Theodore Roosevelt, Pt. II: The Radical

“We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.”

Theodore Roosevelt, 1912
Roosevelt the chemist1

In Part I of this series, I explored Theodore Roosevelt’s moderate side — a firm belief that incremental reforms made from within the Republican Party were necessary to prevent true radicals from holding office. But in his later years, Roosevelt became more extreme in his views. He advocated for more revolutionary policies, became more hostile to the establishment, and separated himself from old friends who still insisted on compromise. His eventual break from the Republican Party had massive effects on the political alignment of the nation. But was this sudden shift motivated by principle… or ego?

Meanwhile, in America…

Roosevelt and Taft’s progressive lovechild2

Just a few weeks after leaving office, Roosevelt departed on a prolonged hunting expedition in Africa. He left the presidency in the hands of his close friend and former cabinet member, William H. Taft. Although Taft had nearly identical progressive credentials to his predecessor, he lacked the same perseverance and confidence to fully enact his agenda. He struggled to defend his decisions to the press, to his colleagues, and to voters. Soon, the Republican Party was bitterly divided.

Roosevelt only received limited news of Taft’s unpopularity during his safari. On his subsequent tour of Europe, he met with Gifford Pinchot, his former Chief of Forestry and a close conservationist ally. Pinchot provided details of Taft’s betrayal to the progressive cause — how he had replaced most of Roosevelt’s cabinet, failed to adequately reform the tariff, and refused to protect land from energy companies. Pinchot himself had been fired for speaking out against what he saw as corruption in the Administration. Roosevelt was distressed. He confided to his friend Henry Cabot Lodge, “Taft was nominated solely on my assurance… that he would carry out my work unbroken; not (as he has done) merely working for somewhat the same objects in a totally different spirit, and with a totally different result, but exactly along my lines with all his heart and strength.” Now, he feared that voters felt he had “deceived” them.

In June 1910, Roosevelt finally returned to the US. He was greeted in Manhattan by over 100,000 spectators and a parade through the city. President Taft chose not to attend the festivities, fearing that his presence would imply subordination to his predecessor.

Return to Politics

Once again able to exert his influence, Roosevelt quickly found himself at odds with the Republican establishment. His first foray back into politics came when he endorsed a bill instituting a direct primary in New York state. When the Republican Old Guard killed the bill, Roosevelt decided to get more involved. He ran for the position of convention chair in the fall, which would give him significant power of the state party platform. The party machine once again blocked his efforts, aided by Taft’s reluctance to intervene. Following his defeat, Roosevelt issued a statement harshly criticizing the establishment and firmly aligning himself with the progressive faction.

Later that summer, Roosevelt departed on an extended speaking tour of the western US. In Kansas, he delivered what was considered his most radical speech yet. The Square Deal, he acknowledged, was inadequate. To properly fight the establishment required an updated mantra — “New Nationalism.” While he still “[stood] for fair play under the present rules of the game,” he now argued “for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service.” This new platform called for a wide range of progressive issues, including campaign finance reform, income and inheritance taxes, and increased labor regulations. Taft was taken aback by his friend’s radical shift. Many of Roosevelt’s proposals, he felt, required dramatic changes to the Constitution and the courts. Roosevelt no longer shared Taft’s commitment to working within the system.

Republicans suffered enormous, unexpected losses in the 1910 midterms. Unsurprisingly, many conservatives were quick to blame Roosevelt’s newfound radicalism and his crusade against the establishment. Progressives argued that the party had done worst in states where they had compromised with moderates. Under the leadership of Senator Bob La Follette, they formed the National Progressive League to overtake and reform the party. Roosevelt had long regarded La Follette as an ineffective extremist, but was sympathetic to the new organization. While he stopped short of officially joining, he granted the organization his endorsement. In March, Roosevelt embarked on another tour, this time of the South and Southwest. In contrast to conservatives’ diagnosis of the midterm losses, his speeches attracted some of his largest crowds ever.

“My Hat is in the Ring”

Roosevelt and Taft duking it out in front of Uncle Sam3

Despite Roosevelt’s sudden animosity with the establishment, at this point, he had yet to directly attack the Taft Administration. That changed on October 27th, his 53rd birthday, when the Administration announced that it would be filing an anti-trust lawsuit against US Steel and J.P. Morgan for an acquisition made during the Panic of 1907. They argued that the former president had not fully understood the deal when he approved it. This prompted newspapers across the country to run headlines describing Roosevelt as having been “deceived” and “fooled.” Roosevelt was furious. He immediately attacked Taft’s anti-trust record. While Taft had actually busted more trusts than Roosevelt, he argued that the President had failed to enact further legislation to prevent trusts from forming in the first place. Roosevelt still insisted that he would not seek the presidency again, but as journalist Ray Standard Baker put it, he seemed “like a war horse beginning to sniff the air of distant battles.”

By the beginning of 1912, Roosevelt could not deny the momentum he had built towards the Republican nomination. He agreed to answer the call, only if the politicians who had privately encouraged his candidacy would reaffirm their support in a public letter. Conveniently, Roosevelt personally selected the letter’s author and edited the draft before it was signed. As the signatures were gathered, Roosevelt gave yet another radical speech, outlining what would become his campaign platform. His most extreme proposal was to give voters the right to overturn judicial rulings. Despite some last-minute reservations from close friends in response to his speech, Roosevelt moved forward. He hinted at his candidacy before making the official announcement by admitting to a reporter, “My hat is in the ring.”

Captain Butt Pause!

Captain Archibald Butt4

The rift between Roosevelt and Taft had consequences beyond politics. Their shared military aide, Archie Butt, struggled to maintain the delicate balance between his two dear friends. Butt worked as a journalist before joining the military during the Spanish-American War. While serving in the Philippines, he met then-Governor Taft, who later recommended him to join the Roosevelt Administation. Butt became incredibly close with the Roosevelt family and even vacationed with them. He remained in his position during the Taft presidency. The battle for the Republican nomination caused intense anxiety for Butt. A few months before the campaign began, he decided to alleviate his stress with a vacation to Europe. On April 10, 1912, he began his journey home on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. In the days following the ship’s sinking, numerous news stories told of Butt’s heroism during the crisis, though their credibility was suspect. Nevertheless, Taft was sure that his friend would have “remain[ed] on the ship’s deck until every duty had been performed and every sacrifice made.” Roosevelt paid tribute to Butt during his Western speaking tour. Taft traveled to Butt’s hometown of Augusta, Georgia to speak at his memorial service. He was unable to finish his speech before breaking into tears.

The Convention

Heading into the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Taft maintained a formidable delegate lead. A large number of seats remained contested, however, and Roosevelt’s campaign intended to use this uncertainty to weaken the incumbent’s position. The committee which reviewed the claims did so on an entirely partisan basis, though it is most likely that Taft won a majority of the contests fairly. Roosevelt denounced the committee and made the surprising decision to travel to Chicago personally — a major taboo for candidates at the time. Tens of thousands of supporters cheered his arrival. From his hotel balcony, he provoked the crowd, “The receiver of stolen goods is no better than the thief…. This is a naked fight against corrupt politicians and thieves and the thieves will not win.” Later that night, a reporter inquired about his feelings on the tough fight ahead. Roosevelt responded, “I’m feeling like a bull moose.”

In the final speech of his campaign, Roosevelt accused Taft of “abandoning the cause of the people” and threatened that his delegates would walk out if the committee’s decisions were not reversed. More than 1,000 policemen were required to control the wild crowds when the convention officially began. When a Taft ally secured the position of convention chair, a Roosevelt supporter ran on-stage and yelled, “Receiver of stolen goods!” Fights erupted in the audience. On the second day of the convention, reality set in for the Roosevelt delegates. They met at a nearby hotel to discuss next steps. Pinchot described Roosevelt “walking rapidly up and down in silence.” The campaign’s two largest financial backers approached the candidate, placed their hands on his shoulders, and promised to remain committed to him. Roosevelt subsequently announced his intention to form a new political party.

Roosevelt’s delegates made toots and whistle noises imitating a steamroller as the final committee decisions affirmed Taft’s victory. A statement from the former president was read aloud. He argued that the convention’s refusal to seat his disputed delegates made it “in no proper sense any longer a Republican convention… Any man nominated by the convention as now constituted would be merely the beneficiary of this successful fraud.” Brawls again broke out on the floor. As Taft’s votes were counted, Roosevelt’s delegates walked out. The “Progressive Party” (better known as the “Bull-Moose Party”) met again in Chicago a few weeks later for their own convention. Roosevelt walked on stage to a huge wave of cheers. In his speech, he charged that “both the old parties are controlled by professional politicians in the interests of the privileged classes.” He closed with the declaration, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.”

The Election

Taft campaign poster5

Taft adhered to the longstanding tradition that sitting presidents did not actively campaign (not a difficult task for the apprehensive nominee). Roosevelt, on the other hand, was eager to tour the country and promote his progressive vision. On the trail, he finally attacked the Democratic candidate, New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson. He argued against Democratic platform’s emphasis on limited government. In contrast, his New Nationalism promised “to use the whole power of the government to protect all those who… are trodden down in the ferocious, scrambling rush of an unregulated and purely individualistic industrialism.” In reality, the differences were minor. Wilson announced a strikingly similar policy, titled “New Freedom.” Despite vast differences in personality, all three candidates held comparable economic views.

Woodrow Wilson won the election. He secured 40 of 48 states and 41.9% of the popular vote. Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote — Roosevelt with six states and 27.4%, Taft with only two states and 23.2%. Despite Roosevelt’s second-place finish, down-ballot progressives did not do well. They won only twelve congressional seats and one governor’s race. Roosevelt conceded to Pinchot, “We must face the fact that our cutting loose from the Republican Party was followed by disaster to the Progressive cause.” 

Wilson actually accomplished many progressive goals while in office (such as the creation of a central bank, labor reform, income tax, and women’s suffrage), but he also put Southern Democrats in positions of power within the federal government for the first time in several decades. Roosevelt continued to vocally oppose the Wilson Administration. He declined the Progressive Party’s nomination in 1916 and instead backed the Republican candidate. Following another round of disappointing local elections that year, the Progressive Party disbanded.

It was six years until Roosevelt and Taft began to mend their relationship. They resumed regular correspondence after Taft expressed his sympathy for his former rival’s ongoing health issues, the result of a perilous expedition through the Amazon. The two reconciled in-person at a coincidental meeting in the dining room of a Chicago hotel. The surrounding patrons applauded their embrace. Less than a year later, Roosevelt passed away in his sleep.

1. TR Chemist, 1912 — Karl Kae Knecht / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
2. Taft, 1909 — Samuel D. Ehrhart / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
3. For Auld Lang Syne, 1912 — Punch Magazine / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
4. Archibald Willingham Butt, 1909 — Bain News Service / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
5. Taft A Second Term, 1912 — Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. The Bully Pulpit. Simon & Schuster, 2013.