Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

What we in 2012 can learn from Teddy Roosevelt in 1912

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Mon August 6, 2012
In 1912, Former President Theodore Roosevelt ran again for the White House as the Progressive Party candidate.
In 1912, Former President Theodore Roosevelt ran again for the White House as the Progressive Party candidate.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Teddy Roosevelt addressed Progressive Party 100 years ago as their candidate
  • John Avlon says the issues he championed were ahead of their time, many still relevant today
  • Roosevelt lost the election but gained the highest third-party vote in U.S. history
  • Avlon: Roosevelt's "vigorous citizenship and heroic sense of politics still inspire"

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.

(CNN) -- One hundred years ago Monday, Theodore Roosevelt launched the most successful third party presidential bid in American history, declaring, "We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!"

It was the culmination of the Progressive Party Convention in Chicago on August 6, 1912. And its influence still echoes through our politics today.

Roosevelt, the former president, had tried and failed to wrest the GOP nomination from his successor, William Howard Taft. His supporters believed that the nomination had been stolen by the conservative power brokers and declared their independence.

John Avlon
John Avlon

And so the Progressive Party was briefly born. Known as "The Bull Moose" party, after Roosevelt's declaration that he felt "as strong as a bull moose," supporters saw it as defending the legacy of Abraham Lincoln against the big business establishment that had taken over the Republican Party after the Civil War. The Democrats -- the populist party whose base was in corrupt, big-city bosses and the states of the former Confederacy -- were also an unappealing alternative.

"The old parties are husks, with no real soul within either, divided on artificial lines, boss-ridden and privilege-controlled," Roosevelt declared, "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."

Roosevelt's Progressive Party definitely did not shy away from taking fearless stands on the vital issues of the day. The party's platform backed giving women the right to vote, the abolition of child labor, minimum wages, social security, public health standards, wildlife conservation, workman's compensation, insurance against sickness and unemployment, lobbying reform, campaign finance reform and election reform.

The old parties are husks, with no real soul within either, divided on artificial lines, boss-ridden and privilege-controlled...
Theodore Roosevelt

With socialist, communist and anarchist forces gaining momentum across the Atlantic, this was a platform dedicated to Roosevelt's wise belief that "reform is the antidote to revolution."

The assembled crowd was not radical, described by the famed Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White as "successful, middle class country town citizens, the farmer whose barn was painted, the well-paid railroad engineer and the country editor ... women doctors, women lawyers, women teachers. .. Proletarian and Plutocrat were absent." In other words, this was a Main Street, middle-class revolt against special interests on the far left and far right.

Among the Bull Moosers in the crowd were former Democrats and Republicans, including future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, columnist Walter Lippman, "wise-use conservationist" Gifford Pinchot, Judge Learned Hand and settlement house pioneer Jane Addams, who became the first woman to give a nominating speech at an American political convention. The energy of the occasion left an indelible impression on a generation.

The best recent recounting of the convention comes in Edmund Morris' "Colonel Roosevelt," the third volume of his essential work of American biography. In the moment, White described Roosevelt "charging down the hotel corridors, stalking down an aisle of the Coliseum while the crowds roared, walking like a gladiator to the lions."

In contrast to the upcoming conventions in Tampa, Florida, and Charlotte, North Carolina, the atmosphere was one of real, not canned, drama -- electric and unexpected.

"Can we imagine a convention today erupting in 'Onward Christian Soldiers' just impromptu?" asks Terrence Brown, the Theodore Roosevelt Association's executive director. "We've come to a place where putting out fresh ideas is dangerous in politics. Candidates don't want to give an agenda. That's the difference. TR campaigned with an agenda. He told the convention, 'use me up and cast me aside.' Take all of these ideas and run with them. ... The goal was moving along the Progressive Party's vision for what the new America in the 20th century should be."

Roosevelt and the Progressive Party were not successful in their effort to win the White House in 1912. But they won 27% of the popular vote -- an all-time high for third parties in presidential elections -- and Roosevelt won 88 electoral votes to Taft's eight. The Democrats cannily nominated their own progressive candidate, Woodrow Wilson, and he won the election in a landslide against the divided Republicans.

But the ideas Roosevelt and the Progressives fought for did succeed in time.

Some, such as expanding the right to vote, enacting Social Security and ending child labor, seem obvious to modern eyes. Others, such as the fight for expanded health insurance, remain contentious civic debates. And concerns about the disproportionate influence of big business and other special interests on American elections and policy seem ripped from modern headlines.

The political fault lines of the 1912 elections endure to this day as well.

President Barack Obama has explicitly tried to cast himself as the inheritor of Roosevelt's progressive party fight in a Kansas speech earlier this year. The Republican Party still contains competing establishment and reform factions, most recently seen in the factional split between George W. Bush and John McCain in 2000. And certainly there remain many independent-minded Americans who feel frustrated and politically homeless when faced with the two parties today. They are reformers in a world of radicals and reactionaries.

Politics is history in the present tense, and the study of history can inspire us to aim high in our own lives. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the 1912 election, the Theodore Roosevelt birthplace in Manhattan has mounted an exhibit focused on his Bull Moose campaign. Enclosed are speeches, campaign cartoons and political posters. (Full disclosure, I'm on the advisory board of the Theodore Roosevelt Association).

Perhaps most striking is the sight of Roosevelt's still-faintly bloodstained shirt, where bullet holes mark the October 1912 assassination attempt, alongside the gun the would-be killer fired. The bullet's velocity was stopped by an eyeglass case and a thick manuscript, for a speech which Roosevelt characteristically insisted on giving before going to the hospital.

"I have altogether too important things to think of to feel any concern over my own death," Roosevelt declared. "I am ahead of the game anyway. No man has had a happier life than I have led."

One hundred years later, Roosevelt's vigorous citizenship and heroic sense of politics still inspire. If we understand the lessons of his life correctly, it can still instruct.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT