1908 – WILLIAM H. TAFT VS WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN

After one of the most decisive presidential victories of all time, Teddy Roosevelt promised not to seek a third term in office. But that didn’t mean he was going away. Could Roosevelt’s influence help keep Republicans in power?

The Last Four Years

No surprise here, Teddy Roosevelt stayed on the progressive track in his second term. Trusts were getting busted and land was getting conserved. He added three major domestic accomplishments to his resume. The first two, inspired by Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, were the Pure Food & Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. They established the Food & Drug Administration to inspect food and regulate drug prescriptions and set sanitary standards for meat packing plants. The third notable piece of legislation was the Hepburn Act, which gave the Interstate Commerce Commission the authority to set shipping rates for railroads.

Roosevelt continued to be a huge presence in world politics. His most important success was his mediation of a treaty to end the Russo-Japanese War. This role earned him the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize.

Economically, the US faced another panic in 1907. Luckily, the effects were mostly contained to the financial industry and were not nearly as severe as other recent downturns. The economy was already bouncing back in early 1908. Roosevelt responded with the Aldrich-Vreeland Act, which established a commission to study the causes of recessions. Their findings would eventually influence the creation of the Federal Reserve a few years later.

Major Issues

With two terms down, there was little doubt that Roosevelt was an effective leader. Now, politicians on both sides of the aisle continued to promote progressive causes like trust-busting. Although some conservative Republicans were considered to be close with big-business, most politicians agreed that increased regulation was necessary.

Party Watch & The Candidates

Even though Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t running for president this time, he still had a huge influence on the convention. The mere mention of his name drew wild cheers and chants of “four more years!” Roosevelt used this power to campaign for his close friend, William Howard Taft. Taft was an ohioan who spent most of his political career as a judge. He was even considered by President Harrison to fill a spot on the Supreme Court. Taft disliked real politics, but his friends and family were ambitious on his behalf. After the Spanish-American War, and subsequent Philippine-American War, he served as governor of the Philippines. While there, he opposed racial segregation and promoted (eventual) Philippine independence. Next, Roosevelt promoted him to Secretary of War. The two worked closely together to enact Roosevelt’s aggressive foreign policy. Taft wasn’t actually that interested in being president (his true passion was to be Chief Justice) but his friend Roosevelt secured his nomination anyways. Taft won on the first ballot. Assuming that Taft would carry on Roosevelt’s progressive policies, the convention selected conservative Congressman James “Sunny Jim” Sherman of New York as his running mate.

Yet again, the Democrats were coming off of a huge presidential loss. They decided to fall back on their most energetic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, who also won the nomination on the first ballot. This time, Bryan chose not to focus on silver as his main policy position. By now, it was clear that the gold supporters had won. Instead, he ran on a more general progressive platform that was not that unlike Roosevelt’s agenda. Also like Roosevelt, his supporters were notoriously rambunctious at the convention. Even though Bryan was not the youthful radical that he once was, he still was eager as ever to join the race. This time around, his running mate was former Indiana Senator John W. Kern, who was known for his popularity in the West.

1908 saw third party competition from the Populists, Socialists, and Prohibitionists. Unsurprisingly, they were of little consequence. Socialist Eugene V. Debs tied William Jennings Bryan with three presidential election attempts.

The Campaign

The stage was set for the third Battle of the Williams!

Taft chose to campaign in person, a strategy that was slowly becoming the norm. Unfortunately, he did not have the same public speaking skills as Roosevelt. His first few speeches were long and filled with boring statistics and court case references. Roosevelt gave him some tips, like attacking Bryan, instead of just responding to him. Taft increased his attacks on Bryan’s economic record. One popular Republican slogan was, “Vote for Taft now, you can vote for Bryan anytime.” But it was clear who was really leading the campaign. Opponents joked that TAFT stood for Take Advice From Theodore.

As he had in his previous two attempts, Bryan personally took to the campaign trail. He made his pitch more palatable by dropping silver and getting tougher on trusts. His line, “Shall the people rule?” presented the election as a choice between people’s rights and government by privilege. He argued that his progressive views made him a more suitable successor to Roosevelt than Taft. In fact, it almost seemed as if Roosevelt had borrowed some of Bryan’s views for himself. To set himself apart, he pointed out that the Panic of 1907 had occurred under the Republicans’ watch.

Election Day

Map update! Oklahoma joined the Union as the 46th state!

It’s not looking any better for Bryan. With a few exceptions in the West, his only stronghold was the solidly Democratic South. But even there, Missouri stayed red and retained its new-found swing-state status.

The Winner

William Howard Taft won! He was America’s 27th president. The electoral results were 321-162. Taft also won the popular vote by over one million votes. It was Bryan’s third and largest loss. It would also be his last.

It’s the end of an era. Taft was the last president with facial hair. As you might know, he was also the largest president. But, the story of him getting stuck in a bathtub is not true. Although, he did order custom-made tubs so that it wouldn’t happen!

What Did It Say About America?

Teddy Roosevelt was so popular, his endorsement could make anyone he wanted president. He also forced both parties to have progressive platforms, something that is pretty difficult to imagine now. Even though William Jennings Bryan was a supporter of many of the same causes, he simply could not win back Eastern businessmen and laborers.

Was It The Right Decision?

It was alright. Taft seems like a pretty good guy. But he might be the president who least wanted the job, and not in a good way, like George Washington. And as we’ll see, he is certainly no Teddy Roosevelt. But no one could live up to him.

After three campaigns, William Jennings Bryan was finally done running for president. The Boy Orator still remained an influential figure in Democratic Party politics for many years. He went on to advocate for prohibition, women’s suffrage, and increased workers’ rights. Bryan earned the national spotlight again in 1925 with the Scopes-Monkey Trial. Famously Evangelical, Bryan argued for the prosecution that high school teacher John Scopes broke the law by teaching evolution. Scopes was found guilty and fined. Bryan died just a few days after the trial.