Wednesday, August 31, 2011

1912, by James Chace

I think the first line from the Publishers Weekly review of James Chace's 1912 sums up my opinion of the book perfectly, "Some histories interpret new evidence and add to our store of knowledge. Some, relying on others' research, simply tell a known story. Chace's work is the best of the latter kind: a lively, balanced and accurate retelling of an important moment in American history." One thing I disagree with them about is that "the 1912 election wasn't the election that changed the country" [emphasis theirs]. Nearly every election before and after 1912 featured a progressive candidate vs a conservative candidate. Chace points out early (and often) than all four candidates for President were progressives to one extent or the other. No matter who won, the country would be moving in a more progressive direction. Only the extent of the changes was going to be determined by who won.

Chace does a good job balancing the time spent between these dynamic personalities, with obviously more time spent on the frontrunners: Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. He goes through each candidate's history and the reason why they were running. Once the campaign starts, William Howard Taft and Eugene V. Debs are relegated to secondary characters that are talked about mostly in terms of their interactions with the main candidates and each other. Taft, the sitting President and reluctant politician, gets the short end of the stick. Most of what is written about him deals with the divisive (and decisive) Republican convention where Roosevelt and his supporters break off and form their own party.

Chace's book is a fascinating account of the 1912 campaign and its aftermath. He doesn't just stop at the election, but goes on to tell what happened to each man afterward. Roosevelt's role in policy until his death in 1919, Debs being put on trial, incarcerated, and running again in 1920, Taft's retirement and ultimate joy in being named to the Supreme Court in 1921 (the only job he ever really wanted), and Wilson's presidency. Wilson didn't get to implement many of his progressive ideas on domestic policy, but tried to change the world with America's entry into World War I and his post-WWI idea of the League of Nations. His two terms (and TR's before him) led to the idea of the imperial presidency that was so effectively used by FDR and several presidents afterward.

1912 is a good, fast-paced story of the more important elections in American history. If you're looking for an in-depth analysis of the election and its repercussions, this is probably not the book for you. For all its good points, it is better suited to be used as an overview to the event and the men involved in changing America's course.

Originally posted on the old blog 2/28/2005

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