TERRE HAUTE —
Three presidents and a rebel.
As Americans live through the 2012 presidential campaign, historians are looking back a century at “the election that changed the country.”
Indeed, the words “reform,” “progressive” and “change” resonated deeply in 1912. The personalities of the four iconic candidates influenced voters as greatly as their messages. The field included three men who, at one time or another, occupied the Oval Office — the incumbent William Howard Taft, former president Theodore Roosevelt, and future commander-in-chief Woodrow Wilson — along with the nation’s most celebrated radical, Terre Haute’s Eugene Debs.
“Four extraordinary men,” wrote the late James Chace, author of “1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs — The Election That Changed the Country,” which was published in 2004.
Each advocated significant social and economic measures, in varying degrees. They responded to America’s mood for change, with Roosevelt and Debs pushing the broadest reforms, nudging Wilson and, to a lesser extent, Taft toward progressivism. Four years after his presidency ended, Roosevelt returned with plans more dramatic than those he’d executed as president. Debs, running atop the Socialist Party ticket for the fourth time, drew tens of thousands of listeners as he railed against social injustice and the plight of the common man.
The issues included the role of organized labor, protection of the needy, governmental regulations, and the power of Wall Street.
“In some ways, we’re still arguing over some of the same issues,” Michael Kazin, author and Georgetown University history professor, said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Though Debs had long worn the “radical” label, Roosevelt had grown to embody that description, too.
Still popular, “Teddy” was calling for broad health care for Americans, women’s voting rights, improved conditions for workers and sound child-labor laws — all causes dear to Debs’ heart. Roosevelt sought the Republican Party nomination against Taft, because Taft hadn’t continued the reforms of Roosevelt, his predecessor. When the GOP conservative wing prevailed at the convention, Roosevelt launched a third-party campaign, leading the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party.
Roosevelt split the Republicans and altered history. Republicans, Chace wrote in 2004, remain divided between conservatives and progressives.
Wilson, the Democrat, benefited from the GOP division, winning the presidency with 42 percent of the vote. With 4.1 million votes, Roosevelt actually outpolled Taft’s 3.4 million, won six states and 88 votes in the Electoral College. Debs attracted 901,873 popular votes, more than doubling his total in the 1908 election. Facing opposition from a trio of presidents, Debs still accounted for 6 percent of the 1912 votes — the largest slice of the presidential balloting ever by the Socialist Party.
“Wilson won almost by default because he was the most moderate of the progressives,” said Charles King, secretary of the Debs Foundation and a retired Indiana State University professor.
Still, the country’s reformist atmosphere drove Wilson to adopt many of those “radical” ideas in his first term, such as the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank, the federal income tax, and improved hours for workers, Chace explained.
The national mood also provided the perfect fuel for a dynamic cluster of candidates.
“All three — Roosevelt, Debs and Wilson — were wonderful speakers,” Kazin said. “Taft, not so much.”
In a pre-television era, the speeches from balconies above streets, or from a train caboose, often lasted one or two hours. If fact, loquacity saved Roosevelt’s life in a definitive moment in the 1912 campaign. A 50-page speech in Roosevelt’s breast pocket slowed an assassin’s bullet enough that the projectile lodged in his rib cage, missing his heart. Wounded, with blood on his shirt, Roosevelt went ahead with a planned speech, lecturing for 45 minutes.
“It takes more than one bullet to kill a bull moose,” Roosevelt said. Then he went to the hospital.
It was vintage Roosevelt.
“Teddy Roosevelt could really show excitement, and hop up and down, and use all those theatrics,” King said.
Debs captivated crowds differently. “Debs, the man, came through as he spoke,” King said. Chace called Debs’ campaign style “electrifying.”
As Kazin put it, “[Debs] used to bend over the crowds, as if he were pulling the people to his breast.”
A fellow famed Terre Hautean, the late poet Max Ehrmann, once described witnessing an appearance by Debs during Ehrmann’s days as a Harvard University student. Debs, billed in advance by Harvard critics as “a monster,” entered the room to silence, no applause. As usual, Debs spoke for two hours, and afterward the students and faculty crowded around to greet him. “They who had come to scorn hovered around him for more than an hour, and went away his friends,” Ehrmann wrote.
That reaction was common in the 1912 campaign, too.
Debs surprised many
Speaking to a crowd of 15,000 at Madison Square Garden in New York, Debs jabbed all three of his presidential rivals. In his comments about Roosevelt, Debs acknowledged the progressive transformation in the man whose face would later occupy Mount Rushmore. “He is today the champion of the oppressed and the downtrodden of the nation,” Debs said of Roosevelt, as quoted in Chace’s book. “Just think of it. Theodore Roosevelt, who stands on a platform that four years ago he denounced as anarchist.”
Debs had predicted his 1912 candidacy would be “a surprise to the country.” He won his largest percentages of the vote in rural states such as Oklahoma, Nebraska and Nevada, where 16 percent of the residents backed him — places “we don’t normally think of today as hotbeds of radicalism,” Kazin said.
Debs suspected Roosevelt would draw votes from him, as well as from Taft. Likewise, Roosevelt (along with Wilson) would not participate in a debate with Debs, Chace’s book states, because TR “did not want to draw voters’ attention to the fact that many of Debs’ proposals resembled his own.”
It was, though, Debs’ personality that heightened his likeability among Americans a century ago, rather than his Socialist Party’s platform. “A lot of people heard him and cheered him who did not vote for him,” Kazin said.
Debs did not run for president in 1916, and the Socialists’ vote total dipped by 300,000 that year. In 1920, Debs ran his fifth and final campaign from an Georgia prison cell, jailed by the Wilson administration for criticizing the U.S. involvement in World War I. Debs received more than 1 million votes, but the electorate had grown significantly from 1912. He was released by President Harding in 1921, and died in Terre Haute five years later.
Also in 1921, Harding appointed Taft chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and the former president served until 1930, when he died.
Ever adventurous, Roosevelt stayed active after 1912, and died in 1919. Wilson served two terms, but ended his presidency in ill health, and died in 1921.
In 1912, though, Roosevelt, Wilson, Taft and Debs were at a peak. “The 1912 presidential election was the first since the days of Jefferson and Hamilton in which the great question of America’s exceptional destiny was debated,” Chace wrote. “1912 changed America.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@
TERRE HAUTE —
Three presidents and a rebel.
Busy sidewalks … Dec. 6 ‘Miracle on 7th’ event brings crowds downtown
Christmas Music Schedule
Schedule of Events
‘Someday at Christmas’ with Sandy Hackett’s Rat Pack coming to ISU Dec. 11
Sandy Hackett’s famous Rat Pack is coming to Terre Haute to ring in a swingin’ holiday season with its critically acclaimed show “Someday at Christmas.”
Hailed as “extremely strong and hugely entertaining,” “Someday at Christmas” blends the classic charisma of the golden age of Las Vegas with some of Ron Miller’s greatest Christmas hits.
Community Theatre offers up family show ‘Babes in Toyland’ in December
Community Theatre of Terre Haute celebrates the season with the holiday musical, “Babes in Toyland,” based on the operetta by Victor Herbert & Glen MacDonough. It opens this Friday and continues through the weekend.
Heightened Sense of Place: Educators’ efforts helped put geography back on map in schools
Geography transcends dots on a map.
Teachers traveling abroad alongside Terre Haute geographer Dorothy Drummond have experienced the real-life cultures, atmosphere and people existing within those dots. An educator herself, Drummond has organized affordable geography tours of foreign lands for Wabash Valley schoolteachers for many years. The journeys involved more than sight-seeing.
Fade to Black: A few local theaters among last to part with century-old 35-mm film
The projectionist behind the first movie shown in the Indiana Theatre nearly 92 years ago would likely feel right at home in that same booth today.
HEALING WATERS: Team River Runner offers inspiration, opens doors for wounded veterans
Some people say the fun of boating on the Wabash is dealing with unexpected challenges such a big body of water can present on certain days; others delight in the wild beauty at Terre Haute’s doorstep, from bald eagles soaring above trees lining the banks of the Wabash to the panorama of the river itself as it curls through woodland in many places reminiscent of primeval splendor seen hundreds of years ago.
Leaving ‘footprints on the sands of time’
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Had I taken the time to read a street map, I would have been able to walk through Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s historic home four years ago. My daughter, Ellen, and I spent the better part of a day hiking over the grassy hillsides of historic Mount Auburn Cemetery, just a few blocks away from the great poet’s house, and never knew we were that close.
‘Abraham’s Family’: New musical illuminates common ground, value of respect the three Abrahamic faiths can share
At a table inside a Denny’s in Terre Haute on a July night in 2012, a trio of theatrical writers conjured a bold idea.
They considered creating a musical based on the story of Abraham, a religious figure to whom three faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — trace their ancestries.
Musical explorer: Quest to see the world is a full-circle journey for Marshall native Chris Bennett
Marshall lies 5,553 miles away from the mountains of Tahiti, far too distant to see from the French Polynesian island paradise.
The small Illinois town can’t be spotted from Germany, either. Or Los Angeles. Or Croatia.
Chris Bennett has performed in all those far-away places, and many others, but her heart needs no GPS to locate her hometown.
Legends of the Valley: Region has its share of spooky stories and paranormal tales
“It’s creepy and it’s kooky, mysterious and spooky, it’s all together ooky,” the Wa-bash Va-al-ley!
Believe it or not — words similar to the old “Addams’ Family” TV show theme song are not far from truth in describing this region that seems to have a high concentration of the paranormal in its legends and modern-day stories — from documented bigfoot sightings, to a long-distance phone call made from inside a tomb, to a ghost at a cemetery you meet after climbing 100 steps — if you dare to count them!
‘Writing is an act of faith ...’ Visiting writer E.B. White, in Brooklin, Maine
BROOKLIN, MAINE — This town of 820 souls sits in the middle of a wonderful nowhere, its craggy toes dangling from rock ledges that hover above the blue Atlantic. For a place that doesn’t seem to have much going on, it has plenty to see, so one day this summer, my wife and I, a week or so into our New England journey, hoped to find the home of writer E.B. White, who lived nearby for over half a century.
Lessons of the Holy Land: New book explores geographic impact of small, but significant place
The appeal of a book based on the geography of a small stretch of land 4,000 years ago might seem limited.
The key is location, location, location, as a real-estate agent might say.
The focal point of a new release involving Terre Haute authors and editors is a place 50 miles wide and 145 miles long — about 10,000 square miles total, or the size of Vermont. The story of that state in 2000 B.C. might garner a niche audience.
River of inspiration: Adventurous spirit leads artist to paint sights up, down the Wabash
Nancy Nichols-Pethick slogged through knee-deep mud in the woods near New Harmony last month. Her quest was to find the ideal view of the Wabash River and sketch the scenery.
Practical knowledge: Retired Parke County resident dedicated career to values, educational bent Extension offers
Being a “guide on the side” with a desire to serve others recently garnered Parke County resident Mark Spelbring the Indiana Extension Educator’s Association’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Career Award.
‘The road less traveled’: The Indiana National Road Association encourages exploration, preservation of ‘the road that built America’
Its significance cannot be overstated. Its past is our past. Our future will be a product of the opportunities it provided. In a young, thriving nation, it loosened the dam on economic development and provided a route for the open floodgates of prosperity. It was the great migration route west. It holds 200 years of history to be uncovered and discovered.
“It” is the Historic National Road, the nation’s first “superhighway.”
Visiting Emily: 'New feet within my garden go...'
In an early stillness that belied the busy streets just outside the door, my wife and I stood in the cool back porch of poet Emily Dickinson’s imposing old house. It was a humid June morning, one that had turned warm after an overnight rain, and there were few visitors to the home of the strange woman who once said, “I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.”
Points of interest along the Wabash: Small towns along southern stretch of river offer peaceful sights, historic stops
A drive along highways running parallel to the Wabash River’s southern miles offers peaceful sights.
Points of interest along the Wabash: A few public access points provide unique peeks at river communities
While giving a presentation on the Wabash to a gathering of Indiana State University’s Osher Lifelong Living Institute in June, river enthusiast Brendan Kearns asked how many people in the audience had been “on the river.”
Points of interest along the Wabash: Parks, diners, nightspots — even ice skating — surround Wabash at Lafayette
LAFAYETTE — Lafayette and West Lafayette share the liveliest riverfront on the Wabash.
The most compelling sights depend upon a visitor’s tastes.
Points of interest along the Wabash: Small northern Indiana towns display Wabash front-and-center
BLUFFTON — A quest to see the white limestone bedrock that gave the Wabash River its name requires tenacity.
The Miami Native American tribe labeled the waterway “waapaashiki,” meaning “water over white stones,” describing the clear river they witnessed in its upper reaches in northern Indiana. Their moniker morphed to “Ouabache” by French fur traders to the pioneers’ Anglicized “Wabash.” The river water appeared clearer in those Native Americans’ days than now, thanks to a murky tint from sediment and nutrients.
Walk of a Lifetime: Writer discovers views fit for a painting while walking the cliffs of Prout’s Neck, home to famous artist Winslow Homer’s seaside studio
Editor’s Note: Today, we continue the New England Journal as Mike Lunsford writes of a day walking the Maine seacoast in search of the great artist, Winslow Homer. Join Mike in January for the fifth installment of this series as he visits Edna St. Vincent Millay’s rural New York farm, Steepletop.
YOUR GREEN VALLEY: Sustainability hubs will leave the world a better place
There is something powerful that happens when people ban together for greater good. In many cities throughout the United States there are sustainability hubs. While each one is uniquely different, they all have the common theme of leaving the world better than when they entered into it.
TRIED ’N’ TRUE: You can’t tell there’s Velveeta in this fudge
At Christmastime we make sweets, candy, cookies, etc. When we were in State Soil and Water, we would bring cookies and candy for the last night at the meetings. A friend of mine, Marie Bunting, brought this fudge recipe and samples.
Usher in the holiday season with … ‘The Sound of Christmas’
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology’s Hatfield Hall will usher in the holiday season with “The Sound of Christmas,” featuring Elisabeth von Trapp and the Carolian Brass, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Community School of Arts open house features steel sculpture
Indiana State University’s Community School of the Arts will host an open house from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Dec. 6 at Turman Art Gallery in the Fine Arts Building, 649 Chestnut St.
The open house will present an opportunity to meet the teachers, learn more about spring 2014 offerings and register for classes and private music lessons. On display in the Turman Gallery will be artwork created by adult students participating in “Metal Sculpture” and “Digital Photography” classes and children participating in “Saturday Art Day.” There will be a special performance by the “Terre Haute Guitar Club,” and guests can enter a drawing to win a free spring arts class.
Bridgeton to host Country Christmas celebration this weekend
Bridgeton will host its annual Country Christmas celebration from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. today and Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. The shops will be open and full of gifts.
GRAPE SENSE: ‘Today’s Bordeaux’ campaign features more affordable wines
There is an old saying among wine enthusiasts: “The more you drink wine, the more you gravitate toward the French.”
And if you haven’t heard that one, certainly you’ve read and heard people talk about expensive French Bordeaux wines.
TRIED ‘N’ TRUE: A good bread for dishes like spaghetti or lasagna
I have made this bread for many years. It is wonderful with spaghetti or lasagna. I’m not sure where the recipe came from. We all love garlic bread. If you are just starting to make bread, this is a good one. I have taken this bread to the field, carry-in dinners, just about everywhere.
Comedienne Chonda Pierce coming to Indiana Theatre
Southern charm blended with some sass, wit and a woman’s view of the world’s quirks produce comedienne Chonda Pierce’s “Girl Talk.”
Music, cookies and Santa Nov. 23 at ‘Christmas at the Cecilian’
The Sinfonietta Pops Orchestra concert “Christmas at the Cecilian” sets the mood for the holidays with music, punch and cookies and a visit from St. Nicholas. The concert begins at 3 p.m. Saturday in Cecilian Auditorium at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.
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