Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive Party, 1912-1916

Theodore Roosevelt Giving Campaign Speech
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The Bull Moose Party was the unofficial name of President Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive Party of 1912. The nickname is said to have arisen from a quote by Theodore Roosevelt. When asked whether he was fit to be president, he responded that he was as fit as a "bull moose."

Origin of the Bull Moose Party

Theodore Roosevelt's term as president of the United States ran from 1901 to 1909. Roosevelt was originally elected vice president on the same ticket as William McKinley in 1900, but in September of 1901, McKinley was assassinated and Roosevelt finished out McKinley's term. He then ran and won the presidency in 1904.

By 1908, Roosevelt had decided not to run again, and he urged his personal friend and ally William Howard Taft to run in his place. Taft was chosen and then won the presidency for the Republican Party. Roosevelt became unhappy with Taft, primarily because he wasn't following what Roosevelt considered progressive policies.

In 1912, Roosevelt put his name forward to become the Republican Party's nominee again, but the Taft machine pressured Roosevelt's supporters to vote for Taft or lose their jobs, and the party chose to stick with Taft. This angered Roosevelt who walked out of the convention and then formed his own party, the Progressive Party, in protest. Hiram Johnson of California was chosen as his running mate.

The Platform of the Bull Moose Party

The Progressive Party was built on the strength of Roosevelt's ideas. Roosevelt portrayed himself as an advocate for the average citizen, who he said should play a larger role in government. His running mate Johnson was a progressive governor of his state, who had a record of successfully implementing social reforms.

True to Roosevelt's progressive beliefs, the platform of the party called for major reforms including women's suffrage, social welfare assistance for women and children, farm relief, revisions in banking, health insurance in industries, and worker's compensation. The party also wanted an easier method to amend the constitution.

Many prominent social reformers were drawn to the Progressives, including Jane Addams of Hull House, "Survey" magazine editor Paul Kellogg, Florence Kelley of Henry Street Settlement, Owen Lovejoy of the National Child Labor Committee, and Margaret Dreier Robins of the National Women's Trade Union.

Election of 1912

In 1912, voters chose between Taft, Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic candidate.

Roosevelt shared many of the progressive policies of Wilson, yet his core support came from ex-Republicans who defected from the party. Taft was defeated, getting 3.5 million votes compared to Roosevelt's 4.1 million. Together Taft and Roosevelt earned a combined 50 percent of the popular vote to Wilson's 43 percent. The two former allies split the vote, however, opening the door for Wilson's victory.

Midterm Elections of 1914

While the Bull Moose Party lost at the national level in 1912, they were energized by the force of their support. Continuing to be bolstered by Roosevelt's Rough Rider persona, the party named candidates on the ballot at several state and local elections. They were convinced that the Republican party would be swept away, leaving U.S. politics to the Progressives and Democrats.

However, after the 1912 campaign, Roosevelt left on a geographic and natural history expedition to the Amazon River in Brazil. The expedition, which began in in 1913, was a disaster and Roosevelt returned in 1914, sick, lethargic, and frail. Even though he publicly renewed his pledge to fight for his Progressive party to the end, he was no longer a robust figure.

Without the energetic support of Roosevelt, the 1914 election results were disappointing for the Bull Moose Party as many voters returned to the Republican Party. 

End of the Bull Moose Party

By 1916, the Bull Moose Party had changed: Perkins was convinced that the best route was to unite with Republicans against the Democrats. While the Republicans were interested in uniting with the Progressives, they were not interested in Roosevelt.

In any case, Roosevelt refused the nomination after the Bull Moose party chose him to be its standard bearer in the presidential election. The party tried next to give the nomination to Charles Evan Hughes, a sitting justice on the Supreme Court. Hughes also refused. The Progressives held their last executive committee meeting in New York on May 24, 1916, two weeks before the Republican National Convention. But they were unable to come up with a reasonable alternative to Roosevelt.

Without its Bull Moose leading the way, the party dissolved shortly thereafter. Roosevelt himself died of stomach cancer in 1919.

Sources