Roosevelt Returns

8/24/2020 Jacob K. Friefeld

Former president Theodore Roosevelt took the stage in Chicago on August 6, 1912, and accepted the Progressive Party nomination for president, seeking an unprecedented third term in office.

After President William McKinley’s assassination in September 1901, Roosevelt served as president until 1909, leaving office to make way for his protégé, William Howard Taft. While in office, despite his imperialist attitudes, Roosevelt became the darling of the progressive wing of his party, as he used federal authority to break up monopolies and intervene in a strike on behalf of workers—unheard of before Roosevelt. He also pushed for laws to increase food safety and argued for the eight-hour workday and inheritance taxes. The expansion of corporate capitalism in the late nineteenth century had created an increasingly unequal society that had made many Americans in both parties hungry for progressive policies like Roosevelt’s.

After Roosevelt left office, Taft alienated the progressive wing of the party and his old mentor. Roosevelt, disgusted with Taft, decided to again seek the presidency in 1912 and promised a “New Nationalism” in which the federal government would promote social justice and act as “steward of the public welfare.” He challenged Taft for the Republican nomination, winning ten of the twelve primaries. However, unlike today, primaries did not choose the nominee, party leaders did at the convention—and they supported Taft. Roosevelt and his progressive allies left the Republican Party and formed the Progressive Party.

1912 Chicago Tribune cartoon depicting opportunity knocking at a deadlocked Democratic convention as she considers moving on to Roosevelt (ALPLM).

The Democratic convention was contentious, but the Republicans splitting their support between Roosevelt and Taft was too much for either candidate to overcome. The split guaranteed a landslide victory for progressive Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson. Progressives had high hopes for Wilson’s presidency, but those hopes were soon overwhelmed by Wilson’s own racist policies and the First World War.

Jacob K. Friefeld
Research Historian

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