Educator Resources

Political Cartoons Illustrating Progressivism and the Election of 1912

Teaching Activities

Standards Correlations

This lesson correlates to the National History Standards.

  • Era 7 -The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
    • Standard 1B -Demonstrate understanding of Progressivism at the national level.

This lesson correlates to the National Standards for Civics and Government.

  • Standard III.E.4. -Evaluate, take, and defend positions about the roles of political parties, campaigns, and elections in American politics.

Cross-curricular Connections

Please share this exercise with your history, government, and language arts colleagues.

Constitutional Connection

This lesson relates to the goals of the Progressives at the state and federal levels and the significance of the election of 1912. It lays the groundwork for study of the 16th, 17th, and 19th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Analyzing the Document

  1. Share a current political cartoon with students to introduce the ideas of symbolism, humor, exaggeration, and caricature in editorial cartoons. Download the Cartoon Analysis Worksheet for use by small groups of students. Begin by assigning the same cartoon, the Anti-Third Term Principle, to each group. In addition to the worksheet, use the questions below to aid students in delving deeper into the art of editorial cartoons. Lead a whole-class discussion of the cartoon. Then assign small groups to independently analyze one of the three remaining featured documents. Require groups to share their observations with the rest of the class.

    Editorial Cartoon Questions:

    1. Symbols are used in cartoons to visually present abstract ideas. Many such as Uncle Sam are widely recognized. What symbols are used in this cartoon? Can you think of any other symbols you have seen pictured in editorial cartoons?
    2. Cartoonists employ humor to make powerful statements in an effective, less heavy-handed manner. Does this cartoon use humor to make its point? If so, how? Is it sarcastic? Ironic? Ridiculing?
    3. Exaggeration is what sets editorial cartoons apart; they must grab the reader and deliver a message in a few seconds. What is exaggerated in this cartoon, and what purpose does it serve? Caricature exaggerates or distorts a person's prominent feature(s) to allow the viewer to identify him or her quickly. How is caricature used in this cartoon?

    The following information about the documents may be helpful:

    Document 1, Anti-Third Term Principle, is an excellent introduction to the study of political cartoons. It is a straightforward criticism of Roosevelt's reversal of his promise to adhere to the two-term principle established by George Washington. (Roosevelt later countered that he only promised to refuse three consecutive terms.)

    Document 2, Progressive Fallacies, is a close companion to the Anti-Third Term Principle. In the foreground is Roosevelt; in the background the dejected and deserted La Follette. Of particular interest here is that this original cartoon was somewhat softened before publication. "Progressive Fallacies" became "Progress Sweet Progress" in the final version. What might have influenced the cartoonist to make this change? Does it modify the overall message or tone?

    In Document 3 Roosevelt and Taft are depicted as battling for the Ohio state primary election, one of only 13 state primaries in 1912. In addition to being Taft's home state, Ohio also sent a large number of delegates to the national convention. Roosevelt won the primary, Taft the nomination.

    Published in November 1912, Document 4 depicts the public faces of the candidates and speculates as to the uneasiness they might be feeling before election day.

Creating Cartoons

  1. After analyzing the four featured documents, make a list of the issues that were most important during the election year of 1912 as revealed in the documents and as described in the students' textbooks. Since each candidate did not publicly address all of the same issues, match the topics with the appropriate candidates. For example, Roosevelt and Wilson had distinctly different views on the extent of power assumed by the federal government. Eugene Debs, the Socialist candidate, had even more extreme ideas. Business regulation, working conditions, the tariff, direct election of senators, and the income tax were other debated topics. Instruct students to create their own political cartoons and to accompany each with a written explanation of the cartoon's main idea and the techniques used to convey that idea. Provide the following advice: Start with a single, clear idea. Avoid cluttering the cartoon with too many elements (unless central to its meaning). Use words and visual elements to make a single point. Be sure that the most important visual element stands out. Exaggerate for a reason, and don't overdo it. Avoid using too many words, and make sure the ones you use are legible.

Connecting to the Newspaper

  1. Organize students into small groups and direct them to brainstorm current issues being debated at the local, state, and national levels. Record their results on three lists and display the lists where the entire class can view them. As a whole class, identify those issues that could be considered reform ideas. Set a time frame of one to two weeks and assign students the task of looking through newspapers and periodicals for political cartoons relating to these issues. Instruct them to mark the source and date on each cartoon. Encourage them to add to the list as they encounter cartoons about issues not previously identified. Collect and post the cartoons on a bulletin board and at the end of the designated period, discuss their findings and how they might relate to the issues of the Progressive Era.

Third-Party Statistics

  1. The election of 1912 was the most successful bid ever made by a third-party candidate. Roosevelt finished second in Electoral College and popular votes. Looking at the numbers, a student could speculate that had Roosevelt not run, Taft would have maintained the Republican Party votes and beaten Wilson. The Federal Register's Electoral College web page contains detailed presidential election statistics from 1789 through 1992. Direct students to the web page to find the voting results of the election of 1912 and to calculate the percentage of votes each candidate received. Lead a discussion of the impact Roosevelt's candidacy may have had on the outcome. Encourage students to survey the web site for other presidential races that involved a significant third-party candidate and to compare his impact mathematically to that of Roosevelt's. Finally, discuss why third-party candidates vie for the office of president when history has shown repeatedly that their chances of winning are negligible.

Role Playing

  1. The featured document, "How They're Acting and How They Feel" alludes to the public and private faces of politicians. Discuss with students who or what each candidate might have been nervous about (losing the election, damaging his reputation, future of the country, future of his party, each other, etc.) Instruct students to work in pairs to create scenes in which they role play one of the candidates. The dialogue in the scene should reflect the public and private person as of one of the candidates depicted in the cartoon. Direct students to concentrate on the candidate and the issues they understand the best and to support their inferences and conclusions with factual information.

Extension Activity about political cartoonist Clifford K. Berryman

  1. Clifford Kennedy Berryman was a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist whose graphic commentaries spanned the first half of the 20th century. The National Archives Catalog contains a large collection of Berryman's cartoons focusing on Congress and American politics from the late 1890s through the 1940s. Building on prior cartoon analysis activities, challenge students to locate another Berryman cartoon by conducting an ARC digitized copy search. Direct them to use the Cartoon Analysis Worksheet and the questions introduced in activity 1 to analyze the cartoon and then to present their findings in a written essay format. (Using the search term "Berryman" will result in 100 cartoons, but narrowing the search with such words as war, president, a politician's name, or a specific event will result in a more manageable number. For example, a search as specific as "Berryman" and "NATO" will result in one cartoon.)

The documents included in this project are from Record Group 46, Records of the United States Senate, Office of Senate Curator. They are available online through the National Archives Catalog National Archives Identifiers:


The National Archives Catalog replaces its prototypes, the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) and NARA Archival Information Locator (NAIL). You can still perform a keyword, digitized image and location search. The online catalog's advanced functionalities also allow you to search by organization, person, or topic.

The online catalog is a searchable database that contains information about a wide variety of NARA holdings across the country. You can use the National Archives Catalog to search record descriptions by keywords or topics and retrieve digital copies of selected textual documents, photographs, maps, and sound recordings related to thousands of topics.

Currently, about 80% of NARA's vast holdings have been described in the National Archives Catalog. Thousands of digital images can be searched in the National Archives Catalog. In keeping with NARA's Strategic Plan, the percentage of holdings described in the National Archives Catalog will grow continually.

This article was written by Mary Frances Greene, a teacher at Marie Murphy School, Avoca District 37, Wilmette, IL.

Return to Lesson Main Page