An American Revolution: The Election of 1912

Few elections in American history have had the lasting effects that the election of 1912 have had. Of course the elections of 1800 or 1860 are more well known, the election of 1912 has dominated the landscape of American politics for a century. Arguably one of the  most hotly contested Presidential race in history, it was also the first modern Presidential election. With popular vote more widely accepted, the people had an enormous influence on the election.  At the heart of the election of 1912 was a political revolution. The election of 1912 represents a transformation in American history the likes of which have rarely been seen before or since. In his book, The 1912 Election and the Power of Progressivism: A Brief History with Document, Brett Flehinger presents a clear understanding of what made this Presidential election among the most influential in American History.

            The election of 1912, as Flehinger presents it, began as early as 1908 when Theodore Roosevelt refused to stand for reelection after assuming the Presidency 9 months into William McKinley’s second term and winning the Presidency outright in 1904. Instead, the President chose to hand over control of the Republican Party to his friend and Secretary of War William Howard Taft. Unlike Roosevelt, Taft lacked the charisma of America’s youngest ever President. A great legal mind, Taft was unable to control a fracturing Republican Party as well as Roosevelt. And by 1912 Taft had seen the complete fracturing of the party he was hand selected to lead.[1] The Traditional members of the Republican Party continued to hold power over the party of Lincoln while Reformers slowly tried to gain control. Roosevelt was an able enough leader to play both sides off each other, while Taft quickly found himself supporting the traditional members over the reformers. From Taft’s choices for his cabinet to his support of Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon he found himself increasingly  in opposition to Reformers.[2] The final straw that doomed Taft’s young presidency was the issue of tariffs. “The tariff directly affected almost every economic constituency in one way or another, and it was the most volatile issue of late-nineteenth century U.S. politics.” And it was Taft, who in 1909, took up the issue of revising the decade old tariff laws.[3]  Unfortunately for Taft he refused to alienate the controlling faction of the Republican Party and supported the conservative agenda of higher taxes. Within a year of winning the presidency, William Howard Taft had almost all but assured himself of defeat in the next presidential election. In 1910 Taft was, “demanding that ‘disloyal’ members be cast out of the Republican party.”[4] The turmoil within the Republican Party all but signaled to Democrats and others that the White House would be available for anyone willing to challenge the embattled President. More than anything, the political lesson learned from Taft’s presidency reinforced beliefs among reformers that change was all but necessary even in the Presidency.

            The election of 1912 took on the theme of reform in multiple ways, from reforming the American political system to make it more democratic, to challenging the traditionally capitalistic American economic system. Yet, despite all the claims to the 1912 election being the most reform minded election history, “No single leader dominated Progressivism, and different reformers could make it fit their own distinctive needs…the candidates in the 1912 election differed on how best to reform America, they fundamentally agreed on the need for reform.”[5] While each presidential candidate laid claim to the title of Progressive, Roosevelt going as far as to be the candidate for the newly formed Progressive party, both Roosevelt and Wilson are most historically remembered as the Progressives on that year’s ballot. The other candidates, Taft and Eugene Debs, are often marginalized for their roles in the election. From the outset the election had a reform feel to it, for the first time, “voters in states such as North Dakota, Oregon, and Nebraska voted in direct primary elections for their party’s presidential candidate.”[6] Roosevelt benefited greatly from the direct primary elections but the majority of the delegates were chosen in caucuses, which were largely in favor of Taft. When the Republicans met in Chicago in 1912 Theodore Roosevelt was the most popular politician in the United States as he had been since the late 19th century. William Howard Taft, on the other hand, controlled most of the delegates at the Republican convention. Roosevelt and his reform minded supporters walked out of the Republican convention when Taft received the nomination, only to return later that year to elect Roosevelt the first President candidate of the new Progressive Party and all but promise a Democratic victory in the 1912 presidential election. However, Woodrow Wilson was not a foregone conclusion for winner of the Democratic ticket in 1912.

            Woodrow Wilson was an academic turned politician who turned out to be the moderate choice for a Democratic party almost as fractured as the Republicans.[7] Wilson was at best a long shot to receive the Democratic nomination in 1912, but because, “the Democrats required a two-thirds majority, which allowed Wilson to erode [Champ] Clark’s support and gain southern delegates opposed to Clark; finally, with Bryan’s tepid support, Wilson became the Democratic nominee…”[8] Not yet a sworn Progressive, Wilson struggled to win support of perennial Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan. The only thing standing between Woodrow Wilson and the White House in 1912 was a continuing feud among Republicans and maintaining Bryan’s support.

            Socialist Party nominee Eugene Debs was the fourth candidate in the election of 1912.  Eugene Debs is not necessarily a house hold name the way Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson or William Howard Taft are. Yet as reform and Progressivism became the main theme of the 1912 Presidential election the Socialist party threw their hat into the ring with the nomination of Debs. “Deb’s inclusion in the race did not mean that the Socialists were any more unified than their opponents…For years party members had debated whether Socialists should use violence to fight capitalism, but by 1912 this was no longer a theoretical debate.”[9] While not a serious contender in the election, Debs’ inclusion in the election demonstrated the extent to which reform dominated the tone of the election.

            After decades of political scandals it is easy to understand the political reforms each candidate campaigned for.  However, at the heart of the Progressive movement was a desire to reform America’s economic structure after decades of control by wealthy businessmen. The last century had come to a close with three major economic depressions including the worst in 1893 and few people in America could ignore the super wealthy as the average American lived in relative poverty. In many cases the Robber Barons as they became known hel more wealth than even the United States government. The question of why 1912 and not some other election, “lies not just with the candidates or even politics, but in the basic economic, social and political system in early twentieth-century America.”[10] The election focused around two major camps, Procorporatists and Anticorporatists. The beginning of the 1912 election began as early as 1880 with the struggle of farmers who were fearful they would lose their business. “The rising corporate economy, and the interdependent and organized society it created, left farmers and industrial workers feeling economically and socially powerless.”[11] What came out of these feelings concerning the rise of corporations in the latter part of the 19th century was what became known as Progressivism. In an attempt to curb the power corporate leaders held over the American political system Congress passed the interstate Commerce Act of 1887 and the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Congress’s responses to the uprising among the people lead to these two important acts that symbolized Congress’s desire to help curb theses powerful corporations. For each of the Presidential candidates in 1912, these acts of Congress and Corporations in general represented the central piece of the election. Further, the role the economy played in the election of 1912 and in particular the views held by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson would help shape the views of their respective parties for decades to come.

            “Roosevelt stood out in 1912 because he alone believed that the rise of the new large-scale business organizations was natural, inevitable, and if properly managed, beneficial for the American people as a whole.”[12] Had the Republican party remained undivided in 1912 many speculate that Theodore Roosevelt may have in fact beat Woodrow Wilson for the Presidency. Roosevelt was not staunchly opposed to Corporations like many Democrats and even Wilson to some degree. His views of direct democracy, and later his shift on the topic of women’s suffrage, were directly related to how he viewed the control of corporations would work. Roosevelt rejected that these large corporations were inherently dangerous, but also knew that if left uncontrolled they could become very dangerous. “Roosevelt’s argument drew from and influenced a rising school of thought that emphasized national power, efficiency, production, and prosperity over other goals.”[13] Roosevelt was simply put the American Nationalist in the Presidential election. However, “He believed that changes in the political process, including the initiative, recall, popular primary, and direct election of senators, could increase individual political power, effectively check the potential power of the corporations without restricting their economic efficiency and advantages.”[14] The Sherman Antitrust Act would be a tool to help these political ends while allowing the corporations to maintain their economic power. Woodrow Wilson represented the opposing side. “Wilson was clearly against corporate power, but he was unsure about how to restrain it.” Unlike Roosevelt, though, Wilson was strictly against furthering direct democracy and absolutely against women’s suffrage as a way of controlling the effects of large corporations.

            As it would turn out Woodrow Wilson won 6.2 million votes in the Popular election in 1912 and an overwhelming 435 electoral votes. In a distant second was Theodore Roosevelt who finished with only 2.1 million votes less in the Popular vote but only 88 total electoral votes. Taft and Debs finished even further behind in the electoral count with a total of 8 between them. What resulted from the election of 1912 was the rise of Wilsonian style Progressivism. While he failed to win Theodore Roosevelt’s name would live on in pop culture as the loveable would be reformer President. William Howard Taft was nominated to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States and most Americans have forgotten the name Eugene Debs all together.  By the end of his second term Wilson was disgraced and extremely unpopular in America. Unfortunately for Wilson, his legacy as a reformer was all but forgotten and the legacy he acquired at the end of his Presidency was what has stuck with him ever since. But the importance of the election of 1912 must never be forgotten. America had a choice over its future in the form of four reformers who wanted to become President.


Flehinger, Brett. The 1912 Election and the Power of Progressivism: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2003.

[1] Brett Flehinger, The 1912 Election and the Power of Progressivism: A Brief History with Document, (New York: Bedford/St. Martins: 2003) “Even as he assumed office, Taft was forced to contend with multiple divisions in his own party, further complicating the task he faced as president.”

[2]Ibid.  Pg. 7 “Taft selected more corporate lawyers….when Taft refused to support the reformers’ attempt…”

[3]Ibid.  Pg. 8

[4]Ibid.  Pg. 9

[5]Ibid.  Pg. 4

[6] Ibid. Pg. 12

[7] “although at one point it appeared that they might suffer the same kind of internal squabbling…” Ibid. pg. 16

[8]Ibid.  Pg. 17

[9]Ibid.  Pg. 18

[10] Ibid. Pg. 21

[11]Ibid.  Pg. 23

[12] Ibid. Pg. 34

[13]Ibid. Pg. 37

[14] Ibid. Pg. 38

Published in: on September 3, 2012 at 00:01  Comments (3)  
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