Gifford Pinchot did as much as anyone to bring the Bull Moose Progressive Party into the 1912 presidential race.
This party was born out of a divide in the Republican Party. President William Howard Taft used the power of incumbency to defeat the insurgent candidacy of former president Teddy Roosevelt.
Roosevelt had done very well in the preference primaries in the spring even winning Taft’s home state of Ohio. But the GOP convention at Chicago was packed with Taft delegates from non-primary states chosen by the party machinery.
When the convention opened, neither candidate had a majority of the delegates. But Taft forces controlled the committees that blocked Roosevelt’s attempt to change the makeup of the delegates.
The key moment came when the convention’s credentials committee rejected Roosevelt’s challenge to the seating of 200 Taft delegates amid charges of fraud.
After that, a majority of the Roosevelt delegates refrained from voting on the roll call for the nomination. Taft was nominated for a second term on an ominous silent note.
The bitterness in the convention hall led the Roosevelt delegates to bolt and meet in the same city to form their third party.
The role of Pinchot, a future Pennsylvania governor, in creating the Progressive Party is not as well known as his public forestry work, but Pinchot and his brother Amos were at the center of the movement.
Pinchot became identified with the progressive wing of the GOP after losing his job as the nation’s chief forester due to a falling out with the Taft administration over conservation policies.
Pinchot was a trusted associate of Roosevelt, but in 1911 he promoted the candidacy of Wisconsin Sen. Robert LaFollette as a challenger to Taft in 1912 when it appeared Roosevelt wasn’t interested.
By February 1912, Roosevelt had jumped into the race and Pinchot swing into action on his behalf. Roosevelt secured Pennsylvania’s delegates with the help of Pittsburgh political boss William Flinn.
The Progressives adopted the overtones of a religious revival with delegates at the rump convention singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Even Roosevelt spoke in Chicago of standing at Armageddon and battling for the Lord.
The Pinchot brothers were immersed in the nuts and bolts of the new party charting strategy, drafting speeches for TR, writing planks in the party platform and setting up a party apparatus in the states.
The Pinchots and William Draper Lewis, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, drew up a party platform for Roosevelt to review.
The planks included calls for a national minimum hourly wage, women suffrage, a federal securities commission to regulate stock transactions, direct election of U.S. senators, workers compensation, unemployment insurance, old age pensions, voter referendums, voter recall of judicial decisions, abolition of child labor.
Pinchot sounded out California Gov. Hiram Johnson about the vice presidential nomination, and getting a favorable response, he gave a speech on behalf of Johnson’s nomination.
But the Pinchots lost a round the day after the convention when George W. Perkins was named chairman of the party’s executive committee. Perkins was an executive of the United States Steel Corporation and an informal advisor to Roosevelt.
Perkins provided valued financial support for the new party, but he had clashed with the Pinchots over how tough the platform should be on antitrust legislation.
Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the fall election with Roosevelt taking second place and Taft in third. Many of the progressive planks became law during the presidencies of Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. — Robert Swift