Republican Convention

A political convention in 1912 was not the media-ready rubber stamp of a foregone conclusion it has become since the 1970s. More often than not, they were real, contentious meetings for the actual business of choosing the candidate, sometimes with reference to the pre-convention campaign, sometimes not. More delegates were chosen by party machines than by open primaries, more delegates were manipulated with backroom maneuvering than with ideology, and anything might happen on the convention floor. The Republican Convention of 1912, held in Chicago's large coliseum, was such a convention.
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As Taft and Roosevelt delegates began arriving in Chicago the weekend of June 15, the depth of their mutual enmity became increasingly clear. Roosevelt delegates shouted "thief" and "robber" spontaneously at Taft delegates encountered in hotels or on the streets. Shouting matches and fistfights began to break out in bars, lobbies, anywhere too many Roosevelt delegates ran in to too many Taft delegates. Wild rumors began circulating: Roosevelt supporters would hijack the convention and snatch the gavel away from the chairman; Roosevelt would take the Coliseum by force of armed supporters, Rough Rider-style, in the middle of the night; Oklahoma Roosevelt's would all arrive packing pistols in order to ensure Roosevelt’s nomination.

These tensions and rumors had been spurred partly by the pre-convention work of the Republican National Committee, which since June 7 had been adjudicating contested delegates. As expected, the committee backed Taft down the line. Of 254 contested delegates, Roosevelt received 19. Many of these delegates Taft was unquestionably entitled to, as Roosevelt organizations in many states had simply formed bogus "Republican Conventions" from scratch when they failed to capture the genuine articles. (This was especially true in the South, where the Republican Party was only a figment of Federal patronage in the first place.) The Republican National Committee made little pretense of fairness, however, sometimes giving contradictory justifications for awarding delegates to Taft, at all times acting far too quickly to convince anyone they were investigating the "truth" of any particular case. Relatively impartial observers, then and later, estimated that Roosevelt might have been entitled to 30-50 contested delegates, enough to have deadlocked the convention. Instead, Taft entered the convention with the nomination locked up, at least on paper, and Roosevelt entered the convention with a plausible reason to deny its legitimacy. Rank-and-file delegates on both sides entered the convention with a pretense for streetfighting.


The hysteria in Chicago intensified when Roosevelt decided to attend the convention personally. No one, probably not even Roosevelt, could know for sure what his presence would do to the convention. Thousands awaited his arrival by train on the 15th. The night before the convention officially opened, Roosevelt addressed 5000 of his supporters in the Chicago Auditorium. Thousands more crowded outside, unable to get a seat. With even more than his usual fist-pumping verve, Roosevelt elaborated his reform platform, attacked Taft’s bossism and perfidy, and declared him in violation of the Eighth Commandment: "Thou Shall Not Steal." At the end of the 45-minute excoriation, Roosevelt coined what would be a central slogan of the remainder of his campaign: "We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord."

Roosevelt commanded public attention.

Roosevelt's supporters were convinced that Taft was steamrolling the convention.

The two candidates also battled for delegates, but despite his public optimism, Roosevelt understood the odds. He had two chances, both slim. The first was to shake loose Southern delegates from Taft before the convention began. This involved, among other things, bribery. Many of these delegates were African-American. Although the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, continued throughout the early 20th century to style itself the political friend of African-Americans, and most African-Americans retaining the right to vote voted Republican, nationally pervasive white assumptions of African-American inferiority – shared to some extent by both Roosevelt and Taft – meant that even relatively friendly institutions like the Republican Party treated them as pawns to be manipulated rather than as a constituency to be served. In addition, the Republican Party in the south, where few African-Americans could vote, consisted of little more than Federal officeholders – patronage controlled by Taft – and the handful of supporters that came together every four years to attend the convention. Taft had used patronage ruthlessly before the convention to stack these delegations for himself. Roosevelt supporters spent the days leading up to the convention trying to shake delegates loose with bribes and other inducements. Several black delegates signed affidavits, quickly released to the press, that asserted they had been approached by supporters of Roosevelt and offered cash to switch their votes. (We could link to these; they’re not very long. The Times printed a few.) The Roosevelt organization denied any knowledge of this matter, but the whole incident suggested the degree to which the Republican Party in the South had become equal parts charade, tragedy, and joke. Each side accused the other of corruption, and both were probably right. At any rate, few delegates deserted Taft. The relation of any of this to the Eight Commandment remains open to question.

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Elihu Root
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Roosevelt’s second chance was to fight Taft’s choice as temporary chairman of the convention, Elihu Root. A friendly temporary chairman was Roosevelt’s last hope of challenging enough of Taft’s delegates to prevent his nomination; Root at the gavel meant approval of the Republican National Committee’s decisions on contested delegations, suppression of parliamentary maneuvers beneficial to Roosevelt, and, barring Armageddon itself, the nomination of Taft. Root was a canny choice on Taft’s part; he was a superb parliamentarian and, as one of Roosevelt’s most trusted cabinet members as President, someone at whom Roosevelt could not plausibly hurl apocalyptic invective. When Taft’s delegates held together in the pandemonium of the convention’s first day’s to elect Root temporary chairman, 558-502, it was clear that Taft would carry the convention.

It was unclear how much convention would remain to carry, however. Roosevelt had hinted in the days before the convention, including in his Chicago Auditorium speech, that he might bolt a Republican Party that denied what he considered the plain fact that most rank-and-file Republicans wished him to be President again. Roosevelt now bolted, announcing to his supporters on Saturday, June 22 that he wished them to wash their hands of what he considered a corrupt convention and follow him into a new political organization. When balloting for the presidential nomination finally commenced, again amid chaos and occasional violence on the convention floor, Taft received 561 votes, Roosevelt 107 – meaning 344 delegates, ¾ of Roosevelt’s support, theoretically agreed to follow him out of the Republican Party.  

Taft received the nomination.