1912: The most exciting presidential election in American history

In 1912, the sitting president — William Howard Taft — finished third in both the popular- and electoral-vote tallies. A former president, Theodore Roosevelt, led an insurgent new third-party movement, the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party, which elected numerous legislators across the nation and led T.R. to a second-place finish, winning six states and 27.4% of the popular vote.

The election is also famous for the success of the Socialist Party, whose presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs scored just under 6% of the national vote, and whose candidates for various other offices were victorious that year. Debs finished second — ahead of Roosevelt and Taft! — in Florida, and finished ahead of T.R. in seven states in all. The Socialist standard-bearer also received over 16% of the vote in Oklahoma and Nevada.

Most third-party buffs are familiar with all of the above. But were you aware of a fifth candidate, Prohibitionist Eugene Chafin, who despite the highest level of competition in U.S. political history garnered a higher vote share (1.38%) than the Libertarian Party is yet to tally?

Everyone knows Wilson, Roosevelt, and Taft, and even Debs is a name known by most anyone remotely serious about political history, but Darcy G. Richardson’s Others series is vital precisely because it tells the stories of men like Chafin who, despite their electoral defeats, helped shape the political landscape for years to come.

The following is excerpted from Others Volume III, which IPR highly recommends.

The Other Gene: Eugene W. Chafin and the Prohibitionists

Some 900 delegates from forty-two states attended the Prohibition Party’s national convention, which was held at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey, during the second week of July. The delegates cheered wildly when keynote speaker Clinton N. Howard of Rochester, a popular lecturer on the Lyceum and Chautauqua Circuit, asserted that the Prohibition Party was the true “progressive party” in the campaign of 1912. In a delicious dig at Teddy Roosevelt, who had complained vociferously that he had been cheated out of the Republican nomination, the 43-year-old “Little Giant” brought the gathering to its feet when he questioned how the former President could possibly talk about stealing votes when he himself had stolen the Panama Canal. “We already have two whisky parties and don’t need another,” shouted Howard, who went on to criticize President Taft as a “wet nurse to the saloons” while denouncing Roosevelt as the “least desirable of all the candidates.” He was no less forgiving toward Democrat Woodrow Wilson. “A good man, perhaps, but we have had ‘good men’ in the White House before” and they have left office “with the country more saturated with rum than it was when they went in,” he declared. Howard’s riveting speech triggered a last-minute attempt to draft the popular New Yorker for the presidency, but it quickly fizzled out.

Eugene W. Chafin, who had been campaigning almost non-stop since 1908, defeated Andrew J. Houston, son of the legendary Sam Houston, and several other potential rivals on his way to capturing the party’s presidential nomination for a second time. The Tucson lawyer garnered 502 votes on the first ballot to win the nomination, while 94 delegates voted for Aaron S. Watkins of Ohio and 90 for perennial Prohibition candidate Frank W. Emerson, a longtime temperance lecturer and minister in the Church of Christ who was then living in California. Thirty-six dry delegates cast their ballots for national committeeman Finley C. Hendrickson, a 49-year-old lawyer from Cumberland, Maryland.

The 58-year-old Houston, who had already removed his name from consideration, received eighteen votes and another half-dozen were cast for two others whose names hadn’t been placed in nomination. Standing at the podium to announce his withdrawal a little earlier, Houston — a former U.S. marshal who later served briefly in the U.S. Senate when he was named to fill a vacancy in 1941 — brought the house down when he told the cheering delegates that he would rather receive the lowest vote at the Prohibition convention than the highest vote at either major party convention. Aaron S. Watkins of Ohio was again named as Chafin’s vice-presidential running mate. In his acceptance speech, Chafin said that he regarded his nomination as the highest political honor bestowed upon any man that year and promised not to seek the party’s nomination again in 1916.

The party’s platform, containing only 425 words, called for the direct election of senators and a single, six-year presidential term — a position first championed by President Hayes in 1877 and also favored by the Democrats. In addition to its usual call for a complete prohibition of alcoholic beverages, the party also supported women’s suffrage, the abolition of child labor, a graduated income and inheritance tax and conservation of the nation’s forests and mineral resources. The Prohibitionists also advocated the creation of a permanent omni-partisan tariff commission. A move to change the party’s name to the “Progressive Party” was overwhelmingly shouted down by the delegates, as was a motion by the Rev. S. H. Taft of California to rechristen the party as the “Conservation Party.”

Remarkably, the Prohibitionists raised $31,000 toward the party’s goal of $150,000 during the Atlantic City convention. John E. Gill of Pennsylvania, who masterminded the highly successful “Venango Plan” a number of years earlier, promised to personally contribute $1,000, provided the party’s national committee agreed to spend at least $10,000 on motion-picture advertising during the campaign.

The 59-year-old Chafin, one of the temperance movement’s most popular speakers and a man who practically devoted his entire life to the cause of prohibition, was arguably the most formidable presidential candidate in the party’s long history. Journalist John Temple Graves of Georgia once described him as “one of the most magnetic and charming” speakers he ever heard. Chafin had garnered more than a quarter million votes as the party’s presidential standard-bearer four years earlier.

Born in Mukwonago, Wisconsin, in the autumn of 1852, Chafin earned a law degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1875 and soon acquired a large and prosperous law practice. Long active in local politics, he had served as a justice of the peace and magistrate before winning a seat on the Waukesha Board of Education. He also ran for Waukesha County district attorney in 1881 and for U.S. Congress the following year on the Prohibition ticket, garnering 1,006 votes, or nearly five percent in the latter race.

A perennial candidate of sorts, Chafin also ran for attorney general of Wisconsin on three occasions and for governor of the state in 1898. While residing in Illinois, he also ran for Congress in 1902 and for state attorney general two years later. In 1884, Chafin served as Sergeant-at-Arms at the party’s national convention in Pittsburgh and gave one of John P. St. John’s seconding speeches. He also served on the party’s national committee from 1888 to 1896 and again from 1912-20 and was a delegate to every Prohibition national convention from 1884 through 1920, the year of his death.

While living in Illinois, the longtime temperance advocate worked as the superintendent of the Washingtonian Home for recovering alcoholics in Chicago. Long active in the Order of Good Templars, Chafin also found time to serve as president of the Waukesha County Agricultural Society and as president of the Epworth League, a Methodist Episcopal youth organization. A prolific writer and serious student of American history, Chafin’s several books included Lives of the Presidents, which was published in1896, and Lincoln: The Man of Sorrow, published by Lincoln Temperance Press in 1908. He also authored The Master Method of the Great Reform, in which he argued that “no evil can live in this country unless it has two political parties to support it.”

Chafin was also a staunch critic of the Anti-Saloon League, a national temperance organization founded in Oberlin, Ohio, in May 1893. Committed to working through the two-party system, the League wielded significant influence in national politics for some forty years. Chafin firmly believed the League would endorse any candidate who merely pledged to vote correctly on the issue of prohibition, regardless of the candidate’s views on other issues. His criticism was valid. At one point, the temperance advocate even went so far as to accuse the League of exploiting southern racism. “We have got to kill the Anti-Saloon League,” argued Chafin, “and then lick the Republican and Democratic parties.”

In his formal acceptance speech on August 10 at Cutler Park in Waukesha — about fifteen miles from his birthplace — Chafin blamed the high cost of living on the liquor traffic, asserting that it was “the greatest economic problem the world has ever faced,” an evil that was not only draining the nation’s wealth but also its natural resources. Calling it the only truly “progressive platform” offered by any political party that year, Chafin spoke at length about the party’s 425-word platform. Holding an embossed copy of the document, the two-time presidential aspirant noted that it was of “such size and form that it can be framed and hung over the office desk of the president in the White House” as a daily reminder of the Prohibition Party’s pledge to the American people. “I shall do all in my power to see that it is placed there,” he boldly proclaimed.

Addressing each of the planks in the party’s unusually brief platform, the Tucson lawyer praised the party’s proposed constitutional amendment for a single six-year presidential term. Asserting that the country already had “too much politics,” Chafin observed that most presidents who had been re-elected added little to their reputations or performed any great service to the Republic as a result of a second term. “Let the office become one of silent dignity and firm administration of the law,” he said. “Let Congress do the legislating. Follow the example of James K. Polk, who made less noise than any other president” and whose four-year term was marked by “greater achievements than any other in our history with the exception of Lincoln’s.”

Blaming the dreaded liquor traffic for producing widespread crime and poverty, the Prohibition standard-bearer said that a dry administration would offset any losses in rum revenue to the federal treasury by adopting graduated income and inheritance taxes. “Under our present system,” he argued, “the rich pay little or nothing toward the support of the national government, while the poor are robbed by all kinds of indirect taxes through internal revenue and tariff laws.” Some things never change. Proclaiming that he would put “women and children first” and millionaires last, Chafin maintained that a huge share of the more than $200 million in liquor revenues that flowed into the federal treasury annually were “stolen from the wives and children of drunkards by our national government.”

Claiming that his nomination hadn’t cost him the price of a postage stamp, Chafin profusely thanked party leaders for nominating him a second time and stated that it would be a mistake “to say that we cannot win this year.” The Prohibition Party, he concluded, “presents the only great issue upon which a majority of the people are agreed.”

Like his Socialist rival, Prohibitionist Eugene W. Chafin also aggressively attacked his three major opponents, but saved his sharpest criticism for Roosevelt. Denying rumors that he was dropping out of the race and planned to support his Bull Moose opponent, Chafin denounced the former president and said that, unlike Roosevelt, he was “a real Progressive, not a humbug trying to paddle into office on a ramshackle raft constructed of good planks, bad planks and beer kegs.” Anyone familiar with Roosevelt’s reactionary record as president “will not be fooled by his sudden out-of-office conversion to sundry popular measures,” declared Chafin.

Unlike Debs, however, Chafin virtually conceded the election to Woodrow Wilson with about a week remaining in the contest, if not earlier. “Wilson will carry forty states, Roosevelt, five, Taft three and Debs and I will divide the others,” quipped Chafin in a speech in El Paso, Texas. Chafin’s prediction was almost right on the money, prompting a newspaper editor to observe shortly after the election that “if in 1916 Mr. Chafin should predict his own election, his prophecy will be entitled to most respectful consideration.”

Prohibitionist Eugene Chafin, who made 538 speeches during his spirited fourteen-week campaign — surpassing his remarkable 1908 record of 500 speeches in 100 days — garnered 209,644 votes, or slightly more than one percent nationally and Arthur E. Reimer of Massachusetts, the Socialist Labor Party candidate, chimed in with a chorus of cherubim numbering 29,290, or more than twice the number of votes recorded for the SLP’s August Gillhaus four years earlier.

Lost in the fury and excitement of the quadrangular contest between Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson and Debs, Chafin ran strongest in Florida and California where he polled 3.7% and 3.5%, respectively. Though outpolling Socialist rival Eugene Debs in thirteen states, the dry standard-bearer fell short of the more than a quarter of a million votes he had received in 1908. He did, however, poll the difference between Roosevelt and Wilson in the razor-thin battle in California and between Wilson and Taft in Idaho, while nearly doing the same in the close contests between Wilson and Roosevelt in Illinois and between Taft and Roosevelt in traditionally-Republican Vermont. Although he had conceded Wilson’s election weeks earlier, the Prohibition candidate expected to run much stronger than the final returns indicated. At one point in the campaign he had hoped to garner a million votes — a real breakthrough for the nation’s oldest minor party. Surveying the wreckage, the two-time presidential candidate couldn’t help but sound a little bitter. “Seven men out of ten throughout the United States are opposed to the saloons,” he lamented on election night. “If they had voted as they believed there would have been a landslide. The idea that the Prohibition Party has no chance of success is the thing that defeats it.”

Click here to get Others: Volume III from Amazon.com.

30 thoughts on “1912: The most exciting presidential election in American history

  1. MattSwartz

    He also authored The Master Method of the Great Reform, in which he argued that “no evil can live in this country unless it has two political parties to support it.”

    Some truths can last 100 years. This makes sense in that the democrats are not united against the war, and the republicans are not united against abortion.

  2. richardwinger

    I also love the OTHERS series of books by Darcy Richardson. Four have come out, and Darcy is working on the next one, which will cover the 1930’s and early 1940’s.

    I think the congressional election of 1854 was even more exciting than 1912. A party that was only a few months old won more seats in the US House of Representatives than either of the old two major parties. Of course that was before there were any ballot access restrictions.

  3. Trent Hill

    Richard,

    If only that could still happen right?

    If I could have a roundtable discussion with Richard Winger, Darcy Richardson, and Jason Seagraves–i’d be a happy guy. Picking each of their brains is like being alone in a Vinyard. Pick all you want, there will always be too much to finish.

  4. G.E. Post author

    err, I’m not a man of much humility, but I clearly don’t belong in that company, Trent. And I’m sure that this is one issue on which my many enemies would agree!

  5. paulie cannoli

    Trent Hill // Jul 9, 2008 at 11:05 pm

    Richard,

    If only that could still happen right?

    If I could have a roundtable discussion with Richard Winger, Darcy Richardson, and Jason Seagraves–i’d be a happy guy. Picking each of their brains is like being alone in a Vinyard. Pick all you want, there will always be too much to finish.

    Let’s make it happen. GE, what’s up with that blogtalk account?


    5 G.E. // Jul 9, 2008 at 11:13 pm

    err, I’m not a man of much humility, but I clearly don’t belong in that company, Trent. And I’m sure that this is one issue on which my many enemies would agree!

    Don’t be too modest. You are an amazing activist.

    I’m unhumble enough that I’ll join you all if you set up a time and provide me with a call in number. If it is in the next few days, call me with it – internet is 20 cents a minute here at the hostel. Junkie that I am, I plopped down ten bucks.

  6. Robert Milnes

    Here comes Milnes rising to the bait. I was pleasantly surprised to see such an article. But you managed to ruin it by going on and on about the Prohibition Party candidate rather than the real exciting aspect which is how the Progressive almost won & that could be duplicated today. & Further ruined it by a G.E. pc/pc mutual admiration society in comments. You two are among my biggest detractors and as such have effectively dampened the possibility of duplicating the progressive performance of 1912 via the blogosphere. Congratulations you self aggrandizing politically and historically incorrect mutually masturbating jerks.

  7. Mike Theodore

    So two online bloggers have shattered the great Milnes Campaign to the presidency?
    I’m sure their ties to the CIA helped track down the millions sent to you in donations before they hit your computer.

  8. G.E. Post author

    Mike: Watch your tongue. Do not mention my name nor Paulie’s and the CIA in the same sentence. There’s a reason we both use aliases.

  9. Robert Milnes

    Mike Theodore, which are you, a Milnes supporter or a Milnes detractor. Try to make up your minds, will you? & the CIA doesn’t need to recruit dupes.

  10. Mike Theodore

    Robert, I’m not a Milnes 08 fan club member. Nor am I a supporter. In respect to detraction, I say you have the right to run.
    Robert, your running as an Independent. If you claim your abilities can win you the White House, go ahead.

    Now I try to be nice to everyone on here. That’s no different with you. I see no reason to insult you, Robert. But most people take friendliness as that, and not as me being a supporter.
    Anything bad I say is usually in respect to policy or just sarcasm. My sarcasm tends to give off the illusion of insults, which I constantly apologize for.

    Milnes 08? Not for me. Milnes on IPR? :D

  11. paulie cannoli

    Good morning Robert. How’s the weather on your planet?

    Yes, I know I said I would stay off the computer, but A) I’m a strung out internet junkie, completely off the recovery wagon and B) I need to sit here and hand-copy the questions for McKinney and other Greens because nobody called me with them. Grrrrr.

    Anyway, Robert, I’m not a detractor. I wish you lots of luck, and I think you should hook up with Allen Hacker as your campaign manager. Together, you will be unstoppable. You should look into it.

    So, if I understand this correctly; you are saying that you were on the verge of capturing 40% or so of the electorate, or 40 millions votes or perhaps even more. But then GE and I screwed all that up?

    OK. Sounds as plausible as the rest of what you say.

  12. paulie cannoli

    Mike: Watch your tongue. Do not mention my name nor Paulie’s and the CIA in the same sentence. There’s a reason we both use aliases.

    Agent Chipmunk, this is Agent Squirrel. Repeat, Agent Squirrel to Agent Chipmunk.

    Ixnay shintay. Repeat, Ixnay shintay.

    Agent Squirrel, 10-4.

  13. Robert Milnes

    pc/pc, I said more or less when dealing with the infinitesimal third party blogosphere a couple of smartass detractors can have a dampening effect on a incipient movement, kind of like bad weather at the start of a picnic. I have a question or 2 for McKinney. Ask her if she ever heard of the Progressive Alliance. & what is her strategy to win the election? & how does her choice of vp help her do that?

  14. Steve Rankin

    Theodore Roosevelt, of course, challenged Taft for the Republican nomination before launching his third-party bid.

    At the Chicago convention, TR got more delegates from Taft’s home state of Ohio than Taft did, and vice versa in TR’s home state of NY.

    Sen. Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin also sought the GOP nomination, and TR questioned his mental stability. Consequently, LaFollette refused to throw his support to TR at the convention, thus ensuring Taft’s renomination.

  15. Robert Milnes

    Steve Rankin, Lafollette got 16.6% (17%) in the 1924 election with the Progressive Party. I think this tends to prove my working hypothesis of the possible progressive plurality. Only now it would be a matter of coordinating the progressive (green + libertarian) vote as there is no progressive party anymore rather than splitting off from the gop & passively trying to get dem votes. & part of the hypothesis is that in our polarized political atmosphere the progressive vote has “precipitated” to borrow a word from chemistry into the Green and Libertarian parties.

  16. Thomas L. Knapp

    First off, let me add my heart endorsement of Others to Richard Winger’s and GE’s.

    I’m stalled on reading anything much at the moment for various reasons, but I’m near the end of the third volume and have found all of them tremendously informative and enjoyable so far. As I remarked to Darcy, they remind me in good ways of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative.

    Now, to the Milnes-bait refutation:

    – In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was an immensely popular former president. In 2008, Robert Milnes is an unknown individual with no saleable political credentials.

    – In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt sought the GOP’s nomination again, and would almost certainly have won it had it not been for the Taft supporters’ machinations at the national convention itself. In 2008, the closest Robert Milnes has come to any party’s nomination is the Boston Tea Party’s — he polled 14% support in an approval voting scenario and in a convention which he had full and unfettered access to.

    – In 1912, Roosevelt peeled off the moderate-to-left wing of the GOP’s support base for his Progressive Party candidacy. In 2008, it is the conservative wings of both the GOP and the Democratic Party which are most likely to bolt, and neither in response to a generally “progressive” appeal.

    In fact, it is Bob Barr, not Bob Milnes, who in 2008 most strategically resembles the Theodore Roosevelt of 1912.

    And to the extent that the analogy holds, the LP would be better off strategically emulating the Prohibition Party’s campaign of that year and focusing resolutely on one or two issues with broad-based support in both parties. TR came closer than any third party candidate since to winning a presidential election in 1912 … but lost. The Prohibition Party lost the 1912 election but within six years had accomplished its primary policy goal (the 18th Amendment).

  17. Robert Milnes

    Tom, so we can blame the Prohibition Party for the 18th Amendment instead of the progressive movement? Works for me. Your Bob Barr ~ Bob Milnes comparison is arguable except for one thing. Barr is either deliberately or by the nature of politics going for or appealing to the right libertarian/conservative/paleo/gop/Dixiecrat area of Nolan chart. I would go for/appeal to the left libertarian/anarchist(Ruwart/Kubby) area + PLUS the entire left including the socialist vote. This is Milsted’s “upper left” area. & it is BIG. The socialists know the socialist parties are going nowhere but their vote could go to a leftist/progressive/left libertarian who could win. In this case it would be via the Green party if they try it rather than the LP or BTP who threw away their opportunity.

  18. G.E. Post author

    Milnes – You moron. Prohibition was on of the goals of the “progressive” (i.e. fascist) movement. The Prohibitionists considered themselves progressives and Progressives were largely prohibitionists. Idiot.

  19. Robert Milnes

    G.E., How can progressive id est i.e. = i.e. be synonymous with “fascist”? There you go again. Do words mean nothing to you? They are all synonymous Silly Putty to you. Moron. In any event it didn’t take long for SOMEBODY to realize this was a mistake & repeal.

  20. chronicler03

    As a response to the Thomas Knapp post above:

    1. TR didn’t come too close to winning the Republican nomination in 1912. Fourteen states held primaries, which TR mostly won [http://www.ourcampaigns.com/RaceDetail.html?RaceID=55164], but Taft won the caucus states handily. At the end of the delegate selection, Taft had a 571-439 margin, with 540 being a majority. TR challenged several delegations, but even LaFollette admitted that TR was grasping at straws with many of these challenges.

    2. Around 1906, Prohibition Party national leaders approved a plan to achieve what would become the 18th amendment. It was a multi-step process beginning with local option laws, then state legislation, then helping achieve women’s suffrage (since women supported prohibition in greater numbers than men), then working in congressional primaries, and finally the constitutional amendment. The whole process took only 12 years to accomplish, which is rather remarkable for a minor party.

  21. G.E. Post author

    The OTHERS ads appear free of charge by acclamation of IPR’s writers. Darcy G. Richardson, author of the series, is IPR’s resident historian.

    Think before you make baseless allegations. It was announced from Day-One of IPR’s existence that Darcy was a consultant for the site.

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