Dickinson College, Spring 2024

Tag: 1910s

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.

War, Women, and the West: Wilson’s 1916 Presidential Victory

Democrat and Incumbent Woodrow Wilson defeated Republican nominee Charles Evans Hughes in 1916 in one of the closest presidential elections in American history. Three main contributors to Wilson’ssuccess were women voters, Western states, and the Democratic stance on pacifism from WorldWar I.                                             Picture

Wilson ran on a platform of preparedness for war, in the event the US was justifiably called to join, domestic prosperity, and peace. Wilson’s campaign was reinforced, most notably in the West, by William Jenngings Bryan, who despite having lost in three presidential elections, retained considerable influence. In fact, it was Bryan who coined the phrase at the Democratic Convention, “He kept us out of the war” a reference to Wilson’s ability to exclude the US from World War I. The phrase caught fire with Democrats at the Convention and became the primary slogan of the Democratic campaign.

The slogan was so effective in driving home a message that Teddy Roosevelt, who was campaigning for Hughes addressed it directly: “President Wilson’s ignoble shirking of responsibility has been misclothed in an utterly misleading phrase, the phrase of a coward, “He Kept Us Out of War.” In actual reality, war has been creeping nearer and nearer. . . and we face it without policy, plan, purpose, or preparation.” The irony of this is that Wilson was not in favor of the slogan in the first place for he agreed with Roosevelt that the possibilities of entering the war were ever increasing. This forward thinking led Wilson to deliver speeches expressing the importance of a “preparedness” for war, in the event the nation had to participate. Nonetheless, he came across as a pacifist. “Politically, Wilson’s Preparedness tour was a great success; but the ovations of the crowds who came out to hear him, particularly those in the Middle West, were in large measure for the President’s emphatic pledge to the United States out of the European war.”

Bryan contributed more than a phrase to Wilson’s cause, “…it is well to note that wherever Bryan campaigned, there the Democracy won. He is the miracle man of this year. He is a new Bryan of complete self-abnegation,” reported The New York Times. Although this statement is not completely accurate, in that Wilson did not win every state in which Bryan campaigned, it captures the essence of Bryan’s contribution to Wilson’s campaign. Bryan ran and lost in three presidential elections yet out of the 19 states in which he campaigned, Wilson won 18. He created the slogan “He kept us out of war” and helped establish the West as a dominant factor in presidential elections.

Another key contributor to Wilson’s victory was the role of women voters. Although the 19th Amendment granting universal women suffrage was not enacted until 1920, women could vote in 12 states by 1916, 11 of which went to Wilson. Women played a pivotal role in Wilson’s winning California, whose 13 electoral votes decided the outcome of the election. Wilson won California by only around 3,000 votes, with San Francisco proving to be the difference maker. “The women and the Progressives did the trick: the women in San Francisco voted for Wilson three to one,” noted the New York Times.

This election saw Bryan finally succeed in his efforts, women vote in a decisive manner in a Presidential election, and the West demonstrate it can make an impact. This election truly was a proving ground for many.

Election 1912: A Physically Divisive Contest

In The Washington Post on November 6th, 1912, the day after the election, it was reported that “A score and more of men and boys were arrested in the downtown section last night. Most of them were charged merely with disorderly conduct. Eleven peanut vendors were arrested for blocking traffic with their push carts.”

In several instances across the city, police responded to disorderly conduct that ranged from disruptive to violent with several instances of voters going to the hospital after suffering physical assaults. Eliza Thomas was suffered a blow to the head with a pipe and dispute between two young men resulted in a fistfight. This behavior was not isolated occurrence, in Kentucky, two men were killed in arguments while at the polls, as reports The Atlanta Constitution. In Lee County, the town constable was shot and killed by two brothers, who were arrested, and in Anderson County, the county magistrate shot a voter and was charged with his death.

Election day was not the only point during the season where surprisingly distressing events took place, it was merely the culmination of a rowdy period of campaigning. Only a few weeks before in Milwaukee, WI, on October 14th, there had been an assassination attempt on Theodore Roosevelt during an address. Despite being wounded, Roosevelt still gave his speech, willfully remarking “it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose”.

Of any contest of the era, the 1912 elections were perhaps the most contentious. The Boston Daily Globe stated that “few campaigns have run through a longer period of heated controversy.”  In a three way race, Democrat Woodrow Wilson emerged triumphant after Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft split the Republican vote (Chace pg 3). Wilson won overwhelmingly in the electoral college, with 435 electors, but won the popular vote with only 41%. Though formerly a Republican, Roosevelt was running under the banner of the Progressive Party, and received the most votes of a third party candidate in any presidential election, with 27%.  Taft won Utah and Vermont, and 23% of the popular vote, but as historian James Chace put it, he then gratefully headed back to New Haven to teach law at Yale, happy that he had not been elected for another term.

The participation rate of the electorate was expected to be very high, and this contributed partially to to amount of disruption. Though 1912 was several years before the passage of the nineteenth amendment, quite a few western states had granted women the right to vote, and in those states their influence on the results was expected to be important. In contrast to the events which took place elsewhere in the country, women were reported to be responsible, and well behaved voters. As The New York Times described the scene in Boise, Idaho, “the majority walked to the polls, cast their ballots intelligently, quietly and extremely businesslike. All were optimistic and chatted pleasantly with their friends and argued very little, seeming content to wait patiently for the returns.” What a great difference this was to Washington D.C. and Kentucky.

1912: Women for The Bull Moose

“How do the women of New York, who think they are—to put it moderately—at least equal to those of any other state in the Union, like the idea of being classed with idiots, insane, convicted criminals and boys under twenty-one on every Election Day?” –Ida Husted Harper in the New York Tribune

The year was 1912 and just like in New York, women in most states still did not have the guaranteed right to vote.  With the upcoming presidential election, these women, as well as those who could vote, found a voice in Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, the first to adapt a woman suffrage plank.  As suffragist Ida Husted Harper declared, “Women had taken a larger part in the political campaign…than ever before and one of the officers and many of the delegates present had spoken and worked for the Progressive party because of the suffrage plank in its platform” (p. 342).  The platform stated, “We pledge our party and its candidates to support loyally and work for the women’s suffrage constitutional amendment at all stages.”

Historian Jo Freeman argued the reason many women backed Roosevelt and his ‘Bull Moose’ ticket as opposed to Wilson or Taft is because they “found a warmer welcome in the Progressive Party than they had ever had from the Democrats or Republicans…Roosevelt urged that women gave a voice in party affairs even in states where they could not vote.”  For these women who could not vote, this voice was a way that they could influence the political campaign and prove they did have reason for needing the vote.

On Election Day, of the 1.3 million women who were eligible to vote, nearly half did so.  According to the New York Times, “Women played even a more important part in California than was expected…many women who own autos used them to gather aged and infirm voters and carry them to the polls, as well as workers in shops and stores who had limited time.  Many of the women workers in this city who were ardent Progressives appeared at the opening of the polls, at 6 o’clock, and remained throughout the day.”  It was also observed that most women filled out the ballots quicker than men because they had “studied sample ballots more closely.”

When the results came in, Roosevelt had lost the election to Wilson even with the support of many women.  Even so, there is no denying the importance of the election of 1912 had to women’s suffrage.  The woman’s suffrage plank that the Bull Moose Party advocated empowered women to fight for their natural rights.  Just as a protester wrote to the New York Times editor, “I venture to suggest the right to protection…as one right that woman does not possess that she sorely needs, and that the ballot is, so far as I know the only means of her obtaining”, women would not stop fighting for full enfranchisement until the 19th amendment was passed in 1920.

1912: Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party

“The trumpet call is the most inspiring of all sounds, because it summons men to spurn ease and self-indulgence and timidity, and bids them forth to the field where they must dare and do and die at need.”- Theodore Roosevelt

After serving two terms as President of the United States from 1901-1909, Theodore Roosevelt decided against running for reelection in 1908.  But as historian Patricia O’Toole suggests, in reaction to “the wrenching events of 1912…he persuaded himself that the trumpets of patriotic duty were calling for him to run for president,” once again.  Historian H.W. Brands argues that Roosevelt was upset with the current direction the Republican Party was headed and “felt forgiving, if condescending, towards Taft.” Roosevelt returned from retirement to run against Taft but ultimately failed to win the Republican nomination (The American National Biography).

Instead of accepting defeat, Roosevelt formed the Progressive Party to run as a third-party candidate.  He used his influence to gain support from disenchanted Republicans and on September 5, 1912, the National Progressive Party documented their platform focusing on “the rule of the people” and “realized the birth of a new party…unhampered by any corrupt political past, or by that ‘invisible government,’ which has so long coerced legislation to serve special and private interests.”  Roosevelt established new views for reform and succeeded in becoming a formidable opponent against Taft, his former party member, as well as Wilson, the Democrat candidate.

Unfortunately for Roosevelt, one man was not so happy with his choice to run for a third term and on October 14, 1912, John Schrenk attempted to assassinate the former president.  The incident made headlines across the nation and the New York Tribune reported:

“A desperate attempt to kill Colonel Theodore Roosevelt failed to-night, when a bullet aimed directly at the heart of the ex-President and fired at short range by a would-be assassin spent its force in a bundle of manuscript containing the address which Colonel Roosevelt was to deliver to-night and only slightly wounded the third party candidate.”

The New York Times further explained how Roosevelt insisted on continuing with his speech, “succeeded in making himself heard and talked for nearly an hour.” Only then was he taken to hospital.

October ended and November brought the much-anticipated Election Day.  The Washington Times detailed Roosevelt’s day at the polls:

“After a busy morning at his correspondence, Colonel Roosevelt was driven in his automobile to the place at the little engine house at Oyster Bay, arriving there at five minutes after 12 o’clock…Followed by a crowd of villagers, half a dozen photographers and the members of his party, the colonel entered the polling place and signed the book.  His ballot was No. 265.”

When the results came in, Roosevelt’s Progressive Party had not mustered enough support and Wilson won the election with 400 electoral votes.  Even so, Roosevelt won six states and beat Taft out in nearly all of them.  The Bull Moose Party may not have won the election but it came a strong second and proved to upset bipartisan politics.

1912 Election: An Elephant divided by a Bull Moose equals a Donkey

“From the moment that the very first returns were received there was never a minute of doubt that Gov. Wilson had made a clean sweep of the country […] From that time on the only interest manifested was as to whether Col. Roosevelt or President Taft would run second.” – New York Times

For Taft supporters, the election results had only demonstrated one thing: Theodore Roosevelt’s selfish crusade had handed Wilson the presidency with only 42% of the popular vote. As Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Charles D. Hilles argued, “the responsibility for [Wilson’s victory] must rest squarely and solely upon Mr. Roosevelt. But for Mr. Roosevelt’s action in deserting the Republican Party Mr. Taft would have been elected.” Hilles also promised that “the Republican Party will pursue and maintain its policies with undiminished confidence,” while the publisher of the Baltimore American and Baltimore Star, Gen. Felix Agnus assured Republicans that Taft had only finished in third because:

“the fear of Roosevelt was so great that we could not control our Republican vote.  While many remained loyal, the great majority, fearing that Roosevelt and radicalism would prevail, voted for Wilson en masse: and while it is a blow and defeat to the Republicans, they preferred the less of two evils, thereby saving the Republican Party, which they feared Roosevelt would overturn.”

At the same time, the Progressives claimed to see victory in defeat. It was the first time in the history of the United States that a third party candidate would finish second in a national election. Thus Chairman Francis W. Bird of the New York County Committee declared, “within three months we have founded a party and have decisively defeated the Republicans in this country.” The Chairman of the National Bull Moose Party, Senator Joseph M. Dixon further suggested, “the result of today’s balloting makes the Progressive Party the dominant opponent of the Democratic Party. Today the old Republican Party becomes ‘the third party’ in American politics.”

John Callan O’Laughlin of the Chicago Daily Tribune concluded, “it was a day of victory for the Democrats, a day of satisfaction for the Progressives, a day of gloom for the Republicans.” According to historian James Chace, “had the charismatic Roosevelt received the Republican nomination, he almost surely would have won [the general election]” (Chace, 6). However, once Roosevelt lost the nomination and decided to run as a third party candidate against his own former party, a divide in the Republican base was created that was simply too large for either Taft or Roosevelt to overcome. As Paul Rorvig writes, the 1912 election proved that “an Elephant divided by a Bull Moose equals a Donkey.” (“Clash of the Giants”, 46)

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