Chronicles of America 

The Glorious Failure

The third act in the drama of the Progressive party was filled with the campaign for the Presidency. It was a three-cornered fight. Taft stood for Republican conservatism and clung to the old things. Roosevelt fought for the progressive rewriting of Republican principles with added emphasis on popular government and social justice as defined in the New Nationalism. The Democratic party under the leadership of Woodrow Wilson espoused with more or less enthusiasm the old Democratic principles freshly interpreted and revivified in the declaration they called the New Freedom. The campaign marked the definite entrance of the nation upon a new era. One thing was clear from the beginning: the day of conservatism and reaction was over; the people of the United States had definitely crossed their Rubicon and had committed themselves to spiritual and moral progress.

The campaign had one dramatic incident. On the 14th of October, just before entering the Auditorium at Milwaukee, Roosevelt was shot by a fanatic. His immediate action was above everything characteristic. Some time later in reply to a remark that he had been foolhardy in going on with his speech just after the attack, Roosevelt said, "Why, you know, I didn't think I had been mortally wounded. If I had been mortally wounded, I would have bled from the lungs. When I got into the motor I coughed hard three times, and put my hand up to my mouth; as I did not find any blood, I thought that I was not seriously hurt, and went on with my speech."

The opening words of the speech which followed were equally typical:

"Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose . . . . The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best . . . . First of all, I want to say this about myself; I have altogether too important things to think of to feel any concern over my own death; and now I cannot speak insincerely to you within five minutes of being shot. I am telling you the literal truth when I say that my concern is for many other things. It is not in the least for my own life. I want you to understand that I am ahead of the game anyway. No man has had a happier life than I have led; a happier life in every way. I have been able to do certain things that I greatly wished to do, and I am interested in doing other things. I can tell you with absolute truthfulness that I am very much uninterested in whether I am shot or not. It was just as when I was colonel of my regiment. I always felt that a private was to be excused for feeling at times some pangs of anxiety about his personal safety, but I cannot understand a man fit to be a colonel who can pay any heed to his personal safety when he is occupied as he ought to be occupied with the absorbing desire to do his duty."

There was a great deal of self-revelation in these words. Even the critic accustomed to ascribe to Roosevelt egotism and love of gallery applause must concede the courage, will-power, and self-forgetfulness disclosed by the incident.

The election was a debacle for reaction, a victory for Democracy, a triumph in defeat for the Progressive party. Taft carried two States, Utah and Vermont, with eight electoral votes; Woodrow Wilson carried forty States, with 435 electoral votes; and Roosevelt carried five States, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Washington, and eleven out of the thirteen votes of California, giving him 88 electoral votes. Taft's popular vote was 3,484,956; Wilson's was 6,293,019; while Roosevelt's was 4,119,507. The fact that Wilson was elected by a minority popular vote is not the significant thing, for it is far beyond the capability of any political observer to declare what would have been the result if there had been but two parties in the field. The triumph for the Progressive party lay in the certainty that its emergence had compelled the election of a President whose face was toward the future. If the Roosevelt delegates at Chicago in June had acquiesced in the result of the steam-roller Convention, it is highly probable that Woodrow Wilson would not have been the choice of the Democratic Convention that met later at Baltimore.

During the succeeding four years the Progressive party, as a national organization, continued steadily to "dwindle, peak, and pine." More and more of its members and supporters slipped or stepped boldly back to the Republican party. Its quondam Democratic members had largely returned to their former allegiance with Wilson, either at the election or after it. Roosevelt once more withdrew from active participation in public life, until the Great War, with its gradually increasing intrusions upon American interests and American rights, aroused him to vigorous and aggressive utterance on American responsibility and American duty. He became a vigorous critic of the Administration.

Once more a demand began to spring up for his nomination for the Presidency; the Progressive party began to show signs of reviving consciousness. There had persisted through the years a little band of irreconcilables who were Progressives or nothing. They wanted a new party of radical ideas regardless of anything in the way of reformation and progress that the old parties might achieve. There were others who preferred to go back to the Republican party rather than to keep up the Progressive party as a mere minority party of protest, but who hoped in going back to be able to influence their old party along the lines of progress. There were those who were Rooseveltians pure and simple and who would follow him wherever he led.

All these groups wanted Roosevelt as President. They united to hold a convention of the Progressive party at Chicago in 1916 on the same days on which the Republican Convention met there. Each convention opened with a calculating eye upon the activities of the other. But both watched with even more anxious surmise for some sign of intention from the Progressive leader back at Oyster Bay. He held in his single hand the power of life and death for the Progressive party. His decision as to cooperative action with the Republicans or individual action as a Progressive would be the most important single factor in the campaign against Woodrow Wilson, who was certain of renomination. Three questions confronted and puzzled the two bodies of delegates: Would the Republicans nominate Roosevelt or another? If another, what would Roosevelt do? If another, what would the Progressives do?

For three days the Republican National Convention proceeded steadily and stolidly upon its appointed course. Everything had been done in the stereotyped way on the stereotyped time-table in the stereotyped language. No impropriety or infelicity had been permitted to mar the smooth texture of its surface. The temporary chairman in his keynote speech had been as mildly oratorical, as diffusely patriotic, and as nobly sentimental as any Fourth of July orator of a bygone day. The whole tone of the Convention had been subdued and decorous with the decorum of incertitude and timidity. That Convention did not know what it wanted. It only knew that there was one thing that it did not want and that it was afraid of, and another thing it would rather not have and was afraid it would have to take. It wanted neither Theodore Roosevelt nor Charles E. Hughes, and its members were distinctly uncomfortable at the thought that they might have to take one or the other. It was an old-fashioned convention of the hand-picked variety. It smacked of the former days when the direct primary had not yet introduced the disturbing thought that the voters and not the office-holders and party leaders ought to select their candidates.

It was a docile, submissive convention, not because it was ruled by a strong group of men who knew what they wanted and proposed to compel their followers to give it to them, but because it was composed of politicians great and small to whom party regularity was the breath of their nostrils. They were ready to do the regular thing; but the only two things in sight were confoundedly irregular.

Two drafts were ready for their drinking and they dreaded both. They could nominate one of two men, and to nominate either of them was to fling open the gates of the citadel of party regularity and conformity and let the enemy in. Was it to be Roosevelt or Hughes? Roosevelt they would not have. Hughes they would give their eye teeth not to take. No wonder they were subdued and inarticulate. No wonder they suffered and were unhappy. So they droned along through their stereotyped routine, hoping dully against fate.

The hot-heads in the Progressive Convention wanted no delay, no compromise. They would have nominated Theodore Roosevelt out of hand with a whoop, and let the Republican Convention take him or leave him. But the cooler leaders realized the importance of union between the two parties and knew, or accurately guessed, what the attitude of Roosevelt would be. With firm hand they kept the Convention from hasty and irrevocable action. They proposed that overtures be made to the Republican Convention with a view to harmonious agreement. A conference was held between committees of the two conventions to see if common ground could be discovered. At the first session of the joint committee it appeared that there was sincere desire on both sides to get together, but that the Progressives would have no one but Roosevelt, while the Republicans would not have him but were united on no one else. When the balloting began in the Republican Convention, the only candidate who received even a respectable block of votes was Hughes, but his total was hardly more than half of the necessary majority. For several ballots there was no considerable gain for any of the numerous candidates, and when the Convention adjourned late Friday night the outcome was as uncertain as ever. But by Saturday morning the Republican leaders and delegates had resigned themselves to the inevitable, and the nomination of Hughes was assured. When the Progressive Convention met that morning, the conference committee reported that the Republican members of the committee had proposed unanimously the selection of Hughes as the candidate of both parties.

Thus began the final scene in the Progressive drama, and a more thrilling and intense occasion it would be difficult to imagine. It was apparent that the Progressive delegates would have none of it. They were there to nominate their own beloved leader and they intended to do it. A telegram was received from Oyster Bay proposing Senator Lodge as the compromise candidate, and the restive delegates in the Auditorium could with the greatest difficulty be held back until the telegram could be received and read at the Coliseum. A direct telephone wire from the Coliseum to a receiver on the stage of the Auditorium kept the Progressive body in instant touch with events in the other Convention. In the Auditorium the atmosphere was electric. The delegates bubbled with excitement. They wanted to nominate Roosevelt and be done with it. The fear that the other Convention would steal a march on them and make its nomination first set them crazy with impatience. The hall rumbled and sputtered and fizzed and detonated. The floor looked like a giant corn popper with the kernels jumping and exploding like mad.

The delegates wanted action; the leaders wanted to be sure that they had kept faith with Roosevelt and with the general situation by giving the Republican delegates a chance to hear his last proposal. Bainbridge Colby, of New York, put Roosevelt in nomination with brevity and vigor; Hiram Johnson seconded the nomination with his accustomed fire. Then, as the word came over the wire that balloting had been resumed in the Coliseum, the question was put at thirty-one minutes past twelve, and every delegate and every alternate in the Convention leaped to his feet with upstretched arm and shouted "Aye."

Doubtless more thrilling moments may come to some men at some time, somewhere, but you will hardly find a delegate of that Progressive Convention to believe it. Then the Convention adjourned, to meet again at three to hear what the man they had nominated would say.

At five o'clock in the afternoon, after a couple of hours of impatient and anxious marking time with routine matters, the Progressive delegates received the reply from their leader. It read thus:

"I am very grateful for the honor you confer upon me by nominating me as President. I cannot accept it at this time. I do not know the attitude of the candidate of the Republican party toward the vital questions of the day. Therefore, if you desire an immediate decision, I must decline the nomination.

"But if you prefer to wait, I suggest that my conditional refusal to run be placed in the hands of the Progressive National Committee. If Mr. Hughes's statements, when he makes them, shall satisfy the committee that it is for the interest of the country that he be elected, they can act accordingly and treat my refusal as definitely accepted.

"If they are not satisfied, they can so notify the Progressive party, and at the same time they can confer with me, and then determine on whatever action we may severally deem appropriate to meet the needs of the country.


Puzzled, disheartened, overwhelmed, the Progressive delegates went away. They could not then see how wise, how farsighted, how inevitable Roosevelt's decision was. Some of them will never see it. Probably few of them as they went out of those doors realized that they had taken part in the last act of the romantic and tragic drama of the National Progressive party. But such was the fact, for the march of events was too much for it. Fate, not its enemies, brought it to an end.

So was born, lived a little space, and died the Progressive party. At its birth it caused the nomination, by the Democrats, and the election, by the people, of Woodrow Wilson. At its death it brought about the nomination of Charles E. Hughes by the Republicans. It forced the writing into the platforms of the more conservative parties of principles and programmes of popular rights and social regeneration. The Progressive party never attained to power, but it wielded a potent power. It was a glorious failure.