a snowy United States Capitol, John F. Kennedy stood for far more than the ascendance of one man to the office of the Presidency. Rather, his inauguration laid a capstone in the story of a family steeped in American political life for more than a half-century; a story that begins with John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald.

55 years earlier, a car carrying John Fitzgerald’s brother James and a representative from the Boston Daily Globe arrived at the Fitzgerald residence on Welles Avenue in Dorchester. As later recounted in a Globe story, James Fitzgerald and his reporting companion were greeted at the door by overwhelming elation: John would be elected Mayor of Boston.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin tallies Fitzgerald as having won 44,174 votes out of more than 92,000 cast; because his nearest opponents – a Republican and independent identified by Kearns Goodwin as having split the same demographics of voters – drew 35,028 and 11,628 votes respective, “Honey Fitz” had won a plurality victory in Boston. The Boston Daily Globe described the rousing cheers in Dorchester’s Codman Square as Fitzgerald made his way towards Democratic Party headquarters in downtown Boston, marking his first public appearance as Mayor-elect. As described in another Globe piece, a Fitzgerald supporter called out in the gallery of City Hall (which had never recorded a larger election night crowd), “what’s wrong with the old North End?”

The victory was likely quite gratifying for Fitzgerald. Kearns

Photographs from an article in the "Globe."

Goodwin asserts that the Mayorship was a position that intrigued him for some time, but it had not seemed to be the right opportunity until 1905. It was a race in which he had worked incredibly hard, up to and including election day. The Boston Daily Globe reported that Fitzgerald began December 12th with a “whirlwind” campaign through each of Boston’s 25 wards, followed by meetings with his campaign staff that lasted a significant part of the day. As the day waned, Fitzgerald focused on a ground campaign in his tougher wards, even having an encounter with a hostile ward boss, described in the same Globe article:

“Cheer up Martin. Don’t be discouraged,” said Mr. Fitzgerald, his remarks evidently being designed to carry with them the impression that the battle was all over but the shouting, but Martin failed to see the humor of the situation and scowlingly looked defiance as the democratic standard bearer was whisked away in his automobile.

As much as it was victory for Honey Fitz, it was equally sweet relief for other members of the Fitzgerald family, some of whom had trouble concealing their nervousness on election day. “Miss Rose,” as the eldest daughter of Honey Fitz and future mother of John Kennedy is described in the Globe, was so nervous that she “visited her church and offered up a fervent prayer for the success of her father” on election day. More than a century later, it is clear from Boston’s political and ethnic landscape that she did not have cause for great concern.

The late-19th and early-20th centuries were as transformative for Boston as for the United States as a whole.

A photograph of Copley Square in downtown Boston, circa 1912. The building on the right is the Boston Public Library, which still stands.

The 1900 Census shows that between 1850 and 1900, the number of people living in Massachusetts’ capital city more than quadrupled from just over 130,000 to over half a million, a number propelled upward by an influx of Irish immigrants. The Harvard Encyclopedia of Ethnic Groups, compiling several decades of Census data, reports that Boston saw 45,000 Irish-born residents in 1860 and 71,000 by 1890, or 12 percent of the entire city’s population.

The transition from a bastion of Brahmins to a center of immigration was not easy for Boston. Kearns Goodwin shows that with the swell of Irish Bostonians came the blight of slums and poverty, a trend that slowly edged the wealthier families out of the North and South Ends and into the Back Bay and Beacon Hill. While this separation likely served to propogate discrimination, it also helped to generate a formidable and cohesive political machine. Combined with voting regulations that were comparatively equitable (as Virginia Harper-Ho reports in Law and Inequality), Irish Bostonians were able to assume major influence on their city’s political process.  In 1885, just 30 years after Irish immigration reached its peak, Boston had elected its first Irish mayor. A few months after John Fitzgerald walked the streets of Boston’s wards on election day 1905, an official guide to Boston’s mayors had four Irish-Americans within its pages.

44 years later, John Fitzgerald passed away. An Alderman, Congressman, and Mayor, his obituary in the New York Times hailed “one of the most colorful figures in the history of Boston politics.” A product of an oft-painful chapter in the history of Irish-Americans, he never lost sight of that sense of attention to people that was honed so carefully across decades of election days. His grandson, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, would recall in his autobiography that, as late as 1947, Honey Fitz would tip a hotel bellman to ring the bell once for a guest from Massachusetts and twice for a guest from Boston. Every time the bell rang twice, any guest at the hotel could hear, in a great booming Irish brogue, “you’re from Boston, aren’t you!”

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