When Teddy Roosevelt was shot
Since the Tucson killings, the country has been debating whether violent words spoken in politics can be fairly seen as pushing unstable people toward committing actual acts of violence against politicians.
One historical figure who is widely respected by contemporary Republicans, Democrats and Independents had very strong views on the matter. He expressed them at an extraordinary moment: very shortly after he had been shot himself.
On October 14, 1912, while he was campaigning for president on the Progressive Party ticket, Theodore Roosevelt was shot just before entering an auditorium in Milwaukee. The former Republican president insisted on giving his speech anyway.
TR, whose comment that he was as fit as a Bull Moose had given the Progressive Party its nickname, began his speech with a drama only he was capable of. "Friends," he declared at the outset, "I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose."
The 1912 campaign was one of the most exciting in our history, pitting four major candidates against each other. It involved three men who at one point or another served as president: Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who prevailed and served as president from 1913 to 1921; the Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft, who served from 1909 to 1913; and Roosevelt, who was president from 1901 to 1909. The fourth candidate was Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist who received six percent of the popular vote, the largest share in American history for a Socialist.
Roosevelt was quite resentful of the attacks against him from all of these sources. And he was not shy about suggesting that those attacks had incited the man who had just shot him. Here's what he said. I have italicized passages that seem most relevant to our current debate.
I don't know anything about who the man was who shot me to-night. He was seized at once by one of the stenographers in my party, Mr. Martin, and I suppose is now in the hands of the police. He shot to kill. He shot -- the shot, the bullet went in here -- I will show you.
I am going to ask you to be as quiet as possible for I am not able to give to challenge of the bull moose quite as loudly. Now, I do not know who he was or what he represented. He was a coward. He stood in the darkness in the crowd around the automobile and when they cheered me, and I got up to bow, he stepped forward and shot me in the darkness.
Now, friends, of course, I do not know, as I say, anything about him; but it is a very natural thing that weak and vicious minds should be inflamed to acts of violence by the kind of awful mendacity and abuse that have been heaped upon me for the last three months by the papers in the interest of not only Mr. Debs but of Mr. Wilson and Mr. Taft.
Friends, I will disown and repudiate any man of my party who attacks with such foul slander and abuse any opponent of any other party; and now I wish to say seriously to all the daily newspapers, to the Republicans, the Democrat, and Socialist parties, that they cannot, month in month out and year in and year out, make the kind of untruthful, of bitter assault that they have made and not expect that brutal, violent natures, or brutal and violent characters, especially when the brutality is accompanied by a not very strong mind; they cannot expect that such natures will be unaffected by it.
He went on to denounce "that kind of slander and mendacity which if taken seriously must incite weak and violent natures to crimes of violence."
I want to thank Graham Smith of Natonal Public Radio for calling this speech to my attention. It is quite a remarkable thing to read now. Neither he nor I think Roosevelt's comments settle the matter under debate at the moment. But speaking for myself, I do think that pondering TR's remarks is helpful because it puts the current conversation in context. Recent critics of violent talk in our politics are by no means the first Americans to suggest -- well, let's just cite TR -- that individuals can "be inflamed to acts of violence by . . . awful mendacity and abuse." Exactly how that fits in to our contemporary discussion, I'll leave to you to decide.
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