Theodore Roosevelt served as the president of the United States from 1901, following the assassination of William McKinley, to 1909, when he announced his retirement. During the early 20th century, the Progressive Movement swept the nation. Calling for social reform that included an increase in government regulation of business, this movement transcended political parties. The 1912 election season featured Roosevelt, a former and future Republican, battling party-nominee William Howard Taft for control of the party faithful. Because Taft refused to accept the national trend toward Progressive movement policies, Roosevelt returned to politics from retirement, perhaps costing the Republicans the election.
As president, Theodore Roosevelt embraced the spirit of Progressivism by believing that an active government could make life better. Roosevelt supported the National Park System to preserve space for Americans to enjoy a strenuous outdoors lifestyle. To create a balanced economic environment, Roosevelt backed trust busting, the practice of breaking up businesses with a dominate control of an entire industry.
Rather than run for a third term in 1908, Roosevelt retired in 1909 and went on an African safari. To fill the void left by Roosevelt’s departure, Republicans turned to William Howard Taft. Backed by the Republican power brokers and Roosevelt, Taft won easily over William Jennings Bryant, the Democratic candidate. Though supported by Roosevelt initially, Taft did not pursue policies popular among those in the Progressive Movement. Instead, Taft, trained as a lawyer, believed in the ability of the legal system to deal with problems such as trusts.
The Bull Moose Returns
Despite repeated assurances that he would not re-enter politics, Theodore Roosevelt returned from Africa in the spring of 1910 to begin a speaking tour. In August, while in Kansas, Roosevelt claimed that he had unfortunately noticed the widespread disappointment with the status quo among the people. This discontent became the justification for Roosevelt’s decision to run for the Presidency in 1912. With an implied jab at Taft, he added that the federal government needed to assume a larger role in the lives of ordinary Americans. When asked if he could withstand another campaign season, Roosevelt answered that he was ready and felt as fit as a bull moose.
A Memorable Convention
The final split between Roosevelt and Taft came during the 1912 Republican Convention in Chicago. Roosevelt believed his platform, called the New Nationalism, was more representative of the times. Refusing to accept the nomination of Taft as the Republican candidate, Roosevelt formed the Progressive Party, also known as the Bull Moose Party. The New Nationalism pursued policies in harmony with the Progressive Movement, such as worker’s compensation, child labor laws and corporate regulation. Ultimately, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, himself a committed Progressive, won the election over Roosevelt and Taft. Taft, the Republican nominee garnered a mere eight electoral votes. Roosevelt, the Bull Moose, received 88 electoral votes. Meanwhile, Wilson had 435.
- PBS: Teddy Roosevelt and Progressivism
- National Park Service: Theodore Roosevelt and the National Park System
- A People and a Nation; Carol Sheriff, David W. Blight, David M. Katzman, Howard P. Chudacoff and Fredrik Logevall
- White House: William Howard Taft
- Progressivism; Reyna Eisenstark, Lora Friedenthal and Jennifer L. Weber
- The A to Z of the Progressive Era; Peter C. Holloran, Catherine Cocks and Alan Lessoff
- Library of Congress: Presidential Election of 1912
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images