Note: posted on History for the Present, March 26, 2018
In 1912, four candidates vied for the presidency: Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Republican William Howard Taft, Progressive Theodore Roosevelt, and Socialist Eugene Debs. This historic campaign resulted in the best showing of a third-party candidate in American history, marked the emergence of women in national politics, and popularized the idea of the presidential primary. The New Nationalism campaign of Roosevelt and the New Freedom campaign of Wilson put reform and social change at the center of political debate and moved the Republican party to the right, the Democratic party to the left, and set their party agendas for decades to come. It was a fascinating and thrilling political year, especially for women who for the first time in American history were involved in the development of political platforms and the implementation of campaign strategies. The 1912 election also ushered in the age of continuous campaigning and gave Americans two bitterly contested national conventions.
The campaign inspired the incomparable Jane Addams to dip her toe into the turbulent waters of American politics. As a reformer, she saw Roosevelt and the brand-new Progressive Party as an opportunity to move social justice and reform into the political arena, and many social workers and reformers like her agreed. Addams’ foray into politics drew the ire of some, who believed politics an unladylike profession or who thought the practice of partisan politics unwise for people dependent upon bipartisan support for the funding of their activities. But as she always did, Jane Addams made her own decisions and then she stood strong in support of her beliefs. Not only did she second Roosevelt’s nomination at the Progressive Party’s convention in Chicago (the first woman to enjoy the honor), she sat on the party’s national committee and campaigned for Roosevelt and the party’s reform agenda, which included woman’s suffrage, a national health service, and reform legislation to aid children, women, immigrants, and the poor.
In spending so much time with the Chicago newspapers of 1912, I’ve been amassing a collection of extraordinary political cartoons, many by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning cartoonist John T. McCutcheon, who exercised his political wit in the pages of the Chicago Tribune. I have enjoyed the cartoons, and think there are many #Twitterstorians who will enjoy them, too. And so, from now through November—in a sort of real-time, as the 1912 presidential campaign unfolded—I’m going to share them each day on Twitter with the hashtag #1912Election.
The first offering, below, was published in the Chicago Inter Ocean on March 26, 1912, before the birth of the Progressive Party in August and just a month after Theodore Roosevelt publicly announced that he would accept the Republican Party nomination for president if it was offered. A rift between Roosevelt and former friend and political ally President William Howard Taft signaled a growing schism in the Republican Party and promised an interesting political spring and summer. Months before the election, the country was already speculating about Roosevelt’s chances of returning to the White House, and this cartoon offers one idea from the west.
Suggested Reading: Lewis L. Gould, Four Hats in the Ring: The 1912 Election and the Birth of Modern Politics (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008); Geoffrey Cowan, Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2016).
Jane Addams and Theodore Roosevelt image: Robert Carter, “Enlisted for the Great Battle,” Boston Journal, August 9, 1912, Theodore Roosevelt Political Cartoon Collection, Harvard University.