Political convention season is wrapping up and Republicans and Democrats have nominated their candidates. These made-for-TV productions are planned from opening gavel to closing balloon drop. No one expected rogue delegates to break ranks and nominate Rick Santorum or Hillary Clinton, for example. The primary winners are merely taking a victory lap.
What a difference a century makes.
The 1912 Republican convention in Chicago was anything but scripted. The city assigned a thousand policemen to make certain order was maintained. And if the delegates did get out of hand, there were strands of barbed wire concealed behind the bunting on the speaker’s platform. Charge the stage at your own risk. The governor was also prepared to call out the National Guard if the Republicans turned to violence.
They had reason to be concerned, as many on hand realized that very nature of our Constitution and our democracy was at stake. On one side was Teddy Roosevelt, who ran for president that year aiming to reshape American democracy. He thrashed lackluster incumbent William Howard Taft in the primary contests, even in Taft’s home state of Ohio.
It’s important to note that these weren’t modern, binding primaries. While Roosevelt could claim a string of victories, Taft still controlled the party apparatus, and that was what really mattered on the road to Chicago that year.
Still, Roosevelt wasn’t known for humility. “I believe in pure democracy,” he’d bellowed at the Ohio Constitutional Convention. He favored “certain governmental devices which will make the representatives of the people more easily and certainly responsible to the people’s will.” These included the initiative, the referendum, the recall (including recall of judges), the direct election of U.S. senators, and the popular recall of judicial decisions.
On the other side were Taft (Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor in the White House just four years earlier) and the Republican leadership, including Sens. Elihu Root of New York and Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts.
Roosevelt’s proposals amounted to radical constitutional revision that threatened to undermine the institutions of government. Therefore, Root, Lodge and Taft were determined to deny Roosevelt the nomination at the 1912 convention.
It opened with a bang. Root defeated Roosevelt’s candidate, Wisconsin Gov. Francis McGovern, by the slim margin of 558-502 to be elected chairman of the convention. The Roosevelt delegates shook the hall with outrage, as they realized that Root could now steer the agenda away from their man.
Rather than using his speech to preach togetherness and sunshine, Root’s keynote address was a powerful call to constitutional conservatism.
The Republican Party, Root argued, was obligated to defend the Constitution, since the party had been “born in protest against the extension of a system of human slavery approved and maintained by majorities.” This was the party of Abraham Lincoln, who had declared in his first inaugural address that “a majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations is the only true sovereign of a free people.”
Our duty, Root concluded, was not to reform the constitutional system but to “humbly and reverently seek for strength and wisdom to abide by the principles of the Constitution against the days of our temptation and weakness.”
There were no polls in 1912, but these early conservatives could see which way the wind was blowing. By blocking TR from winning the Republican nomination, they realized they were likely to lose in the general election. Indeed, Taft carried only two states, garnering a mere 23.2 percent of the popular vote. Democrat Woodrow Wilson became president, with TR coming in second.
“The result of the Convention was more important than the question of the election,” Root later said. Losing the general election did not supplant their “duty to hold the Republican Party firmly to the support of our constitutional system. Worse things can happen to a party than to be defeated.”
Root, Lodge and Taft sacrificed their friendship with TR and a potential victory in the general election to save the Constitution from TR’s proposed overhaul. They launched a fight to save America from a deeper descent into progressivism.
And their movement continues: The intellectual heirs of Root, Lodge and Taft are alive today. They call themselves the Tea Party movement. In Tampa and in Charlotte, the echoes of 1912 resound into another century of American governance.
Julia Shaw is research associate and program manager for the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation.
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