Roosevelt Returns


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When Roosevelt returned to the United States in June of 1910 after a year's hunting safari in Africa and a triumphant tour of Europe during which he received more plaudits and more hospitality from more world leaders than any American traveler since ex-President Grant, he was still a center of attention in the press. A constant stream of writings from Africa, as well as sympathetic articles and cartoons from admiring American journalists, had kept him in the public eye the whole time he was away. He arrived in New York harbor as much the center of American attention as when he was President, if such a thing is possible.

He also arrived uncomfortable with the state of the Republican Party and the Taft Administration, a fact that had become increasingly clear to observers even while Roosevelt was still in Africa. Gifford Pinchot was one of his closest personal friends; conservation was an issue near to Roosevelt’s heart; and the Taft Administration seemed to Roosevelt to be abandoning both his policies as President and his personal trust as kingmaker to Taft in 1908.  All the worse, Roosevelt had been torn in 1907 over whether or not to run for another term in 1908, rather than promoting Taft for the GOP nomination that year.

The increasingly personal split between Roosevelt and Taft did not immediately surface publicly. But Roosevelt did immediately re-enter Republican politics by supporting progressive Republican candidates in the 1910 elections, most notably Harry Stimpson for governor of New York. He also took an active role in the New York State Republican convention, where he fought the most conservative elements of the party. Roosevelt believed that by supporting moderate progressives acceptable to both the Administration and to his own sense of reform he could help heal the growing rift in the party (he avoided endorsing the most radically insurgent Republicans like Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin, for example). It had the opposite effect. Several state party organizations split and fought one another bitterly; meanwhile, Democrats made large gains around the nation and took control of the House and Senate. Insurgents and conservatives blamed one another for their defeat; Taft and Roosevelt’s distrust of one another grew. A split of the Republican Party into conservative and progressive factions began to seem inevitable, though the two principals continued to maintain otherwise publicly.

Over the course of 1910, Roosevelt outlined a new and more advanced program of reform, best expressed in a speech given at Osawatomie, Kansas.  In it he came out for a highly nationalistic conceptualization of the federal government as the nation’s primary steward of the public welfare, supporting what Roosevelt liked to call "the rights of men over the rights of property." He called for income and inheritance taxes, the regulation of major business enterprises along the lines of public utilities, personal criminal culpability for the directors of misbehaving businesses, a federal role in conservation of natural resources, national labor and workmen’s compensation legislation, and other reforms. Many of these were far more aggressive stances than he had been willing to take as President. His new thinking was heavily influenced by Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life, which argued for many of the same things and which Roosevelt had recently read. This program essentially accepted the bigness of big business as a natural economic development, and, rather than continuing the policy of breaking up combinations under the provisions of the Sherman Antitrust Act, sought to regulate trusts for the common good through the authority of the federal government. It also foresaw a strengthened, centralized, and more aggressively regulatory federal government. This speech outlined a program of American national government that Roosevelt called "The New Nationalism." Critics attacked Roosevelt as a Socialist and a dangerous radical; Roosevelt saw himself as a sort of practical conservative, seeking to prevent a turn to socialism through timely reform. It was on these principles that Roosevelt and his supporters within the Republican Party began preparing for the party showdown that most observers believed was now inevitable in 1912.

In the meantime, Taft and his administration made it clear that they would side with the hard-line conservative elements of the party rather than conciliate Roosevelt and other insurgents like LaFollette or Hiram Johnson of California. As 1912 approached, two things were increasingly clear to most observers: Theodore Roosevelt was the most popular Republican in the country with the party’s rank and file, and Taft had the organizational control necessary to deny Roosevelt the 1912 nomination and keep it for himself.

Throughout 1911, however, Roosevelt hedged publicly about his willingness to seek the nomination. He made a living as an editor of Outlook magazine, which provided both a paycheck and a forum for his political pronouncements.  He did not announce intentions formally until February of 1912, when a reporter quoted Roosevelt as saying "my hat is in the ring" before an appearance in front of the Ohio Constitutional Convention. In a powerful speech before that convention, Roosevelt pledged his support to nearly every element of the reform program. In addition to his New Nationalist program, he came out for initiative and referendum, ballot reform, the direct primary, direct election of Senators, and – most controversially – recall of judicial decisions by referendum under certain circumstances. This last point was by far the most explosive. Due in part to the New York Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down workmen’s compensation legislation passed by the New York Assembly, Roosevelt now considered the conservative court system a major impediment to social reform. Even some of Roosevelt’s progressive supporters, however, considered this a dangerous rejection of Anglo-American traditions of representative government and judicial review. To Taft, a career jurist, it was the last straw. Roosevelt must be denied the nomination.

Roosevelt was all the more determined to obtain the nomination, and he mounted a full scale assault on Taft in the spring of 1912.

The split between the two former friends and political allies deepened during the spring of 1912.  Roosevelt entered several primaries, and, although not always the winner, in general seemed more popular that Taft. (Roosevelt carried Ohio, Taft's home state, in a primary in May of 1912, for instance.)  As that summer's Republican convention approached, Taft would have to pull out all of the powers of incumbency to assure himself of renomination