Strong as a Bull Moose

After leaving office in 1908, Roosevelt vowed not to run for a third term. (A two-term limit was a custom honored by all previous presidents, but it was not law until the 22nd Amendment was ratified in 1951.) He supported his successor, William Howard Taft, despite ideological differences with the more conservative president, and wrote in support of Republican candidates in the 1910 House of Representative elections. He left the limelight for a while and embarked on a long period abroad in Europe and Africa, where he helped fund a National Geographic expedition that was the largest and most well-equipped scientific safari in East Africa.

Meanwhile at home, Taft began a series of political missteps that would erode public support, alienate important political lobbies, and lead to a drastic rift in the Republican Party. Although he initiated scores of anti-trust lawsuits, his public speech seemed to support big business, leaving neither reformers nor corporations happy. Allegations that his Secretary of the Interior was colluding with the logging industry drew fire from the large and vocal conservationist constituency. Roosevelt eventually turned his back on Taft and announced his candidacy for the 1912 Republican nomination.

Although he had broad popular support, Roosevelt had thrown his hat in the ring too late to receive the backing of the party leaders, who still felt threatened by his progressivism. The discontent that he had felt with the Republican Party when he first entered public life 30 years earlier reemerged. Although he’d refused to bolt the party then, he did so now. After losing the nomination at the 1912 Republican Convention in Chicago, his delegates split and met to lay the groundwork for the Progressive Party. Nicknamed the Bull Moose Party after Roosevelt’s claim that he was “as strong as a bull moose,” the main plank in its political platform was fighting corporate corruption. The Progressives wrote, “To destroy this invisible Government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.”

In a pivotal speech delivered just minutes after being shot in the chest by a would-be assassin, Roosevelt fired up the crowd against the party to which he had remained loyal all his life: “…while [Republican Party bosses] don’t like me, they dread you. You are the people that they dread. They dread the people themselves, and those bosses and the big special interests behind them made up their mind that they would rather see the Republican Party wrecked than see it come under the control of the people themselves.”

A political cartoon of the day satirizes Roosevelt’s Bull Moose speeches by depicting him as a chef mixing together Progressivism, Pure Democracy, Conservative Views, and Radical Spice with Any Old View, and Teddy declaring, “The more you mix in, the easier to satisfy everyone.” The fiery rhetoric may have reflected a hodgepodge of views, but it drew crowds at every campaign stop.

Although Taft and Roosevelt split the Republican vote and gave the election to Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt far outperformed the incumbent. This made Taft the only sitting president to come in third in a race for re-election, and Roosevelt the only third-party candidate to come in second in a presidential election.

Just as he did after the mugwump vs. stalwart battle 30 years earlier, Roosevelt took his frustration into the wilderness, this time to the jungles of Brazil. The Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition in 1914 was the first to chart the River of Doubt, one of the least explored and impassable of the Amazon’s tributaries. Returning from the expedition gaunt and sickened by malaria, the former president spent his few remaining years battling the illness and infection worsened by the arduous trip. He died in his sleep in 1919 at just 60 years old.