The Progressive Party: Definition & Platform

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

Although the Progressive Party was short-lived, many of its ideas and suggested reforms are ones you would recognize today. This lesson examines how this party came to be and the effect it had on American history.

The Republicans in Chaos

Progressive Convention caption=

In 1911, the Republican Party was bitterly divided between two different factions; the Progressives, who wanted to reform the American government and society, and the Stalwarts, who opposed them. Throughout his two terms of presidency, from 1901 through 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt had allied himself with the Progressives and had worked to push a number of reforms through Congress. In fact, he became known as the 'Trust Buster' for vigorously trying to break up large businesses and monopolies. Although he decided not to run for a third term in 1908, Roosevelt encouraged his friend William Howard Taft to run instead, convinced that Taft would continue his legacy. Unfortunately, Taft proved to be a disappointment to many Progressives, Roosevelt included. Taft allied himself with the conservative Stalwarts, denied patronage to Progressive leaders and also worked to get Stalwarts nominated across the nation.

Angered by Taft's policies, many Progressives began to talk about denying Taft the Republican nomination for a second term as president. By this time, Roosevelt had come to regret not only not running for re-election in 1908, but also his decision to push Taft to run for president. He announced that he would run in 1912 and try to secure the Republican nomination. To do this, he gained the support of many Progressive leaders, entered into those states which held primary elections, and engaged in a campaign tour across the United States. Despite Roosevelt being personally popular and winning those primaries he entered by large margins, Taft and his Stalwart allies had control of the Republican Party and were able to deny Roosevelt the nomination.

But Roosevelt was undeterred. Shortly thereafter, many Progressive Republicans gathered at a second convention to nominate Roosevelt as president, California governor Hiram Johnson for vice-president, and to create a new political party called The Progressive Party. In his acceptance speech, Roosevelt thundered that the nation stood on the fields of Armageddon, and the Progressives fought 'for the Lord.' When asked if he had the stamina for another presidential campaign, Roosevelt replied ''I'm as fit as a bull moose,'' and thus began the Bull Moose Party.

The Election of 1912

Theodore Roosevelt and Hiram Johnson
Theodore Roosevelt and Hiram Johnson

Roosevelt called the program adopted by the Progressive Party the New Nationalism. This platform called for a number of reforms that were meant to give people more of a say in the government and to better the lives of the nation's workers. These included giving the right to vote to women, a constitutional amendment that would allow for an income tax, the eight hour workday, worker's compensation laws and national health care. At the heart of New Nationalism was the idea that strengthening the power of government, while also making it more democratic, would allow the nation to better care for its citizens.

The campaign of 1912 was a whirlwind as Roosevelt crisscrossed the nation campaigning not only for himself, but also for those Progressive Republicans who had followed him into the new party. At one campaign stop in Milwaukee, Roosevelt was shot by a deranged saloon keeper from New York who believed that Roosevelt wished to set himself up as a king. Despite having been shot, Roosevelt refused to go to the hospital until after he had delivered his 90 minute long campaign speech. It is thought that perhaps Roosevelt's 50-page long speech helped to save his life as that is where the bullet entered his chest.

A no-holds-barred campaigner, Roosevelt lashed out at his opponents' policies and personalities both; he referred to President Taft as 'dumber than a guinea pig,' and suggested that shaking hands with democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson was like grasping a dead fish. Stories such as this excited the population, and the media quickly took to covering the former president in great detail.

Although the Progressive Party was often portrayed as simply a device to gain Roosevelt's reelection, a number of prominent Progressives chose to join the party and run as its candidates. Some candidates, such as those running in Hiram Johnson's California, remained Republican or ran as Progressive Republicans depending on location. Most of the Progressive Party's candidates came from states such as New York, Indiana or Illinois.

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