With each passing moment, the feelings of anticipation and restlessness grew inside the Million Dollar Pier on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. By the early afternoon of May 24, 1912, some people had been in their seats at the capacity-filled pier for more than two hours.
The eagerly awaited guest was not a singer or vaudeville entertainer. Instead, it was a 53-year-old New Yorker. Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president, was bringing his campaign to return to the White House to the Jersey Shore.
In the days before radio and television, candidates relied on personal appearances to energize the faithful. With the New Jersey presidential primary scheduled for May 28, Roosevelt and his handlers planned a three-day swing through the Garden State as part of his campaign to win the Republican Party nomination. With its 14 electoral votes, the state also would play an important role in the November election.
From May 23-25, Roosevelt would stump throughout the state, visiting more than two dozen towns and cities. Atlantic City was part of the second day of his itinerary, which also included stops in Burlington City, Egg Harbor City, Hammonton, Vineland, Camden and Trenton.
Three years after leaving office, Roosevelt re-entered the political arena after falling out with his successor, William Howard Taft, over the direction Taft took on such issues as tariffs, antitrust enforcement and conservation of natural resources. The Republican Party splintered into progressive and conservative factions, led by Roosevelt and Taft, respectively.
Roosevelt was attempting to make history by becoming the first man to serve a third term as president and his stop in Atlantic City showed many wished to see him succeed.
The city was abuzz as the three Pullman cars of his train, dubbed the Progressive Special, pulled into the Pennsylvania Railroad depot on Tennessee Avenue. Police had to clear a path on the platform, which was jammed with Roosevelt supporters, to allow him to leave the train and get into his car for the motorcade to the Million Dollar Pier.
City residents lined the streets of the motorcade route to welcome Roosevelt, who made a stop on Kentucky Avenue, to appeal to blacks for their support in the upcoming election.
Calling the campaign “a fight for justice,” Roosevelt said he wanted “to give each man the respect that rightfully belongs to him by his character and achievements” and “to judge every man, of whatever color, by the attitude he takes toward his fellows.”
Roosevelt’s arrival at the pier was delayed when William H. Robinson, 50, of Hammonton fell off the left running board of the former president’s car. Robinson was then struck by the press car behind Roosevelt’s vehicle and suffered three broken ribs, a fractured collarbone and a punctured lung. A deeply concerned Roosevelt escorted Robinson to a nearby doctor’s office for treatment.
When Roosevelt arrived at the Million Dollar Pier, a crowd estimated at 12,000 people inside and outside awaited him. The former president, speaking without electronic amplification, did not disappoint the crowd.
Roosevelt seemed to draw strength from the audience as he began his address.
“I feel this contest is far more than a mere party contest,” he said, “for we are fighting the battle for the fundamental rights of all American citizens.
“We stand for the right of the people to rule,” he declared. “to bring social and industrial justice throughout the land,” a theme that would not sound out of place a century later.
Roosevelt paused frequently to let his words sink in while acknowledging the frequent applause from the crowd. He made an impassioned pitch for his delegates on the ballot, urging voters to reject uncommitted delegates.
He then unleashed his strongest criticism against the political bosses of the Republican Party.
“It has been my experience in 32 years of active political life to get social and industrial justice out a boss,” he said in a rising tone of voice.
He also injected a touch of humor in his remarks.
“People have said that I preach the doctrine of class hatred and discontent,” Roosevelt observed. “I have never preached hatred of any class, excepting the Class of Crooks,” added the former police commissioner of New York City.
Roosevelt’s visit to New Jersey reaped dividends as he defeated Taft in the primary, 56 percent to 41 percent. Despite winning a majority of the primaries, Roosevelt lost the Republican nomination to Taft. Roosevelt would run for president on the Bull Moose Party ticket but came in second to Woodrow Wilson, governor of New Jersey.
It was a rough ending for the leader of the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War.
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