Friday, November 30, 2012

November 1912

It's November 1912, as Americans go to the polls for a presidential election.  Democrat Woodrow Wilson wins in a landslide, defeating both the incumbent president and his predecessor. Another in a wave of assassinations of world leaders takes place, this one in Spain. There is turmoil in the British House of Commons. The Ottoman Empire is under attack, and a wider war threatens. The Great War is a month closer, but nobody knows it.


1912 Presidential Election Results

Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey has been elected the twenty-eighth president of the United States, defeating the incumbent President William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt by a decisive margin.  He received less than 42 percent of the popular vote, but because two strong candidates split the Republican vote he swept the Electoral College, 435 votes to 88 for Roosevelt and only eight (Vermont and Utah) for Taft.  Wilson is only the second Democrat to be elected to the presidency since the Civil War; the first, Grover Cleveland, was elected by much slimmer Electoral College margins in 1884 and 1892, and lost by an equally slim margin in 1888.  Despite the efforts of Roosevelt's Bull Moose campaign to appeal to white southerners, the Democratic Party retained its grip on the "Solid South," aided in part by the candidacy of native southerner Woodrow Wilson and in part by the widespread disfranchisement of Negroes, most of whom would otherwise probably vote Republican.  Wilson rolled up commanding majorities in all the states of the old Confederacy (Mississippi gave him 89 percent of its vote).  Of the other states, not a single one gave Wilson a majority, but he won a plurality in most of them because of the split in the Republican vote.

Colonel House

Governor Wilson has almost four months before he assumes the presidency, and he has stated that he will remain in office as governor while the New Jersey legislature is in session.  The first item on his agenda, however, is an extended vacation in Bermuda.  He set sail with his wife and two of their daughters on November 16.  In his absence, the transition to the new administration is being managed by "Colonel" Edward Mandell House.  Colonel House is a wealthy Texan who was instrumental in organizing support for Wilson prior to the Baltimore convention and has emerged since the election as his most influential adviser.  Having turned down the offer of a cabinet post for himself, House is well positioned to become a power behind the throne in the new administration.

Eugene V. Debs Campaigning in 1912

The landslide Electoral College defeat of an incumbent president and his predecessor is not the only unique feature of the 1912 election.  Riding the nationwide progressive wave, Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party's candidate for president, received over 900,000 votes, by far the best showing in the party's history.  Debs was the leader of the American Railway Union at the time of the 1894 Pullman strike, when President Cleveland obtained an injunction against the strike and sent in federal troops to enforce it.  Debs and other officers of the union were jailed for disobeying the injunction.  They were represented by Clarence Darrow, who has since built a reputation as a vigorous spokesman for socialist and labor causes, including most famously his successful defense of "Big Bill" Haywood and others in their 1907 trial for the murder of former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg.  Most recently, Darrow represented the McNamara brothers in their trial last year for dynamiting the Los Angeles Times building.  After the brothers pled guilty, Darrow was indicted on two counts of jury tampering.  He was tried and acquitted on the first count earlier this year but still faces trial on the second.

Speaker Champ Clark

This has been a good year for Democrats, who not only won the White House but also gained control of both houses of Congress.  They kept their two-year-old majority in the House of Representatives and gained a majority in the Senate for the first time in twenty years.  Representative Champ Clark of Missouri, who came within a whisker of winning the Democratic presidential nomination this year (and thus most likely the presidency), will continue as Speaker.  As required by Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution, the Sixty-second Congress will reconvene for its "lame duck" session on December 2, the first Monday in December.  Although the Sixty-third Congress will not convene in regular session until next December, most observers expect that Wilson will call a special session shortly after March 4, when he and the new Congress will take office.

1912 has been a good year for American popular music.  Two of the most popular songs of the year are "Moonlight Bay" and "Be My Little Baby Bumble Bee," both recorded by popular recording star Billy Murray (click to play):

Moonlight Bay (sung by the American Quartet, featuring Billy Murray)

Be My Little Baby Bumble Bee (sung by Ada Jones and Billy Murray)


Prime Minister Canalejas y Mendez

Prime Minister Jose Canalejas y Mendez of Spain was shot and killed on the streets of Madrid on November 12.  This is the latest in a wave of assassinations that over the last twenty years has also claimed the lives of an empress of Austria, a king of Italy, a king and a crown prince of Portugal, a king and queen of Serbia, a shah of Persia, an empress of Korea, prime ministers of Russia, Japan and Greece, two prime ministers of Bulgaria, another prime minister of Spain, and presidents of France and the United States.  Count Alvarado de Romanones has been appointed to succeed Canalejas y Mendez as Spanish premier.

Ambassador Bryce

James Bryce, the British ambassador to the United States, has announced his intention to resign his post and return to England.  The timing of his move may be seen as unfortunate.  Bryce is an outspoken liberal politician who is known and respected by President-elect Wilson, while his replacement, Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, is a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt, the new president's most outspoken political adversary.

Sir Rufus Isaacs

The British House of Commons was the scene of a rare, if not entirely unprecedented, outburst of pandemonium this month.  On November 11, the House surprised the government by defeating a routine amendment to the Irish Home Rule Bill.  Two days later the Government introduced a resolution to rescind the adverse vote.  Unionist members loudly objected, refusing to allow the Attorney General, Sir Rufus Isaacs, to speak in support of the resolution.  The House was adjourned for an hour, but when it reconvened the shouting from the Unionist side of the chamber resumed.  At the height of the tumult, a book hurled by a Unionist member struck First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill on the ear.  Order was restored only when a Labor Party member began singing "Auld Lang Syne" and others joined in.

The Greek Navy Preparing for War, October 1912

The war in the Balkans poses a serious threat to world peace.  It is being waged on three fronts.  Serbia and Montenegro have occupied the Sanjak of Novibazar, a Turkish area that separates Serbia and Montenegro and borders on Bosnia, now a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to the north.  To the south, Greece has occupied Macedonia, and Bulgaria has invaded Thrace, advancing toward Adrianople and Constantinople, where an epidemic of cholera has broken out.  The Balkan League's success against the Ottoman Empire thus far has been due in part to the Greek Navy's control of the Aegean Sea, which blocks reinforcements from Asian Turkey.  Turkey appealed to the major European powers to intervene, but they declined to do so, telling Turkey it must deal directly with the Balkan nations.  On November 8, in a move that underscores the religious tensions underlying the conflict between the Muslim Ottomans and the largely Christian Balkan League, the Sheik-ul-Islam, the highest ranking ecclesiastical official of the Ottoman Empire, declared a Jihad, or holy war, against unbelievers.

Count Leopold von Berchtold

Although they have declined to intervene, the major European powers are watching developments in the Balkans with grave concern.  The most directly concerned is Austria-Hungary, which borders Serbia, Montenegro and the Ottoman Empire itself, and whose annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 remains a source of friction with Serbia.  Alarmed by the victories of the Balkan League, Austria wants to deny Serbian ambitions to expand its borders to the south and west, in particular to gain a port on the Adriatic from which it could challenge Austrian naval power.  Count Leopold von Berchtold, Austria-Hungary's foreign minister, has persuaded Emperor Franz Joseph to mobilize Austrian forces along its borders with Serbia and Russia, Serbia's ally and protector.  Germany, Austria-Hungary's ally, appears ready to come to its aid in the event of conflict with Russia, and France appears ready to stand by its ally, Russia.  Prime Minister Asquith of Great Britain, speaking at the Lord Mayor's banquet at the Guild Hall on November 10, urged the parties to pursue a general settlement rather than forcing a decision on "isolated questions" such as Adriatic ports.  The prime minister was preceded by First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, who announced the presence of a strong British fleet of more than twenty battleships and cruisers in the eastern Mediterranean.  The United States has sent two warships to Turkey to protect American interests.

At month's end, there is reason to hope that the threatened general war may be averted.  Under the terms being discussed, the belligerent nations would agree to an armistice and Austria-Hungary would support the creation of a new state of Albania between Serbia and the Adriatic with guarantees of access to the Adriatic for Serbian trade.

November 1912 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading
Contemporary Records and Periodicals:
American Review of Reviews, December 1912 and January 1913
Literary Digest, November 1912
New York Times, November 1912

Books and Articles:
James Chace, 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs -- the Election That Changed the Country
John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Patrick Devlin, Too Proud to Fight: Woodrow Wilson's Neutrality
John A. Farrell, Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned
Andre Gerolymatos, The Balkan Wars
Lewis L. Gould, Four Hats in the Ring: The 1912 Election and the Birth of Modern American Politics
Lewis L. Gould, The William Howard Taft Presidency
Richard C. Hall, Balkan Wars 1912-1913: Prelude to the First World War
August Heckscher, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
J. Anthony Lukas, Big Trouble
Edmund Morris, Colonel Roosevelt
Patricia O'Toole, When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House
Henry F. Pringle, The Life and Times of William Howard Taft