Indiana’s contribution to the “Golden Age of Freethought” during the late nineteenth century has been covered by previous blogs for the Indiana Historical Bureau; in particular, iconoclastic author Ambrose Bierce, the Vonnegut’s, and Robert Ingersoll and Lew Wallace’s “legendary train ride.” This blog covers another another Hoosier freethinker, W. H. LaMaster. His freethought newspaper, the Iconoclast, became a staple of Indianapolis thought through the 1880s and he continued his column writing until his death in 1908. LaMaster advocated for religious skepticism, scientific advancement, and was a staunch anti-temperance advocate. LaMaster, alongside notable freethinkers like Ambrose Bierce, Clemens Vonnegut, and Robert Ingersoll, helps us understand the rich religious diversity in the Midwest during the late nineteenth century.
William Hammon LaMaster was born on February 14, 1841 in Shelbyville, Indiana, to Benjamin and Elizabeth LaMaster. His early life is mostly unknown to us, but we do know that he lived for a time in Missouri on the family farm, according to the US Census. From there, LaMaster served for the Union army during the Civil War, serving in the 89th Indiana Infantry and the 146th Indiana Infantry. After the war, he returned home to Shelbyville (and later Liberty), passed the bar exam, and began his law practice. As early as 1868, he was beginning to make a splash within Republican Party circles. As the Daily Ohio Statesman reported, LaMaster was a “rising young lawyer of that city [Shelbyville, Indiana], a gentleman and a scholar, and hitherto was the main hub in the Republican Party in that county. He was in the war, and bears honorable scars.” In 1868, he advertised his law practice in the Connersville Examiner, and described his credentials as “Attorney at Law, and Deputy Common Pleas Prosecutor. Will practice in the Courts of Union and Fayette Counties.”
Also in 1868, LaMaster began writing a regular newspaper column writing for the Connersville Examiner called “Liberty Items.” In it he shared his thoughts on local happenings in Liberty Township, Union County, Indiana. In personal affairs, he married Harriet Reed on December 26, 1866, with the usual proceedings of a “Minister of Gospel,” as described on their marriage record. LaMaster’s iconoclastic views had not yet bubbled to the surface, at least with regards to his nuptials.
From there, LaMaster’s story is unclear until the late 1870s, when his religious skepticism was in full force. While LaMaster’s evolution into a freethinker is of great importance, it is outside of the scope of this initial post. By May 1879, his public life as a freethinker was evident in a lecture entitled “The God of the Bible” that he delivered at Terre Haute’s Dowling Hall. The Terre HauteWeekly Gazette described, “From the way he states his subject something of an idea of his manner of treating it may be learned.” Unfortunately, research has yet to uncover the text of this lecture. However, an advertisement published in an 1884 issue of the Index suggests that it might have been akin to known-agnostic Robert Ingersoll’s critical lecture, Some Mistakes of Moses.
Being a skeptic, so far as spiritualism is concerned in any form, whether manifested through ignorant mediums or otherwise, I must say that I saw nothing on my late experience among spirits in Terre Haute to convince me of the truth of modern spiritualism.
When LaMaster was not debunking spiritualism in Terre Haute, he was trying to debunk another popular notion during the period: temperance. The movement, which called for either the curtailing or elimination of alcohol consumption, gained steam during the late nineteenth century. LaMaster viewed the movement as he did most creeds—as an overzealous, dogmatic group who wanted to control people’s lives. He did not parse words when he wrote in the Indianapolis People that the first temperance lecturer was the Devil, who “taught a very remote grandmother of ours the art of using, in a very temperate manner, a certain kind of ‘fruit,’ to her ‘mental’ advantage, before any wicked distiller ever thought of solving the difficult problem, how to convert its juice into intoxicating beverages.” Now, it is important to clarify LaMaster’s personal view; while he supported any individual or personal efforts to be temperate with drink, he was opposed to using laws to move people in that direction, a distinction the Indianapolis News made sure to print.
While temperance was one of LaMaster’s political hobby horses, his dedication to freethought and secularism was his main contribution to the growing diversity of Indiana’s religious thought during the late nineteenth century. In an 1898 article for the Improvement Era, “What Agnosticism Is?,” LaMaster outlined his own view regarding theological matters. He wrote:
Agnosticism as an applied theory or doctrine may therefore be said to be one which neither asserts nor denies the existence of the infinite, the absolute. Or, it may be defined as a “theory of the unknowable which assumes its most definite form in the denial of the possibility of any knowledge of God.” And so the agnostic may be said to be one who does not claim or profess to know of the existence of a supreme being called God.
Regarding agnosticism, LaMaster’s view mirrored the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (who coined the term) as well as the other titan of Midwestern freethought, Robert G. Ingersoll. Conversely, LaMaster’s agnosticism under-girded his poor estimation of Christianity, which he believed rested on a poor foundation of “faith.” He declared:
To state the proposition more tersely we will say that while Christianity is willing to rest on “faith” alone in arriving at any one or more objective religious truths, agnosticism demands something more—it demands evidence of the highest character before accepting as very truth any kind of a religious belief or dogma. Hence we find Christianity standing for a bare and empty faith and agnosticism for the strongest and the most indisputable of testimony. And so it must be admitted that as between the Christian and the agnostic there is an impassable gulf.
For LaMaster, the use of reason, in conjunction with evidence, provided a person with the clearest picture of the world and their place within it.
In the introduction to the 1893 version, LaMaster further explained his worldview and the impetus for publishing Ingersoll’s answers. He wrote:
It is for the good and well-being of the whole people that a natural religion should take the place of a supernatural one. With the imaginary or idealistic, progressive thought can have nothing to do, since it is the real, and not the ideal, that men and women should crave to find. The world is in need of a religion of humanity—one of philosophy and good deeds—and not one of creeds.
The idea of a “religion of humanity” recalls the proto-humanistic philosophy of Auguste Comte, who argued for a natural religion based on altruistic impulses and mutual affection among individuals without the need for supernaturalism. LaMaster also published with these letters an essay that he likely prepared for the International Congress of Freethinkers in Chicago entitled, “The Genesis of Life.” In it, he argued for a naturalistic explanation for life on earth, noting that “whilst there may be no particular source of life in the universe, there is always to be found a general or universal one from which it may emanate and become an active, moving, and expressive energy in organic nature.”
His years publishing the Iconoclast were difficult, especially in a city like Indianapolis, where its community of freethought was “without organization,” according to the Index. “With the Iconoclast,” wrote B. F. Underwood in the same paper, “existence is yet a struggle, as it necessarily is with all young liberal journals.” Despite its success with Ingersoll’s Answers to Indianapolis Clergy, the Iconoclast ceased publication in 1886.
Over the next 20 years, LaMaster continued writing and publishing a variety of essays and pamphlets, both in journals and newspapers. In 1896, he published, “The Growth and Magnitude of the Sidereal Heavens,” in Popular Astronomy, where he speculated on the existence of extraterrestrial life. “Let us then, in our magnanimity,” declared LaMaster, “rise above the compass of our human selfishness and allow our minds to be inspired with the thought that there are other worlds than ours in the starry vaults of heaven, which are the abode of even more sentient beings than ourselves.” These ideas would be echoed nearly a century later by astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan, in his television series, Cosmos.
In another piece, “How Do We Think?,” LaMaster speculates on the interaction of language and human minds, and whether language is necessary for human thought. LaMaster mused:
If it be true, then, that mind is one of the endowments of matter, even in its organized forms, and one of its functions is that of thinking, it cannot be denied that it will think independently of words actually spoken or disguised . . . . Words themselves presuppose some kind of thought; in fact, words are the natural and legitimate offspring of thought.
Again, LaMaster was extremely prescient about this point. The hypothesis that thought comes before language and that our brains are hard-wired for language has been buttressed by cognitive scientists like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. Despite his training as an attorney, it is evident that LaMaster was a man whose interest in ideas, particularly of the sciences, was particularly well-rounded, especially for the nineteenth century.
Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, he continued writing newspaper columns, including authoring pieces for the Indianapolis News . In one article from February 26, 1895, he wrote about the enduring legacy of American revolutionary and freethinker Thomas Paine. In one of his final columns, written for the August 16, 1907 issue of the Indianapolis Star, LaMaster shared his thoughts about the human soul:
The soul per se, unlike other forms of matter, can have neither growth nor decay. It having therefore its own eternal place and fixity in the universe, it can be neither born nor can it die. And whatever then may be its form or shape it possesses potential being, and one, too, of the highest order.
This nascent spiritualism should not be taken to mean that he had changed his mind. Rather, LaMaster believed that the “soul” was likely an emergent property of humanity’s natural place in the universe.
In 1906, he and his family moved to Westphalia, Knox County, Indiana, away from the hustle of Indianapolis, where he continued his intellectual pursuits until the end. LaMaster died on July 28, 1908, at the age of 67. In his obituary from the Indianapolis News, he was described as a “frequent contributor to the Indianapolis News and other Indianapolis newspapers,” and was a “vigorous writer.” In that last remark, they were certainly correct. In his lifetime, LaMaster had written for numerous newspapers, journals, and pamphlets on a wide-range of topics. His newspaper, the Iconoclast, helped to cement a growing freethought community in Indianapolis. His speculations on science are still noteworthy today. In this regard, LaMaster was a classic, nineteenth century “polymath.” In his explorations and religious unorthodoxy, LaMaster contributed much to our understanding of freethought in the Midwest during the late nineteenth century.
To ring in the new year, we have more issues available for you. We have added issues from the Richmond Weekly Palladium (1875) and the Richmond Daily Palladium (1898-1902, 1904-1907). With these new additions, nearly 9,000 news pages are made available.
To ring in the new year, we’ve added another 10,000 pages to Hoosier State Chronicles. Our collection of the Richmond Palladium (Daily) has grown to 1928 issues, encompassing most of 1920-1922. You can learn more about Indiana’s place within the early years of the “Roaring Twenties.”
From James Whitcomb Riley to Kurt Vonnegut, Indiana is well-known for its literary heritage. This heritage developed, in-part, through personal appearances, where authors read from their works and shared new material with audiences. Of the lecturers, one of the most successful during the Gilded Age was Mark Twain. Born in Missouri as Samuel L. Clemens, Mark Twain became one of the late-19th century’s most popular and acclaimed authors. Alongside his successful career as a novelist and cultural critic, Twain crisscrossed the country, regaling packed theaters with stories, readings from new written material, and plain-old good jokes.
One of his first visits to Indiana as a lecturer was January 4, 1869, when he performed a reading of “The American Vandal Abroad.” As reported by the Indianapolis Daily Sentinel:
We caution our readers not to forget the treat prepared for them this evening by the Library Association. Mark Twain, one of the real humorists of the day, will deliver his lecture entitled “The American Vandal Abroad,” and his merits entitle him to a large audience. The lecture will be delivered at Metropolitan Hall, and reserved seats may be secured without extra charge at Bonham’s Music Store.
While the exact content of his performance from that night was not reported, he had repeatedly given the lecture through 1868-69, and a compiled version was published by literature scholar Paul Fatout, in his book, Mark Twain Speaking. In this lecture, Twain referred to the “American Vandal” as someone who “goes everywhere and is always at home everywhere . . . His is proud and looks proud. His countenance is beaming. He does not fail to let the public know that he is an American.” Twain’s lecture, like his broader work, represents an American voice that spoke to the Midwest, especially places like Indiana.
In 1872, Twain returned to Indiana and gave a lecture sharing snippets from his then-upcoming work, Roughing It. According to the Indianapolis News, Mark Twain gave his lecture at the Y.M.C.A. Association hall on January 1, 1872, at a cost of 50 cents at the door, 75 cents for reserved seats (what a bargain!). As the News reported:
Mark Twain, the noted humorist and author, lectures here to-night [sic] on “Passages from Roughing It.” Mr. Twain has a national reputation and should appear before a hall of people; besides the Y. M. C. A., under whose auspices he lectures, are in absolute want through lack of means. Let Association Hall be crowded to-night [sic].
This lecture was a marked departure from “Vandal,” both in style and in subject. Twain shared with audiences his experiences out west, from camping in the outskirts of Carson City, Nevada to riding colt horses and getting in duels.
Twain’s stories were printed in newspapers during his time in Indiana in 1872 as well. For example, the Terre Haute Evening Mail published an article entitled “Mark Twain on His Travels.” Among the witty stories than were shared by the Mail, this one is golden:
When we got to Rochester I called for a bowl of bean soup. I send you the receipt for making it: “Take a lot of water, wash it well, boil it until it is brown on both sides; then very carefully pour one bean into it and let it simmer. When the bean begins to get restless sweeten with salt, then put it in air-tight cans, hitch each can to a brick, and chuck them overboard, and the soup is done.”
The above receipt originated with a man in Iowa, who gets up suppers on odd occasions for Odd Fellows. He has a receipt for oyster soup of the same kind, only using twice as much water to the oyster and leaving out the salt.
However, not everyone was taken with Twain’s sardonic lectures. The Indianapolis People wrote that “It is the decided opinion of all we heard speak of Mark Twain’s lecture that it read better than it was spoken.”
When Twain returned to Indiana in 1885, he came with a traveling lecture partner. George W. Cable, novelist of the southern-creole experience and an influence on William Faulkner, shared selections from his novels while Twain shared early pages from Huckleberry Finn as well as stories like “The Golden Arm.” Twain and Cable couldn’t have been more different. Twain was described by the Indianapolis Sentinel as “awkward and lanky” whereas Cable was more reserved. As Fatout observed, Twain often bristled as Cable’s religiosity and rigorous commitment to formality while Cable scoffed at Twain’s unorthodox and scattered disposition. To get a sense of their differences, review this blurb from the Indianapolis News: “Mr. Cable eats chocolate ice cream at midnight, after his readings, and still lives. His yoke-fellow, Mark Twain, hurls his bootjack at St. John, and uncorks a bottle or so of pale ale.”
That evening, Twain shared with the audience his short story, “Dick Baker’s Cat,” a short tale about a special cat who had a propensity for mining. Here’s a short snippet from the story:
‘Gentlemen, I used to have a cat here, by the name of Tom Quartz, which you’d ‘a’ took an interest in, I reckon—, most anybody would. I had him here eight year—and he was the remarkablest cat I ever see. He was a large grey one of the Tom specie, an’ he had more hard, natchral sense than any man in this camp—’n’ a power of dignity—he wouldn’t let the Gov’ner of Californy be familiar with him. He never ketched a rat in his life—’peared to be above it. He never cared for nothing but mining. He knowed more about mining, that cat did, than any man I ever, ever see. You couldn’t tell him noth’n’ ’bout placer-diggin’s—’n’ as for pocketmining, why he was just born for it.’
The rest of story involves a hilarious scenario where the mining-savvy cat gets stuck in a quartz shaft, which explodes, and he flies out of there all covered in soot and his whiskers burned off. It was exactly the kind of zany, improbable yarn that Twain was so gifted at and the audience at Plymouth Church agreed.
Twain’s and Cable’s appearance would be the last time they would appear together in Indiana and Twain’s last lecture in the state. Over the next 20 years, Twain continued to travel the county and the world, going so far as India and New Zealand, to share his lectures and stories. His last known lecture, according to the Mark Twain Project, was a reading for Mary Allen Hulbert Peck on the Island of Bermuda on March 27, 1908. Mark Twain died on April 24, 1910 at the age of 74 from heart failure, at his home near Redding, Connecticut. An obituary in the Plymouth Tribunecomplimented Twain’s success as a novelist, humorist, and lecturer. It also cited the loss of much of his family, particularly his daughter, and friends as one of the main reasons for his passing.
Reflecting on what was referred to as the “American style” of humor, Mark Twain shared his thoughts to a reporter from the Detroit Post, later reprinted in the Terre Haute Express:
“Is the American taste for humor still growing, in your opinion?”
“Yes, I think so. Humor is always popular, and especially so with Americans. It is born in every American, and he can’t help liking it.”
“Is it true that the American style of humor is becoming very popular in England?”
“Yes, the liking of American humor over there has become immense. It wakens [sic] the people to new life, and is supplanting the dry wit which formerly passes for humor. American humor wins its own way, and does not need to be cultivated. The English come to like it naturally”
In his lectures in Indiana and elsewhere, Twain exhibited the type of natural humor “born in every American” that characterizes the American cultural identity.
This past week, I went to the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP) Awardee Conference in Washington, D.C., with my colleague Jill Weiss. It was an informative and inspiring conference. The first day, we met at the National Constitution Center and we welcomed by the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Dr. William D. Adams. In his brief remarks, he emphasized the commitment that NEH has to the program and his belief in its importance to the public good. As a public historian, I was motivated by his call to make Chronicling America (the national digital newspaper repository) more accessible to the public. He also shared with us the big news about the program: the date range is expanding! This new date expansion will cover 1690-1963, which means that awardee states can do so much more for Chronicling America.
During the first day, we learned about the specific program needs for Chronicling America, including newspaper essays that explain the history of a title, deliverable products submitted to the Library of Congress, and the ins-and-outs of preparing newspaper titles for microfilm and digital preservation. These talks were especially important to a new program assistant like myself, who needs to know all the important tasks for the NDNP. Additionally, we watched a live-stream of the swearing-in of the new Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden. In her speech, she called for the Library of Congress to make its own history by making materials more easily available to the public. With NDNP, we are doing just that.
In the afternoon of the first day, winners of the NDNP’s Data Challenge Awards presented on the innovative and creative ways they are using digital newspapers through Chronicling America. George Mason University professor Lincoln Mullen shared his research on the use of the Bible in American newspapers and how it showed religious trends during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Andrew Bales, a doctoral student from the University of Cincinnati, created a database for chronicling the horrific history of Lynching in the American South. Ending the first session, Amy Giroux, Marcy Galbreath, and Nathan Giroux from the University of Central Florida explored agricultural trends through their own aggregator of newspapers called Historical Agricultural News.
However, my favorite presentation (and maybe I’m biased since I’m from Indiana) was Chronicling Hoosier, presented by IUPUI’s own Kristi Palmer, Ted Polley, and Caitlyn Pollock. Their research looked into the history and geographical usage of the word “Hoosier.” While they didn’t learn the clear origin of the word (we may never really know), they did learn that its usage extended beyond just Indiana, from Virginia and Kentucky all the way down the Mississippi River to Louisiana. Originally a term of derision, meaning “country bumpkin” or “backwoodsman,” Hoosier became a beloved moniker by the late nineteenth century for those who lived in the State of Indiana. Listening to their presentation brought back memories of fourth grade Indiana History Class and the tall tales my teacher, Mrs. Hall, would share with the class about “Hoosiers.”
History teacher Ray Palin and student Virgile Bissonnette-Blais from Sunapee High School in New Hampshire displayed their project chronicling pivotal events in American history such as Plessy v. Ferguson. Ending the data challenge winner presentations, Professor Claudio Saunt and engineer Trevor Goodyear from Georgia shared with us their winning project, USNewsMap.com, which provides a timeline-based “heat map” on newspapers based on search queries. For those interested, it does work on proper nouns as well as regular search terms (I asked).
The second day mostly focused on working with bilingual and multilingual newspapers, copyright issues, and the production aspects of NDNP. The main session that day for me was the production session, where awardees that are new to the program learn the basics of microfilm and digital preservation. We learned how to organize film, correct technical specifications for digital files, and preparing those files for the Library of Congress and Chronicling America. While it was a lot to take in for a two-hour session, the production talks were vital to my understanding of all the tasks necessary for working on the NDNP.
Our last day involved a nice, open ended morning session for brainstorming marketing and outreach. We learned different marketing strategies for Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets, as well as other fun ways to get people to Chronicling America. My Hoosier State Chronicles colleague, Jill Weiss, asked questions about how we could get a podcast off the ground (something we’re working on for the future). The ground shared some of their favorite podcasts to check out for ideas and seemed very receptive to our idea. Like with the Data Challenge winners, I loved learning about all the creative ways that we can use NDNP content to reach users.
Overall, this was a very fun and informative conference and I look forward to applying much of what I learned to my tasks on this program. Stay tuned for more, and as always, happy searching!
This election year, there has been a lot of talk of third-party candidates, like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. However, this election cycle is hardly the first to celebrate third-party candidates for President. American presidential history is rich with third-party candidates, such as Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign against Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush or Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy in 2000. From the Hoosier state there was Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party candidate who received nearly a million votes in the 1912 election. Yet, it is arguable that the most successful third-party run for the presidency was by someone who had already been president.
Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president, mounted an unprecedented third-term campaign for the office on the Progressive Party ticket in 1912. Known colloquially as the “Bull Moose Party,” Roosevelt’s campaign for the office was heavily chronicled by progressive newspapers here in Indiana, particularly the Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram. From August 5-7, 1912, the Progressive Party met in Chicago to both nominate Roosevelt for the presidency and establish a new political party, one founded on what Roosevelt called the “Square Deal.” As historian Lewis L. Gould explained, Roosevelt believed that “the federal government must do more to supervise large corporations, improve the lot of women and children who worked long hours for low wages in industry, and conserve natural resources.”
Roosevelt’s decision to run stemmed from his disappointment at the cautiousness and conservatism of his former cabinet member and hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft. Taft came into office in 1909 arguing for Roosevelt’s ideals, but had since moved towards to the limited government and pro-business attitudes of Republican Party insiders, or so Roosevelt believed. It was this disappointment which motivated Roosevelt to usurp the Republican nomination from Taft and reassert his influence on the party. When the Republicans rejected him in favor of Taft in June of 1912, Roosevelt vowed to begin a new party. Thus, the Progressive Party was born.
The convention began on August 5, and the Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram wrote about the party’s platform, which, among other proposals, demanded “that the light publicity be thrown upon scales of wages and other labor matters” as well as “old-age pensions.” Rudolph G. Leeds, long-time owner and editor of the Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, enthusiastically supported Roosevelt and was elected “national committeeman . . . by the Indiana progressive delegation.” Roosevelt himself arrived to Chicago on that day and reportedly received “the greatest reception any man ever received in Windy City.” When asked to speak, the former president spoke of the “birth of a new party” and that “the day of the boss, of crooked politicians behind the boss and people who are owned by the boss and crooked politicians has passed forever.”
The next day, August 6, Roosevelt announced his contention for the party’s presidential nomination. His running mate was Hiram W. Johnson, senator from California and one of the Progressive Party’s founders. In his speech, known as the “Confession of Faith,” Roosevelt reiterated his position from his remarks the day before. “Our fight,” Roosevelt declared, “is a fundamental fight against both of the old corrupt party machines, for both are under the dominion of the plunder league of the professional politicians who are controlled and sustained by the great beneficiaries of privilege and reaction.” In terms of policy, Roosevelt argued for more workplace and wage protections for labor, further regulations of trusts and large corporations, assistance to farmers, and wilderness conservation.
To Roosevelt, his nomination was bigger than just one election. It was a “crusade” against the forces of graft and corruption and in favor of the people. “Now, friends, this is my confession of faith,” clamored Roosevelt among the packed crowd in Chicago:
Now to you men, who, in your turn, have come together to spend and be spent in the endless crusade against wrong, to you who face the future resolute and confident, to you who strive in a spirit of brotherhood for the betterment of our nation, to you who gird yourselves for this great new fight in the never-ending warfare for the good of humankind, I say in closing…We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.
Roosevelt’s “crusade” was taken to heart by the Palladium and Sun-Telegram, who wrote glowing editorials about Roosevelt and the Progressive Party. “The Progressive party,” declared one editorial, “is the moving, leading, inspiring force in the nation today. It is advancing as no other movement ever advanced in American politics.”
On August 7, the party formally nominated Roosevelt and Johnson. In his nominating speech, William A. Prendergast, comptroller of the City of New York, remarked that “He [Roosevelt] has fought the most vicious forces in American life and has conquered them . . . To such a leader the hearts of millions of American people are turning in this national crisis.” It was with this nomination that Roosevelt was given the chance to fulfill the remainder of his life’s work, to finally give the American people a “square deal.”
However, Roosevelt’s dedication to a “square deal” under the Progressive Party banner left a key demographic from being at the table: African Americans. As historian Eric J. Yellin observed, Roosevelt staked his political future on alienating the African American voters in the south, who he thought he had already lost to Taft. Due to this misnomer, Roosevelt sought to create a “shadow Republican Party in the south made up of lily-white organizations.” This resulted in the rejection of southern African American delegates from the Progressive Party convention.
Locally, the Indianapolis Recorder, a black owned and published newspaper, wrote scathing editorials in response to Roosevelt’s actions. As an August 10, 1912 editorial declared, “To the Colored men who can find it possible, after denouncing President Theodore Roosevelt as a despot, demagogue, lyncher and betrayer of the confiding Colored race, to now support him even when he leaves his own party and help him to be the founder of a new party, we say that the white world is looking on with a contemptuous smile.” Another column on August 24 noted that, “the position of Mr. Roosevelt, disfranchising the Negroes of the South in his party is a virtual indorsement [sic] of the unconstitutional disfranchising laws of the South, and we believe that he has forfeited all right of respect or support from Afro-Americans.” A minister of the AME Church and long-time Roosevelt supporter, Dr. Reverdy C. Ransom, even left the Progressive Party and publicly criticized Roosevelt’s “Negro policy and…urge[d] the Republican party to improve the situation which the Colonel has created.”
The Progressive Party decided against the colored delegates of the South, but are in favor of the colored people of the North. Theodore Roosevelt, as we understand, is in favor of a “Lily White” Government in the South, but in favor of the colored man’s recognition in the North. The trouble with his idea is that it is in the South that the colored people are complaining about the denial of political rights.
This observation highlighted Roosevelt’s central electoral gamble. By alienating southern African Americans, Roosevelt could have lost a key Republican voting bloc sympathetic to his run, all in an effort to court populist white southerners, who largely voted Democrat. In the general election in November, his calculation went exactly opposite.
In the 1912 general election on November 5, Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic nominee, won the election in a landslide, with 435 electoral votes and 41.8% of the popular vote. (Wilson’s running mate was Indiana Governor Thomas Marshall; they won the state with 43.1 percent.) Now, you may wonder: how was this a landslide? It came down to split of the Republican voting base. Roosevelt won 27.4 percent of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes while Taft won 23.2 percent of the popular vote and eight electoral votes. However, Roosevelt did end up winning a plurality of the African American voting base, but did not win the southern populist whites he had courted during the election. Wilson garnered their vote, and in turn, won the election with a clear victory.
Amid the toppling wreckage of the republican party [sic], with its historic pile crumbled into unrecognizable fragments there strides the Modern Apostle of Discontent the Arch-Egoist Theodore Roosevelt. He gazes around him on the debris with a grin and with triumphant staccato simply says—DEE-LIGHTED! ! !
This sentiment underlined what many Republican voters felt about Roosevelt’s decision to run under the Progressive banner: it had only split the party in his vain attempt to take back the reins of power.
Roosevelt’s political gamble against southern African-Americans cost him both the chance at the election and diminished his reputation as a champion of progressive ideals. Nevertheless, as Gould as argued, his third-party candidacy helped realign the political forces of the country, solidifying the Republican Party towards a more business-centric conservatism while the Democratic Party moved towards a progressivism that culminated in Theodore’s cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his “New Deal.” So, beyond just the electoral success, Roosevelt’s complicated third-party challenge influenced the political landscape for decades.