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
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT