OTD in History… August 7, 1912, Teddy Roosevelt nominated for a third term as president by the Bull Moose Party
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history August 7, 1912, the Progressive Party nominates former President Theodore Roosevelt for president, the party of disgruntled Republicans known as the Bull Moose Party nominated the former 26th president of the United States, (1901 to 1909) in objection to the nomination of President William Howard Taft for a second term. Taft had been Roosevelt’s hand picked successor but he was not living up to progressive standards and Roosevelt’s legacy. Roosevelt left office in 1909, popular and refusing to run for a third term. After returning from a trip to Africa in 1910, Roosevelt broke with Taft. In 1912, he actively sought the Republican nomination, from then as historian Paul F. Boller indicates, “T.R. dominated the 1912 contest.” Never has a loser in a presidential election upstage the winner as Roosevelt did with his third-party run. Roosevelt was the only third-party nominee to show better than a major party nominee coming in second, with the Republicans and Taft in third.
The 1912 presidential campaign was the first time the primary system of contest were used to choose delegates for the conventions. The Republicans chose 362 delegates from 14 states, however, the primary votes were not honored for the presidential nomination process. For the Republicans Robert M. La Follette, Sr was the first who challenged William Howard Taft for the Republican nomination. La Follette maintained some momentum and early wins in North Dakota and his home state Wisconsin.
In February 1912, Roosevelt decided to run for the nomination, announcing, “My hat is in the ring! The fight is on and I am stripped to the buff!” When Roosevelt entered, the race progressives abandoned La Follette to support Roosevelt. Roosevelt was still popular and his New Nationalism platform promised “social welfare, direct democracy, and federal regulation of business.” (Boller, 192) Roosevelt won the most delegates and elections in the new Presidential preference primaries. In response to changing his mind about a third term, Roosevelt responded, “My position on the third term is perfectly simple. I said I would not accept a nomination for a third term under any circumstances, meaning, of course, a third consecutive term. . . .”
The competition, especially from Roosevelt, forced Taft to stump, campaign for the Republican nomination, the first time in history a sitting president would have to resort to campaigning. Taft explained at the time, “Whether I win or lose is not the important thing. I am in this fight to perform a great public duty the duty of keeping Theodore Roosevelt out of the White House.”
Roosevelt was the big winner of the new primary system, winning nine Republican Presidential primaries with 278 delegates, in comparison, La Follette won 36 and Taft won 48, however, the pledges were not binding at the convention. At first, the Republicans thought both Taft and Roosevelt should drop out in favor of a compromise candidate, Roosevelt responded, “I’ll name the compromise candidate. He’ll be me. I’ll name the compromise platform. It will be our platform.”
At the Republican National Convention in June, in Chicago, Illinois, with “Old Guard” support Taft gathered enough delegates to secure the nomination and shut out Roosevelt on the first ballot. At the convention, Roosevelt challenged the delegates’ credentials and tried to woo Southern black delegates to vote for him. Southern delegates supported Taft by a margin of 5–1. Taft also secured the Alabama, Arizona, and California delegates even though Roosevelt won the states by close margins. Convention chairman Elihu Root, Roosevelt’s former ally, proposed the convention re-nominate President Taft and Vice President James S. Sherman
On June 22, 1912, Roosevelt asked his supporters to abstain from voting and leave the convention, with Taft’s nomination certain, they did, and with Roosevelt’s agreement, they formed a new third party, the Progressive Party. Supporters included “social workers, reformers, intellectuals, feminists, Republican insurgents, disgruntled politicians, and businessmen.” (Boller, 192)
At the new party’s convention in August in Chicago, they nominated Theodore Roosevelt and Senator Hiram Johnson of California for Vice President. They adopted a radical progressive platform, which they called instead, a “Covenant with the People,” the Square Deal, which consisted of the “direct election of U.S. senators, woman suffrage, reduction of the tariff, and many social reforms.”
Roosevelt gave a speech declaring, “I hope we shall win. . . . But win, or lose, we shall not falter. . . . Our cause is based on the eternal principle of righteousness; and even though we who now lead may for the time fail, in the end, the cause itself shall triumph. . . . We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” The party became popularly known as the “Bull Moose Party” after Roosevelt told reporters, “I’m feeling like a Bull Moose!”
On October 14, 1912, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Roosevelt shot by a mad saloonkeeper and anarchist, John F. Schrank, who supposedly opposed Roosevelt running for a third term. The bullet went through Roosevelt’s 50-page copy of his speech in his jacket and his steel eyeglass case before it lodged in his chest. Roosevelt nevertheless delivered his speech, expressing, “I am going to ask you to be very quiet and 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. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet there is where the bullet went through — and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so, that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.” Roosevelt went on to speak for 84 minutes.
On Election Day November 5, Roosevelt lost to liberal and Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson, who had been the President of Princeton University. Wilson won in a landslide, with 435 Electoral College votes, winning 40 states; Roosevelt won 88 and 6 six states, while Taft won just two states with 8 Electoral college votes. Roosevelt did far better when it came to the popular vote, Wilson won 41.9 percent (6,283,019); Roosevelt, 27.4 percent (4,119,507) and
Taft 23.2 percent (3,484,956). (Boller, 196) Roosevelt, could have won had the Republican Party not fractured but because it did, Roosevelt became a powerful third-party candidate who affected the outcome of the election, leaving Taft in third place, after becoming the first incumbent to campaign then mostly giving up in the general election. Wilson won because he was more to the left that Roosevelt, taking his progressivism a step further each time.
Historian James Chance in his book, 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft, and Debs The Election that Changed the Country, declared, “The year 1912 constitutes a defining moment in American history” and “the 1912 presidential campaign tackled the central question of America’s exceptional destiny.” (19) Chance also notes, “Had the charismatic Roosevelt received the Republican nomination, he almost surely would have won. He, far more than Taft, was in tune with the progressive spirit of the time. The Republican Party, in his hands, would likely have become a party of domestic reform and internationalist realism in foreign affairs. With his heroic virtues and condemnation of materialism, Roosevelt represents the road not taken by American conservatism.” (Chance, 16–17)
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Boller, Paul F. Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Chace, James. 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs the Election That Changed the Country. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Cowan, Geoffrey. Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.