The Green Papers
The Green Papers

Defeat Snatched From the Jaws of Victory more than a century ago

Wed 28 Oct 2020

There seems to be much concern about the Presidential Election here in the United States next week: anxious questions abound. For example: will votes that should be counted actually all get counted? Then again, will votes that should not get counted be, nonetheless, counted?... and so on, and so on...

One of the concerns I have read, seen and heard- from more than a few supporters of both Major Party candidates for President- former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump- involves uncertainty over what is likely to happen should the early returns coming in during Election Night suggest one candidate might have won, only to have more and more absentee and/or mail-in ballot returns come in over the course of time thereafter and, in the end, indicate the "other guy" might have actually won. There is also much concern that supporters of the "other guy" (from the perspective of the individual so concerned) might not accept their own guy having not won the election in just such a case.

Obviously, I cannot speak to just what the future might bring; I can only look at History as at least something of a guide. We, in our own time, tend to be spoiled when it comes to American Presidential Elections: other than, of course, something along the lines of the anomaly that was the 2000 "hanging chad" Bush vs. Gore election (the first election ever dealt with by The Green Papers, by the way; yes, I'm still scarred!), we all expect that- certainly no later than the morning (or, at most, early afternoon) of the day following Election Day- we will know who the President-(and Vice President-)elect (or, perhaps, re-elected) will be. An uncertain outcome, over the course of even a few days, is most unusual in this day and age (which is precisely why the five weeks of 'Florida, Florida- Florida!' twenty years ago now was most disconcerting).

Yet American Political History does provide at least a handful of examples of what is likely to happen when we don't wake up next day after an election to an already determined result (or, at least, to a day during which we can be sure a result will, by end of day, be so determined); and one such example is to be found in the Presidential Election of 1916 in which it, at first, appeared that one presidential candidate might have won, only to then have it discerned- as more and more votes were counted- that the other guy was, indeed, the victor!

Back in 1916, there were a total of 531 Electoral Votes (as there were then 96 United States Senators from the then-48 States, plus 435 members of the House of Representatives-- those living in the Nation's Capital, the District of Columbia, could not yet vote for President at all; and, of course, Alaska and Hawaii were both still Territories- also not entitled to vote for President- in 1916): to be constitutionally elected President of the United States, a candidate had to win a Majority of these (at least 266 all told).

The Democratic Party nominee for President that year was the incumbent in the White House, Woodrow Wilson, who had won the 1912 Presidential Election in large part because of the rather nasty split, within the Republican Party four years earlier, between then-incumbent President William Howard Taft and his one-time mentor, former President Theodore Roosevelt (indeed, because of T R's forces having "bolted" the Grand Old Party in 1912 as the Progressive 'Bull Moose' Party, the Electoral Vote that time round ended up being split between three different men whom History would be able to look back upon as Presidents of the United States!). Because of this GOP schism, Wilson ended up with an Electoral Vote landslide of 435; T R would take 88, leaving only 8 Presidential Electors to the humiliated (and now outgoing) President Taft.

The Republican Party of 1916 certainly had no stomach for a repeat of what had happened four years earlier: yet schism-related problems remained-- for the Progressive Party still existed as a separate entity and was still a factor, as many who had supported T R over Taft four years before had not yet been willing to so openly rejoin the parent GOP; meanwhile, for their own part, many in the Taft-supporting "Old Guard" were still very much against so openly embracing the defectors. It was already quite clear that the only nominee who could potentially unite the Grand Old Party in 1916 was someone who could not possibly have been part of the 1912 affray, and it- soon enough- became apparent that this "someone" could be none other than Charles Evans Hughes, then an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Hughes was already on the High Court in 1912, thus he did not (ethically, could not) openly take part in political affairs- thereby he had, if only by happy accident, avoided any direct association with the GOP schism that year; prior to his judicial appointment in mid-1910, Hughes had been elected to two consecutive two-year terms as Governor of New York State and had served as a reasonably reform-minded Republican State executive of that era- progressive enough for the tastes of New York's own Teddy Roosevelt, yet not so progressive as to offend the sensibilities of the more conservative "Old Guard" of his Party (or, for that matter, President Taft himself who nominated him to the Supreme Court; Hughes's own accession to the High Court interrupted his second term as Governor).

In his most important Jurisprudence as an Associate Justice, Hughes had written nothing to contradict Republican Party orthodoxy of the time- but neither did he write anything that would all that much bother Progressives. Both these factions, for instance, believed strongly in the Grand Old Party as "the Party of Lincoln" and could- more than a century ago now- rightfully crow that their respective policies, as regarded equality of Blacks under Law, were ethically- even morally- superior to those of a Democratic Party with a strong, white populist Southern wing (although, in social relationships- and even in purely private economic ones- the racial attitudes of all too many a white Republican were hardly much better, even with Northern States under predominantly Republican governance avoiding the implementation and enforcement of such as the South's 'Black Codes' and 'Jim Crow Laws': in the restaurants at the best Northern country clubs, the only African-Americans seen tended to be kitchen and wait staff; even were a Black man to have the financial means to join, chances were far better than even he would not be so warmly welcomed): in this regard, the Opinion of the Court penned by Justice Hughes in the case of Bailey v. Alabama [219 U.S. 219 (1911)], which struck down a State statute making failure to fully perform a labor contract effectively equal to Grand Larceny (a means through which employers of those whom Hughes himself called "the poor and ignorant" could- and, indeed, all too often would- induce workers to continue to work indefinitely for free by threatening them with long-term incarceration at Hard Labor, or even- in certain cases- Capital Punishment if they failed to do so) on grounds that this constituted Involuntary Servitude in violation of the U.S. Constitution's 13th Amendment, fit right into progressive Republican policy- much as such a High Court decision also irritated Southern Democrats.

But it was in the realm of Interstate Commerce that Hughes, arguably, left his major imprint as an Associate Justice-- in two cases: the Minnesota Rate Cases [230 U.S. 352 (1913)] and Houston, East and West Texas Railway vs. United States [234 U.S. 342 (1914)]; both cases involved situations where intrastate freight rates on railroads were lower than interstate rates in the same geographical region of the given State (in fact, in the latter case, the same common carrier was charging less per mile for freight shipped within Texas than that shipped over its border to Louisiana, giving this case the sobriquet 'the Shreveport Case'). Hughes wrote the Opinion of the Court in each: in the first, he noted that "the full control by Congress of the subjects committed to its regulation is not to be denied or thwarted by the commingling of interstate and intrastate operation"; in the second, he went even further, opining that "[i]t is for Congress to supply the needed correction where the relation between interstate and intrastate rates presents the evil to be corrected, and this it may do completely by reason of its control over the interstate carrier in all matters having a such a close and substantial relation to interstate commerce"...

as one historian of the Supreme Court put it, Hughes thereby "contributed greatly to fostering a recognition that conflicts between national and State power, in general, had to be resolved in terms of practical effects rather than abstract conceptions of Dual Sovereignty". To a Republican Party in which conservative "Old Guard" and progressive "Bull Mooser" were still licking their respective wounds from four years earlier, functional Practicality over arcane Principles seemed just the right salve as the Republican and Progressive Conventions (being held at the same time, early June 1916, and in the same city- Chicago) loomed.

But, so long as he still served on the High Court, Hughes could not actively seek his Party's presidential nomination: thus, although he could not keep his name off of the Republican Primary ballot in Oregon (where presidential contenders could be placed on the ballot by petition without their consent; an effort to have the State courts remove his name therefrom was rejected by the Oregon Supreme Court in April 1916), nor could he stop delegates from being- if only, in many cases, ostensibly- pledged to him via the Caucus/Convention system used, back then, to pledge most Convention delegates, the Primaries in particular produced a number of "Favorite Son" candidates- local politicians as, more or less, "placeholders" waiting to see to whom they should "throw" their delegates on the Floor of the Convention when the time came. Not surprisingly, no one was nominated by the Republicans on the First Ballot-- nor on the Second Ballot.

However, the Convention's Temporary Chairman- interestingly, considering events four years hence, one Senator Warren Harding of Ohio- had authorized (via Decision from the Chair, obviously already approved- behind the scenes- by the GOP "Old Guard") a committee to "communicate" (one is here tempted to say 'coordinate') with the Progressives then meeting across town. As the Progressives, once again, nominated for President their champion, Teddy Roosevelt, T R refused the nomination (after which it, strangely, was offered to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, hardly a progressive!), the Republican Convention's Third Ballot- held the day after the first two- broke for Hughes (in the end, Hughes gained all but 37 1/2 of the total 987 delegate votes on this Roll Call, after which his nomination for President was made unanimous). When news of Hughes' nomination came to the Progressives, they quickly withdrew their nomination of Lodge (he was hardly likely to accept it anyway) and formally endorsed- without thereafter formally nominating a presidential candidate of their own- Hughes for President (however, although the Republicans then nominated T R's one-time Vice President, Charles Fairbanks of Indiana, once again for Vice President, the Progressives maintained their own nomination of John Parker of Louisiana for Vice President [in the end, the Progressives would cease to exist as a viable Party by the time the election itself took place, although the Party name remained on the ballot in at least some States and, in fact, would garner tens of thousands of votes anyway]).

For their own part, the Democrats met in Convention in St. Louis a week later (National Conventions gathered before even the Summer Solstice back in those days before effective indoor Air Conditioning!), renominated- without significant dissension- both President Woodrow Wilson and Vice President Thomas Marshall.

By all accounts, the 1916 General Election campaign itself was dismal, if not even dreadful: World War I was already underway in Europe, and President Wilson campaigned largely on the theme of 'He Kept Us Out of War' (indeed, Hughes was often portrayed in pro-Wilson political cartoons as something of a doppelgänger of the Kaiser, complete with spiked Prussian helmet and cloak). The Republicans, meanwhile, decided to campaign primarily against Wilson (the GOP, now effectively reunited, was heady with optimism: after all, they had won all but 3 Presidential Elections since the Civil War and considered all those losses to have been but aberrations ["but for a single State here or there in back '84 and '92, or that unfortunate schism back in '12..."]).

Hughes had, appropriately, resigned his seat on the High Court the day the Republican and Progressive Conventions had both adjourned, but the approach taken by his Party going into the General Election would leave him but the titular leader of a campaign that even a rather fawning biographer later described as "mostly negative in character, critical rather than constructive, rarely elevated in tone, and rarely convincing as to future courses of action". In essence, the 1916 Presidential Election devolved into a contest between The Devil You Know (President Wilson) versus The Devil You Once Knew (a Republican Presidency [say, like that of William McKinley] before 1912 messed things up).

As it happened, 1916 was to be the last Presidential Election before the true advent of American broadcasting (quite literally, as KDKA in Pittsburgh famously began its life as a commercial broadcast station on the evening of the Harding-Cox election of 1920). And, although Lee DeForest's '2XG' did send out spoken word reports- via the then-relatively new technology known as Amplitude Modulation- on the early returns on Election Night 1916, this was more of a publicity stunt by the New York American (although DeForest himself, as was his wont, took it all quite seriously) and such reports as might have been 'broadcast' that evening were not all that widely heard (one had to have been a professional radio operator, or at least an amateur "Ham", to have had access to- and, further, even been able to use- the rather cumbersome wireless apparatus of the time needed to receive these intermittent reports; in contrast, KDKA's broadcasts, four years later, were intended to be heard by as many of those [admittedly still few in number] who might publicly gather before at least somewhat less cumbersome, as to tuning, "radios" [supplied by Westinghouse, owner of KDKA] at select locations in and around Pittsburgh: in addition, KDKA's Election 1920 Night broadcast was both purposely scheduled and programmed-- phonograph music was even played during lulls in the returns coming in from the offices of the Pittsburgh Post and Sun [owned by the same publisher, who happened to also be active in the wireless industry]; there was no 'dead air'. Although other "Ham" radio stations- most notably in Buffalo, Detroit, and St. Louis- also took to the air to report election returns [in coordination with local newspapers] back in 1920, only KDKA successfully publicized its own election broadcasts of that year to thereafter create an at least local interest in radio and, concomitantly, promote the station's later regular broadcasting to those who would themselves soon have radios [hopefully, those built by Westinghouse] in their own homes).

Thus, the vast majority of Americans would learn of the results of the 1916 Election the way they had for more than a generation before: through their favorite newspaper(s). Those who might wish for more instant gratification as to the returns could always gather, often in rather large crowds, before newspaper offices [headlines heralding the latest results would be flashed, in light, onto the side of the building for all to see] in major cities - or even the smaller, yet still sizable, satellite cities within what were, more and more, coming to be called "metropolitan areas"; and, in more rural- or even in what were coming to be called "suburban"- towns strung along many a rail line radiating from the country's many metropolitan centers, there would be smaller knots of (much more usually) men (women could not yet vote in most of the country: another thing that would change by 1920!) hanging about telegraph offices- in some cases, staying well into the wee hours of the following morning- at the nearest railroad depot or station.

Yet newspapers were still the main method of Mass Communication throughout the United States back in 1916, nonetheless; and it is through perusing those very publications over time that one can best follow the twists and turns as more and more returns came in during the aftermath of voting in the several States of the American Union on Tuesday 7 November 1916.

Daily newspapers in the America of 1916 were of two types (whether they might be folded Broadsheet or more easily handled Tabloid): the Morning paper- available on newsstands (where not also hawked by newsboys on the street corner) by no later than dawn, thereby readable by those commuting to their jobs each day by train or omnibus; and the Evening paper- equally available (and from these same vendors) by late afternoon, so as to be readable by those commuting home from work. Morning papers were generally "put to bed" by mid-to-late evening (for those editions shipped out to metropolitan communities surrounding a major city), with a "late City Edition" ready to go out onto the streets in the first hour(s) after Midnight; Evening papers, on the other hand, generally "went to bed" by no later than mid-afternoon... however, as might be necessary, 'Extra' editions could be issued in order to handle important Breaking News ("Extra, Extra-- read all about it!" the newsboys would famously shout).

Evening papers are now largely a thing of the past here in the United States (very few yet survive now in 2020), but even I am old enough to remember, as a kid growing up in the late 1960s into early 1970s, the "evening sheet" (I recall always being intrigued by, say, the partial line scores of early afternoon Baseball games in progress printed therein-- only the number of runs scored in, say, the first two or three innings would be recorded): in fact, I was a "paper boy"- delivering copies of a local evening paper here in Morris County, New Jersey to nearby homes- after school as a source of disposable income during several of my pre-teen into teenage years; alas! that very newspaper I myself once delivered is now a morning daily! But, back in 1916, most American men (again, essentially the electorate of that time) read at least one morning, and one evening, paper: not only did even the smaller cities in the country have at least one of each, but the major metropolitan centers had several of each- with a reach (at least as regarded their earliest editions) well into the surrounding countryside.

Put most plainly: back in 1916, very few Americans- at least those who were literate- were not within the reach of at least one daily newspaper, should they choose to read one (and those who were only partially literate, or even illiterate, could have their most important contents- if only the headlines and, perhaps, the lead of each story- read to them by a family member, a co-worker, or friend).

Besides all the above, of course, the continental United States of America- then, as now- straddled four Time Zones: therefore, newspapers on the West Coast- whether morning, or evening- were being "put to bed" and then printed a few, to several, hours- in real time- after those on the East Coast had already done so. Thus, it is possible to now consult the contemporaneous papers- morning, and evening- across the length and breadth of the country to thereafter well recount the story of the counting, tabulation, and dissemination of the results of the 1916 Presidential Election:

The early returns coming in on Election Night on into the wee hours of the following morning in the East seemed, at first, to justify the Republicans' optimism, not to also mention their overall "campaign against Wilson, not for our own guy" strategy. The headlines in Wednesday morning's papers in the East well summarized the apparent situation during the early morning hours: RACE CLOSE; HUGHES LEADS said the Boston Globe; meanwhile, that same morning's Chicago Tribune reported HUGHES LEADS IN HOT FIGHT; GOP LEADER IS ASSURED OF 245 ELECTORS. But that morning's Washington Post ominously reported that although PRESIDENTIAL VOTE VERY CLOSE, BOTH PARTIES CLAIMING VICTORY...

as, indeed, was the case: Republican National Chairman William Willcox had announced, shortly after Midnight Eastern Time, that Hughes was assured of at least 284 Electoral Votes, 18 more than necessary for election, from at least 23 States. But Democratic National Chairman Vance McCormick was having none of this and, at 1 AM Eastern, fired back that many of the States claimed for Hughes were still well in doubt, McCormick himself counting 273 Electoral Votes (7 more than needed) in President Wilson's column. Nonetheless, at least a few major morning papers across the country threw caution to the wind: HUGHES AND FAIRBANKS ARE ELECTED crowed the Pittsburgh Post above photographic portraits of the two men identified as "Elected National Executives" (a few hours later, the San Francisco Chronicle would provide front page line drawings of the faces of the "Next President and Vice President"- Hughes and Fairbanks- even though its own headline hedged: HUGHES PROBABLY ELECTED; Figures Indicate Hughes has carried California [the prevailing wisdom going into Election Night was that Hughes would do well in the East (including the Lower Midwest- Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa), meaning Wilson had to hold on to most of the West- which, back then, included the Upper Midwest, as well as the Plains and Intermountain States, plus the Pacific Coast: losing California (even though it was not yet the Electoral Vote "juggernaut" it is today), thus, might well have proven to be a serious blow to Wilson's chances]).

Although there were optimistic pro-Hughes counts among even those Wednesday morning papers not yet ready to call the race for Hughes (the New York Tribune reported HUGHES LEADING IN CLOSE RACE, but also gave Hughes 262 Electoral Votes [only 4 shy of victory]), the number for Hughes announced by Chicago's own Tribune seemed to be the most prevalent that morning: 245 certain for Hughes (21 short)-- even the Pittsburgh Post declaring Hughes' victory accepted that number (which was good enough, evidently, for Teddy Roosevelt who, shortly before retiring for bed [and assuming Hughes had, in fact, been elected], and after criticizing Wilson's unmanly [in T R's view] 'Too Proud to Fight' mantra, stated emphatically that he would advise the apparent [to him] President-elect, Hughes, neither as to possible Cabinet members, nor potential legislation)...

however, the looming- as well as important- question as the Morning After yet loomed seemed to be: if Hughes is certain of 245 Electors, how many might Wilson already have? The Pittsburgh Post gave the incumbent President as many as 218, while the Chicago Tribune was only willing to spot Wilson 177. Both the Chicago paper and the Boston Globe, however, added the States in which each man was, at the time of their respective publication, leading and- for different reasons- saw a possible, even likely, 289 to 204 victory for Hughes in the Electoral College as each paper had gone to press in the middle of the night.

Doubt about Hughes' possible election was already being seen come the dawn, however: the New York Times put out an 'Extra' at 5 AM Eastern noting that TWO STATES ARE IN DOUBT (these being California and New Mexico); that paper's count even had Wilson with 264 Electoral Votes (2 short), with 251 for Hughes. By early Wednesday afternoon Eastern Time, when the evening papers in the East were going to press, such doubts about Hughes' "victory" only increased: the Brooklyn Eagle reported that the ELECTION WAITS ON 4 DOUBTFUL STATES (these being California, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Oregon)- as of 3 PM Eastern, it had Wilson ahead: 254 (12 short) to Hughes' 242; meanwhile, that afternoon's Washington Times had Wilson ahead 256 (10 short) to Hughes' 238 (with 5 States undecided: California, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Oregon), noting that the President NEEDS CALIFORNIA (with 13 Electors) OR MINNESOTA (with 12) TO WIN. A few hours later, the evening San Francisco Examiner stated that LATE RETURNS PUT ELECTION IN DOUBT: California's Electoral Vote May Decide Presidency; its own putting undecided States in which Wilson and Hughes were leading together with States in which it was already clear either man had won yielded a potential Wilson Electoral Vote victory of 291 to 240.

By late that night, going into Thursday morning already, the election- once thought to at least likely be Hughes'- was fully uncallable: the morning's Pittsburgh Post noted that the PRESIDENT FORGES AHEAD IN CALIFORNIA BUT LOSES HIS LEAD IN MINNESOTA: Closest Presidential Race in 32 Years Hinges on Western States. The Chicago Tribune, that Thursday morning, noted that BOTH PARTIES PLAN CONTESTS over the results; the New York Tribune ominously warned that 'Ghosts of the Tilden-Hayes controversy of 1876 haunt'. Most morning papers in the East had Wilson holding on to a sure 251 Electors (15 short of victory), with Hughes having as many as 247 (19 short) in his pocket. By the time Thursday evening's papers had hit the streets and newsstands, however, a State or two had been taken off of Hughes' column and placed back in the 'undecided' column: the Washington Times went so far as to give Wilson as many as 260 (still 6 short), with 243 for Hughes; and all papers- including this one- had California and Minnesota still out, along with New Mexico's 5 Electors (regardless of how many other States a given paper had as still undecided).

But, by Friday morning's papers in the East, which reflected the situation come late the previous night, it could be proclaimed (in various ways) that (as the Chicago Tribune itself simply put it) IT'S WILSON! The President was now being given 269 Electoral Votes (3 more than needed) by almost all the Press, which was padded to 272 by the time the papers of Friday evening first came off the presses. But, so the New York Times of that same morning reported, the Republicans WON'T CONCEDE WILSON VICTORY WITHOUT RECOUNT; CONTESTS ARE PROMISED, that paper also said, 'Charges of Fraud Are Already Under Investigation'.

Soon enough thereafter, it became clear that the final Apparent Electoral Vote was WILSON 276, HUGHES 255 (which ended up as the final State-by-State tally: when the Presidential Electors themselves voted later on, the official 1916 Electoral Vote would be- as it turned out- Wilson 277 to 254, as one Wilson Elector had been chosen in West Virginia [which Hughes had otherwise won] because, in that State [with 8 Electoral Votes], Electors were listed as individuals on the ballot and a Democratic Elector had finished in 8th place ahead of the 8th highest finishing Republican).

Saturday morning's papers would merely finish up the tale: ELECTION CONTEST IS ABANDONED BY HUGHES, the Pittsburgh Post, once so confident that Hughes had been elected in its editions of three days earlier, proclaimed; NO CONTEST UNLESS FRAUD IS DISCOVERED said the New York Tribune; out on the West Coast, the San Francisco Chronicle chimed in that PROSPECTS OF FIGHT RAPIDLY FADING. It was, thereby, all over but the shouting: President Wilson had, indeed, been re-elected to a second four-year term.

In the end, Hughes had won every State in the Northeast, except New Hampshire, and every State in the Midwest, except Ohio; but the Republican standard-bearer had only won South Dakota and Oregon outside these parts of the country. President Wilson won all the rest, giving him (even without that "extra" West Virginia Elector) 10 more than he had needed to win re-election-- but, yes, it was still close!

So, it has happened before-- and the United States of America survived... may this be what transpires now in 2020, come what may!

As for The Green Papers (not to also mention I myself), we plan on treating next Tuesday evening into the wee hours of Wednesday morning (if not even, should it be necessary, beyond) as if this will be like any other of the four Presidential Elections we previously dealt with after 2000. At the same time, having undergone that proverbial "baptism under fire" two decades ago, I dare say we are at least somewhat better prepared should things thereafter become-- well-- weird!

Again, it has happened before.

Modified .