1912 – WILLIAM H. TAFT VS WOODROW WILSON VS THEODORE ROOSEVELT

After leaving his hand-picked successor, William Taft, in charge of the White House, Teddy Roosevelt traveled to Africa for a hunting trip. He intended to give his friend space to lead the country his own way. But keeping the progressive faction happy was more difficult than it seemed. Roosevelt’s return to the US threatened the stability of the Republican Party and changed politics forever.

The Last Four Years

At first glance, it would seem that President Taft had done a lot to advance Roosevelt’s agenda. His administration actually had more anti-trust lawsuits against large companies. He enhanced the Food & Drug Act and the Interstate Commerce Commission. By the end of his term, the Panama Canal was nearly completed. He created the Department of Labor, which was previously part of the Department of Commerce. He even imposed an eight-hour work day on public works projects. But all of that wasn’t enough to satisfy the progressives in the Republican Party.

Taft’s first faux pas with progressives came when he replaced Roosevelt’s cabinet with his own. Many expected to stay and continue the work that they had started with the former president. Naturally, many of Taft’s new appointments were more conservative that their predecessors. Although Taft shared most of Roosevelt’s values, he favored strict legal tactics to enact policy, whereas Roosevelt was willing to push boundaries and force his agenda through. In foreign policy, he followed “Dollar Diplomacy,” in which American interests were promoted through international investments by US banks and industry, unlike Roosevelt’s direct strong-arming. He was also seen as weaker on tariffs. Taft’s biggest blunder was on environmental issues. Gifford Pinchot, the Chief of the US Forest Service and one of the few remaining Roosevelt appointees, accused Taft’s Secretary of the Interior, Richard Ballinger, of conspiring with the coal industry in Alaska. When Taft sided with Ballinger, Pinchot became openly critical of the president. Taft subsequently fired him. Even though Ballinger was eventually exonerated, progressives saw this as the ultimate betrayal. With all this bad blood, Taft was an easy target for blame when Republicans did poorly in the 1910 midterms.

Major Issues

Like the 1908 election, Republicans and Democrats were both advocates for progressivism. A lot of issues fell under that umbrella, of course. In general, most voters wanted to see an anti-trust/pro-labor record. Republicans were torn between their new populist base of Roosevelt supporters, and their more conservative old-guard who had close ties to big-business. Although neither conservative nor progressive candidates of the Democratic Party had recent success for the presidency, William Jennings Bryan’s silver coalition had added a faction of populist Western farmers that could not be ignored.

Party Watch & The Candidates

When Teddy Roosevelt returned to the United States in 1910, he was greeted by a cheering crowd. He was already aware of his faction’s frustration with Taft. They wanted him to challenge the president for the nomination. He finally accepted the call in early 1912. Although he had previously promised not to run for a third term, he quickly amended that statement to mean he would not seek third consecutive term. As he explained, “When a man says at breakfast in the morning, ‘No, thank you. I will not take any more coffee,’ it does not mean that he will not take any more coffee tomorrow morning, or next week, or next month, or next year.” Roosevelt ran on a progressive platform called New Nationalism, which promoted social welfare, direct democracy, and federal regulation of business. Unfortunately for Taft, Roosevelt was the one politician who could dethrone him. After all, the economy was good and he had been more progressive than his opponents claimed. Sadly, the new rift in the party became personal. Roosevelt called Taft a “fathead” who was “disloyal to every canon of ordinary decency.” Taft was crushed by his old friend’s change of heart. Once, in front of a reporter, he broke down and cried, “Roosevelt was my closest friend.” When he did hit back, he warned that Roosevelt’s supporters were “dangerous radicals.”

With two major names in the running, the 1912 Republican nomination saw the first serious use of voter preference primaries! After an early lead by Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette, Roosevelt won nine states, including Taft’s home of ohio. Taft only won a single state, but he still had the old guard on his side. At the convention, almost all of the remaining contested delegates were awarded to President Taft and he won the nomination. For his running mate, the party stuck with current Vice President James Sherman. It was the first time a sitting vice president was re-nominated for the position since John C. Calhoun in 1828. Oddly enough, Sherman died just a few days before the election and was replaced Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler.

Roosevelt and his supporters were furious. After Taft’s victory, they stormed out of the convention. Roosevelt decided to go independent and formed the Progressive Party. After he told a reporter he felt like a “bull moose!” on the campaign trail, the animal was adopted as their symbol. Even though Roosevelt was the most popular politician in America, few Republican office-holders followed him out of the party. Still, the Progressives held their own convention with thousands of attendees. Roosevelt was greeted to a 42-minute standing ovation. In his speech, he dismissed the Republicans and Democrats as “husks, with no real soul within either, divided on artificial lines, boss-ridden and privileged-controlled.” Their platform outlined several progressive goals, including improved conditions for factory workers, increased government aid to agriculture, women’s suffrage, and popular election of senators. Roosevelt’s running mate was California Governor Hiram Johnson.

The Democrats also faced the threat of division. Even though three-time loser William Jennings Bryan was not in the running, he still held a lot of power in the party. Conservatives, such as those from the New York patronage machine of Tammany Hall, preferred Speaker of the House Champ Clark of Missouri. But when Alton Parker, the party’s conservative nominee in 1904, was selected as the convention’s temporary chairman, Bryan kicked it into high gear. He sponsored a resolution to oppose any candidate that was under obligation to the rich. After several rounds of voting, Bryan gathered support for New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was a Southerner whose father served as a chaplain in the Confederate army. As an adult, Wilson moved North to be a professor, eventually becoming the president of Princeton University. He had only been in politics since his 1910 run for governor. Though he was picked by the New Jersey political machine for the position, he proved to be a reformer and a progressive in office. Wilson had previously been a critic of Bryan, but the two became close later in life, partly thanks to their shared religious background. On the 46th ballot, Wilson finally secured the nomination. He was joined by Indiana Governor Thomas Marshall for vice president. Bryan made sure the party had a progressive platform, but it differed from the Bull-Moose agenda by calling for the breakup of trusts, rather than just regulatory commissions.

The three parties were joined, once again, by Eugene Debs running for his fourth attempt under the Socialist Party. The party had been doing well in local elections, primarily in the Midwest, and hoped Debs’ persistence would get their supporters to the polls.

The Campaign

All three candidates acknowledged the “new day” dawning in America during their acceptance speeches. They believed that the government was responsible for the welfare of its citizens in a way never perceived before. The campaign was based on personality and principles. Taft was the kind conservative, Roosevelt the passionate progressive, and Wilson the liberal schoolmaster.

President Taft followed the old tradition that sitting presidents did not campaign. It wasn’t unusual, even Roosevelt followed the rule in 1904. but it didn’t take much convincing for Taft. He wrote in July, “Sometimes, I think I might as well give up so far as being a candidate is concerned. There are so many people in the country who don’t like me. Without knowing much about me, they don’t like me…” It wasn’t so much that people disliked him, but rather, he was seen as a conservative in an era of larger-than-life progressive leaders. He openly admitted that he could not grab headlines like Roosevelt. Taft viewed the Progressive Party as a “religious cult” and secretly hoped for a Wilson victory. This time around, the Republican Party didn’t receive as much funding from their big-business allies, since they all assumed that Taft would lose.

As expected, Teddy Roosevelt went on a nation-wide tour, even including the South. He continued to attack Taft, but focused most of his attention on Wilson. In response to accusations that he stole his positions from William Jennings Bryan, Roosevelt replied, “So I have. That is quite true. I have taken every one of them except those suited for the inmates of lunatic asylums.”

With the Republicans split, the Democrats realized this was their best chance to win back the White House. Wilson was tasked with unifying the party after a divided convention. Luckily, his background worked in his favor. He was seen as an intellectual populist, a Southerner adopted by the North, and product of the machine who had become a reformer. Wilson was also effective on the campaign trail. He was passionate and often witty. After he discovered the tariff was a stale issue, he focused more attention on the breakup of trusts under his “New Freedom” plan. He warned that the regulatory commissions proposed by the Progressives would fall into the wrong hands and corrupted.

On October 14th, Roosevelt was shot while traveling from his hotel to a rally in Milwaukee. The assassin was John Flammang Schrank, who believed that the ghost of William McKinley had ordered him to take revenge on his successor. Unfortunately for McKinley’s ghost, Roosevelt survived. After coughing to check for blood, Roosevelt waved off doctors and insisted on making his speech anyways. Once on stage, he informed the audience, “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” He showed them the damaged manuscript from his pocket and continued, “The bullet is in me now, so that I can not make a very long speech, but I will try my best.” He spoke for an hour and a half. His eventual x-ray revealed that the bullet was lodged next to his fourth rib. After surgery, he took a few weeks off of the campaign trail. As a sign of respect, Taft and Wilson also suspended their campaigns.

The hole through Roosevelt’s speech.

Election Day

Lots of colors going on in this one, but it’s clearly blue domination. Oddly enough, Taft and Roosevelt both lost their home states of ohio and New York.

US Flag Pause!

Arizona and New Mexico have joined the Union! That makes for 48 states, finally completing the continental US! The 48-star flag was in-use from 1912 to 1959. Per the Flag Act of 1818, when a new state is added, the updated flag design becomes official on the following July 4th. The 50-star flag was adopted in 1960, following the statehood of Hawaii. Our current design surpassed the 48-star flag as the longest-lasting version in 2007.

The Winner

Woodrow Wilson became our 28th president! He earned 435 electoral votes. Teddy Roosevelt won 88, and William Taft only won 8, the lowest ever for an incumbent. It was the last time a candidate that wasn’t a Republican or Democrat finished second. Wilson had about 6.3 million votes, Roosevelt 4.1 million, and Taft 3.5 million. It was clear that the Republican split had guaranteed Wilson’s victory. Surprisingly, Wilson received less votes that William Jennings Bryan had in each of his three losing presidential bids. Eugene Debs also had his best showing, winning 900,000 votes, 6% of the total.

Wilson was the first Democratic winner since 1892. He joined Grover Cleveland as the only Democratic winners since the Civil War. Democrats did well across the country, winning control of both houses of Congress.

What Did It Say About America?

As soon as Roosevelt left the Republican Party, Wilson’s victory was inevitable. But, despite their differences, New Nationalism and New Freedom had crushed Taft’s conservatism. Roosevelt was realistic about his loss, saying, “We are beaten. There is one thing to do and that is to go back to the Republican Party. You can’t hold a party like the Progressive Party together.” The Bull-Moose Party had really only been about Teddy Roosevelt. Without him, it faded away by the end of the decade. But their influence on the Republican Party was gone, too. The old-guard was in control.

Was It The Right Decision?

Nope! Despite all of his progressive stances, Woodrow Wilson was one of America’s most racist presidents since the Civil War. That being said, I’m not sure that it would have been a good thing if war-hungry Teddy Roosevelt had been president during World War I. The US got really lucky with an easy victory in the Spanish-American War. Earlier intervention in Europe may have cut it shorter, or it could have exposed millions more Americans to its brutality.

In the meantime, Roosevelt dealt with his loss with another international trip, an expedition through the Amazon. The excursion was a disaster. Roosevelt contracted malaria and almost died. Luckily, his son, having inherited his father’s determination, was able to bring him home alive. Although he endured a devastating election loss (and lost his best friend!), William Taft went on to fulfill his true dream of becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1921, the only president to do so! William Jennings Bryan, though he would never become president, did get his time in the Executive Branch when Wilson appointed him as his Secretary of State. Willson made another notable appointment for Teddy Roosevelt’s old position of Assistant Secretary of the Navy. It went to an upcoming progressive Democrat who Teddy was quite familiar with, his distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.