Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


“The Professor and the Bull Moose” 1912 Election

In June, 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt broke with the tradition of candidates not attending conventions and arrived at the Republican National Convention with great fanfare. He fervently announced, “We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.” He then proudly labelled himself a “Bull Moose.”

More cerebral, and less bombastic, was the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was a southerner who had been a government professor, the president of Princeton University, and a progressive governor of New Jersey who ushered in many progressive reforms.  Wilson and Roosevelt were rival progressives battling for the presidency and the future of America.

The 1912 election was one of the most contentious and dramatic in U.S. history and featured four major candidates, two dramatic conventions, a candidate who bolted the convention, and campaigns of three progressives, a conservative, and a socialist.

Roosevelt announced his candidacy in February by asserting “my hat is in the ring” and broke with the tradition of two terms established by George Washington. Roosevelt had served two terms after President William McKinley was shot in 1901, and then elected in his own right in 1904. That spring, Roosevelt ran for the Republican nomination against his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, whom he believed had parted with his policies. Taft was a constitutionalist conservative who had the support of the party establishment, though Roosevelt won many delegates in the primaries, which had been adopted by nine states in the last year alone.

Roosevelt stood for a very strong federal government with the executive branch as the “steward of the public welfare.” Robert LaFollette ran for the Progressive Party and rivalled Roosevelt with a successful record of progressive reforms in Wisconsin and then the U.S. Senate. In February, LaFollette, however, appeared unhinged when he delivered a disastrous, rambling two-hour speech that attacked audience members and the press.

In June, when the Republican leadership granted hundreds of contested delegates to Taft, Roosevelt bolted the convention and ran as a Progressive. Wilson, on the other hand, followed tradition and stayed at home while his campaign cut deals at the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore in late June. On July 2, after 45 ballots were cast with no winner, Wilson was nominated the Democratic candidate for president.

On the campaign trail, Wilson articulated his vision for governing America. Wilson tried to differentiate himself from Roosevelt’s plan for a large, federal regulatory state by adopting a program called the New Freedom. Influenced by the ideas of progressive lawyer, Louis Brandeis, Wilson articulated a view of destroying monopoly and restoring competition to an economy dominated by corporate trusts. He promised to prosecute individual businessmen for corporate wrongdoing.

While Wilson made some perfunctory remarks supporting Jeffersonian limited government as a nod to the states’ righters and small-government Democrats from the Solid South, the New Freedom sought to change American institutions and governance. Wilson believed in government regulation of enterprise and asserted, “America is not now and cannot in the future be a place for unrestricted individual enterprise.” He continued, “I am not afraid of the utmost exercise of the power of government . . . in the interest of the people.”

Wilson rejected the immutable, fixed principles of the Constitution and the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence. He believed that constitutional principles might have worked for the founding generation, but the modern age had challenges that made them obsolete and irrelevant. Moreover, constitutional devices that limited the power of government and tyranny such as checks and balances and separation of powers frustrated the ability especially of the executive to act for the good of the people.

Wilson’s “Living Constitution” political philosophy was rooted in Darwinian science.  He posited that the political principles and framework of the Constitution must adapt and evolve with the times.  He explained, “The trouble with the theory is that government is not a machine, but a living thing.  It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life.  It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton.”

When Roosevelt was nominated by the Progressive Party at their convention in August, the American people had a choice of two progressive candidates whose ideas about government and the economy were fundamentally very similar.  To the far left, Socialist Party candidate, Eugene Debs, advocated revolution against the capitalist system.

In October, the campaign took another dramatic turn when Roosevelt was shot in the chest by an assassin.  He survived, thanks to an eyeglass case and a thick copy of his speech that partially deflected the bullet, and managed to give his speech.  With manly determination, he said, “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” Wilson honorably suspended his campaign while Roosevelt recuperated.

Wilson won the November election by a wide margin due to the split in the Republican Party.  He won 42% of the popular vote but an impressive 435 electoral votes.  Third-party Roosevelt won 27% of the popular vote, while Republican Taft settled for third with a dismal 23%.  Debs won a surprising 900,000 votes.  Wilson carried his party to victory in both houses of Congress and had a comfortable majority to implement his New Freedom vision.

Wilson may have attacked Roosevelt’s New Nationalism idea of a regulatory state during the campaign, but his presidency would clarify the ambiguities of the New Freedom. President Wilson’s progressivism would institute a larger federal government with vastly increased executive power. The creation of the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve were just a few examples of a greatly expanded state that would in turn be dwarfed by the warfare state introduced during World War I.

Tony Williams is the author of five books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, co-authored with Stephen Knott.

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