“I am going back and [will] tell the North it must follow in the footsteps of the Progressives of Louisiana.”
—Theodore Roosevelt, Sept. 8, 1914.
“When Col. Roosevelt, Bull Moose, retired to his berth aboard a speeding Pullman at midnight Monday night, apparently, he was the happiest man in the nation,” The Times-Picayune reported the following day. The congressional midterm elections were only a couple of months away, and the former president was back on the trail, hoping to whip up support for a slate of candidates who promised to make life difficult for Democrat Woodrow Wilson. “Fourteen hours of most strenuous receptions, conversations, and orations had left him a tired [man]…. But those same fourteen hours had gone to confirm in his mind his belief that the Progressive party is about to achieve that dream of a quarter of a century, the breaking of the Solid South, and he was content.”
Two years before, in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt had fallen short in his bid for a political comeback and a then-unprecedented third term in the White House, this time running not as a Republican but as a member of his own party. He’d founded the Progressive Party, also known as the Bull Moose Party, after losing the Republican nomination to his handpicked successor in the White House, William Howard Taft.
He’d actually visited New Orleans before, once in 1905 at the beginning of his second term in the White House and again in 1912 for a brief stop during his campaign against Taft and Wilson.
But the Roosevelt who arrived in New Orleans at 7:50 a.m. on the morning of Monday, Sept. 7, 1914 was different. In the span of under two years, Teddy Roosevelt, who continues to hold the distinction of being the youngest person ever elected to the presidency, was suddenly, at the age of only 55, an old man.
Just four months earlier, Roosevelt had returned from South America, where he’d taken a harrowing expedition in search of an uncharted, mythical river, the River of Doubt, deep into the heart of the Amazonian darkness. The journey had nearly killed him, but it also had left no doubt about his status as an American icon.
At the time of his trip to New Orleans, he was arguably the most famous and most admired person in the entire country.
Initially, he planned on staying for less than a day, but when the state’s future governor, John M. Parker, a prominent New Orleans cotton broker and “the chief Progressive organizer in the South,” wrote a “passionate letter” urging him to also visit Louisiana’s third congressional district, also known as the “Sugar Bowl,” where, suddenly, there appeared to be an opportunity for Progressives to pick up a bunch of votes, Roosevelt agreed to extend his stay.
After a full day in New Orleans, capped off with a speech in front of a sold-out audience of 5,000 people at the French Opera House, he left by his private train the following morning for the small town of Franklin, where two out of every three residents had signed a petition urging him to visit.
From Franklin, he headed by car to New Iberia for a public speech. Along the way, he made a brief stop in Jeanerette. Several hundred people had gathered just to catch a glimpse of the former president. But nothing would compare to the reception that awaited him in New Iberia.
Mayor Alphe Fontelieu had organized a calvary of some 400 bandana-clad, mounted Rough Riders to intercept him in the outskirts of town.
“Colonel,” the mayor told him, “we have a horse for you and wish you to take command of our troop.” Roosevelt joyfully accepted and led the entourage into town where, according to news reports, a crowd estimated to be anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 people packed the streets of downtown.
“Roosevelt addressed the crowd in sections because of its size,” wrote Richard Collins, a former history professor at LSU, in his 1971 article “Theodore Roosevelt’s Visit to New Orleans and the Progressive Campaign of 1914.” “He received his most enthusiastic applause when he concluded in French.”
On the way back to New Orleans that afternoon, he made more than 20 different stops, and in each town, massive crowds gathered for a chance to see the old Bull Moose in person.
While his two-day, nearly-nonstop visit to Louisiana was an undeniable success, it remained unclear whether his presence alone would be enough to ensure victories for the men running under his Progressive banner.
Only a day before his train pulled into the station at the foot of Canal, Louisiana Progressives had seemed hopelessly deadlocked as they met in New Iberia to select their party’s nominee for the third district. Finally, on the 119th ballot, a local judge, 47-year-old Whitmell Pugh Martin, emerged as the party’s choice. Prior to joining the bench, Whit Martin had been the area’s district attorney, and before that, he served as superintendent of schools. But despite his impressive resume, Martin faced an uphill battle in what was effectively a one-party state.
“When the first Louisiana Progressive convention met in New Orleans on August 3, 1912, most of the new Bull Moose were old Republicans from the sugar produ