Friday, July 29, 2011

1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs--The Election that Changed the Country

I just finished reading 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs--
The Election that Changed the Country by James Chace. The book tells the story of the 1912 presidential election, one that I knew little about, but one which was unexpectedly important in the history of the country.

The scale of enterprises had become large in the United States by 1912, with continent spanning railroads, electric power systems spanning large areas, and large manufacturing enterprises serving large. It was the time of monopolies and little regulation. It was also a time in which the population was increasing rapidly, including by immigration. The working environment was too often dangerous, and children were exploited in the workplace. The economy went through recurrent cycles of boom and bust, causing grave social problems during the recessions, As a result of the social and economic problems of the day, there was widespread belief that progress must be made in protecting workers and regulating industry, but there was also a strong conservative faction who liked things as they were.

Government was much more limited than it is now; notably there was no central bank for the United States. While there were many who felt that monopolies had gotten out of hand, and many who felt that government was the best (and perhaps only) means of balancing their power, there was no consensus on how government should deal with monopolies.

 The book focuses on the election and its politics. Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft had been president and vice-president; when Roosevelt failed to run for a third term, Taft was elected. The book paints Taft as a week and more conservative president than Roosevelt, leading to Roosevelt becoming disenchanted with his successor and his policies. He eventually spoke out against the Taft administration, the established friendship between the two foundered, and Roosevelt contested for the Republican nomination for the 1912 election. Chace paints a complex picture of a contest between progressives and conservatives, between bosses and their machines and popular movements. Roosevelt lost the Republican nomination and, using his popularity and charisma, led in the creation of a third party, the Progressive.

Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic candidate was a one term governor of New Jersey; he is painted by Chace as a conservative by nature, a progressive for convenience, and a racist prejudiced against the new immigrants from southern and central Europe, who was lacking in intellectual curiosity and international experience. Wilson had had three strokes prior to the election, hidden from the public, which might have predicted the major stroke he actually had in office. Wilson won the Democratic nomination over a large field of weak Democratic candidates after a long battle.

The fourth candidate, Eugene Debs, an extremely popular labor leader, led the Socialist Party to their strongest showing ever in the election, gaining almost a million votes.

Wilson of course won the election, but did so with a minority of the votes. Roosevelt was second, gaining the largest portion of the vote of any third party candidate in history. Taft was third, with Debs a distant fourth in the balloting. Progressives dominated the voting, reaching a high water mark until another Roosevelt was elected in the Great Depression.

While war clouds were gathering in Europe during 1912, with war breaking out in 1914, according to Chace U.S. preparedness was not an important issue in the 1912 campaigns, nor was the likelihood that the candidates would support U.S. entry into the war, and much less which candidate might best lead in the planning in the aftermath of the war. Chace clearly thinks that Teddy Roosevelt would have done much better than Woodrow Wilson in those areas if elected president. On the other hand, Wilson's first term in office resulted in economic changes that probably did help prepare the country to prosecute the war more effectively, and he supported military preparations while seeking to avoid war. Still, it seems clear that while Wilson shared an interest in a post war intergovernmental organization to help keep the peace, his failures with the Senate helped assure that the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations would fail.

The book is relatively short and easy to read. To achieve these virtues it profiles the candidates and their key supporters relatively briefly, describes the machinations of the politicians and the party conventions in some detail, but devotes relatively little attention to the issues at play in the election.

No comments: