Unlike today’s conventions, which are little more than multi-day campaign rallies, at the 1912 affair in Chicago, 1,000 policemen stood by to make sure the delegates didn’t get out of hand. Strands of barbed wire lay concealed beneath the bunting on the speaker’s platform to keep disgruntled delegates from charging the stage.
On one side was Teddy Roosevelt, who ran for President that year aiming to reshape American democracy. He thrashed lackluster incumbent William Howard Taft in the primary contests, declaring, “I believe in pure democracy.”
But his definition of “pure democracy” included upsetting the Constitution. He endorsed “certain governmental devices which will make the representatives of the people more easily and certainly responsible to the people’s will.” These reforms included the initiative, the referendum, the recall of elected officials and even judicial decisions, and the direct election of U.S. Senators.
On the other side were Taft (Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor in the White House just four years earlier) and the Republican leadership, including Senators Elihu Root of New York and Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. They stood for the Constitution. Root and Lodge were great admirers and longtime friends of Roosevelt, but Roosevelt had sent shock waves through the Republican Party. Roosevelt had proposed a dramatic constitutional change that, according to Schambra, “posed the danger of undermining popular confidence in the institutions of government.” Therefore, Root, Lodge, and Taft were determined to deny Roosevelt the nomination at the 1912 Republican convention.
Unlike the typically bland convention keynote speeches designed to smooth feathers ruffled by the nominating contest and unite the party for the main event in November, Root’s keynote was a call to constitutional conservatism.
As Schambra notes, Root grounded the Republican Party in the Constitution, since it had been “born in protest against the extension of a system of human slavery approved and maintained by majorities.” After all, the GOP was the party of Abraham Lincoln, who had declared in his first inaugural address that “a majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations…is the only true sovereign of a free people.” The party’s duty, therefore, was not to reform the constitutional system but to “humbly and reverently seek for strength and wisdom to abide by the principles of the Constitution against the days of our temptation and weakness.”
Preventing Roosevelt from winning the Republican nomination, these first conservatives saved the party from a platform of radical constitutional reform. But it also meant losing the general election. Taft won only two states, and Democrat Woodrow Wilson became President, with Roosevelt coming in second.
“The result of the Convention was more important than the question of the election,” Root later said. Losing the general election did not supplant their “duty to hold the Republican Party firmly to the support of our constitutional system. Worse things can happen to a party than to be defeated.”
Root, Lodge, and Taft sacrificed their friendship with Roosevelt and victory in the general election to save the Constitution from a proposed overhaul. Constitutional conservatism began with saving the Republican Party from Teddy Roosevelt. It continues today with the fight to save America from a deeper descent into progressivism. Members of the Tea Party movement are the intellectual heirs of Root, Lodge, and Taft.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that “it is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor.”