Although Theodore Roosevelt was a member of the Republican Party while serving two terms as president from 1901-1909, his increasingly progressive views, which included a favorable view of labor unions, conservation of natural resources, the beginnings of a social welfare state, and the popular election of federal judges, chafed against the more conservative views of that era’s Republican base.
After unsuccessfully challenging incumbent William Howard Taft for the Republican nomination, Roosevelt broke away from the Republicans and ran for president in 1912 as a third party candidate under the Bull Moose banner.
“The 1912 election is a case study in the impact of third parties in American political history,” humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson said. “Much like the Republican party of today, with the emergence of the Tea Party, the Republican party of 1910-1916 was marked by a deep divide in vision.”
The voting populace responded enthusiastically: although he did not win the presidency, Roosevelt received the largest third-party vote in US history.
“Roosevelt may not have won the election,” Jenkinson said. “But he was outspoken, well-liked by the voting public, and he certainly influenced policy decisions made by incoming Democratic President Woodrow Wilson.”
The Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University will host its seventh annual Theodore Roosevelt symposium September 20-22. This year’s event, titled Theodore Roosevelt: The Progressive in the Arena, focuses on Roosevelt’s dramatic 1912 presidential run. For details and to register, visit www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org
Roosevelt espoused a “New Nationalism” during a famous speech in Osawatomie, Kan., in 1910, a progressive platform that focused on increasing federal government’s role in making human welfare a top priority while reducing the influence of private business in government policy. During Wilson’s presidency, many of Roosevelt’s New Nationalism initiatives were undertaken. Part of these reforms were the result of Roosevelt’s enormous popularity; part were the result of the growing progressive movement.
Fast forward 100 years to the presidential race of 2012. In comparison to the honesty and candor of Roosevelt’s speeches, every word in today’s presidential candidate speeches, from both the right and left, seems carefully crafted and rehearsed. Third-party movements never seem to gain enough momentum to get a legitimate shot. But even if political movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party may not win any presidential elections, they indeed help shape public opinion and, in turn, can impact the decisions made in the White House or on Capitol Hill.
Although the symposium at Dickinson State is not intended to comment on today’s politics, many of the issues that bedeviled the Republic Party of 1912 continue to serve as the basis of national debate today. Today’s debate involves moderates and far-right conservatives, while the debate in Roosevelt’s era was between conservatives and the left wing of the Republican Party.
The public is welcome to the Theodore Roosevelt symposium on the campus of Dickinson State University. Lectures and panel discussions are free; costs apply to other symposium events, such as a field trip to the Badlands and a Chautauqua entertainment program, which includes speakers, actors, and musicians.
“Chautauqua entertainment was very popular in Roosevelt’s time,” said Sharon Kilzer, project manager at the Theodore Roosevelt Center. “In fact, TR himself said that Chautauqua was ‘the most American thing in America.’”
Symposium attendees will also head to Medora and Beach to explore the roots of Prairie Populism in Roosevelt’s era.
“In Roosevelt’s time, North Dakota’s agrarian residents were frustrated by low grain prices, big financial interests, and railroad monopolies,” Kilzer said. As a result, the prairie populism movement sprouted in North Dakota and many other areas in America’s grain belt.
-Beth Schatz Kaylor is a freelance writer for the Great Plains Examiner.