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The Election of 1912: The All-Progressive Election

The election of 1912 took place in the middle of the Progressive Era, and was one of the most hotly contended in American history, and certainly one of the most progressive.  It was a rare one, where three candidates were running pretty close to each other, and all of them promoted progressive ideas.  This was the first year of the existence of the Progressive Party, too.  The Progressive Party’s first candidate was Teddy Roosevelt, one-time liberal Republican who abandoned his old party and set out to start something new.  He’d been bucking the Republican Party on a lot of policy issues regarding corporate regulation and labor—issues where the Democrats of the day were much stronger—ever since his early days in New York state politics in the 1880s.. Roosevelt had an aggressive, take-no-prisoners style, and was very good at—and very impatient about—getting his agenda enacted.  The Republican Party, then a very conservative and business-friendly party, had mixed feelings about him.  Roosevelt, a popular war hero and all-around colorful character with popular governing ideas, won a full term in 1904.

Left to right: William Howard Taft, the 27th president; Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president; Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president

Roosevelt declined to run again in 1908 (a decision he regretted) and promoted his old friend, William Howard Taft, to be his successor. Taft didn’t want the job, but Roosevelt, Taft’s other friends, Taft’s party, Taft’s wife (who had fantasized about living in the White House since meeting President Hayes as a girl) and the rest of Taft’s family (except for his mother) wanted him to want it, so he ran. Taft was an affable guy and he knew how to get things done, but he worked much more slowly than Teddy did, and was bigger on building consensus.

After Teddy left office in March 1909, he spent a year on safari in Africa. When he returned in 1910, he felt that Taft was doing a terrible job. Taft was shocked to see how his old friend disapproved, and was despondent, seeking solace in golf, frequent naps, and overeating, gaining over 100 pounds over the course of his presidency. Taft quietly cried (in private, of course) while Roosevelt attacked the president in the media, “Fathead” being a favorite insult of Teddy’s. Taft soldiered on, doing the job how he felt it ought to be done, and most historians still class Taft as every bit the Progressive that Teddy was.

Roosevelt came to see Taft as too different from himself.  This Harper’s cartoon, which appeared during the 1908 election season, suggests that Taft was trying too hard to be an imitation of Roosevelt.

1912 saw Teddy challenge Taft in a presidential primary, the first of its kind. It was an ugly, bruising battle, and while Taft ultimately prevailed, the whole business left a bad taste in the mouths of voters where both candidates were concerned. That summer, Teddy founded the Progressive Party so he could run for president, since the primaries didn’t sweep him into office as he had hoped.  A New York Times editorial opined that summer, “If the first primaries are any indication of what to expect, let us hope these are the last.”

On the Democratic side, it was widely expected that William Jennings Bryan would make a fourth run at the White House. Bryan was a popular and influential Democrat, even though he’d been the unsuccessful Democratic nominee in 1896, 1900 and 1908. Democrats felt the nomination was Bryan’s for the asking—but he didn’t ask for it. When Bryan demurred, it was widely thought that he’d back Missouri Congressman Champ Clark, but instead went with Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was a surprising pick, since he had a history of being a conservative, but Bryan assured the Democratic Party that Wilson was a progressive now. “Like Saul of Tarsus,” Bryan declared, evoking the biblical tale of seeing the light, “he has made a full conversion.”

It turned out to be a good Democratic year, and a good year for progressive politics in general. All three major candidates were progressives, so unless you were a conservative voter, you had three to choose from. Wilson won handily, with Roosevelt managing a respectable second, and Taft pulling a distant third, carrying only the states of Utah and Vermont.

The legacy was a very progressive Wilson administration, which faced progressive Republican Charles Hughes in 1916. As a result of this powerful Progressive Era, we saw the crushing of monopolies and trusts, the continued rise of labor unions (which Teddy Roosevelt advocated for as a brake on the growth of socialism in America), the free election of senators, a graduated income tax, and the enfranchisement of women. These changes were followed by the prosperity of the 1920s, which also saw the return of conservatives in America, which was followed by the Great Depression of the 1930s, when Teddy Roosevelt’s cousin Franklin picked up the progressive agenda where President Wilson left off. The Progressive Party faded away after Teddy was gone, but its legacy is still with us.

Progressive also-rans: William Jennings Bryan (D-NE), Charles Evans Hughes (R-NY), Bob LaFollette (P-WI), Henry A. Wallace (D- then P-IA).  Note: Hughes was the last US presidential candidate to sport a full beard.

Teddy Roosevelt never sought office again. He died in 1919. Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke near the end of his second term and resigned from public life. He died in 1924. William Howard Taft got out of the White House and back into his head, and managed to score his dream job: Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He served until he was too ill, and died in 1930.

Progressive candidates would persist after the Progressive Era ended.  Wisconsin’s Robert “Fightin’ Bob” LaFollette picked up the Progressive mantle in 1924, forming a new party called the Progressive Party, which was not related to Roosevelt’s 1912 Progressive party.  LaFollette actually finished in second place in the popular vote, but third place in the electoral vote, carrying only Wisconsin.  A third Progressive Party was formed in 1948 by Franklin Roosevelt’s second vice president, Henry Wallace.  Wallace performed even worse in that election than LaFollette did in his.  The term progressive fell out of favor for a while after that, being revived only in the past ten years or so.  While modern-day progressives are not a continuation of any of these Progressive Parties literally, they do carry on a similar philosophical bent, always veering left of center.

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