The Republican Divide: Tales From Washington's First Political Divide

There was one other time when the Republican Party splintered in two factions
Former President Theodore Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft - 1912
Former President Theodore Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft - 1912

America has always been a two-party political system of government. Today we are familiar with the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. We only see red and blue. Liberal and conservative. But was there ever a time in American politics where the established political party split over issues?

The year is 1908. American President Theodore (Teddy Roosevelt) decides not to run for re-election. While there is no limit to the terms in which a President can serve at the time, (Congress will pass an amendment after the death of Franklin Roosevelt) the unofficial rule is that Presidents serve two four-year terms before leaving office. 

For Teddy, this was no different. Before he leaves, however, he has a goal in keeping some of the changes he's made in his time as Commander in Chief to stay in place. So as the field of candidates for President became more clear, he would decide who he thought was best to keep the status quo for the Republican agenda. 

His choice is in former Secretary of War William H. Taft. Taft, a lawyer, and native of Ohio. Taft was the kind of politician who wasn't exactly into the idea of being President. He actually had the goal of becoming a justice on the Supreme Court. 

Nonetheless, he was chosen to run, after some convincing by other Republicans. Now that they have chosen their candidate, the campaign season began in earnest.

But for the soon-to-be the former President Teddy Roosevelt, he had been having misgivings on deciding not to run for a third term. Despite this, Roosevelt kept his feelings to himself and Taft wins the 1908 election. 

As Taft began his term, it became apparent that he was not his predecessor. He was more compromising to topics and policies that Roosevelt had taken a hard line on. (The main issue was Roosevelt's signature legacy, the Antitrust law) He began to look at Taft as weak and began to make reference to his regret for not running again. 

Soon, Roosevelt began to speak out against Taft. And as the next election in 1912 approached, it became clear that there were different feelings about both men in the party. The party became two factions: Roosevelt and his supporters were more progressive, and Taft and his supporters were more conservatives. 

Their stances on the politics of the day could not have been any different. Progressives favored more protections for women and children and wanted better restrictions on labor unions. But Taft and conservatives were more supportive of big business and did not support the labor unions. 

The party was in a civil war with battle lines drawn. Roosevelt and his supports spin-off into their own party who called themselves 'The Bull Moose' Party; having their own party convention separate from the Republicans. 

As the campaign continued on, the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, began to gain some momentum on account of the infighting from the Republicans. It became apparent that the two factions were more of a liability than originally thought. 

With only a month or so until the general election, while slated to give a campaign speech, Roosevelt was shot by a would-be assassin. The bullet pierced his chest, but thanks to his folded speech in his breast pocket Roosevelt was able to continue the speech. He was then taken to the hospital afterward for treatment. 

The story of his assassination attempt became a legend, as it only reinforced the perceptions of his tough-guy persona. Taft on the other hand would have a serious blow to his campaign. His Vice President James Sherman would die in late October of 1912 after suffering from Brights Disease. 

Now without a running mate and with the election just days away, it was determined that the votes that came in for Sherman would be allocated to Nicholas Butler, a delegate from New Jersey. 

On election day the apparent sway for Wilson came to fruition. He would place first in the electoral college, followed by Roosevelt, and Taft coming in third. In the popular vote, Wilson also won by a decent margin. 

The split of the Republican party cost them the White House and destroyed the relationship between Roosevelt and Taft. Because of the wound from his assassination attempt, Roosevelt never again would be as strong as he was prior to the event. The bullet was left in his chest, which became infected, worsening his health. 

Chief Justice William H. Taft

He would later die as a result of chronic illnesses by 1919. As for Taft, he would return to Yale University for a time, before being nominated and later confirmed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1921. His goal to become apart of the court fulfilled, he would continue to serve on the court until just before his death in 1930. 

Wilson, as history shows us, goes on to become a wartime President with the onset of World War One. He would later become incapacitated by a debilitating stroke while campaigning for the League of Nations. 

Looking forward to America's political climate today, there seems to be another civil war brewing within the Republican party. While the split has yet to happen, it's apparent that another potential split could be closer than some realize. 

Rather than Progressivism vs Conservatism, today it's more along the lines of radicalization of conservatives vs. the more moderate conservative. Like the Democrats of 1912, the split seems to have some effect on the ability to gain support from those who are no fans of either stance of the extreme positions in the republican party. 

After the defeat of Trump in 2020, talks have begun to circulate about the possibility of a new party being formed in hopes of another Trump run for President in 2024.

Now that Trump has been impeached for the second time, (the first U.S. President to do so) and the predictable acquittal that followed; more and more talk of a third party is gaining more steam. Nearly 60% of Americans now think that a third political party is needed. Could America use another party that is less conservative and more progressive like the Bull Moose Party? Or could a break along the issues surrounding equal pay, economics, or racial disparity be more suitable to the electorate?

The discord of the Republican party is surely one to keep close attention to in the next several years.

Denise is a writer who uses history to explain current events. While the subject or event may change; she makes history relevant for all

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