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This Day in History: Teddy Roosevelt & chaos in 1912

On this day in 1858, future President Theodore Roosevelt is born. Perhaps you know that Roosevelt served most of two terms as President (1901-1909), but did you know that he tried and failed to achieve a third term in 1912?


This last attempt at office was classic Teddy Roosevelt!

The election that year featured a three-way contest: Two Republicans and a Democrat were vying for the presidency. The Republicans were Teddy Roosevelt (a popular figure) and William Howard Taft (the incumbent). The Democratic challenger was Woodrow Wilson, a progressive liberal.


By then, Roosevelt was a former President. When he left the White House in 1908, he effectively hand-picked his successor, Taft. Unfortunately. Roosevelt became disillusioned with his own choice. He decided to re-enter the political arena. He wanted the Republican Party nomination for himself.


Roosevelt still enjoyed a lot of support among the Republican base, and he entered the 1912 Republican Party convention with more delegates than Taft. Despite Roosevelt’s strong showing, the leaders of the party chose Taft as their nominee. When the announcement was made, many Roosevelt supporters marched out of the convention.


Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party was born!


Members of the Bull Moose Party felt that they were standing up to the establishment. Their voices needed to be heard, and Roosevelt had promised to stand up to “political crookedness.”


Importantly, Taft’s supporters viewed the issue differently. Taft believed that Roosevelt was “the greatest menace to our institutions that we have had in a long time.” Roosevelt was more pro-government regulation than Taft, and the populist Roosevelt was ready to ditch certain constitutional principles in order to make the government more purely democratic. Moreover, Roosevelt was more willing to expand executive power.


The campaign was intense—and it became too personal.


In October, Roosevelt’s campaign took a near-tragic turn. As Roosevelt prepared to attend a rally in Milwaukee, he was shot in the chest by a would-be assassin. Roosevelt was not one to be dissuaded from his speech, simply because of a bullet. He gave his speech anyway, speaking to the crowd at a level barely above a whisper.


“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible,” he said in a low voice. “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.”


Roosevelt had prepared a long speech, and his thick stack of notes took the brunt of the bullet’s impact. Roosevelt spoke for more than an hour before he was taken to the hospital and treated.


Despite Roosevelt’s gallant campaign efforts, he could not win the presidency. Final election results showed a Republican Party that was badly split. Woodrow Wilson decimated both Roosevelt and Taft in the electoral vote, despite the fact that the two men’s combined popular vote total was greater than Wilson’s.


Despite the loss, some historians credit Taft with saving conservatism. His campaign preserved a constitutionalist wing of the party that would go on to serve as a counterbalance to more progressive thought.


“[F]or Republicans who supported Taft,” historian Lewis L. Gould writes, “the electoral defeat was worth the ideological victory.”


What would have happened if Roosevelt, Taft and their supporters had put their personal issues aside and supported a compromise candidate during the summer of 1912? Could the country have avoided the progressive presidency of Woodrow Wilson?


We’ll never know.


For more on this topic, please check out my book: Why We Need the Electoral College.



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