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
August 6, 2012 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
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
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2248 GMT (0648 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2049 GMT (0449 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT