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Political Cartoons of 1908 and 1912

With the 2016 presidential election so rapidly approaching, it seems only fitting to look back at past elections for insight and perspective. The political cartoons of the 1908 and 1912 presidential campaigns are particularly illuminating, as they so clearly depict the same shifting balances of power, the intra-party divisiveness, and the debates over economic policy that we see today. Edward Windsor Kemble (1861-1933) was one of the illustrators of the time, and three of his pieces are depicted below.

1908 Presidential Campaign

Cartoon by Kemble featured in the June 27, 1908, issue of Harper's Weekly. The image features the incoming Republican President William Howard Taft seated atop an elephant decked with a feathered cap, both in the midst of a parade of men waving the national flag for the United States of America and a flag reading "Prosperity," all lead by a caricature of Uncle Sam with a marching band bass drum (also marked with the word "Prosperity"). This procession is walking in front of what appears to be the smokestacks of a factory. Text on the cartoon reads "They're off - and going some." Overlooking this all is the moon, the face of which has been made into the likeness of a grinning Theodore Roosevelt.
Cartoon by E.W. Kemble, Harper’s Weekly, June 27, 1908

The election of 1908 was a decisive victory for the Republican Party. Fulfilling a promise not to seek another term, incumbent Theodore Roosevelt endorsed William Taft, his Secretary of War, as the Republican successor. This cartoon shows Taft’s campaign as a parade, Taft sitting atop the Republican elephant in the lead, marching forward to the beat of prosperity. Roosevelt’s smiling face appears above, watching over the campaign. Given Roosevelt’s influence and support, some commentators of the day claimed that the name “Taft” was really an abbreviation for “Take Advice From Theodore.”

This cartoon depicts the aftermath of a tornado that can be seen moving away in the background. The tornado is labeled "Republican Vote" and the aftermath shows the 1908 Democratic contender, William Jennings Bryanin, alongside the Democratic donkey, grabbing on to his many, scattered campaign “planks” or key issues. Text at the bottom of the cartoon reads "The same old cyclone."
Cartoon by E.W. Kemble, Harper’s Weekly, November 7, 1908

The Democratic contender in 1908 was William Jennings Bryan. This was Bryan’s third and final unsuccessful bid for office- the previous two were 1896 and 1900. The cartoon shows Bryan in the water along with the Democratic donkey, grabbing on to his many, scattered campaign “planks.” The destructive “Republican Vote” cyclone appears in the background. Bryan is the individual to the left, with both hands out of the water.

The Republicans won the election:

The map shows that twenty-nine out of forty-six states voted Republican in the 1908 election. States that voted Democrat in 1908 are: Nevada, Colorado, Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Rhode Island, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
1908 electoral map, courtesy of the American Presidency Project

1912 Presidential Campaign

This comic depicts the Republican elephant in a hospital bed with Theodore Roosevelt dressed in a hoop skirt as a nurse standing between the "doctors" who symbolize the conflict between the conservative (here represented by Nelson Aldrich) and progressive (Robert La Follette) wings of the Republican Party. The text on the cartoon reads "While the doctors disagree, the patient may die."
Cartoon by E.W. Kemble, Harper’s Weekly, March 12, 1910

In 1912 the Republican Party was no longer united. Roosevelt believed that Taft was too conservative, insufficiently progressive. Unsatisfied with Taft’s politics, but unable to win the Republican nomination, Roosevelt ran for president in the newly formed Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party. The Democrats selected Woodrow Wilson for their candidate on the platform of “New Freedom.” Many of the major issues of the day, referenced in the three main parties’ platforms, were economic: tariff policy, trust regulation, cost of living, and currency policy.

The political cartoon above dates to 1910, and while it precedes the 1912 election, it nevertheless foreshadows that election’s issues and consequences. The doctors symbolize the conflict between the conservative (here, represented by Nelson Aldrich to the right) and progressive (here, Robert La Follette, to the left) wings of the Republican Party.

In 1912, the divisiveness manifested itself in the formal split off of Roosevelt’s Progressive Party.

Taft and Roosevelt divided the vote, and Wilson won the election:

The graph displays the four Presidential nominees during the 1912 election and their election tallies for electoral and popular votes. It is shown within the graph that the Progressive and Republican nominees (Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, respectively) split the Republican popular vote at 27.4% for Roosevelt (winning 88, or 16.6% of the, electoral votes) and 23.2% for Taft (winning 8, or 1.5%, of electoral votes), allowing the Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson to win with only 41.8% of the popular vote, but 435 (81.9%) of the electoral vote. The forth nominee, Socialist Eugene V. Debs, carried 6% of the popular vote and received no electoral votes.
1912 electoral map, courtesy of the American Presidency Project


All political cartoon images shown are from the Walt Reed Illustration Archive. To visit the Dowd Modern Graphic History Library, contact us to make an appointment.

An overview of the 1908 and 1912 campaigns can be found on the Miller Center’s website.

Election platforms for 1908 and 1912 are available on the American Presidency Project’s website: Republican Party (1908), Democratic Party (1908), Progressive Party (1912), Republican Party (1912), Democratic Party (1912).