Geoffrey Cowan

University Professor, Annenberg Family Chair in Communication Leadership, and Dean Emeritus of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California

Let the People Rule

Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary

“Cowan has brought to life a fascinating part of TR’s story usually left out of the history books. He tells it with verve and suspense, warts and all, his insights deepened by his own impressive background as a democracy activist.”

Adam Hochschild, author of To End All Wars

Professor Cowan in the News

Reviews & Endorsements for Let the People Rule

Geoffrey Cowan’s new book, Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary, has been reviewed by many of the country’s top newspapers and notable individuals. Here are a sampling:


“Dazzling…. Cowan brings fresh depth and breadth to this sordid tale. Thus do we see, through his research and deft storytelling, how reform movements are often encased in self-interested cant.”


“[Cowan’s] excellent new book…is so replete with historical echoes that it reminds one that although history doesn’t repeat itself, it sometimes does rhyme.”
Andrew roberts, THE TELEGRAPH


“Timely and enjoyable.”


“Cowan tells his story with great verve.”H.w. Brands, WASHINGTON POST


“Admirably nuanced.”
Ari Berman, THE NEW YORK TIMES Book Review




“The best new discussion of the primary system.”

Jill lepore, the new yorker



“A lively, relevant primer in the sausage-making of candidate selection….Few historians have given this shameful chapter in the Progressive Party the attention that it deserves, and Cowan’s documentation, drawn mostly from newspaper accounts from the summer of 1912, is compelling.”



“Cowan’s recounting of [Roosevelt and Taft] competing in several primaries is a great read.”UNION LEADER


“[The start of the primary system] is a complicated story that Cowan keeps lively…Cowan renders [Theodore Roosevelt’s] charisma palpable.”TIME MAGAZINE

natl bookr eview

“In Let the People Rule, Geoffrey Cowan provides a riveting account of the birth of primaries during the 1912 GOP race. With the shelves of books that have been written on Roosevelt, Cowan deserves praise for unearthing new – and sometimes unsavory – details about TR’s political career.”NATIONAL BOOK REVIEW


“Brings to life the wheeler-dealers, back-alley shenanigans, and political intrigue embedded within this legislative saga…. Political junkies will delight in this rollicking history containing lessons applicable to our contemporary political landscape.”KIRKUS REVIEWS


Both general readers and historians will enjoy the book’s you-are-there feel because of Cowan’s excellent use of primary documents.”LIBRARY JOURNAL


“The January release date of the book, which tells of Roosevelt’s unsuccessful 1912 presidential campaign and role in initiating state primaries, turned out to be perfectly timed, given the political atmosphere in the run up to the 2016 presidential election.”USC ANNENBERG NEWS




“Highly engaging, with a host of compelling characters engaged in great political drama….This book should appeal to scholars of the presidency, American political development, and elections and voting, as well as to those with a casual interest in political history.

presidential studies quarterly


“Cowan writes…this timely, engaging story…with a Rooseveltian verve.”PUBLISHERS WEEKLY


“[A] powerful new book…[that] paints a colorful and complex, yet ultimately ignominious portrait of the Rough Rider.”PASADENA WEEKLY




“Lively and detailed history….Besides the sheer action afforded by the vivid narrative and larger-than-life personalities, this book offers obvious parallels with current political fights and illuminates their origins.”

martha minow, dean, harvard law school 

“A suspenseful narrative, replete with larger-than-life personalities, and a must-read backstory for anyone concerned with the history and fate of a democracy that, at its best, aims to ‘Let the People Rule.’”


“A fascinating tale…. I found this book revelatory.”

janet Napolitano, President, University of California

“A rich, eye-popping political history. Teddy Roosevelt was a progressive hero, but he could play as rough as today’s most cynically expedient politicians.”EVAN THOMAS, AUTHOR OF BEING NIXON AND ROBERT KENNEDY

“Rips the lid off of the 1912 presidential election. Cowan brilliantly illuminates everything from the birth of the political primary system to the disenfranchisement of African Americans to egos writ large. The narrative has a marvelous flow and the research is superb.”DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY AT RICE UNIVERSITY AND AUTHOR OF THE WILDERNESS WARRIOR: THEODORE ROOSEVELT AND THE CRUSADE FOR AMERICA

“Cowan has brilliantly re-created a pivotal moment in American political history…brought vividly to life through dogged and creative research and graceful storytelling. Political junkies across America are buckling in for another tumultuous primary season in 2016—and they couldn’t find a better way to prepare than to devour this rollicking and remarkably current tale of how it all began, over a century ago.”RONALD BROWNSTEIN, EDITORIAL DIRECTOR FOR STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIPS, ATLANTIC MEDIA

“A fresh and perceptive look… Based on extensive research in original sources,Let the People Rule laces striking information on TR’s race against President Taft with new insights and a fresh and important analysis. Let the People Rule is the book to read on Roosevelt’s pivotal year.”LEWIS L. GOULD, AUTHOR OF THE REPUBLICANS: A HISTORY OF THE GRAND OLD PARTY

“For those of us who believe that modern American politics began at the turn of the twentieth and not the twenty-first century, Geoff Cowan has produced a fresh contribution to the argument. The modern mechanics of presidential selection, the rise of candidacies largely independent of party, and the mobilization of autonomous supporters: all come to life in Let the People Rule.”BYRON E. SHAFER, HAWKINS CHAIR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN

“Not only is this a great book but also it could not be more relevant to what is going on politically.”

Tweed roosevelt, president, theodore roosevelt association

“Let the People Rule” is one of the 10 best-selling history books of 2016

Geoffrey Cowan’s book, Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary, was listed by the Library Journal as one of the top ten US History bestsellers in 2016. Cowan’s book was released in January of 2016, and has received positive reviews from several news publications, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

See the full list here.

Geoffrey Cowan interviewed by the Atlantic

The Republican establishment has denounced Donald Trump so much so that only the 1912 election – when angered Theodore Roosevelt supporters left the National Convention after Howard Taft’s nomination – comes close. However, “only about a half-dozen GOP senators backed Roosevelt, and less than 15 percent of the convention delegates bolted with him,” Cowan told the Atlantic. Meanwhile, according to the article, nearly one-third of Republican Senators and Governors have stated they will not vote for Trump.

Read more here.

Cowan’s “Let the People Rule” featured in “Presidential Studies Quarterly”

Professor Graham G. Dodds of Concordia University reviewed Geoffrey Cowan’s Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary for Volume 46, Issue 3 of the Presidential Studies Quarterly.

“Cowan’s book provides a detailed account of the 1912 campaign, the GOP convention, and TR’s creation of a new party. This is no dry historical tome: it is highly engaging, with a host of compelling characters engaged in great political drama.”

Read more.

Cowan’s “Let the People Rule” reviewed by Karl Rove

George W. Bush’s former Chief of Staff Karl Rove reviewed Geoffrey Cowan’s Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary in the “Books” section of his website, dubbing it “a great read.”

“Cowan has written a lively account of Theodore Roosevelt’s effort to have the Republican Party oust his one-time friend, President William Howard Taft, and install himself as its nominee for the White House in 1912…Well researched and written with the gusto of someone who knows and loves politics.”

Read more.

Cowan featured in Retro Report / POLITICO series on presidential primaries

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Geoffrey Cowan is featured in Retro Report’s new video series “Conventional Wisdom.” In partnership with POLITICO, the eight-part series focuses on sharing the stories of past U.S. political conventions and their impact on our current political landscape.

In this episode, entitled “The Modern Primary,” Cowan is featured alongside other scholars and historians while reviewing the origins and impact of the primary process – and especially Theodore Roosevelt and the election of 1912 – on American politics.

Watch the full episode here.

Cowan talks Republican nomination process on the ‘The Brian Lehrer Show’

Geoffrey Cowan, author of Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary, was interviewed on The Brian Lehrer Show, Monday, July 18th.

As part of the show’s ’30 Issues in 30 Weeks’ series, Cowan was joined by David Eisenhower, Director of the Institute for Public Service at the Annenberg School for Communication at University of Pennsylvania, to discuss the history of the Republican nomination conventions.

Listen here for the full interview.


“Let the People Rule” Reviewed in the LA Times

A review of Cowan’s new book, Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary was published by Thomas Curwen for the Los Angeles Times, Monday, July 18th.

Curwen discussed the connections and impact of the history of the country’s first primary and the current presidential election, stating:

“No musty account of top-coated and mustachioed politicians, “Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary” is a lively, relevant primer in the sausage-making of candidate selection…While “Let the People Rule” might reawaken traumatic memories of the last 11 months, it is a bracing reminder that we’re not above such tactics today.”

Read more.

Cowan interviewed in Zócalo Public Square


If Geoffrey Cowan were to be described as a salad dressing, he’d pick blue cheese, he said. Cowan talked Teddy Roosevelt and other tidbits from his life in his latest interview with Zócalo Public Square.

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Huntington Library hosts Cowan for lecture on Roosevelt

Geoffrey Cowan was interviewed by Avery Director of the Library David S. Zeidberg for an evening lecture at The Huntington. The two discussed Cowan’s new book, Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary and how the 1912 primaries relate to Cowan’s involvement in the 1968 and to the uncharacteristic primaries this presidential season.

“[During this election cycle],” said Cowan, “people are asking in a more profound and serious way, maybe – Donald Trump is asking that question, and Bernie Sanders is asking that question – ‘Are primaries fair? Is the system rigged?’ And, of course, in a way, they are rigged, and they were rigged in 1968 when I played a role in changing the rules of the Democratic Party and they were rigged to some extent in 1912, because that’s the year when Roosevelt actually won most of the primaries but didn’t get the nomination.”

Listen to the full lecture here.

“Let the People Rule” cited in New Yorker article about conventions

Harvard professor Jill Lepore discussed the themes of voter empowerment in Geoffrey Cowan’s book Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary for her New Yorker article “How to Steal an Election.”

Lepore has called Let the People Rule “the best new discussion of the primary system,” and her new article details the history of the party nomination process while referencing 1912:

The election of 1912 was the first in which a significant number of delegates to the nominating Conventions were elected in state primaries, as Geoffrey Cowan writes in ‘Let the People Rule,’ a book that takes its title from Theodore Roosevelt’s campaign slogan. Roosevelt wanted to wrest the Republican nomination from the incumbent President, William Taft, and saw the primaries as his only chance. ‘The great fundamental issue now before the Republican Party and before our people can be stated briefly,’ he said. ‘It is: Are the American people fit to govern themselves, to rule themselves, to control themselves? I believe they are. My opponents do not.’

Read more.

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© Geoffrey Cowan 2017