Thursday, June 16, 2016

Wilson and the Fed, IV: The Republican Candidates of 1912


As we mentioned before, the presidential campaign of 1912 was — so far as we know — the only one in which there were two significant third parties (or should that be a third and a fourth party?), one of which, the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party came very close to gaining the White House.  Today we’ll look at the candidates to give us an understanding of how this happened:
The Candidates: Taft
Taft: Not up to the job.
The candidate for the Old Guard Republicans was, of course, William Howard Taft. Although handpicked by Roosevelt as his successor to carry the progressive torch in 1908, Taft had shown himself unequal to the task.
Early in his term, Taft had come under the influence of Senator Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich (1841-1915), whose primary concern was to maintain power by quashing the Progressive Republican insurgents. Aldrich was the acknowledged leader of the reactionary Republicans, and hand-in-glove with the Wall Street capitalists who sought to keep all financial power concentrated in their hands.
To all intents and purposes, however, Taft was unelectable — as he was fully aware. Taft had hated being president, anyway. He remarked years later that his tenure in the White House was a barely remembered nightmare, reportedly stating, “I don’t remember that I ever was president.”
Taft’s only reason to run was to ensure that Roosevelt lost, and he could best do that by keeping the Old Guard Republicans from joining the progressives. This he could do without any campaigning at all. In fact, except for his speech of acceptance for the nomination, Taft refused to do any public speaking.[1] Taft even remarked that he did not even consider himself a real candidate, as “[t]here are so many people in the country who don’t like me.”[2]
The Candidates: Roosevelt
Roosevelt: Running out of duty.
Despite the legend that has come down to us about how Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. decided to run for president on a third party ticket in a fit of pique, destroying Taft’s reelection bid by splitting the Republican Party, the issue was not so simple or clear-cut as all that. Roosevelt was far from enthusiastic about being president again. It is not all that certain he particularly enjoyed it the first time.
Reading the various biographies of Roosevelt, one is struck by the man’s sense of duty. He might brag afterwards about something he had done — but you could be sure that he had done it. Sometimes he seems to have enjoyed having done something more than doing it.
Still, we do not recall reading that Roosevelt ever bragged about something he was going to do. Having done something, however, Roosevelt was not going to hide his light under a bushel, however irritating that might be to people who preferred to hear less about the achievements of others, and more about their own.
That is why H.K. Smith’s recollection of Roosevelt’s decision to run again in 1912 is so valuable. It is not the speculation of a historian with an ax to grind, or a politician with an agenda to advance, but an eyewitness account by a man who knew Roosevelt. As Smith related,
Some time in 1911 I called upon Colonel Roosevelt at the Outlook office, on leave from Washington. I told him I was going home for a few days. He pounced down on me instantly: “H.K., don’t you dare go back to Connecticut and do anything for my nomination for the Presidency in 1912!” Then he said: “I’ve had eight years of the Presidency. I know all the honor and pleasure of it and all of its sorrows and dangers. I have nothing more to gain by being President again and I have a great deal to lose. I am not going to do it!” — then he went to the window and looked out on Fourth Avenue for some moments, and turned and added with great emphasis — “unless I get a mandate from the American people.” I know much now than I did then what was before his far-seeing eyes as he stood there looking out over the housetops — the fierce strive ahead, the menacing issues lying within it, the far-reverberating results that would follow, the sacrifice that would be required of him.
That mandate came. It became desperately clear to all Progressives early in 1912 that their accomplished advance was in imminent period of recession. The pressure came down on Colonel Roosevelt, culminating in the appeal of the seven Governors on February 10, 1912. He accepted the call of his friends, the challenge of his familiar foes.[3]
Kearns: Concerned about LDS influence.
The Progressive Party had its roots in the formation in 1906 of the American Party in Utah by supporters of Senator Thomas Kearns (1862-1918), a Catholic. Kearns broke from the Republican Party when he and his followers felt that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (“Mormons”) had too much influence in Utah politics.
Purged of its anti-LDS elements, the remnants of the American Party became the core around which progressives and moderate populists coalesced to form the Progressive Party in 1912. They virtually forced the nomination on Roosevelt once La Follette proved to be non-viable as a candidate.
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[1] Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, op. cit., 17.
[2] Taft to Helen Taft, July 22, 1912, cited in Pringle, Taft, II, 817 (note in Link, 17).
[3] Herbert Knox Smith, “The Great Progressive,” Foreword to Social Justice and Popular Rule, op. cit., xiii-xiv.

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