All the crosscurrents of Progressive era thinking about what McClure’s Magazine called “the problem of the relation of the State and the corporation” came together in the presidential campaign of 1912. The four-way contest between Taft, Roosevelt, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, and Socialist Eugene V. Debs became a national debate on the relationship between political and economic freedom in the age of big business. At one end of the political spectrum stood Taft, who stressed that economic individualism could remain the foundation of the social order so long as government and private entrepreneurs cooperated in addressing social ills. At the other end was Debs. Relatively few Americans supported the Socialist Party’s goal of abolishing the “capitalistic system” altogether, but its immediate demands—including public ownership of the railroads and banking system, government aid to the unemployed, and laws establishing shorter working hours and a minimum wage—summarized forward-looking Progressive thought.

Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party candidate, speaking in Chicago during the 1912 presidential campaign.

But it was the battle between Wilson and Roosevelt over the role of the federal government in securing economic freedom that galvanized public attention in 1912. The two represented competing strands of Progressivism. Both believed government action necessary to preserve individual freedom, but they differed over the dangers of increasing the government’s power and the inevitability of economic concentration. Though representing a party thoroughly steeped in states’ rights and laissez-faire ideology, Wilson was deeply imbued with Progressive ideas. “Freedom today,” he declared, “is something more than being let alone. The program of a government of freedom must in these days be positive, not negative merely.” As governor of New Jersey, Wilson had presided over the implementation of a system of workmen’s compensation and state regulation of utilities and railroads.

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