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Teddy Roosevelt Defends the Presidential Primary

In 1912, the popular third-party candidate stressed "the right of the people to rule" in the first election to truly test the primary system.

Lehigh County Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons

On March 20, 1912, Carnegie Hall was filled to capacity. Only two months earlier, Theodore Roosevelt’s opponent and rival for the Republican presidential nomination Senator Robert La Follette had delivered a powerful address to an overflow crowd of cheering supporters in the same venue. Notwithstanding La Follette’s dramatic primary victory in North Dakota a day earlier, more than 3,000 people crammed into the lavish main hall to hear what the press was calling Roosevelt’s first speech of the campaign. 

 The balcony was filled with activists and social workers while the main floor glittered with men and women in evening dress. Another crowd of Roosevelt supporters filled the Carnegie Lyceum, a smaller theater and recital hall, and as many as 5,000 others, who could not gain admission, stood cheering in the street. The main floor had the excitement and flavor of opening night of the opera season. 

When Roosevelt bounded onto the stage, the building exploded with wild cheers. “Teddy, O! Teddy,” people shouted, waving handkerchiefs and hats from the galleries. 

Standing on the raised platform, Roosevelt waved his hand, asking his admirers to take their seats. But a shout came from the back of the hall, and most of those in the crowd jumped back to their feet and cheered for another two minutes. 

Roosevelt had been working on his speech for more than a week. Some of his closest advisors urged him to stress his conservative, pro-business credentials. They were trying, in part, to offset the impact of the proposal for the recall of judicial decisions in his Columbus speech, which had sent tremors through the business world, including many of his staunchest supporters. “All your friends and the committee here unanimously and strongly urge that your Carnegie Hall address be mainly a charter of business prosperity,” his former Secretary of the Navy wired from Chicago. The treasurer of Roosevelt’s New York campaign pleaded for such a statement: “If a strong chord of sympathy can be struck in your Carnegie Hall address with the aims of those who are working conservatively to develop large business enterprises on the basis of the square deal, I think it would do more for our cause between now and election time than any other subject which could be discussed there.” TR’s treasurer sat in a private box, hoping that Roosevelt would heed his advice. 

But thanks to La Follette’s return to the race, with the front pages of the papers that day featuring the results from North Dakota, a probusiness speech was impossible. Strange and unlikely as it seemed, La Follette was back in the campaign and in a position to attract some of the progressive voters and contributors who would otherwise have supported Roosevelt by default. “La Follette is a wonder,” a Roosevelt admirer told the press. “What other man on earth could collapse as he did, not only physically but politically, and come back as he has done? I think Roosevelt has to reckon with him even more than with Taft.” 

Roosevelt had darker fears. He began to envision a La Follette-Taft alliance. “LaFollette is really for Taft if he can’t get it himself” he told John Bass, who had managed his campaign in North Dakota. 

His speech had to strike a balance between Taft and La Follette, to show that he alone was the candidate of “steady, wise progress.” But he knew that he had to stress progress more than steadiness and wisdom. Whether out of conviction, political necessity, or both, Roosevelt was determined to use the Carnegie Hall speech to win the support of progressives who might defect (or return) to La Follette, to land a blow for progressive principles, to continue his new fight for political primaries, and to explain and reinforce his Columbus speech calling for a public right to recall judicial decisions. He wanted the speech to inspire his supporters in the galleries rather than those in the box seats—and to invigorate his campaign forces in the West. 

“The great fundamental issue now before the Republican Party and before our people can be stated briefly,” he began. “It is: Are the American people fit to govern themselves, to rule themselves, to control themselves? I believe they are. My opponents do not.” The crowd started to cheer. 

With those words, he set the tone and the text of his campaign. He called his speech “The Right of the People to Rule.” Though he had the capacity to bring an audience to its feet and to stir passions in ways that some of his friends found frightening, he delivered most of the speech in careful, almost scholarly tones. Nevertheless, the crowd cheered and applauded, punctuating his arguments, as he read the speech, throwing each page of his typewritten text to the floor as he completed it. 

With his clipped enunciation of each point, he made the case for direct presidential primaries: 

“I believe the majority of the plain people of the United States will, day in and day out, make fewer mistakes in governing themselves than any smaller class or body of men, no matter what their training, will make in trying to govern them. I believe, again, that the American people are, as a whole, capable of self-control and of learning by their mistakes. Our opponents pay lip-loyalty to this doctrine; but they show their real beliefs by the way in which they champion every device to make the nominal rule of the people a sham.” 

He attacked Taft’s use of patronage and the power of incumbency and political bosses to control the delegate selection process. 

“It is a small minority that is to-day using our convention system to defeat the will of a majority of the people in the choice of delegates to the Chicago Convention.” 

He presented his argument for the cause of social justice: 

“We are today suffering from the tyranny of minorities. It is a small minority that is grabbing our coal-deposits, our water-powers, and our harbor fronts. A small minority is battening on the sale of adulterated food and drugs. It is a small minority that stands behind the present law of master and servant, the sweat-shops, and the whole calendar of social and industrial injustice.” 

As he neared the end of his address, TR started to pace back and forth on the platform, turning up the pitch and the passion as he explained his reasons for running, his deep- seated belief that he and he alone could save the nation from radicalism on either end of the political spectrum, from the “unreasonable conservatism” championed by those who supported Taft, if not by Taft himself; and perhaps even more dangerous, from the “unreasonable radicalism” of La Follette. 

“I am not leading this fight as a matter of aesthetic pleasure,” he explained. “I am leading because somebody must lead, or else the fight would not be made at all. I prefer to work with moderate, rational conservatives, provided only that they do in good faith strive forward toward the light. But when they halt and turn their backs to the light, and sit with the scorners on the seats of reaction, then I must part company with them. We the people cannot turn back. Our aim must be steady, wise progress. 

“It would be well if our people would study the history of a sister republic. All the woes of France for a century and a quarter have been due to the folly of her people in splitting into the two camps of unreasonable conservatism and unreasonable radicalism. . . . With convulsion and oscillation from one extreme to another, with alternations of violent radicalism and violent Bourbonism, the French people went through misery toward a shattered goal. May we profit by the experiences of our brother republicans across the water, and go forward steadily, avoiding all the wild extremes. May our ultra-conservatives remember that the rule of the Bourbons brought on the Revolution, and may our would-be revolutionaries remember that no Bourbon was ever such a dangerous enemy of the people and of freedom as the professed friend of both, Robespierre. There is no danger of a revolution in this country; but there is grave discontent and unrest, and in order to remove them there is need of all the wisdom and probity and deep-seated faith in and purpose to uplift humanity we have at our command.” 

His final words brought the reformers in the galleries to their feet. 

“Friends,” he concluded, “Our tasks as Americans is to strive for social and industrial justice, achieved through the genuine rule of the people. . . . In order to succeed we need leaders of inspired idealism, leaders to whom are granted great visions, who dream greatly and strive to make their dreams come true; who can kindle the people with the fire from their own burning souls. The leader for the time being, whoever he may be, is but an instrument, to be used until broken and then to be cast aside; and if he is worth his salt he will care no more when he is broken than a soldier cares when he is sent where his life is forfeit in order that the victory may be won. In the long fight for righteousness the watchword for all of us is spend and be spent. It is of little matter whether any one man fails or succeeds; but the cause shall not fail, for it is the cause of mankind.” 

The audience erupted with applause.

Excerpted from Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary by Geoffrey Cowan. Copyright © 2016 by Geoffrey Cowan. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.