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

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

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

Four extraordinary men sought the presidency in 1912. Theodore Roosevelt was the charismatic and still wildly popular former president who sought to redirect the Republican Party toward a more nationalistic, less materialistic brand of conservatism and the cause of social justice. His handpicked successor and close friend, William Howard Taft, was a reluctant politician whose sole ambition was to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. Amiable and easygoing, Taft was the very opposite of the restless Roosevelt. After Taft failed to carry forward his predecessor's reformist policies, an embittered Roosevelt decided to challenge Taft for the party's nomination. Thwarted by a convention controlled by Taft, Roosevelt abandoned the GOP and ran in the general election as the candidate of a third party of his own creation, the Bull Moose Progressives.

Woodrow Wilson, the former president of Princeton University, astonished everyone by seizing the Democratic nomination from the party bosses who had made him New Jersey's governor. A noted political theorist, he was a relative newcomer to the practice of governing, torn between his fear of radical reform and his belief in limited government. The fourth candidate, labor leader Eugene V. Debs, had run for president on the Socialist ticket twice before. A fervent warrior in the cause of economic justice for the laboring class, he was a force to be reckoned with in the great debate over how to mitigate the excesses of industrial capitalism that was at the heart of the 1912 election.

Chace recounts all the excitement and pathos of a singular moment in American history: the crucial primaries, the Republicans' bitter nominating convention that forever split the party, Wilson's stunning victory on the forty-sixth ballot at the Democratic convention, Roosevelt's spectacular coast-to-coast whistle-stop electioneering, Taft's stubborn refusal to fight back against his former mentor, Debs's electrifying campaign appearances, and Wilson's "accidental election" by less than a majority of the popular vote. Had Roosevelt received the Republican nomination, he almost surely would have been elected president once again and the Republicans would likely have become a party of reform. Instead, the GOP passed into the hands of a conservative ascendancy that reached its fullness with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and the party remains to this day riven by the struggle between reform and reaction, isolationism and internationalism. The 1912 presidential contest was the first since the days of Jefferson and Hamilton in which the great question of America's exceptional destiny was debated. 1912 changed America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743203944
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 05/10/2004
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.36(w) x 1.16(h) x 9.64(d)

About the Author

James Chace is the Paul W. Williams Professor of Government and Public Law at Bard College. The former managing editor of Foreign Affairs and editor of World Policy Journal, he is the author of eight previous books, including Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World, which was named Best Book of 1998 by the American Academy of Diplomacy. He lives in New York.

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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.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: The Defining Moment1
Part 1America's Destiny9
1"Back from Elba"11
2"The Ruthlessness of the Pure in Heart"39
3The Heirs of Hamilton and Jefferson55
4The Debs Rebellion67
Part 2Chicago and Baltimore91
5"Stripped to the Buff"93
6"A Rope of Sand"107
7Standing at Armageddon115
8The Fullness of Time125
10The Indispensable Man161
11To Make a Revolution: Debs and Haywood169
Part 3The Contenders189
12The New Freedom vs. the New Nationalism191
13The Crusader199
14The Moralist209
15The Authentic Conservative and the Red Prophet219
16"To Kill a Bull Moose"227
Part 4The Consequences of Victory241
17The Ironies of Fate243
Epilogue: The Inheritors277
Bibliographical Note305

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.


An Interview with James Chace

Barnes & Noble.com: Unlike some historians, you concentrate on personality. Why do you approach history in this fashion?

James Chace: I do emphasize personality. In recent years, historians have tended to de-emphasize the role of personality and the role of the great man and great woman in favor of social history. I understand why that is; it was a corrective to too much emphasis on personality. But I feel very comfortable emphasizing the larger-than-life personality and individuals. Another way emphasizing personality affects my writing is that when I was a young man, I expected to write fiction. I had one novel published. History is rooted in facts, but, stylistically, you want to tell a narrative. In this book about the 1912 election and the four candidates, I wanted to tell a narrative of three great personalities: Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and Eugene Debs, the Socialist candidate for president. William Howard Taft is less dynamic, but he was still a man of fundamental decency who got caught up in events -- pushed into those events by his wife, who was very ambitious for him.

B&N.com: What made the 1912 election so important? How did it change America?

JC: It represented the high tide of reform in the country. As a consequence of that election, we had Woodrow Wilson's first term. In that term there was a fantastic change in the way American government was organized. There was the amendment to the Constitution that brought on the graduated Federal income tax and the Federal Reserve Act, among other important legislation. Even more important were ideas put forth in the campaign by Roosevelt and Eugene Debs. Specifically, women's suffrage and social justice were espoused. Many of these ideas for social justice were not finally realized until Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in 1932. Also, Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive platform was quite radical. And, in 1912, the Republican split between Roosevelt and Taft was profound and never repaired.

B&N.com: What do you admire about Theodore Roosevelt?

JC: The whole idea of the modern presidency started with Theodore Roosevelt. He was the first to use the power of the executive to accomplish modern ends while coping with industrial capitalism. Today we are trying to cope with the information revolution. Roosevelt was trying to cope with the 19th century's manufacturing and industrial revolutions. Another thing about Roosevelt is that he had this sense of the strong executive.

B&N.com: Do you see the 1912 election as integral to the history of reform in America?

JC: Yes. America was spared from the two ideologies of communism and fascism largely because of reforms espoused by Roosevelt, Wilson, and Debs in the 1912 campaign. Taft, of course, was the conservative. Here's an interesting note about Debs. Although rhetorically Debs was for a more statist economy, his philosophy was still rooted in the philosophy of Lincoln and the Founders. Debs said something interesting about Roosevelt. When he saw Roosevelt's platform -- for the Bull Moose Party, the name Roosevelt gave his party -- Debs said they "stole my platform."

B&N.com: Why did the break occur between Roosevelt and Taft?

JC: Taft had been Roosevelt's own chosen successor to carry out his policies. Taft was an extremely able man. He was from Ohio, the state that has given us eight presidents, and he was from a distinguished family. Taft himself was a jurist who wanted to be on the United States Supreme Court and who gave up his ambition to run for president at Roosevelt's request. Also, his wife really wanted him to be in the White House, and he acquiesced to her wishes. (In 1921, Taft did fulfill his original ambition and was appointed as chief justice of the Supreme Court.) After Taft became president, he came under the sway of conservative forces. Roosevelt felt Taft would not follow through on his policies. Also, Roosevelt was a very young man and simply missed having power. In 1912, he thought he could win back the presidency. He challenged Taft in the primaries and won them, but was cheated out of the delegates and bolted the Republican Party to form the Bull Moose Party.

B&N.com: What made Wilson interesting to you?

JC: Wilson could well have been a preacher. Instead he became one of the most eloquent presidents we've ever seen. Almost overnight he went from being a conservative Democrat to a reformer. After being elected president, he presided over enormous reforms. In his first term, he drastically lowered the tariff rates, and, as I pointed out earlier, he instituted the first graduated income tax through a constitutional amendment and proposed and saw through the passage of the Federal Reserve Act. These intensified government regulation of the economy. In 1912, he totally embraced progressivism. This is interesting because, when he ran for governor of New Jersey in 1910, the political bosses who selected him thought they had a conservative. They soon found out they had picked an apostle of reform.

B&N.com: One of your book's most dramatic moments is when you describe the assassination attempt on Theodore Roosevelt while he was giving a campaign speech. Can you tell us more about that?

JC: Theodore Roosevelt's awesome vigor drew enormous crowds. He had become the most famous man in the world. While giving a speech, he was shot in the chest. Roosevelt startled the country with his ability to go on and speak for another 45 minutes while a bullet was lodged in his chest. After he was shot he said, "It takes more than a shot to kill a Bull Moose." His third party, the party he formed when he broke away from the Republican Party, was the Bull Moose Party.

B&N.com: What is the major theme you want readers to take from your book?

JC: This was the high tide of reform in America. It set forth the issues that would dominate the 20eth century. Issues the candidates debated -- the squalor of laborers' working conditions, political corruption, environmental threats, child labor, and voting rights for black Americans -- all went to the very heart of the promise of American democracy. Some of these are conditions we still face today.

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1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs -The Election that Changed the Country 2.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I would have to agree with the other reviewers that the sub-title doesn't make much sense since every election effectively changes the country. But I did enjoy reading the work, although it is much more suited for people with a strong interest in history and politics.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The author spends little time going beyond the surface of his subjects. This causes each candidate to become a caricature. Roosevelt is the rebel, Wilson is the grumpy stuffed shirt, Debs is the crazy radical and Taft is the worthless incumbent. I had trouble getting through this book. The point that should have been the climax (the final weeks before the campaign and the election)are mere after thoughts. The author also doesn't adequately explain why the 1912 was so important. I think that's because it wasn't as much of a turning point as the inside cover claimed. The best part of this book is the final 20 pages after the election when the author explores the candidates lives after 1912. That was actually interesting. Sadly, much of the rest is dry and uninspired.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Yes, the election of 1912 sure was an exciting one. Unfortunately, readers wouldn't know that by reading Chace's book. The bare facts are what keep this story interesting, no matter how hard Chase tries to make it otherwise. I felt as if I were reading an unedited version. The writing was flat and confusing. Paragraphs were strung together randomly; sentences seemed misplaced. Facts were incorrect (e.g. TR won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906, not 1910). So I'm not even sure I learned anything, because I am not sure if I can trust what I learned. The best part in the book is a thorougly exciting tale of the kidnapping and trial of Big Bill Haywood. The story stuck out of the book as if it were a previously published essay, finely tuned. It was the only part of the book where I couldn't wait for - rather than dreaded - the page turn. I definitely expected better.