January 6th, 2022


Mid-Term Elections: 1906

Theodore Roosevelt has become President unexpectedly on September 14, 1901, following the death of William McKinley. Roosevelt, who had been Governor of New York, was placed on the ticket with McKinley largely at the urging of party bosses who wanted him out of the Governor's mansion because of his progressive reforms. They thought that putting him in the Vice-Presidency would have him in a place where he could do no harm (to their interests). They were mistaken.


Roosevelt proved to be more than a caretaker president and in 1904 he was elected as President in his own right. His re-nomination in 1904 was far from certain in an era when party bosses ran things and candidates were selected in smoke filled rooms. Many had expected Senator Mark Hanna, a close friend and advisor of former President William McKinley, to win the party's 1904 presidential nomination. Hanna had strong support from conservative businessmen who opposed many of Roosevelt's progressive policies. But Hanna faced opposition within his home state by influential Senator Joseph Foraker. Hanna died in February of 1904 and none of the other potential rivals for the 1904 Republican presidential nomination, garnered much support. At the 1904 Republican National Convention, Roosevelt secured his own nomination, but was not powerful enough to select his preferred vice-presidential running mate, Robert R. Hitt.

The Democratic Party's presidential nominee in 1904 was Alton B. Parker, the chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals. Democrats hoped that Parker would be able unify the populist followers of William Jennings Bryan with the conservative supporters of former President Grover Cleveland, but this was too much to ask. Many Democrats supported Roosevelt because of his progressive leanings. Supported by both progressives and centrists, Roosevelt won 56% of the popular vote compared with 38% for Parker and Roosevelt won the electoral vote 336 to 140. Roosevelt's victory made him first president to be elected to a full term of his own after having succeeded to the presidency upon the death of a predecessor. His popular vote margin of 18.8% was the largest margin in U.S. history until the 1920 presidential election. But on election night, Roosevelt did something he would later come to regret. He pledged not to run for a third term.

One of the major issues in the 1906 mid-term elections would be labor relations. Roosevelt was reluctant to involve himself in labor-management disputes, though he believed that presidential intervention (or the use of the presidency as a "bully pulpit") was justified when labor disputes threatened the public interest. Union membership had doubled in the five years preceding Roosevelt's inauguration, and when he became President, Roosevelt saw labor unrest as one of the greatest possible threats facing the country. On the other hand, he was also sympathetic to many laborers for the harsh conditions that they were forced to work under. However he strongly opposed the extensive reforms proposed by labor leaders such as Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

When the United Mine Workers (UMW) organized an anthracite coal strike in May 1902, the demanded an eight-hour work day and pay increases. Mine owners wanted to crush the UMW, and they refused to negotiate. As the strike continued, the price of coal increased from five to fifteen dollars per ton. Roosevelt invited the UMW leaders and mine operators at the White House in October 1902, but the mine owners refused to negotiate. With help from J.P. Morgan, Roosevelt pressured the mine operators to agree to the establishment of a presidential commission to propose a solution to the strike. In March 1903, the commission mandated pay increases and a reduction in the workday from ten hours to nine hours, but UMW was not granted official recognition as the bargaining agent for the miners. It was a solution that left both sides unsatisfied.


Labor unrest continued during Roosevelt's presidency. In Colorado, the Western Federation of Miners led a series of strikes that became known as the Colorado Labor Wars. Roosevelt did not intervene in the dispute and Colorado Governor James Hamilton Peabody dispatched the Colorado National Guard to crush the strikes. In 1905, union leaders like Mary Harris Jones and Eugene V. Debs established the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

In 1906, when mid-term elections were held, the Republican Party lost seats in Congress. Labor unrest was seen as the reason. The Republican Party still retained a large overall majority, but growing dissatisfaction with working conditions and resentment toward union busting caused many industrial laborers in the Atlantic and Midwest states to turn out to the polls in large numbers in support of the Democratic Party. The Democrats' gains in these regions were not enough to dislodge the Republican majority or the strong support that the party held among the middle class. But Republicans lost 28 seats in the House of Representatives, reducing their majority from 251 to 223 seats. Democrats increased their number from 135 to 167, a gain of 32 seats. Republican losses were strongest in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri.

Republicans gained three seats in the Senate, but these were in non-industrial states where Roosevelt was very popular: Colorado, Idaho and Montana. These victories gave Republicans 60 seats in the Senate, while the Democrats lost 5 seats overall. As these elections were prior to ratification of the seventeenth amendment, and occurred at a time when Senators were chosen by state legislatures.

It is unclear what part, if any, the results of these mid-term elections had on Roosevelt's decision to shift to the left politically, but that is what he did. In 1907, Roosevelt himself with the left side of the Republican Party. He said:

Again and again in my public career I have had to make head against mob spirit, against the tendency of poor, ignorant and turbulent people who feel a rancorous jealousy and hatred of those who are better off. But during the last few years it has been the wealthy corruptionists of enormous fortune, and of enormous influence through their agents of the press, pulpit, colleges and public life, with whom I've had to wage bitter war."

His decision was undoubtedly affected by growing popular outrage over corporate greed and scandals, fueled by the reporting of muckraking journalists like Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. Much like the Democrats had experienced in 1896, now it was the Republicans turn to experience a split between conservatives and progressives. Roosevelt did not fully embrace what those like Robert LaFollette were selling, but he adopted many of their positions. In his last two years in office, he called on Congress to enact a series of radical new laws in the workplace and called for a larger regulatory role for the federal government. He believed that many 20th-century capitalists had made their fortunes unjustly, and expressed the fear that the country would turn to radicalism or worse, to revolution.


In January 1908, Roosevelt sent a special message to Congress, calling a number of progressive proposals, including a federal income tax and inheritance tax (targeted at the rich), limits on the use of injunctions against labor unions during strikes, an eight-hour work day for federal employees, and legislation barring corporations from contributing to political campaigns. Even populist Democrats like William Jennings Bryan expressed support for Roosevelt's message, while conservatives rebuked him. One Southern newspaper called for Roosevelt to run as a Democrat in 1908, with Bryan as his running mate. But conservative Republicans such as Senator Nelson Aldrich and Speaker Joseph Cannon remained in control of Congress and blocked Roosevelt's progressive agenda. One of Roosevelt's biggest opponents would be a man who had once been his closest supporter, his successor, William Howard Taft.

Remembering Theodore Roosevelt

On January 6, 1919 (103 years ago today) Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the 26th President of the United States, died at his home, Sagamore Hill, in Oyster Bay, New York. Though it seem as if he had the legacy of a much older man, he was only 60 years of age.


Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was born into a wealthy family in New York City. His father, also named Theodore, was a man with a social conscience. He taught his son to have concern for the less fortunate. His mother, the former Martha Stewart Bulloch, known as "Mittie", was a southern belle from Georgia. Roosevelt was a sickly child who suffered from asthma. To overcome his physical weakness, he embraced what he called a strenuous life. He was home-schooled, and became an eager student of nature. Roosevelt attended Harvard University where he studied biology, boxed, and developed an interest in naval affairs. In 1881, he was elected to the New York State Assembly, where he became a leader of the reform faction of his state Republican Party. His book entitled The Naval War of 1812 was published in 1882 and received critical acclaim. The book established Roosevelt as a serious historian. He also wrote numerous books on hunting, the outdoors, and current political issues, as well as frontier history.

On February 14, 1884, Roosevelt's first wife Alice and his mother Mittie both died on the same day, a day on which Roosevelt marked his diary with a large X. He temporarily left politics and went to the Dakotas, becoming a rancher in the "Badlands". He returned to New York City in 1886 where he ran for mayor in 1886, finishing third with 60,000 votes. That year he also married his childhood friend Edith Carow. Roosevelt became a police commissioner and gained fame by bringing sweeping reforms to the city police department. He also served as civil service commissioner and tried to bring about reforms in that field as well.

In 1898 Roosevelt was effectively running the Department of the Navy as its Assistant Secretary. When the Spanish American war began, he resigned this position and formed the Rough Riders, a volunteer cavalry regiment that fought in Cuba. He returned a war hero and was elected governor of New York in 1898. At odds with the party bosses, he was promoted and nominated for Vice-President in 1900. They believed that making him Vice-President was a way to dis-empower him. He was elected as President William McKinley's vice-president on a platform of high tariffs, the gold standard, imperialism, prosperity at home and victory abroad.

In 1901, President McKinley was assassinated and Roosevelt became President. He attempted to move the Republican Party toward Progressivism, and advocated policies which included trust (monopoly) busting and increased regulation of businesses. In 1904, Roosevelt became the first person elected to a term in his own right after having ascended to the Presidency from the Vice-Presidency upon the death of his predecessor. He won the largest percentage of the popular vote since the uncontested election of James Monroe in 1820. Roosevelt coined the phrase "Square Deal" to describe his domestic agenda and he promoted the conservation movement. On the world stage, Roosevelt's policies were characterized by his slogan, "Speak softly and carry a big stick". Roosevelt pushed for the completion of the Panama Canal, he sent the US Navy (known as the "Great White Fleet") on a world tour to demonstrate American power, and he negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War, which won him the Nobel Peace Prize.

At the end of his second term, Roosevelt promoted his friend William Howard Taft for the 1908 Republican nomination for President. After Taft was elected, Roosevelt went on a tour of Africa and Europe. On his return in 1910 he broke bitterly with President Taft on issues of progressivism. In the 1912 election Roosevelt tried and failed to block Taft's renomination by the Republican Party. He ran for President as the candidate for the Bull Moose Party, and ran on a platform that called for far-reaching progressive reforms. In October of 1912 he was shot by at attempted assassin while attending a speaking venue in Milwaukee. He was wounded, but stubbornly insisted on making his speech before seeking medical treatment. Roosevelt split the Republican vote resulting in the election of Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt then led a major expedition to the Amazon jungles and contracted diseases which weakened his health. On his return to the United States, Roosevelt advocated American entry into World War I, and reconciled with Republican leadership. He was seen as the front-runner for the Republican nomination in the 1920 election, but he died before being able to seek the nomination.

On the night of January 5, 1919 at 11:00 PM, Roosevelt experienced breathing problems. He was treated by his family physician Dr. George W. Faller, and the treatment seemed to give him temporary relief. He went to bed and his last words were "Please put out that light, James" (spoken to his family servant James Amos.) Between 4:00 AM and 4:15 AM the next morning, Roosevelt died unexpectedly in his sleep, The cause of death was believed to be a blood clot that detached itself from a vein and entered his lungs.

When he received word of his father's death, Roosevelt's son Archie telegraphed his siblings and said "The old lion is dead." Perhaps one of the wittiest comments about Roosevelt's death came from Woodrow Wilson's Vice President, Thomas R. Marshall, who said "Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight."

In 2018, David Pietrusza's excellent book TR's Last War: Theodore Roosevelt, The Great War and a Journey of Triumph and Tragedy was published. (Our review of the book can be found here). It is an excellent account of the last stanza of Roosevelt's life, and raises some interesting questions about Roosevelt's death.