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The 1912 Presidential Election


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"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. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet — there is where the bullet went through — and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best." -Theodore Roosevelt, October 14, 1912.

The 1912 Presidential Election is what happens when a titanic clash of ego and political power clash all together in a tumultuous time and have enough effects to still be felt 106 years and some change later. It is unfathomable how many lives would be changed today had the war hawk Roosevelt been elected over the isolationist Wilson (except when it came to Latin America, of course, with the authorization of interventions in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, Honduras, and Nicaragua) when the First World War broke out in Europe two years later in 1914. American finance without Wilson's Federal Reserve would likely look very different today, and the Supreme Court appointments that affected Franklin Roosevelt in his time may have been changed as well, and with it the entire structure of the New Deal.

What's more than that, however, is the whimsy often surrounding the 1912 Presidential election and how it is taught, if ever mentioned. If the average person is familiar with it, it's likely through Roosevelt's famous Bull Moose quote above, and his reputation that came from it. Roosevelt was a character, an All-American of the highest order who became something of an internet meme a decade or so ago for his legendary badassness. It is far too easy to ignore Roosevelt's bullying Colombia out of Panama in order to get the Panama Canal for the United States (and when several US newspapers later accused Roosevelt of pursuing a canal in Panama and not Nicaragua due to funding from the French, he sued them for libel), or his belief that he could authorize sending Marines to Cuba to put down insurrection there without the authorization of Congress.

Then there is the Philippines-American War, which has quite a point in the 1912 Presidential Election. It's a war in which the United States systemically employed torture (as found in a report by the Commanding General of the U.S. Army) and in the end resulted in a death toll estimated at 250,000 to 750,000 for civilians. The war, which lasted from 1898 to 1902, was finished up by Roosevelt himself as the President lionized American soldiers even as Americans at home, such as Mark Twain and William Jennings Bryan, protested. The Governor-General of the Philippines from 1901-1903 during the latter half of the war? William Howard Taft, later President and Republican nominee in 1912.

When the two former friends would clash in the 1912 Republican Primaries (a first for parties and a Progressive reform from that wing of the party), Taft came away with the Republican nomination due to the new system as well as Robert M. LaFollette Sr., refusing to release his delegates to Roosevelt in hopes of getting the nomination for himself out of a contested convention. Not content to sit idly by with reforms on his mind, Roosevelt took his wing of the party and formed the Progressive Party and ably handed the election to Woodrow Wilson in an electoral vote—if not popular vote—landslide.

But who was Woodrow Wilson? To history books, a studious New Jersey Governor who replaced boisterous politicians with a scholarly approach to politics who had big ideas and strong ideals. To reality, he was a nightmare for racial progress in the United States and helped strengthen segregation for years to come, particularly in the south when his tenure pushed back progress already made. And no, this is not some bullshit about "everyone was a racist back then", Wilson was particularly racist for 1912. In 1913, pro-civil rights journalist Oswald Garrison Villard wrote that the Wilson administration "has allied itself with the forces of reaction, and put itself on the side of every torturer, of every oppressor, of every perpetrator of racial injustice in the South or the North." Those few black government employees who could not be fired were put into literal cages to separate them from their white employees who just years earlier they had worked with side by side under Taft and Roosevelt. Wilson was not a product of his time, but a step back for it and we dishonor the people who fought him tooth and nail to assume everyone then agreed with such despicable acts.

So where does that leave the 1912 Presidential Election? Shouldn't I talk about the facts and figures and the primaries and all of that? I could, certainly, but political history isn't just lining up what percent in what county a candidate got, it's about who ran and why. The 1912 Presidential Election is not just interesting because it is data about a race with 4 major candidates: it is interesting because it's a race featuring two candidates connected to a war involving war crimes and torture as well as imperialism while pushing for domestic progressivism against another candidate who pushed for progressivism for white men and taking steps back on racial progress for all others who then also engaged in imperialism in Central America. Then throw in Eugene V. Debs, an angry and passionate socialist fighter for unions and strikers who was jailed twice for his beliefs and that's what makes an election matter. It's about people and the effects they have on all of us, not cool stories or little snippets to put at the top of an article summary; that's all a lot of bull mooseshit.

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