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1912: The Last Transformative Third Party Convention

1912 National Progressive Convention at the Chicago Coliseum.

“National Progressive Convention, Chicago, August 6, 1912.” Moffett Studio and Kaufmann, Weimer & Fabry Co., copyright claimant. Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991, Library of Congress. PD

Last month, we blogged about TR and the Bull Moose campaign of 1912. We argued that it was a transformative campaign infused with constitutional significance that championed the “modern” presidency as the institutional means to a full-blown social insurance state. In light of the 100th anniversary of the Progressive Party’s convention in Chicago and in preparation for the upcoming Democratic and Republican conventions that will begin later this month, today’s post examines in greater depth the importance of the 1912 convention. Indeed, in the last one hundred years, it’s difficult to imagine a third party convention and campaign that has had a more important impact on American politics and political development.

The Progressive Party’s 1912 convention marked an important change in presidential campaigns, whereby candidates, rather than the parties conducted and gave definition to the national contests. TR broke long-standing precedents by launching a direct primary campaign and his famous “Confession of Faith” address delivered on the second day of the convention proposed a universal system of direct primaries to replace the convention as the mode of nominating candidates in order to thwart the “invisible government” that silenced the people. Furthermore, TR broke convention precedents by joining his running mate, California Governor Hiram Johnson, in accepting the party’s nomination before the assembled delegates after being informally notified of their nomination. Previously, party nominees stayed away from conventions until they had been formally notified.

The convention was particularly significant for uniting seemingly disparate strands of social reform and wedding TR’s charisma to various causes, thereby creating a more coherent movement. As Roosevelt’s friend and critic Learned Hand wrote in a letter soon after the convention:

It is the most inspiring time in my own political experience, and has the largest premise for good. You have succeeded in switching the radical movement from the mere distribution of political power to the actual issues for which political power exists at all…You will immensely raise the tone of American politics for a generation.

The convention embodied the religious earnestness of the social gospelers in its ranks who invested moral fervor into TR’s crusade for a new form of politics that would transform the religion of America into a new national democracy. While TR played a central role in mediating and shaping work on the Progressive Party platform, which was crafted over the summer months, social reformers played a critical role in formulating the “covenant with the people.”

The convention also had the effect of clearly distinguishing TR from Woodrow Wilson.  Some labeled Woodrow Wilson’s pragmatic Sea Girt address accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination as “academic” compared to the moral “revivalism” in TR’s “Confession of Faith.” TR concluded his speech with the same line he used in his address a few months earlier, beckoning his troops to “stand at Armageddon” and “to battle for the Lord.” Outlook, the progressive magazine, saw in Wilson’s speech a scholar’s “discussion of principles” and in TR’s speech a “reformer’s [passionate] appeal to others to join him in righting the wrongs from which his fellowmen are suffering.” In the aftermath of the convention, Lillian Wald, the founder of the well-regarded Henry Street Settlement in New York City, was heavily courted by the Wilson camp. But Wilson’s deafening silence on women’s suffrage in his Sea Girt address left her with “a cold chilly feeling of disappointment.” In contrast, Wald told suffragist and reformer Jane Addams that TR’s “Confession of Faith” “was very exciting and made us feel as if the Social Reformer’s Creed was about to become the religion of the politician.”

Addams herself played a significant role in the convention, capturing the party’s devotion to women’s suffrage and social welfare reform. Addams seconded TR’s nomination, an important task. But, more importantly, she infused substance and depth in the party that TR’s charisma alone could not provide. Following the convention, TR urged Addams to write articles for popular magazines on “what the progressives are striving for in the way of social justice, especially for the women and children and those men who have the hardest time in life.” At the Chicago convention, he readily embraced the plank pronouncing that “no people can justly claim to be a true democracy which denies political rights on account of sex” and pledging the Progressive Party “to securing equal suffrage to men and women alike.” Following the convention, TR became an even more ardent supporter of women’s suffrage and modified his understanding of equal rights. Roosevelt did not disavow his long-standing belief that “the highest life, the ideal life, is the married life.” But, he insisted, to deny that unmarried activist women such as Addams who made a great contribution to “the heritage of good in this country” was not a defense of the family but a slur on the “unmarried women who perform service of the utmost consequence to the whole people.” The Progressive convention and the party campaign thus helped to bring to national prominence social reformers whose way of life and political activity significantly expanded women’s opportunities to move beyond the traditional domain of home and family.

Yet, despite the party’s ideals to express the voice of the “whole people,” the Progressive Party platform and campaign gave scant attention to the rights of African Americans, labor (especially ethnic laborers) and immigrants. TR himself was ambivalent on the race question, but his illiberal racial views were also allied to political calculation as he sought to break the Democratic monopoly in the South. Furthermore, TR’s “New Nationalism” called upon Americans to abandon interest group, ethnic and racial identities for an elusive national interest, thereby deflecting attention from the nation’s most egregious injustices. Although Jane Addams and Frances Kellor were strong supporters of civil rights and liberal immigration policies, they were unable to convince their fellow delegates, probably with Roosevelt’s approval, to adopt a pro-civil rights platform. Furthermore, the party promise “to encourage the distribution of immigrants away from congested cities, to rigidly supervise all private agencies dealing with them and to promote their assimilation, education and advancement” portended paternalism.

Even with the differences that emerged, reformers shared a commitment to overcome the limits of the decentralized republic and the constitutional order shaped by party organizations and legal doctrines that formed a wall of separation between the federal government and society. Yet it was hard to square the Progressives’ celebration of direct democracy with their hope to achieve a more disinterested government, which would require a more powerful and expert national bureaucracy. Their goal, however unrealistic, to reconcile administration with direct democracy, and in so doing, strengthen self-rule, became an enduring feature of progressive politics, one that reverberates through our own time. In the end, the Progressive Party did not displace the two party system, but it weakened the grip that Democratic and Republican party leaders had over presidential politics. Recasting the executive as “the steward of public welfare” strengthened the tie between the presidency and public opinion, but at the cost of subordinating collective partisan responsibility and party platforms to a candidate-centered campaign that risks transforming representative democracy into a cult of personality.

For more, read: Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy, by Sidney M. Milkis. Carah Ong, PhD student and Research Assistant in the Miller Center’s GAGE program, contributed to the post.

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