Republican Congressional Insurgency Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Dissent from midwestern Republicans in Congress contributed to tensions that split the party in 1912.

Summary of Event

Early in the twentieth century, two U.S. presidents successfully identified themselves with the cause of reform. Both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson established reputations as representatives of Progressive political tendencies at the national level. Progressive movement Still, Progressivism was not entirely dependent on presidential leadership. During the crucial period from 1909 to 1911, congressional proponents of reform, primarily Republican congressmen and senators from the Midwest, battled President William Howard Taft to determine how the Republican Party would respond to the issues of the tariff, conservation, and corporate regulation. Republican Insurgency U.S. Congress;Republican Insurgency Political parties;Republican Party (U.S.) Republican Party (U.S.) [kw]Republican Congressional Insurgency (Mar., 1909-1912) [kw]Congressional Insurgency, Republican (Mar., 1909-1912) [kw]Insurgency, Republican Congressional (Mar., 1909-1912) Republican Insurgency U.S. Congress;Republican Insurgency Political parties;Republican Party (U.S.) Republican Party (U.S.) [g]United States;Mar., 1909-1912: Republican Congressional Insurgency[02380] [c]Government and politics;Mar., 1909-1912: Republican Congressional Insurgency[02380] Roosevelt, Theodore Taft, William Howard [p]Taft, William Howard;Republican Insurgency Aldrich, Nelson Wilmarth La Follette, Robert M. Garfield, James Rudolph Ballinger, Richard Achilles Pinchot, Gifford Cannon, Joseph Gurney Wilson, Woodrow [p]Wilson, Woodrow;presidential election 1912

In March, 1909, Theodore Roosevelt handed over the reins of government to incoming president Taft. The new chief executive believed that his duty was to work with the Republican majority and administer Roosevelt’s reform programs with more effectiveness. Although he entered office as Roosevelt’s designated successor, Taft had none of Roosevelt’s boundless energy or ability to communicate his ideas to the public. He preferred the company of lawyers to that of reformers, and conservative attorneys soon came to dominate his administration. From the start, Taft moved in a direction that foretold trouble with reform-minded members of Congress.

The new president’s first difficulties centered on the tariff question. Early in 1909, the House of Representatives approved a downward revision of the existing tariff rates, in compliance with the Republican platform of 1908. Republican senator Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich of Rhode Island found that such a strategy did not command the support of a majority of Republican senators. To achieve a viable coalition, he added approximately eight hundred amendments to the bill, most of which took tariff rates back toward those of the Dingley Tariff Act of 1897. For eleven weeks, Senate Progressives such as Robert M. La Follette argued against the Aldrich amendments. Taft stood closer to the Progressives than he did to Aldrich on the issue, and he used his influence to reduce rates on some products. When Congress finally approved the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act, Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act (1909)[Payne Aldrich Tariff Act] which reenacted much of the Dingley law, Taft called the resulting measure the best tariff bill the Republican Party had ever passed. The midwestern Republican Progressives in Congress were outraged.

Joseph Gurney Cannon.

(Library of Congress)

Problems involving the conservation of natural resources added to Taft’s political burdens. When the new president assumed office, he failed to reappoint James Rudolph Garfield, Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior. Instead, he named Richard Achilles Ballinger, a Seattle lawyer and former commissioner of the General Land Office, to the post. Ballinger soon clashed with Gifford Pinchot, the chief forester of the United States and another Roosevelt intimate. The conflict between the two men reached crisis proportions when Pinchot accused Ballinger of involvement in a plot to defraud the government of coal lands in Alaska. The public accusation led to a congressional investigation that revealed no serious wrongdoing but damaged the prestige of the Taft administration and further weakened its ties with reform-oriented elements.

A fight over the rules that governed the House of Representatives widened the rift between Taft and Insurgent Republicans in Congress. Many reformers saw Speaker of the House Joseph Gurney Cannon of Illinois as the main legislative obstacle to enactment of their program. The Insurgents wanted House rules changed to reduce Cannon’s power as House Speaker. Taft disliked Cannon, but he knew that the Speaker had the support of the House Republicans on whom the president depended to pass his program. Accordingly, Taft refused to challenge the Speaker’s authority. When the Insurgents overthrew the Illinois legislator, Taft again appeared to be at odds with the prevailing spirit of reform. Despite these setbacks, Taft did achieve legislative successes during the 1910 session of Congress, including the Mann-Elkins Act Mann-Elkins Act (1910)[Mann Elkins Act] to regulate the railroads.

The congressional elections in 1910 exacerbated the tensions between Taft and the Insurgents. The president worked for the election of conservative Republicans in several states in which the reformers dominated. Roosevelt entered the campaign in an effort to bridge the gap between the chief executive and the Republican Party. Neither Taft nor Roosevelt proved to be a successful strategist, and for the first time in sixteen years, the Democrats won control of the House of Representatives. They also gained seats in the Senate, where a small group of Progressives held the balance of power.


The battles fought by the Republican Insurgents in Congress sustained the momentum of the reform movement. Despite its conservative leanings, the Taft administration failed to slow the rate of change. After the 1910 elections, presidential hopefuls such as Senator La Follette, Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey, and Theodore Roosevelt sought the allegiance of reform-oriented voters. In 1912, the Republican “Old Guard” denied Roosevelt a presidential nomination. At the same time, the split in the Republican Party that the Insurgents had initiated ensured Wilson’s election, and the Progressive movement began a new, more dynamic phase. Republican Insurgency U.S. Congress;Republican Insurgency Political parties;Republican Party (U.S.) Republican Party (U.S.)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, Howard W. Poindexter of Washington: A Study in Progressive Politics. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1981. A thorough, informative study of one of the key figures of the Insurgent movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gould, Lewis L. Reform and Regulation: American Politics from Roosevelt to Wilson. 2d ed. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1986. An analytic survey of U.S. politics between 1900 and 1921 that considers the impact of the Republican Insurgents on party politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harrison, Robert. Congress, Progressive Reform, and the New American State. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Presents a series of case studies of congressional reform legislation in the early twentieth century. Chapters 6 and 7 in particular discuss the Republican Insurgency. Includes tables, an appendix containing analysis of roll calls, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holt, James L. Congressional Insurgents and the Party System, 1909-1916. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968. A New Zealand scholar offers one of the best modern treatments of the Republican rebels’ fight against the existing congressional leadership.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Margulies, Herbert F. Senator Lenroot of Wisconsin: A Political Biography, 1900-1929. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1977. An excellent biographical treatment of a member of the Insurgent bloc from Wisconsin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Karen A. J. Populist Nationalism: Republican Insurgency and American Foreign Policy Making, 1918-1925. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Focuses on the eventual effects of the Republican Insurgency on U.S. foreign policy, with an emphasis on the political maneuvering of politicians William E. Borah and Hiram Warren Johnson. Includes select bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sarasohn, David. The Party of Reform: Democrats in the Progressive Era. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. Argues that the Democrats were more important in the development of progressive ideas than were the Republican Insurgents.

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Categories: History