Lesson 3 - The Presidential Election of 1912
Grade Level :Grades 9 through 12
Relevant National Standard
Through the lesson, students will:
… Learn about the issues facing voters in the 1912 election.
… Learn about the four main candidates in the 1912 presidential election and their positions on the issues.
… Learn to think critically about formulating a political campaign strategy.
… Learn to research historical events and make class presentations based on what they have learned.
… Learn to relate historical campaign issues to present-day election issues.
Several distinct teaching activities within this lesson could be taught, ranging in duration from one to three class periods. Completing the entire unit of activities would require approximately six 45-minute class periods.
… The American Experience documentary, Woodrow Wilson, on DVD or on videocasette.
… Access to computers on the Web.
… Writing materials.
… Drawing materials such as markers and paper with which to create campaign posters or advertisements (for students serving as "media strategists" in Activity 2)
Activity 1: Campaign Issues in 1912
To begin the lesson, you might find it helpful to show the classroom the segment on the 1912 presidential election from episode one of the documentary, Woodrow Wilson. The 9-minute segment starts at approximately 49 minutes and 42 seconds and ends at 58 minutes and 41 seconds. (On the DVD, access chapter 6, titled "1912 Election.")
If internet access is readily available, you may also wish to direct students to this Web site's section on the Election of 1912.
Next, lead a discussion about the Progressive Era and the issues Americans faced in 1912. The Progressive Era was a period of intense social and economic upheaval. While the Industrial Revolution had brought about increased productivity and wealth, it also created new needs and problems. Big business continually came into conflict with workers' rights activists. Meanwhile, women and African Americans were striving for social equality. During this period, serious debate raged in America about how exactly the nation should address these concerns. In this activity, students will explore these issues in-depth and examine where the candidates campaigning for president stood on these matters.
Divide the classroom into seven groups. Each group of students will be responsible for researching and exploring one of the following campaign issues:
While some states had granted women the right to vote, suffrage groups were fighting to extend that entitlement nation-wide through passage of a Constitutional amendment.
African Americans sought greater political influence on a number of issues including the reversal of Jim Crow laws and an end to the lynchings of black men.
During the Progressive Era, the rights of workers were continually pitted against corporations' desire to maximize profits. Labor issues included workplace safety, fair wages, the right to strike, and child labor.
Serious debate raged in America during the early 1900s about the usefulness of tariffs on imported goods. Proponents of tariffs argued they provided necessary money for the government while protecting American businesses from foreign competition. Opponents believed that the government should not become dependent upon surplus tariff revenue, and that higher taxes on imported goods would hurt the economy more than it would help.
Regulation of Trusts
Trusts - large corporations such as the Standard Oil Company - wielded tremendous power in the industries in which they operated. An important issue facing voters in 1912 was whether or not government should regulate these huge businesses, and if so, how they should go about it.
Since the age of the Industrial Revolution, the demand on America's natural resources had increased dramatically. Politicians struggled with the need to protect the country's land and water while encouraging industrial growth.
In 1912, state legislators - not voters - decided who became a United States Senator. Supporters of direct democracy sought to change this by providing for the direct election of Senators by voters. Advocates of direct democracy also believed voters should be able to decide on legislative matters through the implementation of initiatives and referendums.
Research the Issues
Assign the students to research their campaign issues either during class or as part of their homework assignment. An excellent online resource for information regarding all of these campaign issues is 1912: Competing Visions for America produced by the Ohio Historical Society and Ohio State University.
Students may wish to explore some of the following Web sites for additional information:
The Library of Congress' American Memory exhibit,"Votes for Women" Suffrage Pictures,1850 - 1920
The Web site of the PBS documentary, Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
The Web site of the American Experience documentary, One Woman, One Vote
A collection of Web links on African American history on the PBS Web site, African American Journey
The Library of Congress' American Memory collections,"African American Odyssey"
A list of African American History and Culture resources at the Smithsonian
"Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops" at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
An overview and timeline of the Industrial Revolution and the Progressive Era from the Illinois Labor History Society's U.S. Labor History Curriculum for Teachers
The History Place's Web site, "Child Labor in America 1908-1912: Photographs of Lewis W. Hine"
"The Tariff: 'Protection' or Special Privilege?" A chapter of Wilson's 1913 book, The New Freedom
"Protective Tariffs," from a Vassar College Web site on the 1896 presidential campaign
Regulation of Trusts
"Trusts & Monopolies in 1896," from a Vassar College Web site on the 1896 presidential campaign
"Trustbusters: A History Lesson" an article from BBC News Online
"Monopoly or Opportunity?" An excerpt from Wilson's 1913 book, The New Freedom
The Library of Congress' American Memory exhibit," The Evolution of the Conservation Movement"
"The Emancipation of Business" - A chapter of Wilson's 1913 book, The New Freedom that refers to conservation
"To Collect the Wisest Sentiments: Representative Governments and Direct Democracy," a discussion guide developed by The Jefferson Foundation
The Web site of National Voter Outreach, Inc., an organization committed to the process of direct democracy
The Web site of the Initiative and Referendum Institute
After students have researched their issues thoroughly, ask each group to make a 3 to 5-minute presentation before the class. All group members should participate. Students should address the following questions:
… Explain what the issue is. What were the choices facing voters? What were the arguments for and against the issue? What are the possible ramifications of each side?
… What is the history of the issue? Who were the major players involved in the issue? What were the important events that helped shape the issue? Why was the issue relevant to voters in 1912?
… What were the four parties' positions on the issue? During the campaign, what might the candidates' have stated regarding the issue? What blocks of voters might be more or less favorable to a candidate based on his position on the issue?
… How might the issue still be relevant today? What subjects of current debate can trace their origins back to the 1912 issue?
After each presentation, encourage a 2 to 3-minute discussion where classmates can ask follow-up questions about the issue. After all seven issue teams have finished their reports, lead a discussion which recaps all seven issues. Address any important points the teams may have neglected about the issues and answer any additional questions students may have.
Activity 2: Running a Presidential Campaign in 1912
If you haven't already, you might find it helpful to show the classroom the segment on the 1912 presidential election from episode one of the documentary, Woodrow Wilson. The 9-minute segment starts at approximately 49 minutes and 42 seconds and ends at 58 minutes and 41 seconds. (On the DVD, access chapter 6, titled "1912 Election.")
If internet access is readily available, you may also wish to direct students to interact with the special feature on this Web site, Win the Election of 1912.
Next, lead a discussion about the presidential election of 1912 and the candidates who were running. The 1912 presidential election was one of the most extraordinary stories in our country's political history. The choice facing voters in 1912 was more diverse than at any other time in the 20th Century. Four major candidates were running for president - each with their own specific plan for tackling the nation's problems.
Divide the class into four teams. Each group will be running the political campaign of one of the four main candidates:
… Woodrow Wilson - Democrat
… Theodore Roosevelt - Progressive
… William Howard Taft - Republican
… Eugene Debs - Socialist
Research the Candidates
Either during class or as part of their homework assignment, have the students research their candidate and where he stood on the various campaign issues. Again, the best online resource for information regarding the candidates' campaigns is 1912: Competing Visions for America produced by the Ohio Historical Society and Ohio State University. Students should also visit the section on our Web site on the Election of 1912.
Students may wish to explore some of the following Web sites for additional information:
Wilson - A Portrait," available on this Web site
The section on Woodrow Wilson in the companion Web site for the PBS documentary series The American President
A biography of Woodrow Wilson on the White House's Web site
The Web site of the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, D.C.
The companion Web site for the American Experience documentary on PBS, TR, The Story of Theodore Roosevelt
The section on Theodore Roosevelt in the companion Web site for the PBS documentary series The American President http://www.americanpresident.org/KoTrain/Courses/TR/TR_In_Brief.htm
A biography of Theodore Roosevelt on the White House's Web site
William Howard Taft
The section on William Howard Taft in the companion Web site for the PBS documentary series The American President
A biography of William Howard Taft on the White House's Web site
The Web site of the Eugene V. Debs Foundation
A trove of speeches and writings by Debs, the Eugene Debs Internet Archive, hosted by the Marxists Internet Archive
A History of the American Socialist Party on the Web site of the Socialist Party U.S.A.
Campaigning for Office
After the students have researched their candidates thoroughly, each group will need to run their candidate's campaign for president. Each student will be required to make a 3-minute presentation based on the factual information found. Each team should decide amongst themselves who will fill which position on the campaign. The role the student plays on the team dictates the type of presentation he or she will need to make. Suggested campaign roles and requirements are:
The student should introduce him or herself as the presidential candidate and make a campaign speech as if it is 1912. Who is the candidate? What prior experience does the candidate have? Why should a voter choose that candidate over the other three? Where does the candidate stand on the issues in 1912? What promises does the candidate make?
Similar to the presidential candidate, the student should introduce him or herself as the vice presidential candidate on the party's ticket and make a campaign speech as if it is 1912. Who is the vice presidential candidate? What prior experience does the candidate have? Why was the vice presidential candidate chosen to be part of the ticket? Does the candidate agree on all of the issues with his running mate?
The student should introduce him or herself as the campaign manager and deliver a presentation outlining the political strategy the candidate is taking. What blocks of voters is the candidate trying to appeal to? Is the candidate modifying his or her views in order to gain certain supporters? Will the candidate be steering clear of any issues in order to avoid alienating certain voters? What parts of the country might the candidate try to focus his approach? Is there an attempt to maximize votes received in the Electoral College by targeting certain states?
The student should introduce him or herself as the campaign media strategist and present an advertising campaign promoting the candidate. The media strategist should discuss the entire proposal he or she plans to utilize during the campaign. Which of the candidate's positions will be accentuated? Are there any issues to avoid? What are the themes that will be emphasized? What forms of media will be chosen to get out the message? Will there be any negative campaigning? The strategist should create an example or two of an advertisement. It could be a campaign poster, or newspaper ad, or even a black & white silent film advertisement. (Wilson's 1912 campaign produced one of the first political films - a short entitled "The Old Way and the New Way.")
If there are more than four members on a team, two or more students could serve as campaign managers or media strategists, so long as they cover distinct material.
After all team members have completed their presentations, the students should address any questions their classmates might have. After all four candidate teams have finished their campaigns, lead a discussion that recaps the main positions of the candidates. Address any important points the teams may have neglected about the candidates and answer any additional questions students may have.
Vote for President
After the classroom campaigns, conduct a secret-ballot vote to determine which candidate the classroom would have elected president in 1912. Students must vote for a candidate other than their own. To avoid this occurrence, when passing out ballots to the various teams, cross out the name of the candidate whom that team represented. After votes are tabulated, announce the winner of the classroom election. Reveal the actual results of the 1912 election. Discuss with the class why students voted the way they did and why voters in 1912 elected Wilson.
A powerful and persuasive inaugural address can set the direction and tone of the president's first term. Assign students to read President Wilson's first inaugural address. Discuss with them specific sections of the speech. Ask students what they feel Wilson was trying to convey. More than 58% of the country had voted for a candidate other than Wilson. After such a divisive campaign, how might Wilson be trying to unite the country? How does his inaugural address try to lay a coalition for him to accomplish the goals he wants to achieve? Read Wilson's second inaugural address. Although Wilson campaigned as the man who kept America out of war, when he delivers this inaugural address, America is on the verge of entering World War I. What has changed in Wilson's approach? What is Wilson trying to achieve through his second inaugural address?
Third Party Candidates
With 27% of the vote, Theodore Roosevelt's candidacy in the 1912 election was the most successful attempt ever by a third-party candidate. Incumbent president William Howard Taft received only 23% of the vote. Since the combined votes of the two candidates totaled more than 50% of the ballots, some have argued that if Roosevelt had not split the Republican vote, Taft might have been reelected. Lead a discussion with students about the possibility of this and the ramifications of the Roosevelt candidacy. Have students research the history of other third-party candidates. What motivates a third-party candidate to run? How might a third-party candidate have influenced other elections? Does our political system make it difficult for a third-party candidate to succeed? How does the Electoral College come into play?
Relevant National Standards
United States History Standards
Established by the National Center for History in the Schools
Era 7: Standard 1A
The student understands the origin of the Progressives and the coalitions they formed to deal with issues at the local and state levels.
Era 7: Standard 1B
The student understands Progressivism at the national level.
Era 7: Standard 1C
The student understands the limitations of Progressivism and the alternatives offered by various groups.
Established by the Center for Civic Education http://www.civiced.org/stds.html
Standard III. E. 2
Students should be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions about how the public agenda is set.
Standard III. E. 3
Students should be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions about the role of public opinion in American politics.
Standard III. E. 4
Students should be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions about the roles of political parties, campaigns, and elections in American politics.
Standard III. E. 5
Students should be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions about the contemporary roles of associations and groups in American politics.
Standard III. E. 6
Students should be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions about the formation and implementation of public policy.