Teddy Roosevelt’s Third Term, Part VII

“I will accept the nomination for President if it is tendered to me, and I will adhere to this decision until the convention has expressed its preference.”

The 1912 presidential election was only a few months away, and Theodore Roosevelt had thrown his hat into the ring, despite his 1904 election-night pledge never to run for president again.

No one was happy about it. Not even Teddy himself.

(If you’d rather listen than read, check out this episode at The History’s Trainwrecks Podcast):

https://shows.acast.com/historys-trainwrecks/episodes/teddy-roosevelts-third-term-part-vii

Edith Roosevelt saw her plans for a peaceful retirement at Oyster Bay, with visits from their growing family and a husband finally given back to her after a lifetime of public service, disappear. Elihu Root, Teddy’s most trusted and stable advisor, told the press that “the Colonel and I have long since agreed to disagree on a number of points.”

William Howard Taft, already facing what looked like certain defeat by Woodrow Wilson, now had another challenger to contend with.

Wilson, comfortable in his ability to defeat President Taft in the general election, was far less confident about taking on Theodore Roosevelt. “It now looks as if Roosevelt, not Taft, would get (or rather take) the Republican nomination,” he said. “That would make a campaign worthwhile.”

Teddy himself knew that the nomination fight would be brutal and its outcome uncertain. “He believed his only hope of winning was to reach the popular vote through direct primaries in the states that held them.” (Only 14 states held popular-vote primaries in 1912). Nearly everyone he spoke to tried to talk him out of running. Robert Grant and William Allen White, two long-time confidantes, spent five hours at Grant’s home in Boston trying to get Teddy to reconsider.

“But the situation is complex, I suppose?” Grant asked. “You would like to be President.”

“You are right, it is complex,” Teddy replied. “I like power; but I care nothing to be President as President. I am interested in these ideas of mine and I want to carry them through, and feel that I am the one to carry them through.”

As the gathering broke up, Grant asked Teddy about his “cool treatment of Taft.”

“It was through me and my friends that he became President,” Teddy snapped.

***

As the year went on, Teddy found himself ostracized by establishment Republicans and adored by the public. “After a lifetime of Party regularity, he found himself both free and shunned, loved and despised.”

“I am alone,” Teddy told a friend. “You can’t imagine how lonely it is for a man to be rejected by his own kind.”

By March of 1912, the first whispers of splitting the Republican Party made the rounds. The progressive wing of the party, exiled during the Taft Administration, saw their movement faced with extinction if Taft was nominated and defeated in 1912. Staying in the Republican Party spelled certain doom for Progressives. Forming their own party would be a lifeboat, but with Theodore Roosevelt to lead them, it might just be a battleship.

***

The energy of the Roosevelt campaign was tremendous. By early March, much of the organization he needed was established and well-financed. Its headquarters was in a New York skyscraper. From one window of the Roosevelt for President offices, the candidate could look down and see the decaying townhouse where he had been born.

But on March 26th, New York Republicans voted in their primary. The state went overwhelmingly for Taft by a 2-to-1 margin. Teddy had now convincingly lost the first two Republican primaries. Two days later, he issued an ultimatum to the Republican Party: if he lost the nomination, he would run as an independent.

Theodore Roosevelt was phenomenally popular compared to the long-winded, lazy, overweight Taft, but the nomination wasn’t up to the people. Most delegates to the convention would be selected by party machinery, not voters. The “Republicans for Roosevelt” activists fanning out across the country to drum up support for Teddy were passionate, idealistic amateurs; the old guard working for Taft were clear-eyed realists who offered federal jobs and government perks to those who promised to remain loyal to the President.

Roosevelt supporters resorted to less-than-savory tactics that Teddy either tolerated or pretended not to know about — forged signatures on nominating petitions, “baseball bats wielded to discipline delegates in Missouri,” and a primary win in Oklahoma “coerced by a progressive enthusiast standing behind the chairman with a loaded revolver.”

His candidacy surged, but the totals in the primaries where he expected overwhelming victory, like his former stomping grounds in the North Dakota Badlands, went instead for Robert La Follette. A childhood friend, Fanny Parsons, who had predicted Theodore would one day be President when they were just teenagers, went to visit him. She said, “I realized he was starting out on a strange untraveled road, the end of which he could not see.”

***

“The leader for the time being, whoever he may be, is but an instrument, to be used until broken and then to be cast aside; and if he is worth his salt he will care no more when he is broken than a soldier cares when he is sent where his life is forfeit in order that the victory may be won.

We, here in America, hold in our hands the hope of the world, the fate of the coming years; and shame and disgrace will be ours if in our eyes the light of high resolve is dimmed, if we trail in the dust the golden hopes of men.”

This speech, given the night after Teddy’s loss in the North Dakota primary, brought the whole crowd, friend and foe alike, to its feet.

Theodore Roosevelt reminded the nation in one speech that he was still presidential, and that he would never quit.

***

He won a smashing victory in the Illinois primary on April 9th, winning two-to-one over Taft and picking up fifty six delegates. The gossips in Washington, DC, who in their minds had already re-nominated Taft, were stunned.

Henry Adams said, “No one can explain it and I think no one expected it.”

Which was pretty much the story of Teddy’s political life.

He went on to win primaries in Nebraska and Oregon. Taft won in New Hampshire, which Teddy had written off anyway. The next big contest was Massachusetts, which was a toss-up. The importance of the primary was such that Taft went to Boston in person to campaign. In a speech at the Boston Arena, Taft went after his old friend: “I am in this fight to perform a great public duty — the duty of keeping Theodore Roosevelt out of the White House,” he told a reporter before the speech.

After a long, lawyerly defense of his administration, and the tradition-defying notion of anyone serving a third presidential term, Taft said of Teddy, “He is convinced that he is the only one to do the job (as he terms it), and for this he is prepared to sacrifice his personal comfort…There is not the slightest reason why, if he secures a third term, and the limitation of the Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson tradition is broken down, he should not have as many terms as his natural life will permit. If he is necessary now to the government, why not later?”

“After returning to his train, Taft put his head in his hands and cried.”

Taft barely won the Massachusetts primary, but the contest was so close that he and Teddy ended up with the same number of delegates from the Bay State.

***

Teddy won Maryland, Kansas, and Minnesota. On May 14th, he swept California. Taft wrote his brother, “If I am defeated, I hope that somebody, sometime, will recognize the agony of spirit that I have undergone.”

The Ohio primary was Taft’s last stand — his home state and the birthplace of a number of Presidents. The rhetoric got more personal as the candidates crisscrossed the state (Teddy covering eighteen thousand miles). Taft called Teddy “a dangerous egotist.” Teddy retorted that Taft was a “puzzlewit” and “a fathead,” comparing the President’s brain to a guinea pig’s.

“Mr. Taft,” Teddy said at Marion, “never discovered that I was dangerous to the people until I discovered he was useless to the people.”

The Democrats watched this disaster with jubilation, collecting material to use against whichever one of them they had to face in the fall, rejoicing in a report that “one night Roosevelt and Taft had, after a fashion, slept together, with their Pullmans parked side by side in the Steubenville (Ohio) depot.”

As Taft was heading to Cincinnati to vote, he heard that one of his own supporters had asked Teddy if he would support a compromise candidate like Charles Evans Hughes if neither he nor Taft could win the nomination decisively.

“I will name the compromise candidate,” Teddy replied. “He will be me.”

The Ohio primary was an overwhelming victory for Roosevelt, who took thirty-four of the forty-eight delegates.

***

Teddy went on to take New Jersey and South Dakota. A new phrase was coined: “TRnadoes,” spelled capital TRnadoes.

Woodrow Wilson, astounded by Teddy’s successes, said, “God save us of another four years of him now.”

It is a marvel that so many of those who had seen Teddy triumph against overwhelming odds continued to underestimate him.

By June 18th, the opening day of the Republican convention, Teddy had the most popular votes, winning most of the states that had direct popular primaries. He had 1.2 million of those votes compared to 865,000 for Taft and 327,000 for La Follette.

Taft was ahead in party delegates that were determined without primaries, but Roosevelt supporters were prepared to challenge them, pointing to their candidate as the clear favorite of the people, and therefore the best chance of victory in the fall.

Though the 1901 convention was about who was most likely to win, the country had moved on in eleven short years. Now it was about the status quo and a return to order. Newspapers had started to endorse Wilson, if for no other reason than to present him as a mature alternative to all that nasty Republican infighting.

The Republicans’ first step in achieving decorum was nominating Elihu Root to be the chairman of the convention. Although he and Teddy were old friends, Root was all-establishment, what Teddy called “seven-eighths lawyer and one-eighth man.” He had to oppose his old friend because Root’s chairmanship decidedly leaned things in Taft’s favor.

Little more than a thousand delegates would vote on a nominee, and only 540 of those were needed to win. In this smoke-filled room, petty grudges and promises of future favors ruled the day.

Elihu Root was elected chairman. Many of Teddy’s delegates were disqualified. There was bias against him as the challenger to the sitting President, and it soon became clear he stood no chance of winning the nomination.

He decided, as always, that the best thing he could do was go to the convention in person, something that was definitely not done in those days. He and a number of Roosevelts, including a reluctant Edith, left Sagamore Hill for Chicago.

***

Teddy was once more treated like a celebrity — mobbed at his hotel, with crowds in the streets below his window causing all manner of ruckus into the wee hours of the morning.

The former president addressed the convention, railing against the robbery of his delegates that the committee had disqualified. He set the stage for a “bolt:” the defection from the Republican Party to a new one: “It is our duty to the people of this country to insist that no action of the convention which is based on the votes of these fraudulently seated delegates binds the Republican party or imposes any obligation upon any Republican.”

He finished to rousing cheers and thunderous applause:

“The victory shall be ours, and it shall be won as we have already won so many victories, by clean and honest fighting for the loftiest of causes. We fight in honorable fashion for the good of mankind, fearless for the future, unheeding of our individual fates, with unflinching hearts and undimmed eyes; we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.”

Teddy had never before used such “evangelical language, or dared to present himself as a holy warrior.” Edith Roosevelt, beaming with pride, said, “I am never surprised at anything Theodore may say.”

A flyer was circulated in response to his fanatical followers and his new holy quest:

“At Three O’ Clock Thursday Afternoon,” it read, “Theodore Roosevelt will walk on the waters of Lake Michigan.”

***

The 1912 convention was not the Republican Party’s finest hour. Tensions were high as one of the party’s most beloved and successful leaders was pitted against a certain loser come the fall. Roosevelt’s fired-up supporters tried to drown out the proceedings with cheers of “Roosevelt! Roosevelt!” The speaker at the lectern said wearily, “You need not hesitate to cheer Roosevelt in my presence. I cheered him for seven years, and I am just trying to take a day off, that is all.”

Screaming matches and fistfights became distressingly normal, each disturbance another harbinger of defeat in November. By the end of the roll call, Taft had 567 delegates to Teddy’s 507. Ultimately, he was nominated with 561 votes.

Roosevelt’s supporters bolted to Orchestra Hall, where Teddy gave a speech that were the birth pains of a new party — the Progressive or Bull Moose Party. President Taft’s supporters were mute in their victory. The Republican split essentially guaranteed the Democrats would take the White House in the fall.

The damage that had been done was expressed by the sadness of Elihu Root, now an outcast from the man he had served so well. “I care more for one button on Theodore Roosevelt’s waistcoat than for Taft’s whole body,” he said, after making his last futile effort at party unity.

All that was left to do now was count the votes in November.

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There are many historical figures who seemed to have everything going for them — Aaron Burr, George McClellan, Herbert Hoover, Douglas MacArthur, and more — but lost out to people who had been relative nobodies. History’s Trainwrecks tries to figure out what happened…

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Historian

Historian

Host of the History’s Trainwrecks Podcast — this is the stuff they never taught us in history class.

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