In 1912, the sitting president — William Howard Taft — finished third in both the popular- and electoral-vote tallies. A former president, Theodore Roosevelt, led an insurgent new third-party movement, the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party, which elected numerous legislators across the nation and led T.R. to a second-place finish, winning six states and 27.4% of the popular vote.
The election is also famous for the success of the Socialist Party, whose presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs scored just under 6% of the national vote, and whose candidates for various other offices were victorious that year. Debs finished second — ahead of Roosevelt and Taft! — in Florida, and finished ahead of T.R. in seven states in all. The Socialist standard-bearer also received over 16% of the vote in Oklahoma and Nevada.
Most third-party buffs are familiar with all of the above. But were you aware of a fifth candidate, Prohibitionist Eugene Chafin, who despite the highest level of competition in U.S. political history garnered a higher vote share (1.38%) than the Libertarian Party is yet to tally?
Everyone knows Wilson, Roosevelt, and Taft, and even Debs is a name known by most anyone remotely serious about political history, but Darcy G. Richardson’s Others series is vital precisely because it tells the stories of men like Chafin who, despite their electoral defeats, helped shape the political landscape for years to come.
The following is excerpted from Others Volume III, which IPR highly recommends.
The Other Gene: Eugene W. Chafin and the Prohibitionists
Some 900 delegates from forty-two states attended the Prohibition Partyâ€™s national convention, which was held at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey, during the second week of July. The delegates cheered wildly when keynote speaker Clinton N. Howard of Rochester, a popular lecturer on the Lyceum and Chautauqua Circuit, asserted that the Prohibition Party was the true â€œprogressive partyâ€ in the campaign of 1912. In a delicious dig at Teddy Roosevelt, who had complained vociferously that he had been cheated out of the Republican nomination, the 43-year-old â€œLittle Giantâ€ brought the gathering to its feet when he questioned how the former President could possibly talk about stealing votes when he himself had stolen the Panama Canal. â€œWe already have two whisky parties and donâ€™t need another,â€ shouted Howard, who went on to criticize President Taft as a â€œwet nurse to the saloonsâ€ while denouncing Roosevelt as the â€œleast desirable of all the candidates.â€ He was no less forgiving toward Democrat Woodrow Wilson. â€œA good man, perhaps, but we have had â€˜good menâ€™ in the White House beforeâ€ and they have left office â€œwith the country more saturated with rum than it was when they went in,â€ he declared. Howardâ€™s riveting speech triggered a last-minute attempt to draft the popular New Yorker for the presidency, but it quickly fizzled out.
Eugene W. Chafin, who had been campaigning almost non-stop since 1908, defeated Andrew J. Houston, son of the legendary Sam Houston, and several other potential rivals on his way to capturing the partyâ€™s presidential nomination for a second time. The Tucson lawyer garnered 502 votes on the first ballot to win the nomination, while 94 delegates voted for Aaron S. Watkins of Ohio and 90 for perennial Prohibition candidate Frank W. Emerson, a longtime temperance lecturer and minister in the Church of Christ who was then living in California. Thirty-six dry delegates cast their ballots for national committeeman Finley C. Hendrickson, a 49-year-old lawyer from Cumberland, Maryland.
The 58-year-old Houston, who had already removed his name from consideration, received eighteen votes and another half-dozen were cast for two others whose names hadnâ€™t been placed in nomination. Standing at the podium to announce his withdrawal a little earlier, Houston â€” a former U.S. marshal who later served briefly in the U.S. Senate when he was named to fill a vacancy in 1941 â€” brought the house down when he told the cheering delegates that he would rather receive the lowest vote at the Prohibition convention than the highest vote at either major party convention. Aaron S. Watkins of Ohio was again named as Chafinâ€™s vice-presidential running mate. In his acceptance speech, Chafin said that he regarded his nomination as the highest political honor bestowed upon any man that year and promised not to seek the partyâ€™s nomination again in 1916.
The partyâ€™s platform, containing only 425 words, called for the direct election of senators and a single, six-year presidential term â€” a position first championed by President Hayes in 1877 and also favored by the Democrats. In addition to its usual call for a complete prohibition of alcoholic beverages, the party also supported womenâ€™s suffrage, the abolition of child labor, a graduated income and inheritance tax and conservation of the nationâ€™s forests and mineral resources. The Prohibitionists also advocated the creation of a permanent omni-partisan tariff commission. A move to change the partyâ€™s name to the â€œProgressive Partyâ€ was overwhelmingly shouted down by the delegates, as was a motion by the Rev. S. H. Taft of California to rechristen the party as the â€œConservation Party.â€
Remarkably, the Prohibitionists raised $31,000 toward the partyâ€™s goal of $150,000 during the Atlantic City convention. John E. Gill of Pennsylvania, who masterminded the highly successful â€œVenango Planâ€ a number of years earlier, promised to personally contribute $1,000, provided the partyâ€™s national committee agreed to spend at least $10,000 on motion-picture advertising during the campaign.
The 59-year-old Chafin, one of the temperance movementâ€™s most popular speakers and a man who practically devoted his entire life to the cause of prohibition, was arguably the most formidable presidential candidate in the partyâ€™s long history. Journalist John Temple Graves of Georgia once described him as â€œone of the most magnetic and charmingâ€ speakers he ever heard. Chafin had garnered more than a quarter million votes as the partyâ€™s presidential standard-bearer four years earlier.
Born in Mukwonago, Wisconsin, in the autumn of 1852, Chafin earned a law degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1875 and soon acquired a large and prosperous law practice. Long active in local politics, he had served as a justice of the peace and magistrate before winning a seat on the Waukesha Board of Education. He also ran for Waukesha County district attorney in 1881 and for U.S. Congress the following year on the Prohibition ticket, garnering 1,006 votes, or nearly five percent in the latter race.
A perennial candidate of sorts, Chafin also ran for attorney general of Wisconsin on three occasions and for governor of the state in 1898. While residing in Illinois, he also ran for Congress in 1902 and for state attorney general two years later. In 1884, Chafin served as Sergeant-at-Arms at the partyâ€™s national convention in Pittsburgh and gave one of John P. St. Johnâ€™s seconding speeches. He also served on the partyâ€™s national committee from 1888 to 1896 and again from 1912-20 and was a delegate to every Prohibition national convention from 1884 through 1920, the year of his death.
While living in Illinois, the longtime temperance advocate worked as the superintendent of the Washingtonian Home for recovering alcoholics in Chicago. Long active in the Order of Good Templars, Chafin also found time to serve as president of the Waukesha County Agricultural Society and as president of the Epworth League, a Methodist Episcopal youth organization. A prolific writer and serious student of American history, Chafinâ€™s several books included Lives of the Presidents, which was published in1896, and Lincoln: The Man of Sorrow, published by Lincoln Temperance Press in 1908. He also authored The Master Method of the Great Reform, in which he argued that â€œno evil can live in this country unless it has two political parties to support it.â€
Chafin was also a staunch critic of the Anti-Saloon League, a national temperance organization founded in Oberlin, Ohio, in May 1893. Committed to working through the two-party system, the League wielded significant influence in national politics for some forty years. Chafin firmly believed the League would endorse any candidate who merely pledged to vote correctly on the issue of prohibition, regardless of the candidateâ€™s views on other issues. His criticism was valid. At one point, the temperance advocate even went so far as to accuse the League of exploiting southern racism. â€œWe have got to kill the Anti-Saloon League,â€ argued Chafin, â€œand then lick the Republican and Democratic parties.â€
In his formal acceptance speech on August 10 at Cutler Park in Waukesha â€” about fifteen miles from his birthplace â€” Chafin blamed the high cost of living on the liquor traffic, asserting that it was â€œthe greatest economic problem the world has ever faced,â€ an evil that was not only draining the nationâ€™s wealth but also its natural resources. Calling it the only truly â€œprogressive platformâ€ offered by any political party that year, Chafin spoke at length about the partyâ€™s 425-word platform. Holding an embossed copy of the document, the two-time presidential aspirant noted that it was of â€œsuch size and form that it can be framed and hung over the office desk of the president in the White Houseâ€ as a daily reminder of the Prohibition Partyâ€™s pledge to the American people. â€œI shall do all in my power to see that it is placed there,â€ he boldly proclaimed.
Addressing each of the planks in the partyâ€™s unusually brief platform, the Tucson lawyer praised the partyâ€™s proposed constitutional amendment for a single six-year presidential term. Asserting that the country already had â€œtoo much politics,â€ Chafin observed that most presidents who had been re-elected added little to their reputations or performed any great service to the Republic as a result of a second term. â€œLet the office become one of silent dignity and firm administration of the law,â€ he said. â€œLet Congress do the legislating. Follow the example of James K. Polk, who made less noise than any other presidentâ€ and whose four-year term was marked by â€œgreater achievements than any other in our history with the exception of Lincolnâ€™s.â€
Blaming the dreaded liquor traffic for producing widespread crime and poverty, the Prohibition standard-bearer said that a dry administration would offset any losses in rum revenue to the federal treasury by adopting graduated income and inheritance taxes. â€œUnder our present system,â€ he argued, â€œthe rich pay little or nothing toward the support of the national government, while the poor are robbed by all kinds of indirect taxes through internal revenue and tariff laws.â€ Some things never change. Proclaiming that he would put â€œwomen and children firstâ€ and millionaires last, Chafin maintained that a huge share of the more than $200 million in liquor revenues that flowed into the federal treasury annually were â€œstolen from the wives and children of drunkards by our national government.â€
Claiming that his nomination hadnâ€™t cost him the price of a postage stamp, Chafin profusely thanked party leaders for nominating him a second time and stated that it would be a mistake â€œto say that we cannot win this year.â€ The Prohibition Party, he concluded, â€œpresents the only great issue upon which a majority of the people are agreed.â€
Like his Socialist rival, Prohibitionist Eugene W. Chafin also aggressively attacked his three major opponents, but saved his sharpest criticism for Roosevelt. Denying rumors that he was dropping out of the race and planned to support his Bull Moose opponent, Chafin denounced the former president and said that, unlike Roosevelt, he was â€œa real Progressive, not a humbug trying to paddle into office on a ramshackle raft constructed of good planks, bad planks and beer kegs.â€ Anyone familiar with Rooseveltâ€™s reactionary record as president â€œwill not be fooled by his sudden out-of-office conversion to sundry popular measures,â€ declared Chafin.
Unlike Debs, however, Chafin virtually conceded the election to Woodrow Wilson with about a week remaining in the contest, if not earlier. â€œWilson will carry forty states, Roosevelt, five, Taft three and Debs and I will divide the others,â€ quipped Chafin in a speech in El Paso, Texas. Chafinâ€™s prediction was almost right on the money, prompting a newspaper editor to observe shortly after the election that â€œif in 1916 Mr. Chafin should predict his own election, his prophecy will be entitled to most respectful consideration.â€
Prohibitionist Eugene Chafin, who made 538 speeches during his spirited fourteen-week campaign â€” surpassing his remarkable 1908 record of 500 speeches in 100 days â€” garnered 209,644 votes, or slightly more than one percent nationally and Arthur E. Reimer of Massachusetts, the Socialist Labor Party candidate, chimed in with a chorus of cherubim numbering 29,290, or more than twice the number of votes recorded for the SLPâ€™s August Gillhaus four years earlier.
Lost in the fury and excitement of the quadrangular contest between Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson and Debs, Chafin ran strongest in Florida and California where he polled 3.7% and 3.5%, respectively. Though outpolling Socialist rival Eugene Debs in thirteen states, the dry standard-bearer fell short of the more than a quarter of a million votes he had received in 1908. He did, however, poll the difference between Roosevelt and Wilson in the razor-thin battle in California and between Wilson and Taft in Idaho, while nearly doing the same in the close contests between Wilson and Roosevelt in Illinois and between Taft and Roosevelt in traditionally-Republican Vermont. Although he had conceded Wilsonâ€™s election weeks earlier, the Prohibition candidate expected to run much stronger than the final returns indicated. At one point in the campaign he had hoped to garner a million votes â€” a real breakthrough for the nationâ€™s oldest minor party. Surveying the wreckage, the two-time presidential candidate couldnâ€™t help but sound a little bitter. â€œSeven men out of ten throughout the United States are opposed to the saloons,â€ he lamented on election night. â€œIf they had voted as they believed there would have been a landslide. The idea that the Prohibition Party has no chance of success is the thing that defeats it.â€