The Election of 1912

100 years ago this week, people were hitting the polls in what some historians consider one of the most influential and memorable presidential elections of United States history.

Unlike what we are used to today, the 1912 election boasted not two but four candidates representing four different political parties: Republican nominee William H. Taft, Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson, Progressive nominee Theodore Roosevelt, and Socialist nominee Eugene V. Debs.

Incumbent President William H. Taft had spent his previous four years in the White House gaining the trust and eventual leadership of the conservative wing of the Republican Party by advocating for business leaders over labor unions, high tariffs on imported goods, and the appointment of federal and state judges.  At the same time, former President Theodore Roosevelt was also expanding his leadership role within the Republican Party over the progressive wing, who favored labor unions and the popular election of federal and state judges.  The growing rift between the two wings came to a head during June of 1912 at the Republican National Convention in Chicago when Taft took the party’s presidential nomination.  Upset by this, Roosevelt asked his supporters to not only leave the convention, but the party as well.  The June 22 issue of The Watchman and Southron aptly portrayed the recent events, running two articles side by side declaring Taft’s nomination and Roosevelt’s split.  Similar articles appeared next to each other on the front page of the Laurens Advertiser the next week.

“Teddy Roosevelt Quits” and “Second Round for Taft,” articles in The watchman and southron (Sumter, S.C.), June 26, 1912

The progressive Republicans who walked out on the convention decided to form their own national political party, the Progressive Party (often referred to as the “Bull Moose Party”).  Roosevelt, of course, would serve as the party’s nominee in the presidential election.

Less than a month later, the Democratic National Convention took place in Baltimore and proved to be a tight race among the party’s leaders.  An article in the Keowee Courier detailed the tough race which included “a fist fight, numerous heated altercations between delegates and rough play.”  Although the Speaker of the House, Champ Clark, seemed to be the front-runner, it was with the last minute support of William Jennings Bryan that New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson eventually pulled ahead to take the party’s nomination.  Articles ran in the Edgefield Advertiser as well as The Watchman and Southron declaring Wilson the Democratic candidate.

In his fourth presidential race, Eugene V. Debs represented the Socialist Party of America.  A small party mainly representing ethnic communities and industrial cities, Debs’ presidential campaign was largely a symbolic gesture with hopes to garner more support for the party and encourage action of its members at the local level.

After campaigning vigorously, the moment of truth for the candidates came on November 5.  With the split in the Republican Party, their divided strength allowed Wilson to surpass Taft and Roosevelt as well as Debs.  Wilson won the election with 41.8% of the popular vote and 435 electoral votes.  Roosevelt came in second, making this the only election in which a third-party candidate received more electoral and popular votes than a major-party candidate.  Taft polled closely behind Roosevelt, and Debs came in fourth, still garnering almost 1,000,000 popular votes.  Both the Keowee Courier and the Laurens Advertiser proclaimed the victory of Wilson, who would use his administration to push progressive legislative reforms such as the Clayton Antitrust Act and the Federal Trade Commission among many others.

“Big Victory for Wilson!” an article in the Keowee courier (Pickens Court House, S.C.), November 6, 1912

With digitized newspapers spanning 1836 – 1922, content in Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers covers not only the election of 1912, but 21 other presidential elections.  The Library of Congress has already put together subject guides for the presidential elections of 1892, 1896, 1900, 1904, 1908, and 1912.  These guides include important dates, suggested search terms, and even highlight some interesting articles about each election from across the country.  Which historic presidential elections do you consider to be memorable or influential?  Can you find any articles about them in Chronicling America?  Let us know!

“Victory!” in the Laurens advertiser (Laurens, S.C.), November 6, 1912


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