How Teddy Roosevelt Invented the Presidential Primary
When the 1912 Republican convention adjourned after William Howard Taft’s nomination at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 22, 150 of the credentialed delegates marched the short distance from the Chicago Coliseum to Orchestra Hall. They were led by the joyous men from California, happy to be free of the old regime at last and waving their huge state banner. They entered the hall at 10 p.m. Hiram Johnson, who had left the convention hours earlier, led them to the stage as the audience “cheered wildly.” Orchestra Hall was already filled to the breaking point. “The crowd of people wanting to get into the hall extended for blocks in a line four deep,” the Associated Press reported. “Thousands failed to get in the building.”
As other delegations entered, the crowd sang patriotic tunes and recreated the sounds of the steamroller that had echoed from the rafters of the Coliseum only hours earlier. Many of those who had been with Theodore Roosevelt in his campaign for the Republican nomination, including Borah and Hadley, stayed away. But other marquee supporters were there: George Perkins, Frank Munsey, Senator Dixon, Frank Knox, Governor Stubbs, James Garfield, the Pinchot brothers, and Medill and R. R. McCormick. People cheered the New Jersey delegation and then shouted out their support for Cecil Lyon of Texas as he made his way down the aisle. Those with credentials from the Republican Convention joined scores of others who had been denied seats at the Republican Party table, men committed to TR who had been selected in various states but had lost their credentials in challenges at the Republican Convention.
They were all there in common cause, as part of a crusade, determined to launch a new party that would be free to advocate the most advanced ideas of the era, to fight for social and industrial justice, suffrage for women, and better pay and better conditions for workers. Capping off the evening, Roosevelt entered at 11:30 p.m. to thunderous applause and delivered a powerful address that ended with the memorable words “We Stand at Armageddon and We Battle for the Lord.”
The biracial group that entered the hall from Mississippi that night included those who had been given credentials by the Republican Party and those who had not. There was Perry Howard, who had memorably objected to the proceeding on the Washington State case earlier that day with the tongue-in-cheek claim that the steamroller was moving too fast. Howard was a successful lawyer who had a graduate degree in mathematics from Fisk University and a law degree from DePaul University in Chicago. He was joined by the banker and entrepreneur Charles Banks from Mound Bayou. Though Banks and other black delegates had been tainted by charges of bribery earlier in the week, he had a national reputation for his work in helping to build an all-black community that was so successful that TR had visited it on October 22, 1907, during a tour of the South and had singled it out for several paragraphs of praise in a speech a year later. Banks’s black-owned cotton seed oil mill, with funding from northern investors that included Sears, Roebuck chairman Julius Rosenwald, was scheduled to have a grand opening that November. The group also included Willis Mollison from Vicksburg, one of the challenge delegates rejected by the Republican Convention earlier that day, a former teacher and newspaper editor who had become one of the most successful black lawyers in the state. There were white members of the group as well, including Frank S. Swalm, the owner of a drugstore in Brookhaven.
The Chicago Tribune ran an AP account of the evening showing that the men had already been hard at work. It said that “The Mississippi Roosevelt delegates entered the hall fresh from a meeting in their headquarters, and announced the election of S. D. Redmond of Jackson as the first national committeeman of the new party.”
Redmond was a physician who had earned his M.D. with honors at Illinois Medical College in 1897 and a law degree at Illinois College of Law. He did postgraduate work at Harvard Medical School in 1905—1906 at the age of thirty-four. After founding and serving as president of the Mississippi Medical and Surgical Association, Redmond had become a successful lawyer and business executive. As the president of the American Trust & Savings Bank, one of two black banks in Jackson, and an investor in real estate, he was one of the richest black men in the South.
Redmond had come to Chicago as part of the delegation set up by the Roosevelt forces to challenge Taft’s slate of delegates. Like Willis Mollison and Frank Swalm, he had lost his credentials challenge a few hours earlier. But now he was in the hall with the new party, standing at Armageddon, marching and singing and praying for the Colonel.
Roosevelt knew Dr. Redmond and some of the other men personally. In May, Redmond sent a letter warning TR that “Many of the Federal officeholders of this State are now busy intimidating many of your supporters with threats of indictment and dire calamity should they give evidence in your favor” and enclosing a memo suggesting the most effective way to make his case in Mississippi. In mid-June, TR had asked Redmond for his advice about the most appropriate “colored man to second my nomination.” Redmond suggested his brother-in-law, Perry Howard. Redmond and Howard were part of the state’s highly educated black elite. Their wives were sisters, two of the three daughters of Hiram Revels, the first black United States senator from Mississippi.
“From what you say,” Roosevelt replied, “I should think that Mr. Howard would be peculiarly fit” to give the seconding speech.
Having been elected national committeeman by the defecting delegates, and having a relationship with the former president, Redmond felt empowered to create the new party in Mississippi. He and Perry Howard and TR’s other supporters in Chicago announced that the state’s new party would hold a convention in late July to select a biracial slate of delegates to go to the Progressive Party’s formal nominating convention in Chicago in early August.
TR’s black supporters returned home the next day expecting to be an important part of the new party. But to their amazement, they were soon told that they would not even be allowed to join it. What followed provides a somewhat different perspective on Roosevelt’s professed belief in the right of the people to rule.
On June 21, the day that TR gave up on the Republican nomination, and the day before the pro-Roosevelt faction of delegates and challengers from Mississippi walked out of the Republican Convention with Roosevelt and selected Dr. Redmond as their leader, Gordon S. Orme sent a telegram to John M. Parker that suggested the rules for the months that followed. Orme was a leading rice dealer and the owner of the Empire Rice Mill in New Orleans.
“If Roosevelt would form a new party with a plank stating this is a white man’s party, colored or Mongolian races can come in for commercial or educational purposes only, all laborers excluded, the right of franchise limited to Caucasian race,” Orme wrote Parker, “he could carry every Southern and Pacific coast state besides labor vote and probably entire country.” Orme sent identical telegrams to some of Roosevelt’s other close friends in the South.
Parker was a Democrat who had been born in Mississippi and lived there before moving to Louisiana, where he became a leader of that state’s cotton trade. Four years later, he would run as the Progressive Party’s candidate for vice president, and eight years later he would become the governor of Louisiana.
Roosevelt and Parker had been friends for at least a decade. They had been companions on what became known as the Great Mississippi Bear Hunt in late 1902, where TR famously refused to shoot a bear that had been tied to an oak tree by a helpful guide who wanted to give him an easy shot. Roosevelt felt that shooting a bear in that condition would be unsportsmanlike. When that episode became the subject of a cartoon in the Washington Post the next day, it inspired two toy store owners to create the immensely popular stuffed toy that they called the “Teddy Bear.”
Parker immediately agreed with Orme’s proposal, and after very little internal debate the Roosevelt camp decided to approve the Parker Plan for the South.
“Our idea is to have no Negro delegates from any southern state,” TR’s twenty-four-year-old son Ted assured Parker a month later.
Ted had moved from San Francisco to New York earlier that year to accept a job as a bond salesman. Ted, his wife, and their baby daughter Grace were living with his parents in Oyster Bay. In his spare time, he had been helping his father’s campaign. It seems likely that his letter reflected his father’s views and that he was speaking for his father as well as the campaign when he referred to “our idea.”
“We recognize that practically it would be impossible to work with the best elements of the community if they were on the delegation, and that they represent the very worst type of citizen of the south,” he told Parker. “They are absolutely venal in every way, and the majority have no intelligence at all.”
Ted may not have known much about the delegates, that his father’s strongest black supporters included business leaders, lawyers, physicians, and poets. He also may not have known that many had supported Roosevelt at some personal risk to their careers since Taft was still in power and his faction of the party remained important to southern blacks. But his father knew many of the black leaders personally and presumably knew that the group included a Harvard-educated doctor whose advice he had solicited for the best person to second his nomination; a successful lawyer whom TR had called “peculiarly fit” to give a seconding speech on his behalf; and a businessman whose work in Mound Bayou TR had touted a few years earlier and whose latest venture was financed by the chairman of Sears, Roebuck.
Roosevelt did not adopt the Parker Plan in its entirety. Parker also pushed for a plank making it clear that the new party was designed for whites only. The former president was not prepared to go that far. Black votes would be needed in the North. For political reasons, Ted explained, his father did not want to put “a white man’s plank” into the party platform.
Ted later became a strong civil rights advocate. But in June 1912, he was working for a party that would need white votes in the South and black votes in the North. So, speaking on behalf of his father’s campaign, he assured Parker that we do “wish it understood that our party in the South will be purely a white party.”
On July 24, Roosevelt sent O. K. Davis to the South to explain the policy to the leaders of the new Progressive Party in all but two southern states. However, Ted told Parker that Davis would not be going “to either Louisiana or Mississippi, as I knew you would attend to them.”
Attend to them, he did. Parker had already called his friend Benjamin Franklin Fridge in Mississippi and told him how he wanted matters handled in that state. Unlike the black leaders, most of whom had earned multiple degrees, Fridge considered himself “an uneducated man.” “My father,” he once explained, “was not able to send me to school.” He was the son of a Confederate veteran of the Civil War who had been held in prison under the watch of black guards at Ship Island, Louisiana. Contemporaneous accounts described Fridge as a staunch Democrat, successful business leader, and the father of the state’s adjutant-general. He agreed with most of the positions of the Progressive Party and, having admired TR ever since he “straddled his horse to organize the Rough Riders,” was pleased to sign up for the cause. When Parker told Fridge to make it clear that the party in Mississippi was to be lily-white, he did as he was told.
Following Parker’s instructions, Fridge issued a call for the convention in Mississippi and sent out a notice inviting “all white citizens of Mississippi” to participate in the selection of delegates. To accompany the notice, he issued a statement, presumably pursuant to Parker’s instructions, stating, “This is strictly a white man’s party, the movement is led by white men, and we expect only white men in our organization.” Papers throughout the state carried the message. A huge headline in the Jackson Daily News announced: “COL. ROOSEVELT THROWS NEGRO LEADERS OVERBOARD—Progressive Party Will Be Launched in Mississippi as a White Man’s Organization.”
Redmond, Howard, and the other black leaders were stunned. Having burned their bridges with the leaders of the Republican Party in the state and with President Taft and his political team, their options were limited. They were determined to become a part of the party that quickly became known as the Bull Moose Party after TR told a reporter that he felt as strong as a Bull Moose. They were convinced, or claimed to be convinced, that there must be some mistake, that Fridge did not speak for TR, that Roosevelt could not have intended that they be excluded from the party. They were skillful political operators; to survive and even thrive in the world of business, law, medicine, and politics in Mississippi, they had learned to move nimbly in the face of challenges from segments of both the black and white communities. Perry Howard quickly devised a strategy designed to make it as difficult as possible for Roosevelt’s supporters to follow through on the Parker plan.
Howard sent a letter to Dixon, who was managing the Bull Moose campaign, in his Senate office. “Please indicate whether or not we shall be accepted as delegates in the coming National Convention of the Progressives. The Call [issued by Fridge] and press comment would indicate that we are to be ignored. Surely this cannot be true in view of the great sacrifice which some of us made in order to stand by the Colonel.”
In a passage designed to show that he was a man of means, not seeking any funding, Howard asked Dixon to “please wire me at my expense as to the method of procedure and what we might expect by way of admission into the Convention.”
“I am sure that your high sense of honor will not allow us to be humiliated,” he concluded, “and I stand upon yours and the Colonel’s assurance that we would receive a square deal.”
Without answering Howard directly, Dixon’s administrative assistant wired back saying that the new party had to represent “a new deal from the beginning.” It could not be simply an offshoot of the “old Republican organizations” he said. Instead, it would have to be clear that it would represent “both the old Republican and Democratic Parties.”
The state was abuzz with rumors saying that the Redmond-Howard group had been summarily dismissed—“excommunicated,” as some put it, a bit gleefully, with much too much schadenfreude for the would-be Bull Moosers. The black and white Republicans who had stayed in the party in Chicago supporting Taft had a field day, making fun of those who had defected to Roosevelt. As one paper reported, “the regular Republican leaders, and the colored brethren who have kept within the party are in high glee over the throw-down.”
The press, which was largely identified with the Democratic Party, made fun of the black progressives at every turn. The Vicksburg Evening Post said that “unless they can attach themselves to the new party organization” the Redmond-Howard faction would be “out of the political game for good … They are kicking up a rumpus for the sole and only purpose of preventing their complete elimination from political affairs.”
“The most terribly tragic aspect of the whole matter,” the Jackson Daily News wrote, “is that the change of plans will prevent about forty or fifty well-dressed Mississippi negroes from attending the Bull Moose convention in Chicago on August 5 and living for a week or so at the expense of the Harvester Trust and other financial easy marks who are putting up the costs for the formation of the third party.”
The black leaders fought back, denying that they were out of the party. Redmond wrote a letter to the Vicksburg Evening Post rebutting the claim that he had been told “to cancel our Call.” He blamed at least part of the misinformation on “our opponents among the old faction” who “are so anxious to read us out of the third party and have us break with its leaders that they are willing to perform the job for us, mislead the press on our attitude, and as good as say to us, ‘If you will not break with those gentlemen, we will break for you.’”
To reaffirm their role, Redmond, Howard, Mollison, and Banks formed a biracial group and announced that that they would be holding caucuses around the state on July 27 to send representatives to a statewide convention in Jackson on July 31 to select a slate of Progressive delegates. They added some of the most impressive blacks in the state, including Samuel Beadle, a successful Jackson lawyer and poet whose poems are included in poetry collections to this day; William A. Attaway, president of the Delta Penny Savings Bank of Indianola; and William P. Harrison, a successful pharmacist from Vicksburg.
Their announcement was designed to address any possible objection to their role, except for objections based on their color. They said that the convention and new party would welcome people of all races. They made it clear that they did not expect or want the party or the delegation to be controlled by blacks; they only wanted to have a chance to participate. They welcomed Democrats, including Fridge. Indeed, the statement said that they “would have no objection to Mr. Fridge taking the lead in this movement, nor anyone else who bases his party creed upon the enduring constitution rather than upon the sinking sand of race and color.”
“No one,” they said, “has or will have cause to fear the old bugabear of negro domination.”
The Redmond-Howard group insisted that Roosevelt could never have intended to have an all-white party. The Fridge effort was clearly based on a misunderstanding. “In view of the conferences held with Colonel Roosevelt and Senator Dixon since the convention adjourned, in which we were positively assured of a square deal,” they said, “we are forced to believe that the promoters of the ‘Lily Whites’ call are laboring under the wrong impression as to the scope and plan of the progressive movement and that the leaders of this great movement have never had in mind the disenfranchisement of any class of people because of color only.”
There was a “fairly large” crowd on hand on July 31 when the Redmond-Howard faction held its state convention. Willis Mollison was selected as the chair and delivered a powerful address. “There is no place for any new party in Mississippi which violates the pledge of that foremost American, Theodore Roosevelt, that every man shall have a ‘square deal,’” he said. “We do not wish to do violence to the memory of the immortal Lincoln whose blood nurtured the tree of the Black man’s liberty. Colonel Roosevelt loves to liken himself to the martyred statesman … I do not believe his mighty arm, which a few short weeks ago was around the black man’s neck in entreaty and benediction, will be raised so soon to strike this black man down. He must do it before I can believe him weak enough or wicked enough to do this deed.”
Presumably Redmond, Howard, Banks, and Mollison believed that TR had been informed about, if not directly involved in, the effort to bribe black delegates. It was one thing to hear about such efforts from men like McHarg and Bill Ward. But if Perkins and Dixon were involved, as Amos Pinchot asserted, how could TR not have known?
Mollison’s speech also contained a not-so-subtle threat. Everyone in politics knew that there were several northern states where the black vote would be important if not decisive. “It will be a blunder worse than a crime for the Progressives to throw away the certain vote in Illinois and Ohio,” Mollison said, “for the will-o-the-wisp in Mississippi and Louisiana.”
The Redmond-Howard convention selected a biracial delegation to go to the Progressive Convention, half white and half black, with white businessman Frank S. Swalm as its chair. They named an all-white slate of presidential electors, however, in order to make it more likely that whites would vote for TR when they went to the polls in the fall.
The white press covered the biracial convention in some detail, though many observers regarded it as a stunt, a form of political theater. The only convention that really mattered was the one called by Fridge, which met briefly in Jackson the next day, on August 1. That meeting was attended by “several Jackson admirers of Roosevelt” and about “fifty out of town delegates.” After brief comments from Fridge and others, the group elected an all-white slate. The Vicksburg Evening Post reported that Fridge “did not seem to be the least bit worried about the negro politicians who recently held their convention here and seemed to take them as a joke.”
Fridge immediately sent a telegram to Dixon, who was already in Chicago. “We had a very fine convention today. Twenty delegates selected. All white. I hope everything will be satisfactory.”
In fact, though, Fridge was far from sure about the outcome in Chicago. He was new to national politics and did not know any of the players. He had put his reputation on the line for a cause that he believed in but with ground rules for participation that had been created by others. His friends followed him to the train station the next day, pleading with him to reconsider.
“You will never be seated,” they told him. “Don’t you go up there.” He was certain to return home with his tail between his legs.
Both groups of delegates left by train for Chicago on August 2, each worrying about being humiliated, each hoping to be seated at the Progressive Convention.
Roosevelt finally explained his views on the seating of the southern delegates on August 1 in a carefully scripted letter to Julian Harris of Georgia, a writer, editor, and personal friend who was most famously known as the son of Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus stories. There was a “particular fitness” in sending the letter to “the son of the man whose work made all Americans his debtors,” Roosevelt said, whose writing “showed a deep and most kindly interest in the welfare of the negro.” Harris had also been chosen to represent Georgia on the Bull Moose Party’s national committee.
As with most of his important documents, TR had sent the letter to a few trusted advisors for their comments. O. K. Davis urged him to strike out some words that might seem to suggest that he planned to exclude black delegates because he was “sore at the result of the Chicago convention.” Any such language might be distorted for propaganda purposes by the “venal negro leaders,” Dixon warned. “These unscrupulous hounds might use it as a basis of justification for their false assertion.”
The Colonel’s letter to Julian Harris was released to the press on August 2 as the competing delegations from Mississippi were heading by train to Chicago. At the same time, competing delegations that included blacks were on their way to the convention from Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, three other states where the Progressive Party had enforced an all-white policy.
TR’s letter to Julian Harris made national headlines the next day. As he did so often, Roosevelt described his views as taking a middle ground, in this case between those in the North who “insist that we get from the South colored Delegates to the National Progressive Convention,” and those from the South who “ask that I declare the new party shall be a white man’s party.” TR said that he was not “able to agree to either proposal.” In states where there was a sizable black population and black vote—such as Rhode Island, Maryland, New York, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania—the party would “bring the best colored men into the movement on the same terms as the white man.” But in the South, where the number of black voters had become “negligible,” they would have to develop a different policy.
Those reading the document closely could find several strands of the Colonel’s reasoning, including a review of the failure of the Republican Party in the South and what to some seemed an idealistic view of a new Progressive Party led by “the best white men in the South, men of justice and vision as well as of strength and leadership.” Roosevelt was thinking of men like John Parker and Julian Harris himself, men who are “sincerely desirous of doing justice to the colored man… securing him just treatment before the law; white men who set their faces sternly against lynch law and mob violence and attack all such abuses as peonage.” Such men could never come to power in the South in a party “based primarily upon the negro vote and under negro leadership or the leadership of white men who derive their power solely from negroes.”
“I earnestly believe that by appealing to the best white men in the South,” Roosevelt wrote, “and by frankly putting the movement in their hands from the outset, we shall create a situation by which the colored men of the South will ultimately get justice.” That strand of the letter drew positive comments from some Roosevelt supporters. “If the people have the soberness to follow such wise suggestions, it would be the means of laying the foundation of an advanced civilization and for the future happiness of the nation,” one admirer wrote from Atlanta.
Despite the warning from O. K. Davis, however, the letter revealed Roosevelt’s searing anger at the events in Chicago, anger that may have been fueled by largely inaccurate reports presented to him by supporters and lieutenants who did not want to offend his moral sensibilities by sharing the details of their own unsavory efforts to secure the support of black delegates who had promised to vote for Taft. “In the Convention at Chicago last June,” he wrote, “the breakup of the Republican Party was forced by those rotten-borough delegates from the South… representing nothing but their own greed for money or office” who had “betrayed the will of the mass of the plain people of the party.”
While it met favor from some supporters, particularly in the South, many observers found Roosevelt’s stance, to put it charitably, opportunistic. “Bars Southern Negro,” the Baltimore Sun said in a front-page headline, “But ‘T. R.’ Welcomes Blacks in States Where Vote Is Factor.”
Taft’s supporters thought that the statement would help them win black votes in both the North and South. They issued a statement challenging the premise of TR’s statement. “There was little venality in the negro delegates from the South at Chicago,” Tennessee senator Newell Sanders said on behalf of the Taft campaign. “This was evidenced by the attempt and failure of the Roosevelt managers to buy them.”
TR’s new policy was immediately denounced in papers such as the New York Tribune and the New York Times. A habitual critic of TR, the Times carried a scathing editorial. “It is announced in the Colonel’s letter to Julian Harris that there will not be a negro delegate from the Southern States in the Bull Moose Convention at Chicago, the fiat having gone forth under the Great Seal of the party that knows no brother, that the rotten borough delegates shall have no part in this second Emancipation Movement. What Mr. Lincoln would say about this can be imagined but not expressed; but the Reincarnated should have pondered long and seriously before determining thus to cut up by the roots the men who have been so loyal and useful to him all these years, and who were watered and attended to by McHarg in his recent wanderings in the South.”
The Times predicted that what it regarded as the Colonel’s cynical move to embrace blacks in the North while excluding them in the South would backfire. “We are told that the lily-white faction is to have its way in the South, where nine-tenths of the negroes live and labor, which is to say that only in the North, where the negroes hold in some States something like the balance of power, are they to be recognized as having any part or a lot in the affairs of the Bull Moose Party, a party whose foundations are established in justice to all men.”
At the very least, the paper urged, “the negro delegates in the regular Republican Convention who showed a pliable disposition toward the Bull Moose while he was yet a Republican are entitled to good and regular standing among the Bull Moose people.”
That last sentiment was one that the delegates from Mississippi led by Redmond and Howard, who had just arrived in Chicago, could embrace. They still hoped to convince TR to support them, but their dreams were now hanging on a thread. When reporters told the Colonel that his statement “had aroused no little comment,” he described it as a statement of principle, a “declaration of his beliefs that he would not retract, no matter what the consequences were.” While “he might lose some votes in the South among negroes,” he told a reporter for the New York Times, he was confident that “he would get more votes in the North than he could possibly lose by any of his utterances.”
The Progressive Party’s preconvention proceedings started shortly after noon on Saturday, August 3, at the party’s headquarters in the Congress Hotel. It was familiar turf to many of the delegates and organizers who had been there just six weeks earlier at the Republican Convention. Although the mood should have been, and for many was, celebratory, the hotel corridors that morning were already “ringing with denunciations of the Roosevelt policy of keeping negro delegates from the South out of the convention.” The delegates included some of the most forward-thinking men and women of the era, people who truly believed in social justice. But as the Boston Globe put it, TR’s “edict started a veritable hornet’s nest” of criticism. There were arguments everywhere. At one point, some of the black contestants even threatened to defect to Wilson and the Democratic Party.
When the meeting of the Provisional Committee opened in the campaign’s hotel, Joseph Dixon, serving as the temporary chair, talked for two hours about the organization of the new party. Forty of the fifty-seven members of the Provisional Committee were there in person or by proxy. As Dixon took an occasional drag on his big corncob pipe, the delegates described conditions in their states.
It was widely assumed that the committee would quickly seat the all-white delegations from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi despite the presence of contesting groups. But that would not prove so easy. “A group of colored contestants from the State of Mississippi, of which Perry Howard, a negro lawyer from Jackson was the center, clustered just outside the door of the committee room all afternoon,” the New York Times reported. When white delegates tried to convince them to leave, they refused.
The Times described the scene. “Howard, who lacks neither intelligence nor force, invariably came back with this reply,” the Times reported. “We represent 90 percent of the Republican Party in Mississippi.”
While Howard was talking, “T. F. B. Sotham, one of the Colonel’s white admirers from Michigan, who has a powerful voice, a quick temper, and a ferocious bunch of bristling black whiskers, came within earshot. Mr. Sotham rushed in to the colored group and made for Howard. The latter, however, stood his ground and Mr. Sotham halted in the middle of his rush.
“If you are Republicans and Democrats to hell with you,” Sotham said. “We don’t want any of you. Before you come here you had better go home and renounce your old party affiliations and write yourselves down as Progressives. This is the Progressive Party.”
“That’s exactly what we are trying to do,” Howard fired back. “But you won’t let us.”
Inside the committee room, things were not going as smoothly as Dixon had hoped. During the discussion of the Florida case, which was very much like the case in Mississippi, Edwin F. Tuttle of Rhode Island entered a vigorous protest. An insurance executive from Woonsocket, Tuttle had helped to organize the new party in his state.
“In New England,” Tuttle said, “we have long ago passed the stage where we would stand for discrimination against anybody on account of race, religion, or color of his skin. I would not dare to return to my people were I to become a party to any such discrimination.”
When the committee reached the Mississippi challenge, Perry Howard appealed to the delegates not to turn away the 900,000 blacks in the state by refusing them any representation at the convention.
“Would you have Roosevelt be the cause of taking from us the liberty that Abraham Lincoln granted us?” he asked.
Dixon asked why Howard’s group would not “experiment with white leadership this time.”
“That would be all right,” Howard said. “We don’t want to lead. But we must be recognized in his Progressive Party if we are to do any effective work.”
By 10:30 p.m. it had become clear that the black delegates could not be dismissed so easily. Senator Dixon declared a recess until Monday morning. He needed to get further orders from Colonel Roosevelt, who was scheduled to arrive in the city on Monday at 9 a.m.
The black delegates used Sunday to make their case to anyone who would listen. One of those who understood their concerns was J. Fred Essary of the Baltimore Sun. After talking with Perry Howard, he told his readers that “the Southern Negro has forced an issue here that threatens a serious split in the ranks of the convention and a more serious condition after adjournment.”
A veteran White House reporter from Tennessee, Essary’s legendary career ultimately spanned five decades. “These negroes have refused to be ‘steamrollered,’” he wrote. “They are here in force to fight for representation in the party and they are gaining time if they are not gaining ground. They have succeeded in postponing final action until the arrival of Colonel Roosevelt himself, when they will make their last stand. If the Southern negroes are repudiated by the man who has, as they contend, posed as their best friend, they promise to go back home and fight. They promise more. They say they will appeal to the men of their race in the North to repudiate the third party and to hold their vote as a club that could be made dangerous against any political organization.”
Essary quoted at length from his interview with Perry Howard. “We are Progressives,” Howard told Essary. “We have made fight after fight against the Federal officeholders who control what Republican organization there is in Mississippi. We were defeated there and when the Roosevelt movement came we enthusiastically joined it.” But when Benjamin Fridge made it clear that only white men would be allowed at the convention that he had convened, Howard said, “We believed that convention unauthorized and held a convention of our own. We sent a contesting delegation, half white and half black. Now we are told that for political expediency the colored man is not to be recognized by the third party in the South.
“Lincoln was the man who enfranchised us, but this committee, acting in the name of Roosevelt, now seeks to disenfranchise us. We are told that we are not wanted, not because we are not good citizens, not because we are not Progressives, but because we are negroes.”
Without waiting for further word from the candidate, some delegations began to take a stand on the issue of seating black delegates from the South. On Sunday morning, the Maryland delegation explicitly went on record with a resolution stating that “the National Progressive Party should be neither a class nor a race party.”
When his train rolled into Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station at 8:55 on Monday morning, TR was greeted by 5,000 cheering supporters. As he left the station and motored to the Congress Hotel, where a group of his top aides were waiting for his arrival, a cheering mob followed close behind shouting, “Teddy, Teddy, our next President.” Along the way he passed a parade of female delegates, proudly marching to their first convention. But the Boston Globe reported that when he reached the hotel he found that he had become “the storm center around which has raged a political tornado.”
“Outside of his rooms,” the paper said, “were a score or more of expostulating negroes, some of whom had been steamrollered out of their convention seats by the colonel’s Provisional Committee.” The men “felt that they had been “humiliated and wronged by the party managers.” They “demanded to see the colonel and wanted to put the matter up to him.” But TR refused to meet with them, telling them to “read my letter to Julian Harris of Atlanta. It contains a full statement of my views.”
Elsewhere in the Congress Hotel, the Provisional Committee resumed its deliberations at 10 a.m., hoping to find some way to resolve the vexing problem. They had less than two hours to do their work before the start of the convention. When they reached the case of Mississippi, Senator Dixon moved that the Fridge delegation be seated and that the Redmond-Howard challengers be given “honorary certificates of admission.”
The resolution met immediate resistance from delegates from Maryland, New England, and California. Perhaps because there were at least six men from all white delegations from the Deep South in the room, including both Parker and Fridge, most comments supporting the black delegates were based on political and tactical considerations rather than a discussion of right and wrong. But from time to time, the debate became candid. At one point Matthew Hale, one of TR’s earliest supporters, who, years earlier, had tutored his children, said that “Colonel Roosevelt’s letter, to be frank, plucked of its verbiage, is merely saying ‘Get out of here, we don’t want you.’”
Dixon disagreed, pointing out that there would be a great many black delegates from the North and from border states. He was convinced that their presence would appease those concerned with racial justice, delegates who did not want to be identified with a “white man’s party.” Indeed, the delegates from Kentucky and Tennessee said that they had added black members to their delegations specifically so that states in the Deep South would not have to do so. “In Kentucky, much against our feelings, we put in a negro as one of the delegates, and we did it simply because we wanted to make it easy for states further south not to put up any,” Leslie Combs, a former ambassador to Peru, explained.
But Hale doubted that people in the North would forgive that decision so easily. “All this talk about this not being a ‘white man’s party’ will not go down,” he said. If TR hopes to win the presidential election, “you can’t make this a ‘white man’s party.’”
“I have talked with the Massachusetts delegation,” he said, “and I find that there is not a single man here that is willing to vote to seat the white delegates from Mississippi.”
Connecticut’s Herbert Knox Smith, former head of the Bureau of Corporations and a prominent member of TR’s “Tennis Cabinet,” agreed. “If you make up this temporary roll in this manner,” he said, “I don’t think you can carry Connecticut and I think it is true of most of the New England States.” Edwin Tuttle, who had spoken on behalf of the Rhode Island delegation on Friday, agreed.
George Perkins, representing New York State, jumped in repeatedly to support Dixon’s motion. Presumably, he and Dixon knew the Colonel’s thinking.
At one point, Hale interrupted Perkins with a question.
“Suppose that in the City of New York the call was issued for all progressives who are not Jews, for all Christians, to come to that convention. Now, would you favor that?” Perkins had no answer.
California’s Francis Heney made a similar argument. “You must not forget that there was a Civil War,” he said. “There is a public conscience in the North and we must carry the northern states. If we trifle with this question, we are damned to defeat in the North which is where the electoral votes will have to come from for this party.” If Dixon and TR disagreed, he said, “they are mistaken as to the public sentiment.”
But Dixon and Perkins remained adamant. They rejected Matthew Hale’s proposal that the Provisional Committee send a small delegation to meet directly with TR; no such meeting was needed since they knew his wishes. It was clear that Dixon and Perkins could prevail in the committee with the backing of loyalists and the delegates from the South. Parker, who had been responsible for the southern strategy, called the black politicians from Mississippi “the most rotten and corrupt in the United States.” Julian Harris continually injected his views of the best course for blacks and whites in Georgia.
Finally, Fridge spoke up, offering a poignant and somewhat heartrending personal appeal. “I have followed my friend Parker, whose father loaned me money thirty years ago to start a business,” he said. If you don’t seat my delegation, “I will be a disgraced man in Mississippi when I go home. Please handle me just as nice as you can.”
After two hours, by a vote of 22 to 12, the Provisional Committee voted to put the lily-white Fridge delegate slate on the convention’s temporary roll.
Matthew Hale was devoted to TR but could not ignore the views of his own state and his own delegation. He added a poignant codicil of his own.
“This is a mighty serious thing that we men from the North are doing,” he said. “We of the North, our fathers and grandfathers, fought for the negroes. Now for the first time we are saying publicly and openly that our fathers and grandfathers were wrong and have been wrong since the Civil War.”
The battle was over for the morning, in time for them all to join the jubilant crowd at the Coliseum that was creating a new, idealistic Progressive Party featuring women in large numbers for the first time, black delegates from outside the Deep South, and a commitment to social justice and the right of the people to rule. For some, for those who could not understand how such a party could exclude black delegates from Mississippi and elsewhere, there was a cloud over the hall. But they still had some room for hope. The Provisional Committee had made its recommendation that morning, but the ultimate decision on seating would be made in the Credentials Committee, which was scheduled to meet later that night.
The fight in the Credentials Committee proved to be even more contentious than the discussion that morning. Frank Knox, who had used his base as chair of the Michigan Republican Party to organize TR’s campaign for the Republican nomination, had joined the new party. Having served TR for so long, starting with his days as a Rough Rider in Cuba, he was deemed a reliable chair of the Credentials Committee. The meeting lasted for hours. As it dragged on, many of the exhausted delegates who had traveled long distances to be in Chicago went to bed. Finally at 3 a.m., after two tied votes, the committee made its decision. It sided with Fridge by a 17-to-16 margin. The delegates met in private. Neither the press nor representatives of the black delegate challengers were allowed in the room. But when the meeting adjourned, Julius T. Mitchell, a black delegate from Rhode Island, charged that the decisive vote had been cast by someone with a questionable proxy.
“This isn’t just a steam roller. We are under the rock crusher,” one black challenge delegate said. “I have felt steam rollers, but they just flatten you out for a time. The machine that Colonel Roosevelt has set to work here is aimed to crush the colored man in the South.”
“Fairly sputtering indignation,” one paper reported, the black challengers from Mississippi announced that they would take the matter to Col. Roosevelt for a personal ruling. “This matter is not settled yet,” they said. “We will lay the matter before Col. Roosevelt himself today and if necessary we will carry the fight to the floor of the convention.”
For those concerned with practical politics, that was a powerful threat. A battle on the floor of the convention on the seating of black delegates from the Deep South was certain to be disastrous for the new party. Perry Howard, who had organized a skillful campaign in the face of overwhelming odds, knew that the threat of such a fight represented a powerful bargaining chip.
“Charles Banks did not come up to be humiliated for he evidently saw it was in the air,” Howard said. “But I wouldn’t believe that Roosevelt, who has always professed such love for a fair deal, would not give it to us, so I came. I wanted to find out whether Vardaman had converted Roosevelt.” James Vardaman, a former Mississippi governor who was about to be elected to the Senate, was an avowed segregationist who opposed government jobs and education for blacks. He had been associated with support for lynching. His name was poison to northern supporters of the new party.
“I was a Roosevelt delegate up here in June,” Howard said, “and Roosevelt and Dixon were very solicitous for us then. We stood up here against all the pressure of sixty-two colored delegates from the south, for Roosevelt, and he would gladly have accepted the nomination at our hands then. Now we come with a delegation composed of ten whites and ten colored men and they put us under the rock crusher because they wish to have a lily white party in the south and they propose to undo the work that Lincoln did in the city where he was nominated.”
“What we want,” Howard said, “is to get our answer direct from Roosevelt and not through anyone else.”
By Tuesday morning, Roosevelt’s refusal to meet with the black challengers was becoming less and less tenable. Some of the angry black delegates from the North and South had joined with men like Redmond and Howard to create what they called the National Progressive Party of Colored Men. About one hundred members of the group met late Monday night. Many threatened to leave the party if they did not get justice. They announced that they would meet again on Tuesday night.
A great many of the white delegates were furious as well. Jane Addams, the famed social worker and founder of Hull House, was scheduled to provide the seconding speech for TR’s nomination, the first time that a woman had ever been given such an honor at a major national convention. She admired TR enormously and had high hopes for the new party. But she was also a fierce champion of black rights and a member of the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
On Monday night, while the Credentials Committee was struggling with the issue, Jane Addams delivered impassioned remarks to the Resolutions Committee, which was holding a simultaneous session. “Some of us are very disturbed that this Progressive Party, which stands for human rights, should even appear not to stand for the rights of the negroes,” she said, speaking for herself and other northern reformers. “It seems to us to be inconsistent when on one page of our newspapers we find that this party is to stand for the working man and the working woman, and to protect the rights of the children, and to prevent usurpation of voters’ rights by special interests, and on the next page we find that it denies the right of the negro to take part in this movement.” She called on the party to “clear up” the appearance of depriving blacks of their rights.
Some of TR’s closest advisors finally concluded that the issue had become too hot and too persistent for him to ignore. On Tuesday morning, Frank Knox, having presided over a deeply divided meeting of the Credentials Committee, finally persuaded the Colonel to meet with the black delegates before the start of the convention that day.
The details of that meeting remain unknown. Simply by having the meeting, Perry Howard and Sidney Redmond had achieved one of their major goals. It gave them a degree of the legitimacy they were seeking. If Roosevelt made any specific promises, they have never come to light.
Realistically, Redmond, Howard, and their colleagues had nowhere to go. They had burned their bridges with the Republican Party and could not form any kind of alliance with the Vardaman-dominated Democratic Party in Mississippi. Under the circumstances, they accepted TR’s proposal.
Even though they had lost by a 17-to-16 vote in the Credentials Committee, with one contested proxy, their challenge did not come to the floor of the convention.
Some white reformers found peace with Roosevelt’s decision. Jane Addams spelled out her reasoning in The Crisis, the NAACP’s official publication. But as many had predicted, the decision to exclude southern blacks from the convention produced a bitter aftertaste for hundreds of thousands of would-be progressives. William Monroe Trotter, the outspoken black editor who had always distrusted TR, said that “women suffrage will be stained with negro blood unless women refuse alliance with Roosevelt.”
The son of the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison told a niece who had attended the convention not to follow “an unprincipled humbug who cares nothing for suffrage except as it will win him votes and is not to be trusted on that or any other question.” One of Garrison’s grandsons, the journalist and social activist Oswald Garrison Villard, had a similar view. “I cannot refrain from a little ‘I told you so’ in connection with Roosevelt’s kicking the Southern negro delegates out of the Progressive Party,” he wrote Booker T. Washington in early August. “I hope now that the bulk of the colored people who have still clung to this man will realize the falsity of his nature and will no longer follow his leadership.” A crusading newspaper editor who had helped to mentor Frank Knox wrote Governor Chase Osborn that TR “never was for women’s suffrage and carefully avoids the subject now… and he has disenfranchised negroes because they are black.”
Blacks who had championed Roosevelt’s cause during the primary denounced him. Roscoe Conkling Simmons, the famed black orator who had given speech after speech on his behalf, written articles and letters extolling his virtues, and served as chair of his campaign for black support in New York, wrote an eloquent letter to the New York Tribune reproving his former idol. He was as offended by the patronizing tone of TR’s letter to Julian Harris in describing men like Redmond and Howard as by his decision to exclude them from the party. “This latest missive, addressed to the son of Uncle Remus and his rabbits, has opened the eyes of a half million voters scattered over the free states; voters who had been led carefully into the colonel’s camp,” he wrote. “Yesterday men of color thought they discerned in Theodore Roosevelt the personification of the very proper leader in the great cause for ‘social justice.’ Today they behold him stripped of his robes—the patron of the art of demagogy; the vindictive genius in the great cause of self-aggrandizement… Roosevelt comes to divide them… [but he] will lose. He will find that colored men in the North are as zealous of the rights and privileges and political dignity of colored men in the South as they themselves have ever been.”
Even Rev. Reverdy C. Ransom, who had served as Roosevelt’s cheerleader at the African-American rallies in Chicago during the Republican Convention, turned against him. “Roosevelt’s promises are as unstable as water; his covenant with the people is a mask for personal ambition,” he told a black congregation in New York shortly after the Progressive Convention. “Here is a new party which proclaims ‘the right of the people to rule,’ which proposes to devote itself to the cause of political and social justice. Yet, when it comes to deal with the negroes, the people who suffer most from oppression, the people whose men, women and children are the most defenseless victims and greatest sufferers from social and political injustice, Col. Roosevelt, the chief and leader of the herd, lifts his head, waves his antlers high in the air, and sounds the call, and the ‘Bull Moose Party’ runs amok on the negro question.
“There are some here [in the audience] who have been slaves, and you know that while there was slavery in the South, the negroes in the North were not free,” he said to shouts of ‘That’s right! That’s right!’
“Well, if you lose your political rights in the South, you will lose them in the North as well.”
During the days that followed, Roosevelt earned the scorn of scores of other black leaders around the country who had once supported him, including Hugh MacBeth, the Baltimore editor who had been one of his strongest supporters; J. Gordon McPherson, often called “the Black Billy Sunday”; and, perhaps most famously, W. E. B. Du Bois, who turned from Roosevelt and ultimately endorsed the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, on the editorial pages of The Crisis, the NAACP publication that Jane Addams used to defend her decision to stick with the Colonel.
Roosevelt even ran afoul of some of his staunchest southern supporters, who deeply cared about social justice. Dr. Louis Edelman, a white delegate to the Progressive Convention from Birmingham, Alabama, sent an angry letter saying, “You have fooled the negro for political gain for more than ten years, and the Republican Party for more than forty years … I appeal to every decent negro who is a registered voter to stay away from the convention and take no part either in the Republican Party or the new party.”
Cartoonists had a field day. In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Robert Minor showed Roosevelt at a card table, throwing a card away. The caption said, “Discarding the Ace.”
For Theodore Roosevelt, practical politics had trumped the right of the people to rule.
Excerpted from Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary by Geoffrey Cowan, published by W.W. Norton and reprinted with permission.
Geoffrey Cowan is the president of the Annenberg Foundation Trust and an author whose books include See No Evil: The Backstage Battle Over Sex and Violence on Television and The People v. Clarence Darrow: The Bribery Trial of America’s Greatest Lawyer. Let the People Rule is his most recent title.