We know this is a late post seeing as how we’ve been in presidential campaign season for five years or so now, but this is the most appropriate time. Ninety nine years ago today, Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech, a speech that would cement his personal status as what the internet assures me is the textbook definition of a “bad ass.” As part of the most successful third party campaign in U.S. History, Roosevelt gave a pretty routine stump speech. The only departure from the norm was the speech’s first line: “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.” That’s right, Theodore Roosevelt gave a campaign speech after having just been shot. What a guy.
There’s more to take away from Roosevelt’s 1912 campaign than meets the eye. On the surface there is actually much to dislike about Roosevelt’s goals. He was seeking a third term in office which broke precedent (not in the way his cousin would though). He was a bit of a demagogue who’s success rested mostly on his personality. A quick tour around the Natural History Museum in Washington D.C. illustrates his prowess with rifle on the defenseless creatures of the earth. So, you don’t necessarily have to like the man. But it was Roosevelt’s 1912 campaign that gave full life to the progressive movement by forcing the Democratic party to take up the mantle from the Roosevelt Republicans.
Roosevelt’s Progressive “Bull Moose” party championed the downtrodden, those attacked by the industrial might of American business. He argued strenuously against the oil trusts, and wanted to use the power of government to break them up into competitive industries. He told the voters there where he was shot that voting for one of the two parties was “reactionary.” Party bosses had stolen the Republican party from the people, from the very idea that moving forward was a good idea. Roosevelt wanted “social and industrial justice” for the men and women of America. Progress was the key to American success. Of course Roosevelt lost the 1912 election, but the lessons of 100 years ago ring so loudly in our ears that we would need to be deaf to miss them.
Justice plain and simple. The gilded age of American business and politics followed the Civil War and brought unbelievable wealth to a few industrial robber barons. The term is no mere turn of phrase. Through the unfair use monopoly, oligopoly, and money, these men robbed the American people blind, and convinced the victims to be complicit in their own demise through rhetorical social darwinism. In 1883 William Graham Sumner told Americans that the social classes owed each other nothing, and that if you failed to win their rigged game, you had no one to blame but yourself. We hope this should sound familiar. Roosevelt rejected that idea by the time he ascended the presidency in 1901, and formed the Progressive Party by 1912. Where is the progressive ideal one century later?