Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt; drawing by David Levine


Imagine that John McCain challenges George W. Bush in the primaries for the Republican presidential nomination—and on being defeated by the Old Guard bosses launches his own political party. On the campaign trail he electrifies his followers by declaring that the federal government is “the steward of public welfare” and—in a deliberate slap to the big-money interests dominating the Republican Party—that “labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Imagine, too, that Ralph Nader, backed by 450 elected Socialist government officials, including the mayors of fifty-six American cities, runs on a platform calling for the collective ownership of land, transportation, communication, and banking, along with the abolition of the US Senate and the president’s veto power over legislation. Then insert George W. Bush as William Howard Taft and John Kerry as Woodrow Wilson running on more or less the political platforms we are all too familiar with today. And there you have an updated, rough equivalent of the election of 1912, with McCain sitting in for Theodore Roosevelt, and Nader for Eugene Debs—one of the most tumultuous and arguably the most important in American history. In his illuminating and absorbing study of that pregnant event James Chace dramatically describes how powerful political forces clashed in that last fateful election before the Great War shattered the nineteenth-century world. And he shows how the four-cornered race of 1912 casts its shadow today over the presidential election that is approaching.

Consider the contenders. First, dominating all others, was Theodore Roosevelt, champing at the bit after four years out of office and eager to return to the public arena. Roosevelt had been president for nearly eight years, after taking over from the assassinated William McKinley in 1901, and had been elected on the Republican ticket in his own right in 1904. He would have run again in 1908, and probably been elected, had it not been for the third-term taboo. Now in 1912 he thought he had waited long enough.

Second was Woodrow Wilson, the relatively unknown governor of New Jersey, a former professor and president of Princeton University. To a Democratic Party desperate for a candidate who would appeal to conservative Southerners and to mild reformers, but would not frighten the big city bosses, the moralizing political newcomer from Trenton represented a stab at respectability.

Third was William Howard Taft, the Republican incumbent, who had taken over the job in 1908 when Roosevelt told him it was his duty to succeed him as president. Decent, well-meaning, eager to please his mentor as well as his wife and the big-money party bosses, Taft shouldered the burdens of the presidency but did not enjoy it much; he wanted nothing more than to retire to the Supreme Court—which he eventually did to his great satisfaction.

All three of these candidates fit—each in his own way—in the American political tradition. The fourth, Debs, a labor leader, pacifist, political agitator, and socialist, was an anomaly then and would be a virtually unthinkable candidate today. Such a person would have to combine Noam Chomsky’s politics with Ralph Nader’s crusading doggedness and Bill Clinton’s political charisma. Debs did not have a chance of winning the presidency, but he had a cause to trumpet and a passionate conviction that the voice of the people must be heard.

It was a remarkable campaign. There had never been anything like it in American history, and there likely never will be again. For Chace it was “a defining moment in American history.” Had Roosevelt snatched the Republican nomination from the financiers and industrialists who controlled it, he might have made the party into an agent of domestic reform and enlightened internationalism: the kind of party that such Republican reformers as Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay later hoped, and failed, to build. TR mapped out, in Chace’s words, “the road not taken by American conservatism.” The defeat of his effort brought us a party defined by Warren Harding and Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

During his nearly eight years in the White House TR had won public acclaim for his efforts to regulate giant businesses and financial trusts, to reduce tariffs, and to protect the wilderness. But the party bosses could not tolerate a president who had ordered a successful antitrust suit against J.P. Morgan’s multitentacled holding company, forced mine owners to accept arbitration of their employees’ grievances, authorized government control of railroad rates, limited injunctions against labor unions, and called for the imposition of income and inheritance taxes, the eight-hour day, and control over campaign contributions. They rejoiced when, under pressure not to push the third-term taboo, he decided not to run again in 1908 to make room for the amiable Taft, and they did not want him back.

The irony was that the rotund, good-natured Taft was Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor—the man he believed would carry forward his program of moderate reform through the government’s stewardship. But Taft, however much he admired TR, was not a reformer. Under pressure from industry he raised tariffs and abandoned the environmental conservation measures dear to TR’s heart. Roosevelt had been prepared to back Taft’s reelection bid. Indeed he felt he had little choice, for the good of the Republican Party, and for his own personal future. But he had never given up the hope of one day returning to the White House.


By the summer of 1910 Roosevelt moved back into the political arena. On a three-week tour of western states his rhetoric—despite a pledge to unite the party—became increasingly radical. In Colorado he branded the Supreme Court a barrier to social justice, and at Osawotamie, Kansas, where in 1857 the abolitionist John Brown had launched his crusade to end slavery, he gave one of the most radical speeches of his life. Espousing a “New Nationalism” of strong government and domestic reform, he called for a graduated income tax and an inheritance tax, a comprehensive workman’s compensation act, prohibition of child labor, downward revision of tariffs, and supervision of corporations.

At the time, and even for today, when the political pendulum has moved sharply to the right, it was a bold position. Roosevelt had been greatly influenced by the leaders of the Progressive movement, and particularly by Herbert Croly, whose book, The Promise of American Life, had boldly attacked the Jeffersonian strain of progressivism, with its emphasis on free competition and a weak central government. In its place Croly favored a strong central government that would address the problem of growing inequality in America. The traditional confidence in “individual freedom has resulted in a morally and socially undesirable distribution of wealth…in the hands of a few men,” Croly had written.

Whereas Jefferson had failed to foresee how individualism had been corrupted by great concentrations of wealth and power, Alexander Hamilton had argued that only strong government under elite leadership could ensure the national welfare. Croly’s bold stroke was to combine the two traditions into a politics for the new industrial age. Big capital, he argued in his book and in the pages of the lively journal he founded, The New Republic, could be tamed only by a strong central government. The two traditions had to be combined: Jefferson’s egalitarianism and Hamilton’s countervailing government power. Hamiltonian means were required to achieve Jeffersonian ends. Thus was born the New Nationalism.

Naturally the magazine’s editors, among whom was the young Walter Lippmann, were attracted to TR. For all his bombast and obsession with shooting animals,1 Roosevelt was a reformer and an intellectual—a man who wrote history books, defied convention by inviting a black man to the White House and appointing a Jew to his cabinet, laid the groundwork for the welfare state, set up the national park system, and shocked conservatives by declaring that private property was “subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public may require it.”

Although he later fell out with TR, Lippmann never got over his admiration for this man who had, for a time, transformed the presidency and even the nation’s vision of its possibilities. Roosevelt, he wrote many years later,

was the first president who knew that the United States had come of age—that not only were they no longer colonies of Europe, and no longer an immature nation on the periphery of western civilization, but that they had become a world power. He was the first to realize what that means, its responsibility and its dangers and its implication, and the first to prepare the country spiritually and physically for this inescapable destiny…. The first president who realized clearly that national stability and social justice had to be sought deliberately and consciously to be maintained…that once the period of settlement and easy expansion had come to an end, the promise of American life could be realized only by a national effort…. Theodore Roosevelt began the work of turning the American mind in the direction which it had to go in the twentieth century.

When he turned over the presidency to Taft in 1909 Roosevelt believed that his successor, the man whom he had persuaded to run for office, would carry on his policies. But his disillusionment with Taft, combined with his own restless energies, overwhelmed his restraint. When the candidacy of Robert LaFollette, the insurgent progressive challenger to Taft for the Republican nomination, imploded early in 1912, Roosevelt threw his own hat in the ring. The fight for the nomination was on between the Old Guard party regulars who had persuaded Taft to run for a second term, and the Roosevelt insurgency. One by one TR took crucial states in the primaries, even beating Taft in his native Ohio. Roosevelt was clearly riding the tide as the showdown battle moved into the convention.


Although TR had outpolled Taft in the primaries by a ratio of ten to seven he was at a grave disadvantage at a convention controlled by the party bosses. Stealing Roosevelt’s delegates, they awarded 235 to Taft and left only nineteen to the challenger. TR was buried by their parliamentary maneuvers. Defiant, he declared that he was “feeling like a bull moose,” and led the break-away delegates, with the financial backing of several millionaire supporters, out of the convention hall and down the street to form a new political party pledged to progressive values. There, as he seized the challenge, he told the ecstatic delegates, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” Two months later he was back in Chicago for the Progressive Party officially to offer him its dubious crown. Under a huge bull moose banner the delegates sang revivalist hymns, condemned the “special interests” that dominated both major parties, and thrilled to TR’s declaration that “our cause is based on the eternal principle of righteousness.”

Only a man of TR’s pride and stubborn determination would have taken the huge gamble of running as a third party candidate. Had he chosen to stand aside and let Taft run again he would almost certainly have been nominated by the Republicans in 1916. By splitting the Republican vote he would be blamed for the likely defeat of the party and lose his chance to run again.2 But he was a risk-taker, and he was angry that the nomination had so cynically and brazenly been seized from him by the party’s power brokers. What he ended up doing was to open the White House door to a man whom he detested as a political opportunist and a hypocrite: Woodrow Wilson.


Today Wilson is known as a crusading internationalist who gave inspiring speeches and struggled for American entry into a League of Nations that he believed would bring world peace for all time. But the Democratic Party bosses who pushed through his nomination in 1912 saw him, Chace tells us, as “the one Democrat who could overcome the progressive policies of Roosevelt.” A conservative Virginia Democrat, steeped in religion and the racist prejudices of the Old South, he was an apostle of states’ rights, limited government, and the corrective virtues of free competition. But he also spoke in terms of reform and moral regeneration. This made him an attractive alternative to the populist William Jennings Bryan, the oft-nominated and oft-defeated orator from the Great Plains, as well as to TR and his government-led progressivism.

By nature a conservative and an autocrat, Wilson had an enormous ambition which led him to adjust to the mood of the times. As governor of New Jersey, a post in which he was placed by the state’s Democratic politicians, he had acquired the reputation of a moderate reformer.

Desperate to regain the White House after years in the political wilderness, and beset by internal squabbles that blocked a convention majority for such contenders as William Jennings Bryan, Champ Clark, and Oscar Underwood, the Democratic delegates on the forty-sixth ballot turned to Wilson, the candidate of the machine politicians.

The problem, as Wilson saw it, was that the industrial age had spawned great monopolies that used their power to control or destroy such competition. How could monopolies be controlled without increasing government power? To help him articulate a coherent program Wilson called upon Louis D. Brandeis, a distinguished Boston lawyer whom he later appointed to the Supreme Court. The plan they evolved called for breaking up monopolies in order to restore free competition. They gave it an appealing label: the New Freedom.

TR by contrast, under Croly’s tutelage, argued that the modern industrial society had moved beyond the nineteenth-century world of small businesses. Giant industries could not operate on the scale of the mom-and-pop store. Bigness was a fact of modern life. The only way to control the evil of monopolies was to regulate them. And only a strong central government could do that. The American people, Roosevelt said, “have but one instrument which they can effectively use against the colossal combinations of business—and that instrument is the government of the United States.” Wilson, for his part, had placed himself squarely on the other side of the debate when he proclaimed during the campaign: “The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it.” The echoes of that debate can be heard to this day. As Chace summarizes it:

Wilson…distrusted the great combinations that had come to dominate or destroy the Jeffersonian America of small businesses and community life. He came to believe, however, that he could not rid the country of that evil except by restoring full competition. Roosevelt saw in the industrialized America that Hamilton had foreseen the ills visited upon the working class and knew that industrial capitalism could only be moderated, not erased.

For all their declared differences, Wilson and Roosevelt both believed that the system of American capitalism was basically sound. They would tweak the structure only around the edges. But then there was Eugene Victor Debs. Not a reformer, the earnest labor leader was a radical who believed that the power held by American capitalists should be transferred to those who produced the wealth by the sweat of their brows: the workers. Yet he did not seek change by violence but rather by a brotherhood of men and women that transcended class barriers.

Unlike Roosevelt, Wilson, and Taft, he had known poverty and hardship. Forced to quit school at fourteen to help his parents, he worked as a railroad fireman and later as an organizer who helped found the American Railway Union. In 1894, following the outbreak of the great economic panic of the previous year, he led a strike against the Pullman sleeping car company for an eight-hour day and other benefits for union workers. When the federal government, under the Democratic president Grover Cleveland, moved to quash the strike with troops, Debs was jailed for contempt, put on trial for conspiracy, and despite the help of his defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow, served six months in prison. This experience was the turning point in his conversion to socialism.

Debs, who had campaigned three times for Grover Cleveland, lost faith both in major political parties and in the traditional trade union tactics of striking for redress of workers’ grievances. Yet if he believed that capitalism was an exploitative system, he did not lose his faith in the ballot box as an instrument for change. Blocked by the government’s coercive power and also by the determination of the conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) to destroy his union, he turned to national politics as the instrument of redress.

He was a populist who believed in a classless society, and felt out of step with the ideologues of the Socialist Party. Yet when the Socialists, eager for a popular candidate, nominated him for president in 1900 he accepted and polled 100,000 votes in the national election. Four years later he was nominated again and quadrupled his tally with a remarkable 400,000 votes, a feat which he repeated in his third run in 1908, despite the opposition of the AFL’s hostile officials, and particularly that of its leader, Samuel Gompers. By 1911 Americans had elected some 450 Socialists to public office, including fifty-six mayors and a congressman. The party published five daily papers and 262 English-language weeklies.

Among the Socialists Debs was a centrist, believing in neither the radical leftists who preached direct action nor the conservatives who wanted to cooperate with the AFL craft unions. He stood aside when the conservatives succeeded in ousting fiery radical leader Bill Haywood of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) from the party leadership. He was, Chace shows, a consensus builder, a man who wanted to include all those who supported industrial unionism, and also “a democrat, who identified with Lincoln and the revolutionary tradition that he viewed as the bedrock of American exceptionalism.”

Although Debs knew that he did not stand a chance in 1912, he believed that the people could be roused to the Socialist program when they realized that the Progressives and the Democrats offered no more than piecemeal reforms. Neither TR nor Wilson would consent to debate the issues with him. He traveled across the country, inspiring miners and farmers and mill workers, attracting thousands of devoted admirers to the rallies where he denounced capitalist despotism and promised that together they could build an industrial and social democracy in America.

In this feverish race the Republican candidate seemed virtually irrelevant. Taft, whom TR had labeled “a dead cock in the pit,” conducted a colorless and dispirited campaign. He ritualistically praised individualism and denounced socialism, warning that “the equal opportunity which those seek who proclaim the coming of so-called social justice involves a forced division of property, and that means socialism.” Preaching a politics of contentment at a time when many were not content, he celebrated the fact that, in Chace’s words, “the Republican Party that had once elected Theodore Roosevelt, and which he had served so ably and so loyally, was no longer the party of activist government.”

Ever since Roosevelt defiantly made his challenge it was clear that the race was essentially between him and Wilson. Taft could never win, but he could siphon off traditional Republican voters, just as Debs could win over reformers who had grown disillusioned with both major parties. TR kept up a frantic speaking schedule, giving as many as twenty speeches a day. Riding through the streets of Milwaukee in an open car on the way to a rally he was shot by a crazed gunman who told police that in a dream the slain president William McKinley had ordered him to do it. Refusing to go to the hospital before he had delivered his scheduled speech, TR talked for nearly an hour as the blood from his wound slowly seeped through his vest. Later the doctors told him that the bullet, slowed by the speech he was carrying in his coat pocket, had lodged less than an inch from his heart. “It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose,” he told his adoring followers.

The episode improved his odds of winning, but not enough. When the campaign ended a few weeks later Wilson had 6,300,000 votes, TR 4,100,000, Taft 3,500,000, and Debs 900,000. Debs had been vindicated, more than doubling his tally in 1904 and taking 6 percent of the vote, the largest share ever won by a socialist before or since. Had TR been nominated by the Republicans, he almost certainly would have won. Together he and Taft took slightly more than 50 percent of the popular vote against Wilson’s 42 percent. But the electoral score was lopsided. Wilson carried forty states and 435 electoral votes, leaving TR with six states and 88 electoral votes, and Taft with only Vermont and Utah.

The cold figures conceal the enormous importance of the election. With Roosevelt back in the White House, Chace argues, the Republicans would likely have become a party of domestic reform and internationalist realism in foreign affairs. The fissure between Taft and TR irreparably split the party into reactionary and reformist wings. In effect the Republicans and the Democrats changed roles, with the Republicans dedicated to conservative values and the Democrats to governmental activism and reformist idealism.

Defeat had not quenched TR’s ambition. Four years later he was ready to try again, but on his terms. “It would be a mistake to nominate me unless the country has in its mood something of the heroic,” he declared in the spring of 1916. Whether or not the country did, the Republican Party leaders clearly did not. They nominated the moderate reformer Charles Evans Hughes to challenge Wilson’s bid for reelection, hoping that he would appeal to TR’s progressive voters. Hughes almost won. Had he not lost California by a mere four thousand votes he would have been president. As it was, Wilson squeaked by as the candidate of the South and the West.

The first thing that Wilson did after his second inauguration in March 1917 was to take the nation into the European war. Informing Congress that “the world must be made safe for democracy,” he appealed as much to American innocence as to American idealism by declaring, in words that sound all too familiar today, that “we created this nation not to serve ourselves, but to serve mankind.” He moved to do so by sending American forces to participate in the carnage on the Western Front, and by supporting a Sedition Act that made it a crime to criticize the president or the war in speech and print.

One of the early victims of this patriotic legislation was Debs. In June 1918 he told a Socialist rally in Ohio that “the master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.” For this he was hauled before a federal grand jury and indicted for violating the Sedition Act. A jury found him guilty of trying to obstruct the draft, and the judge sentenced him to ten years’ imprisonment. Wilson’s attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, under orders from the President “not to let this country see Red,” ordered Debs sent to a maximum security prison in Atlanta. Sixty-three and ailing, he joined more than two thousand radical unionists who had been arrested, and two hundred convicted under the new espionage law. In prison he languished, repeatedly denied amnesty by a vindictive Wilson long after the war was over, until the new Republican president, Warren Harding, set him free shortly after taking office in 1921.

Roosevelt, tireless as ever, had hoped to stand again for president in the 1920 election. But it was not to be. In January 1919 he suddenly died of an embolism. His rivals from 1912 followed soon. A few months after TR’s death Wilson, on a grueling whistle-stop campaign to sell his League of Nations vision to a skeptical public, suffered a massive stroke that left him partially paralyzed and president in name only for the rest of his term. In 1926 Debs, then seventy, died of a heart attack. It was truly the end of an era.

Yet it was an era that had left an indelible legacy. Debs, Chace tells us, not only set the groundwork for the creation of an alliance of industrial unions cutting across craft lines, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), but “helped prepare the way for the radical reforms of the first New Deal.” And it was Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, he maintains, that “fulfilled the promise of TR’s radicalism in 1912 and expanded Wilson’s achievements in his first administration.”

What made the election of 1912 so extraordinary was not only the colorful figures who competed in it but the range of issues that were debated and fought over. The candidates offered sharply differing views of the role of government and of the very structure of American society. They dramatically articulated their differences. They actually debated issues rather than offering sound bites.

That election had repercussions that we feel to this day. It confirmed the hold of the business-dominated Old Guard on the Republican Party. It brought to the White House a man whose ardent belief that the United States must work to create an international society reflecting its own values became central to the nation’s post-1945 policies of global interventionism.

It marked the end of efforts to build a mass movement socialist party based on democratic trade unions on the European model. Although Debs’s campaigns “helped prepare the way for the radical reforms of the New Deal,” as Chace comments, they did little to bring socialism to the unreceptive soil of America. The Junker autocrat Otto von Bismarck, in an effort to ensure social stability so that he could pursue his expansionist foreign policy, did more to advance progressive social programs in nineteenth-century Germany than did either Wilson or TR in twentieth-century America.

Although it took place nearly a century ago, the election of 1912 hasa contemporary feel. The issues it frames are still with us. What are the limits of the power of capital and the rights of labor? What are the responsibilities of government? What is the place of the US in the world? Who speaks for America? By dramatizing these issues in an engrossing narrative that is essential reading at this crucial election moment, James Chace helps us to understand the world we inherited and the quadrennial drama we are now approaching with fascination, anticipation, and dread.

This Issue

September 23, 2004