The Man of the People: Part IV - Bull Moose vs. The Machine

The Man of the People: Part IV - Bull Moose vs. The Machine

By Scott Lipkowitz

  On September 8, 1892, an item of interest to every citizen of the United States appeared in the pages of The Youth's Companion: a proposed pledge of allegiance. It read, "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Amended in 1924, adopted in 1948, and legislated to include "under God" in 1952, the Pledge of Allegiance was meant to foster loyalty and commitment to the republic of the United States. Yet, by the year of the Pledge's initial publication, the national party organizations were making the United States look less like a republic and more like an oligarchy. Political machines such as the infamous Tammany Hall of New York (which controlled the entirety of the state's Democratic political appointments by the late 1800's), and the Republican machine which controlled Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century, seemed to be the nightmare of Elbridge Gerry made flesh. The web of control these party machines had created through the use of patronage extended from the smallest municipality to the floor of each party's National Convention, where presidential candidates were chosen by party officials and their beneficiaries. Any candidate so chosen could hardly be "the man of the people" John Dickinson insisted they must be. 

  Fortunately, by the 1890's, a counter-force to machine control was also gaining momentum: progressivism. During the century immediately following the adoption of the Constitution, industrialization and urbanization began to transform the largely agrarian United States into a developing market economy. These trends increased following the Civil War and Reconstruction; and by the beginning of the 20th century, large corporate monopolies found themselves in control of great masses of urbanized workers living in crowded and dangerous cities. Across the globe, politicians and social activists were beginning to awaken to the fact that industrial society posed new and challenging problems; many of which could only be solved through the intervention of national governments. In the United States, investigative journalists such as Jacob Riis, who published a photo expose of impoverished city life entitled How The Other Half Lives, and Upton Sinclair, whose work The Jungle, exposed the horrid conditions in which industrial food was processed and packaged, helped to spur on public demand for reform and regulation. The public had seen the true face of unfettered capitalism, and it did not like what it saw.

  Avarice and corruption were not limited to the economic sphere however; they spilled over into the political arena as well. This included the presidential nominating process. Party conventions - which over the course of the 19th century became extensions of the local and state machines - seemed to many political observers at the turn of the 20th century to be no better than the trusts and monopolies which dominated economic life. Both served to limit choice - one in the economic marketplace, the other in the political. While President Theodore Roosevelt was building his progressive credentials using the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act to go after monopolies, setting aside wilderness for conservation, and arguing for the "Square Deal"; progressives within both the Democratic and Republican parties pushed for the opening up of presidential nominating conventions to the voice of the rank and file voters through the use of preferential primaries. 

  Preferential primaries are essentially what most states that hold primaries today implement. Voters - usually only those affiliated with a particular political party - vote their preference for presidential candidate, and the delegates selected to go to the national convention are bound to vote in direct proportion to the popular vote for the various candidates. The winner of the popular vote will get the most delegate votes, and thus, in theory, the will of the people will have been expressed in the selection of a presidential candidate, and the power of the political elite will have been mitigated. To modern Americans - who fancy themselves citizens of a democracy - this seems like a no brainer; and the violation of this seemingly simple principle is the cause of infinite frustration among the modern electorate. However, to belabor the point, the parties and the national systems, tools, and rules they create are NOT the government; they are the end result of a private solution to a constitutional and political problem. What matters to the party and its functionaries is winning; not the advancement of democracy. If a party loses office, it loses the power, clout, and influence that goes along with it. In this light it is easy to see why so few states and so few party bosses were willing to adopt the preferential primary in the early 1900's. 

  Allowing the rank and file to vote, even if they are loyal party members is ludicrous if you are a party official. The average voter might vote for the candidate who would do what's in the voter's or the country's best interest; and that might not dovetail with the party's ambitions or interest. A well intention-ed candidate who could not compete in the general election, but who held policies popular with the electorate, could end a party's hold on power. Only party bosses and those with a vested interest in the party's long term success could ensure the selection of an appropriate candidate. Another way to think about the nominating process, the conventions, and the relation of the parties to the average citizen is to envision them as a company, for instance Apple. Party officials and functionaries are the equivalent of CEOs and board members. They decide what products Apple will put out into the marketplace - in this case a presidential candidate. This is essentially the system that held sway in every state from the 1830's until the turn of the 20th century. A preferential primary, then, would be tantamount to Apple allowing its smaller shareholders (the rank and file party members) to also have a say, though less influential and somewhat diluted, in which products Apple will create. Again, it is important to note, that preferential primaries were only open to party members, NOT all eligible voters as some open primaries are today. The average citizen/voter (who may have no party affiliation) only gets one chance to decide on Apple's product; and that is in the market place, by either buying it (or voting for the chosen candidate) or not buying it; but no matter what the average citizen chooses to do, the choice of what product (or presidential candidate) the citizens will have the opportunity to consider, has already been determined. 

  By 1912, only 6 states had laws allowing for direct preferential primaries - California, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Oregon. In the remaining 42,  machine politicians controlled the state conventions and the delegate selection process. This would play a significant role in the lead up to that year's election. Roosevelt, after completing seven relatively progressive years in the White House, hand picked his successor, William Howard Taft; ushering him to victory in the 1908 presidential contest. While Taft had professed support of Roosevelt's agenda, and promised to continue his progressive work once in office, he lacked Roosevelt's force and vigor and soon allowed a return to business as usual. By the end of the four years of the Taft administration's first term, most of Roosevelt's reforms had been dealt heavy blows. If any chance at salvaging Roosevelt's accomplishments and vision for the nation existed, it would necessitate Roosevelt himself jumping back into the ring and challenging Taft for the Republican nomination. In early 1912 this is exactly what he did. 

  Roosevelt's decision to challenge the sitting President for his party's nomination was met with open hostility. Taft, appalled, raged privately against "the hypocrisy, the insincerity, the selfishness, [and] monumental egotism...that possess Theodore Roosevelt." Yet, Roosevelt was still immensely popular. National polls at the outset of the campaign had him leading Taft by more than 66 percent; but that would not be enough. Machine politics still reigned in the majority of the country, and Taft, not Roosevelt, controlled the Republican machine. "Probably Taft will be nominated" Roosevelt conceded in a letter to a friend. Without more preferential primaries, Roosevelt's hopes of securing the nomination seemed bleak. Senator Joseph Dixon, chairman of Roosevelt's campaign hoped to do just that: persuade as many states as possible to amend their laws in favor of a preferential primary. Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Ohio all seemed to be leaning in that direction. With the combined efforts of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, preferential primaries might be secured in these seven additional states, where Roosevelt's popularity would hand him delegate victories, and perhaps, demonstrate that he was the Republican's ticket to continued power. Of those six, only Georgia could not be persuaded; but New York, Roosevelt's home state, eventually replaced it. In all, only 13 out of a total of 48 states would hold preferential primaries; and they would overwhelmingly go for Roosevelt. 

  New York would prove one of the few exceptions. When voters went to the polls on March 26, they were, in the words of historian and Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris "frustrated by mysterious equipment failures and closings. Others had been handed preposterously long ballots folded like concertinas, with up to three feet of blank space separating the Roosevelt ticket from its emblem." Some voters "tore off what they thought was waste paper, then found themselves unable to vote" for Roosevelt. When the day was done Taft emerged victorious, garnering 83 delegates to Roosevelt's measly 7. "They are stealing the primary elections from us", Roosevelt protested. Yet even as Roosevelt urged voters in Illinois to demand a preferential primary, and declared loudly that "I cannot and will not stand by while the opinion of the people is being thwarted", his own campaign was playing the game of machine politics as deftly as his adversary. Two of Roosevelt's top campaign lieutenants were themselves professional party bosses: William L. Ward of New York and William "Big Bill" Flinn of Pennsylvania who seemed determined to oust his home states' current Republican machine. Whether Roosevelt approved of it or not, his campaign relied upon their knowledge of political manipulation at the local and state levels to attempt to secure Roosevelt victories in the thirty-five states where state conventions still determined delegate allocation. Twelve days before the New York primary was "stolen" from Roosevelt, a progressive supporter of the Roosevelt campaign held the Oklahoma state convention chairman at gun point until a Roosevelt victory was secured. Bribery, patronage, and intimidation were implemented throughout the non-primary states; despite Roosevelt's many public appeals for the moral high ground. 

  By late April Taft had a commanding lead in the delegate count, 432 to 208 - he needed 540 to win. Taft's majority, however, came almost entirely from states where the machine controlled conventions still determined who the delegates would support. Roosevelt, with victories in the primary states of Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Oregon, and Illinois (where progressive Republicans had secured a preferential primary), appeared to have the overwhelming support of the rank and file. In Massachusetts, also a primary state, Taft won a narrow majority; however lost the delegate count when eight delegates at large (unpledged ) declared for Roosevelt. This did not cast a benevolent light upon a candidate who claimed to be fighting for "the right of the people to rule"; and Roosevelt, eager to maintain that persona, instructed the eight delegates to switch their votes in favor of Taft. In early May Roosevelt won the Maryland primary, and edged out Taft in the machine controlled state conventions of Kansas and Minnesota. California overwhelmingly went for Roosevelt, and Arkansas - whose Republican party was deeply divided - fielded two opposing delegations; one for Roosevelt and one for Taft. Ohio, another primary state and Taft's home, humiliatingly went to Roosevelt. When the dust had settled on the 1912 Republican primary and convention season, Roosevelt had soundly trounced Taft in the popular vote, 1,214,969 to 865,835; and had, by hook or by crook, robbed Taft of the machine convention nominations on many of the states which Taft theoretically controlled the process. With popular and convention victories in hand, Roosevelt's bid to contest Taft for the Republican presidential nomination seemed a foregone conclusion. All that remained was to seal the deal at the convention.

  Corporations, however, usually fight to turn a profit on their product, and while Roosevelt may have had a strong case, he certainly was not good for business, both figuratively and literally. Little that Roosevelt had achieved in his lengthy political career sat well with the party bosses; he had even decried their very existence in a 1910 speech given in Saratoga, New York, stating, "The rule of the boss is the negation of democracy." Taft, on the other hand, was easily manipulated and happy to go along with the status quo. If re-elected he would not pose a threat to the machine's continued operation. Now you may be asking yourself, why, even despite Roosevelt's progressive, anti-party establishment leanings, would the Republicans not want to have him as their nominee? He did have a commanding lead in the popular vote, and had even swung some of the state conventions in his favor. Surely he would do better than Taft in the general election?

  Such a victory was not guaranteed. Several months of Republican infighting had soured many to the idea of either candidate for president, prompting the New York World to run the headline: "FOR PRESIDENT - WOODROW WILSON." Wilson, the progressive Democratic governor of New Jersey, did not seem like a far stretch for those who supported Roosevelt's policies, but were tired of the playground squabble gripping the Republicans. Charges that Roosevelt was a drunk and a megalomaniac abounded in the press, and his very desire to hold a third term in office - breaking the two term precedent set by Washington and adhered to ever since - smacked of vainglory. Wilson, the quiet former Princeton professor, presented a tempting alternative to either of the Republican candidates. This would have been especially worrying to the Republican establishment. If they put out an almost identical product to the Democrats, but their product was slightly more temperamental and viewed as an egotistical liability, would their product really stand a chance of defeating the Democrats on the open market? That answer might be no. Better then to renominate Taft, who at least presented a marked difference that could be used to battle Wilson in the general election. 

  Before any of that could happen, however, the Republicans needed to get through their national convention. Both Roosevelt and Taft laid claim to the 540 delegates needed to win the nomination, guaranteeing a long and contested proceeding.   Roosevelt's ultimate hope lay in seating those delegates - some 240 by his campaign's count - not earned in the primary states. It was an empty hope. Even before the convention opened, the Republican National Committee began undermining his position. The opposition Roosevelt delegates from Arkansas, along with the main Roosevelt delegates from Alabama and Georgia were barred from joining the convention. A subsequent 100 Roosevelt delegates were ruled ineligible, causing Roosevelt to chafe at the "theft" of his support in such a "cold-blooded, premeditated, and deliberate" manner. Yet, many newspapers were quick to point out that those 100 delegates were the product of just as much patronage, corruption, and intimidation as any of Taft's. Roosevelt may have painted himself as being above the fray, but his operatives certainly were not. When the convention opened in Chicago on June 18th, the deck already appeared to be stacked against Roosevelt; but his progressive supporters were never-the-less spoiling for a fight.

  On the convention's first day, Governor Herbert S. Hadley of Missouri rose to contest the RNC's approved list of delegates, arguing that those Roosevelt delegates who had been refused seats, and not those who supported Taft, were the true legitimate delegates. Cries of support for Hadley rang out over the convention hall, but they did not stop Taft's personal representative James E. Watson of Indiana from forcefully objecting. A convention chairman had not been chosen, Watson argued, and thus no other business could be conducted. Even in the selection of the convention chairman, Roosevelt would be dealt a significant blow. Elihu Root, Roosevelt's former Secretary of War and confidant, was eventually appointed to the position; and, despite his ties to Roosevelt, was a company man, having been tasked by the Republican leadership with guaranteeing the nomination of Taft. Once Root had taken up his gavel he allowed further debate on Hadley's proposal to seat Roosevelt's delegates. After hours of debate both Hadley and Watson were forced to concede that the issue of contested delegates had brought the entire party to a deadlock. Compromise was needed. Hadley suggested that an as-yet-unassembled credentials committee be allowed to determine the fate of the 72 contested delegates, and Watson agreed. There was just one caveat: Hadley insisted that none of the delegates whose seats were contested be allowed to cast a vote for the credential committee's members. Delegates seeking to retain or obtain their seat could hardly be trusted to impartially decide who among their colleagues should serve on the very committee tasked with deciding their fate. Chairman Root, however, disagreed. Certainly no delegate could vote on his own legitimacy, but that did not prevent that same delegate from voting upon the legitimacy of others. If Hadley's caveat were allowed to stand then no seat in the convention could be beyond dispute Root argued, "and there would be no convention at all, as nobody would be entitled to participate." The caveat was denied, and Taft's hold over the entire Republican apparatus was confirmed when, two days later, the credentials committee's report on delegates gave the sitting President a commanding 605 delegate majority. 

  Roosevelt's delegates would not be seated, the machine politicians had regained control of the convention, and the progressive Republican minority could only watch in anger. Realizing that despite all of his best efforts throughout the buildup to the convention and during it, he would be, in his mind at least, unjustly denied the nomination, Roosevelt authorized Henry J. Allen of Kansas to read a statement to the assembled delegates. "The convention [is] in no proper sense any longer a Republican convention representing the real Republican Party", Roosevelt wrote, "Therefore, I hope the men elected as Roosevelt delegates will now decline to vote on any matter before the convention." If the convention would not decide in his favor, perhaps, by urging his supporters to inaction, he could bring the convention to a halt and force a favorable compromise. In all, 343 progressive delegates, including Allen, refused to vote or participate in any convention business, including the final roll call vote for the presidential nomination. As each state delegation was called, those loyal to Roosevelt declined to speak up in his favor - just as they had been instructed to do - but it served little purpose. When two of Roosevelt's Massachusetts delegates declined to vote, Root simply recognized two alternates known to be for Taft, and counted their votes. When the roll call eventually came to an end, Taft, and not Roosevelt, had emerged victorious. It appeared as though nothing could defeat the machine once it had begun its operation.

  If all of this has struck a cord with you - the denial of a popularly supported candidate in favor of the establishment candidate, the control of the entire process by a party machine, and the ultimate nomination of a candidate unpalatable to much of the citizenry - that's because very little has changed since the national party system began in the 1830's. Parties want to win. Period. And just as a corporation will do whatever it thinks necessary to maintain its market share, so too do the political parties make decisions based on what will most likely help them maintain power. This doesn't make them part of some conspiracy from the 5th dimension; it merely makes them subject to the same human frailties and concerns we are all too familiar with. Ultimately, Roosevelt and his progressive supporters would break from the Republican Party, forming their own Progressive Party (better known as the Bull Moose Party). This split has thrown blame for Wislon's eventual victory in the 1912 election at Roosevelt's feet ever since; but it is a grossly unfair assertion. Wilson crushed both Roosevelt and Taft in the electoral college, receiving 435 votes to Roosevelt's 88 and Taft's laughable 8. Even without Roosevelt splitting the Republicans, Taft's incredible lack of popular support would have sealed his fate. As for Roosevelt's Progressive Party, it would not prove to be a lasting presence on the political stage. By 1916, support for the party had all but dried up, and the Bull Moose passed quietly into extinction. With it went the progressive movement and the push for nation wide preferential primaries. Two world wars and a depression helped to further push the call for more voter participation in the presidential nominating process to the back burner. Not until the 1970's would a preferential primary or caucus be held in all 50 states of the union; with disastrous results for the corporate party interests.



Jones, Jeffrey Owen. The Man Who Wrote the Pledge of Allegiance. Smithsonian Magazine. 2003.

Cherney, Robert W. The Jungle and the Progressive Era. The Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History.

O'Toole, Patricia. The Spectacles of 1912. The Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History.

Morris, Edmund. Colonel Roosevelt. Random House, New York. 2010.

1912 Election Results.

Shafer, Byron E. Bifurcated Politics, Evolution and Reform in the National Party Convention. Harvard University Press. 1988.

The Man of the People: Part V - Super Delegates

The Man of the People: Part V - Super Delegates

The Man of the People: Part III - Birth of the National Party System

The Man of the People: Part III - Birth of the National Party System