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

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9780743203944: 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs -The Election that Changed the Country

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.

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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.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue: 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."6 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 a...

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