“The Most Absurd Political Campaign of Our Time”: Teddy Roosevelt, Alton Parker and the Election of 1904
The candidates who squared off in the presidential election of 1904, Republican President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt and Democrat Alton Parker, were both native to New York State; beyond that one commonality, they were a study in contrasts. Parker was tall and rangy, but with a tentative demeanor that seemed to apologize for looming over others. Parker resigned his post as the chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, to run for the nation’s highest office. True to his calling and by all accounts a thoughtful decision maker on the bench, Parker was quiet and professorial, and an unimpressive speechmaker with a voice like a cracked reed. The barrel-chested, bull-voiced Roosevelt, on the other hand, had been tapped for the vice presidency by William McKinley on the strength of his renown as the Rough Rider who led his troops up San Juan Hill in 1898, as if he had carried the country on his shoulders to victory in the Spanish-American War. The living embodiment of the national will that found its expression in “Manifest Destiny” and the Monroe Doctrine, Roosevelt was arguably the most physical president America has ever had. Sometimes overcome by pent-up energy, Roosevelt would jump up from his seat in the Oval Office and hike in a straight line for five miles, climbing, jumping, and swimming all barriers natural or manmade he encountered on the way. This exercise exhausted the few staffers and security officers who could keep up with him, but Roosevelt would return refreshed and invigorated.
Although Roosevelt is best known today for his physical rigor, his intellectual rigor is scarcely matched among modern presidents. Roosevelt was the author of a multitude of books on topics as diverse as history, politics, geography, nature, conservation and the Bible, as well as his own autobiography, and was regarded in Europe as a man of letters who read and conversed on literary topics in several Continental languages. Once in office, he turned this prodigious intellect to the issues of moment – labor strife and the growing power of “trusts”, the interconnected corporate conglomerates controlled by tycoons like J.P. Morgan, who wielded power to set exorbitant rates in key industries such as transportation, oil and steel. Popular sentiment against the trusts was high, stoked by “yellow journalists” like Ray Stannard Baker and Upton Sinclair. “Busting the trusts” would take all Roosevelt’s talents deployed through both presidential terms.
Roosevelt started with the railroads because they were emblematic of Congress’s constitutional power to “regulate commerce… among the several states.” He deployed his attorney general, Philander Knox, to invoke the new Sherman Antitrust Act – passed in 1890 – against Northern Securities, a J.P. Morgan – brokered trust that was comprised of the stock of several transcontinental railroads. Formerly competitors, the Great Northern Railway and the Northern Pacific Railway attempted to merge after the latter went bankrupt in the 1890s, but were thwarted by the operation of state law. Morgan and other investors acquired a third rail line, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railway, and combined the stock of all three into a controlling company, Northern Securities. The potential for one corporate combination to control the lion’s share of freight and passenger rates from Chicago to the West Coast was in violation of the Sherman Act, Knox argued, regardless of whether Northern Securities actually utilized that power to set unfair rates. The Administration’s opponents could stomach federal action against actual restraints of interstate trade, but to them this smacked of Socialism. That the Supreme Court upheld this interpretation of the Sherman Act eight months before the election did not do much to temper this criticism.
The Democrats ran Parker because they needed a respectable candidate (Parker defeated the more radical William Randolph Hearst for the nomination), but they mostly ran against Roosevelt, portraying the president as an unstable and warmongering “Grand Old Pirate” and the Democratic Party as the party of safety and security. But Roosevelt had done his best in the three years since assuming office upon McKinley’s assassination to ameliorate his image as a “jingo imperialist” by promoting independence for America’s wartime acquisitions Cuba and the Philippines. This early example of image management for political purposes had its intended effect, and the Democrats’ attempt to make American imperialism the chief campaign issue failed.
A second national issue of currency, the question of the Gold Standard, was taken off the table by the Democrats’ acquiescence in Parker’s demand that “Free Silver” not form part of the party’s 1904 platform. Permission for private citizens to convert silver metal into coin was thought to favor working classes by engendering inflation, but populist William Jennings Bryan had twice shipwrecked Democrats’ chances for the presidency by running on that plank. Spooked nonetheless by the prospect of a Parker presidency reopening that question, Wall Street financiers, including J.P. Morgan and other targets of Roosevelt’s trust-busting efforts, drifted back into the Republican camp and filled GOP coffers with campaign donations. A $100,000 contribution from John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil was finally too much for the president, and he insisted that the campaign committee return it.
The campaign itself was largely anticlimactic; Parker delivered an ineffectual speech accepting his nomination, and the party leaders responsible for conducting the presidential campaign by proxy (campaigning by the candidate himself was considered unseemly at the time) dissipated campaign funds in far-flung locations. Parker secured electoral seats only in the Democratic South, but Roosevelt’s campaign — one of the first to target specific voter populations such as African-American, German-American and Jewish voters – won nearly everywhere else, drowning Parker in the final electoral count and winning 33 of 45 states. It had been, as an eminent historian of the day, Henry Adams said, “the most absurd political campaign of our time.” Mark Twain effusively declared Roosevelt “the most popular human being that has ever existed in the United States.” He had become, as the writer Henry James called him, “Theodore Rex.”
The first and great consequence of Roosevelt’s election to a full term of office was self-imposed: To the astonishment of many, Roosevelt announced he would not seek another full term. Considering his three-and-a-half years spent in his first term, and respecting the memory of George Washington’s presidency, he stated, “The wise custom which limits the President to two terms regards the substance and not the form.” William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s Secretary of Defense, would carry the banner of the party forward four years later. But in the four years of Roosevelt’s second term, he would build aggressively on his efforts against the trusts. His Justice Department bore down on other trusts also, securing indictments against the Great Northern Railway and members of the “beef trust” and also pursuing prosecutions against shipping companies. But Roosevelt’s great project of railroad rate reform, which he had begun by cajoling Congress to pass the Railroad Rebate Act of 1903, a fairly modest measure against rebating rail charges to favored shippers, would be carried forward in his second term as the advance thrust of a revolution in political thought: direct regulation of commerce, and especially of monopolistic pricing. In 1906, he sought and received from Congress expanded power for the Interstate Commerce Commission to directly regulate railroad rates. This was understood by many as nothing less than a sea change in the relationship between government and private capital, and an encroachment upon the right to private property. Roosevelt thought otherwise, reasoning that capitalism contained in its practice the seeds of its own destruction, and that it must therefore have its excesses checked for it to succeed. The notion that a president can work a “fundamental transformation” in a nation through his policies is not a recent one; according to Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris, “Roosevelt understood that a ‘profound reconstitution [had] taken place in modern industrial society,’ and that change was in the direction of economic redress.”
Steven H. Aden has more than twenty-five years of experience defending constitutionally protected freedoms. He serves as senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom in its Washington, D.C., office.