Teddy Roosevelt Standing at Armageddon, 100 Years Later

One century ago today, former President Teddy Roosevelt accepted the presidential nomination of the Progressive Party, popularly known as the “Bull Moose Party.”  His electrifying acceptance speech defined the great moral issues of his time, some of which would be tackled within a few years, others which remain with us today.   You can read the full text of the hour-long barn-burner here.

Choosing not to run for re-election in 1908, Roosevelt had endorsed the successful candidacy of William Howard Taft, and spent much of the next two years on exotic hunting trips and basking in his enormous popularity in Europe.  But his dissatisfaction with his successor begun early and grew steadily.  By 1910 he was back in the political arena.

The presidential primary system as we know it today barely existed in 1912, and Roosevelt’s string of victories in the Republican primaries did little to stop the party bosses from renominating Taft.    With the Democrats nominating New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson and the Socialist Party, at the peak of its strength, nominating Eugene Debs, Roosevelt formed a party of his own to make the 1912 election a battle for the ages.

At the Progressive Party in Chicago on August 6, 1912, Roosevelt came out firing: The old parties are husks, with no real soul within either, divided on artificial lines, boss-ridden and privilege-controlled, each a jumble of incongruous elements, and neither daring to speak out wisely and fearlessly what should be said on the vital issues of the day…We propose boldly to face the real and great questions of the day, and not skillfully to evade them as do the old parties. 

At present both the old parties are controlled by professional politicians in the interests of the privileged classes, and apparently each has set up as its ideal of business and political development a government by financial despotism tempered by make-believe political assassination. 

 That platform was forward-thinking and exhaustive.   Roosevelt began with a plan to expand the political power of the American voter, including several policies in place today:  We should provide by National law for Presidential primaries. We should provide for the election of United States Senators by popular vote… There must be stringent and efficient corrupt practices acts, applying to the primaries as well as the elections; and there should be publicity of campaign contributions during the campaign. But wherever representative government has in actual fact become non-representative there the people should secure to themselves the initiative, the referendum, and the recall…

After ripping into the courts, Roosevelt turned to the plight of the industrial worker.  His platform called for the creation of occupational safety standards, workers’ compensation, the six-day work week, and not only a minimum wage, but “a living wage,”  while banning child labor.  President Woodrow Wilson shared many of these economic positions, and initiated many of these reforms in the subsequent eight years.   Wilson was less enthusiastic about the right of women to vote, a position Roosevelt fully endorsed eight years before the passage of the 19th Amendment, noting that women would be more active than men in supporting policies banning sex trafficking.  Towards the end of his speech, Roosevelt declared, “There can be no greater issue than that of Conservation in this country,” a position you don’t hear articulated very often these days.

Much of the speech is startling in its wonkiness- even as an antitrust lawyer my eyes glaze over his quibbling with the Democratic Party’s position on the application of the anti-trust law, which he belabors for quite some time.  I’m sure it would have been more exciting in person.  Ditto to his riffing on the tariff, and his plans for the federal government’s development of Alaska.

One thing missing from this speech is the self-glorifying that we see so often at campaign rallies today.  TR was all substance in this campaign, and that’s because he could get away with it.  After all, he was a Rough Rider, the trust-buster, the two-term president, as much myth as man.  His was a rare third-party convention that did not need to introduce its candidate to the country.   Here’s the conclusion of his acceptance speech:

Now, friends, this is my confession of faith. I have made it rather long because I wish you to know just what my deepest convictions are on the great questions of today, so that if you choose to make me your standard- bearer in the fight you shall make your choice understanding exactly how I feel–and if, after hearing me, you think you ought to choose some one else, I shall loyally abide by your choice. The convictions to which I have come have not been arrived at as the result of study in the closet or the library, but from the knowledge I have gained through hard experience during the many years in which, under many and varied conditions, I have striven and toiled with men. I believe in a larger use of the governmental power to help remedy industrial wrongs, because it has been borne in on me by actual experience that without the exercise of such power many of the wrongs will go unremedied…I am not under the slightest delusion as to any power that during my political career I have at any time possessed. Whatever of power I at any time had, I obtained from the people. I could exercise it only so long as, and to the extent that, the people not merely believed in me, but heartily backed me up. Whatever I did as President I was able to do only because I had the backing of the people. When on any point I did not have that backing, when on any point I differed from the people, it mattered not whether I was right or whether I was wrong, my power vanished…

Surely there never was a fight better worth making than the one in which we are engaged. It little matters what befalls any one of us who for the time being stand in the forefront of the battle. I hope we shall win, and I believe that if we can wake the people to what the fight really means we shall win. But, win or lose, we shall not falter. Whatever fate may at the moment overtake any of us, the movement itself will not stop. Our cause is based on the eternal principles of righteousness; and even though we who now lead may for the time fail, in the end the cause itself shall triumph…Now to you men, who, in your turn, have come together to spend and be spent in the endless crusade against wrong, to you who face the future resolute and confident, to you who strive in a spirit of brotherhood for the betterment of our Nation, to you who gird yourselves for this great new fight in the never-ending warfare for the good of humankind, I say in closing what in that speech I said in closing: We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.

Though Woodrow Wilson went on to win the presidency, Roosevelt’s 88 electoral votes and 27% of the popular vote bested Taft, and remains the most successful third-party candidacy in American history (incidentally, Eugene Debs drew 6% to come in fourth, quite respectable given the impressive field).    Roosevelt was sidelined for much of the last month of the campaign after surviving an assassination attempt.  Shot in Milwaukee as he stepped to the podium, Roosevelt uttered one of my favorite lines in American history, Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.  He proceeded to give his entire stump speech with a bullet lodged in his chest before being rushed to the hospital.

Minds can extrapolate what they will from Roosevelt’s campaign and his Standing at Armageddon speech 100 years later.  I wish to stir no hornet’s nest tonight, only to remember the energy of a campaign wrapped in idealism, led by one of America’s most charismatic leaders, and the impact that campaign’s ideas had on a country that still owed  many of its people the promises of human dignity.   Some of those promises remained unfulfilled today, but like Roosevelt, we must never give up the fight.  Even when we stand at Armageddon.

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About janos marton

A born and bred New Yorker, Janos Marton lives the dream as a writer, lawyer, historian, and activist.
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