Feeling exuberant after winning the election of 1904 by a large margin, President Theodore Roosevelt announced that “under no circumstances” would he accept another term as president. As William McKinley’s vice-president, he served out McKinley’s term after the latter was assassinated in 1901, and custom dictated he not run for a second elective term.
Roosevelt would later come to personally regret this announcement, since he felt that he had not accomplished everything he wanted to by the time his term had ended. But he and the progressive Republicans who supported him could at least console themselves that, with William Howard Taft running in 1908, they would have someone who supported their political agenda. Taft, Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, was the president’s handpicked successor, so much so that the public joked that Taft stood for “Take Advice From Theodore.” However, once Taft beat William Jennings Bryan and took office, he did a number of things that angered Republican progressives and caused them to splinter off into a third party in 1912.
Progressives became upset because Taft was unable to push lower tariff rates through Congress, despite calling a special session in order to do so. Taft, along with the progressives, felt that high tariffs on imported goods hurt consumers and aided the huge trusts that progressives hated. But Taft’s handling of the entire situation was so inept that the compromising law that was finally passed, the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909, actually raised the tariffs on some goods. Another issue that upset the progressives was the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy. The problem started when Taft replaced Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior James A. Garfield, who espoused the conservationist agenda the progressives supported, with Richard Ballinger, a more conservative corporate lawyer. Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot, an early proponent of conservation, charged that Ballinger was in the pocket of those attempting to gain public land for profit. Taft finally fired the outspoken Pinchot, further infuriating progressives.
Taft had been very active in busting up corporate trusts. In fact, he broke up more trusts than Roosevelt had, which should have made him beloved by the progressives. Unfortunately, he ran afoul of Roosevelt himself when he tried to break up U.S. Steel, which happened to be a trust Roosevelt liked; Roosevelt accused him of not knowing a “good” trust from a “bad” one. As a result, Taft, who had taken a good deal of criticism from his conservative supporters for his trust busting, backed away from going after trusts, which in turn made him the target of renewed attacks by the progressives.
The upshot was that Roosevelt decided to break his vow not to run for president. Referring to Taft as a “fathead with the brains of a guinea pig,” he started the Progressive Party and made a third party run at the presidency. This split the Republican vote and handed the election to Woodrow Wilson, the first Democrat to be elected since Grover Cleveland in 1892.
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