Crimson Banners Fly: The Rise of the American Left


President Roosevelt Speaking in Madison, Wisconsin, October 2nd, 1908 - Source: Wiki Commons

Four prominent presidential candidates took center stage as the election season rolled into the autumnal equinox. Democrat William Hearst, Republican Philander Knox, Socialist Bill Haywood, and Progressive Theodore Roosevelt were the prime contestants for the administrative pageant. Plentiful policy points ranging from trust-busting to the income tax swarmed throughout the race, but let there be no doubt that President Roosevelt was the primary focal point of the election. Nominees for the Republican and Democratic parties, reversing their flippant evasion of the boisterous New Yorker four years earlier, concentrated all fire on the Progressive. Differing policy proposals were doubtlessly relevant, as in any electoral bout, but a worthwhile challenger to President Roosevelt would not find success unless they fixated on the incumbent's perceived shortcomings.

Senator Knox modeled his campaigning style after Albert Beveridge, appealing to the electorate in a whistle-stop format (a move that somewhat displeased RNC traditionalists). He spoke to the merits of "conservative progress," and, "the return to prosperity and sensibility to aid the business of the nation." Knox was not an inflexible reactionary like some of his colleagues. He had no intention of proclaiming support for a progressive agenda, but neither did he wish to fall into disconcerting obscurity as Depew had in his re-election attempt. The Pennsylvanian ran a campaign centered on the fortunes of the past set side-by-side with Roosevelt's turbulent reign. He stated, nearly verbatim from a Beveridge address, "Always and in all places, the Republican Party in control means prosperity of the people, debt reduction, and a common sense handling of revenues. Prosperous times are always Republican times. In four years of Progressive rule, our government has declared all-out war on American enterprise. It peered down into the gaping hole of economic calamity and just nearly fell in - a hole dug by Mr. Roosevelt."

The Roosevelt Campaign struck back, attesting that neither a return to Gilded Age Republicanism nor a dangerous leap into "Hearst Demagoguery" would magically cure the cantankerous issues facing the country. Progressive businessmen towed the party line on capitalist critique and offered that a reformed economy was safer for systematic longevity than an archaic, private economy. If the federal government were to neglect its responsibility in initiating the necessary changes to liberalize and stabilize capitalism, protest from below would seek its total overthrow. This had been the essence of Roosevelt's governing policy, and, especially after observing the steady growth of socialist organizations and political parties, the president feared that a return to the Depew Economy would virtually ensure the supplanting of American democracy with radicalism and mob-rule.

Hiram Johnson, a district attorney and anti-corruption reform advocate, administered the Roosevelt Campaign's Western branch based out of San Francisco. He directed leaflet printing for the region and communicated daily events and experiences to the president via telegraph. By all measures of gauging public opinion, Johnson discovered that city residents were not squarely committed to any one candidate. In San Francisco, as was the case along much of the West Coast, voters who favored the Progressives in wide margins four years ago were presently split between Roosevelt and Hearst. The Columbian leader no longer had a monopoly on anti-establishment fervor, and the spirit of Bryanism that captivated Californians in 1896 began to bubble up for Hearst.

Progressives also noticed a corresponding trend taking shape in New York. Ceremonies for the Democratic nominee far surpassed the competition in pure audience figures, indicating public opinion favoring Hearst. Representative William Sulzer, a staunch supporter of the governor, stated in a public forum, "I know Governor Hearst well, and have known him for a long time. I regard him as one of the greatest men of our time. It is no child's play to build up seven great newspapers in three of the largest cities in the country. A man to do this must possess executive ability of a high order. From the very nature of things he must be a broad-gauge man. Such a man I know Mr. Hearst to be." Sulzer became an essential piece to Hearst's Napoleonic campaign operation, invigorating local voter interest while the governor traveled westward.

Governor Hearst ran his campaign much like his business, focusing squarely on sensationalism to vacuum public excitement to his corner. He utilized the talents of journalist muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell to drive home his central thesis that politics as-is was filled with corrupt bureaucrats hell-bent on serving the interests of corporations above the common man. Hearst even appeared at one campaign event aside David Phillips, and personally attested to corruption in the New York political game. "These men," he thundered, "have no consciousness of their own. They ask businessmen, like myself on multiple occasions, for campaign funding. This is commonly granted under the presumption that the donor will receive a return on investment. That is why I've called on Congress to pass no-nonsense restrictions on political contributions and bar corporate donations entirely. If they refuse, my administration will prosecute and convict obstructing party bosses."

Sweeping reforms like the type offered above were frequently touted by the publishing magnate as necessary steps to eliminate corruption and malfeasance in Washington. He proposed, among other things, a national mandate that all political parties participate in state-wide primary elections, granting constituencies the option to recall their representatives at will, and enshrining some form of direct democracy to gauge public opinion of major issues. Hearst argued in favor of a 10% tax on corporations as well (eight points higher than the 2% proposed by Roosevelt), and furthermore one-upped the Progressives by calling for a national eight-hour workday law for all public and private sector workers.

President Roosevelt, to put it lightly, was disgusted by Hearst and all that he stood for. Theodore Roosevelt believed in federal regulation and reform, that much is certainly true, but he distrusted those he viewed as uneducated, irresponsible, and lacking a proper vision to carefully win the country (and Congress) to his theses. Roosevelt considered Hearst no different than the class of investigative journalists he so despised. None of them were honest actors in his mind. They all had an angle that had no regard for the public good. Still, even the most blatant demagogue was a powerful force in politics, and for that reason the incumbent president saw Hearst as the greatest possible foil to his re-election prospects - far more so than a known entity like Bryan. Roosevelt fretted often over Hearst's influence among the working class, a group the president privately figured gullible and susceptible to impossible promises. He conjoined the governor's ideology to that of the Socialist Party, finding both identically reprehensible.

Associates of President Roosevelt harmonized on the topic of Hearst. They too found him a far more intimidating presence than Philander Knox. The upper echelon of the Roosevelt Campaign realized that, regardless of early indications in swing states that Roosevelt accumulated voter preference, Hearst alone represented the chief obstacle to the president's re-election prospects. John Hay, working diligently at the completion of his term as State Secretary, abhorred Hearst. He wrote that the Democratic nominee, "simply reiterates the unquestioned truths that every man with a clean shirt is a thief and ought to be hanged: that there is no goodness and wisdom except among the illiterate & criminal classes." Others like Vice President Taft shared this feeling. Therefore, Roosevelt shifted gears to more explicitly denounce the yellow press and muckrakers overall. Two birds, one stone.
 

Caricature of Governor Hearst in Harper's Weekly, October 23rd, 1908 - Source: Wiki Commons

From mid-September to the end of his active campaigning in early November, President Roosevelt incorporated anti-muckraker sentiment in just about every speech in every city. He asserted to vast audiences, to the point that it grew rather tiresome for accompanying newsmen, that the sensationalist press constituted a mortal enemy to righteous democracy. He condemned investigative journalists for twisting the truth and conducting indiscriminate assaults "upon men in business or men in public life." He tied the expansion of untrustworthy reporting to the perceived commander of moral colorblindness: Bill Hearst.

Hysterical sensationalism is the poorest weapon wherewith to fight for lasting righteousness. The men who with stern sobriety and truth assail the many evils of our time, whether in the public press, or in magazines, or in books, are the leaders and allies of all engaged in the work for social and political betterment. But if they give good reason for distrust of what they say, if they chill the ardor of those who demand truth as a primary virtue, they thereby betray the good cause and play into the hands of the very men against whom they are nominally at war. The men who attack in sensational, lurid, and untruthful fashion by playing on their ignorance do so for self-interest.
We are witnessing in the state of New York an especially dangerous specimen of the kind of demagogue that I have described. Not only is the cause of popular government in danger of suffering injury and discredit from the vote for Mr. Hearst, but genuine reform, the real practical redress of the evils complains of by the people, is in danger of being weakened and brought to naught by this attempt of Mr. Hearst to get himself elected President of the United States. [...] Hearst is but a golden calf on the road to the Promised Land. It will do America well to avoid false idols.
Theodore Roosevelt, "Muckraker Speech," September 19th, 1908

Roosevelt led all credible presidential polls since the spring of 1908. His achievements, minor though they may be, seemed to significantly bolster the incumbent's chances at re-election. Much of America sympathized with the cause of federal aggrandizement in order to eliminate corporate control of the political system, and some moderate Republicans felt inclined to applaud Roosevelt for his role in the bankruptcy crisis. However, several noteworthy facets prevented the popular press from outright deeming the president a clear-cut favorite for re-election.

The inflexibility of the party to adjust its platform and messaging to suit the growing need for earnest pro-worker legislation, and more harshly criticize the trusts in the wake of the Grand Bargain, tarnished the incumbent. Just as Senator La Follette correctly recognized at the Progressive National Convention, moderating and whitewashing the once-stirring progressive mantra validated Socialist arguments concerning Roosevelt's perceived capitulation to the Republican Party. La Follette himself refused to speak personally on Roosevelt's behalf as the campaign rolled on through Wisconsin, delivering a serious blow to espoused Progressive unity and demonstrating internal disfavor by the party's left wing. The whole ordeal did wonders for Hearst's prospects, and he drove the above critiques home over and over again.

Contrasted with the Columbian machine tearing itself apart, the Democrats were more united than ever before. The party, in a single breath, conveyed the need to correct the errors of the Roosevelt Administration with one that better responded to the needs of everyday Americans. In all 48 states, local Democratic leaders and public officeholders campaigned on behalf of Governor Hearst. Populist Southerners like Jeff Davis and Tom Watson ensured Democratic dominance in the South, downplaying the nominee's antipathy to matters of race and highlighted his commitment to reform working conditions for agrarian laborers and tenant farmers. Former President Bryan underscored analogous pleas in the Great Plains, recommending that voters choose the Democratic ticket (He focused more broadly on labor issues than propping up Governor Hearst - yet re-affirmed his staunch opposition to President Roosevelt).

Champ Clark turned out to be a solid accompaniment to Hearst on the campaign trail. Clark strategically headed much of the organizational operation while Hearst professed to engorged audiences his concern for the underdog. At a scheduled stop in Pittsburgh on the morning of October 4th, the governor uplifted the vice presidential nominee and pivoted to reflect Roosevelt's attacks.


The laborers and immigrants of this country have become involved - really involved. I believe more than ever that our movement will succeed. The present promising conditions in the Democratic Party have been brought about by the fact that the Democratic Party under the leadership of Champ Clark has had the courage to be progressive and the intelligence to be sound in its Democracy. Congressman Clark is an honest and loyal force for the common man, and I will be thrilled to serve alongside him in Washington. He and I will fight on your behalf. On that, you have my word. [...] The president may not agree to the integrity of my campaign and of my person, but, to that I say, if being a competent journalist and a patriotic American can make a man persona non grata in his own domain, I think I can endure the situation without a loss of sleep.
William R. Hearst, "Address to Pittsburgh Steelworkers," October 4th, 1908

Hearst, in allying himself to journalism while Roosevelt did the opposite, polished his own image whilst simultaneously dragging down the president. The governor coined presidential hostility to the press as fundamentally toxic to the republic. He insinuated that Roosevelt felt more at home among the ranks of Senators Spooner and Aldrich than he did with average, working class reporters. The Journal's own reporting on the drawbacks of the Progressives' media narratives helped spread this message nationwide, resulting in definitive blow-back to the incumbent. This phenomenon, in addition Hearst's consistent defense of labor interests, strengthened the idea of Democracy as a beacon of governmental reform and transparency (a far cry from the party's perception four years prior). In this tactic, he began substantially peeling away former Roosevelt voters.

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Late-autumn polling exemplified the ever-tightening race, even though Roosevelt remained on top. Utilizing his media empire to the fullest extent, Hearst released one final exposé on the administration one week before the election. In it, he described the economic conditions of New York, seeking to counter the prevailing narrative that Roosevelt single-handedly resolved the city budget predicament. The piece quoted from factory owners directly, demonstrating that austerity adversely affected the conditions for businesses as well as workers. "Two years in advance of the renowned recovery," the story read, "a quarter of the banks remain closed. Factories that once boomed with activity stood vacant. [..] Efforts by Mayor Shepard and Governor Hearst have generated economic growth as industry pushes on. It is undeniable that the federal government is no longer concerned with the state of New York nor its residents. The Roosevelt Administration continues to assert that the crisis ended in 1906 and will comment no further. Mr. Roy McMillan of McMillan Shipping says the treatment of New Yorkers by the president is despicable. 'The cowboy sailed into New York harbor, dropped some pennies in the coffers, smiled for the cameras, and moved on. No man worth his salt should stand for that.'"
 

Senator Knox in Philadelphia, November 1st, 1908 - Source: Wiki Commons

On November 3rd, 1908, Election Day officially kicked off. President Theodore Roosevelt and First Lady Edith Roosevelt returned to their home at Sagamore Hill, exhausted from the tireless campaigning and anxious for the returns. He exhibited plucky confidence from afar and to the general public, but his private letters revealed a growing sense of doubt. To Kermit Roosevelt, his second son, the president wrote, "If things go wrong on election night, remember, Kermit, that we are very, very fortunate to have had four years in the White House, and that I have had a chance to accomplish work such as comes to very, very few men in any generation; and that I have no business to feel downcast merely because when so much has been given me, I have not had even more."

Of the three incumbent Progressive governors, Edward Hoch (P-KS), Jesse McDonald (P-CO), and Coe Crawford (P-SD), none found success in corralling Republicans to sign off on vote tweaking measures a la 1904. Illinois Governor Yates had been replaced by Charles S. Deneen (R-IL): A rather conservative partisan apathetic to the presidential race. Deneen, despite pressure from some in-state officeholders, declined to repeat Yates' slick ballot maneuvering. Knox would be listed as the Republican, and, below that, Roosevelt as a Progressive. The Roosevelt Campaign was discouraged by that news, but felt assured that the their incumbency advantage would overrule ballot placement issues and overcome the headache of straight-ticket Republican voters.

The Hearst Campaign spent its final days along the campaign trail in Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California, completing its coast-to-coast journey in the latter. Roosevelt's Golden State operation emitted radio silence in the closing weeks of the election, seemingly backpedaling in order to pull all available resources into the Midwest. The president himself did not set foot in any state along the West Coast. This, perhaps, allowed his chief rival an opportunity. As such, Hearst focused vehemently on reinvigorating disaffected progressive voters and former Bryan supporters to his side, enticing them with promises of a low tariff, intensified railroad regulation, and the disassembling of the trusts. Champ Clark helped drive these wedge issued in further, imploring all to vote Democratic down-ballot to rid Congress of its "Republican blight."

At last, on the evening of that fated day, statewide officials began tallying up the votes. Two curiosities made themselves evident before even 1% of the vote had been counted. First, Knox appeared to improve significantly on Depew's numbers on the Eastern seaboard, with the early count having him ahead in Pennsylvania. The Republican hadn't campaigned whatsoever beyond the Mississippi River, ceding the West to his competitors to contend with. In his determination, Knox could win by focusing entirely on the traditionally GOP-tilted states in the Midwest and Northeast (a strategy reminiscent of Benjamin Harrison in 1888) instead of embarking on a diluted, 48-state romp. Right off the bat, Knox's superior performance as compared to his Republican predecessor again exemplified the natural leverage granted to an office-seeker when engaging in whistle-stop style campaigning. The old front-porch method, from thence on, was dead.

A second feature of the early returns was the confirmation that Roosevelt held a distinct advantage in raw vote totals. As tallies were reported over the wire, the incumbent led in most districts and in plenty of towns and cities. This validated their hunch that the people still preferred Roosevelt over the field, and verified the opinion polling that mimicked this theory. The Literary Digest poll found the president with an estimated Popular Vote lead of 8 points over Hearst, an insurmountable win by any measure. Once the counting progressed and the complete picture came into focus, however, a handful of worrying signs began to show.

Senator Knox skillfully captured nearly all of New England (Maine went to Roosevelt). This was a stark change from the previous election, when Roosevelt narrowly defeated Chauncey Depew for Massachusetts. Boston, in a notable fashion, turned on the president and the rock-bound Republican population of the metropolitan area "returned home" to Knox. It seemed without the stench of failure (one familiar to Mr. Depew), the GOP proved to reassert control in its regional base. The Bay State, with all of its Electoral Votes, went to Knox by a margin of about 7%. Aside from the bastion of the Republican Eastern Establishment, only Utah fell to the Pennsylvanian. The well-funded Knox Campaign was ultimately unsuccessful in its mission, but it did indeed surpass 1904 figures in virtually every state. All in all, Knox finished in third place with 44 Electoral Votes to his name.

Unlike in Boston, the population of Trenton and Jersey City stuck with the president and propelled him to triumph in the Garden State. Hearst, by a slim margin, lost its coveted 12 Electoral Votes to the Progressive ticket. Senator Franklin Murphy (P-NJ) campaigned fiercely for Roosevelt in his home state, and the president's victory in New Jersey in 1908 is historically attributed to him. Pennsylvania also returned to the incumbent's arms. Following a long, hard-fought contest between all three major candidates, Roosevelt edged the opposition out. He finished with 36% to Knox's 34% and Hearst's 30%. The Pennsylvanian countryside had been evenly divided, but an effort by the Roosevelt team in Philadelphia paid off as municipal workers leaned in Roosevelt's direction. Hearst invested a great deal of time and money into that community, so losing there was a major disappointment and sharply dimmed his presidential prospects.
 

Governor Hearst (Left) Meets with Brooklyn Democratic Boss Patrick H. McCarren, October 1908 - Source: Wiki Commons

Back in 1904, Democratic candidate Richard Olney defeated Theodore Roosevelt in New York. In the election of 1908, Roosevelt suffered a similar abysmal loss. In no other region had the two leaders paid such close attention nor dedicate gargantuan sums and manpower. Hearst, however, proved that his ties to the Empire State remained a bit more potent. Even though Roosevelt had once served as their governor, New Yorkers, by and large, gave no particular favor to the Rough Rider over any other politician. Furthermore, Hearst's incessant printed criticism of the president's treatment of post-Panic New York City all but guaranteed that its residents turned out to cast their vote against the incumbent.

Governor Hearst, in his time serving as the gubernatorial executive of New York, also fostered an amiable relationship with the state Democratic machine. Through his anti-establishment rhetoric and investigation into John A. Dix, one may not have assumed that the state party respected the incumbent governor whatsoever, yet the new leadership rather fancied Hearst. Norman E. Mack was selected as Chairman of the New York Democratic Party in 1907. Like Hearst, Mack was an independently wealthy publisher and a populist, and the two effectively ushered in a new period for the state Democrats (dominated, of course, by Hearst). In utilizing ties to the vastly influential state machine, as well as questionable assistance from Tammany Boss Charles Francis Murphy, Hearst defeated Roosevelt by a 20,000-vote margin and, thereby, claimed the Empire State for the Democratic Party.

Despite his Western origins, Hearst was commonly cited as a Yankee New Yorker (especially upon his ascension to the Albany Executive Mansion). Some Progressives hoped that this would allow them an opportunity to shred a layer off of the Solid South. The Roosevelt Campaign particularly eyed West Virginia and Missouri as plausible targets. The former, of course, went to President Beveridge in 1900, and Missouri's margin of victory for the Democratic Party had shrunk in each successive election. As with New York and Massachusetts, the president came up short. There was simply no changing the tide of staunch Democracy in the Old South. Just as Richard Olney managed to accomplish, Bill Hearst won the entire South, including Maryland and Delaware.

Hearst struck hard to sway the populations of the Midwestern states, carrying a month-long tour of the region in early October. He spoke out in favor of worker-centric policies in the Ohio Valley and northward to Lake Superior. He, in fact, did quite well in terms of winning large portions of cities like Chicago and Indianapolis to his argument, but the extent to which Progressivism and the Republican roots of these regions dug deep into the populous could not be circumvented. In three-way votes, Roosevelt just narrowly won out. Like wind in his sails, middle-class voters fueled the president's good tidings in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Margins had tightened in Illinois, for instance, but his regional performance overall improved from four years ago. A clean sweep of the Industrial Midwest typically designated the direction of the election, yet the oft-ignored Western United States muddled that picture.

Four years ago, former President Bryan released an article praising the Progressive platform and its numerous proposals to improve the lives of workers and address the corrupting forces of corporations and unlawful trusts. That won over swathes of mugwump voters who otherwise were die-hard Democrats. In the election presently discussed, Bryan did not such thing. The Nebraskan actively campaigned against Roosevelt in 1908, describing the incumbent as insufficient for the issues of the day. He blasted the administration from all corners and held nothing back. To an unbeknownst soul at a Bryan rally, it was as if the orator himself was running against Roosevelt. It should not have been a surprise, then, that the Bryan voters who once switched affiliation to cast favor for the Progressive now returned to the fold. Knox, as a non-entity in the West, meant that most voters were either pro-Roosevelt or pro-Hearst. In losing Massachusetts, President Roosevelt required all of the remaining states, plus two faithless electors, in order to reach the necessary threshold of 245 votes in the Electoral College. In the words of Thomas O'Conner, "That was a tough bet for any man, even one as nationally adored as Theodore Roosevelt."

The Progressive nominee succeeded in Washington state, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, and Kansas. He prevailed in the latter three regions by the skin of this teeth, in margins hovering around 1-2%. Elsewhere, Hearst was triumphant. The Democrat won out in Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Oregon, and, with 40% of the vote, California. Furthermore, Governor Hearst took the three former territories: Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona (each by hearty margins). Poorer agrarian workers, trusting in the judgement of former President Bryan, ran with the Democratic nominee and bolstered his efforts in the above Great Plains and Mountain states. Cities were a bit more divided, but organized labor supplied Hearst with a substantial voter pool in budding industrial centers like Colorado Springs. These victories, once verified, granted the governor an insurmountable lead in the Electoral Vote count.

Matching that of 1896, the final results were flabbergasting. The Democratic Party had returned from the oblivion and, with the mantle held aloft by Governor William R. Hearst, apparently succeeded in re-capturing the presidency after an eight-year interim. Hearst finished with 248 Electoral Votes while Roosevelt had a lowly 197. The challenger clearly played his hand correctly and set up his organization to the fullest extent. The one major obstacle to content with, especially as a self-aligned "man of the people," was Hearst's loss in the Popular Vote. Not since 1888 had a president been elected without a clear plurality in the raw vote, and, thus far, fortunes did not favor those presidents.
 
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I think that would've made the election go to the House. TR really would've needed NY and MA to seal the deal.
True enough. But a house election allows for all sort of corrupt bargains :)

Enjoying this timeline very much. It has been forcing me to read a lot about gilded age politics and politicians (I usually prefer my history to be post 1945 :)).
 
Quick Update: Electric Co. telling me power may not be back till Aug 11th. All of my notes are on my PC so I'm not able to do much until then. Well, at least I'm having a better time than the Philander Knox Campaign!
 
Quick Update: Electric Co. telling me power may not be back till Aug 11th. All of my notes are on my PC so I'm not able to do much until then. Well, at least I'm having a better time than the Philander Knox Campaign!
Paper , pen and let your imagination flow
Good time to rethink about your tl choices
 
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