How Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Jane Addams Helped Launch the Progressive Party

Neil Lanctot on the Fervor of the Presidential Campaign of 1912

Summer 1912 in Chicago. A national convention unlike America had ever witnessed. In just three August days, a new political party—the Progressive—began to take shape thanks to the 10,000 earnest, yet determined, men and women eager to transform the nation’s political landscape.

The excitement at the Coliseum that week was inescapable, punctuated by lusty and heartfelt renditions of the old favorites “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “This convention,” remarked one correspondent, “has had the appearance of a great religious revival.” Cynics like the Baltimore journalist H. L. Mencken later scoffed at such “quasi‑religious monkey‑shines,” but the impassioned fervor of the true believers could not be denied. “The men in the press,” noted one reporter, “looked on in amazement. They were not accustomed to anything like this… for the simple reason that nothing like this had happened within the memory of any political manager alive.”

The new party was the logical culmination of the broad‑based liberal reform movement—known by its followers as “progressivism”—that had swept the nation since the 1890s in response to the changes wrought in America by frightening new technologies, a rising tide of new immigrants, and the discomforting growth of superpowerful mega‑corporations. A passionate desire for reform bound the great mass of progressive men and women together, but they did not always support the same causes. Housing standards, child labor, regulation of big business, the referendum, minimum wage, and maximum hours were just some of the many reforms under the broad progressive umbrella. And their message seemed to be resonating with much of the nation. “Four‑fifths of the whole country is radically progressive,” the Democratic leader William Jennings Bryan had insisted a few weeks earlier.

The excited delegates waited impatiently for the third and final day of the convention when the new party would officially nominate its first candidate, former president Theodore Roosevelt. That Wednesday afternoon, August 7th, the convention chairman, Albert Beveridge, called upon “America’s most eminent and beloved woman” to deliver one of the speeches seconding Colonel Roosevelt’s nomination. No further introduction was necessary. When Jane Addams, the noted social worker, reformer, and occasional presidential adviser, stood up and made her way to the platform, a “gracious figure in white,” the crowd erupted for ten minutes. “Not even the Colonel got much more rousing cheers,” later wrote the journalist William Allen White.

As only the second woman ever to second a nomination, the 51‑ year‑old Addams made the most of her time on stage. Her speech, many an observer noted approvingly, was “brief… and to the point.”

“I arise on behalf of Illinois to second the nomination of Colonel Roosevelt, stirred by that splendid platform upon which this party stands,” she began. This unprecedented platform called for “real industrial reforms” to address the previously neglected rights of children, women, and workers. “In the United States we are unaccountably slow in reducing a movement to political action,” she continued. “But we have here crystallized into a political cause the aims and hopes of all who have seen the suffering of the masses and know something of their needs.” Roosevelt, she explained, was “one of the few men in our public life who has been responsive to the social appeal and who has caught the significance of the modern movement. Because of that, because the program will require a leader of invincible courage, of open mind, of democratic sympathies, one endowed with power to interpret the common man and to identify himself with the common lot, I heartily second the nomination.”

No sooner had she finished than a female conventioneer pressed a yellow “Votes for Women” banner into her hands. Addams soon found herself in the midst of a makeshift demonstration for woman’s suffrage, a cause long near and dear to her but only recently embraced by Roosevelt and the new party’s platform. “I was so excited,” one suffragist enthused, “that I wanted to jump over the railing of the balcony and join in the procession… It was grand. It marks the beginning of the end of our fight for suffrage.”

The man of the hour, of course, was Roosevelt. Now 53 and out of the White House for three years, the man they called “TR” was taking the political risk of his life. Dissatisfied with the policies of his handpicked Republican successor, William Howard Taft, he had attempted to secure the nomination for himself in 1912 and won nine of the primaries in the 12 states that had adopted the new process, but found his candidacy effectively blocked by reactionary party regulars at the convention. In the six weeks that followed the Republican gathering, Roosevelt and his followers had laid the groundwork for a new organization, informally known as the “Bull Moose” party, after a typically colorful comment by TR that he was feeling “fine! Just like a bull moose!”

The Roosevelt seconded by Addams that afternoon was not the same man nominated and elected by the Republicans in 1904. As president, he was unmistakably sympathetic to, but not a fanatical disciple of, progressivism. After leaving office, he had watched the reform impulse continue to escalate while his own political fortunes drifted. That he began to shift further to the left was not surprising. Roosevelt, one reformer noted approvingly after a visit earlier that year, was now “just as radical as we want him.” (TR considered himself a “sane radical.”) And the new party’s platform was a testament to the “new” Roosevelt. “A minimum wage, old‑age pensions, child labor, equal suffrage, protection of women in the industries, and all the other things that I have devoted my life to working for and urging will be in the platform of this new party,” Addams excitedly told a reporter, although she was well aware of TR’s shortcomings. The refusal of the party to seat black delegates from the South profoundly disturbed her, as did a platform plank calling for the construction of two battleships a year. “There are many of the Roosevelt views with which I do not agree,” she admitted. “I overlook these things because of the program of social work subscribed to by this Convention.”

With the formalities completed and his nomination secured, Roosevelt appeared before the convention for a brief acceptance speech. He had delivered a longer address the day before (dubbed his “Confession of Faith”) that had electrified the convention, although more conservative observers, such as a New York Times reporter, believed it reeked of “frankly Socialistic doctrine.” The frenzied crowd, exhausted from three days of cheers, songs, frantic waving of bandannas, and constant shouting of the Bull Moose call—“Moo‑oo, Moo‑oo”—waited for TR to speak.

“Of course, I accept,” he said. “I have been president and I have seen much of life… I count this the greatest honor of my life, to be called to lead this movement in the interest of all the American people.”

Eight hundred miles away, at Sea Girt, New Jersey, another recent convert to progressivism was also accepting the nomination of his party that afternoon. New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson, a former academic and onetime president of Princeton University, had captured the Democratic nomination in July after a bruising fight on the Baltimore convention floor requiring forty‑six ballots. Like Roosevelt, the 55‑year‑old Wilson had been swept up in the recent tidal wave of reform, shedding his more conventional attitudes over the past five years.

“I am not conservative,” he insisted to a friend in 1911, “I am a radical.” Wilson had compiled an impressive reform record in his 18 months at the helm of the Garden State, shepherding through a legislative program calling for the regulation of utilities, state primaries, workman’s compensation, and a crackdown on dirty politics through the passage of a Corrupt Practices Act.

The Sea Girt event was a bit of staged pageantry where Democratic honchos made a pilgrimage to the “Little White House,” the traditional summer home of New Jersey governors, to formally tender the nomination to Wilson. The normally sleepy shore community was overrun by 6,000 curiosity seekers who viewed the ceremony as an excuse for a summer excursion. Some arrived, one reporter wrote, “in farm wagons, with big tin horns and luncheon baskets,” while the more affluent types pulled up in the automobiles that were now a common part of the American landscape. Vendors made a killing that afternoon, hawking popcorn, peanuts, sandwiches, balloons, pink lemonade, and Wilson badges.

Wilson was out of his comfort zone that day. The Democrats insisted that after accepting the nomination, he must read or recite from memory a prepared address from the veranda, which was torture for a skilled stump speaker who preferred to speak extemporaneously or from notes. “Oh, I wish I didn’t have to read this,” he quipped to the crowd, “it would be so much more interesting if I didn’t have to.” Nevertheless, he plowed through his message in about an hour, only occasionally abandoning the script for a quick aside. Americans, he told the audience, “have come to a critical turning point in their moral and political development.” It was now “a new age. The tonic of such a time is very exhilarating. It requires self‑restraint not to attempt too much, and yet it would be cowardly to attempt too little.” To the delight of the crowd, he spoke of a nation where monopolies could be stopped, workers protected, and currency reformed. “There is no indispensable man,” he insisted. “The Government will not collapse and go to pieces if any one of the gentlemen who are seeking to be entrusted with its guidance should be left at home.” The subtle jab at TR was not lost on the audience. “Third term!” yelled a wag or two.

In the span of a few hours, three giants of the age—Jane Addams, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson—had placed themselves squarely in the forefront of a movement that seemed likely to permanently change the direction of America regardless of the result in November. Progressivism was in, they believed, and reform was here to stay.

A passionate desire for reform bound the great mass of progressive men and women together, but they did not always support the same causes.

The 1912 campaign was not the first time that Wilson, Roosevelt, and Addams crossed paths. In the past 16 years, they had exchanged letters, expressed admiration for one another’s work, and at times seemed destined to become close friends.

TR and Wilson had first met in 1896, at a mutual speaking engagement in Baltimore. Despite very different backgrounds and beliefs about “manliness” (Wilson is said to have fired a pistol just once in his life), the two hit it off almost immediately. Roosevelt, Wilson realized, was much more than the militaristic, war‑obsessed caricature seen by the public and actually had “a very sane, academic side” that appealed strongly to his professorial sensibilities. TR, meanwhile, deemed Wilson a “perfect trump,” delighted in his election as Princeton’s president, and invited him for a White House stay in 1903, although Wilson declined because of his father’s recent death. While a lifelong Democrat, Wilson found himself succumbing to the lure of TR and his Square Deal. “I believed in Roosevelt,” he later told a reporter. “I followed him with enthusiasm. He is the kind of a fellow that arouses your feeling, makes your heart beat, and you feel like getting out and whooping it up for him, and feel enthusiastically enlisted in his cause, and that was the way I felt.”

The honeymoon did not last long. As Wilson’s political views began to evolve, his attitudes toward TR cooled. In a 1907 New York Times article, he not only scoffed at Roosevelt’s idea that government intervention could restrain the growing power of the “trusts” but also took a potshot at the President himself. “I have not seen much of Mr. Roosevelt since he became President,” he told a reporter, “but I am told that he no sooner thinks than he talks, which is a miracle not wholly in accord with an educational theory of forming an opinion.” Privately, he labeled TR “the most dangerous man in public life—all the more dangerous because he was sincere and believed in himself.”

Wilson’s statements did not go unnoticed by TR. Politically, they no longer shared common ground, even after Wilson moved decisively into the progressive camp. Dr. Wilson, Roosevelt increasingly believed, was an insincere reformer, a hypocrite who until recently had “advocated… the outworn doctrines which are responsible for four‑fifths of the political troubles of the United States,” only to do “an absolute somersault so far as at least half of these doctrines was concerned” when he became governor. That Wilson might block TR’s return to the White House intensified his growing feeling against his onetime fond acquaintance, though a grudging respect between the two lingered. TR could not help but admit that Wilson was “able,” while Wilson disclosed to his lady confidant Mary Hulbert Peck that a matchup against TR in 1912 “would make the campaign worthwhile.”

But the split was irrevocable, and the bad blood between them would only worsen in the years ahead, especially on Roosevelt’s end. Bainbridge Colby, a former Roosevelt man who later switched loyalties to Wilson, believed TR’s hostility was driven more by jealousy than ideology. Wilson, Colby argued, was not only a superior speaker and writer but a true scholar—unlike TR, who, while exceptionally well read, was ultimately “still an amateur.” For Wilson, TR and his “egotistical” ways were intolerable. “His egotism makes it impossible for his judgment to be safe on anything else,” Wilson told a reporter. “His judgment is so warped about the status he occupies in the equation, that it renders him impossible to form any decision of judgment that is reasonable.” But as much as they cattily dismissed each other, Roosevelt and Wilson remained permanently linked in both the public’s mind and their own private thoughts.

Roosevelt had known Addams for years and long respected her work at Hull‑House. They had grown closer during his presidency, when Addams and her reform cadre discovered that TR was actually receptive to the advice of experts such as Addams on labor and immigration issues. At times, she and her fellow social workers grew somewhat embarrassed by their frequent trips to the White House and sheepishly “explained that we came so often because he was the first president who had really known that there was a social question and that we had to make hay while the sun shone.”

“There can’t be too much hay to suit me,” TR boomed. “We’ll make all we can.”

And he especially appreciated Addams’s practical and sensible nature when she came calling, so much so that he planned to give her a cabinet position if a Roosevelt third term materialized. “I have such awful times with reformers of the sensational stamp,” he wrote her in 1906, “and yet I so thoroughly believe in reform that I fairly revel in dealing with anyone like you.”

But there were limits to his tolerance. Already, he could not abide her writings in support of the pacifist movement and rejection of militarism. When one of her associates came to Washington late in his second administration to discuss immigration, he launched into a tirade. “Jane Addams—don’t talk to me about Jane Addams! I have always thought a lot of her, but she has just written a bad book, a very bad book! She is all wrong about peace.” After a lecture of several minutes explaining the various fallacies of her reasoning, TR finally calmed down. “But she is a fine woman in every other way. Now that I’ve got that out of my system, she sent you here, did she? What can I do for you?”

Addams found herself just as exasperated with Roosevelt, whose advocacy of large families showed little awareness of the reality of life for the urban poor. He also was slow to grasp the significance of woman’s suffrage, although Addams and others finally converted him “into a zealous instead of a lukewarm adherent of the cause.” But like so many others, she could not help but fall under his sway. “She had no illusions regarding T.R.,” her nephew later wrote. “She knew him, liked him, and understood him.”

Addams had yet to develop a relationship with Wilson, whose primary interests had until recently been academic. Understandably, she saw TR as a far safer horse to back in 1912, rather than an unknown commodity said to have “something of the old Southern chivalric attitude toward women.” And Wilson’s view that suffrage should be left to the states to decide gave her additional pause.

Ideological differences aside, there was much that bound them together. Even in the limited media landscape of the 1910s, they were all immediately recognizable as three archetypal figures: the Rough Rider, the Reformer, and the Scholar. Of course, everyone knew Roosevelt, whose distinctive image had been seen in thousands of photographs and political cartoons over the previous 15 years. And Addams, with her “large sad eyes” and sensible schoolmarmish look, which belied her more radical tendencies, virtually dressed the part of the selfless, do‑gooder, female saint. For Wilson, his pince‑nez glasses, dignified bearing, and prominent lantern jaw screamed academic, although he was the least well‑known of the three when the campaign began. “Well, he may be all right, but he ain’t good-looking” was the common assessment when crowds got their first look at him.

Their intellects were remarkable. In an era when the mental capability of women was still questioned, Addams’s breadth of knowledge on a variety of subjects was formidable. The journalist Ida Tarbell considered her “one of the best read women that I have ever known.” But unlike most experts, Addams remained open‑minded to other viewpoints. “Her mind had more ‘floor space’ in it than any other I have known,” recalled the feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman. “She could set a subject down, unprejudiced, and walk all around it, allowing fairly for every one’s point of view.”

Although more dogmatic in his views, Roosevelt also enjoyed a prodigious capacity for learning on the hundreds of subjects that caught his fancy. Visitors to the White House were often shocked that TR could converse with them intelligently on even the most esoteric of topics. “He knew the species of Hannibal’s elephants through the shape of their ears as shown on the Carthaginian coins of the period,” his son Ted later recalled. “He could recite ‘The Song of Roland’ in the original French. He knew the latest laws adopted in the reorganization of the State government in Illinois… It was never safe to contradict him on any statement, no matter how recent you might feel your information was.” TR’s mental gymnastics were aided by an almost freakish memory, one that allowed him to recall the names of people he had met once years earlier and the actual snapshot image of the pages of books he read. As a more narrow reader, Wilson could never compete with the parlor tricks of a human encyclopedia like TR. But his cognitive discipline, perhaps honed by years in the publish‑or‑perish world of academia, was almost otherworldly. To the California congressman William Kent, Wilson was “the most remarkable mental machine I had met. He had the capacity for doing almost anything through sheer mental power.”

Even in the limited media landscape of the 1910s, they were all immediately recognizable as three archetypal figures.

But they were not stereotypical eggheads without personality or passion. Those who expected “Saint Jane” to be a prim and proper goody two‑shoes were often shocked to learn that she could be “full of fun,” even willing to share humorous stories of her misguided opium experiments in college after reading Thomas De Quincey’s famous addiction memoir, Confessions of an English Opium Eater. The same was true of Wilson, whose reputation as a cold unfeeling “thinking machine” who did not like people often preceded him. Around family and friends, he displayed a more outgoing side the public seldom saw. Wilson, the English journalist A. G. Gardiner wrote, “loves a little nonsense now and then, delights in limericks and droll stories, is fond of play and a good song.” But the playful side of Wilson often struggled with an inherent rigidity to his behavior. Certain tasks were religiously performed at the same time each day. “One could set the clocks by his comings and goings,” his brother‑in‑law Stockton Axson later observed. He was the “most thoroughly self‑disciplined and self‑controlled man he had ever known.” Not surprisingly, many found the Wilson exterior difficult to penetrate. “I would as soon think of striking him in the face as to slap him on the back or put my arm around his shoulder,” one supporter admitted.

While more outgoing than Wilson, Addams betrayed a similar distance at times. The journalist Arthur Gleason was profoundly disillusioned after meeting her in 1906. Addams, he wrote his mother, was “no Florence Nightingale, nor bread‑feeding legendary nun,” but a “sarcastic” and “cold” female power broker who relished her influence with “politicians” and “millionaires.” To her niece Marcet Haldeman‑Julius, she seemed “hard and cruel” to her as a child, not a “very auntly person,” though their relationship blossomed in adulthood. Her nephew James Weber Linn detected a similar coolness: “Even her closest friends, even the nephews and nieces whom she watched over and ‘mothered’… sometimes felt her love as a radiation rather than as a direct and individual beam,” he wrote. “They adored her, but they felt her sometimes to be a little withdrawn.” They also knew enough not to call her “Jane,” instead choosing the safe “Sister” Jane “following the custom of the neighbors” or simply “J.A.”

Roosevelt, of course, was “Teddy,” a character whose irresistible joie de vivre and restless energy could not help but elicit the familiarity lacking with Addams and Wilson. “I never saw him when he did not give me the impression that he was in danger of bursting his clothes with excitement,” recalled Ida Tarbell. Such unrestrained behavior was not Wilson’s way. “Life,” Wilson once mused, “doesn’t consist in eternally running to a fire.” Nor could Wilson relate to TR’s incessant need to dominate the room or pontificate in “a voice that underscores everything but the periods.”

In their personal relationships, they all exhibited a certain need for validation. Roosevelt was always convinced he was right (“the undisputed Chief of the Kingdom of Righteousness,” The New Republic once quipped) and was never shy about “smashing” in vitriolic language those who disagreed with him. “When I am in the midst of a fight I feel like climbing up a man’s chest,” he once observed. Wilson could be just as intolerant with those who did not share his views and had no patience for those he considered intellectually lacking or who wasted his time with extraneous talk. And both men, when crossed, were known to develop into world‑class “haters,” capable of holding an intense grudge for years. For Addams, there was a strong longing to be in sync with the public and to enjoy its support. “She was very dependent on a sense of warm comradeship and harmony with the mass of her fellow men,” her close friend Alice Hamilton recalled. But when the public turned on her, as it eventually did, it would ultimately bring her “great unhappiness.”

In their personal relationships, they all exhibited a certain need for validation.

During the 1912 campaign, thousands flocked to hear Addams, Wilson, and Roosevelt offer their unique perspectives on what direction modern America should take in the exciting new world of the 20th century. The outcome of the election was never really in doubt; a divided Republican party ensured that Wilson would win easily. TR could take grim pleasure that he and his hastily established third party outpolled Taft and the regular Republican “burglars” he believed had stolen the nomination from him. Perhaps most impressive, 75 percent of the votes were cast for candidates espousing progressive views: Wilson, Roosevelt, and the socialist Eugene Debs. And the campaign, Addams wrote to TR shortly after the election, had accomplished a great deal by simply publicizing the “social reform measures in which I have been interested for many years, but which have never before become so possible of fulfillment at the present moment. I had never dared hope that within my life‑time thousands of people would so eagerly participate in their discussion.” The real winner, she sensed, was progressivism, and reformers confidently expected more gains in their social justice agenda in the future.

Wilson, who considered himself a “Progressive with the brakes on,” did not always move aggressively enough on social reform legislation in his first 18 months in office. Still, he had successfully tackled currency reform (Federal Reserve Act) and had turned his attention by the summer of 1914 to consumer protection (a Federal Trade Commission bill) and antitrust measures (Clayton Act), both of which became law in the fall. Addams, meanwhile, continued her active involvement in the suffrage movement during 1913 and 1914 while speaking out in support of nearly every liberal cause of the day, including overly aggressive policing, a minimum wage for women, immigration, “mentally deficient children,” and the Leo Frank murder case. In between writing his autobiography and preparing for a South American expedition, the newly “radical” TR also remained dedicated to the movement and his new party, while speaking in favor of woman’s suffrage, prison reform, and a garment workers’ strike.

That the assassination of an obscure royal named Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria‑Hungary, along with his wife, would force TR, Wilson, and Addams to abandon their current domestic crusades for more international concerns seemed impossible when most Americans learned the news on June 29, 1914. Virtually no one anticipated that a global war was about to unfold, one that might determine the future course of the United States. For Roosevelt, Wilson, and Addams, their lives would never be the same.

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The Approaching Storm

Excerpted from THE APPROACHING STORM: Roosevelt, Wilson, Addams, and Their Clash Over America’s Future by Neil Lanctot published on October 26, 2021 by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 Neil Lanctot.

Neil Lanctot
Neil Lanctot
Neil Lanctot is an award-winning historian and author. He has written several books, including Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella and Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution.





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