Theodore Roosevelt in ’12

June 15, 2012
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June 2012 - August 2012
September 2012 - November 2012


The Presidential election of 1912 featured old friends publicly transformed into bitter enemies; the creation of a new political party which out-polled the incumbent president; and an assassination attempt on a former president-turned-candidate, running for an unprecedented third term. The irrepressible Theodore Roosevelt was predictably at the center of it all. This virtual exhibit includes select Shapell Manuscript Collection pieces currently on display in New York at the Theodore Roosevelt Associations’s new exhibition, “TR in ‘12”.

Theodore Roosevelt, having overcome severe asthma in youth; gunfire, charging up San Juan Hill in the Spanish American War; a carriage accident, as President, in which a Secret Service agent was killed: yet again narrowly escaped death, most spectacularly, when shot in the chest from a few feet away, by a would-be assassin, on the night of October 14, 1912, as he campaigned for a third term on the new Progressive ticket.

Roosevelt was examined in Milwaukee, found to be wounded; moved – per his request – to Chicago; and on October 17th, resumed his campaign from his room at Mercy Hospital as this letter, saying he is as hearty as a Bull Moose, attests.

Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt notes here that:

My husband seems as well and strong as ever; the surgeons judged it wiser not to remove the bullet so I am always a little anxious.

Roosevelt was shot with a .38 caliber pistol on October 14, 1912, at close range, by a psychotic New York saloonkeeper against third terms. Roosevelt did not realize he was hit until someone noticed a hole in his overcoat. When he reached inside his coat, he found blood on his fingers. The bullet, having traversed the manuscript of the speech he was to about to deliver, entered his chest wall but did not appear, at first, to be more than a scrape. So Roosevelt, for an hour and a half, gave the speech – “I have just been shot,” he said, “but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose” – and only afterward, collapsed. He spent eight days in hospital, and then returned to campaigning. The bullet was never removed, and caused no difficulty after the wound healed.

Roosevelt comments on a manuscript detailing, step by step and minute by minute, the assassination attempt made on his life on October 14, 1912. He corrects the common misperception of what he said about the assassin when shot – “Don’t hurt him. Bring him here. I want to look at him” and discusses both the nature of his wound, and its effect on him.

Here Governor Wilson tells a political operative that he wishes with all his heart that it were possible for him to address a noonday meeting near the Borough Hall as suggested, but cannot. “You know my action in politics is now rendered very uncertain by Mr. Roosevelt’s state of health,” he writes here. “I have been cut out of a score of meetings that I had planned to attend.”

Wilson did not resume his campaign, in full, until the 28th, when Roosevelt was out of the hospital and on his way to recovery – but not even the Bull Moose’s extraordinary physical comeback could overcome Wilson’s lead in the three-cornered race. Wilson won with 41% of the popular vote, Roosevelt and Taft essentially splitting the rest. Still, Roosevelt, as a third party candidate, won 88 electoral votes – to Taft’s eight.

According to his lights, he had won the primaries, and ought to have then taken the nomination: but Taft had the Republican establishment – and the party, if not the people, choose the incumbent President, by 21 votes, instead of the insurgent Roosevelt as its candidate in 1912. So Roosevelt simply carried the fight outside Chicago’s Coliseum and into the streets. He would form a new party, the Progressive Party, and it would nominate him, in August, as its candidate for president. When asked how he was feeling, Roosevelt said, “like a bull moose,” – thus giving the new party a nickname.

In this letter to his old Harvard classmate, Roosevelt, having just bolted the Republicans and a scant few weeks away from becoming the standard bearer for the Progressives, takes stock.

Here William Howard Taft, once the darling of Theodore Roosevelt – he had said T.R. was “the most lovable personality I have ever come in contact with” – turns on his old chief who had, after all, just turned on him at the Chicago convention by trying to deny him re-nomination and grab the nod once more for himself.

Theodore Roosevelt, shot at less than three weeks before as he campaigned for a third term as a third party candidate, was barely out of the hospital when his hand-picked successor, Taft, wrote this withering assessment of his one-time mentor. Roosevelt, he says here, is “a genuine menace to the welfare of our country.” Even if he is defeated for re-election, Taft declares, he can stand it, having thwarted that third termer’s bid to regain the White House.