Theodore Roosevelt flashed his famously toothy grin as he looked out over New York harbor, but he wasn't altogether pleased.
After spending more than a year abroad that included an African safari and a meeting with Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II, the former president "beamed with joy," the New York Tribune reported, as he came back to the United States on June 18, 1910, to find that an enormous throng - estimated by the Tribune at a half-million - had assembled to hail his return.
While he reveled in his reception, the former president was much less sanguine about the political situation to which he was returning. Disappointed by his protege and successor, President William Howard Taft, Roosevelt hinted at his concerns, and his desire to act on them, as he disembarked.
"I am ready and eager to do my part, so far as I am able, in helping solve problems which must be solved if we of this greatest democratic Republic upon which the sun has ever shone are to see its destinies rise to the high level of our hopes and its opportunities," Roosevelt declared as he stepped ashore.
Roosevelt's homecoming marked the beginning of an improbable political odyssey that would lead the Harvard-educated, lifelong Republican to break with his party and run as a third-party presidential candidate in one of the most dramatic campaigns in U.S. history.
Third-party campaigns for the White House occurred with frequency in the decades after the Civil War but generally made little impact until 1892, when Populist James B. Weaver of Iowa carried four states to become the first third-party candidate to gain electoral votes since the Civil War. After World War II, a variety of candidates - including Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace in 1948, George Wallace in 1968, John Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in 1992 - sought the White House at the head of insurgent parties or movements. Former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz is the latest to consider a White House bid independent of Democrats and Republicans, vowing this year to reject political extremes and "represent all the American people."
No one foresaw Roosevelt running against Taft when he returned home, much less mounting a third-party challenge. Despite his disappointment with Taft for firing Roosevelt's friend Gifford Pinchot as head of the U.S. Forest Service, Roosevelt intended to support the amiable and rotund Ohioan for reelection. But as Taft aligned himself with party conservatives, Roosevelt gravitated toward the progressive wing of the party, calling for a "New Nationalism" in a speech in Osawatomie, Kan., that envisioned a graduated income tax and inheritance tax, child-labor laws and a beefed-up Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate business.
"Roosevelt's radicalism had evolved after he had left the presidency," historian James Chace has written. "Although what he said at Osawatomie did not represent a dramatic departure from what he had expressed while in office, he was far more specific in spelling out what he believed government should do."
The Taft-Roosevelt rift widened the following year when the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit to break up U.S. Steel and suggested Roosevelt had been misled by steel barons. When Roosevelt defended his actions, pundits saw it as a declaration of war. "The breach opened today cannot be closed, according to general belief, before the convention time," the New York World wrote. In February 1912, Roosevelt declared in typically colorful fashion that "my hat is in the ring" and "the fight is on" for the Republican nomination.
When Republicans gathered in Chicago in June to nominate a candidate, Roosevelt predicted victory and proclaimed, "We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!" The declaration "literally sizzled in the hearts" of his supporters, Roosevelt backer William Allen White wrote in his memoirs, but did nothing to improve his chances on the convention floor. Taft, with a tight grip on the party machinery, won the nomination.
But Roosevelt wasn't done. His delegates marched out of the Chicago Coliseum to the city's Orchestra Hall, where they pledged to support the former president in a third-party bid for the White House.
"If you wish me to make the fight, I will make it," Roosevelt told his delegates, according to The Washington Post. The platform of the new party, he said, could be summed up simply: "Thou Shalt Not steal."
The long odds of a third-party campaign did little to dampen the earnest excitement of his supporters in the Progressive Party, who returned to Chicago in early August to formally nominate Roosevelt. The Progressive gathering "was an assemblage of religious enthusiasts," the New York Times reported. "It was a Methodist camp meeting done over in political terms." Delegates sang all five verses of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and resembled, the Times said, "a convention of Sunday School Superintendents." When Roosevelt invoked Armageddon for the second time, rapturous delegates responded with "cheers and applause," The Post reported.
The Progressive platform laid out demands including "strong National regulation of inter-State corporations" and "securing equal suffrage to men and women alike." The platform, however, notably failed to include "any mention of equal rights for African Americans," according to Chace, reflecting what he called the "lily white" character of the third party and Roosevelt's reluctant acquiescence to Southern attitudes on race.
Roosevelt professed dissatisfaction with both parties and claimed to occupy the political center in a year in which the presidential field included another progressive Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson; Taft; and socialist Eugene V. Debs. Roosevelt attacked abuses by labor and capital with equal ferocity, according to White.
Roosevelt and Wilson traveled the country to campaign, but Taft made only two speeches between August and Election Day, according to Chace. At the White House on Aug. 1, the president defended his administration's record on social reform and accused Roosevelt and Wilson of advancing socialist principles. If "their promises mean anything," Taft charged, "they lead directly toward the appropriation of what belongs to one man, to another."
Roosevelt, meanwhile, took his campaign across the country. He appeared in Bennington, Vt., on Aug. 29; San Francisco on Sept. 14; and in Michigan's Upper Peninsula on Oct. 10, where he accused Wilson of displaying a "sullen hostility to labor" in a speech in Houghton and sparred with a heckler in Marquette.
On Oct. 14, Roosevelt arrived in Milwaukee. John Schrank - who had been trailing Roosevelt for days, according to Chace - was waiting. As Roosevelt departed the Gilpatrick Hotel to deliver his speech, Schrank fired once with a .38-caliber pistol, striking Roosevelt in the left breast before being wrestled to the ground. (Schrank, a saloon keeper, said he didn't believe a president should have a third term. He was found to be insane and was institutionalized until his death.)
Believing the shot missed him, Roosevelt stood in the car, waved to the crowd and ordered the driver to proceed.
On the way to the speech, an aide spied a bullet hole in Roosevelt's coat. "It looks as though I've been hit, but I don't think it is anything serious," Roosevelt said, according to an account in The Post. The bullet entered his chest and broke a rib but would have done more damage, Roosevelt's doctors concluded, had it not been slowed by the speech manuscript and a "heavy steel spectacle case."
Doctors who examined Roosevelt before he spoke urged him to cancel his speech, but he insisted on proceeding. "Friends, I shall have to ask you to be as quiet as possible," he began. "I do not know if you fully understand that I have been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a bull moose."
He then held up a copy of his speech manuscript with the bullet hole.
Roosevelt was taken to a hospital in Chicago to recover as the hullabaloo of the presidential campaign came to a sudden stop. Wilson, Debs and Taft sent messages of sympathy to Roosevelt, Chace writes. By the end of the month, Roosevelt was back in fighting trim, telling cheering supporters at New York's Madison Square Garden that "it is for the people themselves finally to decide all questions of public policy."
The decision on Election Day went to Wilson. He carried 40 states and won 435 electoral votes. Roosevelt finished second, winning six states and 88 electoral votes. Taft, the incumbent, captured only Utah and Vermont. But Wilson won only a plurality of the popular vote - 41.8 percent. "The vote totals for Roosevelt and Taft together indicate a Republican victory over Wilson had [Roosevelt] received the Republican nomination," according to Chace.
Four years later, Roosevelt made clear that his venture into third-party presidential politics was at an end. Asked by White whether he wanted to run at the head of the Progressive ticket in 1916, Roosevelt - knowing he could not win - said he wanted no part of it. "He had no desire for posthumous glory," White wrote. "He wanted to be a vital part of his times."
This article was written by Robert Mitchell, a reporter for The Washington Post.