Written on Thursday, March 22, 2012 by Nathaniel Davidson
In Part 3 of this series on our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, I covered some of the most disastrous legacies of his presidency. That is, government interference with the market that still has ongoing effects today. They are an object lesson that even a man of TR’s great ability and basic integrity could not do better than millions of free buyers and sellers of the free market. This concluding column covers an unfortunate stain on TR’s character: his third party run, but also some of his great achievements in his last years.
TR was a close political ally of the Ohio Supreme Court judge William Howard Taft, and groomed him as his successor for President. Taft himself was reluctant, preferring to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court—which he did many years later. All the same, Taft had no trouble defeating the Democrat William Jennings Bryan, in the worst of all his defeats.
But differences in styles more than politics led to an infamous rift between these allies, although Taft was somewhat less “Progressive”. Taft also rightly saw that the Constitution and Congress could set limits on Presidential power.
Roosevelt challenged him for the nomination, and Taft, the reluctant president, became determined to hold on as TR became more leftist. So Taft won the GOP nomination.
TR couldn’t accept defeat, so formed a new “Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party”. This third party split the conservative vote, allowing the radical leftist racist Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win with only 41% of the popular vote. TR came second with 27%, and Taft third with 25%.
A recent article on our site, So, you think your President was so great? justifiably assesses Wilson as “the second-most vile man to hold the office.” He was a virulent racist, who idolized the KKK and segregated the federal government, and despised our Constitution. He was also a disaster internationally, encouraging the breakup of Europe after WW1, leaving the countries divided and weak, so Hitler could pick them off one by one. And he indefinitely imprisoned over 1500 political opponents under his “sedition” laws, including the socialist pacifist Eugene Debs (commuted by Wilson’s Republican successor Warren G. Harding). It’s no accident that Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism says that Wilson’s reign was the closest America ever came to fascism.
TR’s third party run is a huge object lesson for today. A number (although not all) of Ron Paul supporters have threatened to write in his name if he doesn’t win the GOP nomination, even if it means splitting the vote and allowing another Obama win. The technical term is emotional blackmail, and conservatives have rightly denounced it. But if a popular former president like TR—with all his achievements as a scholar, war hero, and corruption-fighter—couldn’t win as a third party candidate, then no one can—Paul has yet to win a single state primary.
It’s also ironic: Paul and his supporters despise the income tax, with ample justification. But this came about precisely because of TR’s third party run that let Wilson win! Similarly today, allowing Obama another term, just because other Republicans didn’t see the light of Paul, would allow many more attacks on the freedom that these particular Paul-supporters claim to uphold.
To end this series on a high note, it’s worth examining TR’s later life, where he exhibited the strong character and bravery of his early life.
On October 14, 1912, while TR was campaigning for the Presidency in Milwaukee, an insane saloon-keeper named John Schrank shot him. Fortunately, the bullet was largely slowed down by a thick folded copy of his speech and his steel eye-glass case, so the bullet didn’t penetrate his lung. TR realized this, and even gave his 90 minute speech. But still, the bullet penetrated three inches of tissue, and doctors realized that the best course was to leave it in place, and it permanently damaged his health.
Next year, he led the Roosevelt–Rondon Scientific Expedition through Brazil, later the subject of yet another of his books, Through the Brazilian Wilderness (1914). One goal was to find the source of Rio da Duvida, the River of Doubt, later renamed after him, Rio Theodore Roosevelt.
This expedition is also the source of the myth of the ferocious flesh-eating piranha—“Piranhas are the most ferocious fish in the world”, TR wrote. In fact, fisherman had caught a lot, thrown them into a small netted off area of the river, starved them, then slit a cow and drove it into that section, still bleeding. The artificially starved and crowded fish went into a mad feeding frenzy, stripping the cow to the bone.
But in reality, this was a spectacle by the locals to impress the President. Under normal circumstances, the same locals will swim in the same water as piranhas.
During this expedition, TR suffered a flesh wound while rescuing two boats. This led to a bad and painful tropical fever. It was so serious that he wanted to be left behind rather than endanger the whole mission, but his 24-year-old son Kermit persuaded him to continue.
TR wrote that this illness had taken 10 years from his life, and he was sadly to be proved right. In his last years, he was still a staunch patriot, supporting the Allies in WW1, and denouncing the crass foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson (he probably then regretted his third-party run that put his detested opponent in power). He also strongly supported the Boy Scouts of America, who awarded him the unique title of Chief Scout Citizen.
President Theodore Roosevelt died of a heart attack in his sleep on January 6, 1919. Wilson’s (Democratic) Vice President Thomas R. Marshall summed up this larger-than-life figure of our history: “Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.”
President Roosevelt’s third party campaign was a great disaster, and it’s hard to defend this flaw with “he was a man of his time”. The result was one of the worst men ever to occupy the White House, and the resulting Income Tax plagues us to this very day. This should be a lesson to anyone today advocating a similar third party run because their favorite candidate didn’t win. But after TR got this out of his system, he made some important discoveries as an explorer, exhibiting immense bravery facing dangers that shortened his life.