August 7, 1912—For 16 years, Theodore Roosevelt and WoodrowWilson (pictured, as Princeton University president) ad expressed admiration, publicly and privately, for each other’s character and policies. But as they accepted the nominations of their parties, the two were set on a course that would make them bitter rivals to the end of their lives, affect the direction of their parties, and determine the conduct of American foreign policy for the American Century.
Even this capsule description doesn’t do justice to just how pivotal—and convulsive—the election of 1912 was. It was a four-way race, featuring an ex-, current (William Howard Taft) and future President, along with a fourth candidate, the Socialist Eugene V. Debs, who ended up gaining 6% of the popular vote—the highest percentage by a left-wing candidate in the nation’s history.
TR was doing nothing less than trying to regain the White House from his chosen successor, Taft. Because he had served out most of the second term of the assassinated President William McKinley, he was also regarded by many as breaking a pledge not to pursue a third Presidential term.
The relevance of the campaign hasn’t abated even a century later. It isn’t only because the third party that ended up nominating Roosevelt, the Progressives, called in their platform for limits on campaign spending (something the Supreme Court still has a problem with). Nor is it even that Roosevelt, an advocate of military preparedness and unilateral U.S. action in foreign policy, has been denounced in recent years by Glenn Beck as a “weird progressive.”
No, a recent George F. Will column extolled Taft for staying in the race to deny TR a chance at a third term, citing the ex-President’s support of recall against judges—a measure that would have undermined the independence of the judiciary. The GOP might have lost, Will writes, but it "kept its commitment to the Constitution," and now, with the electoral good fortunes of the likes of Ted Cruz in Texas, the party exhibits a positively "Madisonian flair."
But the real beef that Will might have with TR and the Progressives is this sentence from the party platform: “In accordance with the needs of each generation the people must use their sovereign powers to establish and maintain equal opportunity and industrial justice, to secure which this Government was founded and without which no republic can endure.”
The fight between Roosevelt and Wilson (Taft, most observers correctly realized, could only play a spoiler’s role) amounted to who would be better equipped to fight against social injustice in this age of wrenching dislocation for the American worker. And “fight” might have been the one thing the two men had in common, above all else—at least in how they came to this point in their races for the Oval Office.
Roosevelt, in a mixture of his own disappointment in being out of the White House and genuine disagreement with Taft’s stance on conservation, had rallied Progressives who were disappointed with the incumbent by announcing that his hat was “in the ring.” Despite overwhelming success in the subsequent primary season (he even whipped Taft in his home state, Ohio), Roosevelt was denied nomination at the GOP convention by the Taft forces, which awarded TR a paltry 19 out of 254 disputed convention votes.
On the eve of the Chicago confab, knowing the outcome, he broke precedent for candidates by appearing in person at the convention, urging his followers not to vote at what was turning out to be rigged proceedings, climaxing with evangelical fervor: “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!”
In contrast, New Jersey Governor Wilson accepted the Democratic nomination from his summer residence in Sea Bright, N.J. He won the Democratic nomination in Baltimore only after 46 ballots and all kinds of furious back-and-forth among his advisers and rival candidates and ex-candidates (such as William Jennings Bryan, who would go on to become his first Secretary of State). Like TR, Wilson saw his convention struggle as a battle with the forces of inaction and conservatism within his party (though unlike Roosevelt, he had lost a string of primaries, to Speaker of the House Champ Clark).
In September, the debate between Roosevelt and Wilson revolved around the issue of trusts, a form of corporate combination that threatened small businesses and consumers alike. After two terms in which he had earned a heroic reputation as a “trust-buster,” Roosevelt had concluded that a) they were ineffectual, and b) did not really distinguish adequately between “good” and “bad” trusts. He proposed now that, instead of trusts being busted, they should be regulated, by a government large enough to confront a business leviathan. His program came to be known as the “New Nationalism.”
Wilson, heavily influenced by adviser (and eventual Supreme Court Justice) Louis Brandeis, countered with his own program, the “New Freedom.” He argued that trusts indeed did have to be busted, as government bodies formed to regulate business entities ran the risk of becoming their creatures in the end.
In November 1912, as many expected, TR—sidelined for nearly all of the last crucial month of campaigning as he recuperated from an assassination attempt, without a long-term party apparatus, dogged by accusations that his breaking of the third-term tradition proved he was power-hungry—only had the satisfaction of being Taft. Wilson, while only taking 42% of the popular vote, won a decisive, 40-state victory in the Electoral College because the GOP vote was split.
With his hopes to build the Progressives as a new party damaged in the midterm election of 1914, Roosevelt tried to mend fences with the GOP establishment. But they were not so forgiving of his apostasy, anointing another moderately progressive former New York governor, Charles Evans Hughes, as their Presidential candidate in 1916. (Even with a united party behind him, he, too, went down to defeat to Wilson.)
TR never got over the election of 1912—and neither, in a sense, did the Republican Party. The assassination attempt was one of a series of health scares that led to Roosevelt's death in 1919, at only age 60. His hatred for Wilson, which had flared into being as their ambitions clashed, expanded as the Democrat first attempted to preserve American neutrality in WWI, then, when war was eventually declared, declined to allow the aging Spanish-American War hero to lead troops overseas. When TR received the news that his youngest son, Quentin, had been killed overseas, he wrote French Premier George Clemenceau with ill-concealed bitterness toward Wilson: “It is a very sad thing to see the young die when the old who are doing nothing, as I am doing nothing, are left alive. Therefore it is very bitter to me that I was not allowed to face the danger with my sons.”
TR was campaigning against Wilson’s League of Nations—and hoping, with more certainty than before, that the GOP would nominate him again—at the time of his death.
George F. Will’s column on the Ted Cruz and the election of 1912 tells only part of the story of the tumultuous events of a century ago. It does not convey what a contact sport politics was back then. (Literally so—during a GOP meeting in Michigan, a Taft supporter threw a body block at a Roosevelt speaker.) Moreover, while concentrating on the threat to judicial independence posed by Progressives frustrated with ideologically hidebound judges, it ignores the range of positions in the party platform that were genuinely foresighted, as enumerated by CNN contributor John Avlon: “giving women the right to vote, the abolition of child labor, minimum wages, social security, public health standards, wildlife conservation, workman's compensation, insurance against sickness and unemployment, lobbying reform, campaign finance reform and election reform.
In addition, as Avlon notes, the GOP “still contains competing establishment and reform factions.” Full-scale fights would break out between these factions in 1940, 1952, 1964, and 2000.
The battle between Roosevelt and Wilson was waged with the same ideological and intellectual fervor as that between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in the 1790s. In one sense, their mutual contempt was so much greater than the two early American patriots that it led them not to resort to tactics commonly tried in the years since: whispering campaigns.
A rumor (with at least some element of truth) began to circulate during the two candidates’ cross-country stumping that Wilson had carried on an extramarital affair. TR would have none of it: Not only would he not stoop to spread the tale, but he found it downright unbelievable and impossible to prove: “No evidence could ever make the American people believe that a man like Woodrow Wilson, cast so perfectly as the apothecary’s clerk, could ever play Romeo.”