The First Modern Clash Over Federal Power: Wilson versus Hughes in the Presidential Election of 1916 by Lewis L. Gould

Book coverFor an election that was very close and conducted in the increasingly large shadow of a devastating war in Europe, the Presidential Election of 1916 is little remarked on or studied. Finding a book on it was hard and the author of this even admits it.

What did I know about the election before it started?

  1. Woodrow Wilson campaigned on the slogan of “He Kept Us Out of War.” (That’s true, although there were other issues.)
  2. Republican nominee Charles Evans Hughes lost the decisive state of California because he snubbed California governor Hiram Johnson at a hotel somewhere. (That’s not quite true.)
  3. When Hughes went to sleep on Election Night (November 7, 1916), the press corps asked for a statement and supposedly a Hughes aide said, “The President has retired for the night.” And then a wisecracking reporter said, “When he wakes up, tell him he’s not President anymore.” (That’s not true either.)

The story of the 1916 election was started in 1912 when Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, won the Presidency in a three-way race over incumbent Republican William Howard Taft and insurgent Progressive former President Theodore Roosevelt. With the Republican vote split, Wilson won easily. The Republicans were unhappy and immediately viewed Wilson’s election as illegitimate.

Wilson hit the ground running when he got into the White House and pushed through matters like the establishment of the Federal Reserve System, lowering tariffs, instituting an income tax, and also establishing some eight-hour day work rules. Wilson also re-instituted racial segregation in Federal workplaces. And he sent the Army to try to influence the Mexican Revolution.  It was a mixed bag.

Furthermore, Wilson’s wife died. He soon remarried, which rubbed some people the wrong way. Wilson was the third President to get married while in office, after John Tyler and Grover Cleveland. Wilson might have had at least one extramarital affair in his life too.

The Republicans hated Wilson, but were dismayed because they expected him to be totally incompetent. And, judging by how Democratic politicians were after the Civil War, that was not a big leap of faith. No Democratic President had won reelection since Andrew Jackson in 1832.

One major problem for the Republicans was finding a candidate. The most famous Republican was Roosevelt. However, Roosevelt was aging quickly, getting sick, putting on weight, and very likely suffering from mental illness. Roosevelt hated Wilson and also did not like Wilson’s tepid replies to German submarine warfare. Party regulars did not like Roosevelt for taking on Taft in 1912 and handing the White House to Wilson.

There weren’t many other suitable candidates from the states where most Republican nominees came from.  New York had a popular former governor in Charles Evans Hughes. The problem was that Hughes was on the Supreme Court. A sitting justice had never run for President.

Republican party leaders persuaded Hughes to run for President. Hughes was told that he was very likely to win as Wilson was not as popular as his 1912 margin of victory indicated.

So, Hughes resigned his spot on the bench in 1916, allowing Wilson to name a second justice that year. (The first was Louis Brandeis, the second was John Clarke. One was much more famous than the other.) The Republicans decided to have Charles Fairbanks, Roosevelt’s Vice President, run as Hughes’ running mate.

Hughes and the Republicans ran a poor campaign. They all failed to realize what the people were interested in. Hughes focused in on one topic: the tariff. Hughes wanted to raise the tariff. He loved to talk about tariffs. He would go on for an hour or so to crowds about the importance of tariffs. The idea was pretty much a nonstarter.

The Republicans wanted Hughes to mend fences with former Progressives in the West to bring those states back into the fold. Hughes took a trip to California and ignored the incumbent governor, Hiram Johnson, for the whole trip (not just at one hotel in Long Beach.) The establishment Republicans in California ran the Hughes campaign in the state. They ran it so poorly that Wilson won the state, the first Democratic win in California since 1892.

The War in Europe ended up being the biggest issue. Hughes did not speak about foreign affairs during the campaign (although he would later become an effective Secretary of State). Wilson portrayed his leadership as level-headed and calm, while Hughes was depicted as someone who would just follow Roosevelt’s bellicose rhetoric into a deadly war.

It is true that on Election Night, the Republicans were ahead, but several states were undecided, most notably California. The Democrats weren’t able to claim victory until November 8, 1916, and Hughes didn’t concede until November 22. (Which Wilson didn’t like, but remember that deep down Woodrow Wilson was what we today would call “an asshole.”) Wilson ended with 277 electoral votes to Hughes 254 and a 3% edge in the popular vote nationwide.

Gould claims that the 1916 election was the first one where the Democrats and Republicans started to align themselves less on a regional basis (although the results map might make you think differently) and more along like ideological lines. The Republicans wanted voters to believe that they were the safe, conservative choice that would keep America strong and safe. The Democrats were opting to align themselves with labor and women. (But not African-Americans, the party had a lot of people who were pro-racism.) But, with Wilson and the Democrats co-opting much of the Progressive platform, the parties were starting to change. It would take the Great Depression and the New Deal to finally shift things around for good.

Wilson’s second term in office would not go well. The U.S. entered what would become World War I in April of 1917. The Republicans regained control of Congress and blocked ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, which set up the League of Nations. Wilson suffered a paralytic stroke and made few public appearances before leaving office in 1921. Wilson was still a bit angry that he didn’t get nominated for a third term, despite being very ill.

Miscellany —

  • Wilson won New Hampshire by 56 votes. It was the only New England State he carried.
  • Democrats won every state in the Great Plains and the Rockies, except for South Dakota and Oregon.
  • The Republicans held 13 primaries in 1912 and expanded that to 15 states in 1916, but they failed to make much of an impact. The leading vote getter was Pennsylvania Governor Martin Brumbaugh, who won his home state.
  • Hughes did not resign his seat until he was formally nominated by the Republican Convention. He managed to win two primaries while still a member of the Supreme Court.
  • This was the last election before women were granted full suffrage in the United States. Twelve states allowed women to vote in 1916, ten of them voted for Wilson.
  • Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton are the only two Presidents to win two Presidential elections without getting over 50% of the popular vote either time.

Rum, Romanism, & Rebellion : The Making of a President 1884 by Mark Wahlgre Summers

rum-romanism-rebellion-making-president-1884-mark-wahlgren-summers-paperback-cover-artThe election of 1884 might not seem too different from an election of the late 20th Century or early 21st Century, but it may be the first one that may have its outcome determined by a gaffe. And not even a gaffe spoken by a candidate, but rather by a well-meaning supporter of one of the principals. But, there was a lot more to the 1884 election according to Mark Wahlgren Summers, a University of Kentucky history professor.

In a freewheeling, at times even irreverent, look back at the events shaping the first election of Grover Cleveland, Summers focuses more on the loser, James Blaine. Summers describes a political party system coming apart at the seams.

Republicans could not hold together their disparate parts, with factions favoring Prohibition or political reform often butting heads. The Democrats benefitted from the end of Reconstruction, which let former Confederates retake control of state governments and effectively end voting rights for blacks.

Blaine thought the nomination was his in 1880, but a deadlocked convention turned to dark horse Ohio Representative James Garfield. Garfield was assassinated early in his term and replaced by Chester Arthur, regarded as a political hack by most people, but was surprisingly effective. Arthur wanted to be nominated in his own right in 1884, even though he knew he was dying of kidney disease. The Republicans ended up nominating Blaine in 1884 accompanied by John Logan of Illinois as his running mate.

Blaine, nicknamed “the Plumed Knight”, was considered to be an attractive man who looked like the quintessential statesman. However, Blaine had numerous enemies among the Republicans, including President Arthur, so he was hard-pressed to get all the support and financial backing he needed.

The Democrats nominated New York Governor Grover Cleveland, who had developed a reputation as an honest politician, or as honest as you could expect from a politician in the Gilded Age. The Democrats nominated Thomas Hendricks for Vice President, who was trying to gain the office he nearly won in the controversial election of 1876. (Samuel Tilden, the loser in 1876 was considered the front runner for the nomination despite being extremely ill.)

Early in the campaign, Cleveland was hit hard by accusations that he had fathered an illegitimate child (which most people think he really did), although he took the line that he was taking care of a child that may have been fathered by a friend of his who was conveniently dead. The Democrats had turned up reports of marital infidelity by Blaine, but they opted not to retaliate with more sex scandals. The 1884 campaign was the last time until the time of Bill Clinton, where marital fidelity became a big issue in a presidential election. Summers believes that the two parties realized that making every campaign about morals issues was bound to be a disaster for both sides.

What were the issues of the day? There was the tariff (high tariffs were sought by the Republicans, while the Democrats mostly wanted them lowered), Prohibition (an issue that served mostly as a wedge issue between evangelical Protestants and Catholics), and the Civil War, which was still being fought in the political arena.

The Democrats had a solid base of 153 electoral votes in the South, so Blaine needed to sweep the three swing states in the North: New York, Indiana, and Ohio. Blaine didn’t do it as Cleveland’s narrow win in New York (by a little over 1,000 votes) was enough to tip the election to the Democrats.

One of the crucial moments in the election campaign happened on October 28, 1884 in New York City. In the last days of the campaign, Blaine made an appearance at a meeting of evangelical ministers. The chairman of this meeting was a well-respected minister in his seventies named Dr. Samuel Burchard. Burchard introduced Blaine to the crowd with this address:

We are Republican, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion. We are loyal to our flag. We are loyal to you.

The reaction to “rum, Romanism, and rebellion” was not positive. Some in the crowd hissed. Reporters present at the meeting recognized it as a huge problem for Blaine because he was now identified with religious bigots. (Burchard claimed not to be anti-Catholic and said he just got caught up in alliteration.)

The news cycle of 1884 moved more slowly than today, and it took three days before Burchard’s words and Blaine’s seemingly tacit approval of them became a national story (the Democrats did have stenographers follow Blaine around waiting for a gaffe). In an election as close as 1884, it didn’t take much to keep just enough Republicans (some of whom were Catholic) away from the polls on Election Day.

Grover Cleveland would end up winning the popular vote in three straight elections, but only the electoral vote twice. He started as President because the country was tired of Republican rule. He left office in 1896 despised by his own party.

Blaine would go on to serve as Secretary of State under Benjamin Harrison before succumbing to the same kidney disease (Bright’s disease) that killed his political rival, Chester Arthur. This book definitely makes you feel like 1884 was a very unusual election year. It was. Politics was heading out into an increasingly weirder form in America. And it was never going to get less weird again. blaine_harper

Electing FDR: The New Deal Campaign of 1932 by Donald A. Ritchie

1189996For Franklin D. Roosevelt to be elected President four times, he had to be elected a first time. Donald Ritchie’s book gives a quick look at how this happened. Ritchie spends more time writing about the loser in 1932, Herbert Hoover, than Roosevelt, and tries to make the case that Roosevelt’s win in 1932 was not exactly a foregone conclusion.

Herbert Hoover was probably happy that he lived in an era before polls about approval ratings of Presidents existed. If so, Harry Truman would probably not be known as the President with the lowest recorded rating. Hoover became President just a few months before the Great Depression started. During it, Hoover declined to mobilize much of anything in a Federal response to the massive unemployment and bank failures and economic dislocation. His personality made him hard to like as he always thought he was the smartest man in the room. (Such are the problems with electing someone who went to Stanford.)

Hoover’s missteps during the Depression were numerous. He signed a bill raising the tariff to ridiculously high protectionist levels. During periods of great hunger in the country, he would only support Federal funds for seeds and food for livestock, not food already made for people to eat. He felt that would be teaching people to rely on the government to eat. Instead of starving to death. They may die, but at least they learned a lesson.

The biggest fiasco was the Bonus Army. In June 1932, a large group of unemployed World War I veterans marched on Washington to demand an early payment of a bonus they were supposed to receive for their service. It was budgeted for 1944. And Hoover thought they should wait to 1944. Hoover wanted the Bonus Army removed from Washington. He ordered the Army, under the leadership of Douglas MacArthur to evict the group. Hoover ordered that no weapons be used. But, MacArthur, claiming that they were all Communists, sent his troops marching in with sabers and used tanks as well. Even in an era before television, the images were devastating to Hoover’s image.

The Democrats had earned a small majority in the House in the 1930 elections, elevating John Nance Garner of Texas to the Speakership. The Republicans still held a small majority in the Senate, but Hoover asked the Democrats to caucus as the majority because he thought they would be easier to deal with. The Republicans declined to do this.

Democrats started to line up to run against Hoover in 1932. Garner was one candidate, but he hated actually running for office. He had a safe district and he liked being Speaker. But, he still had ambitions.

The other candidate was the charismatic governor of New York, Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt had won the governorship in 1928, replacing Al Smith, who had lost to Hoover in 1928. Smith expected Roosevelt to ask him for advice frequently. Roosevelt didn’t and the two men headed on a path to estrangement. Al Smith may have been the Happy Warrior, but he was also rather petulant.

When the Democrats convened in Chicago in 1932, Roosevelt came in with momentum, winning most of the primaries, although few of those produced much in the way of delegates. Still, Garner, along with Smith, did not arrive with much support either. But, the Democrats still required any nominee to get 2/3 of the delegates to be nominated.

Roosevelt’s supporters assumed he could hold on to his support for three or four ballots at most. It took five ballots to nominate Roosevelt, spurred by California’s William McAdoo (who was one of the losers in the 1924 deadlock), who threw California’s support to Roosevelt. Smith finished second and was so peeved that he declined to let his delegates make the nomination unanimous. Garner was given the second slot. Roosevelt broke with tradition by flying to Chicago to accept the nomination in person. Previously, candidates would give their acceptance speeches either in writing or a few weeks after the convention.

Hoover assumed he wouldn’t have to campaign much. He assumed that the American people would assume that he was too brilliant and too hard-working that he didn’t have to sully himself with going out on the hustings. That idea was soon discarded when the Republicans realized that they were in big trouble.

Roosevelt campaigned all over the country, which helped to dispel the notion that he was too disabled from polio to be an effective leader. Roosevelt campaigned on a plan called “The New Deal” which would include numerous government programs to help get Americans working. There were also plans to create Federally owned power companies and even more liberal ideas, all crafted by a coterie of liberal intellectuals who advised the campaign.

Hoover had no firm plan, counting on private charities to help with short-term needs like hunger and shelter. When Hoover campaigned, he found crowds hostile to him, something that he couldn’t understand. Why would anyone be mad at him? Hoover majored in geology at Stanford, not self-awareness.

As the campaign moved on, the Democrats became more confident in their chances. The Republican congressional candidates ran away from Hoover. There was no sophisticated polling at the time, but it wasn’t hard to tell who was going to win. Most newspapers were endorsing Roosevelt, including those run by William Randolph Hearst.

The election was not close. Hoover suffered the biggest loss by any incumbent in American history up to that time. Roosevelt won 57.4% of the popular vote and had 472 electoral votes to Hoover 39.6% and 59 electoral votes, all of them in the Northeast.

The book finishes up with a discussion of Hoover’s declining political career and dislike of Roosevelt. (The two men barely spoke after the election or on Inauguration Day.) Hoover thought the Republicans might draft him to run again in 1936 or 1940, but his name was political poison. Hoover may have been the sorest loser in a Presidential election ever except for the two Adamses. [Update: Donald Trump has since surpassed all known sore loser records and will likely keep that title for the rest of his life, my life, and the lives of children not yet born.]

Hoover would be rehabilitated in public opinion when Harry Truman became President. Truman asked Hoover to head up a government efficiency commission. (Hoover loved to look for inefficiency, it was pretty much the only thing he was good at.) When the Republicans regained the White House under Dwight Eisenhower, Hoover thought he might get some other duties. But, Eisenhower did not like Hoover. It wasn’t until Richard Nixon ran in 1960 did Hoover find a Republican candidate that looked up to him.

In Washington now, there is a memorial dedicated to Franklin Roosevelt on the National Mall. It has statues depicting events in the life of Roosevelt, including the Depression and World War II. It is quite heroic. The Department of Commerce Building is named for Herbert Hoover. It has a nice food court.


The Log-Cabin Campaign by Robert Gray Gunderson

log cabin campaignThe 1840 Presidential campaign has always gone down as one that introduced a new style of campaigning. One where a candidate would actively seek the office and give speeches. And, a campaign which would be more about personalities than issues. One would think that a pretty good book could be written about this campaign.

This 1957 book  by a University of Kentucky speech professor is not a good book. While it professes to be scholarly (it has footnotes!), the author uses a style of prose that makes him sound like a frat pledge from the 1980s. All the major figures are referred to by nicknames. Whig candidate William Henry Harrison has so many nicknames that you can lose track (the Hero of Tippecanoe, Old Tip, Tip, Cincinnatus, The County Clerk) of just who the author is referring to.

Van Buren’s party, the Democrats, are almost always called “Loco-Focos” after the name of the faction of the Democratic party that Van Buren came from. (The term refers to a name for matches, which some New York Democrats used to light candles at a meeting where Tammany Hall bosses had all other light sources turned off or closed.)

The book goes on and on about various Whig party powerbrokers (in particular Thurlow Weed) and how they raised money or found stump speakers (such as Abraham Lincoln) to help Harrison’s campaign. But the book is mostly just a series of anecdotes strung together with some old timey speak tossed in.

Just what Harrison stood for was never clear. But, the Whigs were never big on details. They just wanted to be elected. That, and have a national bank. Other than that, they were mostly just hoping that Andrew Jackson, or his designated successor, Van Buren, would be embarrassed.

If there is anything interesting to be gleaned from this book, it’s mostly just some trivia about William Henry Harrison. For example, did you know that at the time of the election, Harrison’s job was Clerk of the County Courts (hence the nickname above) in Sandusky County, Ohio? He had been out of work for a while.

Did you know that Martin Van Buren’s Vice President, Richard Mentor Johnson, was essentially dumped from the ticket because Southerners seemed to dislike the fact that he was living with one of his slaves in a marital situation. (That was only socially acceptable at the time if you forced yourself on the slave, instead of seeking consent. O America, you never fail to be so hypocritical. Nevertheless, Johnson still received the electoral votes for Vice President in 1840.)

And in 1840, Whig rallies tend to consist of people rolling giant canvas balls with the name of supporters written on them. The idea was to “get the ball rolling for Tip.” It was also to make fun of Missouri Democratic Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who had given a speech in 1837, leading to the reversal of the Senate’s censure of Andrew Jackson.

“And now, sir, I finish the task which three years ago I imposed upon myself. Solitary and alone, and amid the jeers and taunts of my opponents I put this ball in motion.”

Harrison outpolled Van Buren by 126,000 votes. That wouldn’t amount to much today, but in 1840, that was good enough for a 6 point win. The Electoral vote was even more exaggerated with Harrison earning 234 votes to Van Buren’s 60. (Johnson lost 12 electoral votes for Vice President to other Southerners, including future President James Polk.) Van Buren had little chance of winning after the nation suffered a severe economic downturn in 1837. Credit was extraordinarily tight, and the public had soured on the Democrats having a monopoly on power pretty much since 1801.

Ultimately, Harrison has gone down in history mostly because he died after just a little bit more than a month after his inauguration. It was popularly believed that he contracted pneumonia after delivering a lengthy inaugural address in cold weather, but it seems more likely that he died of complications from being 68, being stressed out, and drinking Washington D.C.’s poor water. Vice President John Tyler succeeded him and turned out to hold none of Harrison’s (or the Whig Party’s) positions on just about anything. And nobody was happy for four years.

1840 ball rolling