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"What do I owe to Taft?"

Letter from Robert Grant to James Ford Rhodes, 22 March 1912

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Images from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Theodore Roosevelt explains his decision to throw his hat in the ring and run for the presidency again, as described in a letter from Boston novelist and jurist Robert Grant to historian James Ford Rhodes, 22 March 1912.

Colonel Roosevelt causes a commotion on Bay State Road in Boston

Early in 1912, as the White House campaign began in earnest, a question of great national interest, especially within the Republican Party, was whether former president Theodore Roosevelt would remain on the sidelines, or, in spite of his vow in 1904 not to seek a third term, reenter politics. Roosevelt was increasingly unhappy with the course that his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, had taken as president. On 21 February, in a speech to a state constitutional convention in Columbus, Ohio, Roosevelt laid out a progressive agenda of government reform and business regulation as a precursor to a formal announcement of his candidacy. Roosevelt’s arguments for judicial recall and popular referendum in his “Charter of Freedom” speech in Columbus threatened to ignite a civil war within the Republican Party.

Judge Robert Grant, who liked and admired the former president, but not some of his recently adopted radical political views, had invited his fellow Harvard University overseer to stay with him when in Boston. Roosevelt’s visit on 25-26 February 1912, described in this letter written almost a month later, coincided with the release in New York City of his announcement that he would run for the presidency again. Grant, realizing that he had been present at a momentous historical occasion, prepared a long, detailed report of all that had transpired during Roosevelt’s visit to send to a friend, historian James Ford Rhodes, who then was vacationing in Italy.

Over the course of that memorable weekend at 221 Bay State Road, the Grant family residence in the fashionable Back Bay district of Boston, Judge Grant had the opportunity to interrogate Roosevelt and to try to determine the motivation of his apparently quixotic return to politics. He was especially interested in Roosevelt’s explanations for both breaking his vow not to seek a third term and his disloyalty to Taft.

“I had approached (or rather dwelt on) the point of loyalty to Taft already,” Grant writes, “but just as he [Roosevelt] was going up to bed I spoke of it again. He turned and standing on the bottom stair reiterated ‘What do I owe to Taft? It was through me and my friends that he became President. I had him in the hollow of my hand and I had merely to turn my hand and he would have dropped out.’ He had his pocket knife in his palm and suited his action to the word.”

Who Was Judge Robert Grant?

The son of a marriage alliance of families of New England merchants, Judge Robert Grant was born in Boston in 1852. He attended Boston Latin School and Harvard College (Class of 1873). He went on to receive one of the first Ph.D. degrees granted by Harvard for literary studies, as well as an LL.B. from the Harvard Law School. More than fifty years later when he wrote his autobiography, Grant believed that the ten years he had spent as a student at Harvard remained an unsurpassed record.

As far removed as his studies of literature and the law might appear to be, Grant seems to have been able to move easily between careers in public service, and as a prolific novelist, short story writer, and poet. He was appointed a probate judge in 1893 and an overseer of Harvard University in 1895. He published his first novel, The Confessions of a Frivolous Girl in 1880, and followed it with more than thirty other volumes, mostly social satire and commentary in the form of novels, but also collections of essays, poetry and autobiography.

Another brush with history

Today, Judge Robert Grant’s reputation as a novelist has faded and his legal career is best remembered from a case that he reviewed after he had retired from the bench. In 1927, Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller appointed Grant to a three-member advisory committee to review the controversial Sacco-Vanzetti case. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants and anarchists, had been convicted of robbery and murder in 1920, and by 1927, they had exhausted a series of appeals to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Governor Fuller could pardon the defendants or commute their death sentences, but not grant them a new trial. While the advisory committee was extremely critical of the actions of Judge Webster Thayer who presided over two trials of the defendants, they did not recommend clemency, and Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in August 1927. During the course of the advisory committee's investigation, Judge Grant was accused of prejudice because he had criticized a public comment on the trial by Felix Frankfurter, a member of the Harvard Law School faculty, while the case was under judicial review. The Sacco-Vanzetti case remains controversial to this day. In 1977, after receiving the report of a new advisory committee, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation exonerating the defendants because they had not received a fair trial.

Judge Grant continued to write prose and poetry on into old age, reciting a poem that he wrote for the occasion at the celebration of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Tercentenary in 1930. He died in 1940.

A note on the text

The 22 March letter from Robert Grant to James Ford Rhodes is located in the James Ford Rhodes papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. In a later letter to Rhodes, Grant thanks him for calling his attention to a mistake on page eight of the 22 March letter. There also are manuscript notes by Rhodes on the verso of each of the last two pages of the letter that he used in replying to Grant in two letters dated 11 April 1912 (retained copies are in the Rhodes papers). Grant later published a long extract of his 22 March letter in his 1934 autobiography (p. 318-322), and it was published in full as an appendix to The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, volume 8, p. 1456-1461.

A new exhibition about the 1912 presidential election campaign in Massachusetts

On 4 September, the Massachusetts Historical Society will open In the Arena, an exhibition on the presidential election of 1912 in Massachusetts. In 1912, there were four major presidential candidates from distinct political parties: Republican William H. Taft running for reelection; Woodrow L. Wilson, the Democratic Party candidate; Theodore Roosevelt, after bolting from the Republican Party, the presidential candidate of the new Progressive “Bull Moose” Party; and Eugene V. Debs, the standard-bearer for the Socialist Party. Roosevelt garnered the most votes ever for a third party candidate, finishing ahead of Taft almost everywhere except Massachusetts, and Debs, with almost a million votes, gained the most support ever for a Socialist candidate.

In the Arena includes the Robert Grant letter displayed here, as well as photographs, political memorabilia, broadsides, political pins and buttons, letters, and pamphlets from the campaign, but focuses on the correspondence between Theodore Roosevelt and Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Roosevelt and Lodge were political allies who corresponded for almost forty years, but the divisive 1912 presidential campaign put a severe strain on their long friendship. The exhibition is free and open to the public, Monday-Saturday, 10:00 AM-4:00 PM, and runs through 27 November 2012.

Further Reading

Grant, Robert. Fourscore: An Autobiography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1934.

Roosevelt, Theodore. The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt. 8 Volumes. Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard University Press, 1951-1954.

There are many fine biographies of Theodore Roosevelt. Two that focus on his life after the presidency are:

Dalton, Katherine. Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

Morris, Edmund. Colonel Roosevelt. New York: Random House, 1910.

O’Toole, Patricia. When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

For the 1912 Presidential Election:

Chace, James. 1912. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Gould, Lewis L. Four Hats in the Ring: The 1912 Election and the Birth of Modern American Politics. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2008.