Political Cartoons Illustrating Progressivism and the Election of 1912


Detal from 'Progressive Fallacies' cartoonThe Progressive Era, as the period in history at the turn of the 20th century has come to be known, was a time of tremendous social, economic, and political changes, and the presidential election of 1912 typified the reform spirit of the period. Beginning in the late 1800s with the challenge to the "spoils system" of machine politics, progressivism gathered momentum between 1900 and 1916, as the desire for reform permeated the minds of the American people. Reformers themselves were a diverse group, frequently with different views, but always the same general purpose-- to reform America. Among them were politicians, labor leaders, religious leaders, and teachers, men and women who believed the federal government needed to address the ills of a modern industrialized society. Among their choices for president in 1912 were three major candidates, each of whom laid claim to successful reform measures.

The more famous reform leaders of the day reflected the diversity within the various reform groups. Robert M. La Follette, the senator and former governor of Wisconsin, and Theodore Roosevelt, the former governor of New York and president of the United States from 1901 to 1908, were members of the Republican Party. Woodrow Wilson, former governor of New Jersey and president from 1912 to 1920, was a member of the Democratic Party. Each man had a history of challenging the status quo and enacting change while in office. Yet, they opposed each other during a campaign year that captivated the American people and challenged the two-party system. In their opposition they brought to the forefront of American politics those problems that needed rapt attention, and they succeeded in addressing many of them, regardless of party affiliations.

As president from 1901 to 1908, Theodore Roosevelt believed it was his duty to define the major problems of the day and to offer solutions. He believed the dominant issue before the federal government was its relationship with big business. He pressed for government regulation of corporations and an end to unfair pricing practices. He considered labor unions and farmers' cooperatives advantageous as a means of keeping the actions of big business in check. Roosevelt carried out 44 antitrust prosecutions, all the while assuring tense businessmen that he was only against enterprises which misused their size and economy of scale to discriminate against competitors and deceive consumers. Other important issues for which he attempted to garner support included a graduated income tax and an inheritance tax; initiative, referendum and recall measures; direct primaries; and conservation.

Having stated in 1904 that he would serve no more than two terms, Roosevelt endorsed Senator William Howard Taft as the Republican nominee in 1908. However, Taft proved more conservative than Roosevelt had anticipated, and eventually he regretted his endorsement. In Roosevelt's eyes, Taft had too frequently sided with the corporate giants and political bosses he had so relentlessly battled.

Taft was also criticized by Senator La Follette who had vied with him for the Republican nomination in 1908. La Follette was arguably the most fervent reformer in the country with an impressive record of achievements in Wisconsin, among them pure food acts, child labor and compulsory education laws, and workmen's compensation insurance. His own larger reform platform, which eventually would be called the "Wisconsin idea," included the dictum of direct election of U. S. senators. As the highest profile Republican other than Theodore Roosevelt, La Follette believed himself to be the natural choice for the party's nomination in 1912, and progressive Republicans supported him, including Roosevelt.

In January 1911 at La Follette's home in Wisconsin, a de facto Republican nominating committee reorganized as the National Progressive Republican League outlined their new platform, which called for 1) the direct election of U.S. senators, 2) direct primaries, 3) the direct election of convention delegates, and 4) a constitutional amendment for initiative, referendum, and recall at the federal level. If Roosevelt would not seek a third term, then La Follette was their obvious choice for leader. However, by late in that year, the members abandoned La Follette as their candidate when the immensely popular Roosevelt finally threw his hat back in the ring."Fighting Bob's" success had shown that the party was viable, but Roosevelt's notoriety and national appeal made his chances of winning much greater.

The first two featured documents, both political cartoons, satirize Roosevelt's reversal of his anti-third term promise and his assumption of leadership of the Progressive Party. Both La Follette and Roosevelt lost the Republican nomination to the incumbent, Taft, who still controlled the national convention delegates. Roosevelt, however, had swept 9 of the 12 states with primaries, including Taft's home state of Ohio. This primary battle is characterized in the third featured document, a political cartoon picturing Ohio as the "Mother of Presidents." Victories in these primaries made Roosevelt and his progressives confident that they represented the will of the people. They officially announced their Progressive Party and challenged Taft and the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. The fourth featured document, another political cartoon, displays the three candidates shortly before election day in 1912.

As opponents, Roosevelt and Wilson had almost as much in common as they did in conflict. They both rejected the Republican's platform of status quo and opposed radical groups such as Eugene Deb's Socialist Party of America. They both ran on records of political and economic reform, and they both supported stronger democratization of the political process. Yet Wilson, a Democrat, remained concerned for states' rights, disagreeing with Roosevelt's mandate for federal control of industry. Rather, he advocated more precise business laws and prosecution for unfair business practices. He also called for a reduced tariff, something he associated with the protection of monopolies and special interests and the rising cost of living. Overall, Wilson was for limiting government power and was in stark opposition to such Roosevelt social welfare programs as workmen's compensation and the minimum wage.

The election of 1912 was the most memorable election of the Progressive Era and one of the most unique of the 20th century. With reform-minded candidates as the top contenders, it was only a matter of time before the varied goals of the groups within the Progressive Party, from labor issues to conservation measures, would be addressed through legislation. In fact, several important constitutional issues were near resolution during the campaign year. The 16th and 17th Amendments to the Constitution were passed during Taft's administration and ratified early in Wilson's first term. Thus, Congress gained the power to collect income taxes, and U. S. Senators would be elected by the people. In addition, women gained voting privileges when the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.


Aaseng, N. America's Third-party Presidential Candidates. Minneapolis, MN: The Oliver Press, Inc., 1995.

Blum, J. M. The Progressive Presidents. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1980.

Peterson, A. The Election of 1912. Lakeside, CA: Interaction Publishers, 1992.

Understanding and Creating Political Cartoons. Madison, WI: Knowledge Unlimited, 1998.

Constitutional Connection

This lesson relates to the goals of the Progressives at the state and federal levels and the significance of the election of 1912. It lays the groundwork for study of the 16th, 17th, and 19th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Analyzing the Document

  1. Look at this current political cartoon and discuss how symbolism, humor, exaggeration, and caricature are used in editorial cartoons.

  2. Download the Cartoon Analysis Worksheet. DON'T PRINT IT OUT. It will open into a separate window that you can toggle to while using it to analyze the cartoons in this activity.

  3. As a class, we'll analyze the Anti-Third Term Principle cartoon using the Analysis Worksheet and the Editorial Cartoon Questions below. After we've analyzed this cartoon as a class, your group will independently analyze one of the three remaining featured documents. Your group will need to share its observations with the rest of the class, so make sure that each group member is comfortable talking about your group work.

Editorial Cartoon Questions:

  1. Symbols are used in cartoons to visually present abstract ideas. Many such as Uncle Sam are widely recognized. What symbols are used in this cartoon? Can you think of any other symbols you have seen pictured in editorial cartoons?
  2. Cartoonists employ humor to make powerful statements in an effective, less heavy-handed manner. Does this cartoon use humor to make its point? If so, how? Is it sarcastic? Ironic? Ridiculing?
  3. Exaggeration is what sets editorial cartoons apart; they must grab the reader and deliver a message in a few seconds. What is exaggerated in this cartoon, and what purpose does it serve? Caricature exaggerates or distorts a person's prominent feature(s) to allow the viewer to identify him or her quickly. How is caricature used in this cartoon?

The following information about the documents may be helpful:

Document 1, Anti-Third Term Principle, is an excellent introduction to the study of political cartoons. It is a straightforward criticism of Roosevelt's reversal of his promise to adhere to the two-term principle established by George Washington. (Roosevelt later countered that he only promised to refuse three consecutive terms.)

Document 2, Progressive Fallacies, is a close companion to the Anti-Third Term Principle. In the foreground is Roosevelt; in the background the dejected and deserted La Follette. Of particular interest here is that this original cartoon was somewhat softened before publication. "Progressive Fallacies" became "Progress Sweet Progress" in the final version. What might have influenced the cartoonist to make this change? Does it modify the overall message or tone?

In Document 3 Roosevelt and Taft are depicted as battling for the Ohio state primary election, one of only 13 state primaries in 1912. In addition to being Taft's home state, Ohio also sent a large number of delegates to the national convention. Roosevelt won the primary, Taft the nomination.

Published in November 1912, Document 4 depicts the public faces of the candidates and speculates as to the uneasiness they might be feeling before election day.

NARA Digital Classroom - http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/lessons/election_cartoons_1912/ election_cartoons_1912.html

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