Wilson peace button

The 1916 election proved to be very close indeed. What matters in an American Presidential election is the Electoral College vote of which, in 1912, there were 530, so the winner had to reach a minimum of 266.

When the first returns from the Eastern States were announced, Republican Charles Hughes appeared to have won by a landslide. By seven o’clock on 7 November it was certain that Wilson had lost New York and the other populous Northeastern States with their heavy votes in the Electoral College followed in swift succession; New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Illinois, Wisconsin and Delaware went Republican. It was a rout. [1] Apparently.

Election extras were quickly on the streets bearing huge portraits of ‘The President Elect, Charles Evans Hughes’. As night fell on Washington, strange forces spread across the United States. President Wilson’s private secretary, Joseph Tumulty was instructed not to concede. He was reported to have received a mysterious, anonymous telephone message warning him ‘in no way or by the slightest sign give up the fight.’ [2] Remarkably the American historian and New York Herald Tribune journalist, Walter Millis wrote ‘Who it was he never knew; perhaps it was a miracle.’ Absurd. Ridiculous. Preposterous. Must we always be taken as fools? How many anonymous callers have the telephone number of the President’s private secretary or could order him not to concede the election? Malpractice was afoot.

Hughes 1916 victory

In London, The Times pronounced, ’Mr Hughes Elected’ in a Republican landslide. Its sober conclusion was that Mr Wilson has been defeated not by, but in spite of his neutrality. [3] The Kolnische Volkrientung cheered that ‘German-Americans have defeated Wilson’, while in Vienna, the Neue Freie Presse claimed that Hughes had been elected to bring an end to an era where ‘the Steel Trust and the Bethlehem works may still make further profits and that the price of munitions shares may be whipped up still further while Morgan further extends his financial kingdom.’ [4] The inference was that the people had turned against the military – industrial profiteers. But they were all running ahead of themselves.

At daybreak on 8 November, while the New York Times conceded Wilson’s defeat, Tumulty remained unmoved. He was quietly informed that the rot had been stopped at Ohio by a margin of 60,000 votes. Colonel House ordered the Democratic Headquarters to put every county chairman in every doubtful state across America on high alert. They were urged to exercise their ‘utmost vigilance’ on every ballot box. [5] How odd that such instructions should be issued on the day following the election. What did House know that others did not? Projections of a Hughes’ victory shrank from certainty to doubt until the entire election result hung on the outcome from California. Secret Service agents and US Marshals were drafted into the largest Californian counties to guard ballot boxes and supervise proceedings. California, with 13 Electoral College votes in 1916, was pivotal to determining the winner. On 8 November, the Electoral vote stood at 264 to Wilson and 254 to Hughes.

mimiapolis election 1916

Before the mystical, middle-of-the-night change of fortune, the Democrats had conceded California to the Republican challenger, but they declared their decision premature. After a two day recount, Wilson was declared winner by a mere 3,420 out of a total of 990,250 Californian votes cast. Talk of election-fraud and vote-buying prompted the Republican party to file legal protests, [6] but nothing significant materialised. They were effectively too late. While scrutiny of the returns showed minor vote-tallying errors, and affected both sides, these appeared to be random. Nothing fraudulent could be proved.

An angry and suspicious Republican Party refused to concede the election. The final recount in California showed that Wilson had gained 46.65% of votes cast and Hughes 46.27%. The Republican candidate baulked at accusing his rival of fraud. His final statement acknowledged ‘in the absence of absolute proof of fraud, no such cry should be raised to becloud the title of the next President of the United States.’ [7] ‘Absolute proof’ set a very high level of certainty. In New Hampshire the lead changed hands during the canvassing of returns and Wilson won the State by a mere 56 Votes. [8]

Vested interests jumped to close down the Republican options. In London, The Times could not believe that ‘the patriotic and shrewd men who manage the electioneering affairs of the Republican Party will attempt to impugn that decision [Wilson’s claim to victory] without clear and conclusive evidence.’ [9] Consider the pressure that was heaped upon Charles Hughes. War in Europe raged on. A newly elected government in the United States would have brought about a complete change in all of the key cabinet posts with consequent dislocation of existing ties. Imagine the confusion if a President Hughes had to appoint new ambassadors, new consuls, new State Department staff, new White House staff and so forth.

hughes and wilson

Woodrow Wilson (left) and Charles Hughes. We will never know who truly won the 1916 election

Colonel House told the President that ‘Germany almost to a man is wishing for your defeat and that France and England are almost to a man wishing for your success.’ [10] They weren’t wishing for his success, they were dependant on it. In the end, Wilson won more popular votes overall, (9,129,606 – 8,538,221) and no clear evidence of malpractice could be found. On 22 November Charles Hughes accepted the election result as it stood. His acquiescence did not go unrewarded. Charles Evans Hughes became United States Secretary of State between 1921 and 1925, a judge on the Court of International Justice between 1928 and 1930, and Chief Justice of the United States from 1930 to 1941. His son, Charles Evans Hughes junior, was appointed Solicitor General by Herbert Hoover.

Primed by his jubilant backers, Woodrow Wilson demonstrated an unexpectedly theatrical touch at the start of his second term in office. Not since George Washington had a president delivered his first formal presidential address to the Senate itself. Wilson did this on 22 January, 1917 in a barnstorming speech which created the impression of an enlightened, benevolent master-statesman to whom the world ought to listen. He called for ‘peace without victory’ because:

‘Victory would mean peace forced upon the loser, a victor’s terms imposed upon the vanquished. It would be accepted in humiliation, under duress, at an intolerable sacrifice, and would leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory upon which terms of peace would rest, not permanently, but only as upon quicksand. Only a peace between equals can last.’ [11]


As rhetoric, this was stout stuff. As policy, it did not last for long. He claimed that his soaring vision for peace and the future was based on core American values unshackled by entangling alliances. [12] The shining centrepiece of his dazzling new utopia was to be a League of Nations which could enforce peace. The Senate sat mesmerised and many rose to salute him at the end of an impressive performance. Democrats waxed lyrical with claims that Wilson’s speech ‘was the greatest message of the century … the most momentous utterance that has a yet been made during this most extraordinary era …simply magnificent … the most wonderful document he has ever delivered.’ [13] His Republican rivals were more circumspect in their appraisal, describing it as ‘presumptuous’ and ‘utterly impractical.’

American newspapers split opinion in predictable fashion. The New York World saluted his principles of liberty and justice; the Philadelphia Public Ledger declared that Wilson’s oration was inspired by lofty idealism and the Washington Post thought it constituted a shining ideal. The conservative New York Sun caustically remarked that having failed for four years to secure peace with Mexico, Wilson had no business lecturing the world on the terms for peace with Europe, while The New York Herald warned that ‘Mr Wilson’s suggestion would lead to the hegemony of the Anglo-Saxon nations … propaganda for which ‘has been in evidence for a quarter of a century.’ [14]

In Europe reaction was naturally selfish. The British government refused to countenance his proposal first and foremost because he had added a passage on freedom of the seas which challenged their divine right to dominate the oceans. Having shed rivers of blood on the fields of Flanders and beyond, the Europeans were not attracted to ‘peace without victory’. The French novelist, Anatole France, a Nobel Prizewinner for literature, likened peace without victory to ‘bread without yeast…mushrooms without garlic … love without quarrels … camel without humps’. [15]

But Wilson strode that world stage for darker reasons. Who, one wonders, whispered in his ear that all of his visionary pronouncements could not deliver a place at the high table of international settlement at the end of the war if America was not a participant? He could not logically take part in the final resolution of the conflict unless the United States was a full partner in absolute victory. Peace without victory was an empty promise, a misdirection to the jury of hope.

wilson war congress

On 4 March 1917, President Woodrow Wilson gave his second inaugural address to Congress and proclaimed that America stood ‘firm in armed neutrality’ but warned that ‘we may even be drawn on by circumstances … to a more active assertion of our rights’. [16] Twenty-nine days later, on 2 April, he again addressed a joint Session of Congress. This time his purpose was to seek their approval for war with Germany. In a lofty speech he revisited the same moral high ground with which the Secret Elite and their agents in Britain had previously gone to war. With claims about saving civilisation, it might have been penned by Sir Edward Grey:

‘It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilisation itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts-for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own Governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.’ [17]

America was encouraged to war in order to fight for democracy. The phrase has a familiar ring. What had caused this violent swing from peace to war in barely four months?

1. Cuddy, Irish Americans and the 1916 Election, American Quarterly vol. 21, no 2, Part 1 p. 235.
2. Walter Millis, Road to War, America 1914-17, p. 352.
3. The Times, 8 Nov. 1916, p. 9.
4. The Times, 18 Nov. 1916. p. 7.
5. Millis, Road to War, America 1914-17, p. 353.
6. Foley, Ballot Battles: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States, p. 202.
7. New York Times, 11 November 1916.
8. Foley, Ballot Battles: p. 431.
9. The Times, 13 November, 1916, p. 9.
10. H.C. Peterson, Propaganda for War, p. 281.
11. Woodrow Wilson: Address to the Senate of the United States; World League for Peace, 22 January, 1917.
12. Ibid.
13. New York Times, 23 January, 1917, Scenes in the Senate.
14. New York Times, 23 January, 1917. Wilson’s Senate Speech – Press comments
15. Alfred Carter Jefferson, Anatole France: The Politics of Skepticism, p. 195.
16. http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/wilson1917inauguration.htm
17. Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Address to a Joint Session of Congress Requesting a Declaration of War against Germany, 2 April, 1917. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=65366