For 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?
Woodrow Wilson campaigned on the slogan of “He Kept Us Out of War.” (That’s true, although there were other issues.)
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.)
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.
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.
Although many people might have lost track of this event in the 14 hours of the Ken Burns documentary on the Roosevelts, the 1912 Presidential Election was one of the most important in the history of the United States. Which could be why James Chace, a Bard College professor, subtitled this book “Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs – The Election That Changed the Country.” This particular book tries to dig into the reasons for why this election was so pivotal, but it seems a little thin in parts.
The driving figure in the 1912 election was former President Theodore Roosevelt, who, after two years out of office, realized that his hand-picked successor, William Taft, wasn’t cutting it. Taft had proven to be more conservative than Roosevelt anticipated, too easily cowed by Wall Street, and not committed to Roosevelt’s policies on conservation. (And that was just the start of it.)
In 1911, Taft had the Justice Department investigate U.S. Steel for antitrust violations. Roosevelt had well-known for being a “trust-buster”, but Roosevelt actually helped form that corporation. Roosevelt felt betrayed. It was time to run.
Roosevelt’s plan was to make a good showing in the 13 states with primaries (New Hampshire didn’t have one at the time) and then the Republican party leaders would have to give him the nomination. And Roosevelt succeeded in that regard by winning 9 of the last 10 primaries. Taft won just one, with Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette winning two others.
However, Taft’s supporters still controlled the Republican party machinery. Taft dominated delegate selection in state caucuses and controlled the convention. Roosevelt’s supporters walked out when they realized that the deck was stacked against them. They formed their own party, which was officially dubbed the Progressive Party, although it is better known as the Bull Moose Party. (Hiram Johnson of California was Roosevelt’s running mate.)
On the Democratic side, the party, tiring of the vapid populism of William Jennings Bryan (who lost three times), had taken a shine to a former Princeton University president, Woodrow Wilson, who had been elected Governor of New Jersey in 1910. Speaker of the House Champ Clark was the favorite candidate of the Washington crowd.
The Democratic convention took 46 ballots to nominate Wilson, who trailed Clark most of the time, until Bryan threw his support to Wilson late in the game. Thomas Marshall of Indiana was nominated for Vice President.
Chace gives a lot of space to Socialist candidate Eugene Debs, almost writing more about him than Wilson, and certainly more than Taft. Labor tensions were very high at the time and socialism was not yet anathema to the American political scene.
Roosevelt campaigned on a platform which he dubbed “the New Nationalism.” Roosevelt’s plan would be considered bold even today. Roosevelt wanted to establish a national health insurance plan (mostly for the elderly), set up a plan for the recall of judges (but not Supreme Court justices) who handed down decisions the people disagreed with, as well as increasing government regulation of business.
Wilson countered Roosevelt with a plan known as “the New Freedom.” Wilson’s plan was somewhat progressive, although not as much as Roosevelt’s. The centerpiece of The New Freedom was the establishment of a national banking system, which would ultimately become the Federal Reserve System. Wilson tried to present himself as an intellectual and progressive, while trying to make people forget that he espoused segregation and in a recent book described Eastern European immigrants as inferior to others.
Taft didn’t campaign much, figuring that he was doomed. But, he knew that as long as he was in the race, it would be nearly impossible for Roosevelt to win. So, he had that. Taft’s Vice President, James Sherman, died in late October, and he was replaced by a different Ivy League president, Columbia’s Nicholas Murray Butler.
Roosevelt almost didn’t make it through the campaign as he was shot by a potential assassin in Milwaukee. Fortunately for Roosevelt, the wound was not serious nor did it cause a serious infection.
The election was not particularly close. Wilson won the popular vote with a little over 6 million votes, although it was only 41% of the total because of the three-way race. Roosevelt won 27% of the vote and Taft won 21%. Wilson won 40 of the 48 states, Roosevelt won 6, and Taft won just 2 (Vermont and Utah). Taft holds the distinction of having the worst showing of any incumbent President in terms of Electoral Vote totals and Popular Vote percentage.
The Progressive Era is one of the most fascinating times in American History. Nearly everything in America changed. Women’s suffrage was on its way in. Support for Prohibition was growing. Immigration from Eastern Europe was transforming American cities. If you just want a brief overview, this book will suffice, but it seems that there could have been much more.
There is no person whose has been President who led a life that seems like it came out of a work of fiction more than Theodore Roosevelt. It seemed apropos that a novelist, Louis Auchincloss (The Rector of Justinamong many other titles) wrote this biography of a larger than life figure.
Theodore Roosevelt was a President that America seemed to need. After Abraham Lincoln’s death in 1865, the Presidency had passed through the hands of men who ranged from highly capable to grossly incompetent. Even a Civil War hero like Ulysses Grant could not elevate the office to the same stature that it had in Lincoln’s time.
It took a man, born of privilege, but who still took nothing for granted in life, to bring the United States fully up to the level of a world power on par with the British and French. It took a man who could bring together upper crust New Yorkers and rough-edged Westerners into a cohesive fighting unit, for one day of military success. A triumph that would propel him to the White House.
Theodore Roosevelt was born on October 27, 1858 in New York City. His father, also named Theodore (as an adult, President Theodore Roosevelt did not use the “Junior” suffix), did not serve in the Union Army in the Civil War, instead buying a replacement. This was a source of great embarrassment to young Theodore, who felt his father, whom he idolized, displayed cowardice.
As a child, Roosevelt was plagued with debilitating asthma attacks. There was no effective treatment for that condition at that time, aside from just being propped up in a chair. The condition made it difficult for Roosevelt to attend school on a regular basis.
In an effort to improve his physical condition, young Theodore Roosevelt took up boxing. This led to a lifelong interest in physical fitness, as well as a love of the outdoors. Roosevelt called this “the vigorous life.”
Through home schooling, Roosevelt was able to develop a sufficient background to get himself admitted to Harvard in 1876. He proved to be an excellent student, devouring knowledge in seemingly every field. Roosevelt had an encyclopedic knowledge of literature, and was also well-versed in geography, the natural sciences, and history. After graduating from Harvard, Roosevelt would write a book, the Naval War of 1812.
In 1878, while at Harvard, Theodore Roosevelt’s father passed away at age 47 from a form of colon cancer. Young Theodore missed seeing his father before he passed away, and always regretted it. As it would turn out, tragedy would stalk him much of his life. It is amazing that he was able to overcome it.
Theodore Roosevelt married Alice Lee in 1880 and seemed to be a happy couple. Roosevelt had carefully picked out his wife, wanting only a woman of the finest breeding, as well as one who was a virgin. He was strongly opposed to sex outside of a marriage. However, he was a big supporter of sex in marriage and believed it was every person’s duty to have as many children as possible.
Alice became pregnant in 1883 and gave birth to a daughter, also named Alice, on February 12, 1884. Two days later, the new mother passed away from kidney failure. On the same day, Roosevelt’s mother passed away as well as from typhoid fever. Roosevelt never spoke about his first wife to anyone ever again, even to his daughter.
In response to these tragedies, Roosevelt decided not to run for reelection to the New York State Assembly (where he had begun to build his resume as a reformer) and moved out to his ranch, Elk Horn, in the Dakota Territory. He spent time living a life that would seem to be too fantastic for even a Hollywood Western. Roosevelt caught a group of thieves and marched them back through the wilderness for a week until he could turn them over to the nearest law enforcement authority.
Roosevelt returned to the political arena later in 1884, making an appearance at the Republican National Convention. He held his nose and endorsed James Blaine for the nomination, even though he could not stand Blaine’s policies. Roosevelt felt that politically, he could not go out on a limb just yet.
In 1886, Roosevelt had his ups and downs. He ran for mayor of New York, but lost. But, he also remarried. Edith Carow was a childhood acquaintance of Roosevelt. The two married in London. They would have five children together.
Roosevelt then served in a series of political jobs that burnished his image as a reformer. He also was a member of the Federal Civil Service Commission from 1888 through 1895. He then moved on to become the Police Commissioner of New York. Roosevelt would walk the beats of officers and often find them asleep. He completely revamped the police force. (It is not known if alarm clocks were part of the revamping.)
The election of William McKinley as President in 1896 would give Roosevelt his chance to shine. He was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The Secretary of the Navy, John T. Long, was getting on in years and not an active manager of the department. Roosevelt took this opportunity to push across a plan to improve the Navy. He knew that a war with Spain over Cuba was likely. Roosevelt, when Long was on vacation, ordered the Pacific fleet to Manila Bay in the Philippines in preparation for the war. When war was declared, the Navy, under Admiral George Dewey, immediately scored a major victory over the Spanish fleet and kept other European powers from joining the fray.
Roosevelt did not want to sit out of the fighting in the Spanish-American War. So, he managed to get the Army to let him create his regiment, which would be known as the Rough Riders. The unit was a mixture of Western cowboys and wealthy New York scions. Although they trained to fight on horseback, they could not bring the horses to Cuba.
In what turned out to be the single biggest ground action of the war, Roosevelt led his men in a charge up San Juan Hill on July 1, 1898. Going up against heavy Spanish fire, Roosevelt and his men captured the hill. And, in turn, captured the imagination of the American public.
Roosevelt knew that malaria was an even bigger enemy than the Spanish. He quickly got his men sent back to the United States. Roosevelt came back and was elected governor of New York later in the year. Two years later, Roosevelt was elected Vice-President alongside McKinley. And on September 13, 1901, McKinley died from his gunshot wound seven days earlier. At age 42, Roosevelt was now the youngest President in American history. In the words of Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, a conservative Republican, “that damned cowboy is in the White House.”
After five years of solid, although perhaps not awe-inspiring, leadership from McKinley, America now had a dynamic man in the White House who wanted to get things done. And, he would do so.
Roosevelt soon faced a major strike by coal miners. Labor relations at this time were summed up by one coal corporation executive, “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for — not by labor agitators but by the Christian men to whom God in his infinite wisdom has given control of the property interests of the country.” Roosevelt ended up threatening to have the Army to operate the mines if a settlement could not be reached. The mine operators agreed to binding arbitration.
The hot button political issue of Roosevelt’s time was the influence of corporations. Antitrust laws were routinely skirted by railroads, oil companies, and financiers. Roosevelt decided to go after one trust, known as the Northern Securities Company. It was a holding company that controlled two railways (the Northern Pacific and the Union Pacific) along with J.P. Morgan’s investment house. The company had a value, in 1902 dollars of $400 million. That would be about $9.5 billion today.
Roosevelt had the Justice Department prosecute Northern Securities for violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Morgan was outraged. He felt that Roosevelt should have just negotiated with him personally. Roosevelt was having none of that.
Ultimately, the government prevailed in the Supreme Court, although Roosevelt did not get the broad interpretation of the Sherman Act that he wanted. Nevertheless, the days of corporate mergers on a grand scale were over. So says, the guy who has a checking account at a bank that is owned by the House of Morgan. Roosevelt would pick up the nickname “The Trust Buster.”
In 1903, Roosevelt sent Secretary of State John Hay to Colombia to negotiate a treaty that would allow the United States to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. The Colombian Senate would not ratify the deal, upsetting Roosevelt.
Around this same time, French engineer Philippe Bunau-Varilla was still trying to push the idea of a Panama Canal in the United States. But without Colombia’s cooperation, the United States and Bunau-Varilla had to take a different approach. So, an independence movement in Panama sprung up. The United States backed the Panamanians with a naval force. The Republic of Panama came into existence on November 3, 1903. Bunau-Varilla offered himself up to the Panamanians to serve as their minister to the United States. On November 6, 1903, the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty granted the United States the right to build a canal.
Construction on the canal would begin in 1907. Roosevelt would become the first sitting President to leave the United States when he made a visit to the site. In his usual style, he asked to operate a large steam shovel to help do some excavation. The Panama Canal would not open until 1914.
Roosevelt ran for election in his own right in 1904. Prior to that time, no Vice President who had assumed the Presidency because of a death had been elected. Usually, the former VPs were not even considered. Roosevelt was different. He had become the most popular man in the country.
The Democrats had little to offer in opposition to Roosevelt. New York Appellate Judge Alton Parker was given the unenviable task of taking on Roosevelt. It was no contest. Roosevelt won with 56% of the vote and 336 electoral votes. Upon his election, Roosevelt pledged to not run for another term in office. That statement would come back to haunt him.
In his one full term, Roosevelt was still a whirlwind of activity. In 1905, Roosevelt brokered a peace treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War. For his efforts, Roosevelt won a Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1906, Roosevelt had the United States participate in a multinational conference in Algeciras, Spain to sort out how the European colonies in North Africa would be governed. The Kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm II, made a personal appeal to Roosevelt to help reduce tensions. The conference only ended up delaying the onset of World War I.
Some of the territories that the United States occupied after the war with Spain were granted independence or autonomy in Roosevelt’s time, in particular, Cuba. However, the Philippines remained a troublesome spot. A bloody insurgency, which the United States tried to stem with often brutal methods, persisted throughout Roosevelt’s Administration.
Roosevelt also oversaw a major buildup in American naval forces. To demonstrate this, Roosevelt dispatched a fleet of newly constructed battleships (“The Great White Fleet”) to take an around the world journey to show that America was now a world power on a par with Britain, France, Russia, and Japan.
On the domestic front, Roosevelt brought the issue of conservation to the forefront. Roosevelt established the United States Forest Service, created five National Parks, and 18 National Monuments. Roosevelt’s attitude toward forests was that they were a resource that could be managed and preserved.
In response to the publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, which exposed unsanitary practices in the food industry (even if that was not Sinclair’s main point in writing the book), Roosevelt pushed for the Pure Food and Drug Act to regulate the industry.
Roosevelt had pushed the Republican Party farther to the left than many in the party felt comfortable with. However, Roosevelt’s enormous popularity made it hard to stop him.
When Roosevelt left office in 1908, he anointed William Howard Taft as his successor. Roosevelt and Taft were good friends and the former hoped the latter would further extend his policies. But, William Taft was not Theodore Roosevelt. He was far more conservative. Friction between the two men began almost as soon as the election of 1908 was over.
Roosevelt departed the political scene for a period. He went on safari in Africa. He toured Europe. He thought he would be happy being a respected world figure.
But, it was not enough. By 1912, Roosevelt had completely broken with Taft and decided to run against his successor for the Republican nomination. However, Roosevelt made his decision too late. Taft was able to secure enough delegates to win the nomination. Roosevelt would not quit. His supporters bolted the Republican Party and formed the Progressive Party.
During the campaign, Roosevelt was shot in an assassination attempt in Milwaukee. The bullet was slowed down by the papers that Roosevelt had in his jacket to use for a speech. Despite his wound, Roosevelt insisted on delivering his speech. During the speech, Roosevelt said “it takes more than that [a bullet] to kill a bull moose.” And so, Roosevelt’s supporters became known as the Bull Moose Party. (The bullet was not removed from Roosevelt’s body, but he had to shut down his campaign for the final few weeks.)
The split in the Republican Party handed the 1912 election to the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt’s 27.4% of the popular vote was the best showing by a third party candidate in the 20th Century. Wilson was everything Roosevelt was not. Wilson was not an advocate of the “vigorous life.” Wilson was dour. Wilson worked in academia. Roosevelt was a man of action. He fought in a war. He inspired men to do great things. Roosevelt never respected Wilson.
With politics closed off to him, Roosevelt went on another journey. He led an expedition to explore a Brazilian river called The River of Doubt (it’s now called Rio Roosevelt.) During the expedition, Roosevelt almost died from an infection in one of his legs. His health would never be good again after the trip.
When World War I began in 1914, Roosevelt cajoled Wilson into getting America involved on the side of the Allies. He could not tolerate Wilson’s cautious plan of neutrality. Once the United States finally did enter the war in 1917, Roosevelt asked Wilson if he could form his own unit like he did in the Spanish-American War. Wilson declined the offer. Wilson did not want to run the risk of having someone like Roosevelt criticizing him in the field. Also, Wilson could tell that Roosevelt was not in the best of health.
Some of Roosevelt’s sons fought in the war. His youngest son, Quentin, served as a pilot and died when he was shot down behind German lines. Roosevelt was crushed both emotionally and physically by this.
Roosevelt still hoped to run for the White House one more time in 1920. But, on January 6, 1919, Theodore Roosevelt died in his sleep of a heart attack. His health had been compromised by rheumatism, malaria, and the leg infection he picked up in Brazil. Theodore Roosevelt, the youngest man ever to be President, died at the age of 60.
It is hard not to find a good biography of Theodore Roosevelt. His life is so rich that historians constantly write about him. If Theodore Roosevelt lived today, there would probably be a “Facts of Theodore Roosevelt” website along the lines of “Chuck Norris Facts.”
Auchincloss starts off his biography of Roosevelt by trying to immediately present him as a flawed individual. This serves to make Roosevelt’s life seem even more remarkable because you realize that he was just a regular person like each one of us. Auchincloss has a portrait of Roosevelt that is respectful, not fantastic.
Theodore Roosevelt, more so than any other President, transformed the office of President. He transformed the nation. Was he a perfect man? No, but none of us are.
For nearly all of us, Theodore Roosevelt is almost a mythical figure. And he very well may have been the last President to achieve that status.
Since Roosevelt passed away in 1919, the only President to die of natural causes who was younger than Roosevelt (60 years and 71 days) was Warren Harding, who was 57 years and 273 days old, when he passed away in 1923.
While many kids grew up with toy soldiers, my childhood featured a set of plastic toy Presidents. (And much to my glee, a complete set is on display at the Smithsonian now. It includes an intact Lyndon Johnson. Our LBJ was missing part of his right arm. The family set remains, as it has since 1970, in a Pangburn’s Frappe Creams box. It is presently at my brother’s home in Clayton, Missouri. You can make an appointment to see them.) While these should have been educational toys for my brothers and I, we tended to use them to set up football plays. When forming teams, Taft and Cleveland were almost always used as linemen, but so was William McKinley. He just looked so big.
As it turned out, McKinley wasn’t a big guy. He was actually just 5’7″ and probably didn’t weigh all that much. I really should have been using McKinley as a wide receiver or a running back.
So, what is the point of this introductory story? After reading Kevin Phillips’ biography of McKinley, it seems that there was a lot I didn’t know about our 25th President. Have I spent my whole life completely misunderstanding the life of William McKinley? And if I have, does anyone care? If you don’t care, presumably you’ll stop reading.
OK. Now, I’ll continue for those who might care or just aren’t reading carefully.
I had been taught that McKinley was little more than a tool of Big Business, who used him as a puppet to line their pockets. I was also led to believe that McKinley also started the United States on an imperialist path because he was cowed into it by a sensationalist press. Finally, I knew McKinley had been assassinated in 1901, and a young Theodore Roosevelt took over and brought America to true greatness.
However, Phillips thinks that McKinley has been greatly underestimated by historians. He argues that McKinley was much more independent minded than people gave him credit for. McKinley was not the last President before the Progressive movement swept the country; rather, he was the first Progressive President, according to Phillips. Only an untimely assassination early in his second term prevented McKinley from taking his place alongside the likes of Jefferson, Jackson, and the two Roosevelts.
William McKinley was born on January 29, 1843 in Niles, Ohio. He attended both Mount Union and Allegheny Colleges, but did not receive a degree from either institution. When the Civil War began, McKinley enlisted. One of the officers McKinley served under was future president Rutherford Hayes. By the time war ended, McKinley had been promoted from private all the way to brevet major. McKinley’s Civil War experiences would help to shape his future.
During the war, McKinley became well-known among Ohio Republicans. McKinley attended law school in Albany, New York and started up a practice back home in Canton, Ohio.
While in Canton, McKinley met and married a wealthy woman, Ida Saxton. The couple had two children who died young. These deaths, combined with the death of Ida’s mother, turned out to be both a physical and mental strain on Ida. She developed a form of epilepsy and was bed-ridden for most of the rest of her life. When she would venture out in public, she would frequently have a seizure. William would cover her face with a napkin and carry her out of the room. William would be intensely, yet quietly devoted to Ida for the rest of his life.
By 1877, McKinley had won a seat in the House of Representatives. He served until 1891; although, he was out of office for one term starting in 1883.
In his final term in the House, McKinley was chairman of the House Ways and Mean Committee. He authored a protective tariff bill that bore his name in 1890. McKinley actually didn’t like the finished product all that much. But, McKinley supported the bill anyway. However, the high tariffs in the bill proved unpopular at the ballot box. In the 1891 election, McKinley was voted out of office.
However, McKinley wasn’t out of politics for long as he was quickly elected Governor of Ohio later in the year. He was sworn into office in 1892.
McKinley surprised some in office with his support for the plight of a group of starving coal miners. They had sent a telegram to him describing their plight. McKinley was moved and marshaled State resources to help the miners and their families. McKinley also started a statewide charity drive to help others in need.
Around the same time, McKinley was also in dire financial straits personally. A loan he had given a friend had gone bad, and McKinley was now facing a debt of over $100,000. However, thanks to the financial resources of Ida (whose money was tied up in a trust) and the help of many of Ohio’s major businessmen, including Marcus Hanna, McKinley was able to avoid bankruptcy.
Some had already thought of McKinley as a Presidential candidate back in 1892; but, McKinley knew that 1896 would be a better time to run. Also, McKinley did not want to look disloyal to Republican party faithfuls by unseating a Republican incumbent, Benjamin Harrison.
1896 would be a good year for Republicans. The main reason for this was that the country had entered into a deep recession starting in 1893 (the Panic of 1893 as it was called.) The Democratic party was being taken over by candidates who wanted to increase the use of silver over gold as currency. However, at the time, silver was far more plentiful than gold and the Democratic plan would have led to a high rate of inflation.
The Democrats nominated a previously little known Nebraska Representative named William Jennings Bryan as their candidate for President. Bryan had delivered a stirring address where he said, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
Bryan was the first nominee of either major party in the United States to run a campaign that was targeted almost exclusively at the lower classes. He viewed the election as a battle between the forces of good in rural areas against those of evil in the cities. “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”
McKinley won the Republican nomination easily. He and his advisors decided not to try to match Bryan’s oratorical feats on the campaign trail. Instead, McKinley ran a “front porch” campaign. Crowds of supporters trained into Canton to listen to the Republican nominee.
The Election of 1896 would be a pivotal one in American history. McKinley triumphed with 51.1% of the popular vote, and winning in the Electoral College by a margin of 271-176. McKinley was able to hold on to a few key states in the Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and North Dakota) and the West (California and Oregon) to win the election. The United States was not going down a populist path.
Soon after taking office, McKinley began to firm up American support for the gold standard. The economy began to improve. The growing economy needed markets to sell its goods. The United States was going to need foreign markets to take more exports.
The popular way of achieving this at the time was to take over some distant point on the globe. European powers were carving up Africa and parts of Asia. The United States needed to get into the act.
The first place the United States aimed to add was Hawai’i. The island group had overthrown its monarchy during the second Grover Cleveland administration and wanted to be annexed by the U.S. Cleveland did not feel this was right; but, McKinley had no reservations. By 1898, Hawai’i had become a U.S. territory.
Closer to home, there were rumblings in Cuba. An insurgency by Cubans against the ruling Spanish authority had gathered sympathy in the United States. The Spanish began to gather Cubans from the countryside and put them into what were called “concentration camps.” (At the time, this phrase did not have the same implication as it would during World War II. It just meant that there were a lot of people in one place.)
McKinley had ordered the Navy to protect U.S. interests in Cuba. The battleship Maine was in the harbor in Havana on February 15, 1898, when it exploded. The ship was destroyed and 267 men were killed.
American public opinion blamed Spain for the loss of life. Whether or not this was true is still hotly debated. However, McKinley was put into a position where he could no longer ignore Spanish atrocities in Cuba once they were combined with the deaths of American sailors.
Some wanted McKinley to ask for a declaration of war immediately. But, McKinley waited until April before asking Congress to declare war. This allowed American forces to gather themselves and prepare for war. McKinley feared that other European powers, namely Germany, would come to Spain’s aid.
However, that was not the case. The Navy was already in position in Manila to wipe out the Spanish fleet there when war was finally declared. Spanish troops in Cuba were easily beaten by a small American force. The war began on April 25, 1898 and was over on August 12. The United States ended up with control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.
More importantly, the United States Navy had grown from being the 12th largest in the world to the second largest, behind only Great Britain. The United States had served notice that it was a world power.
The popular view of the Spanish-American War was that McKinley vacillated before declaring war, and only overwhelming public opinion, and the influence of pro-war Cabinet members, such as Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, pushed McKinley into going to war. Phillips argues that McKinley was well aware of the situation, but only wanted war as a last resort. His Civil War experience had stayed with him. McKinley was greatly relieved that there were few casualties in this war.
In the 1898 midterm elections, McKinley and the Republicans lost just 19 seats, a good mark for that era. The Republicans still enjoyed a healthy 187-161 majority in the House. (There were nine Representatives from other parties.)
McKinley was personally popular. He pushed for higher tariffs, but on a more scientific basis. He wanted high tariffs only in areas that would help promote American business. In some areas, he wanted lower tariffs in order to help Americans buy cheaper goods. He also pushed to set up a series of reciprocal trade agreements with other countries. The last goal would not be achieved during his time in office, however.
After the war, McKinley made two key changes to his Cabinet. John Hay took over as Secretary of State and Elihu Root became Secretary of War. Both men were capable diplomats and administrators. McKinley had originally staffed the job with political appointees, John Sherman and Russell Alger. When McKinley saw that neither man was up to the job, he eased them out. Hay and Root’s influences on American foreign policy would persist into the 1950s.
By the time the 1900 Election rolled around, it was evident that it was going to be a rematch of 1896. Bryan was still the Democratic nominee. McKinley had to find a new running mate. Garret Hobart, his Vice President, had passed away in 1899.
The Republican leaders wanted McKinley to choose Secretary of the Navy John Long. But, McKinley had his eye on New York Governor Thedore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, after famously serving in the Spanish-American War, had made enemies in New York with a property tax plan that many thought was just a scheme to redistribute wealth. However, the plan was popular among most New Yorkers. McKinley told the Republican Convention that he didn’t want Long as his running mate. Instead, he hinted that it should be Roosevelt. And so it was.
With a healthy amount of political capital gained from a successful war, a booming economy, and a friendly Congress, McKinley likely had big plans for his second term, according to Phillips. McKinley was preparing a plan to go after business trusts, which he felt were undemocratic and anti-competitive. McKinley also was hoping to ease tensions between management and labor.
At the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, McKinley made a speech pushing for reciprocal trade agreements, one of his favorite issues. The day after the speech, September 6, 1901, McKinley went to shake hands with the crowd. One of the people in the crowd was a man named Leon Czolgosz, a Michigan native with anarchist sympathies. Czolgosz had concealed a revolver under a handkerchief. He fired twice at McKinley. The second bullet lodged deeply in McKinley, hitting several vital organs.
Although there was an X-ray machine available at the site, the device was in its infancy and no one knew if using it to find the bullet would cause more harm than good. McKinley lingered for eight days, passing away on September 14, 1901. Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as the 26th President, the youngest man (42 years old) to ever hold the office.
Phillips argues that if McKinley had not been assassinated, he would have accomplished just as much as Roosevelt did during his administration. McKinley’s problem was that he left a very short paper trail of his plans. McKinley’s thoughts about what he planned to do in his second term are very sketchy. Theodore Roosevelt followed most of McKinley’s policies, except that he was a far more charismatic figure. Phillips also asserts that Roosevelt did not push for any reciprocal trade agreements because he didn’t understand the issue as well as McKinley did.
The issue of America becoming a colonial power is one that is even more problematic. Phillips believes that it was a necessity for the U.S. to become one, both for strategic and economic reasons. Phillips asserts that McKinley tried his best to make the move as peacefully as possible. However, a bloody insurrection in the Philippines that would last for years past McKinley’s death may be evidence against that. Nevertheless, both Democratic (Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman) and Republican (Theodore Roosevelt) made the U.S. a world power. McKinley was the President who started the country on that path.
The best evidence for McKinley’s influence on American history is the legacy of his appointees. In an appendix, Phillips lists people appointed by or associated with McKinley who went on to greater fame. Besides Roosevelt, Hay, and Root, there was also McKinley’s secretary, George Corteylou, who would serve as the first Secretary of Commerce and Labor. Charles Dawes was Comptroller of the Currency under McKinley and would later win a Nobel Peace Prize for his plan to restructure Europe’s World War I debts and serve as Vice President under Calvin Coolidge. (There are 12 total listed by Phillips.)
However, McKinley has never been ascribed the fame in history that Phillips wish he had earned. The bright light of Theodore Roosevelt makes it difficult to appreciate William McKinley. This was even true during McKinley’s time as the linked cartoon seems to indicate. Also, the biggest political issue of McKinley’s era, the primacy of the gold standard, was made a nonissue after the Great Depression.
Phillips tries to make McKinley’s accomplishments out to be earth shattering, but not everyone might believe it. It’s hard to look back at McKinley and see if he had, in the words of George H.W. Bush, “the vision thing.” Theodore Roosevelt definitely did. McKinley worked quietly and often behind the scenes. And no matter what Phillips writes, McKinley will likely remain behind the scenes for most of us.
Theodore Roosevelt ended up on Mount Rushmore. William McKinley perhaps should have had a better fate than ending up as an offensive lineman in a game of toy presidents played by nerdy kids growing up in the San Fernando Valley.
The highest point in the United States is often referred to as Mount McKinley, although the native Athabaskan name of Denali is now also used to describe the 20,320 feet high peak in Alaska.
William McKinley was the first incumbent U.S. president to visit California. He was making plans to become the first president to visit outside the country before he died. Thedore Roosevelt would be the first U.S. President to visit a foreign country, Panama.
Woodrow Wilson was a President so full of promise to many in America, that it seemed shocking how dismally his eight years in office ended. The United States went from being a Great Power to being the Greatest Power while he was in office. But, despite all the lofty ambitions Wilson brought with him, his time as President was also marked by violent upheavals in all parts of society. The United States was a drastically different place from the time Wilson was inaugurated in 1913 than it was when he left in 1921.
II. Growing Up
The 28th President was born Thomas Woodrow Wilson on December 28, 1858 in Staunton, Virginia. His father was a Presbyterian minister who moved his family throughout various cities in the South. Young Thomas struggled with dyslexia through much of his childhood. Wilson originally attended college at Davidson, but didn’t like it there and dropped out. His father then pulled some strings and got his son admitted to the College of New Jersey (which would eventually become Princeton University). Wilson concentrated on the study of politics and wrote a senior thesis arguing that the President’s Cabinet should be responsible to Congress, as is the case in Britain.
Upon graduation from Princeton, Wilson enrolled in the University of Virginia to study law. Wilson didn’t like the study of law much and dropped out before finishing his studies; although, he would open a law practice for a brief period. Ultimately, Wilson opted to go back to school, enrolling in Johns Hopkins University’s relatively new doctorate program. He earned a Ph.D. in 1886. While in the process of earning that degree (the only President to hold such a degree), Wilson taught at Bryn Mawr College. He also authored Congressional Government, which would become an influential book in political science in its time. Wilson managed to write his book on Congress without ever once visiting Washington and observing Congress in action. But, he became an expert nonetheless.
III. From Ph.D. to the Presidency
Wilson, who dropped the name Thomas and just went by Woodrow sometime in the 1880s, moved on to Princeton to teach. He was one of the most popular lecturers on campus. His class on American government was THE class to take for upperclassmen. Wilson’s popularity among both students and faculty eventually got him promoted all the way to university president in 1902. Wilson, although a poor fundraiser, still managed to raise the profile of Princeton nationally. He became one of the most respected men in America. And, the Democratic party saw him as a Presidential material. He was sympathetic to the Progressive movement; but, he also would appeal to the Democrat’s base in the South because of his upbringing.
There was one problem, though. Wilson had never held elective office. To remedy that situation, Wilson stepped down from his Princeton job to run for governor of New Jersey in 1910. He won that election easily, and almost immediately began campaigning for President in 1912. The Republican party split in 1912 between the conservatives, led by President William Howard Taft, and the Progressives, led by former President Theodore Roosevelt. Taft won the Republican nomination. So, Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate. The beneficiary of all this was Wilson, who won the election fairly easily. Although Wilson won just 41.8% of the popular vote, he ended up with 435 electoral votes, the highest total recorded up to that time.
IV. Shaking Things Up
Calling his domestic policies “The New Freedom,” Wilson shook up the establishment in Washington. He ended the tradition of Presidents not addressing Congress in person. Since Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, Presidents had communicated with Congress by sending a written message. But, Wilson presented himself to a joint session of Congress in April of 1913 to tell that body that he was ready to work with them to get things done. And, he felt it would be easier if they could talk to him face to face.
Wilson wanted to lower tariffs, feeling that high ones served only to protect corporate interests. To make up for the lost revenue from the tariffs, Wilson instituted an income tax (made possible by the 16th Amendment, which the Republicans had pushed through prior to Wilson taking office).
Additionally, Wilson started two government agencies that would have long lasting effect on the country. To help administer antitrust law, Wilson signed a bill establishing the Federal Trade Commission. And, to help bring more regulation and order to the banking industry, Wilson created the Federal Reserve System.
Wilson knew little about banking, but received a crash course from adviser Louis Brandeis. The Federal Reserve System established a series of regional banks, guided by a Board of Governors in Washington, that controlled the money supply, and oversaw banking regulations.
V. Jim Crow, Suffragettes, and Demon Rum
As a child of the Confederacy, Wilson didn’t forget his roots. Unfortunately, this meant that Wilson allowed Federal departments, most notably the Post Office, to segregate its workers. Wilson would oppose any type of civil rights legislation while President.
Wilson also faced an increasingly hostile women’s suffrage movement. Although Wilson never backed women’s suffrage, the 19th Amendment would eventually be ratified in 1920 toward the end of Wilson’s time in office, granting women the vote in all of the states.
Also, the Prohibition movement succeeded in getting the 18th Amendment ratified in 1920. Wilson was not a supporter of Prohibition. He vetoed the Volstead Act, which set up enforcement of Prohibition. This veto was subsequently overriden by Congress.
VI. Love Lost, Love Found
Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, passed away from kidney disease on August 6, 1914. The President’s grief was almost inconsolable. Wilson’s staff kept close tabs on him to make sure he didn’t try to hurt himself.
However, Wilson would meet someone new just six months after Ellen’s death. This woman, Edith Bolling Galt, was a widow who was prominent in Washington society. Wilson was quickly smitten with her. They would marry on December 18, 1915. Edith would become one of Woodrow Wilson’s most trusted advisers. Her role would be even more important in the final years of the Wilson administration. But, that would be getting ahead of the story.
VII. Trouble Brewing South Of The Border
One glaring gap in Wilson’s resume was foreign policy experience. Wilson knew little about the ways of diplomacy. His choice for Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, was a political appointment to keep Bryan’s wing of the Democratic Party happy.
Wilson soon faced a foreign policy crisis in his own neighborhood. Mexico was in a state of upheaval after longtime president Porfiro Diaz was overthrown in 1911. By 1913, Victoranio Huerta had managed to get himself installed as president.
However, Huerta refused to call for democratic elections. Wilson sent a series of emissaries to convince Huerta otherwise, but eventually gave up. Wilson sent in Army troops instead. General John Pershing led a force that landed at Veracruz that ended up leading to Huerta’s resignation. Wilson even tried forming alliances with Mexican Revolutionary figures such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. The former ended up splitting with the Carranza government (that was backed by the U.S.). Villa and his men would cause more headaches for Wilson.
VIII. Danger from Beneath
Although World War I began in August of 1914, Wilson didn’t think the United States would have much of a role in it at first, and that it would end quickly. This was either naive, or extremely wishful thinking on Wilson’s part.
As the two sides settled in to a long and bloody conflict, it was clear that the winner would be the side that either ran out of soldiers or money first. The United States had plenty of both at the time. Both sides needed U.S. goods to help them through the war. Since it was easier for the U.S. to ship goods to Britain rather than to Germany, the Allied Forces ended up getting the lion’s share of U.S. exports. Germany tried to get more money by asking the Wall Street firm of J.P. Morgan to help sell its war bonds; but, Wilson blocked that action.
Germany now felt that it had to stop the flow of U.S. goods into Great Britain by declaring the area around the island as a war zone. Any merchant ship suspected of carrying war materiel to Britain was subject to being sunk by German submarines.
This action by Germany represented a change in the way war had been conducted. People on ships that were sunk by submarines had little or no hope of rescue. The threat of a sudden attack made Atlantic crossings terrifying.
Hundreds of American lives were lost this way. Wilson’s first response was to issue a series of diplomatic notes to Germany, threatening all sorts of economic sanctions if it continued. Wilson did not wish to commit the U.S. to war as his reelection campaign was coming up in 1916.
IX. “He Kept Us Out of War”
Wilson’s opponent in 1916 was former Supreme Court justice Charles Evans Hughes. Although Theodore Roosevelt wished to run again, the Republicans felt that Hughes would present a slightly more moderate image than the bellicose Roosevelt, who was pushing for American entry into the war. One of Wilson’s campaign slogans was “He Kept Us Out of War.”
Hughes and the Republicans ran an especially poor campaign, rife with internal struggles over ideology. Wilson refused to attack Hughes during the campaign, remarking “One should not murder a man bent on committing suicide.” Nevertheless, Wilson won by a narrow margin in the popular vote (52-47) and by 23 in the Electoral vote (277-254). If Hughes had been able to carry California, which he lost by about 3,000 votes, he would have won.
X. About that war …
The British mounted an effective propaganda campaign against Germany in an attempt to rally American public opinion in favor of joining the war. British agents intercepted a message from German ambassador to the U.S., Arthur Zimmermann, that indicated that Germany hoped to get Mexico to join the war on the German side with the hope of reclaiming much of the American Southwest for Mexico.
Also, the Germans stepped up their submarine warfare, sinking several more American ships. By April of 1917, Wilson had come to the conclusion that the U.S. had to enter the war on the Allied side. Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war on April 2, 1917. It was approved four days later.
It took several months for the Americans to be able to send any troops to Europe. The Army was relatively small, with most of the fulltime soldiers occupied with matters in Mexico. Wilson asked Congress to allow conscription to swell the ranks. This was the first time conscription had been used since the Civil War.
There were many protests against conscription. Wilson and the Justice Department did not hesitate to prosecute anyone opposing the war effort. The nascent Communist Party was a favorite target of the Federal government.
Wilson also sent some troops to Russia in 1917 in an attempt to reverse the course of the Russian Revolution. That was … not successful.
XI. Why I’m Using These Numbers
Wilson was confident that the Allies (officially, Wilson said that the U.S. was not part of the Allies. He preferred the term “associate”) would win the war. And, before the bulk of the American forces arrived, Wilson issued his famous “Fourteen Points.” The two most important points were that secret treaties should be prohibited and that a permanent multinational peacekeeping organization (call it a “League of Nations”) should be established to maintain the peace.
French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau famously remarked (repeated in various forms) “Mr. Wilson bores me with his Fourteen Points; why, God Almighty has only Ten!”
Wilson was correct in thinking that the war would be over. American troops proved to be fresh enough to be allow the Allies to break the German lines. The war ended on November 11, 1918. Now all that was left to do was negotiate a peace treaty. What could possibly go wrong with that?
XII. It All Went Wrong
The Palace of Versailles would be the site of the peace negotiations. Wilson decided to travel there himself, an unprecedented move for an American president. Normally, such matters were reserved for Secretaries of State or specially appointed ministers. But, Wilson wasn’t going to allow such important business to be handled by his underlings. Wilson was received by huge throngs in Europe. He was, at the time, the most popular man on the planet.
But, Wilson could not translate his popularity into negotiating skill. He was not open to compromise. But, Clemenceau and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George weren’t open to compromise either. Wilson wanted relatively generous conditions for peace with Germany. The French and British wanted Germany to pay. And pay. And pay some more. And to give up territory. And then pay some more.
Eventually, Wilson would get his League of Nations, with a promise of collective security for all members, but he gave in on reparations. Wilson sailed back home to the U.S. expecting the treaty to be warmly received.
XIII. Irreconcilable Differences
Wilson presented his treaty to the Senate, expecting quick ratification. That was not to be. Senate Republicans, led by Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, knew they had enough votes to block the treaty. The League of Nations horrified many Americans, who had no desire to see the country get involved in world disputes to which it was not a party.
Lodge delayed the vote on the treaty through the spring of 1919. (He started off by reading the entire treaty aloud into the record. That took two weeks.) Public opinion began to grow against the treaty. So, Wilson decided to take his plea to the people and embarked on a whistlestop campaign throughout the country. Republican senators, known as the “Irreconcilables,” dogged Wilson giving speeches counter to his position.
During the strenouous tour, Wilson took ill. Plagued much of his life by high blood pressure, Wilson suffered a massive stroke. He had to cancel the rest of the tour. Wilson had had several small strokes during his lifetime which had resulted in temporary paralysis of one of his hands. When he was in France for the treaty negotiations, on one day, Wilson suddenly asked an aid to help him rearrange the furniture in a particular room because he thought the green and red furniture were fighting with each other. It’s quite possible that Wilson may have been in a compromised state of health during the negotiations.
XIV. An Unhappy Ending
Wilson was left almost totally incapicitated by his stroke. Edith Wilson, along with personal aid Joseph Tumulty and physician Cary Grayson, kept Wilson’s condition hidden from almost everyone. Vice President Thomas Marshall was kept away from Wilson. Secretary of State Robert Lansing (who had succeeded Bryan in 1915) publicly asked if the President was competent.
Although no one knows for certain what was going on, there is enough evidence to think that Edith Wilson made many of the day-to-day decisions of the President. Tumulty also assisted in the decision making. Wilson was well enough to get messages to the Senate demanding that the Treaty of Versailles be approved as is, without any reservations or amendments. Wilson did not wish to see his beloved League of Nations be tossed aside.
However, the treaty would never gather enough votes for ratification, not even earning a majority, let alone the necessary 2/3 vote. Wilson entertained the idea of submitting the treaty to the people as part of a national referendum, but that proved Constitutionally impossible.
Wilson served out his term in isolation. He was not well enough to attend the inauguration of his successor, Warren Harding. Surprisingly, Wilson outlived Harding. Harding passed away on August 2, 1923. Wilson died in Washington, DC on February 3, 1924.
Other stuff: The author of this book is a professor at Texas A&M University; but, he lives in Austin.