Book Review: 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs - The Election that Changed the Country


1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs - The Election that Changed the Country by James Chace

The presidential election of 1912 was unique in American history, with four popular and viable candidates for office. The candidates were former president Theodore Roosevelt; sitting president William Taft; eventual winner and future president, Woodrow Wilson; and Eugene Debs, who earned the highest percentage of the electorate of any Socialist Party candidate. 

When the election was over Wilson took the presidency. He became the only Democrat to serve as president between 1892 and 1932. 

The Republicans, after owning the presidency for the past twenty years, were divided. Roosevelt, known to all as TR, had made his mark as president with a progressive agenda. He was disappointed that his hand-picked successor Taft had let the conservative Republican Congress run things. Roosevelt felt he could not in good conscience support Taft for a second term and threw his own hat in the ring.

When Taft outmaneuvered TR for the nomination at the Republican convention Roosevelt struck out on his own and formed the Progressive Party. With TR as it's presidential candidate, it became better known as the Bull Moose party.

Eugene Debs meanwhile, was the perennial candidate for the Socialist Party. But he was also a well respected labor leader and political activist. His candidacy rose in the wave of popularity for the progressive ideas he had long championed. Unfortunately for him, Roosevelt and Wilson took many of his ideas and incorporated them into their own platforms. 

In 1912 author James Chace spends as much time on the biographies of the four candidates as he does on the presidential race. Thus, with five story threads to cover in less than 300 pages the book is more atmospheric than it is thorough. He succeeds mostly in giving a good sense of who the four candidates were. 

Wilson and Roosevelt play the lead roles in the book. Wilson rose from the presidency of Princeton to the presidency of the United States. Much of his success came when he turned on the political bosses who had supported his run for the governorship of New Jersey. That turn solidified Wilson’s progressive credentials, so important to the 1912 campaign. Still, it took 46 rounds of voting for him to win the nomination at the Democratic convention.

Wilson depended on a “Southern strategy” to get and keep the White House. As a southerner himself he believed in the separation of the races. African Americans saw him as a white supremacist, and he showed them to be right by bringing Jim Crow rules into Federal jobs. He was not particularly fond of immigrants from Eastern Europe either. That issue caused him problems during the 1912 campaign, when he was forced to disown some of his documented statements on immigration.  

TR had been unable to see Taft’s presidency as anything other than a poor reflection on him and a threat to his legacy. This blinded him to the potential for working with Taft to put himself back into the Republican nominee role. Instead TR antagonised the President, and forced Taft to run against him for the nomination. 

Taft, you see, had never wanted to be president to begin with, being pushed into it by Roosevelt and his ambitious wife. After he lost the presidency in 1912 he finally got his wish to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He was nominated to the post by President Harding in 1921. Taft is the only person to have ever been President and Chief Justice.

 It is Debs who comes off as the most “modern” of the four. It's his progressive agenda that finally flourished under FDR during the Great Depression. Sadly, Debs didn’t live to see it. 

The first decades of the twentieth century in America are a fascinating time. So much change was in the air. 1912 works best as a summary of the four men and their presidential race. It doesn’t go far beyond the summary level to put the race into the context of those times. If you are interested in the timeframe, or in presidential politics, it is a good starting point, but for me it’s a Two Star ⭐⭐ read.

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Title: 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs - The Election that Changed the Country

Author: James Chace

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publish Date: August 1, 2005

ISBN-13: 9780743273558

List Price: $17.00 (Trade Paperback as of 12/2021)