1912–Bull Moose Speech–Emma Jekowsky
The election of 1912 was unprecedented for its time and remains today one of the most captivating pieces of political theater. After a contentious convention struggle, William Jennings Bryan, himself a three-time presidential candidate and one of the country’s most powerful speakers, helped throw the Democratic nomination to Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey. The intellectual former president of Princeton University had served as governor for just over a year and would later appoint Bryan as Secretary of State. For their part, the Republican’s found themselves a house divided. Incumbent President William Howard Taft had his re-nomination challenged by the very man who had all but handed the office to him just four years earlier, former president Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s return to politics splintered the party, pitting his progressive followers against the establishment conservatives who favored the mild-mannered Taft. The convention virtually deadlocked before the powerful establishment forces were able to seal the nomination for President Taft. Roosevelt declared that “the bosses in control of the Republican party” had “stolen the nomination and wrecked the political party” and announced that he would run as an independent on a progressive platform.1
It is as such that candidate Theodore Roosevelt traveled to Milwaukee on October 14th, 1912 to deliver one of many campaign speeches. It would be no ordinary speech. While Roosevelt greeted supporters outside the auditorium John Schrank, a disturbed man who had “stalked TR for thousands of miles”2 stepped forward and shot him in the chest. As Roosevelt himself put it, “He shot to kill.”3 In an almost unbelievable act of fate the bullet hit the thick collection of paper in Roosevelt’s breast pocket on which he had prepared his remarks, slowing it down just enough to prevent it from killing him when it entered his body. Wounded though he was, the ever boisterous former colonel insisted that he go on and give his speech regardless.
One can only imagine that the theatrics of the moment were not lost on Theodore Roosevelt, a man with a flare for the dramatic who had a “love of stagy arrivals.”4 He began his speech by alerting the crowd that he had just been shot but boasting that, “it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”5 This would become the most famous line of the speech and would forever earn his independent party the title “The Bull Moose Party.” From there he twice showed the audience where the bullet had entered his body, like Mark Antony displaying the wounds of Caesar, and stressed repeatedly his own devotion to his cause for a better life for all even if it came at the price of his own. Roosevelt then seamlessly turned the attempt on his life into an attack against his political opponents. Speculating about what had driven his would be assassin to such an act, the former president asserted that:
Now, friends, of course, I do not know, as I say, anything about him; but it is a very natural thing that weak and vicious minds should be inflamed to acts of violence by the kind of awful mendacity and abuse that have been heaped upon me for the last three months by the papers in the interest of not only Mr. Debs but of Mr. Wilson and Mr. Taft.6
Going further, he argued that his opponents could not:
Make the kind of untruthful, of bitter assault that they have made and not expect that brutal, violent natures, or brutal and violent characters, especially when the brutality is accompanied by a not very strong mind; they cannot expect that such natures will be unaffected by it.7
In essence, Roosevelt skillfully placed blame for the attempt on his life at the doorstep of his opponents.
Still perhaps the most telling characteristic of this political rhetoric is neither the theatrics of the speech nor Roosevelt’s handling of his wound, but the greater and subtler content of the speech itself. It is virtually entirely about Theodore Roosevelt. The word used significantly more often than any other is “I.” At one point he refers to the citizens as “my people”, and while he quickly corrects himself adding “our people” it is indicative of his true mentality.8 It is not until the later half of the speech that he addresses any type of policy or platform issue, and even although only briefly and through the context of what he had done throughout his career. While he frequently refers to his audience as his “friends” and briefly uses the repetition of the word “you” as a call to action later in his speech, the campaign is clearly and proudly the Teddy Roosevelt show.9 This is true and characteristic of Roosevelt’s lifestyle and career. Few men have so dominated the political landscape of an era as did Theodore Roosevelt, and arguably none have done it with such joy or by greater force of personality. Without an establishment ticket, his campaign was purely candidate driven and centered. It was the Bull Moose Party, and Theodore Roosevelt was the Bull Moose.
1. Roosevelt, Theodore. “”It Takes More Than That To Kill A Bull Moose”: The Leader and The Cause.” Theodore Roosevelt Association. Web. 22 Apr. 2011. http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org/research/speech%20kill%20moose.htm.
2. Roosevelt, Bull Moose Speech.
3. Roosevelt, Bull Moose Speech.
4. Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex. Random House. New York. 2002.
5. Roosevelt, Bull Moose Speech.
6. Roosevelt, Bull Moose Speech.
7. Roosevelt, Bull Moose Speech.
8. Roosevelt, Bull Moose Speech.