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The Bull Moose Party got off to a thundering start. Within seven weeks, the Progressives had established the party in nearly every state and were back in Chicago for their first national convention. But who were the Progressives? Although Republicans of the day cast the Progressives as radicals, in truth they were teachers and lawyers, farmers and small-town folk, urban reformers of every ilk, crusaders for peace and women's suffrage, champions of the little guy. They were less a movement than a catch basin for civic-minded men and women impatient with politics as usual but a bit frightened of Eugene V. Debs and his Socialist Party. While many Progressives could not see past their pet causes, T.R. managed to bring them together in a big tent held aloft by the idea that the government, which ought to serve the people, had been hijacked by special interests. "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," the Progressive platform declared.
A brief for a strong Federal Government, the Progressive platform was so far ahead of its time on many points (Social Security and the minimum wage, for example) that it would take a generation and another Roosevelt, T.R.'s fifth cousin Franklin, to bring them into being. In hopes of protecting the investing public from swindlers, the Progressives called for federal regulation of stock offerings and fuller disclosure of corporate financial transactions, ideas that found their way into the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1934.
During his presidency, a time when corporations were growing ever larger, Roosevelt operated on the principle that the Federal Government was the only institution strong enough to combat their Darwinian tendency to crush competitors and maximize profits by keeping wages low and prices high. In 1912 he was even more adamant.
T.R. welcomed African Americans into his new party, but the whites organizing the Progressives of the Deep South insisted that if any black were permitted to hold a party office or serve as a delegate, Southern whites would refuse to join. Left to choose between acquiescence and no presence in the South, Roosevelt acquiesced and was roundly criticized. W.E.B. DuBois and other black leaders saw Roosevelt as a hypocrite and threw their support to the Democratic nominee, Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey. They would regret it. Southern Democrats were frankly committed to white supremacy. Wilson's Cabinet, dominated by Southerners, soon resegregated the civil service, erasing most of the gains made during the Roosevelt and Taft presidencies.
As the Progressives at the convention moved toward the moment of anointing Roosevelt as their first presidential candidate, his lieutenants were scrambling to line up a Vice President. T.R. yearned for Hiram Johnson, the Progressive Governor of California, but Johnson yearned not to run. He was sure that the Bull Moose Party would lose and that his career would be over. Johnson did not surrender until the last minute, after Roosevelt's men insisted that if the great T.R. did not shrink from defeat in a noble cause, no one else should either.