It takes more than that to kill a bull moose!

Illinois has hosted more political party nominating conventions than any other state. From brokered conventions held during times of national turmoil, such as the Republican meeting at the Chicago Wigwam in 1860, to quiet times where the outcome was known long in advance, such as the Democrats’ gathering at the United Center in 1996, Illinois has seen all kinds of political gatherings.

The violence and chaos of the 1968 assembly is probably the most frequently recalled, but for sheer drama and fury, none match the raucous 1912 Republican convention which led to the formation of a new political party and an election with three different Presidents listed on the ballot.

President Theodore Roosevelt had left office in March 1909 wildly popular with the American people. He had ushered in an era of activist government that had enacted reforms in the nation’s laws governing everything from food safety to child labor to preservation of the nation’s parks. When Roosevelt left the White House he turned the keys over to his trusted friend and protégé, Secretary of War William Howard Taft (who had defeated Illinoisan William Jennings Bryan in the 1908 election) and then left for a safari in Africa, eager to let Taft establish his own administration, outside the shadow of the famed Rough Rider.

Coming home, Roosevelt was shocked to learn that Taft had abandoned many of his reforms and let other initiatives fall into inertia. Roosevelt was furious, and after an increasingly acrimonious series of exchanges with the sitting Chief Executive, he announced that he would challenge Taft for the nomination in 1912, seeking to reclaim the office he had so recently held.

But Taft would not go out without a fight. He rallied party leaders and organizations around his banner and prepared to use that support to win re-nomination. Roosevelt took his case to the people in a campaign that became increasingly personal and grew nastier by the day.

Taft declared Roosevelt a, “demagogue,” a “dangerous egotist” and said, “I hate a flatterer. I want a man to tell the truth.”

Roosevelt responded that his old friend was, “a fathead” and “a puzzlewit.”

Unlike today, presidential primaries were relatively rare in 1912, and they only occurred in a handful states. Roosevelt won most of them, including Illinois, and came into the Chicago convention beginning on June 18, 1912, riding a wave of popularity, but without the support of the key party leaders who would be crucial in securing the delegate vote. A key element of Taft’s support was southern Republican delegations, which in the days of the Democratic “Solid South” consisted of party leaders but few actual voters.

Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft
The convention opened with a series of procedural fights, as Roosevelt challenged the credentials of around 250 delegates on the grounds that they had not been freely chosen. If he could flip roughly one third of these, he could claim the nomination. The challenges were heard and voted upon in alphabetical order by a credential committee stacked with party regulars. First, the pro-Taft delegates from Alabama were seated, then the Arizona challenge was resolved the same way. When the convention voted to seat the pro-Taft delegates from California, where Roosevelt had won the primary, the great break began.

Roosevelt’s floor managers shrieked with outrage at what they called “a saturnalia of fraud and larceny,” and accused the committee of being, “content with the political emoluments of pocket-picking and porch-climbing.”

Roosevelt supporters, already calling themselves “Progressives” began abstaining from floor votes, and sought to craft an alliance with supporters of Wisconsin Senator Robert LaFollette to stop the momentum building for Taft. But Roosevelt and LaFollette were old adversaries and were not able to unify in time. Taft won the nomination on the first ballot 561-107, with 344 abstentions. Almost half the votes for Roosevelt came from the Illinois delegation which stuck by their preferred candidate and declined to join the abstentions. But it was not enough, and Taft had the nomination.

Roosevelt refused to take the matter sitting down. Progressive leaders like California Senator Hiram Johnson had already announced their intention to leave the gathering and call their own convention. Now Roosevelt’s supporters eschewed calls for compromise and followed them out the door and onto Wabash Avenue.

In an era in which presidential candidates stayed away from their party’s conventions, Roosevelt had followed these developments from his home in New York. But now he quickly boarded a train and raced to Chicago, meeting his supporters who had marched from the convention at the Chicago Coliseum on Wabash and put together their own meeting at the nearby Chicago Auditorium on South Michigan Avenue.

“The trumpets sound the advance, and their peal cannot be drowned by repeating the war-cries of bygone battles, the victory shouts of vanished hosts,” he proclaimed. He sought to claim the mantle of Lincoln in his home state, expressing his view that Lincoln would himself join a reform movement such as the one Roosevelt now led.

“The victory shall be ours, and it shall be won as we have already won so many victories, by clean and honest fighting for the loftiest of causes,” Roosevelt thundered. “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!”

The newly-formed Progressive Party held its official nominating convention in the Chicago Coliseum in August, and picked Roosevelt and Johnson as their standard-bearers. Their convention was one of the first to be attended by a large number of women, and its platform called for women’s suffrage. The seconding speech for Roosevelt’s nomination was given by Chicago social reformer Jane Addams.

Asked if he was ready for another nationwide political battle, Roosevelt told a reporter he felt “as fit as a bull moose!”

The new party had its nickname.

Roosevelt charged out onto the campaign trail, traversing the nation on a speaking tour which took him from New England to the West Coast and back again through the Midwest and the south. The campaign’s most memorable moment, however, came moments before a Roosevelt speech in Milwaukee on October 14.

Just as Roosevelt approached the stage to offer his remarks, a gunman stepped out of the crowd and fired at Roosevelt’s chest. His bullet glanced off the Rough Rider’s metal eyeglasses case and cut through the thick speech manuscript stuffed into his coat pocket. It then lodged itself in Roosevelt’s chest, having spent most of its momentum before getting there. A doctor summoned from the crowd urged Roosevelt to seek immediate medical attention at a hospital, but sensing a political moment that comes only once in a lifetime, he refused and mounted the stage.

“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible,” he wheezed to his audience. “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose!”

He then opened his jacket to show the astonished crowd the bloodstain on his shirt before assuring them, “I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.”

He delivered his speech, and then consented to being taken to the hospital. It was his last major campaign appearance. Moved to a hospital in Chicago with better facilities, Roosevelt would be a spectator for the last weeks of the campaign, later returning home and making only a few remarks to well-wishers at Madison Square Garden and another short speech at his home.

From his Chicago hospital bed, he had re-stated his commitment to the cause, and again invoked the spirit of Lincoln.

Rooms where Roosevelt stayed at Mercy Hospital in Chicago
“It matters little about me but it matters all about the cause we fight for. If one soldier who happens to carry the flag is stricken, another will take it from his hands and carry it on,” he wrote. “Only the call that came to the men of the (1860s) made me answer it, in our day, as they did more nobly in their day.”

Five months after the reverse at the convention in Chicago, Roosevelt ultimately gained the upper hand and outpolled Taft. But the Democrats’ nominee, New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, emerged with the most votes and would become the nation’s 28th President. Roosevelt and Taft combined for more than a million more votes than Wilson.

In Illinois, Wilson prevailed over Roosevelt by just under 20,000 votes, garnering 35% to Roosevelt’s 33% and Taft’s 22%.

Wilson would embrace some parts of Roosevelt’s progressive agenda, if not the man himself, who continued to rail against the President he saw as a phony progressive in the White House. Taft would go on to obtain the prominent job he had wanted all along: being appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by President Warren Harding in 1921. Taft and Roosevelt would eventually put the acrimony stemming from the Chicago convention behind them and resume their friendship. The rift within the party did not fully heal until the Republicans gathered once again in Chicago, in 1920.