43 of 51 people found the following review helpful
Though ostensibly about the 1912 presidential election, James Chace's book is really about the contest between two of the candidates in that race - Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson - and the ideologies that they espoused. This focus is understandable, given how these two major figures dominate the political history of the period, but it stints the forces represented in the candidacies of William Howard Taft and Eugene Debs, both of whom (Taft especially) get short shrift by comparison.
This in itself may not have been a problem had Chace provided a thoughtful analysis of the campaign. Instead, he has written a familiar, if engaging, narrative of events. All of the standard anecdotes are here, with little explanation of what they might reveal about the people mentioned. Worse, there is no sense of the broader background beyond a few vague statements about the progressive movement. Nor has Chace undertaken any original research, preferring instead to rely on the many books that have already been written about this memorable cast of characters.
The result is disappointing. The author has done little to show how the 1912 election was, as the subtitle states, "the election that changed the country." While a readable account of the events of a remarkable campaign (one that saw the near-assassination of Roosevelt and the death of a vice president), it provides no deeper examination of the candidates or the nation and offers nothing that hasn't been written elsewhere already. In the end, while the book makes for entertaining reading it is not the thoughtful analysis this momentous contest deserves.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Despite the apocalyptic title, the fact is that for all of the candidates for the presidency the nominations and subsequent campaign of 1912 could not come fast enough. For everything claimed about the 1912 election being a benchmark of later twentieth century electoral trends, the candidates themselves were men running on empty or close to it. Where the four candidates themselves [three, realistically, at any rate] were concerned, the prize of the White House was a reprieve from decline, oblivion, or in Debs' case, jail.
One can argue whether Eugene Debs deserves the attention he commands in this work. On election day he tallied about what one would expect from the least known candidate in a four man race, and there is no reading of the results that suggests Debs' share of the vote seriously affected the outcome. But the Socialist candidate is a charming fellow in his own way, an Adlai Stevenson in coveralls or a cheap suit, and James Chace gives him extended exposure to a current generation that has forgotten the struggles of American Labor.
Debs was a combination of things: laborer, philosopher, public office holder, labor leader, and perennial presidential candidate. The 1912 election would be his fourth run for the White House, though even Debs realized that his presidential campaigns were more about exposure on the bully pulpit than the prize itself. Chace provides a biography that briefly chronicles not just the colorful career of Debs but a thumbnail sketch of the labor-management problems coming to a boil in mainstream electoral politics.
Unfortunately for Debs in 1912, the issue of populism was now becoming semi-respectable, and others with more name recognition were willing to take the banner that Debs had manfully carried alone in past elections. Robert LaFollette appeared to be the front-runner until a physical and mental breakdown led reform-minded Republican governors in the West to coax, if that be the right word, Theodore Roosevelt out of retirement. If the reader winces at the juxtaposition of "coax" and "Roosevelt," that is probably understandable. Yet Roosevelt's third party candidacy was not an inevitability.
The popular wisdom has held that Roosevelt was literally panting to get back into the limelight, that four years of retirement had been a torment. This is only partly true. Roosevelt, for all his faults, was no fool. He knew he would be running against an incumbent of his own party, albeit a weak one, a crossing of the Rubicon if ever there was one. Unfortunately for Roosevelt, this was also an incumbent he had hand picked and groomed, a man once seen by Roosevelt as something of a younger brother. The rupture of Roosevelt's relationship with William Howard Taft was tragic, public, and unbearably cruel, and its impact was that of a two-edged sword in this campaign. Moreover, Roosevelt's sense of two-party order was strong; his positioning as a potential third-party reformer would put him in close proximity with people and causes he considered dangerously close to anarchy.
But still he ran for president, in part to tackle the trusts and other reform causes he had espoused in the White House and which he accused Taft of ignoring. For all his popularity Roosevelt had never won over the Republican Party machinery, which of course defeated him at the Chicago nominating convention. Such things happen in politics, but rules committee chicanery would be taken very personally by Roosevelt, who in his momentary disgust uncharacteristically took up a third party progressive banner. Naturally, his rage became all the more personified against Taft and brought out the worst in the Rough Rider's last presidential campaign.
The great mystery not unraveled in this study is why Taft felt compelled to run for reelection at all. By all accounts he was an unhappy president, possibly best remembered for his weight problem. He was self-effacing and rather atypical for a politician. It is not at all certain that Roosevelt's philosophy unduly concerned him. In fact, Taft's own trust-busting cost him much support within his own party. One can imagine him declining to run in 1912 and returning to the practice of law. All things considered, personal liabilities and the like, his might have been the most respectable third place finish in the history of presidential elections, though one wonders why he went to all the trouble.
Woodrow Wilson may have been a fresh face in the presidential arena, but in fact he had barely survived two major political upheavals, mostly of his own making, in smaller arenas prior to the campaign of 1912. As President of Princeton University his radical reform of traditional campus life, not to mention his style of implementation, made a run for the New Jersey state house a graceful escape. His tenure as chief executive of the Garden State was a stormy one; attacks on both sides-from machine Democrats and Republicans alike-brought out the intractability of the former college professor. From a distance, however, Wilson was a refreshing new reform face, particularly when the national Democratic Convention bogged down to a slugfest between career politicians long in the tooth. Wilson, who could be as priestly as the pope when the occasion arose, was the one contender who could wear William Jennings Bryan's vestments of reform and progressivism in a manner that Democratic pols did not mind going to church.
How much the election of 1912 changed the country is still an open question. In truth, the more pertinent question is how this election impacted World War I. Only Roosevelt, of the four candidates, seemed to have an inkling of a possible world war, though even his admiring biographers have reservations about Roosevelt as a wartime president. What can be safely said is this: a united Republican Party, i.e., with both Roosevelt and the bosses under the tent, would have probably defeated Wilson. The reader can make of that as he wishes.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Chace does a good job of detailing why the election of 1912 was so important to the United States. He describes the four participants in the election of 1912: Wilson, Taft, Roosevelt, and Debs. Bryan was also a factor in the Democratic nomination of Wilson. The main focus of this book is how these leaders would affect change in America. Taft was the conservative and Debs was the radical. Roosevelt and Wilson were the candidates for the Progressive faction of the country. Chace describes each candidate and all his positives and negatives. I didn't know Wilson was such a reactionary on race and immigrant relations, while Roosevelt was generally very liberal on these issues. All in all a good book about the campaign and why the Republican Party veered to the right.
For those interested in the politics of America, this is a good read. The reader would be surprised to find that the red and blue states have actually changed over the years. In the past, the South was reactionary and the West was Progressive while the East and Midwest favored the conservative (Republican) issues. Not so today. Hats off to Chace for writing a good read.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on June 25, 2004
This book is absolutely worth your time to read if you have an interest in the Progressive Era and the very important election of 1912. If you have a good working knowledge of the characters involved then you won't find anything new here. "1912" serves more as either an introduction to the subject or a refresher. If you have the time and the interest I would suggest a biography of each of the four main players and possibly one on William Jennings Bryan who was an extremely important player of the era who gets beat up some in this book.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
The premise behind James Chace's book 1912 is that the election held that year shaped the current political landscape. The late government and public law professor and former editor of Foreign Affairs argues that the victory by Woodrow Wilson led to the Democrats embracing progressive reform, as seen through FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society. The split in the Republican Party was caused by Taft's conservatives versus Theodore Roosevelt's reform-minded Progressive Party, yet when TR encouraged his Party to vote for Charles Hughes in the 1916 election, he helped kill the party he founded. Hence, the pro-Taft Republicans went on the conservative route as embodied by the likes of Ronald Reagan and the current usurper of the White House. And Chace's book succeeds well, providing the background of each of the issues and candidates leading up to the election, and their aftermaths.
TR is hands down the most ebullient and charismatic character, even when he was shot by a would-be assassin. He gave his speech as planned before seeking medical treatment. Yet he believed in the reform and not the erasure of industrial capitalism. He embraced Herbert Croly's The Promise of American Life, which was against the Jeffersonian concept of "limited government and uncontrolled individualism," but wanted to revamp Alexander Hamilton's attachment of the government to the people so that the whole people and not just a minority elite was in charge of the welfare of the country.
Yet of the four parties, the champion of the little man was the Socialist candidate, Eugene Victor Debs. His transformation from pragmatic labour leader to labour radical came with his imprisonment in the wake of the 1894 Pullman Strike, for conspiring to interfere with interstate commerce. Debs also championed unskilled workers, many of them African-Americans, of the American Railroad Union, pitting him against Samuel Gompers and the skilled white workers of the AFL, and he advocated women's suffrage. Of the four candidates, his is the noblest voice that fits the political climate most needed today. He thought to achieve his brand of socialism by legitimate political means, at the ballot box, to overthrow a corrupt competitive and capitalist system.
The political platform of the Socialists speaks much: "shorter working hours, adequate insurance and safety rules, and an end to child labour,... direct election of the president and vice president." Some of the proposals are radical, such as eliminating the Senate, presidential veto over legislation, and making the Supreme Court unable to declare laws unconstitutional, but they embody the voice of the Congressman as the anointed voice of the people.
As for William Howard Taft, he is portrayed as a weak incumbent torn between his friendship with TR and his loyalty to the conservative wing of the Republican Party. His attacks on Roosevelt were counterpointed by his weeping at the loss of their friendship; fortunately, the two reconciled after the election.
Indeed, on 22 July, he had written: "I think I might as well give up so far as being a candidate. There are so many people in the country who don't like me." Just as well, as he hadn't originally aspired to the highest office in the land. At his wife's Nellie's insistence did he agree to become TR's handpicked successor in the 1908 election. No, as a jurist, for him, the ultimate satisfaction was as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, something he eventually got under President Warren G. Harding.
Of the four presidential candidates, Chace looks the most unfavourably towards Woodrow Wilson. Wilson is seen as a political opportunist who shifted position for power. His well-known egotistical stubbornness, his tendency to begrudge anyone who disagreed with his position, and his refusal to change his position, however misplaced it might be later, is covered, but Wilson, hailing from Virginia, was a Southerner, and he vehemently denied any parity for the African-Americans with the whites--yes, he was a racist to the core. A conservative Democrat, his refusal to pardon an ailing Debs, imprisoned for protesting WWI, demonstrates his spitefulness. The only laudable thing I can say about him is his insistence on trying to tear himself away from the political party machine, i.e. Tammany Hall.
Chace's book lifts Debs to the hero status he deserves, but also shows TR, whose Mahanism and imperialist tendencies turned me off, as someone who I favour after his political rebirth, especially in the final years of his life, when he fought for women's suffrage. Today, what we need is a Debs, a champion for all workers, with a progressive movement that helps farmers, industrial workers, and those in the retail and service sector challenge and defeat the Carnegies, Rockefellers, and robber barons of today.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
I read 1912 expecting your typical Woodwardesque political history. What I got was probably the best read of the year and one of my favorite works of nonfiction. Not only was 1912 the election that changed America, it also firmly established conservative principles of the Republican party while featuring a cast of four of the most colorful characters ever featured in a presidential election. I was especially impressed with the treatment of Eugene V. Debs, usually overlooked by historians except for the bit of trivia about pulling 1 million votes from prison. I whole-heartedly recommend James Chase brilliant 1912.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on July 26, 2004
Professor Chace's book is a marvelous general account of one may be one of the overlooked elections in US history, but does not live up to its title.
He brings to life the oratorical power of Eugene Debs, the prickly personality of Woodrow Wilson, the messianic personality of Teddy Roosevelt, and the shy defiance of WH Taft. Professor Chace gives us the psychological underpinnings of the Senate defeat of the League of nations, discusses the likelihood of TR's nomination in 1920, and offers a lively account of the election itself from nomination to general canvas.
However, his assertion that this election changed the country does not seem to hold. At best, this election simply revealed the ideological fault lines that were inherent in the GOP-the democratic party fault lines had been on display since 1896 when Bryan campaigned on free silver and the Gold Bugs left the party.
Entertaining, educational, but not enlightening.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on September 24, 2004
James Chace is a professor who is adept at writing a book in clear, succint and understandable prose. In this new tome he
examines the exciting 1912 Presidental race. The candidates:
1. William Howard Taft the heir apparent to the Republican
Presidential crown worn with aplomb by the genius T.R. Taft
was conservative and pro-big business. He loved TR and was
hurt when the Rough Rider left the Republican Party to initiate his own Progressive (Bull Moose Party). Taft loved the law and later was appointed to the US Supreme Court. He was kind, affable, henpecked and was a mediocre president and poor campaigner. He came in third in the general election.
2. Woodrow Wilson-The son of the Presbyterian manse, former
President of Princteton and an idealistic reformer he won the
race and went on to serve two terms. Wilson was a racist and
was not popular among the immigrant voters. He comes across as
shallow in thought and stubborn in his refusal to work with Republicans in getting the League of Nations entry for the US
approved following World War I. The prissy Wilson did manage to
work for reforms in business and government. He was the arch foe of T.R. His mantra was a New Freedom for America,
3. Theodore Roosevlet-one of our greatest presidents he decided to run for a third term after becoming disgusted with the rightward drift of the GOP. He preached a gospel of regulating the trusts, fiscal reform and a new nationalism. TR believed in a strong military and civil rights. His feud with Taft led to a splintering of the Republican party opening the door for Democrat Wilson to walk into the White House. TR died in 1919
embittered by the loss of his son Quentin in World War One . If
he had lived he would probably had been touted to head the GOP
ticket in 1920.
4. Eugene Debs-a giant of American labor agitation he fought hard for the rights of the poor and union members. Debs was
a controversial figure who was jailed in World War I for sedition only to be pardoned by Warren G. Harding in 1921.
Debs was a complex figure but an appealing one.
In today's political arena one wishes presidential timber grew as tall as it did in 1912.
Chace's tall is a general account of the election. It is a
good book and an indispensible one for someone who knows nothing about the 1912 presidential contes. As such it will appeal more to the general reader than the seasoned scholar of the era.
I read the book in two days enjoying it and learning from it.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on May 27, 2004
James Chace's new book, "1912" recounts one of the more curious elections in our nation's history...one that saw four men vie for the electorate's vote. Although not much new is offered it is a political trip down memory lane as Chace delves into the personalities and issues of the campaign.
For those of us who have been students of presidential elections we often look at the election of 1912 as a race between three men, not four. As Eugene Victor Debs had a much lower popular vote total than the other three and won no electoral votes he is often relegated to the sidelines in this election. Chace is at his best not only by including Debs in the mix but by his descriptions of Debs and how the Socialist candidate managed to run a respectable campaign against a former president, a current president and a president to be.
Unfortunately, the author's writing, though straightforward and historically accurate, is often wooden. The more exciting aspects of the year (notably the nominations) never really come to life. The book also suffers from over-hype... while it was a fascinating election year, to say that the outcome sent the Republicans into "a conservative ascendancy that reached its fullness with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush" (from the back flap of the dust cover) is a bit of a stretch. 1912 was an important election year but not a turning point as seems to be suggested.
Chace rightly focuses on the two main players, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and leaves William Howard Taft somewhere in the dust. (which is fairly close to how the electoral vote turned out, at least for Taft) "1912" is a solid book but one that could have been spiced up a little with better writing.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Many of the other reviewers here capture my sentiments about this book...oh, what could have been. Not in American history; no in the book itself. Chace seems to me to be sympathetic to all of his candidates except Taft, who, like most of the "minor" Presidents is far more interesting than we thought. But Chace's Progressivism relegates Taft to a minor figure, TR's fearful lapdog who quests for his approval and otherwise does little more than worry about his weight and shoot a round of golf. But the idea that was born (or at least grew to manhood) in 1912, according to Chace, is one we might very well be better off without. The President who has to fix everything, be involved everywhere, and rule all aspects of our life sounds almost like a good idea when espoused by Wilson and Roosevelt in this campaign. But the core idea, after 90 years of various attempts to implement it, should be tossed aside. Taft knew this back then, as quoted in the book. "A National Government cannot create good times. It cannot make the rain to fall, [or, my Louisiana friends, stop falling] the sun to shine, or the crops to grow, but it can, by pursuing a meddlesome policy, attempting to change economic conditions, and frightening the investment of capital, prevent a prosperity and a revival of business which might otherwise have taken place." As true today as it was in 1912.