1912: A Chaotic Presidential Election

Roosevelt and Taft
Roosevelt and Taft”Before the Battle”October 26, 1912

Who remembers the men who lost the presidency?

After the winners are announced, the lawn signs yanked up, and life returns to normal, who cares about the politicians who came in second?

Oh, some ex-candidates may linger in the public memory if they make a good concession speech. And some may hang on as the semi-official critic of the new president. Generally, though, the would-be presidents, whose names were once plastered in giant letters across the country—John W. Davis, Alton B. Parker, and James G. Blaine for example—are quickly forgotten.

However, one candidate—William Howard Taft—deserves to be remembered. Not just for his one-term presidency, but because his unsuccessful run for a second term shaped the course of history for America and the world in the 20th century.

The year was 1912. He was the incumbent. However, former President Theodore Roosevelt also wanted to run as the Republican candidate.

Taft won the nomination— he was the sitting president after all. But Roosevelt, not one to be easily deterred from a goal, formed his own Progressive Party. Between them, they split the Republican vote and underdog Democrat Woodrow Wilson would easily win.

The candidates of 1912: Eugene V. Debs (Socialist Party), E. W. Chafin (Prohibition Party), Theodore Roosevelt (Progressive Party), William H. Taft (Republican), Woodrow Wilson (Democrat). Miss Columbia hands out the presidency.

How did things come to such a pass? The field of candidates in the 1912 election was unusually crowded, as shown in this October 1912 Post cartoon (right).

Roosevelt had come to the end of his second term in 1908 with the desire to continue his progressive reforms. So he named Taft, then Secretary of War, as his successor. Roosevelt believed Taft would work just as hard to raise the living standards of American workers, curb the excesses of big business, and set aside land for conservation, public use, and more.

Taft didn’t want the presidency, but Roosevelt could be very persuasive. He was also Taft’s close friend. So Taft agreed to run. He duly won the Republican nomination, and then the 1908 election.

"Changed New England," October 12, 1912
“Changed New England” October 12, 1912

Once elected, though, it was clear that Taft was no Teddy. Where Roosevelt had been passionate and impulsive, ready to push the limits of the law to achieve reforms, Taft was cautious and methodical. Unlike his predecessor, he would compromise with his opponents, and he always worked well within any legal limits on his authority.

Roosevelt soon grew disenchanted with his heir as Taft withdrew support from progressive Republicans in Congress and from several of Roosevelt’s initiatives. The worst offense came in 1910 after Taft put some land marked for conservation back into the hands of private developers. Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. Forest Service, publicly criticized Taft’s action. Taft fired Pinchot, who went straight to Roosevelt to complain.

Now Roosevelt was furious. He believed Taft had betrayed him and sold out the Progressive movement. In an interview with the Post (“Why Roosevelt Opposes Taft,” May 4, 1912), Roosevelt explained why he was now opposing his protégé in the race for the Republican nomination.

Mr. Taft was nominated for president … because of his outspoken endorsement of progressive policies. Opposed to these policies … were the Reactionaries. … Without a single exception these men are supporting Mr. Taft today—supporting him openly and with every political trick at their command. They are entirely in accord with his record in the presidency. … Have the Reactionaries become Progressives or has Mr. Taft turned Reactionary? I leave it to the people to judge.

The present Administration has acted for special privilege whenever there was found the slightest authority in law … and has acted for the people in those cases only where it was explicitly commanded by statute. … I gave the people the benefit of the doubt. This Administration has given the benefit of the doubt against the people. [“Why Roosevelt Opposes Taft,” May 4, 1912. Read the full story here.]

"The Republican Situation," April 20, 1912
Can he stick? “The Republican Situation” April 20, 1912

It was a dark time for Taft. The man he once considered his best friend—the man who had talked him into running for president—had denounced him and was planning to kick him out of the White House. To make matters worse, Taft knew he had no talent for campaigning. He hadn’t even a glimmer of Roosevelt’s shining charisma. He was a poor public speaker, and he was ridiculously overweight (in the last two years of his presidency his weight had climbed to 345 pounds).

Yet the Republican party leaders wanted him, even if he had no chance of defeating Roosevelt. In a 1912 assessment of “The Republican Situation,” the Post reported that the Republicans would choose Taft despite all odds because the party would rather “face defeat with him rather than disown and discredit him … and themselves.”  Assured of the party’s support, and determined to pursue his own style of progressivism, Taft decided to run.

Roosevelt launched his Progressive Party and campaigned hard—even giving a speech after being shot in the chest—and on Election Day, he received 15 percent more votes than Taft. But he was still 2 million votes short of Wilson.

Taft couldn’t have known that his decision to run would put Wilson into the White House at the beginning of a world war. Or that the new president would wait three years before bringing the U.S. into the war. Or that Wilson would be so focused on building a League of Nations, he allowed the Allies to take vengeance on Germany—an action that would ensure another, bigger war would be fought 20 years later. Nor could he know that, by splitting the progressive vote, he ended its power in the Republican party.

But what if Taft hadn’t stayed in the race? Teddy would have surely won. To read what might have happened if Teddy Roosevelt had been elected to a third (nonconsecutive) term, click here.

Who Will Shape the New Decade?

Predicting has become more difficult than ever. Consider the decade that arrived in 2000, and how few hints there were for the coming changes: the terrorist attacks, the Bush presidency, the collapse of major corporations, and the vanishing middle class.

The signs might have been there in 2000, but we were overshadowed by the news of the day. That year, Time magazine named George W. Bush as its person of the year. But how many of its “Newsmakers of 2000” are still making news: Vojislav Kostunica, Mohammed Al-Durra, Robert Mugabe, Kim John IL, Vincente Fox Quesada, Cathy Freeman, George Speight, or John Roth?

It has always been difficult to spot the newsmakers who will eventually make vast changes. The first Post issue of 1910 is a good example. Its top story covered the British Prime Minister’s battle to curb the legislative power of the House of Lords. There is no mention of the World War that is a mere four years away.

A long, comic poem The World, the Flesh and 1909: A Galloping Epic in Six Canters and a “Whoa!” reviews the important topics of the previous year: President Taft’s first year, William Howard Taft, Turkish slaughter of Armenians, and Wilbur Wright’s record flight, Commodore Peary and the arctic-exploring fraud, Dr. Cook.

If the Post editors of 1910 had our knowledge, they would have devoted much more space to their weekly department, “Who’s Who—And Why.” The article concerns Gifford Pinchot, a forestry expert from North Carolina, who was to make a vast impact on American society.

To be fair to the editors, Pinchot had not yet taken the actions that changed global politics in the 20th Century. Before we describe these actions, we will quote from the Post article, which introduces Pinchot to its readers.

“When Colonel Roosevelt came into our humdrum lives as President, Pinchot, who had been dealing mostly with statesmen who had only one idea about trees, and that was to keep up the tariff on lumber, found a person after his own heart. The Colonel was a sort of tree-sharp himself. He had known Pinchot when he had lived in Washington previously, and had absorbed some of Pinchot’s ideas, as well as contributed a few of his own — a thing he never failed to do as he had a large of stock of idea on almost every subject.

Gifford Pinchot
Gifford Pinchot

“Pinchot lived trees, thought trees and talked trees. Beginning with the broad, general preposition that we must conserve our forest if we would continue great as a Nation, he had developed a conservation theory that included all our natural resources. He saw that Colonel Roosevelt was sympathetic … and the way he froze to that eminent gentleman was the wonder of Washington. Every time T. R. turned around he found Pinchot at his elbow, saying, “Well as we have a few minutes, let me explain again to you the necessity of forest reservations, of the conservation of our water power and the safeguard of other resources.

“When they were playing tennis and the Colonel had banged the ball, or all the balls, out of the lot, Pinchot would walk over and begin: “While we are resting let me point out to you the advantages — ” and so on. Any time there was a lull in the conversation at luncheon Pinchot came to bat with a few well-rounded sentences about conservation. He didn’t think about anything else or talk about anything else. He was as single-minded about it as a June bug trying to butt through a window-glass.

“Pinchot was one of the White House Steadies. He counted that day lost when he didn’t produce something new for the Colonel to reserve or conserve. Moreover, being an earnest person, and scrappaghous (sic) withal, he butted in every place he could. He had Jimmie Garfield on his staff, when Jimmie was Secretary of the Interior, and he ran various ends of that department as well as the Forest Service. There was no stopping Pinchot… until R. Achilles Ballinger came along as Mr. Taft’s Secretary of the Interior. Then Mr. Ballinger, being somewhat red-corpuscled himself, organized a clash, which is clashing yet.”

The writer concludes with a few observations of the Forest Service director:

“He is a quiet, effective man, intensely in earnest and on the job every minute of the day. He has a highly specialized intelligence and he is doing a big work for the country. He is an extremist, of course, as every man is who gets great results, and there are those who go further and call him a fanatic.”

Among those applying the “f” word to Pinchot was President Taft.

To pick up the story, we must add a little background on Taft and his mentor, Theodore Roosevelt. In 1904, flushed with victory, Roosevelt promised not to run for re-election in 1908. So in 1907, he personally selected his successor.

William Howard Taft had worked closely with Roosevelt, and had been his Secretary of War. Roosevelt believed Taft would continue his Progressive agenda: punishing the “malefactors of great wealth,” ensuring opportunity, launching social programs, and protecting the country’s natural resources.

President Taft from a Post cartoon. Weighing over 300 pounds, Taft is remembered as a man of great weight but little impact.
President Taft from a Post cartoon. Weighing over 300 pounds, Taft is remembered as a man of great weight but little impact.

Taft won the election of 1908 with Roosevelt’s support. Once in office, though, he proved more cautious, but probably more thorough than Roosevelt in furthering Progressive reforms.

From the first days of his presidency, Taft indicated he would be less abrasive and more deliberate in his approach, which the Post editors applauded. They also praised his support for the Payne-Aldrich tariff bill, which would protect American industry from competition in the world market. On the editorial page, the Post proclaimed “Taft Opens the Door of Hope.”

The Progressive Republicans who had voted for Taft at Roosevelt’s urging were dismayed by this betrayal. The former president could not be reached for a comment; once he had won the election for Taft, Roosevelt set off for an extended African Safari.

Taft had compromised, but not fully betrayed the Progressives. He simply would not be rushed.

Pinchot had retained the Forest Service position that Roosevelt had given him. Taft didn’t like Pinchot’s activism, but he didn’t dare remove this close friend of Teddy. He did, however, remove Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, James Garfield, son of the assassinated president, and replaced him with Richard Ballinger.

Ballinger had earned a reputation as a reformer when he was Seattle’s mayor, but he was never a Progressive. The old-guard Roosevelt Republicans saw replacement as yet another example of Taft betraying the Progressive legacy.

As the Post article hinted, and as Taft probably intended, Interior Secretary Ballinger and Forest-Service Director Pinchot soon came to an impasse, particularly when Ballinger began making public resources available to businesses.

Pinchot urged Taft to investigate the new Interior Secretary, alleging that Ballinger was selling coal and water from national lands to private companies. Taft ordered an investigation, which found no proof of Ballinger’s corruption.

It was at this point in the story that the Post published its profile of Pinchot. What the Post, and the administration, didn’t foresee was Pinchot’s next move.

Shortly after this issue of the Post hit the newsstands, Gifford Pinchot brought his allegations against Ballinger before Congress. He criticized Taft and demanded that Congress conduct its own investigation into the Interior Secretary. Pinchot believed that Taft would have to get rid of Ballinger. The alternative was impossible: Taft could not fire Pinchot. He was too popular with Progressive Republicans and too close to Roosevelt.

But Taft did fire Pinchot and, consequently, lost the last of his support among the Progressive Republicans.

News finally reached Teddy Roosevelt, along with a report of the affair delivered by Pinchot himself. Furious, Roosevelt broke with his successor and formed his own Progressive Party in the 1912 election to pitch Taft out of the White House. The two friends ran against each other — Taft without much enthusiasm and Roosevelt without enough Republicans willing to cross over to his Bull Moose Party.

Pinchot had hoped he could force Taft to choose between his supporters in conservation and commerce. When Taft chose a more moderate, more business-friendly approach, he destroyed the last of his popular base. He also enabled the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, to win the next election.

Had Roosevelt won the Presidency, the history of World War One would have been far different. As it was, Wilson’s approach to global policing led to an unstable Europe, which led to the Second World War, which led to the Cold War, which led to…

You can draw conclusions forever. The longer you draw them, though, the thinner they get, until you can ultimately argue that anything led to anything else.

Yet it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Gifford Pinchot’s dedication to conserving natural resources affected the course of American, and European, politics. We can state, with assurance, that he had a profound effect on the decade beginning in 1910.

All of which raises the question: Is there a government employee, working in a Washington agency, whose principled stand might upset the political establishment? Ultimately a man or woman of conviction will take a stand and, by a surprise move, turn the national power structure on its head.

Cream of Wheat advertisement, 1910
Cream of Wheat advertisement, 1910