The history of the division of the Republican Party in 1912 centers around two men. William Howard Taft had been Theodore Roosevelt’s right hand man during TR’s presidency, beginning with Taft’s tenure as Governor-General of the Philippines. Taft performed his executive duties in the Philippines very well, and returned from the Philippines to a position in Roosevelt’s cabinet. As the end of Roosevelt’s second term approached, he relied more and more on Taft and worked very closely with him. By this time, they were not only political allies, but also close friends. Taft was Roosevelt’s choice for a successor, and Roosevelt even helped Taft secure the position by campaigning with him.
It is therefore surprising how quickly the relationship between the two men soured. Taft became his own man as president, working with more of a judicial outlook than a political one. As Taft’s conservatism clarified, Roosevelt’s annoyance grew. Finally, they engaged in a very public break as Roosevelt began writing articles that criticized Taft, and eventually threw his hat in the ring to declare his candidacy for president.
For a time, the Republican Party attempted to reconcile the two men, as is evidenced in this letter from William McDowell, “Acting Peacemaker”.
Letter from William Osborne McDowell to Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft, April 1, 1912. From the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
It soon became clear that reconciliation would not work, and the battle began. After Roosevelt bolted the Republican National Convention and formed a new party, Taft knew he was defeated. After that point, he stayed in the 1912 election on principle; he was the nominee of one of the major parties, and he would not admit defeat. Throughout the campaign, Taft hoped only that he would beat Roosevelt and his new party so that it would not be legitimized. He firmly believed in the “Grand Old Party,” and wanted it to continue.
William the Conqueror getting into his armor, October 16, 1912. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.
As expected, Taft lost resoundingly, coming in a distant third behind Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. With only 8 electoral votes, his was the worst showing of an incumbent president. However, William H. Taft took it with good grace. He was jovial and welcoming to the Wilsons, which solicited some good press – something he had not been able to secure earlier. TR and Taft eventually reconciled not long before TR’s death in 1919.
Gould, Lewis L. The William Howard Taft Presidency. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009.