Home > 1896-1928 Campaigns, 1912 Campaign > 1912–Wilson Speech–Emma Jekowsky

1912–Wilson Speech–Emma Jekowsky

The election of 1912 is historically viewed essentially as a battle of rhetorical wit between the Democrat from New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, and the Progressive from New York, former president Theodore Roosevelt. Taft, who was relieved not to be reelected, did not figure very prominently into the campaign. Both Wilson and Roosevelt understood the importance of reform in this particular election, and made it a focus of their campaigning. Industry was transforming the nation, and changes had to be made in order to deal with the new problems that were arising while simultaneously maintaining “the democratic values that the Founders had envisaged” for the country.1 The most pervasive and crucial of these issues facing the nation in 1912 was the rise of big businesses. While Roosevelt and Wilson agreed that changes needed to be made to prevent big business from taking over and threatening the success and viability of American capitalism, they disagreed on how to go about making those changes.

Roosevelt believed the answers lied in what he called in a 1910 speech the “new nationalism.” For Roosevelt, there was no denying that big business was not going to go anywhere whether everyone liked it or not. So, rather than fight for its eradication, something Roosevelt seemed to think would be an exercise in futility, he advocated for its regulation. Wilson did not agree with this tactic. In a campaign speech in 1912, (found at http://bit.ly/gJH3Av), Wilson eloquently explains the difference between his and Roosevelt’s plans for big business reform and why Roosevelt’s plan is not sound:

He proposes in his platform not to abolish monopoly, but to take it under the legal protection of the government and to regulate it; in other words, to take the very men into partnership who have made it impossible to carry out these programs by which all of us wish to help the people. It is perfectly idle to talk of doing things when your hands are tied for you, so long as the men who now control the industry of the country continue to control it.2

Wilson skillfully connects Roosevelt with the tycoons who run the big businesses and monopolies in this speech, making Roosevelt out to be the bad guy when it comes to reforming big business and making real changes. Wilson continues on, outlining his own platform for reform in response to Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” with what is generally referred to as Wilson’s “New Freedom.” Wilson makes it explicitly clear that his “New Freedom” does not seek to destroy the enterprise of capitalism that the country had worked so hard to build up. By doing this, Wilson addresses the concerns of big business men while still advocating for small business owners. His plan, as stated in this speech, is to “see to it that competition is so regulated that the big fellow cannot put the little fellow out of business, for he has been putting the little fellow out of business for the last half-generation.” Wilson projects in this speech the image of friend to all businessmen, seeking neither to destroy big business nor aid in the destruction of small business and competition. Wilson also masterfully avoids insulting any of Roosevelt’s supporters by stating that he explicitly stating that he believes they are  “men and women of noble character and of elevated purpose” for whom he has “no word of criticism.”

The actual audio of the speech, recorded on a phonograph, is less than enthralling and slightly monotone. Wilson himself admitted he thought Roosevelt a superior personality to himself in that he could “appeal to people’s imagination.”3 The majority of people, however, most likely read this speech the next day rather than listened to it as Wilson read it. The actual words are effective and convincing, conveying clearly what Wilson believes to be the crucial difference between his and Roosevelt’s plan for reform. Despite the tone of voice, you can hear in this speech the rhetorical prowess and understanding with which Wilson spoke to the American people during the campaign.

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

2. 1912 US Election Campaign Speech Audio- Woodrow Wilson 1 of 6. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yb30L-NmKjo

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