The Closest Calls: How America Nearly Forged a Different Path in 1916

Published: 6 August 2023

By Jeff Greenfield
via the Politico magazine web site

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The obvious “what ifs” about a Hughes presidency revolve around whether he would have encouraged the U.S. to enter World War I (likely yes) and whether he would have compromised with the Senate to gain support for the Treaty of Versailles and entry into the League of Nations.

It had never happened before: a sitting justice of the United States Supreme Court stepping down to run as his party’s presidential nominee. But in 1916, for a Republican Party desperately looking for someone to heal the lacerating wounds of the last campaign, the choice of Justice Charles Evans Hughes made a lot of sense.

The root of the party’s crisis began with the fractured relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. After serving as president from 1901-1909, Roosevelt anointed his close Republican ally Taft to succeed him. But Roosevelt soon soured on Taft’s more conservative presidency, and when Roosevelt couldn’t win back the GOP nomination in 1912, he launched a third-party challenge as the candidate of the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party against Taft and Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt ended up winning the largest share of the popular vote (27 percent) and Electoral College (88 votes) of any third-party candidate, even outpacing Taft’s haul. But Wilson won the presidency.

Charles Evans Hughes

Now in 1916, Republicans were eager to deny Wilson a second term. To do so, it was imperative to find a candidate who was acceptable to both the traditional and progressive wings of the party, someone who had not been embroiled in the 1912 GOP civil war.

And no one fit that need better than Charles Evans Hughes. People may not remember him much now, but he was a major political figure at the time.

He’d become a political star in New York State by leading investigations into the shady operations and consumer practices of insurance companies and public utilities. He’d been elected governor of New York in 1906, defeating newspaper publisher and Congressman William Randolph Hearst, despite a Democratic wave in the state. He’d demonstrated his political independence by defying Republican leaders on everything from patronage appointments to consumer protection laws and had won a second two-year gubernatorial term in 1908. Hughes had, in other words, demonstrated “electability.” But more important, his place on the Supreme Court starting in 1910 removed him from any involvement in the Roosevelt-Taft battle of 1912.

Hughes had, at first, been reluctant to move back into the political arena. As he wrote in notes he’d written for an autobiography, “the idea of a Justice of the Supreme Court taking part in politics … was abhorrent to me. I strongly opposed the use of my name and the selection or instructions of any delegates.” But, he wrote, “there was an insistent and growing demand for my nomination. It was thought that I was the only one who could unite the factions of the Republican Party and restore it to the place it had before the rupture in 1912, and that this restoration was essential to the working of the two-party system.”

With the encouragement of some of his fellow Supreme Court justices, Hughes accepted the appeals of the GOP and was nominated on the third ballot at the Republican convention. But, as Hughes would learn, the divisions of 1912 had by no means healed. And nowhere was that more evident than in California.

Read the entire article on the Politico web site here:

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