Harmon’s Histories: Missoula “Bull Moosers” heard “fine speech” in 1914


By Jim Harmon

A Missoula university professor has declared the Republican Party “dead,” or at least, dying.

Dr. N. J. Lennes told a gathering of local Progressives that the GOP could be likened to a life form that can’t adapt to a constantly changing environment. He added, it had “long ago served its usefulness and now is too old and stiff to fit into the rapidly changing conditions of a new era.”

As contemporary as that may sound, the remarks were made in 1914 at a meeting of the newly-formed Missoula Progressive Club.

Two years earlier, Theodore Roosevelt had made a third-party run against incumbent President William Howard Taft (R) and Woodrow Wilson (D), but, in doing so, fractured the GOP vote, resulting in Wilson’s win.

Missoulian reporter Leslie Wood characterized Dr. Lennis’ remarks as the “clearest explanation of some of the important points in the progressive platform that has ever been heard in Missoula.”

Lennes, the head of the mathematics department at Montana State University in Missoula, (now the University of Montana), had been invited to address the group to explain why he had become a progressive.

He told the crowd he voted with the Bull Moosers in the last election not solely because he admired Teddy Roosevelt.

“Any movement that endures”, he said, “must depend upon more than an individual leader, no matter how splendid he may be, to justify its perpetuation. When I made up my mind to vote the Progressive ticket it was not because of Roosevelt. It was after a most careful consideration of those things for which the movement stood, its doctrine of individualism, that I took my stand, even in the face of strong opposition from those with whom I was most closely associated at the time.”

In reporting the event, Wood wrote, “The speaker dwelt at some length on a progressive plan to regulate rather than to ‘bust’ large corporations, showing that while a trust might be legally dissolved that there was no wall to prevent the heads of the same corporations dining together and discussing at that banquet how they could still profit by working together; that now that they had been dissolved and were well within the law, how prices should be raised and the people forced to dig up more than ever before for the commodities that were just as surely controlled by them as before. He gave several illustrations of his point by showing how some of the combinations legally broken asunder by Roosevelt had remained in perfect harmony of interest and were exacting a greater toll from the public.”

On the suffrage issue, Lennes pointed out that while opponents claim there is a fundamental difference between men and women, “It is because of this very difference that we need women’s suffrage. We need to have every phase of life represented in our legislative halls to obtain just and wise results. This is the moving force underneath our whole political thought and ideas. There is no single group of humanity strong enough or wise enough to rule any other group alone. There’s never been any serious argument advanced against equal suffrage. I have never heard one that is worth the snap of my finger.”

Jim Harmon

What about Professor Lennes’ prediction?

Well, the Progressives’ slate of state and local candidates fared badly that fall, and two years later Teddy Roosevelt refused the Bull Moose presidential nomination, causing the Progressive party to fold.

So, one political party did die, but it wasn’t the Republicans.

Jim Harmon is a retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.