In 1912, the American electorate was treated to the spectacle of an incumbent (current) president, a past president, and a future president running against each other in a three-way race for the White House. It was one of the most exciting and unusual campaigns in our history.
On election night 1904, Teddy Roosevelt promised not to run for a third term, a decision he later regretted. At the end of his second term, he wanted his faithful Secretary of War William Howard Taft to run for president. After a dinner party one evening, Teddy and the Tafts went into the library, and Teddy sat down in a big chair, closed his eyes and said, “I am the seventh son of a seventh daughter. I have clairvoyant powers. I see a man standing before me weighing about 350 pounds. There is something hanging over his head. I cannot make out what it is…At one time it looks like the Presidency—then again it looks like the Chief Justiceship.” Mrs. Taft cried, “Make it the Presidency!” William Howard Taft declared, “Make it the Chief Justiceship!” In the end, Teddy and Mrs. Taft talked William Howard Taft into running for the White House. He was no Teddy Roosevelt.
By the end of his term, Taft had compromised with the conservatives so often that Teddy felt that Taft had betrayed the progressive principles he was supposed to uphold. For that reason, or because he missed being the center of things, he decided to run against Taft for the Republican nomination. Taft did not want to be president again, but did not want TR to get back in the White House.
TR defeated Taft in nine out of ten primaries, including Taft’s own home state of Ohio. But the other states held conventions that nominated delegates favoring Taft. At the Republican national convention, Taft’s renomination was a sure thing. The chairman of the convention gaveled down so many Roosevelt motions that one delegate raised a point of order stating that the steamroller was exceeding the speed limit. After that, whenever the chairman spoke, the Roosevelt delegates would toot whistles and rub sandpaper together to imitate the sounds of a steam roller.
When Taft was finally nominated, Roosevelt and the progressive wing of the party walked out and met later to form the Progressive Party, which of course nominated Teddy for President. Teddy declared that his “hat was in the ring” and that he was stripped to the buff and feeling fit as a bull moose, and the party symbol was born (as well as the nickname for the entire campaign).
Teddy explained away his “no third term” pledge by explaining he had meant no consecutive third term. One of his supporters further explained that a man may say he does not want a second cup of coffee, but that does not mean he will never want another cup of coffee in the future. Vaudeville comedians had a lot of fun with “another cup of coffee?” jokes.
Taft had little chance of winning, but was determined that TR not win. He referred to himself as a “man of straw” saying he had been one for too long, and that “even a rat in a corner will fight.” Of course, describing himself as a cornered rat did not do much for his re-election chances.
The Democratic Party nominated Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey. Wilson was also a progressive who agreed with TR and Taft on most issues. There were one or two issues on which Wilson and Roosevelt disagreed, and these became the basis of the campaign.
Taft more or less dropped out of the campaign early, leaving it a mainly two-way fight between TR and Wilson. TR called his program New Nationalism, which called for the strengthening of the federal government. He said trusts were not necessarily bad if they were controlled. He considered them necessary for an efficient economy. His plan called for more regulatory powers for the federal government to control those trusts that needed it.
Wilson called his program New Freedom. To him, all monopolies were bad and needed to be broken up and eliminated. He felt that the freedom of competition had been removed form the marketplace and had to be restored. This could not be done as long as the trusts survived. His plan called for less federal power and more freedom for the people.
All three candidates took to the stump in one of the most active campaigns yet. There was one lull in the campaign. On October 14, while getting into a car in Milwaukee, Roosevelt was shot by a fanatic named John Shrank. Shrank yelled something about no third term, and fired at Roosevelt. The bullet struck Roosevelt, but he refused to go to the hospital. He said that he had a speech to make and stated “I will make this speech or die.” With great drama, he made his speech in almost a whisper to a silent audience. At the end of the speech, the audience stood and cheered, and Roosevelt finally went to the hospital. The bullet had struck the doubled over speech in Teddy’s coat pocket, and lodged in his ribs near the lung. The doctor said that it would have been much worse if Roosevelt were not in such great physical condition. Both Taft and Wilson sent him telegrams of sympathy and ceased campaigning until Roosevelt was better.
When the votes were counted, there were no surprises. Wilson won an electoral landslide taking 435 electoral votes to 88 for Roosevelt and 8 for Taft. Wilson did not, however, capture a majority of the popular vote. Roughly six million people voted for Wilson, compared to four million for Roosevelt and three and a half million for Taft. But since the Republican Party split between Teddy and Taft, Wilson took most of the states with a plurality (less than a majority, but more than anyone else) vote. Since all the electoral votes of a state go to whoever wins the most votes, Wilson won forty states, most with less than a majority of the popular votes.
Wilson went on to serve two terms and make great changes in our economic system. He came around to Roosevelt’s way of thinking, and strengthened the regulatory powers of the federal government. He also created the Federal Reserve System we still use today.
Taft often said he lost on the Dr. Fell Principle:
I do not like you, Dr. Fell, The reason why I cannot tell, But this I know and know full well, I do not like you, Dr. Fell.
Taft retired, taught law, and was later appointed Chief Justice, which is what he always wanted. He was one of our most successful Chief Justices, and had a major impact on the re-organization of the Supreme Court and the entire Judicial branch.
Teddy Roosevelt tried for the presidency again in the 1920 campaign. He was one of the leaders for the nomination when he suddenly died in early in 1919. He had contracted a form of jungle fever while exploring the River of Doubt in Brazil in 1913 and 1914. This led to surgery and other medical problems. He died of a blood clot in January of 1919.
This election is singular for another reason. It is the only election in which a “third party” finished ahead of one of the two major parties of the time. The Bull Moose or Progressive Party finished in second place, with the Republican Party in a distant third place. We have rarely been treated to such an active and interesting campaign. Let’s hope the coming one surprises us.
The copyright of the article THE BULL MOOSE CAMPAIGN OF 1912 is owned by John S. Cooper. Permission to republish THE BULL MOOSE CAMPAIGN OF 1912 in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.