1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs -The Election that Changed the Country

1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs -The Election that Changed the Country

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by James Chace

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Beginning with former president Theodore Roosevelt’s return in 1910 from his African safari, Chace brilliantly unfolds a dazzling political circus that featured four extraordinary candidates.

When Roosevelt failed to defeat his chosen successor, William Howard Taft, for the Republican nomination, he ran as a radical reformer on the Bull Moose ticket.


Beginning with former president Theodore Roosevelt’s return in 1910 from his African safari, Chace brilliantly unfolds a dazzling political circus that featured four extraordinary candidates.

When Roosevelt failed to defeat his chosen successor, William Howard Taft, for the Republican nomination, he ran as a radical reformer on the Bull Moose ticket. Meanwhile, Woodrow Wilson, the ex-president of Princeton, astonished everyone by seizing the Democratic nomination from the bosses who had made him New Jersey’s governor. Most revealing of the reformist spirit sweeping the land was the charismatic socialist Eugene Debs, who polled an unprecedented one million votes.

Wilson’s “accidental” election had lasting impact on America and the world. The broken friendship between Taft and TR inflicted wounds on the Republican Party that have never healed, and the party passed into the hands of a conservative ascendancy that reached its fullness under Reagan and George W. Bush. Wilson’s victory imbued the Democratic Party with a progressive idealism later incarnated in FDR, Truman, and LBJ.

1912 changed America.

Editorial Reviews

Michael Kazin
… Chace offers a brisk, consistently entertaining narrative that is alive both to politics and personality … The most affecting passages in the book describe the troubled relationship between Taft and TR.
The Washington Post
Richard Brookhiser
The presidential election of 1912 was a pro wrestling match among three champions, President William Howard Taft (Republican), former President Theodore Roosevelt (Republican turned Progressive) and future President Woodrow Wilson (Democrat). Throw in Eugene V. Debs, who ran better than any other Socialist in American history, and you have an unbeatable campaign story, which James Chace's lively and engrossing book 1912 fully captures. But Chace, a diplomatic historian, argues that the 1912 election was more than head butts and body slams: it ''introduced a conflict between progressive idealism . . . and conservative values'' that would dominate the politics of the 20th century, even as it recalled ''the great days of Jefferson and Hamilton'' and their fundamental debates over the nature of the Republic.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Some histories interpret new evidence and add to our store of knowledge. Some, relying on others' research, simply tell a known story. Chace's work is the best of the latter kind: a lively, balanced and accurate retelling of an important moment in American history. Even though the 1912 election wasn't the election that changed the country (there have been several), it was a critical one. It gave us Woodrow Wilson, though only by a plurality of the popular vote (albeit a huge electoral majority) and so gave us U.S. intervention in WWI and Wilsonian internationalism. Because of former president Theodore Roosevelt's rousing candidacy as nominee of the short-lived Bull Moose, or Progressive, Party, the campaign deepened the public's acceptance of the idea of a more modern and activist presidency. Because Eugene Debs, the great Socialist, gained more votes for that party (6% of the total) than ever before or since, the election marked American socialism's political peak. What of the ousted incumbent, William Howard Taft? Chace (Acheson, etc.) succeeds in making him a believable, sympathetic character, if a lackluster chief executive. What made the 1912 campaign unusual was that candidates of four, not just two, parties vied for the presidency. The race was also marked by a basic decency, honesty and quality of debate not often seen again. Chace brings sharply alive the distinctive characters in his fast-paced story. There won't soon be a better-told tale of one of the last century's major elections. Agent, Suzanne Gluck, William Morris. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
As the United States heads into a bitter presidential election, Chace provides an elegant and useful overview of one of the most crucial such contests in our history: the 1912 race in which Theodore Roosevelt ran as a Progressive, William Howard Taft as a Republican, Eugene V. Debs as a Socialist, and Woodrow Wilson as a Democrat. Wilson won and went on to become the first Democrat since Andrew Jackson to serve two consecutive terms in the White House. For Chace, this was a tragedy. On both foreign and domestic policy, Roosevelt would have made a stronger, more effective leader and, in Chace's view, many of the achievements of the New Deal would have been realized a generation earlier. One is struck, however, by the enduring conservatism of the American electorate. Taking the Taft vote and combining it with the conservative white Southerners who supported Wilson, it is not clear that even the 1912 election, often taken as a high-water mark in Progressive politics, showed a solid electoral majority for radical change.
Library Journal
Bard professor Chace reconstructs yet another controversial race for the presidency. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-According to Chace, the election of 1912 was "a defining moment in American history." When Theodore Roosevelt's choice for successor, William Howard Taft, failed to support his reforms, Roosevelt left the GOP convention to run against Taft on the Bull Moose Progressive ticket. This bitter split in the Republican party was ultimately responsible for Woodrow Wilson's unexpected victory. A fourth candidate, Eugene V. Debs, an experienced and influential orator who was later imprisoned for espionage, ran as a Socialist representing labor. Chace makes this election come alive through careful research and clear writing. Describing the primaries, the personalities, the conventions, the campaigns, the issues, the race, and the aftermath, the book often reads like a suspense novel. Readers will be able to make valid comparisons between the 2004 presidential race and the 1912 election. Illustrations include good-quality, black-and-white photos of the candidates, their wives, and their families; several political cartoons; and a campaign poster of Debs. This is a valuable resource for those interested in the American electoral process and for American history and government students.-Pat Bender, The Shipley School, Bryn Mawr, PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Presidential politics in one crucial year of the Progressive Era-before TV, polls, and consultants: not a horse race so much as a contact sport. Veteran journalist and editor Chace (Govt. and International Affairs/Bard Coll.; Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World, 1998, etc.) does not present a fresh interpretation of the 1912 election, but he offers a lively recounting of this pivotal, bitter contest that hinged on how to overcome economic inequality and featured significant third-party involvement. The rivals included conservative Republican President William Howard Taft; his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, who broke with his old friend over conservation and trust-busting issues, then bolted the GOP to form the Progressive Party; New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson, whose brilliant oratory called for more stringent antitrust legislation; and fiery socialist Eugene Debs, who preached trade unionism to audiences as large as 100,000. Chace captures the way that rivals' egos could shade into substantive quarrels over the use of presidential power. He conveys a pre-photo-op era of candidates' barnstorming coast to coast by train with messianic zeal, with Roosevelt even delivering one speech after being wounded by a would-be assassin. The nation depicted here seems more divided than the ballyhooed "red" and "blue" America of 2000. Debs took six percent of the vote-the highest proportion ever given to a Socialist candidate. TR split the GOP vote with Taft, helping to usher in the eight-year Wilson administration. With perfectly chosen anecdotes, Chace moves nimbly among the candidates, their advisers, and diehard supporters (at a Michigan GOP meeting, a Taft supporterthrew a body block at a Roosevelt speaker). At the same time, he underscores the race's larger, often enduring, issues (far ahead of their time, the Progressive platform called for limits on campaign spending). Twenty years later, the New Deal incorporated elements of Roosevelt's "New Nationalism" with Wilson's "New Freedom" programs. Yet another consequence of the race was more fateful, Chace notes: TR's loss meant that for the next century, the GOP would be riven between "reform and reaction."Entertaining, insightful history about a defining moment in 20th-century politics. Agent: Suzanne Gluck/William Morris

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Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs - The Election That Changed the Country
By James Chace

Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2004 James Chace
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7432-0394-1


The Defining Moment

To Woodrow Wilson, it seemed the cheering would never end. The president had sailed to Europe three weeks after the Armistice that had halted the savage killing of the First World War. Now his task was to complete a peace treaty that would bring forth a League of Nations that he believed would prevent a great war from ever happening again.

As the steamship George Washington reached the French seacoast of Brittany just before dawn on December 13, 1918, Wilson could see lights on the horizon as a flotilla of American warships sailed out to greet him. Nine battleships came abreast of the warship and the five destroyers that had accompanied the George Washington across the Atlantic. Each fired a twenty-one-gun salute to the president of the United States as Wilson's ship sailed toward the harbor at Brest.

There was more to come. Two French cruisers and nine French destroyers came up from the south, firing their own salutes. By the time Wilson entered the harbor, shore batteries from the ten forts on both sides of the cliffs began firing salutes. The military bands on the top of the cliffs blazed forth with renditions of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "La Marseillaise."

Once the president and his wife were onshore, the mayor of Brest offered Wilson a parchment scroll, festooned with red, white, and blue ribbons, which contained the greetings of the city council. The Americans then climbed into open automobiles that took them up the cliff and on to the railroad station where French President Raymond Poincaré was waiting to escort them to Paris.

Along the route American soldiers were standing at attention. As the train approached the French capital people swarmed the tracks waiting to welcome the American president. The next day, the largest number of Parisians ever to welcome a foreign leader packed the streets and boulevards. Under a clear autumn sky, from the church of the Madeleine to the Bois de Boulogne, they thronged the sidewalks and rooftops. Thirty-six thousand French soldiers formed lines to hold back the crowds.

Flowers floated down on Mrs. Wilson when the entourage passed under a banner stretched across the Champs-élysées that proclaimed "Honor to Wilson the Just." For the first time in living memory, a carriage passed under the Arc de Triomphe. "No one ever had such cheers," the American journalist William Bolitho wrote, "I, who heard them in the streets of Paris, can never forget them in my life. I saw [Marshall] Foch pass, [Premier] Clemenceau pass, [British Prime Minister] Lloyd George, generals, returning troops, banners, but Wilson heard from this carriage something different, inhuman - or superhuman. Oh, the immovably shining, smiling man!"

For the rest of the month of December, similar scenes were repeated in England, including a trip north to Carlisle near the Scottish border where Wilson's mother was born and his grandfather had been a preacher before immigrating to America. Then back to Paris and on December 31 by the Italian royal train to Rome, where he was met with near hysterical demonstrations. Airplanes roared overhead as he rode with the king and queen through streets covered with golden sand from the Mediterranean, an ancient tradition of honoring heroes come to Rome. Leaving the capital to journey north to Turin and Milan, he blew kisses to the crowd.

Wilson thought he was on the verge of realizing his dream of bringing perpetual peace to a worn-out continent, a Europe whose statesmen believed that maintaining a balance of power among nations was the only way to contain conflict.

Only two months earlier, Wilson had suffered a serious setback. In November 1918, his Democratic Party lost both the House and the Senate to the Republicans. Now the opposition asked what right did he have to go to Europe as a representative of the American people. His greatest antagonist, former president Theodore Roosevelt, had declared: "Our allies and our enemies and Mr. Wilson himself should all understand that Mr. Wilson has no authority whatever to speak for the American people at this time. His leadership has been emphatically repudiated by them ... and all his utterances every which way have ceased to have any shadow of right to be accepted as expressive of the will of the American people."

It was Roosevelt who had split the Republican Party by running against President William Howard Taft in the presidential election of 1912, and by so doing may well have handed Wilson the presidency. Now Roosevelt, having repaired his relations with the Republicans, was, at sixty, their likely candidate for president in 1920. During the campaign, Wilson had written that Roosevelt appealed to people's imagination; by contrast, "I do not. He is a real, vivid person ... I am a vague, conjectural personality, more made up of opinions and academic prepossessions than of human traits and red corpuscles."

Of the other two men who had run in the 1912 campaign against Wilson, William Howard Taft was now happily teaching at the Yale Law School, relieved that he had not been re-elected president; by running a second time for an office he had never truly enjoyed, he had achieved his goal of preventing Roosevelt, once his closest friend, from regaining the White House.

As for the Socialist candidate, Eugene V. Debs, he was still fervently committed to an ideology Wilson both feared and despised. Debs had opposed Wilson's war. Now he was awaiting the verdict of the United States Supreme Court on his appeal to overturn a conviction for violating the Espionage and Sedition Acts.

As the royal train bore him through the Italian Alps toward France, Wilson and his wife sat alone in the royal coach. He was in high spirits, for those who had opposed him were far away and he was being hailed as the savior of Europe. About nine in the evening, January 6, 1919, the train stopped at Modena for a short time. Wilson remained in his seat while newspaper correspondents strolled along the platform to stretch their legs. They could easily see him through the window as a messenger brought him a telegram.

When he first glanced at the piece of paper, Wilson was clearly surprised at what he was reading. One of the correspondents saw what he thought was a look of pity - then, finally, a smile of triumph. A few moments later, the newspaperman learned that the telegram had informed the president that Theodore Roosevelt was dead.

TR's funeral took place in early January. He had been very sick since the day the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, in and out of hospitals, and finally home to Sagamore Hill for Christmas Eve. It was difficult for him to walk, racked as he was with what the doctors believed was inflammatory rheumatism, and doubtless complicated by parasites he may have picked up on his trip to explore the River of Doubt in the Brazilian jungles five years earlier. Dying in his sleep at four in the morning on January 6, of an embolism, Roosevelt was to be buried at Youngs' Cemetery at Oyster Bay, Long Island, a site not far from Sagamore Hill. The service's only ceremony was the Episcopal Church's Burial of the Dead.

It was snowing that morning. The airplanes that had been flying for the past two days in tribute to the former president and his son, Quentin, a pilot who had died over France during the World War, could no longer keep up their vigil. Roosevelt's wife, Edith, stayed in the house, as was then customary, and read through the funeral service, while some five hundred villagers and dignitaries attended the service at Christ Church.

William Howard Taft, when he heard of Roosevelt's death, telegrammed Mrs. Roosevelt, saying that the world had lost "the most commanding personality in our public life since Lincoln." By now, Taft and Roosevelt had been reconciled. Later, he wrote to TR's sister Corinne to say how glad he was "that Theodore and I came together after that long painful interval. Had he died in a hostile state of mind toward me, I would have mourned the fact all my life. I loved him always and cherish his memory."

Arriving at Oyster Bay, Taft found that the arrangements for receiving him at the funeral services had been botched. He was at first put in a pew with the family servants. When Roosevelt's son Archie saw what had happened, he came up and said, "You're a dear personal friend and you must come up farther." He seated Taft just behind Vice President Thomas Marshall, who was there representing Woodrow Wilson, and just in front of the Senate committee headed by TR's closest political ally and Wilson's great enemy, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts.

As the coffin was borne out of the church, the snow had stopped falling, although the sky was still gray and heavy. Taft and the other mourners made their way to the cemetery, which was about a mile and a half from the church, and then climbed the hill to where the open grave was waiting. The simple burial service came to an end. Others moved away from the graveside. Taft, however, remained longer than anyone, weeping.

Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist candidate for the presidency in 1912, was waiting in early 1919 to be spirited off to prison. Debs, who saw the tradition of American liberty as the cornerstone of American socialism, seemed to welcome the prospect of going to jail for his beliefs.

America at that time was in the grip of a Red Scare that Wilson's Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, had inflicted on those whom the government suspected of Bolshevik sympathies and/or being too critical of the war effort. Wilson ordered Palmer "not to let this country see Red," and in the opening months of 1918, more than two thousand radical unionists were arrested, and two hundred convictions had been secured under the new espionage law.

In defending himself in his address to the jury in September 1918, Debs invoked the memory of George Washington, Tom Paine, and John Adams, "the rebels of their day," and recalled the memory of America's abolitionists. In contesting the specific charges against him, Debs not only defended his right to free speech under the Constitution but also bitterly cited Wilson's 1912 campaign speeches supporting that right.

All was in vain. The jury found him guilty as charged.

Two days later at the sentencing, Debs rose and made a statement to the court. His words have remained as the clearest declaration of his humanist principles. After recognizing his "kinship with all living beings," he famously said, "while there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and where there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

The judge sentenced Debs to ten years' imprisonment.

The year 1912 constitutes a defining moment in American history. Of the four men who sought the presidency that year - Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft, and Debs - not one of them had definitively decided to run after the congressional elections of 1910.

Wilson, who had just been elected governor of New Jersey, had long hoped that someday the White House would be his, but all his experience had been as a college professor, and later a president of Princeton. He had been a noted theorist of congressional government, never a practitioner.

Debs had run for president on the Socialist ticket twice before. His firm commitment to social and economic justice targeted him once again as the favorite of Socialist voters, but he himself was weary of campaigning, often too sick to do anything but speak. His thrilling oratory, however, made him invaluable in the struggle against the excesses of industrial capitalism.

Taft, the reluctant incumbent, might well have abandoned the field of battle in 1912 and taught happily at Yale Law School while hoping for an appointment to the Supreme Court. Roosevelt, though lusting after the power of the presidency, still expected to support Taft. TR, after all, had shown himself to be a consummate politician during his two terms in office and appreciated the potency of the party organization. If Taft could have approached his former mentor directly, confessed his anxieties about dealing with a Congress so dominated by right-wing Republicans that he was finding it impossible to fulfill the reformist policies of TR, he might then have urged Roosevelt to run for a third term. This would have prevented Roosevelt from challenging him for the presidency that Taft had so often loathed.

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.

The vote polled in 1912 by Debs, who garnered the largest share of the popular total ever won by a Socialist candidate, revealed the depth of the reformist forces sweeping the land. Never again would the Socialists show such strength. The Democrats during Wilson's first term quickly picked up many of the social remedies Debs - and a radicalized Roosevelt - had championed.

Like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson embraced change, both men recognizing that their own careers could not flourish if they were to hold back the tide of reform. Neither leader believed that repose was essential to the happiness of mankind. The issues at stake were vital if America was to transform itself into a society that would deal effectively with the problems of the new century without sacrificing the democratic values that the Founders had envisaged. With the recent influx of new immigrants, many of them were condemned to work in squalid sweatshops and live in the deteriorating conditions of the urban poor. Journalists, social workers, ministers, and middle-class Americans were outraged at the widespread corruption of political bossism in the nation's cities.

The threats to the environment by the expansion of industry and population seemed to require a national commitment to conserving the nation's natural resources to avoid further destruction of wildlife and grasslands. The issue of woman suffrage, the safeguarding of the right of black Americans to vote, and the need to end child labor and to regulate factory hours and conditions went to the very heart of the promise of American democracy.

Above all, there was the question of how to curb the excesses of big business, symbolized by the great trusts, which had accompanied the rise of industrial capitalism. For Roosevelt, calling for a "New Nationalism," the role of government was to regulate big business, which was surely here to stay. For Wilson's "New Freedom," the government's task was to restore competition in a world dominated by technology and mass markets that crushed small business.


Excerpted from 1912 by James Chace Copyright © 2004 by James Chace. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

Ronald Steel
1912 relates with brio, high drama, and authority the struggle of four powerful men fighting not only for the presidency but for the soul of American politics. James Chace brings vividly to life the election that shaped the nation's future, and in doing so illuminates the momentous choices Americans faced then and face again today.
Arthur Schlesinger
In 1912, four formidable personalities of mythic proportions clashed in their quest for the presidency. This was a unique event in American history, and James Chace does full justice to a dramatic story.
Richard Norton Smith
James Chace is a great storyteller, capturing in prose as vivid as the year itself all the poignancy and egotism, crusading zeal and authentic passion of an electrifying contest for America's soul.
Ron Chernow
James Chace has served up a rich, irresistible slice of Americana in recounting the storied 1912 presidential campaign. He gives us red-blooded American politics as it was once practiced, complete with bunting and brass bands, whistle-stop tours and frenzied, whooping crowds, shady bosses and spirited reformers deadlocked in sweltering conventions. So many major themes of the coming century were first enunciated here. Best of all, Chace supplies sharply etched portraits of the four leather-lunged, barnstorming giants — Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Eugene Debs — who waged this most memorable contest. 1912 seems like the perfect home companion for this or any other presidential election year.
David Fromkin
Roosevelt, Wilson, Taft, Debs — four of America's political giants in the decades when the twentieth century was young — each commanded the enthusiastic faith of millions. The country's two-party system, unable to contain the clashing ambitions of all four, broke down in the presidential election of 1912. This is the riveting story that James Chace tells in his important new book, 1912, which is peopled with outsized, colorful characters and punctuated by wonderful anecdotes. It has much to tell us that is of value today, and it abounds in 'what ifs': moments when, but for some minor accident, American, and even world, history might have turned around and gone the other way.

Meet the Author

James Chace was the Paul W. Williams Professor of Government and Public Law at Bard College. The former managing editor of Foreign Affairs and the author of eight previous books, most recently Acheson, he passed away in October 2004.

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