Home > 1896-1928 Campaigns, 1912 Campaign > 1912–Puck Cartoon–Emma Jekowsky

1912–Puck Cartoon–Emma Jekowsky

The election of 1912 was unique in that it was the only election until that point in time that had a viable third party candidate. In addition, the election functioned as “an important and pithy discussion about the country’s future.”1 The candidates were Democrat Woodrow Wilson from New Jersey, Republican William Howard Taft from Ohio, Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Theodore Roosevelt from New York and the persistent Socialist from Indiana, Eugene Debs. After serving the better part of two terms as president of the United States, Roosevelt essentially handed the Republican nomination down to Taft. Roosevelt believed Taft would carry on his legacy and serve the country in a way with which Roosevelt would agree.

Over the course of Taft’s term, however (1909-1912), Roosevelt became increasingly disappointed in the way Taft was carrying out his tenure as president. Sure that he had no choice but to take matters into his own hands once again, Roosevelt attempted to “wrest the Republican nomination away from Taft” before the 1912 presidential election.2 When he failed to do so, Roosevelt formed a third party, the Progressive Party, and “threw his hat in the ring” against his former successor Taft and Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt thought he had a shot, but the real impact he made on the election of 1912 was splitting the Republican vote and giving Wilson an advantage in the election that he would not have gotten had he been running against only one Republican candidate. Roosevelt and Wilson, the two leading candidates, both focused on reform, specifically on the topic of big business and the economy.3

In the general election, Wilson won 435 electoral votes and 42% of the popular vote to Roosevelt’s 88 electoral votes and 27% of the popular vote and Taft’s eight electoral votes and 23% of the popular vote.  Debs won zero electoral votes with six percent of the popular vote. The election of 1912 proved to be the first and last time a third party candidate, Roosevelt, finished higher than third place. 4 The cartoon depicts what is widely recognized as the reason Wilson won the election; the division of the Republican Party provided Wilson with the perfect opportunity to let Taft and Roosevelt split the Republican vote and win enough electoral votes to win the presidency. In fact, Roosevelt “may well have handed Wilson the presidency.”5 Without the division of the Republican Party, Wilson would have had a much more difficult time securing the election.

The cartoon, created by Louis M. Glacken, was featured in Puck magazine in 1912. The humorous, liberal leaning magazine “functioned as a link between elite intellect and popular imagination.”6 In other words, Puck “tapped the great middle-class readership of America” while simultaneously attracting “upper and some lower class readers as well.”7 This particular piece of rhetoric was printed in an issue of Puck after the 1912 presidential election. The cartoon’s message is simple: The Grand Old Party (Republicans) divided by the Bull Moose/Progressive Party equals victory for Democrat Woodrow Wilson. The order is important too. The cartoon does not depict an equation in which the Republican Party simply split and neither faction was more to blame than the other. Instead, it is made clear with the elephant being divided by the Bull Moose that the Bull Moose (Theodore Roosevelt) drove the wedge between the party and essentially gave the win to Wilson. Roosevelt, who shared the majority of the election coverage and visibility with Wilson, received more votes than Taft, the incumbent. Both Roosevelt and Wilson were knowledgeable rhetoricians who understood the relationship between reform and success in the election. The oratorical skill and subsequent popularity of Roosevelt superceded the fact that Taft was the current president and former Roosevelt protégé. Roosevelt’s popularity proved too much for Taft’s incumbency to overcome, but not enough to defeat Wilson. This cartoon accurately and simply depicts this aspect of the election. Visually, this cartoon works because it is simple, clear and consistent: each part of the equation is represented by each party’s mascot (the Bull Moose even has Teddy Roosevelt’s glasses, just in case it was not explicitly clear). Furthermore, the cartoon implies that Wilson had no problem accepting the win for what it was. Perched on his faithful donkey, he is smiling and joyfully waving his hat in the air, enjoying his victory.

Notes 

1. “Election of 1912.” US History. http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h887.html

2. “From Taft to Wilson: The 1912 Election.” The Authentic History Center. http://bit.ly/fsfV28

3. Chace, James. 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs– the Election That Changed the Country. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. 3,7.

4. “From Taft to Wilson…” 

5. Chace 7.

6. Backer, Dan. “A Popular Medium.” Uniting Mugwumps and the Masses: Puck’s Role in Guilded Age Politics. University of Virginia. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma96/puck/part3.html

7. Sloane, David E.E. Introduction. American Humor Magazines and Comic Periodicals. Ed. David E.E. Sloane. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

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