In 1904, Democrats were torn between their progressive and conservative factions as they faced an erratic Republican president. Sound familiar? Let’s see how this one turned out!
The Last Four Years
President William McKinley celebrated his re-election victory with a nation-wide tour, ending at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Despite concerns for his safety, he was eager to meet with the public. In the crowd watching his speech was anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Leon was a Polish-American who grew up in Michigan and spent his adult life working throughout the Rust Belt. He was radicalized during the Panic of 1893 and blamed the structure of government itself for wealth inequality. The recent assassination of the Italian king inspired him to take action. The day after McKinley’s speech, Leon stood in line to meet the president. When it was his turn, he shot McKinley twice in the abdomen with a concealed pistol. At first, it seemed like McKinley would recover. Vice President Teddy Roosevelt even resumed his vacation in the Adirondacks. But a few weeks later, McKinley became infected with gangrene and his condition quickly worsened. President McKinley died on September 14, 1901.
Leon was executed later that year. Since this was the third presidential assassination in 40 years, the Secret Service was tasked with the continuous protection of future presidents, though it was originally created to fight counterfeit currency. Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert, was present at the Pan-American Expo, at McKinley’s request. Recognizing that he had a connection to all three presidential assassinations, he is rumored to have refused to be in the same place as the president for the rest of his life.
At 42 years old, Teddy Roosevelt was the youngest president in US history. Although McKinley left behind a popular legacy, President Roosevelt was eager to push his own agenda. He strongly believed in utilizing the power of the presidency to its fullest extent.
Despite the Republican Party’s cozy relationship with big-business, Roosevelt was known for his trust-busting. He did not want to dismantle all large businesses, only to regulate the bad ones. He relied heavily on the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890. Throughout his presidency, Roosevelt’s administration used the act against trusts 44 times. His three successors combined used it 18 times. Roosevelt also created the Department of Commerce and Labor, and the Bureau of Corporations within it, to increase regulation. Continuing his pro-labor stance, Roosevelt publicly supported a coal miners strike and pressured the owners to negotiate. It was the first time in history a president used his power to intervene on the side of labor.
Roosevelt was progressive in other areas, too. Most notably, he was an avid conservationist. He created the US Forest Service and established 5 national parks, 18 national monuments, 21 irrigation projects, 51 bird reservations, and 150 national forests. Roosevelt also attempted to break the barriers of segregation when he invited black education advocate Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House. Although African American leaders had met with presidents before, this was the first official, publicized event. As you might expect, Southerners were offended. Republicans scrambled to do damage control, attempting to downplay the meal as a lunch. Sadly, fear of controversy prevented the White House from hosting another black leader for several decades.
From today’s perspective, the most controversial aspects of Roosevelt’s agenda were in foreign policy. He was a big proponent of American imperialism and wanted to follow McKinley’s lead. During his term, the Philippine-American War came to an end, but American occupation of the islands continued. Roosevelt’s main focus remained in the Caribbean. In 1903, Secretary of State John Hay formed a treaty with Colombia for a 99-year lease on a canal zone in the Panama region. It was passed by the US Senate, but rejected by the Colombian Senate. In response, the US allowed for a revolt against the Colombian government in Panama. The revolt was successful and Panama became an independent nation. In November, a new treaty was signed, granting the US sovereignty over the canal zone in exchange for $10 million.
Teddy Bear Pause!
As you probably know, Teddy Bears were named after Teddy Roosevelt. Here’s the full story! The president went on a hunting trip while in Mississippi to settle a state border dispute. His hunting companions felt bad when he wasn’t able to find any trophies. To help him out, they cornered and tied up a bear for him to shoot. But Roosevelt felt that shooting the bear would be unsportsmanlike and spared it. The exchange inspired a cartoon, Drawing the Line in Mississippi, by Clifford Berryman. The cute bear in the cartoon gave Brooklyn toy salesman Morris Michtom the idea for the stuffed bear, which quickly became a best-seller.
With the economy still doing well and America gaining dominance on the world stage, the only real issue of the upcoming election was, well, Teddy Roosevelt himself. Despite all the winning, many politicians were still offended by his brash style. Did America need a more predictable and calm leader?
Party Watch & The Candidates
Roosevelt was anxious to legitimize his presidency with his own election win. He was worried that the Republican old-guard would try to replace him. There were rumors that Mark Hanna, ohio senator and RNC chairman, would seek the nomination. He had not been a fan of adding Roosevelt to the ticket four years prior. As a way to block his possible candidacy, Roosevelt invited Hanna to run his campaign, as he had for McKinley. Sadly, Hanna died of typhoid in February 1904. But, as it turns out, the party had no intentions of replacing Roosevelt. After all, he was a really popular president with a broad coalition. He won re-nomination unanimously on the first ballot. The party had an easy consensus on their platform. They were pro-tariff, pro-gold, pro-imperialism, and pro-Roosevelt. To balance Roosevelt’s progressive agenda, their VP pick was conservative Senator Charles W. Fairbanks, from Indiana.
After two tough losses by William Jennings Bryan, Eastern Gold Democrats (also known as Bourbon Democrats or Reorganizers) had control of the party again. Bryan chose not to run again. The offer was also extended to former President Grover Cleveland, who had already served two non-consecutive terms, but he turned it down, too. With the only two Democratic nominees of the last 20 years sitting out, it was time for a new face. The convention was contentious from the beginning. The mere mention of Cleveland and his conservative economic policies caused a big enough uproar that the police were called to prevent an outbreak of violence. Silverites (though not Bryan) lined up behind newspaper magnate and New York Representative William Randolph Hearst. His papers were known to be pro-labor and were the only ones that supported silver in the East. The conservatives backed Alton B. Parker, the chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals. Parker was liked by both Republicans and Democrats, but was not that well-known nationally. Even though he was a Democrat, he had connections to big-businesses that normally supported Republicans. He actually supported Bryan in the last two elections, but Silverites still hated him for not being friendly to labor as a judge. Parker was mostly quiet about his political positions, earning him the title “The Enigma from New York.” Despite the bitter divide in the party, economic conservatives rallied together to give Parker the win on the first ballot. After his nomination, Parker revealed himself to be a Gold Standard supporter. Being the nice guy that he was, he offered to withdraw from the ticket, if his monetary stance offended too many Democrats. Party elites assured him it was fine. His running mate was West Virginia Senator Henry G. Davis. At 80 years old, he was the oldest person ever on a major party ticket. But, being a millionaire, the party was mostly interested in Davis’ wealth. Unfortunately… he gave no money to the campaign!
The Prohibition Party was also still in the running, as was the Socialist Party with their candidate, Eugene V. Debs.
Since Roosevelt was a progressive-Republican and Parker was a conservative-Democrat, there was actually a lot of overlap in their policy positions. The biggest issue of the last two elections, the monetary question, was moot since both major candidates supported gold.
Republicans had another easy campaign. They emphasized Roosevelt’s success on foreign policy and trust busting. Against his usual style, Roosevelt adhered to the unofficial rule that sitting presidents didn’t campaign. He did, however, make friends with the press. On one occasion, he invited them into the White House during a rain storm and addressed their questions directly, essentially inventing the presidential press briefing. They formed a symbiotic relationship. Roosevelt’s chaotic style gave them lots of content, and he had control of the news cycles.
The Democrats’ main argument was that Roosevelt was too erratic to remain president. They hoped Parker could bridge the aisle for voters who wanted a more “normal” leader, but Roosevelt’s success made him difficult to attack! Unlike William Jennings Bryan, Parker did not go on a campaign tour. His economic views earned him little help from Silverites. Bryan did make some speeches for Parker late in the campaign, but managed to sneak in a lot of his own agenda, too.
The only drama of the campaign was the accusation that Roosevelt was in the pocket of big-business. When RNC Chairman Mark Hanna died, Roosevelt replaced him with the head of the Department of Commerce and Labor, George B. Cortelyou. Journalist Joseph Pulitzer (ever heard of him?) published an editorial asking Roosevelt if Cortelyou’s role as a regulator put him in a position to extort campaign money from corporations. Roosevelt ignored the claim until Democrats started parroting it. Then, he gave a furious denial and the issue was dropped.
The map is looking even more red than the very red results of 1900! Parker kept most of the South, but Roosevelt picked off a few border states. Missouri flipped for the first time since 1868, giving it a new role as a swing state!
It was a huge landslide victory for Teddy Roosevelt! The electoral results were 336-140. The popular vote breakdown was 56% to 37%, making it the largest margin since Monroe’s uncontested 1820 run. Roosevelt was surprised that his victory was so decisive. He was happy to no longer be just a political accident. He was the first vice-president-turned-president to win his own election.
What Did It Say About America?
Crazy as he was, voters liked Teddy Roosevelt’s style! And hey, the economy was still good, even with Roosevelt’s trust-busting. And a little imperialism was ok if it meant America came out on top.
Was It The Right Decision?
Yes! Parker was an exceptionally boring candidate running against an exceptionally exciting president. It would have been interesting to see William Jennings Bryan take on Roosevelt, but it’s doubtful that there was a Democrat out there that could beat him. Roosevelt certainly had his faults, but he also brought progressivism to the mainstream.
In October, when Roosevelt was worried about losing New York, he supposedly begged businessmen E. H. Harriman and Henry Clay Frick for campaign funds. Harriman gave $50,000 and raised another $250,000 from friends. Frick gave $100,000. After his victory, Roosevelt felt he had even more authority to enact his agenda. He increased business regulations and condemned the “criminal rich.” Harriman and Frick felt betrayed. Frick exclaimed, “We bought the son of a bitch and then he did not stay bought!”
Following the election, Roosevelt said he would stick to the custom and not seek a “third” term. Would he regret it?