The Progressive Convention


The first-ever Progressive National Convention, convened in Chicago on August 5, was a political organism the likes of which no one had ever experienced: equal parts party convention, public policy seminar, Protestant camp meeting, and cult of personality. Even reporters and observers predisposed to be hostile to the event remarked on the earnest evangelical fervor that coursed through the thousands of delegates and spectators filling the Chicago Coliseum.
The Massachusetts delegation spent much of their time on the train to Chicago praying solemnly for the success of their endeavor; New York Progressives, at a state convention in Buffalo the week before, compared themselves to abolitionists. The proceedings included an "experience meeting," during which any delegate could speak for five minutes about his or her political "conversion." Progressive delegates listened to speeches with quiet intensity rather than drowning them out with noisy demonstrations. The demonstrations which did occur were overwhelmingly genuine, not the calculated, semi-staged outbursts of ballyhoo ordinarily seen at conventions.
Fewer brass bands and floor bosses than usual populated the convention floor, replaced by more women, more young people, and more intellectuals than anyone had ever seen at a political convention. Protestant hymns replaced sloganeering campaign marches. "Instead of forcing your way through a crowd of tobacco-stained political veterans," wrote a bemused New York Times reporter, "you raise your hat politely and say, ‘Pardon me, Madam.’"

When California delegates, the first to arrive in town, began calling themselves "Bull Moosers" (Roosevelt in a stray campaign comment had proclaimed himself "fit as a Bull Moose"), the new party had itself a mascot cartoonists could send into battle against the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant. Many delegates, paying homage to Roosevelt’s cowboy days, wore red bandanas, though few wore them correctly, having never seen anyone in their lives besides Roosevelt who resembled a cowboy.

The spontaneous adoration this unique group exhibited toward Roosevelt was so overwhelming that some observers thought it even startled Roosevelt a little bit. The highlight of the convention was Roosevelt’s "Confession of Faith," in which Roosevelt proclaimed his support for the entire reform platform in language excoriating the existing political system – "The old parties are husks, with no real soul within either, divided on artificial lines, boss-ridden and privilege-controlled, 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" – and infused with the same evangelical Protestantism that drove his audience. The response from the 15,000 delegates and spectators in the Coliseum was so overwhelming that Roosevelt repeatedly found it necessary to quiet his own ovations so that he could continue with his speech. He came out for nearly every major reform he had trumpeted since 1910, and more: referendum and recall, direct primaries, woman suffrage, the eight-hour day, child-labor laws, workplace safety, regulation of business by the Federal government. And he closed again with his new catchphrase, "We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord."

Not all aspects of the convention were so smooth, however. Thorny organizational and ideological issues faced the new party. Should they attempt to run a full slate of candidates in all state and local races, or only support Roosevelt for President? How much of Roosevelt’s rank-and-file Republican support would be willing to declare war on its own political past and desert the Republican ticket?

Particularly sticky was the question of the party’s relationship toward African-Americans. To run a plausible national campaign, Roosevelt believed he needed to contest the Solid South. Progressive Party organizations sprang up quickly in several Southern states after the Republican convention, encouraging Roosevelt in this belief. Attracting votes in the South, however, meant aligning the Progressive Party with then-dominant Southern racial mores – in other words, aligning it with racism and segregation. Southern Progressives demanded Roosevelt deny the legitimacy of black political participation and ignore black aspirations for social justice. This would mean abandoning black votes, when many northern blacks (who could and did vote) and black opinion leaders were at least tentatively interested in a party that claimed to stand for comprehensive economic, political, and social reform. Several prominent Northern white Progressives also considered the race issue a litmus test of the sincerity of the new party’s commitment to social justice. And the issue could not be dodged: several Southern states sent two delegations to the Progressive convention, one "lily-white," one integrated. Which delegations would be seated?

Roosevelt was, by any reasonable modern standard, racist. He was a white supremacist of the variety common among American intellectuals early in the twentieth century, in that he believed white domination of American society (and European domination of world politics) was the natural product of superior "Anglo-Saxon" racial traits. He lacked, however, the vicious, sadistic racial antagonisms of many Southern whites, and did not consider intentional race-baiting either good public policy or good politics. Roosevelt’s attempted solution to this dilemma sought to placate both Southern whites and Northern blacks. Roosevelt argued that in the North, African-Americans had earned the right to political equality, but in the South they should place their trust in "the best white men of the South" – in other words, a "lily-white" party in the South.  Roosevelt explained his views--views he said were Progressive--in August in a widely circulated article titled "The Progressives and the Colored Man."  This "solution" was less than satisfying intellectually, but it did allow Roosevelt to criticize the race policies of both major parties: he labeled the Democrats race-baiters and the Republicans hypocrites, since they only supported black politicians in the South, where they were largely irrelevant. The Progressive convention seated lily-white delegations from Southern states but made a great show of welcoming its handful of black delegates from Northern and border states. The platform committee, however, ignored an aggressive civil rights platform plank drafted by the NAACP’s W.E.B. Du Bois. platform committee.  As the new party struggled with race issues, some African-Americans spoke out in its support.

Far more troublesome to the platform committee was what to do about the antitrust plank. The majority of rank-and-file Progressives demanded a strong trustbusting plank. Important financial supporters of the party, however – most notably George Perkins and Frank Munsey – demanded assurances that the platform would not contain such a plank. The platform committee dodged this dilemma by approving two antitrust planks that directly contradicted one another, one tolerant of big business, one hostile. Such was the euphoria in the convention hall by the time the platform was read that few ordinary delegates noticed. The radical plank was excised from most contemporary newspaper reports of the convention.

For Vice-President, the convention nominated Hiram Johnson, former governor of California. No candidates for other offices were offered. The nomination of Wilson by the Democrats made a Roosevelt victory highly unlikely. But Roosevelt looked forward to the fight.

Dr. MarcT. Horger wrote the text for this page.