The Presidential Election of 1916

Instructor: James Moeller
One of the most significant presidential elections in U.S. history took place in 1916, which you'll learn about in this lesson. While major European powers waged war on each other, the Democratic Party nominee, Woodrow Wilson, challenged U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Charles Evans Hughes, in a controversial contest that many Americans thought would decide whether the United States would, or would not, involve itself in World War I.

The Presidential Election of 1916

The presidential election of 1916 was one of the most controversial in American history. The main issue facing both candidates was the prospect of our country involving itself in World War I. Since 1914, the continent had been embroiled in an exceedingly bloody conflict, with the Allies, or 'Triple Entente' of Britain, France and Russia fighting the 'Central Powers' of Germany, Austria and the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). Candidates in this contest had to walk a fine line between war and neutrality, as most Americans wanted nothing to do with what they saw as a European conflict. However, the vast majority of our citizens also supported the Allies. Nearly every American knew that whoever won the presidency would either lead the nation to peace or to war.

The Candidates

Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic Party nominee, was a Southerner. He was born in Staunton,VA, in 1856, just before the start of the American Civil War. His father was a strict Presbyterian minister, who later proved to be a huge influence in his son's life. Wilson graduated from Princeton University in 1879 and then went on to study law at the University of Virginia. He opened a law office in Atlanta, but abandoned the profession to study politics instead. After enrolling at John Hopkins University, Wilson earned a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in History and Government (1886), after which he taught law and political economy at Princeton University and eventually served as the university's president.

Woodrow Wilson

In 1910, Wilson was elected Governor of New Jersey, and in 1912, President of the United States. His victory most likely occurred because of a split in the Republican Party between Theodore ('Teddy') Roosevelt and the sitting president, William Howard Taft.

Charles Evans Hughes
New York Governor, Charles Evans Hughes

Woodrow Wilson's opponent in 1916 was Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, a former New York City lawyer who gained national fame for taking insurance companies to task over their unethical practices. In 1906, Hughes was elected Governor of New York, where he served as a popular reformer who helped to establish the Public Service Commission. So great was his reputation as a reformer, that he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1910. In 1916, Justice Hughes resigned his seat on the court to pursue the Republican Party's nomination for President.

The Campaigns

'Mudslinging', or ill-deserved accusations and insulting remarks, defined the campaign for the presidency in 1916. Republicans were upset with their long-time standard bearer, Teddy Roosevelt, for splitting his own party and throwing the election to Woodrow Wilson in 1912. As he'd become angry with his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate on the Bull Moose ticket.

In 1916, the Republicans tapped New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes to be their candidate during the party's convention. Seen as cold and intellectual, Hughes kicked off his campaign by accusing Wilson of being weak in the face of German aggression. Publicly, Teddy Roosevelt supported Hughes and spoke in favor of going to war against the Germans and defeating 'that damned Presbyterian hypocrite Wilson!' Privately, the former president had little stomach for Hughes and referred to him as that 'whiskered Wilson.'

To Woodrow Wilson's credit, he did not engage in that much mudslinging, mostly for practical reasons. As a sitting president, he felt it unnecessary to attack Hughes, who was basically hanging himself with his own negative rhetoric. Instead, Wilson took the opposite approach and focused on the main issue of the campaign; his campaign motto was: 'He Kept Us Out of the War.' Keeping American out of World War I remained a consistent theme of Wilson's campaign, as evidenced by several Democratic ads, including 'You are working; not fighting!' and 'Alive and Happy; not Cannon Fodder!'

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